August 18, 2009
After exploring Hulu for cinematic surprises two weeks back, I discovered the nifty search engine SpeedCine [Speed-Sinny], which claims to make “it easy to find legal feature-length movies on your computer”. Founded by film publicist Reid Rosefelt, it trawls the web for films that can be viewed on VOD for free or through rental, purchase, or subscription. It’s very simple to use, and with a quick click on the FREE button, and a leisurely scroll through its large A-Z library, I uncovered a wide variety of oddities and masterpieces that won’t cost you a dime (the FAQ informs us that not all titles are listed in the index, that some can only be found through the search function. Mysterious! Let me know if you find any hidden nuggets through this feature). These free titles are all ad-supported on various sites, with commercials popping up at different intervals. Most sites offer their “top” titles as rentals or purchases only (without ads), while shuffling their lesser known material into the “free”, ad-supported category.
Searching for free titles filters out the Herculean efforts of The Auteurs to bring a cinematheque to your computer (at a reasonable $5 a film, with a few titles gratis), but I discussed them earlier this year. They’re the most forward thinking VOD operators around, with the best content, so by all means check them out. But this week I’m focusing on the questionably curated free VOD sites that SpeedCine introduced me to, like Crackle, Jaman, Fancast, and EZ Takes, all of which vary wildly in quality. I’ll profile each of these sites on various arbitrary categories (streaming quality, commercial interruptions, etc.) and offer some viewing recommendations on each. In any case, SpeedCine is a remarkably useful tool for those interested in excavating the vast trove of cinema available on these here tubes.
I’m judging these sites based on a Poor, Average, Great scale in the following categories:
Streaming Quality (for their Free titles): Looking for the evil presence of digital blocking and artifacting. The cleaner the better.
Commercial Interruptus: On the length and frequency of the ads.
Burnt-In Logos: On how much the company logos obscure the screen.
Aspect Ratio: Whether the films are presented in their correct AR.
Selection: The quality of work in their Free library
Movie Viewed: Born to Win, Ivan Passer, 1971
A wonderfully acted story of a small-time operator and heroin addict played by George Segal. It is Czech emigre Passer’s first film in the U.S., following up 1965′s sublime Intimate Lighting, and it’s a similarly digressive tale, although toned far darker. Segal floats from scam to scam, running into his estranged, prostituted wife (a suitably zonked out Paula Prentiss), a fellow doper (Jay Fletcher), and a middle-class bohemian gal who takes a shine to him (Karen Black). Segal is brilliant, his brittle energy burning out by the end of the film, leaving a husk of a man shivering in an abandoned park. Replete with gloriously grimy location footage of the city’s druggie years, it’s a haunting, and strangely, often hilarious slice of NYC life in 1971. Robert DeNiro has a small role as a cop, which is why his blown-up face is misleadingly on the cover of the DVD.
Streaming Quality: Poor. Not only was the print in bad shape (I’m curious as to the quality of the dubious-looking DVD), but the stream was consistently marred by digital blocking.
Commercial Interruptus: Great! The film opens with one minute long commercial, and the film follows with no interruptions. The best setup for ad-supported streaming video I’ve seen so far.
Logos: Average. The Jaman logo is transparent and placed at the top right hand side of the screen. It hides itself well.
Aspect Ratio: Great. 1.33 is hard to screw up. Jaman didn’t.
Selection: Poor. The only other titles worth looking at in their free library are Stagecoach and Meet John Doe, and they are both presented in fuzzy public domain prints.
Overall: Jaman has embraced the renting VOD philosophy, leaving the Free, ad-supported section rather fallow. Born to Win is a must-see, though, regardless of the shaky viewing conditions.
Movie Viewed: The Stone Killer, Michael Winner, 1973
I was rather bummed about missing all of Anthology Film Archives’ 70s Buried Treasures series, programmed by Blue Underground founder William Lustig, so I was relieved when I clicked through SpeedCine and saw The Stone Killer listed. Charles Bronson is as inexpressive as ever in this right-wing actioner, but Michael Winner keeps the pace moving with expressive smash cuts while the idiosyncratic cast (Norman Lear, John Ritter, Martin Balsam) add varying notes of laconic style. Bronson is a violent cop marched out of NYC because he gunned down one too many perps, and before he can settle into his new L.A. gig, he’s drawn into the middle of a mob war. Also, a hippie commune is caricatured as a small-top circus who interpretive dance around camels. Conservative politics, solid action film mechanics, and a skyscraper stunt fall, all one could want from Bronson in the 70s.
Streaming Quality: Great. Along with Hulu, it’s the sharpest, least artifact-y free VOD site around.
Commercial Interruptus: Poor. 15 second ads appear approximately every 10 minutes. This is the price paid for higher video quality.
Burnt-In Logo: Great. The transparent logo is small and nestled in the bottom right hand corner. In widescreen films it doesn’t overlap with the image.
Aspect Ratio: Great. 1.85:1, correct and accounted for.
Selection: Great! Along with The Stone Killer, I espied Bunny Lake is Missing, Comanche Station, California Split, Fat City, Full Contact, Hard Times, Mickey One, Our Man in Havana, Ride Lonesome, and Starman.
Summary: Crackle has really embraced ad-supported VOD, and the quality of the stream as well as the titles proves it. Along with Hulu, it’s the best site for free streaming movies. It’ll be interesting to see whether their model will end up more successful than Jaman’s rental-based model. Time will tell. The only downside: I memorized a Last House on the Left ad by the time my movie was over. Not a good thing.
Movie Viewed: A Pocketful of Miracles, Frank Capra, 1961
From this point on, I did not view the films in their entirety, only the first 15 or 20 minutes to get a sense of the quality. That said, I would definitely want to return to this, Frank Capra’s final film, if only for the ridiculous display of character actor talent. Ahem: Peter Falk, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, Jack Elam…and it stars Bette Davis.
Streaming Quality: Poor. Image is fuzzy and there is artifacting visible on the edges of every object. Impossible to watch full-screen, tolerable in the normal size.
Commercial Interruptus: Poor. Started off with a 15 second ad, then 10 minutes in there were back-to-back ads (one 30 sec., the other 15). I didn’t stick around to see what happened later…
Burnt-In Logo: Great! There isn’t one!
Aspect Ratio: Great! 2.35:1.
Selection: Average. Other titles included Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm), Dillinger (1973 version), Kiss Me, Stupid,and Phaedra.
Summary: The last resort. If there’s no other way to view a film, by all means watch it on Fancast, but the poor streaming quality and excessive ads make it a less than pleasurable experience.
Movie Viewed (20 min.): Dark Star, John Carpenter, 1974
This off-beat sci-fi comedy was scratching me where I itch when I had to move over to the next site. Made at the low low price of $60,000, this was a student film project that took off (relatively speaking) when it’s stoner comedy Star Wars vibe struck a chord with college audiences. I’ll be going back to this one…
Streaming Quality: Average. Since the source material is poor, it’s impossible to judge fairly, but the feed was strong and clear, with a lack of major artifacting from what I could see. After a full viewing, I might have to bump this up a notch.
Commercial Interruptus: Great. Oddly enough, while their TV counterpart breaks up their films with ads, this internet portal has no commercials at all. Huzzah!
Burnt-In Logo: Poor. Uh-oh. There’s a giant honking AMC.com logo perched at the bottom middle-right of the screen. In a 1.33 film like Dark Star, it’s right in the middle of the action. It’s larger and further towards the middle than the other logos. Bad form.
Aspect Ratio: Great. With caveats. It appears to me that this print was cropped slightly on the sides, as some of the opening credits get cut off. Undoubtedly this is a problem on the original print, so I can’t really deduct imaginary points here. Plus I might be wrong.
Selection: Average. I’m playing it safe, since the rest of these schlocky titles are not my thing. Just a matter of taste. Although I like The Devil Doll, and Shake, Rattle & Rock sounds rather irresistible (Fats Domino fights for the kids’ right to boogie).
Summary: A solid locale for VOD, lacking only in content. Which is a bit of a lack. But that’s just personal taste. The tech specs are up to snuff, and the lack of ads is refreshing.
Movie Viewed (15min.): Greaser’s Palace, Robert Downey Sr., 1972
An absurdist western with midget romance, the plot summary tells us, and who am I to disagree? Dave Kehr says it’s “Reminiscent of Simon of the Desert, only without the ideas”. I’ll leave it to you to parse.
Streaming Quality: Great. Smooth and silky.
Commercial Interruptus: Great. Starts with an ad for the site, but the feature had no ads at all for the time I was viewing.
Burnt-In Logo: Great. No logo at all.
Aspect Ratio: Average. The 1.85 image was non-anamorphic, letterboxed so there’s black bars on all four sides of a 16×9 screen. This was a result of the master they received, and no fault of their own, but I’m docking them anyway. Just for fun.
Selection: Poor. There’s literally nothing else I’d like to watch there. Seriously.
Summary: All the tech specs are great, but unfortunately its library is rather bare.
Movie Viewed (20min.): The Outlaw, Howard Hughes, 1943
Famous for Jane Russell’s breasts and Howard Hawks’ firing. Also famous for the variety of public domain prints circulating the internet. Uh oh.
Streaming Quality: Poor. This is like watching the movie through a hailstorm.
Commercial Interruptus: Average. One 15 second ad to start, nothing afterward.
Burnt-In Logo: Great. No logo.
Aspect Ratio: Great. 1.33:1 lives on.
Selection: Average. There’s no shortage of material, although most of it looks to be PD: D.O.A., My Man Godfrey, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (licensed from Koch). As much as I love VOD, watching Cherbourg on streaming video should be some kind of crime.
Summary: EZ Takes seems to use their free feeds as advertisements for their downloads, which they state are DVD quality. Since the streams are so poor, there’s little reason to use this as a VOD site, although it’ll do for a quick fix if desperate.