Video Streaming Services and Design (A Comparison of The Criterion Channel and Mubi)

A rant that becomes a comparison of how The Criterion Channel and Mubi designed their services.

This is an odd thing for me to write. Anyone who knows me would be quick to point out that I am not a design person. In any way, shape or form. I am someone who will complain, at great lengths, about poorly designed things. I may, in fits of desperation, blurt out my thoughts on how to improve something that is terribly designed. Despite this, in my heart of hearts, I am not someone who knows much about or is capable of sharing in an insightful manner about design.

Which is why I have chosen today to write about video streaming services and how they are designed. First and foremost a revelation I had of late – I have been lumping all streaming services into the same category. Which is to say that when I think of Netflix I regard them in the same manner as I regard The Criterion Channel, Disney Plus, and Peacock TV. Which is completely wrong.

One of many titles that have disappeared from HBO Max (and broken my heart)

Let us address one streaming service first: HBO Max. My frustration with HBO Max over the past two months has stemmed from me being positively baffled as to 1) why so many shows and films are disappearing from their service and 2) why they have so little new content I want to watch. If you think of HBO Max as being the same kind of entity as Netflix, a streaming service which creates new films and television shows (and apparently games) as well as hosting films and shows they did not make then what HBO Max has been doing is bizarre. Yet if you think of HBO Max as a different iteration of the HBO channel then what they are doing gets downgraded to weird.

For the longest time I have wondered why so many films made by Warner Brothers are not on HBO Max. That is because I assumed, incorrectly, that the good people at HBO would be trying to gather all of their properties (since they are owned by Warner Brothers) to their streaming service. Instead they seem to be following the HBO model of getting new films and shows onto their service for a limited amount of time and expecting subscribers to watch what is offered and be happy about it. The creation of films and shows for their service seems to operate independently of the content available on the service.

I belabor this point because it is easy to mistake HBO Max as being a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu because they do not offer purchases/rentals through their service and because they make original content. Part of this is a design problem and part of this is a streaming service problem. I don’t claim to have the capacity to fix either but today I would like to make an example out of two services in the hope that this might lead to overall changes to streaming services and, potentially, benefit the rest of us.

The two services in question are Mubi and The Criterion Channel. To begin, since The Criterion Collection has been available to stream I have been using services that allow one to do so. First they were on Netflix, then Hulu then FilmStruck and for the past three years there has been The Criterion Channel. Other than FilmStruck I have used/belonged to these services when The Criterion Collection has been available to stream.

In that time I believe I have watched a handful of films. Part of the reason for the lack of watching is and has been the terrible design displaying their offerings. Netflix has always been lackluster in presenting the movies and shows on their site. Between the ever changing poster images, buried subcategories and the carousel main view, finding what they offer has never been easy. The Criterion Collection had it’s own menu when it was on the site but the offerings were small and changed on a regular basis. I am not sure if I watched anything while Netflix had it.

The same was true with Hulu whose design was only slightly better because at the time they had a Staff Picks section which often showcased excellent films the service offered that were buried deep in their catalogue. Which I believe is why when FilmStruck launched I never subscribed to the service (despite having a subscription to nearly everything else and hearing wonderful things about FilmStruck).

For some reason when I heard that they were launching The Criterion Channel I believed I would love the service. I signed up before it launched, was given this weird thing and have been a subscriber, despite watching almost nothing, ever since.

In some ways it feels a bit like Patton Oswalt’s bit regarding giving money to NPR. You do it because you believe in the work and you appreciate the service but dear God don’t make me listen to it.

But rather then run them down unfairly I would like to provide some evidence to what I would like to call “The Design Problem of The Criterion Channel”.

First and I don’t know how to explain it, the design is pretentious. The moment I open the app or go to the site I am bothered by the look and design of everything. The black and white (I see the grey as well) color scheme just shouts “We are important!” and makes me want to go elsewhere. At the time of this writing this is the splash page when you visit from your computer.

I’d like to point out that the image itself changes depending on whether or not your browser is full screen. The above image is full screen, you can see only Michelle Yeoh’s eyes are visible. Whereas,

This is what you get if your browser is not full screen.

So the site is incorrectly formatted (at least for with Firefox and Safari). There are four menus at the top which are unhelpful. You can Browse, Search go to All Films or, bizarrely leave this site to visit Criterion.com. Now as someone who likes language and uses many streaming services (listed in no particular order here: Netflix, Amazon, The Criterion Channel, Mubi, Hulu, Disney+, The Roku Channel, Plex TV, Kanopy, Hoopla, HBO Max, PBS and Apple TV) I cannot say with confidence what the difference between the Search menu and the Browse menu are. Let’s find out.

Clicking on Browse takes you to their main page, which resembles the app. Here you have the carousel view of their content with the main large image at the top of the screen. As of today it looks like this –

This is a screen recording of what it is like to scroll down through this page (recorded last month when I started writing this, be kind to me) –

I don’t share this for the sake of overkill, if I am going to criticize I’d like to do it correctly and be fair. This is a ton of information. They have so much on this site and it is organized in many different ways. The problem, I find, is that it is too much. I find that when I want to watch something I need to have it already found and in my list before I get to the site, otherwise I end up scrolling, clicking and looking for an hour. At which point I’ve either run out of time to watch something or I no longer have a sense of what I’d like to watch.

It is also interesting to note that the header, with the menu options, does not follow you as you scroll through their offerings. Meaning if you decided you’d rather search than browse, you have to scroll all the way to top to do so. It’s not a big deal but it’s poor design.

Clicking on the Search menu brings up a search bar. Using this leads to interesting results. This morning I was curious which films they had from the director Park Chan-wook. When I searched using the app on my television I had quite a few results, many having nothing directly to do with the director. Searching now on the website I get these results –

My final comments regarding this site/app would be the All Films menu. When you click on it you get the following page –

Personally I love this. To be able to sort and filter the entire catalogue in this manner is appealing. Their filter options are great as they allow you to sort by genres, decades, countries and directors. I think those are interesting and unique filtering parameters. The sort option lets you do so by title, director, year and country. Again, I like this, it’s different and allows you to get creative with what you watch. I certainly have bouts where I want to watch films from a particular country or time period. The thing I would note here, which is not a design issue, is the total number of films.

I recognize that what they offer changes on a monthly basis and that there are strange and mysterious reasons as to why certain films can be shown at certain times – but 2,849 is a small selection. Part of my frustration with this site and all streaming services in particular is the limited selection of films and shows. I’d rather see services merging (or sharing with one another or creating some new entity) in order to have more offerings than this current situation where I have 14 services and often (very often) cannot stream what I wish to because it is not available. Today that happened with I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay (and yesterday it was Oldboy and so on…).


I am relatively new to Mubi. I joined their service two months ago so I am seeing them with fresh eyes. Why did I join them? Because they had a holiday special of getting three months of service for $1 a month. I could not resist and I am glad I didn’t.

As of this writing this is what the homepage (and app) looks like. First and foremost – look at the color. Look at the titles (and text). Instead of trying to impress me with a splash page telling me the site is a ‘Movie Lover’s Dream’ their main image is of their Film of The Day. I love that feature.

I love that the search bar is built into the top of the screen and they highlight the current tab I am using. The tab next to Now Showing is their Watchlist (List) which is great to have available at the top of the screen. Their version of Criterion.com (minus the selling of DVDs and Blu-rays) is Notebook which has plenty of great written content for those of us who also like to read about film. Mubi Go, which is a separate membership, is their weekly service that allows you to go and see a film in theaters. Your account icon is by default Totoro (points for this) and then a drop down menu with numerous other options.

To say I prefer this design and interface is an understatement. They’ve managed to make it welcoming, packed full of useful (and familiar) features, but also convey that this is a place to watch movies. If you look at the screen recording below you will see that what they do with their site is similar to The Criterion Channel (many different categories, the carousel display). To me, because of how it is designed and interacts with the mouse, I find it helpful and not overwhelming.

When I scroll over a film in my Watchlist is shows a check mark to convey this information. Titles that will be leaving the site soon have a banner on their image which informs me of this. Comparing the two main pages what I see is that Mubi has considerably larger images, which I find pleasing and appropriate for a film site. I would like to note that their header also does not follow when you scroll which is disappointing. As you can see from the screen recording the site goes on for a ways and having the header follow you would be a welcome feature.

I’d like to conclude with a comparison of how the two services handle the presentation of the same film. I give you: Lady Vengeance.

Right away I feel my point is made. The Criterion Channel has so much unused, negative space. The entire right bottom corner is empty. The Criterion Channel has a poster for the film and then their own little display they do for films. This feels unnecessary and redundant. My eye is drawn to the grey bars in the middle of the screen which are the least important pieces of information being.

When you look at Mubi, the image dominates the page. The faces are clearly seen and yet all of the information concerning the film is there and easy to read. The screen has the playhead in the middle to indicate how easily you can watch the film but it is small and tasteful, not obscuring the image.

Among the things I think Mubi does better (or I just appreciate) – they offer the title of the film in its original language. Both sites are in English because that’s what I speak, but this feels respectful. I also like that in addition to the synopsis they have the “Our Take” for their films. I have found that I no longer bother reading the synopsis because I want to hear what this person has to say about this film. This is the personal, human touch I long for when it comes to film recommendations.

I’ve done a final screen recording to try and convey the differences.

As you can see with The Criterion Channel the image I captured is all of the information they provide for the film. For many films they have supplemental videos that they include at the bottom of the page. The Criterion channel has an astounding number of “extras” for their films but due to how the site is designed you may miss many of them without knowing. I have had two versions of the same film in My List not realizing that one link is for the movie and the other is for their collection concerning the film. This would be easy to fix.

With Mubi they show you the collections the film belongs to, the awards the films have won and the director and cast pictures which you can then click on to see more about. They embed the trailer on the page (despite having a link to it above) they have articles from their Notebook section and reviews about the film on the page that you can read in their entirety. After which they have reviews from other people who subscribe to Mubi and they conclude with Related Films.

I find this so pleasing and helpful and vastly superior to how The Criterion Channel has designed their site. It feels unfair to make comments about their offerings because I know they have just as many as Mubi. Unfortunately they have not showcased them in a user-friendly manner like Mubi and I think this is why I use their site so little.

Thank you for joining me on this strange deep-dive into the websites of Mubi and The Criterion Channel. I’m not entirely sure how this happened but I am glad it did.

Great Big Story Returns

The return of my favorite YouTube channel.

It is not every day you wake up and see something that fills you with glee. Today is one of those days. I am certain I have shared videos from Great Big Story on this site before but for those of you unfamiliar GBS was a YouTube Channel/website that featured videos about nearly every topic. It is/was fantastic. I watched it alone and with my family and all of us enjoyed it greatly. It closed not long into the pandemic which made me quite sad as I knew I was moving to the New York area and very much wanted to work with them (and it meant I could no longer watch all of their incredible videos).

Flash forward to today and I see an announcement from former employee and current YouTube sensation Beryl Shereshewsky in her Instagram stories (news travels oddly these days) that GBS shall return. So far that is all that I know. But it excites me. Not only because I’d still love to work with them (although they appear to be based in London now) but also because it means that I’ll be able to watch new videos they will make.

The range of topics varies from human interest, food, scientific discoveries and animals to pretty much anything in-between. Whenever I have considered trying to build a YouTube channel I have thought of GBS as the format to follow, simply because they are free to pursue whatever they find interesting. Always entertaining and informative, new videos from GBS tend to make my day.

So despite a number of somewhat negative and gloomy posts of late I thought I would share this – some good news. Perhaps you won’t find it as exciting as I do but I assure you if you look at some of their videos you will change your mind.

From Vimeo To YouTube

A ramble about the ever-changing nature of the Internet and Vimeo.

In this moment I am feeling old. Reviewing something I wrote recently on this site I scrolled to the bottom and saw suggested posts (my own) and clicked on one. It took me to something I wrote a few years ago and included a video. When I reached the part where the video should be I saw an error message telling me that the video is no longer available. This has become somewhat common over the past year. The reason it has become common is due to the impermanent nature of the Internet.

The first site I started uploading my videos to was Google. It was the best/easiest way to get my videos on the Internet in 2006 and although not many people watched them they were seen. It was neat. Around that time I started hearing about YouTube from a friend. I checked it out and it looked awful. Most everything I saw was people posting goofy, ugly videos or talking to the camera. Not at all what I was trying to do. A year or two passed, YouTube was purchased by Google and suddenly that’s where my videos lived. Only it still wasn’t great. Another friend mentioned Vimeo and I checked it out.

If YouTube was where you uploaded that video of the duck slipping on a frozen pond (that you shot from your car using your phone as your mother drove past) Vimeo was where Filmmakers (capital f) were posting their work. The site was sleek, it didn’t have advertisements and the video quality was vastly superior. Once I started uploading to the site and looking at the controls a free plan offered I was amazed anyone bothered with anything else. It was a great place to be on the Internet.

Not long afterwards I upgraded to the lowest tier paid plan which would allow me to upload 5GB of data a week. Which at the time was decent. I shot all kinds of videos (in truth mostly of my children and family and never intended for the public) uploaded them to the site and I was happy.

I was also happy to discover the work of filmmakers on the site. In addition to the Staff Pick’s section which was usually terrific it wasn’t hard to search and find random films to enjoy. In short it was a great site that many people were using to share their work. I discovered many filmmakers and saw wonderful films and the site was free and easy to use.

I’m not sure when it all went wrong. At some point Vimeo shifted and people starting using it less. It became harder to find films. It became harder to access and organize my own films on the site. The customization and controls I had enjoyed became more difficult to use. Simultaneously YouTube improved. People were posting things there that were of excellent quality and interesting. Suddenly there were videos that were instructional or educational and about topics I needed (or wanted) help with.

For the longest time I would watch videos where people would use Final Cut Pro and they would access features (or shortcuts) that I did not know about. I would always wonder how people knew about these things as they are not obvious or intuitive. Part of me wondered if they all read the manual. I certainly didn’t. I didn’t even know there was a manual you could download from Apple until 2021.

Then it became clear that people were posting videos on anything and everything. Entire channels were devoted to tips and tricks for FCPX and editing in general. More importantly people were making money. For the longest time Vimeo offered a “tip jar” on their site. I had never opted to include it because almost no one saw what I posted and the people who did were usually friends or family. I knew from chatty filmmakers like Philip Bloom that the “tip jar” generated little to no income as he was quite vocal about such things. Suddenly people on YouTube seemed to be wealthy.

I am keeping this as it sums up my point so well – go to Vimeo to watch their tip jar video

They seemed to be wealthy and not overly active. Or interesting. Or creating much of substance. It was strange and confusing and self-contained. Again I’m not entirely sure when these things happened. One day Vimeo was the place to be and then suddenly it was YouTube. Much like when I started streaming video content from Amazon it started with downloading third party software (Silverlight? I know Real Player was in the mix for a bit) and then one day you were able to do it directly via the site. One day I was clicking on links that took me from Facebook’s website to another and the next Facebook had a browser built into the site and I never left.

I don’t know when all these changes happened exactly only that when I become aware of them everything had already changed. Over the past few years I’ve uploaded my videos to both Vimeo and YouTube, keeping the personal ones private. Whereas before the quality of the videos on Vimeo was superior somewhere around 2020 I noticed they looked the same. YouTube is free to use with no weekly limitation on how much I can upload. For $60 a year Vimeo permitted me to upload 5GB a week. If I uploaded a video and realized it contained a mistake I would correct the mistake and re-upload. If the file size was too large I would have to wait for a week for the reset.

I am writing about this in great detail because I feel that these changes are representative with how the Internet has changed over the past eighteen years. The number of websites I have been a part of, as a contributor or user, that I can no longer remember the names of is quite large. I accept change on the Internet it’s just odd to reflect on the changes of using Vimeo as it clearly chose to become something else (but didn’t much bother to tell its users). Other writers have speculated on the reasons why this change came about and I don’t think I can add much to that conversation as I was unaware.

What I can speak to is how strange it is ending this paid relationship with Vimeo. I was forewarned, luckily, as to what would happen when I cancelled my plan. Again, Mr. Bloom, tested these waters and shared his experience. He made it known that Vimeo would purge your videos once you downgraded. Part of how I used their site had been as back up storage for videos I did not wish to lose. I’ve had hard drives fail over the years and, most recently, discovered that Backblaze, the service I pay to back up my data, has more than one plan. It turns out if you have the wrong one they can’t recover certain data (strong work fellas!).

Clear as mud – make sure you have forever if your drive won’t be constantly connected.

There must have been significant negative feedback directed to Vimeo as when I cancelled my plan (which was a process as annoying as cancelling with Verizon recently) I was given multiple warnings that my videos would be removed and that I needed to download everything if I wish to save it. Silly me though, I forget I had been linking to these videos from this site since I started posting. Which is why I keep finding I have posts with video links to nowhere.

I don’t pretend to know what the future will hold, if any of these sites offering “free” services will continue to do so. Although I am not a business person I have been alive for a while now and I’ve seen how businesses change and adapt or fail. It makes perfect sense of a company like Vimeo to try something different from their considerably larger competitor but they way they have done this seems self-defeating. I know for most people the days of being loyal to a company are long gone but I’m someone who still looks for that and yearns for it. There is a comfort in familiar, dependable things.

Stock Footage

A few thoughts about stock footage, laziness and burning pianos.

Before memes existed my concept of stock footage was poor. I knew of it, had certainly seen it but probably could not have told you what it is. Now all of us are knee-deep in some form of it or another on a daily basis.

Again, they are bracelets not rings.

This past weekend I decided to finally give in to an urge and joined a stock footage site. What kind of urge can only be satisfied by joining a stock footage site you ask? Why the video making urge. Still unclear?

For me, a person who is primarily a writer, I continually come up with ideas that are expressed only as words. Before I started writing screenplays this was not troubling. Once I began my foray into the world of screenwriting I found myself wanting to make the things I was writing. Which is, to put it very mildly, a whole other kettle of fish.

Over the years I have bought cameras, written about buying cameras, and spent a great deal of time learning how to use said cameras. I think I have improved. But what I actually have achieved is still a long ways off from what I write.

Recently I have been flying my drone more. At times I have been getting footage that is downright good. I want to do more with this footage than just stick it on a hard drive. So I’ve been trying to edit the footage together and do…something with it. Only it’s footage of rivers and buildings and people the size of ants walking their dogs. It is not terribly interesting. Enter – stock footage.

My hope was to join a quality site, I chose Artgrid.io for a number of reasons, and be off and running. The main reason I chose Artgrid is that their policies are similar to Artlist.io which I use already for music. It is a decent service, you get to use the clips you download as much as you want and how you want and there is no weirdness about leaving their site and losing access to the video or music you previously downloaded. I love the clips on Artgrid, the things I have found over the course of the past two days surpass anything I have shot and I am amazed at the variety.

This is a roundabout way of saying my expectations were surpassed. I had heard a song on Artlist last month that excited me greatly. I wanted to use it. Only I don’t have any footage that works with the song. I kept thinking about what I could shoot but it kept coming back to other people. And motorcycles. And fire.

Which is what stock footage is meant to help you with. And it has. I spent about an hour on the site, found a number of clips that are interesting and perfect for the song and put something together. I have had to remove it because I have cancelled my subscription and no longer have access to the clips I downloaded. Instead I am going to include the winner from a competition from FilmSupply. This person went above and beyond and did a voice over and created visual effects for their trailer but the it’s the same basic thought.

Immediately after putting this together my next thought was, “Now what?”. And I had all of these clever ideas for using my drone footage with stock footage to tell a wonderful story. Only those ideas all quickly fell apart. The reasons are simple.

First, nearly all stock footage comes without dialog. So yes I have clips of people but they aren’t talking and even when you take a number of clips for the same sequence you do not really have a story. This is a man bringing his vegetables to his farm stand to sell them. He interacts with a customer, counts his money, smiles at the woman with him. That’s it. I’m not saying you can’t craft a story from that but it certainly isn’t War and Peace.

The second reason isn’t really a reason just how things are: this isn’t meant to substitute going out and shooting things for yourself. The general idea is you need to fill a specific hole or gap in your film. An exterior shot of the doctor’s office or the drone shot following the car driving up the coast. Or a piano that is on fire slowly falling off of a cliff.

These sites have these things and allow you to complete your story without spending a few days driving around to try and find something that works (or setting a piano on fire – this can be very helpful and keep you out of prison). It’s not meant to give you the exact storyline you were looking for, with all the little looks between your leads, so you can direct your movie without leaving your home.

As with all of these lessons I learn, I am sure this is obvious to nearly everyone else. I tend to be a bit slow on the uptake with such matters. I’m pleased I was able to put together my fake trailer and be rid of the nagging thought of needing to do something with that song. I wish I could have done so without having to pay for it.

The Internet, Adam Sandler and Forgetting

I write to fix wrongs.

Today Netflix released the following teaser trailer:

I love it. It looks like a solid basketball movie with Adam Sandler and I cannot wait to watch it. I went to share the trailer on social media and immediately found no reason to do so. Everyone was already talking about the movie. In particular they were talking about how Adam Sandler is a pretty good actor and “Hey look! He’s doing a serious role.” Which is weird.

It’s weird because he received a lot of attention and praise for Uncut Gems, which was not that long ago, but more so because this happens every time he plays a serious role. The Internet, it would appear, has a forgetting problem.

To rectify this I have decided to make a list of Adam Sandler performances that I like and think qualify as “dramatic”. I am doing the quotes thing on that because some of this is surely subjective and I am a coward.

Onward!

The Wedding Singer

By far the most iffy “dramatic” role in my list, I have chosen to begin with the wedding singer. Here’s what I can say, there are many funny parts to this movie. I feel, ultimately, that it is at least equal parts drama and that Adam Sandler gives a solid performance. Drew Barrymore is wonderful (as always) and despite not seeing this since it came out (1998) I can remember quite a bit about the film. Remember this Internet!

Punch Drunk Love

I think this is the first dramatic role that people noticed. I chose the Criterion Collection poster to emphasize how well regarded this film is now despite its poor initial reception. When I saw this movie I was devastated afterwards – which I realize was probably not most people’s response to the film. I found the character to be so emotionally crippled and unhappy yet unable to bring about change in his life and it touched me deeply. I think it’s a great performance and hopefully the goldfish that is the Internet will do better remembering it.

Spanglish

I feel like Spanglish is a truly forgotten film (I want to start a series about this). Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Tea Leoni, Paz Vega, Thomas Haden Church and Cloris Leachman it is a solid, wonderful film. This was not long after several remakes of films like Eat Drink Man Woman and I know when I saw the title I suspected this would be another lackluster version of a non-English speaking film.

Thankfully it isn’t. Adam Sandler gives an understated performance as a chef struggling to make his home-life and business work. So many of the typical pitfalls and traps of this type of film are avoided and instead we are given a film for grown ups. It’s warm, it’s touching and absolutely deserving of being remembered.

Reign Over Me

Three years later Adam Sandler starred in Reign Over Me opposite Don Cheadle. It is a spectacular film with another amazing cast. It is very much a movie for “grown ups”. Mr. Sandler plays a widower who has retreated from life. He reconnects with an old friend, Mr. Cheadle, and then everything goes wrong (or right, it’s messy).

It’s an interesting film about grief and how to help others deal with it. I certainly had not seen this movie before. It’s also interesting because it is clearly a two-handed film – both leads are doing the heavy lifting and Mr. Sandler keeps up with Mr. Cheadle which is impressive.

Funny People

A film written and directed by Judd Apatow, starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen is largely dramatic. I know, weird. I am sure this is part of the reason why it was not as successful as earlier films made by either Mr. Apatow or Mr. Sandler.

The funny bits of the movie are given to the side characters, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman (and even Eric Bana). It’s an interesting film in terms of the Adam Sandler performance. This certainly feels like a road-not-taken, could-have-been-Mr. Sandler’s-life kind of film. So it is interesting to see him play the successful, but personally unfulfilled movie star opposite of the young and naive Seth Rogen. I’m not sure the movie fully works but it qualifies in terms of being a dramatic role and a solid performance from Mr. Sandler.

I’d also like to point out that I think it has been largely forgotten, which is the purpose of this post after all. Given that all of the people in this movie have continued working and are successful that just further reinforces my point that people on the Internet have no memory.

Films I Am Excluding Because I Have Not Seen Them

I agree, this is odd. Look, my viewing habits changed once I had kids and these movies came out after I had little people in my life. I can’t see them all!

Of these four titles only one is questionable in terms of being a dramatic performance. I think, and I am telling you I have not seen these, that Blended does have some dramatic aspects to the role.

The other three are quite obviously more serious which you can tell by their posters (I kid and yet…look at them! Men Women and Children just screams “I am an important indie film!’). The trailer for The Cobbler had me wanting to see it but as of yet I have not. So whether I am correct about Blended or not we have three more dramatic roles from Mr. Sandler to add to the list. Heed my words.

Uncut Gems

We conclude with the most recent and possibly best known dramatic performance of Mr. Sandler’s career. It’s a good film, I am pleased that it received so much attention and that so many people claimed to see it.

To conclude: stop it. In the past twenty years Adam Sandler has done a dramatic role every four years (or less). He’s good. We know this. Let us remember this and get excited each time a new role is announced.

I Miss Video Stores (and common sense)

A long ramble about the value of video stores, making sense and the “one poster” rule.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a filmmaker about how we decide which movies we will see. At the time we were at a film festival and I was remarking on how I seemed to be out of sync with my fellow audience goers. On film in particular “Pickle” struck me as being a somewhat melancholy story about a couple and the pets they have loved and lost over the years. Everyone around me responded like we were watching Austin Powers. Uproarious laughter, elbow nudges to one’s neighbor – this was clearly funny stuff!

The film festival experience is an interesting one, at least for short films where people go into the theater with little to no information about what they are going to watch. I almost always watch a trailer for a film or series beforehand so I have a sense of what I am about to see. Looking at comments online I am surprised at how few people go in with an idea of what it is they are about to watch. 

I spoke with my filmmaker friend about this and he was convinced that I am in the minority. That few people watch the trailer for anything and in fact nearly everyone goes into a viewing experience blind. The numbers on YouTube paint a different story, millions of views for each trailer released often in the first day or so. But I think he’s not entirely wrong.

Lately I’ve been struggling to find films (and television shows) I’d like to watch. I feel, in part, this is because of the fragmentation of how I watch these days. Instead of paying for each film (or television show) I belong to several subscription-based services. I think, in this regard, I am typical.

What I have found is that I spend more time searching for things to watch than I did when I was seeing films in the theater or renting them on DVD. While this makes sense, a targeted approach rather than taking a look around to see what is available, what frustrates me is that because of how these services operate I know this will not change.

Visiting a video store, even a large one like the Hollywood Video that used to be in Arlington, Virginia (they boasted 55,000 titles) became easy after five or six visits. Typically the sections and subsections stayed in the same parts of the store. They added titles but rarely removed them. If you spent fifteen minutes in drama once a month after a few visits you had a good sense of what was there and the order you would come across these titles in (alphabetical).

Now if I want to find a specific title I work my way through the streaming sites (unless I know the title is specific to one particular service). If, at this point, it appears that no one has the title – which I would say happens at least fifty percent of the time, I have to choose to pay to rent/buy the title. How is this better than before?

I digress, although I do think the problem is only going to get worse. With Disney Plus and Apple TV (and the other numerous new streaming platforms) and Netflix continuing their push to show only their original content I miss belonging to the DVD side of their service. It wasn’t perfect and it certainly became much slower in 2019 and 2020 but it made some kind of sense. Titles didn’t disappear and reappear in a haphazard fashion. Films made by Paramount were not excluded because of some deal I could care less about.

I may be able to afford subscriptions to sites like Mubi and The Criterion Channel (I mention them because they offer curation, which is wonderful. Their selection is much less than other streaming sites and certainly more artsy – which does not always work for me) but that is the antithesis of what I want from my online experience. I want less clutter not more. I want to spend less time navigating various sites to find interesting content and more time enjoying the films and shows.

These look somewhat similar
Not at all confusing or making my point

Case in point, last month I heard about a show starring Martin Freeman called Startup. Having never heard of it but finding the premise exciting I looked for it. At present I could only watch the show at crackle.com or via their app. The good news is I didn’t have to pay more money to watch it, just suffer through commercials. The bad news is despite being owned by Sony, Crackle has one of the worst apps I have ever used to stream content. Finding the show took three steps each time. Another two steps to get to the episode I wanted to watch. It doesn’t remember where you leave off and each time you try to watch the show it pushes season two, episode one at you as though this must always be the answer. Every other commercial break causes the app to crash forcing you to restart the process to find the show again. You then have to scrub through the footage to get back to where you stopped watching. Considering I was using this as a show to run to on the treadmill I amazed at how long I kept watching. Startup is that good. (And all three seasons were just added to Netflix last week so if you read this anywhere near the time I have posted you are in luck!)

Now all of this complaining aside I want to delve into the real purpose of this post, to say something about how we find good content to watch. I’m not a snob, I watch many different kinds of things and depending on what I am doing (running for one) I want different content. That being said the age we live in, when it should be easier to find the things we like, seems to be making it harder.

When I was in college I worked in a bookstore and Roget Ebert published a book called “I Hated Hated Hated this Movie.” It sparked a bit of conversation among us who were interested in movies. I recall saying, “Who even reads his reviews?” and someone answered, “People who think like him.” Recently Martin Scorcese was quoted speaking against Rotten Tomatoes and the mindset the site inspires. While he two took ideas and put them together, the problem of being focused on the box office as the main means of determining the success of a film and lumping reviewers together to create a “score”, I feel that his point is related. 

While many people came to understand who Roger Ebert was and what his tastes were, today most people, I believe, are seeing headlines and reviews from people they are unfamiliar with. In the past week I have looked at my Twitter feed and noticed the headlines from sites like Film School Rejects and Film Stage and others and realized that I’ve been letting them affect my thoughts regarding films. Based on my social media feeds Blade Runner 2049 is a “box office failure” and a “missed opportunity”. Yet looking at it’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes I can see it has a 88% freshness rating with critics and 82% with audiences. So…

While I think the site has little value for helping me, personally, choose what to watch it is interesting to see how these scores so quickly refute sites that make outlandish claims. I don’t know who writes the reviews for these sites and even reviewers I do know, A.O. Scott and Anthony Lane to name two, I can’t say I have a good sense of. I know that Mr. Lane is going to rip apart the new Tom Cruise movie and prefer something less commercial but where does he land on something like The Neon Demon? I just looked it up and read it and honestly I still don’t know. He doesn’t praise the film but he doesn’t damn it either. Instead he gives some of the plot and says that the director Nicholas Winding Refn likes beauty and pretty images. I’m not sure who that helps or what that adds to the discussion.

My point here is that I think it used to be simpler. Siskel and Ebert would give a film two thumbs up (reviewers) and Pauline Kael wrote columns and everyone would think deep thoughts about how 1776 wasn’t all that good (a critical, incorrect take). Now there are sites that don’t seem to name the authors of the reviews, aggregates that compile the reviews and assign them an overall score and random bloggers who sound off on the whole matter. It’s a lot and most of it is noise.

This is saying nothing of the algorithms sites like Netflix use to suggest titles to you. Whereas before I would see a trailer before a film and think, “I’ve got to see that!” now Netflix has a small screen that plays automatically when I turn on the app. Or sometimes they have trailers for their content on their site. Or on YouTube. 

They divide up content on their site somewhat like the video store but it’s not alphabetical, it isn’t easy to quickly scan and the titles appear and disappear on a mostly random basis making it impossible to create a mental inventory of what they have to offer. To me it feels a lot like watching HBO in 1990 only I get to choose when I watch the limited offerings. I guess that’s progress but given how much time has passed it doesn’t feel like much. 

I’d like something more complete and comprehensive. I’d like a streaming service that owns its content and doesn’t play this game of here today, gone tomorrow. I’d like to be able to customize how I use these sites and apps and how I organize and view the titles they have. I’d like better and more detailed subcategories. I’d like each service to pick one poster for a title and never, ever change it.

This is evil

Mostly I’d like things to make sense. Just this past month I discovered that HBO Max, which is either owned by or owns (or something in between) Warner Brothers no longer offers the Harry Potter movies (at the time of me revisiting this post I can see they do have the Harry Potter movies but they may be gone again when you read this). They did but now all of the Harry Potter films are available on Peacock (the absurd new NBC streaming service) which makes absolutely no sense. If a film studio owns a streaming service their films should be on that service. All of them. Simple. I, the customer, do not care about licensing rights and copyright law and whatever other nonsense that complicates who has what. Think again of the video store, where titles from different studios sat comfortably side by side. All of us, blissfully unaware of who owned what or if there was a parent company pitting our two favorite shows against each other on opposing networks. Just the stuff we wanted to watch sitting on a shelf. That just makes sense. Let’s go back to making sense.

The KFC Gaming Console

A post where I imagine a world of possibilities.

Since learning about KFC Gaming it’s been hard to think about anything else. How are we not all talking about this? Will it lead to other companies making gaming consoles? Imagine other fast food chains incorporating their products into a gaming console! This fills me with glee.

In case some of you are still in the dark, the main feature of this console is the “chicken chamber”. From their website –

Never risk letting your chicken go cold again thanks to the patented Chicken Chamber. Utilising the systems natural heat and airflow system you can now focus on your gameplay and enjoy hot, crispy chicken between rounds.

https://landing.coolermaster.com/kfconsole/

Now perhaps, like the three people who have been willing to speak to me about this, you find yourself with no further thoughts on the matter. Fear not, I will share with you my thoughts and eventual concerns. My sincere hope regarding this development is that there will be imitators.


I give you the first potential imitator – The McDonald’s gaming console, with built in “McFlurry Dispenser”. Think it through, less messy than chicken wings, more reliable than the in-store machines. Plus you can drink/eat something with a straw with greater ease while you play.

Next up, a departure from the world of food (we’ll be back) Supercuts decides to hop on this trend and makes a gaming console with “Vacuum Clippers” (we all know it’s a Flowbee). Cut your hair while you game (and don’t worry about the clippings!).

Staying in the world of hygiene and self-care we then see Nail Garden create their own gaming console complete with “Pedicure Center” which allows gamers to tend to their follicles while exploring new worlds.

Back to the food world Red Lobster decides to take things in another direction and makes their console contain an “Aquarium Center”. Customers can use the small aquarium for either entertainment purposes or to store fish they intend to later cook for their supper.

Moving away from chains I’d like to see Momofuku come out with their own console, featuring a “Pork Bun Chamber”. Similar to KFC, I know, but perhaps David Choe could be tapped to design the module.

For something completely different, perhaps Napa Auto Parts could have a “Cleaning Chamber”. Small, grease-covered objects could be placed inside and cleaned while you play. No town is without an auto parts store so this seems like one of my safer bets.

It would make me terribly happy to see DJI Global get into the mix, perhaps creating a “Drone Chamber” containing two miniature drones. Gamers could use their controllers to fly the drones around their homes while waiting for load screens or delinquent partners to come online.

Party City seems like a no brainer for this. A plethora of chamber options would be available including: mini helium tank, confetti dispenser, or your choice of “dining for one” – paper plate and cutlery set (Harry Potter or My Little Pony) themed.

Taking this into a “pay to play” direction, BMG music would offer a “Tunes Chamber” requiring you to insert twelve cents in order to listen to twelve albums of your choice. You could then pay full price for further albums or cancel your membership and start over.

Time for the low-hanging fruit, Aviation Gin – they create a “Gin Console”, a mini bar filled with tiny bottles and a holder for one, perfect lime (knife not included).

Low hanging fruit number two (no offense intended to Mister Reynolds – I feel like I’m doing your work right now) Mint Mobile makes a gaming console that contains a “Phone Chamber”. Inside is a fox-shaped phone with a six month, prepaid unlimited plan and daily voice messages from the owner.

Seizing the opportunity Nespresso joins the fray, releasing their own gaming gaming console. Surprising no one they include a mini espresso machine with two George Clooney cups!

Jasper Hill Farms could surely enter this competitive world. Considering that they offer a monthly cheese club (and a cheese and chocolate club) as well as charcuterie – the work is all but done. A special chamber to hold your cheese (chocolate) and meat – what more could you want? What better way to game then with some excellent cheese?

One more for my Vermont people – Hill Farmstead Farm offers a “home brew chamber”. Think about it, you spend all this time by your gaming console and home brewing takes what, a month to make a batch of beer? Combine your efforts, delve deeply into fermentation and make some tasty beer (obviously this one is adults only).

I am stopping now – not because I don’t have more ideas but because I think it is better for me if I do. The possibilities are endless! Why KFC is doing this I have no idea. It makes me incredibly happy that they are. There is no practical reason for a fast food chain to make a gaming console – but here we are. Forget the flying car, we should all be focussing on having gaming consoles with chambers!

The Fairlee Motel and Drive-In

One of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the country is also a motel.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Summer. The air is warm, people mill about eating, drinking and talking while a group of children play underneath a large white screen. Someone puts a blanket on the hood of their vehicle and reclines. Others spray insect repellent, close their windows and continue to swat at real or imagined mosquitos. An RV parks in the rear and unloads folding chairs, coolers and a charcoal barbecue set to cook their supper. Some gather around the snack bar, a group of teenagers sits in the tall grass waiting for the show to start. Each person attending is able to have their own, distinct, drive-in experience.

Nowhere is this truer than at the Fairlee Motel and Drive-In located in Fairlee, VT. The drive-in has one screen, the motel twelve rooms. The owners, Peter and Erika Trapp run the Motel and Drive-In, amazingly, as a second job. Their main occupation? Farmers. Just 15 minutes away and across the Connecticut River, they operate Thunder Ridge Ranch, a 300+ acre Black Angus cattle ranch in Piermont, NH. The Ranch is certified organic and produces and sells Angus beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey and chevon (goat). 

For most this would be enough to fill their days. When asked how he finds the time to run the ranch and operate a drive-in Peter replied, “Either you’re a worker or not a worker. I can’t figure out what people who don’t have a farm do for entertainment.”

For many that entertainment is watching a movie. Anyone looking to do so in Fairlee at a public venue has one choice, the drive-in. The nearest theaters are thirty minutes away in Hanover, New Hampshire or St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Peter explains that when it comes to options for teenagers, “They can stand around in the Walmart parking lot or come to the theater. We have food and bathrooms, so they choose us.”

The drive-in is a source of entertainment for young children, too. In their case the time before the show begins is the event, not the actual movie watching. “They run around and play before the movie starts and by the time it does most fall asleep in their cars,’ says Peter. Once the schools close for summer this becomes more common and the Trapp’s shift their programming to more family-friendly films to accommodate the increased interest. For those more inclined to sleeping in a bed there is the motel where each room has a window that faces the screen and a speaker, so if you like you can take in the show without stepping outside.

Processed with VSCO with kk2 preset

The drive-in movie experience is, in some ways, part of a growing trend in offering moviegoers an alternative experience to seeing a film at a traditional movie theater. Peter mentions the competition that the Fairlee Drive-In faces, pointing out that most people have streaming services in their homes and on their smartphones. The films themselves, once the main reason to leave your home and attend a theater, are now being seen as a part of the larger experience you can have. 

Processed with VSCO with lv03 preset

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times detailed the ways the Rooftop Cinema Club, a “bicoastal and bicontinental organization”, is crafting unique experiences for moviegoers. Whether by holding screenings in exotic or exciting locations or crafting replicas of the sets from the films being shown they are creating experiences that can be captured and shared on social media. The Alamo Drafthouse and other theaters that offer meals and beverages are also focusing on offering “extras” to the movie-going experience and continue to open new venues across the country. The drive-in theater, of course, has been around long before what some are calling the “experience economy” which is fueling these new ventures.

What officially began on June 6th, 1933 in Camden, N.J. firmly took hold in the 1950’s, when most cars had in-car speakers. The peak year for drive-in theaters was 1958 with 4,063 theaters.  Flash forward to present day where the estimated number of theaters is slightly below 400. Three remain in Vermont. Interestingly two of the three drive-ins that have attached motels in the United States are located in Vermont (the third is in Colorado). While companies are attempting to create new experiences aimed at millennials and their sensibilities, drive-in theaters are offering, largely, what they have since the beginning. 

Processed with VSCO with acg preset

While they have always shown films, drive-in theaters now are projecting digitally, a necessity if they wish to stay in business. An expensive hurdle that every theater has had to face, the purchasing of a digital projector became necessary once the studios stopped making film prints of their movies. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners more than seventy-five percent of drive-ins are privately owned small businesses. For many, like the Saint Albans Drive-In Theater (located in Vermont) this transition was too expensive and they were forced to close.

The Fairlee Motel and Drive-In was able to raise some of the needed funds via a Kickstarter campaign and from media attention like this BBC news article. They also ran a “save our theater” campaign selling t-shirts and accepting donations. The rest came from a loan. Armed with the new projector The Fairlee Drive-In is able to continue screening films all summer long.

Processed with VSCO with kk2 preset

Talking with Peter about the future of the Fairlee Drive-In I came away with a sense that while there are definite challenges in their path, this business is something the Trapp’s are passionate about. Peter first came to the Drive-In when he was a child, attending a co-ed farm camp at Lake Fairlee, “Every Saturday night they would put us in the back of the sawdust truck and drop us off here.” Years later when the opportunity arose to purchase the theater he didn’t hesitate. 

The approach the Trapps take to running their farm, using clean feed and not using hormones or implants, carries over to the Drive-In. Rather than over-extending themselves to create elaborate events and catering solely to social media-minded millennials, they offer family entertainment, quality food and clean and comfortable motel rooms. To quote from the website for their farm, “Local food supports a sense of community, it keeps our farmlands open and productive, it doesn’t travel hundreds or thousands of miles to get here. Know where your food comes from – buy direct from the farmer.” This philosophy applied to the Drive-In might be, “Know where your entertainment comes from – support your local theater,” otherwise all you will have is the Walmart parking lot – which has neither food nor bathrooms.

The Trap of Perfection and Being Ready

The number of projects I have not begun, have begun but not completed or have nearly finished but essentially abandoned is large. When my defenses are working properly there are many wonderful reasons for all of this unfinished work. None of them are terribly original or interesting. In nearly every case the actual reason is the same: what is/was in my head did not/will not be as good when I make it. Perfection is a trap.

Today I was looking through the folders on my computer, for what I no longer remember, and I stumbled down a rabbit hole of past projects and memories that lead me, much like Alice, on a strange and mysterious journey. The journey concluded when I went to my YouTube page and saw that the last video I uploaded was two years ago.

Now, to be fair, YouTube for me is an afterthought. If I make something and want to share it I use Vimeo. The lack of commercials and the overall straightforward nature of the site is why it has become the place where I publish video content. Yet I do try and publish on YouTube because I can use all the views I can get. I am unknown and would like to change that.

Now before you start following links or Googling me the sad truth is I have made very little content to share with the world. Largely it is because I am a stay-at-home dad who mostly shoots videos of his children. I share these videos with family members who say they watch them.

So why am I writing all of this? Where is the bit about perfection?

I came across a video I made in 2007 today. It is called Marty. I am embedding it below. It is less than two minutes long and it would make me happy if you watched it now.

I’ve shared it on this site before but since I had forgotten about it, I am sure you did, too. Now, this is a very short film with almost no story that I made when I knew much less about how to make short films. Yet, it is one of a handful of short films I have made. And I think it is okay. Not amazing but not terrible either.

This past year I have gone to a number of film screenings in Vermont and I’ve connected with numerous filmmakers and watched their work online. What I have taken away from these experiences is fairly simple – it is better to make something and have it be “okay” than to make nothing. Pretty standard stuff, I know. Yet, how many of us are not making things, not sharing things because we feel it isn’t good enough? How many times have you sat down to write but stared at the wall, picked up your guitar only to put it down again, or closed your NLE because you felt your project wasn’t good enough.

I’m not a self help guy and I certainly spend more time feeling like a failure than a success. But, if I have learned one thing in the past year it’s this – people are winning awards making things I would be embarrassed to share. Don’t take this as me being snobbish or looking down my nose at others. Take this for what it is – these people are getting recognition and awards for doing – while I am forgetting videos I’ve made and staring at the wall.

“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”
Joss Whedon

Favorite Film

ab55e552-a4c6-4f90-923d-cc8d8f78b97d

If there is one question I have struggled with it is, “What is your favorite film?” Granted, this question is nowhere near as important as: “How do we achieve world peace?” or “How do we stop global warming?” but then people never seem to ask me either of these.

So recognizing the proper ranking of the importance of this question let me now try and address some of the assumptions being made regarding movies.

First – that all movies are alike and are comparable. I touched on this briefly in another post when I mentioned comparing Cliffhanger to Citizen Kane. What I was attempting to show with this comparison isn’t that one film is lesser but that different films are made to satisfy different conditions. Cliffhanger needs to be exciting in order to be successful as an action film. The stakes in a film like Cliffhanger are life and death and therefore the story being told has to make the audience care whether the characters live or die. We need to worry when they are in peril, cheer if they manage to evade death and feel satisfaction when the villain (unless it is the Earth which is tricky) gets his due.

The same isn’t true for Citizen Kane. I don’t need to spell it out, different kinds of films have different rules, have different problems and different goals. So while we can attempt to compare them in terms of the overall experience there are still many cases where this is a fruitless exercise.

So in thinking about awards like Best Picture and answering the question of “what is your favorite movie?” I cannot help but dwell on these differences because they do matter.

Take for instance the different between comedy and drama. Forget subcategories for the moment. The comedy wants to make you laugh. It wants to make you happy. The drama usually wants to make you feel some deep emotion like sadness or longing or ennui or some other wonderful thing. I am being unfair but the truth is not far off. Comedy seeks to entertain you and make you happy, the drama usually attempts to make you experience some unpleasant emotions, possibly entertains you or it tries to teach you something.

This distinction is important and why you rarely see a comedy being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For some reason we have decided that this is okay. That Comedy as a category does not compete in the same realm as Drama. Okay.

Yet, if you were to poll most people concerning their favorite film many would name a comedy. So what gives? The second distinction: is this a film you watch once in your life or never again?

We have all seen amazing, life-changing films that have moved us in ways words cannot properly express. Yet once seen we have no desire to ever see these movies again. Not in a Usual Suspects kind of way where once you know the story watching the film becomes less interesting. This is more that you have had an incredible experience and are glad to have had it but the thought of going through it again, even if it were somewhat lesser holds no appeal for you. A good example of this is Schindler’s List.

Then we have the other category, the film you can watch repeatedly and it is always enjoyable. The film that when you are sad or sick or just looking for a nice night on the couch you know will give you what you need. These films are usually comedies of some sort. For me the best example is The Philadelphia Story but I could list dozens that fit this bill.

So we have comedies and dramas. We have one-offs and we have endlessly watchable films. With just these four categories I find myself at a loss. How do I pick a favorite? What are we talking about? Pure entertainment? Something that helped shape who I am today? It becomes impossible for me to make any kind of choice because I need to explain the criteria involved in making that choice.

So, yes, this is not the most important decision a person will ever face. In fact, it is somewhat silly. Yet, and this is why I bothered to write all of this out: when I try and pose these questions to others I always find them puzzled at my response. “Why can’t you just pick one?” I can’t help but feel that when it comes to the awards that are given out that this must be the attitude of many who do the voting. Something must be chosen, so just pick one. They are only movies, so what does it matter.