Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Double Featurette Awards 2009 (Ken's Picks)

From Ken:

Best Features:
Summer Hours & Fantastic Mr. Fox

if I could pick a second pair:
Bright Star & Coraline

runners-up: Still Walking & Star Trek

Best women's doubles match:
Jane Campion & Abbie Cornish, Bright Star v. Lone Scherfig & Carey Mulligan, An Education

Most memorable performance:
Dakota Fanning, Push & Rosamund Pike, An Education

runners-up: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds & Lorna Raver's teeth, Drag Me to Hell

Most Underrated:
The International & Push

Most Overrated:
Where the Wild Things Are

I Liked but Won't Recommend to You:
The Watchmen & The Road

Best Short Films within a Feature Film:
The opening sequences for Up & Inglourious Basterds

Best Character Theme Songs:
"HELVETICA!" from Shorts & Marvin Hamlisch's score for The Informant!

Best (narrative within a) piece of film narrative criticism:
RedLetterMedia's SW: TPM review -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxKtZmQgxrI

Favorite pair of new Scottish band names:
Dananananakyroyd & We Were Promised Jetpacks

Best BTW of 2009:
Tim Robbins & Susan Sarandon

Best Remix:

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Double Featurette Awards 2009

Its the end of the year, its the end of a decade. Thus it is time for the first ever
The Double Featurette Awards:

What do these fine films win?
Honor. Glory. Bragging Rights.

If you are a filmaker who has won this year. Pls feel free to print out the following picture on sticker paper and stick to your DVDs (and just watch those sales SKYROCKET).

Several of us here at the Double Featurette will be presenting our end of year lists. Here is mine:

Best Picture:

Fantastic Mr. Fox & Bright Star

Honorable Mention : I would like to yet again plug Zhao Ye's Jalainur which as it has never actually been released (only a handful of festivals) I took out of the running. It is one of the best films I saw this year.

Also, Pixar's Partly Cloudy may not be a full length feature but it is hands down one of the best films of the year.

Best Director:

Hirokazu Koreeda for Still Walking & Wes Anderson for Fantastic Mr. Fox

Best Performance by an Actress:

Mo'Nique in Precious & Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Best Performance by an Actor:

Dug the Dog in Up & The Jeff Koons Dog in Night of the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian

Best Song:

"Helvetica" by Robert Rodriguez for the Film Shorts. & "Done All Wrong" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for (no kidding) The Twilight Saga: New Moon (the list of artists on the soundtrack is actually quite impressive... I have to say... oh hi Thom Yorke...you can print out the sticker if you really want to)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Team Sheen: "New Moon" & "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans"

Lets face it. What I have to say about New Moon is not going to make a difference to you anyway. Either you were super super excited about it and have already seen it, or you would see Robin William's new film Old Dogs before you would see New Moon (aka never).

If you happen to be on the fence, I can't really help you. The film is pretty much as you would expect. Copious lack of shirt wearing. Slow motion walking towards camera (while taking shirt off). Voice over. Plot. More Plot. Though I do have to say that whoever picked Robert Patterson's lipstick shades should probably reconsider their career choice - Ronald McDonald much? The first Twilight film I actually found interesting, Catherine Hardwicke seemed to be trying to do something more than just please thirteen year old girls. There was style there, a certain adherence to a film style I think of as "Pastoral": shots of nature interspersed with action for no reason other than to evoke a certain mood, and through these kinds of shots a placing of mood above plot. In contrast, Chris Weitz's film is pretty simple. It tells the story well enough, but that's about it.

But really the $64,000 question is Team Edward or Team Jacob? Right? How about option C? How about Micheal Sheen who has played both werewolves and vampires?? Can I be on his team?

So in honor of Micheal Sheen and if you haven't had enough of vampires yet, try Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Granted, the first Underworld film is the best, but this prequel which stars Sheen as he starts the thousand year war between the werewolves (lycans) and the vampires is just a lot of fun. In the NY Times review of the film, Manola Darghis writes:

" Tricked out in leather and heavy metal hair, the British actor Michael Sheen takes a lively break from his usual high-crust duties to bring wit, actual acting and some unexpected musculature to the goth-horror flick 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.' "

So yeah. TEAM SHEEN!!! *Scream* *Faint*

Monday, November 23, 2009

A.O. Scott's "Precious" Double Feature

I was going to write a little something about Precious, which was better than I expected (and surprisingly did not require the giant mound of tissues I had expected). Lee Daniels really does a good job walking the fine line between exploiting the subject and glossing over issues. But A. O. Scott beat me to it (read it!) and discusses much of the soul searching this film has caused. All I will say is that Mo'nique was truly amazing and deserves all the hype. ( and maybe I should have included the hug it out kitten again....)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A letter from Ken: The Road, or, The End.

[Should I mention that I'll now proceed to talk about this movie? There's this word I'm supposed to invoke at this point; although I'm resistant to deploy it, here it is -- spoilers.]
The Road. I saw it.
And it was bleak. We all die, except for an unlucky few among the human race, who meander about a desolate landscape of perpetual fires in a blisteringly cold climate. The sound one most often hears are petrified trees cracking to pieces, echoing like distant, dried out glaciers (if such a thing is even possible).

How did it come about in this particular post-apocolyptic narrative? If one of the early trailers is to be believed, it's from a mess of environmental disasters brought about by human ignorance, apparently by not listening to Al Gore and not building proper levees, etc., etc. (I actually thought I was watching the trailer for Blindness again). It's actually incredibly misleading -- without the benefit of having seen the current tv ad campaign or read the book beforehand, the cause of what is basically the end of the world in The Road is never explained. Ever. And like much else in the movie, it helps to keep everything off-kilter.

Directed by John Hillicoat, whose last outing was the terrific Oz land western, The Proposition, and adapted for the screen by Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road pulls no punches. "The end of humanity" is pretty much the most depressing thing out there, and the filmmakers do a really intelligent job of never relenting from this tone. You can find your bearings in the story of a father ("The Man") and son ("The Boy"; the characters are never given Christian names) keeping it together for the sake of each other, but then you always hear those trees cracking. Fine: Even this, you tell yourself, you can get used to, as it is a neat design of sound, but then there's the fact that there are no identifiable signs of color in this world; the whole palette seems intended to tell you no color exists. It got killed or died or was maybe eaten by whatever killed everything else. The color. But, OK: Again, cool, stylistic choice, and even in this you can distance yourself somewhat. But, oh, right...most of the remaining people encountered in this journey, well...they eat each other. Like zombies, except they're still recognizable as human beings, they're still speaking to each other in those terms, yet what they really want to do is eat you. Even if you manage to survive all of this (at least just for the sake of your kid, like "The Man" that Viggo Mortensen portrays), what really starts to get to you are the dreams you've been having of the life you had with your wife (Charlize Theron) and how those were definitely in color and you got to go with her to the symphony and wear nice, expensive clothes and got to sneakily feel up your hot wife's thigh. Before it all went to shit.

I try to convey all this, because I'm having a hard time thinking of a way to really recommend this movie to you. Somewhere in the first ten minutes, the Man reminds the Boy how to put their only pistol with two lone bullets to the temple of his kid-sized head, just in case he needs to. That scene is done in full-close up on the child: The Boy has tears in his eyes as he's resisting, then showing his dad that he can do it and that he's prepared. I mean, it really is fucking depressing.

The Road was amazing to watch, and certainly compelling as you parse out the purpose of all this tragedy. Not that it's particularly tragic; I wouldn't want to oversell it. But really, what is the point? The movie obliquely refers to the fact that a good chunk of the population that likely survived the "event" that caused all this checked themselves out at some point, because it started to become plainly obvious that sticking around only meant that you were a potential meal or that you were in denial that any semblance of "happy days" or "good times" would ever return.

And that's it. The question of "Why go on living?" is never really explicitly answered. There is something at the end that is pretty much the definition of "speck of hope", but even this seems like cold comfort (it even struck me as being somewhat unbelievable in the context of everything else that happens, and I was honestly surprised that this was the ending in the book, but there it is).

What it does have is a visual consistency that is stunning. A bolder move might've been to just film it all in black & white (you know, "stark"), but cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe really makes perfect choices in what he does choose to keep in the color scheme of the picture, and it's enough to convince you of some warmth that keeps you involved in the experience of what the Man and Boy go through. It's there in the can of coke they discover in a resistant vending machine of a long abandoned building, and it's there when they open a tin of peaches in one of the happier moments in the movie. Yes, there's some happy times.

The performances are tremendous -- the entire story is carried on both Mortensen's and the unaffected, unpretentious Kodi Smit-McPhee's strong yet sickly shoulders (an aside -- the digital effects used throughout are effective in that they only ever seem necessary but never so obvious: Mostly in leeching out the color of the images, but then, as the Man and Boy strip naked to take their first bath in too long a time, we really get a sense of how ravaged and starving they really are. It's a testament to their performances that by the time this scene comes around, you believe the actors really stopped eating, too). Everyone else in the cast really only amounts to walk-on performances, but those shine brightly -- Charlize Theron as "The Woman" (whose face time in the trailer also seems to make you think she's in it for awhile; she's not), Garrett Dillahunt ("Deadwood"!), an almost unrecognizable Robert Duvall, poor Michael K. Williams ("The Wire"!!!) near the end, and then Guy Pierce and Molly Parker ("Deadwood"!!) at the very end.

For fans of the book, I can tell you that I read it after seeing the movie and that it's pretty much verbatim. (That arguably single most disturbing scene in the book where The Man breaks the lock to the first cellar and finds the, um, people? It's in the movie, and it's there pretty vividly.) For everyone else, I have to tell you that it's worth seeing, that I liked it immensely, but I can also tell you that the crowd immediately around my section of the screening left wondering how they could even release something like this. Who could watch it? Who would want to? On Thanksgiving weekend, no less!? It does put our economic woes in perspective. It makes you want to give everyone you love in this world a hug. And then maybe everyone else after that.
I mostly just wanted to write something about how I felt watching this movie, but I did want to put it in the classic context of this blog, so to that end, you have a few options for a celluloid tango:

1) The movie I actually thought of initially was Children of Men -- a similar combination of dread and a sense of loss is conveyed throughout, and like the first third or so of Alfonso Cuaron's movie, the entirety of The Road has the feel of an elegy for the world, and what it may feel or look like to be witness to the end of everything. There's even that twinge of hopefulness at end. Or something.
2) WALL*E. You'll feel a lot better afterwards no matter what. Maybe especially if you don't even like WALL*E.
3) Once I gave this some serious thought, it occurred to me that The Road most resembles Kon Ichikawa's (OK, I'll say it) masterpiece Fires on the Plain, which is a little more specific in terms of what is happening and why, but also conveys the same sense of desperation in a world that is ending but not quite soon enough, and the almost absurd yet mundane facts of life (among these, cannibalism) under the circumstances. They even share similar plot points -- the encounters with people along the road, the fires in the distance that are sometimes only heard, and what sometimes seem to amount to illusions of hope: The soldiers in Fires that fight to get to the coast, much like the Man's determination to do the same, and that things will get better for he and the Boy once they achieve this goal. Probably the most comforting thing about Fires on the Plain is that it ends with a definite feeling that this was the end of someone's world, and the rest of the world has moved beyond that (and hopefully evolved) with all of us still on it. Maybe you should watch it after watching The Road. And then buy a kitten. To hug.

Thanks to Ken Tan for contributing this post!!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"The Clone Returns Home" and "Solaris"

Among the year's most widely ridiculed statements in the cinema world, Lars von Trier's dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky before the end credits of Antichrist ranks right up there at the very top. Having seen von Trier's film myself, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a prank on the part of the Danish provocateur, although, at the same time, I'm also not quite sure that Tarkovsky would welcome such an irrelevant mention.

In the November issue of Sight & Sound, editor Nick James, when discussing the tastes and selections of film festivals worldwide, observes that many of the prominent filmmakers of today - from Bela Tarr to Bruno Dumont and Apichatpong Weerasethakul - are "all unified by a post-Tarkovskian idea of poetic cinema", and "the reverence with which much of this cinema is regarded is ... too often uncritical".

I don't know. If James' statement is accurate, a film like The Clone Returns Home, written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Kanji Nakajima, would most certainly deserve a bigger audience than it has so far. By juxtaposing a sci-fi premise (cloning, space mission) with highly philosophical musing on such ideas as memories, family, identity, death, and the nature of the human soul, the film looks like something that you might get if Solaris and Stalker were ever rolled into one. (There's even a bit of indoor water-dripping!)

The wife of The Clone's astronaut protagonist is faced with a similar moral dilemma encountered by Solaris' protagonist. Her husband has volunteered for an experimental cloning program that will 'regenerate' his body and memory after any accidental death during his missions. When it actually happens, the scientists meet with her to relate the plan, opening by stating that they're not there to offer condolescence. The wife is, rightly, furious with the offer - you don't replace your beloved partner with a clone; although, when she's countered with the matter-of-fact reply, "In that case, we'll have to offer you our condolescence", her resistence crumbles.

All in all, yes, Nakajima's film is almost as boring as Tarkovsky's (excuse me). But then again, anyone who's willing to last the 110-minute distance will be justly rewarded with a highly cerebral, and strangely touching, journey into the afterlife.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Bright Star" and "Twilight"

No I wasn't kidding. Yes I said Twilight. (and its not just because the above posters are so similar) Now, I am not saying that Twilight comes ANYWHERE CLOSE to Bright Star, which was restrained, minimalist, beautiful. Buuuuut... when I saw Twilight, it struck me as not merely a film for 13 year olds but a indie movie watching 101 training for 13 year olds. When was the last time that you saw a tween film move so slowly, focusing on scenery and mood, long takes of the characters as they lay in the grass gazing into each other eyes? Voiceover.... Its like Terrence Malick with training wheels... Maybe when these 13 year olds hit sixteen they will be so used to this slow pace they will not fall asleep in films like Bright Star but will savor the beauty. It was a welcome change from quick fire speed of most tween fare these days.

There is a scene in Bright Star in which John Keats, played by the up and coming Ben Whishaw, describes poetry as something which should not be dissected: You do not jump in the lake of poetry to just immediately get to the other side. You let yourself stew in the waters/ experience, take it in. That is how I feel about Terrence Malick and was definitely a mantra that Jane Campion was channeling in Bright Star. Instead of a story, you get almost a series of vignets, flashes of a mood.

In Brief: Coco Before Chanel & My Brilliant Career - Strong independent feminine women (the characters and the actresses). The opening sequence in which the young Coco is being taken with her sister to the orphanage in a cart is one of the best openings I have seen in a while. The point of view shots we get from between the slats of wood on the cart are reminiscent of the framing being adjusted on a projector...beautiful.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Shorts" & "The Good Enough Revolution"

Leave it to me to post this AFTER the film is leaving the theaters. But lets face it, you weren’t going to go to the theater to watch Robert Rodriguez’s new kids film Shorts anyway. But maybe once you read this you will put it on your Netflix queue.

I was actually having a hard time coming up with a double feature for Shorts. I didn’t feel like it was fair to pair the film with anything that Rodriguez has done in the past, though I feel like seeing Shorts and Spy Kids 2 (well, anything with Spy Kids 2 really) is a good idea. Then on the subway, I was catching up on my backlog of Wired magazines and I read an article on “good enough” tech (The Good Enough Revolution: Why Cheap and Simple are Just Fine). And it occurred to me that this article, though discussing technology (cameras, military planes etc) actually articulated much of what draws me to Rodriguez’s children’s films.

The main gist of the article, which I highly recommend you read is that sometimes the simpler and more rudimentary the technology the better. For example the original Flip camera did not shoot in HD, or even have a optical zoom. And yet it was good enough. It was easy to use and it got the job done, whether that be recording rants to upload to Youtube or recording quick memories from vacations.

Rodriguez’s kids films are likewise “good enough”. Now, I love WALL-E and the rest of the Pixar clan, whose animation is outright beautiful, but when did high tech, special effects become a necessity of “good” childrens films? Kids are creative, more so than adults, they fill in blanks. Anyone who has ever seen a child’s drawing of their house (squiggles), knows that Kids are capable of using their imaginations to smooth over differences between what is represented and what is on paper. Rodriguez realizes this and thus the stories and jokes focus on being fun rather than being snazzy.

Rodriguez makes his kids films on the cheap (if you can get your hands on the special features of the Spy Kids 2 DVD, I will lend it to you! There is a great little snippet on how he creatively saves on production costs). He does not strive for realism or hyper realism (dazzle). He tells stories and jokes that kids get (like a giant booger that turns into a monster and terrorizes the home of the Noseworthy family - see pic above ew). He has fun with his films. And I would venture to say that his films, in being “good enough” are actually better. The plot, the “fun” does not get lost amidst all the add-ons. His films are the equivalent of really good traditional 2D animation. Hi Spongebob!

So that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Shorts. As I write this I am still humming the theme music for the wonderfully named character of Helvetica Black. A theme that Rodriguez wrote himself I might add. The loose story centers around a magic wishing rock that wreaks havoc among a small suburban community and it is told in a series of shorts because the storyteller, young Toe Thompson, can’t remember the order in which events happened (eat your heart out Memento). John Cryer and Leslie Mann are hilarious as Toe’s parents, who are competing against each other at work.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Linkage: Now about that ticking clock....

You can almost hear Viacom sighing with relief:


True HD Streaming Likely Years Away, Says Report

It is likely to be at least five years years before high-definition movies can be streamed to home theaters with the same resolution as Blu-ray discs, according to a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and reported on the Video Business magazine's website. Although millions of homes are already connected to video services that claim to offer HDTV titles, via streaming, the quality doesn't even match that of standard DVDs and the "flow" is sometimes jerky. The problem in many cases is that most consumers' broadband connections are too slow to stream HD video which ideally requires an 18- to 20-megabits-per-second connection. (The average broadband subscriber's connection is about 2.5 mbps.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Night at the Museum 2" & "The Incredible Paintings of Felix Clousseau"

I have a very scattered taste in movies, which sometimes leads to disbelief and guffaws from my more snobby film friends. For example, a fellow film programmer in college came over to my house for the first time, and seeing the Spy Kids 2 DVD on my shelf ( I have, and still do claim, this is a masterpiece and rRod’s best) said “Oh. You weren’t kidding.” So it will surprise no one that despite my meager Chinese salary at the moment, I paid to go see Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian on the big screen.

Now, I am not going to say that this film is on par with Spy Kids 2. This is no masterpiece (though having the Giant Jeff Koons balloon dog bounce around the Smithsonian art galleries happily for half the film is a stroke of genius). It is however, a piece of unashamed fun.
Even more than the first film, NATM2 threw in every possible exhibit
imaginable. Tuskegee Airmen, Amelia Earhart, General Custer… the list goes on and on. You could almost hear the cheers of elementary school history teachers in the background. Not to mention the cheers of the Smithsonian board: the film was literally a giant infomercial for the Smithsonian itself. There were of course some genuinely un-funny catering to the kids jokes. I could have done without the singing cupids for example (but yes Hank Azaria and his lisp were amazing). But these moments are not really what gives the movie its “fun”.

What is so nice about the Night of the Museum franchise is the
unabashed enjoyment of good old-fashioned imagination: the idea of things that we already suspect are, and wish were, alive coming to life; and the resulting wonderful chaos. This kind of chaos is portrayed as a good thing, not something to be controlled or stopped. In many ways, despite the fancy schmancy Smithsonian website and the heavy use of CG, the film’s message is very anti-technological (see the last scene of the film for example and what becomes of all Larry’s exhibit friends in the end). Larry’s (Ben Stiller’s character) dissatisfaction with his success is crystallized in his being chained to his blackberry. All the old exhibits are going to be replaced by very hollow holograms (the horror!). These days with Tickle me Elmo and all kinds of think- for-you, you-don’t- need-imagination toys, its nice to see a message encouraging imagination and the chaos that comes with creativity and play. The advice of Amelia Earhart (played by Amy Adams) to Larry to just have fun, is almost a message to the audience. The film is less a movie about the suspension of disbelief and more about belief itself. It is a giant “What if?” What if you had a magic tablet that made everything come to life? What would it be like? It is the child’s version of fantasy dinner party.

As a pairing, I actually suggest a book. One of my all time
favorites: The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by John Agee. It tells the story of a man who paints pictures that come to life. His paintings, as long as they remain contained are lauded, but as soon as they begin to misbehave and cause chaos, Clousseau is thrown into jail. Like with NATM2, the chaos that creativity creates is treated as something to be contained by the rest of the world but something to be cherished by the hero of the story.

We all know that
paintings cannot “actually” come to life. But I like to think that the best paintings create a world that we feel as if we could dive into. Just as the best history books make us feel (if not wish) to travel back in time to participate in historic battles and events. It is nice for once to not be reminded of the restraints of reality and be encouraged to imagine a world in which one can dive in and out of paintings and worlds and not worry about "real world" consequences. So for all you film snobs out there: you used to be kid. Remember?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Blood: The Last Vampire" (2009)

Edmund here:-

Vampire fans alert!

Just back from a preview screening of the live-action adaption of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's intriguing but over-brief animation from 2000. (The original was intriguing not only because the signature costume of its heroine stems from a joke, but also from its dubious racial, political and religious undertone.) While Gianna does look exceptionally hot here as Saya the non-smiling demon slayer (who also happens to be a vampire - don't ask), I'm sad to report that this film makes even less sense than the original despite doubling its runtime.

Let me put it this way: the parts based on the anime are mostly pretty awesome, but the back story that the filmmakers supplied to Saya is embarrassingly cliched AND non-sensical. Casting Allison Miller as Saya's sidekick is a misstep into teenage drama territory (although I can see the reasons they replace the ordinary-looking schoolteacher character in the original), while Koyuki's involvement as Saya's nemesis - without elaborating further, because of how incredibly ridiculous the final twist is - is nothing short of a joke.

So if you like the original and wish that it was longer... well, stop wishing and just stick with it.

(This is meant more as the ranting of a disappointed fanboy, rather than a proper review...)

Finally, a fact that's probably funnier than the film itself: in Hong Kong, Blood: The Last Vampire is scheduled for a June 4 theatrical release, i.e. on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, under the Chinese title of "血戰新世紀". Talk about irony.

From Behind a Great Wall of Fire

Hey Guys, Hi Edmund!

Sorry to have been MIA for a while but blogger is still very much blocked here in Beijing (ehem.. oh hey June 4th). I will not go into detail about how I am getting around it because I don't want THAT to get blocked. But needless to say, I have found a way and will begin to post again very very soon.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Linkage: The big picture, and the bigger picture

Edmund here:-

I'm not a fan of IMAX. I don't get the fixation that people have on this 'immersive experience' thingy. And, hell, I even regret it sometimes that I've only seen part of Kung Fu Panda, part of The Dark Knight, and part of Watchmen, all in an 'original' IMAX theatre. It's like having a dinner date with your dream girl and spending the whole evening staring at her chin. Or something.

But nevermind about me. Roger Ebert has made some interesting points about the various film projecting formats in his latest blog entry. An interesting read if size matters to you. Meanwhile I'll gladly stick to my small screen...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

He might have watched some Melville...

Edmund here:-

Sorry dear readers, I'm not Lixian, and you don't know me. In all likelihood, you should be scratching your head by now wondering who's this non-Lixian blogger doing here on Lix's wonderful little blog.

Don't worry. I'm wondering too.

If memory serves you well, you'd remember that Lix mentioned a while ago that she's inviting filmy people to contribute to her blog. And I, despite never much of a writer, happen to be on her invitation list.

So first of all, thanks to Lix.

Since I haven't been watching much of anything lately, I figure it may be better to start my first post with a poster and a link. They'll hopefully occupy Lix's mind for a little while:

A new interview with Johnnie... [<- now expired. Oops.]

Now seriously, I'm just biding my time before beginning to think about my first double featurette idea. But don't let Lix know...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Linkage: What is the Ultimate Prize- Web or TV?

Ashton Kutcher's online show Blah Girls is going to TV. So was the web merely a way to get it onto network TV? Does this move show that the web format was not lucrative enough? Or is having it on TV just a way to get more people to watch it online. In essence is TV now advertising for the web?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Linkage: Why Chinese Pirates will Save Cinema

I read in this New York Times article, that Hollywood studios are turning their backs on China. The dream of one billion viewers having been crushed by censorship and rampant piracy. Well all I can say to Hollywood is, if you want to leave, that’s fine: its your funeral. Chinese film piracy is going to save cinema. Censorship is a nuisance but it is not the end of the world. And those who are turning their back on China in favor of other “easier” markets are shooting themselves in the foot. One billion people are ready and waiting.

Kurosawa on the Corner:

Before I explain what I mean when I say that Chinese piracy will save the film industry, I need to first describe the Chinese DVD store. Because it is these stores which are the key to understanding how to crack the Chinese market:

Firstly, these are not hidden speakeasy style stores. Yes, these shops are selling “illegal” goods. But these are not stalls with scouts on the corners, ready to pack up at a moments notice. These are stores with neon signs. Their wares are not shoved into back rooms and hidden by curtains; step right in the door and browse freely.

Inside, you can of course get your copy of Watchmen the day of its release. Sometimes the quality is excellent, sometimes, the shop girls will openly tell you, the quality is not so great. With new releases, it’s sometimes hard to find HD quality fakes (I recently watched a certain Renee Zelleweger romcom which switched into Russian midway). But what is truly amazing is the non-new releases. Want the beautifully designed Jean Renoir box set? Want to watch every movie ever made by Kurosawa for 200 RMB (around 25 US)? How about Gomorrah, or Man on Wire over dinner tonight? Or my personal favorite, a box set that includes every single film ever to win a best picture Oscar. These small Beijing DVD stores are better stocked full of international and indie fare than any typical US DVD store. Imagine, all you Kim’s videos and Facets fans, if there was a Kim’s and Facets on every other street corner. Now imagine if every DVD was a dollar. Think how many more movies you would pick up on a whim. Think of how great a film education that would be.

The Smartest Pirates in the World (and why we should heart them):

The effect of this piracy is ironically that the Chinese consumer is being exposed to a vast array of films. Even more ironically, this piracy stems in part from the strict censorship laws. Censorship has inadvertently led to more exposure.

Instead of a country of brainwashed drones, only allowed to watch the twenty government approved foreign films a year in addition to local fare, the Chinese movie watching public is taking in French films, indie films, anything they can get ahold of. Since everything is subtitled, the original language is actually irrelevant. Foreign filmmakers of the world take note, forget the US market, where subtitles are seen as a dealbreaker, focus your efforts on China.

Consider this: In China, only 20 foreign films are let in a year (these films are vetted and censored by the government). Television is strictly controlled, as are the local films that are allowed to show in movie theaters.

Now Consider this: In the US, a movie ticket costs an average of $10. That’s about the price of lunch. In Beijing, my lunch costs on average RMB10. To go to a movie is at least RMB50 (that’s almost a weeks worth of lunch!). Imagine if a movie in the states cost $50, would you go? The prices of movies are prohibitively expensive (not to mention foreign imported DVDs, if you can find them).

It is no wonder, given these factors that the pirated DVD store is the chosen vehicle for film access in China. What is a wonder is that instead of turning its back on foreign films completely, the Chinese appetite for film has flourished. These homegrown DVD stores are nurturing an entire generation of film buffs. A few weeks ago, a DVD seller came to our office (I work in an all Chinese office) to sell DVDs. The entire office stopped working for an hour, sifting through hundreds of DVDs. I suggested to a co-worker who had already grabbed the Kiera Knightly film The Duchess, that he should also try one of my favorites Let the Right One In. Each DVD was 6RMB. Everyone bought around ten.

Hollywood should rejoice that in a country with such strict censorship, the awareness of their products is so high. They should think of piracy as free advertising.

Stop Blaming Piracy and Censorship, Just Get Smarter:

So one billion people have been watching your films. They like your films. Now how do you make money off of it? How does one crack China?

For now I would say, forget about movie theaters, they are still much too expensive for the majority of Chinese to afford. Also, censorship is still a problem and movie theaters are the area in which the government has the most control.

As for DVDs, unless you are planning on lowering the cost of your DVDs to at most 5 dollars, then you are probably not going to make any money. Also, so far, other than the Internet there is no way to get “real” DVDs in China. There is no Virgin Mega Store. Yet.

All I can say is get smart. Earlier this month, I wrote on the rise of web to TV movie streaming options. How about creating a web to TV (or web based) service for China (the NYT article says that Warner was planning on it but has yet to do it!). Yes there is the great fire wall, but people get around it. If it were merely the content of the films that was questionable then the little DVD shops would be shut down. Clearly there are ways to avoid film/ web censorship (oh hello Chinese government, pls don’t shut down my blog…). I spoke to someone closely involved with Web entrepreneurship in China, and he said that web content within China is not as regulated as you would think. He told me that the government is smart enough not to prematurely stifle the growth of new web industries. This lack of regulation especially applies to local media companies. Well Hollywood, time to get yourself a local partner!

And for goodness sakes make your web content free! Many Chinese still don’t have credit cards or means by which to pay for online content. Focus on getting one billion eyes on your site. Give them HD quality!

If you create a free, user friendly platform, in Chinese, full of movies, tv shows etc. I guarantee that you will have an audience. Thanks to the pirated DVD trade, the Chinese audience is prepped and ready. And hey, one billion eyes makes for some pretty juicy advertising prospects. Cha- ching.

Star Trek as movie conector

If only this article on Star Trek had been written for Double Featurette (mad jeals). It discusses the way in which the original Star Trek was actually a melting pot of the movies and shows of that time. And that the galaxy Kirk and his crew were mapping was in fact a map of US pop culture. Great read.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Linkage: "Rip! A Remix Manifesto"

Thanks to Ken for sending me this article/ interview with Rip! a Remix Manifesto director Brett Gaynor, founder of Opensourcecinema.org. Gaynor, in addition to a standard theatrical release, has released his film online in a Radiohead style pay what you want scheme. So if you are having a slow day at work and want to mess around, remix some open source footage, head on over to his site. Lawrence Lessig fans: get excited.

Here's a taste:

Wired.com: What are your thoughts on the future of open video?

Gaylor: I’m generally optimistic about it. There are a lot of challenges, for sure: Lack of universal standards, third-party rights, bandwidth, access for the developing world, and a lack of basic media literacy among users. On the flip side, I think the internet will very quickly overtake TV as the content-delivery medium of choice, and with that comes the opportunity for a genuine participatory experience. I think the time is now for developing the tools, standards and practices to make sure we don’t just see TV 2.0.

For the full article go here.

Linkage: New Web to TV figures

Maybe I was wrong about film studios having time....

From the IMDB studio Briefing: "More TV being caught on the web"

Yet another study has indicated that television will rapidly converge with the Internet. The latest, from In-Stat, indicates that within five years 24 million households will be watching broadband video over their television sets and that revenue from Web-to-tv streaming will reach $2.9 billion. "Once Web-to-tv video becomes simple and convenient, mass consumer adoption will follow quite rapidly," In-Stat analyst Keith Nissen said in a statement. The report comes just one week after the Consumer Electronics Association predicted that about 3.5 million U.S. consumers will likely buy a television set that can be connected directly to the Internet within the next year,

Monday, May 4, 2009

Linkage: Me & A.O. Scott

We appear to be on the same page:

To: The Internet

Cc: Hollywood

From: A. O. Scott

People really like movies. In theaters. On TV. On DVD. Whatever. We don’t mind paying for them, but we like to see them without too much trouble or inconvenience or confusion. It would be nice to be able to see some on our iPods or our computers. It might even be the best way for specialized, uncommercial movies to reach us. Can you come up with a business model to make this possible, while also ensuring that the artists and producers can make a living? When you figure something out, kindly forward it to the music, newspaper and publishing industries. Thanks!

For all the memos to hollywood go here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Jalainur" and "City Lights"

A few months ago, I saw City Lights for the very first time. Now I have to admit that I don’t really find Chaplin all that funny (sacrilege I know!), I am more of a Groucho Marx type, but there is no denying that the film itself is wonderful. It is also, surprisingly devastating. Chaplin’s hobo character pretends to be a rich suitor to cheer up the blind flower seller he is in love with and yet you are left wondering if she will still love Chaplin once his true identity is revealed. Yet through all the pain that Chaplin endures in the film, he never once falters in his mirth. A friend of mine once defined the best tragedies as ones where you laugh the whole way through. Chaplin, with his never-ending playfulness, seems to embody this idea within himself.

Well these days the world seems destined for tragedy. Everyone keeps tossing around the phrase “Great Depression” and all I can think is that we need our Chaplin. Who is going to get us through this? Well…(drumroll) I am happy to announce that I have found that Chaplin in the most unexpected of places, in a little film called Jalainur, set in a small coal-mining town in Inner Mongolia.

Jalainur, director Zhao Ye’s second feature and winner of the Fipresci prize at Pusan in 2008, follows two train engineers who work transporting coal. The older engineer Zhu, is about to retire after decades on the job and return home. His young apprentice Zhizhong follows him around on his last few days on the job. Their friendship and sadness at their impending separation is set against a breathtakingly beautiful and desolate landscape. It is truly unreal. Go see this film for the landscapes alone.

I saw this film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Zhao Ye was there. He said that he was inspired by the Chinese proverb: “Even if I could follow you for thousands of miles, we would still have to part.” I really cannot do a better job of summing up this film than that. And it is a credit to Zhao Ye that the finished product is so close to the initial inspiration.

And it is the character of Zhizhong, played by university student Liu Yuan-Sheng who is the Chaplin we have been waiting for. Imagine a Chinese Harpo Marx: he hardly ever says anything in the film. Often he is seen playing with the few village children for whom he is a kind of amusing clown. His life is hard and mundane and yet he approaches it all with a childish glee. Standing on a pile of coal that is being carted along the train tracks, he revels in the wind and surrounding landscape, happy to perform his daily duties. When faced with the prospect of being left behind by Zhu, his colleague and best friend, he follows him for as long as he can. His quest feels less epic and more playful. Even the sight of standard sesame balls being sold on the street outside the train station seems to fill Zhizhong with wonder.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help thinking, that like Chaplin, the character of Zhizhong embodies a view of the world that I wish I had. A view that I think we need more of these days. A view that gives us the ability to laugh through…anything.

Jalainur is a special film. If it shows anywhere near you, go see it. It is not a perfect film, the use of digital is sometimes a little rough and some shots are perhaps unnecessary and overly thought out. But that being said, it has been a long time since I felt so excited and surprised by a film.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Linkage: R.I.P. DVD


It is time for the film industry to face the music. Or rather, to face the crisis that has plagued the music industry for many years: the Internet crisis. You may think that this crisis has already hit home and that this is very very old news, with pirated DVDs sold in subways for a few dollars and the rise of Bit Torrent sites allowing free downloads of entire films. But that was just the beginning.

The truth is that for years the film industry has been relatively sheltered from the crippling effects of the Internet by the difference in quality between a store bought DVD watched on a good TV and the often grainy low quality of a downloaded video (illegal or legal) on a small computer monitor. For the average user, a downloaded song sounds the same as a store bought CD when played on a computer with decent speakers, while video has in the past looked different enough that they will begrudgingly pay the whopping $26 for a DVD.

Well that time has passed. Two recent articles in the New York Times caught my attention this week. The first was on the rush of PC companies to create smartphones. According to the article, these new smartphones will soon stream high definition movies to your TV. Add to this the recent article on Roku (a box that sits next to your TV and streams videos). Roku was originally released as a means by which Netflix users could watch a moderate library of 12,000 (mostly old) movies streamed from the Netflix site on their TVs. And at a mere $99, it was a great deal for Netflix users who wanted on demand service but wanted to watch movies on their TV rather then their computer. Now, Roku has the ability to stream Amazon.com movie rentals ($1 for 24 hrs, $15 for unlimited) and TV shows directly to your TV. You don’t even have to connect to your computer first!

What do these small devices mean for the film industry? To put it simply: the DVD is dead. What really is a DVD anyway? It is merely a storage device for a file that is the movie. If you can download that file, or turn on your TV and click on that file, then why wouldn’t you? Now that technology is being developed that enables you to watch whatever movie you want on your TV, when you want, without missing out on quality, the film industry is going to have to seriously rethink their business model.


Some may say, that if these high quality files are so easy to find, that Internet piracy will just run rampant and kill the film industry. This is a definite possibility, but it is a possibility that is actually very easy to avoid.

I believe that people do not want to steal movies or songs. I am speaking here of regular people, not techies. Those with large technical know-how, especially younger techies who have grown up with programs like Napster (and have probably never paid for a CD in their life), for whom file-sharing comes as easy as breathing, will forever balk at the idea of going through some legal channel. They are not like “older” techies who still value having a record/CD collection to display on the shelf. I also believe that the average user is fundamentally lazy, and is willing to pay a certain amount for ease.

What is so brilliant about Roku is that it provides an easy way for users to get what they want legally. Thus it allows users to be both lazy and legal. Netflix users pay on average $14 a month and can have unlimited access to DVDs (provided they keep sending them back) and the online film library. Is going online to download films illegally, and then having to plug your computer into your TV (assuming you have the technical knowledge to do all this), really worth saving $14 a month? Or even better, worth saving the $1 it costs to watch a movie from Amazon rentals? Gone are the days of driving to the nearest video store to buy expensive DVDs. Gone are the days of the DVD.

So how is the film industry, in particular the studios, going to face the extinction of this major revenue source? In order to see how to proceed, the film industry needs to learn the lessons of the music industry.


Many had predicted that the music industry would be completely over when file sharing took off: That there was no way to stop Internet piracy. No matter how many times you shut down a Napster, they argued, another illegal platform would spring up in its place. And yet how do we explain the success of something like iTunes? Why would anyone pay for a service that is free elsewhere?

The genius of iTunes is firstly that it makes people’s lives easy at a low enough cost. In other words, the ease that is gained by using iTunes versus seeking out torrents etc, is worth the price that is charged to download a song.

Even more importantly, iTunes is not merely an online music store but a platform by which all your media needs can be taken care of. Hook your ipod up and immediately have all your songs on the go. Have all your radio podcasts downloaded immediately as they become available. Throwing a party? Simply plug your ipod into one of the many Apple designed speaker systems. Apple has created an iTunes universe full of different media related products. The glue of this network is iTunes.

Granted, the few cents the industry gets for every song downloaded is not much compared the millions it made selling records and CDs. But Apple is rolling in profits with sales of its products. iTunes saw an opportunity and revolutionized the music industry in its favor. So while the major music labels may be hurting and glaring at iTunes, there are definitely still profits to be had.

In other words, people want services, they want their lives to be easy. And there is a certain price they will pay for this. iTunes, so far, has gotten this balance right.


The film industry needs to either “beat em or join em.”

iTtunes already allows users to download selected movies. But these still have to be watched on your computer. That is unless you buy Apple’s version of Roku, appleTV, and stream all of this to your TV. Netflix and Amazon via Roku offer a similar service. Tivo, in addition to its TV on demand services now offers Netflix, Amazon and Jaman, yet another movie downloading service specializing in independent films. So far the only thing that stands in the way of these companies revolutionizing the film world in their favor is the fact that studios still control copyrights and in the case of Netflix for example, refuse to allow the site to stream new releases. In the case of Apple TV, new releases are only available 30 days after the DVD is released.

So the studios could simply join forces with one, or all of these online platforms. They could release their libraries to Netflix and Amazon and iTunes. But in this scenario who would truly end up in the black? Remember that Netflix etc need to keep their costs down in order to provide cheap enough access to their services. Are they really going to pay the studios the big bucks? Will Netflix be willing to pay what the studios make from DVD sales? Even if the studios charged all these platforms royalties, would it come close to DVD sales? Just as with the music industry, this would probably lead to big bucks for iTunes and other platforms and pittances for the industry itself.

The other option is for the studios to quickly create their own platform. Their own products, their own Internet film universe.

I envision a time in which I can switch on my TV (which no longer needs a box to connect to the internet, sorry Roku!) and with one click of my remote (or cell phone/remote) watch whatever movie I want in HD. And I don’t want to have to pay for HD cable or specific on demand channels. I want one service, one bill and no hassle. If I am at a hotel traveling, I want to be able to log onto this imaginary platform and still be able to watch the film I was watching on the hotel TV, maybe even from the moment I left off. I want access to information on actors, behind the scenes footage, interviews, right after I watch a film. I want subtitles in whatever language I want! And if it’s not too much to ask, how about a portable movie projector that can log in from anywhere and stream any movie I want: a true mobile movie theater! The more I think about it, the more services I can think of that this new platform could provide.

And for those who still doubt the death of the DVD; those who hold up as evidence the slice of the movie buying audience who purchase DVDs for the special features: What I want to know is why this content is not already free. The people who are willing to pay extra for these special features are the very people most able to help the industry advertise their films, and in the future, their platform. Bloggers already embed grainy Youtube versions of trailers and interviews into their film reviews. Why not give them HD quality content to help spread the word? Easy free access to embeddable special features would be yet another great service the film industry could add to their platform. What better way to top off a new business plan than with free advertising.

The film industry still has a bit of time. Roku and other devices are still new. “Streaming” video is still no HD quality. And the smartphones of the future are still in the future. But this window of time is very short. The studios need to act quickly and get creative if they are going to continue to be the titans of the industry. As with the music industry, there are profits to be made, the question is: who will capture them?

special thanks to M.Dawson.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Announcing: Linkage

The Double Featurette has always been about links. The links that join films together, themes, motifs. etc. etc. But what of the physical links? The technology that enables us to see and to share film and media? Well I am happy to announce a new segment "Linkage" that will feature news and opinion on the relationship between film and technology. This is something that I have been thinking a lot about lately (push glasses up on nose) and I look forward to your comments!!!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Double Featurette Gets a Makeover

Double Featurette is expanding! I have invited some of my lovely friends to join me in blogging about all the crazy things that join films, media, photos (all kinds of things!) together. This way there will hopefully be less of a wait between posts and you will be able to see many many more viewpoints and ideas. Look out for new kinds of pairings and double features!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top 5 2008

Happy Golden Globes Day! I feel mildly obligated to post a top 5 for 2008 (although I probably did not see the five best films of the year) so in no particular order: (i prob forgot many many films but oh well)

1. Let the Right One In - Tomas Alfredson
2. Iron Man - Jon Favreau
3. Still Life - Jia Zhang Ke
4. WALL-E  - Andrew Stanton
5. The Fall - Tarsem