Books, culture, fishing, and other games

April 28, 2004

Kudos to Netflix and Notes on Flicks

I've succumbed. I'd read about Netflix somewhere online, but the idea never stuck. But my latest computer does have a dvd, and messing around with it I discovered it's actually not bad for viewing, and then I bought some microwave popcorn and right there on the back of the box was an offer for a free trial, so I tried.

I'm hooked.

From a marketing perspective the offer on the popcorn box was rather brilliant. There is no better mass-market product association to movies that occurs to me. And with single servings, and the convenience of microwaves, anyone who eats popcorn will go through a lot of packages and see a lot of adds. Sooner or later in a moment of "there's nothing good on TV or cable" weakness, we're apt to say, "okay, I'll try it." With the convenience of modern portable viewers dvds are a great take-along. And the Netflix system of no overdue movies works great. Once you do get around to watching them, you have the mailer to return them, and the next one is on its way in a couple days. Meanwhile you have two (or more for an upgrade in monthly fees) behind that waiting.

Aside from all the coolness of the system they've created, I'm suddenly back watching movies. Don't get the wrong idea, I love movies. But I don't have a television here in DC, and don't particularly want one (darned distraction!) or its tendency to force schedules into compliance, and I hate going to the movies by myself and have no one I want to drag along here, so I haven't been watching movies. This means I haven't seen any of the latest crop, and I'm not filling any gaps in my rather gap-py movies-watched history.

So I'm rewatching some classics, exploring more foreign flicks, and catching up on a few I feel I should have seen. Last night it was Akiro Kurasawa's Hidden Fortress. I have seen a lot of his movies, but not all. I aim to rewatch all I have seen, and catch the ones I've missed, because he's... well, he's Kurosawa. Once nice thing about seeing them on dvd is all the additional matter that turns up. Last night it was in interview with Lucas. I knew from my one class in film and my work in classics that Lucas was a big Kurosawa fan (the classics link runs through Campbell to Lucas and back out to Kurosawa). Last night's interview informed me of a new little bit of trivia I'm having fun sharing with my friends in Star Wars Galaxies. Lucas says the two droids in the original were inspired by the two peasants in Hidden Fortress.

One thing Lucas found very interesting in Hidden Fortress (which ranks down about 4th or 5th in his list of favorite Kurosawa flicks) is the choice Kurosawa made to tell the story from the lowest perspective. The story opens and closes focused on the two peasant friends Tohei and Matahachi. They occupy a significant portion of the screen, and the overall theme of the struggle of greed versus trust and friendship is the major theme of the movie. The movie narrative thread from which the name is taken is the near destruction of a feudal clan which is left with only a single 16-year-old princess to insure its survival, and her flight through enemy territory with her faithful general (played by Toshiro Mifune) to safely with an allied clan. The princess is forced to play a mute peasant. As a result she learns what it is to be a peasant, learns of their lives, while in the meanwhile the peasants in the small party learn nobility and those who would have laid down their lives as mere feudal duty, reach a place where they would do it out of love.

Lucas compares the story to The Prince and the Pauper. But that's by no means an exact analogy. It may derive from Henry V. There the young prince loves to slum and the opening and ending focus (as I recall) is also in lowborn soldiers and knaves. It is his intimate knowledge of his soldiers that leads him to the place where he can inspire them to fight impossible odds in his cause and triumph. There too peasant things overcome noble systems. The longbow, until then a peasant weapon, conquers the French knights. Considering Kurosawa's common recycling of Shakespeare's plays, I suspect a bit of review of the plays will suggest others from which the general escorting the young princess through enemy territory to safety will emerge. Twelvth Night springs to mind, but it's not an exact fit, I think.

Watching Hidden Fortress made me want to watch Seven Samurai again immediately. But I think I will wait. I have Sanjuro in hand, and a couple more behind it on my list.

My first batch, though, was Sex and Lucia, Much Ado About Nothing and... oh, a mistake. I didn't read the fine print and got a supplemental disk rather than the movie itself. The material was fine, but I had no context for it.

Sex and Lucia is a very interesting film. It hit on some hot button themes I did not expect it to: constructing narrative and its impact on how we view reality, for one. If you have a reasonable tolerance for nudity and sexual situations, it's a very thought-provoking movie. I will see it again once it's soaking in a bit. It's a film that begs a serious essay.

And Much Ado cannot have enough ado made about it. Kenneth Branagh does a great job with his adaptations of Shakespeare to film. I've liked all of them immensely so far. I had only seen it once before, so hadn't caught some of the actors in supporting roles. In this one Michael Keaton plays Constable Dogsberry and is wonderful. He is perfectly over the top, as the clowns should be. The scene where he and his sidekick "ride" off on imaginary horses is priceless.

Netflix's service has been better than advertized, which in this day and age of "customer service" is pretty amazing. My turnaround has been 3-4 days. I don't watch a movie every night, but I almost can with the basic package as long as I do my part to get the watched disk in the mail the next morning. The combination of great U.S.P.S. service and fast Netflix turnaround, along with the waiting list software on the web site to let me build a queue with a large pad of movies, makes the whole process quick and easy.

This is a rave. I don't rave about systems and service easily. The bad part of this is that it makes everyone else look very inadequate. Amazon looks anaemic, and they are not bad. They just don't turn orders around anywhere near as fast as does Netflix. GoGamer.com, my online source for games, is darned good, beating Amazon by days. But they aren't up to Netflix's standards, though they do come close.

The only part of the Netflix system I am not impressed with is the recommendations system. It's a great idea; it lacks the necessary granularity and intelligence to be truly useful. For one thing, it needs to differentiate between how "good" the movie was in a production sense, and how much I like the type or subject of the movie. It does not appear to be doing this from the recommendations I'm getting. And I have rated about 100 movies I've seen in the past just to give it a chance to learn. I slammed a couple fantasy movies that were plain bad in their execution, but I love reasonably well done ones. So now I see no recommended fantasy movies. I tend to get a lot of chick flicks because I like a lot a couple flicks that are classified as such. Those are exceptions. Oh, I find most of them bearable, but I wouldn't want them elevated to recommended status. What recommends the few I really like is that they are great movies per se, not their genre. I want to be able to say "this is a GREAT movie" and "I'm not really interested in this type of movie" and have it make sense of that. So, it could then offer me any movie that is achieving a net rating of "great" from critics or the general viewership, but leave out anything below that in the genres that hold no real attraction to me. It's not an impossible system to code, but it's not yet coded there. They are not gathering enough information from me to be able to make the distinction. In theory, they could interpolate from the database of all movies I've rated. In practice that's a nontrivial task. It becomes simpler and simpler with the more measurements they can accumulate on each movie.

It will be interesting to see how they grow and learn. And I plan to be there to see it.

Posted by dan at April 28, 2004 11:32 AM | TrackBack
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