Streams that feed my river of movies…

For some people, subscribing to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, NBC Universal, The Criterion Channel, and all of the rest of the rapidly multiplying streaming services is as easy as finding some nickels and dimes under their couch cushions. But for most people I know — the people most likely to actually stay home and use streaming services instead of going out on the town for the evening — it’s a major investment.

I certainly can’t afford to subscribe to more than two or three, and even that is a strain on my budget. (I’m an English professor and a film critic, so, yeah — I shop at Costco, not Whole Foods.) But I still have more movie-viewing options than I can keep up with. I subscribe to Netflix, currently, but my resolve to stick with them is failing. I subscribe to Amazon Prime, but that’s for ordering items I can’t afford elsewhere; the streaming video is just a bonus. What sources actually offer movies that are consistently worth my time? 

1. The public library. I have memberships in three separate public library systems: The Seattle Public Library, King County Library System, and So-Isle Libraries. I monitor their film collections, and I almost always have fifteen or twenty titles on request.

2. AMC A-List: For $20 a month, I can see up to three movies a week at the biggest cineplex chain in the Seattle area. And I do — I see one, two, and sometimes three a week. Considering typical ticket prices, I’ve covered the cost of my subscription before the end-credits roll on the second movie of the month. (Also, I never buy concessions.)

3. Kanopy. This streaming service, which is currently free through my local library and through my University library, is an awe-inspiring collection that is updated all the time. Unfortunately, their prices have been climbing, and public libraries have started dropping the service. If you’re lucky enough to access it for free, do it!

4. Criterion Channel. The Criterion Collection is a national treasure, and their streaming service gives you access to many of the finest films ever made. Plus, it’s loaded with extra resources on those films. And I’m a big fan of their special interview series. I think it’s worth the annual hundred-dollar subscription. But if you aren’t into art films and film history, you probably won’t use it much. 

5. Buying used blu-rays and DVDs (eBay, Half Price Books, Amazon etc). You realize, don’t you, that it’s now cheaper to own a great movie — and often a film package that includes a blu-ray, a DVD, and a digital copy — than it is to go see one in a theater? Hmmm. Pay about $15 to see a movie once, or pay about $12.99 (or maybe $3.99) to own it in a variety of formats and watch it whenever you want. Tough call, huh?

This Week’s Big-Screen Priorities

Based on what I’ve heard from reliable sources and read by reliable writers, here’s how I’m approaching the new week in movies.

High Priority: Ad Astra

Director of Two Lovers and The Immigrant (both of which starred Joaquin Phoenix) as well as The Lost City of Z, James Gray is quickly becoming one of my favorite young auteurs. This film features an original score by Max Richter (with contributions by Nils Frahm), cinemtaography by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel, and it stars Brad Pitt in what may be his best lead performance.

Does it sound like I’ve already seen it? I have. And while the screenplay has some problems (it fails the “Show, Don’t Tell” test in its final moments, and some of our hero’s adventures seem too contrived and too coincidental), I didn’t mind so much. I was enthralled by the intoxicating fusion of imagery and music, and by the narrative’s exciting correlations with (and revisions of) both Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I’m Curious: Where’s My Roy Cohn?Midnight Traveler

Not My Kind of Thing: Downton Abbey

I watched the first season of Downton Abbey, and about half of Season Two. But it quickly became clear that while the show was committed to the historical accuracy in details of fashion and manners, it was a far, far cry from the depth of the storytelling in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, the film that seemed like its most significant inspiration.

Eavesdropping on fans of the show in my office, I quickly concluded that I’d made the right choice to bail. The things that got them talking sounded less like art and more like the carefully calibrated crowd-pleasing strategies of soap operas.

But here’s my main objection: Where Gosford Park was a troubling portrait of how wealth distorts the worldviews of the wealthy, and how privilege and power easily turn to perversion and cruelty, Downton Abbey always feels like its driven by a longing for monarchy, for hierarchy, for privilege, for extravagance, without much more than some feeble gestures toward the consequences of such systems. As Americans begin awakening, little by little, to how they are being exploited and played by the super-rich, this franchise feels like a dangerous kind of denial.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the series has become a weave of narratives that cultivate empathy and awaken conscience. If so, let me know.

Just… No: Rambo: Last Blood

Even when I was in high school (in the late ’80s), the Rambo series seemed like a dehumanizing influence at the movies.

I like the way film critic Bilge Ebiri put it on Twitter:

The Outsiders

I have finally seen this adaption of S.E. Hinton’s beloved YA novel, directed by the man who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. (I picked up a DVD for a few pennies.) It was released during a time when I was still restricted from seeing almost everything, and I’m sure that the film’s focus on gang violence put it far, far out of my reach.

Here are a few thoughts that crossed my mind as I watched:

– Imagine a world in which Tom Cruise would, from here on out, only take roles like this one — popping in and out so rarely and briefly that we barely have time to say, as I did (out loud, alone), “What?! Was that him?” That would be amazing. And that’s what it’s like watching him here.

– Man, it’s so hard to believe that Coppola directed this. A whole decade after The Godfather, Part II. It seems so strangely shoddy and unsophisticated. Was he depressed? Cynical? Did somebody else ghost-direct?

– I’m clearly seeing a lot of Hollywood superstars younger here than I’ve ever seen them. Okay, that’s kinda cool. But whoa — was that Tom Waits younger than I’ve ever seen him in a feature film? Awesome.

– Diane Lane was teen Phoebe Cates before teen Phoebe Cates became teen Phoebe Cates.

– This is a pretty bold Coming Out movie for 1983. Stay gold, Pony Boy.

– There’s a lot of Outsiders DNA in Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, isn’t there?

– MVP: Ralph Macchio. Runner-up: Sofia Coppola. Kind of amazing, but I actually recognized her.