Strange lineup: The gentrification of the web

I did a lot this weekend. I watched the season finale of “12 Monkeys” (just as whacky as ever), the last three episodes of “Broadchurch” (just as dramatic as ever) and the last three episodes of “Helix” (just as…whacky and dramatic as ever). Even the premiere of “Wayward Pines” and the season premiere of “Penny Dreadful.” Wow. I didn’t do much this weekend, did I?

Well, it was all streaming content; and a couple of weeks ago, I was considering the individualization of entertainment. I ended up wondering if, as entertainment has become more individualized, do we actually have more choice? Perhaps not. Along with the individualization of entertainment, particularly online, we’re also seeing a gentrification of the Internet: entertainment content online becoming nicely produced, but somewhat similar to the entertainment that can be found anywhere else. Basically, as the nicer stuff becomes more available, the weirder stuff becomes harder to find. It’s the gentrification of entertainment on a digital level.

Not too long ago, Facebook, Snapchat and other streaming services were looking for establishing investors to help produce video content. It’s not an unfamiliar story, going back to YouTube establishing studios to help its stay-at-home creators produce content. The difference here was that Snapchat and the like were looking at big boys for investment: Comcast Corp. Time Warner Inc. Big Four dollars to produce Big Four content.

Take a look at the YouTube homepage. As of this writing–and free of any kind of cookies or signed in accounts–the suggested videos run from the MOVIECLIPS channel, Call of Duty, Jimmy Fallon, Taylor Swift’s VEVO… When you get to the #PopularOnYouTube, half the videos are from established producers like Mariah Carey, ABCNews and, interestingly enough, The White House. Not that I have anything against these videos or the Big Four or Jimmy Fallon. But what they all seem to be, or the noticeable majority of them seem to be, is professional videos made by media companies. And I don’t think that was ever the point.

Web 2.0 (is it still called that? Was it ever really called that?) was supposed to allow Internet users to come viable Internet creators, but that dream appears to have gotten stalled somewhere along the way. Re-tweet, re-post and re-blog mechanics on social media platforms, coupled with the increasing presence of multimedia companies on said platforms, means that there’s, not less room, but less visibility and fewer digital resources for the amateur content creator.

The web used to be a huge meadow, untouched by winter, where everything, even the bizarre and unwieldy, was on display; now, it is a diminishing road, where only the slickest and loudest survive, a narrow bottleneck of the most recent week of ads, skits and memes. I wouldn’t mind so much except most of those skits don’t look like they’re made in the living rooms of guys like me anymore.

Three thrillers for the price of one: Critical reviews of “Nightcrawler,” “Dracula Untold” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

A remarkable thing happened to me the other week: I watched three thrillers, DVD rentals no less, and each one had noticeable crossover when it came to the trailers before the features. It seems that the expectation is that anyone who watches “Nightcrawler,” “Dracula Untold” or “A Walk Among the Tombstones” would probably also want to watch “The Man With the Iron Fists,” “Ouija,” “The Guest,” “Dragonheart 3” and “Scorpion King 4,” in addition to each other.

My three movies appeared to be quite different: an offbeat art noir, a slickly produced action-fantasy, and a big budget crime novel adaptation. But, to the credit of the marketing department, I had rented all three. What can I say? Advertisers are geniuses.

“Nightcrawler”

To succeed in life, one needs a business plan. If that business plan involves filming people without permission, or while they’re dying, then so be it. So says Jake Gyllenhall in “Nightcrawler.” He’s a freelance videographer who seems blissfully unclear of ethics, both journalistic and human, in his effort to get the goriest story to Channel Six an hour ahead of schedule.

On this mission, Gyllenhaal crawls through the titular night, which is both the literal night (day shots are few and initially short montages to depict the passage of time) and the metaphorical night of…a major city? the human psyche? the media? the capitalistic grind? Take your pick. The script is playfully smart, so the film neatly supports any number of philosophical or psychological interpretations.

Either way, you’ll stick around for Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing performance. He hovers around scenes, rather than truly inhabiting them, with an otherworldly grace that is as eerie as it is menacing and can be easily compared to Christian Bale’s sociopathic Patrick Bateman. Which is not to ignore the supporting cast. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton are thoroughly watchable as a news director and rival freelance videographer respectively, and Riz Ahmed is thoroughly believable as Gyllenhaal’s “intern,” who tries to cling on to circumstances that are ultimately much bigger than he is.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s story unfolds gently, but it is a gentleness that is punctuated by fascinating juxtapositions. The first 10 minutes of the film take us from the outskirts of LA into the city. The score is alternatively driving and delicate, and it set the scenes perfectly, often through dark irony (note the pumped up score for the world’s most uncomfortable training montage, the glorious music during the bloody climax, and, of course, the radio in the Mexican restaurant).

As can be expected from a film about photography, there are some excellent and intelligent shots throughout–most notably one where Gyllenhaal and Russo are standing in front of a giant video monitor that displays a nighttime LA cityscape. They appear to be outside despite being in a newsroom. “It looks real,” Gyllenhaal concurs. Yes it does.

“Dracula Untold”

This film takes a look at the “historic” Dracula in order to answer an age old question: How did one man manage to impale so many people? (Kind of ironic, when you think about it. Vampires are killed by impaling, but Vlad was the king of the impalers!) The answer is that Dracula’s a good dad who only became a vampire to save his son, who was kidnapped by the Turkish empire in an odd conflation of the practice of noble hostage taking and Janissary training, paired with some genuine ignorance of medieval culture. Still, I suppose anyone who watches a movie called “Dracula Untold” with some expectation of a history lesson deserves exactly what they get.

Luke Evans scowls and broods his way through the film as Dracula, like a good modern vampire, but fails to make any emotional connection with the audience. Even the villains, who usually have the most fun in bad movies, seem tame. In fact, the only character with any blood is veteran British actor Charles Dance, whose Master Vampire seems to act like a confessor for Evans (ala Dustin Hoffman for Milla Jovovich’s Joan of Arc), until he too is thrown on the scrapheap of mediocrity.

Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ script is always unclear (if it’s about how men fear monsters but monsters are misunderstood, why is Evans so obviously worthy of fear?), but in the last third it begins royally falling apart, and the entire film devolves into a CGI slaughterhouse. I’d complain more but, despite the source material, larger issues like religion, humanity or sexuality are never explored. It’s hard to miss what was never there.

I can, however, complain about the lighting. The film is lushly produced, but the standard practice of dark fantasy is to shroud everything in, well, darkness. As such, one cannot see the elaborate sets and costumes intended to invoke the era, let alone watch the fights. During the battle scenes, I found myself craving a director like Tim Burton, who can illuminate darkness, or Terry Gilliam, who forgoes it altogether.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones”

A note among the Tombstones: I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much of a difference it makes. The movie at least starts off with a couple of shots–two in glasses and several out of guns fired by cop Liam Neeson and…does it honestly matter who Neeson is shooting at? Just as long as he’s shooting. We learn (repeatedly) that drinking lost its taste for Neeson that day, and he became a private detective who takes a job from drug kingpin Dan Stevens, whose wife has been kidnapped, tortured and returned to him in small plastic bags. Neeson has to find the killers so Stevens can return the favor, which results in a grim and sexless journey populated by a cast of seedy weirdos (most notably Olafur Olafsson as a deliciously awkward cemetery groundskeeper).

The film is slow but interesting to look at, often handsome and stylishly shot, almost to the point of distraction. It’s as if director Scott Frank had “The Idiot’s Guide to Cool Photography” in his back pocket and wanted to hit all the stops at least two or three times. Oh well. That’s a lame complaint, I suppose, that the film is comprised of a bunch of pretty pictures.

The gore is actually quite contained; it happens off screen and is relayed through various found objects (an audio recording, some trash bags), which means that it’s far more psychologically effective than your average torture porn. Who needs blood when you have kidnappers David Harbour and Adam Thompson sneering and smirking their way through scenes?

The film sports a kind of nihilistic egalitarianism (which, more than the gore, puts it in line with movies like “Se7en” and “8mm”). In the creepily fleshy title sequence, we see how sex and death, fear and pleasure, are parallel. Cops and criminals are parallel; they are displayed as alternately upstanding community members and thoughtless or brutal killers, and neither is safe from kidnap and torture. Neeson brings the wicked to judgment but never stays around to watch justice done, and the film ends with a flatness that defies its excess of camera angels. However, “Walk” itself isn’t flat. While it won’t break any new ground, it’s a nice piece of entertainment for thriller fans.

Pilate’s question: Rationality and the definition of “rational” in the modern era

I encountered an interesting phenomenon on the Internet the other week. Somewhere, on some forum someplace, someone was describing a self diagnosis that seemed, at best, medically suspect. And said poster was aware of it. But what struck me wasn’t the diagnosis itself; what struck me was how the person defended it. The original poster said, I know this sounds weird, but I’m a pretty rational person.

I don’t understand the use of the word “rational” these days. Merriam-Webster–to use that old chestnut–says that rational means “having reason or understanding; relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason: reasonable,” the last word being a synonym, “being in accordance with reason.” Perhaps the modern understanding of rational is thinking that follows the ley lines of logic. What people tend to forget is that rationality depends on where you stand.

Logical, rational thinking is defined by culture and circumstance. That’s why, in some cultures, possession is an accepted explanation for sudden personality changes. A head injury? Psh. People hit their heads all the time and are fine. We’re talking about spirits that we’ve been culturally aware of for generations. OK, to use an example that’s closer to home, we may realize, on an intellectual level, that forms like chairs are made out of atoms, spinning endlessly in space with a Zeno-esque infinity between them. But on the empirical level, a chair is a solid object. So which understanding of “chair” is the rational one? Presumably the latter because we deal with chairs on an empirical, rather than on a quantum, level. But is it a false understanding? Which understanding is true?

Somewhere along the line, words like “rational” and “rationality” replaced “gospel” as meaning a direct conduit between Man and some kind of Universal Truth. William of Ockham might say that simplicity is the measure of truth. Karl Popper might say that testability is the measure of truth. But I keep thinking of a verse from the Gospel of John–and I realize it’s a work of theology or literature first and a piece of history as a distant third–in which Pontius Pilate is interrogating Jesus and asks: “What is truth?” Before Jesus can answer–if he tried to answer, if he had an answer–Pilate turns and leaves his presence. In a way, I don’t think we’ve progressed at all from Pilate’s question. What is truth anyway?