Online streaming: a step backwards?

Not long for this world?

Not long for this world?

I’ve finally given up on online streaming subscriptions. After many frustrations, this morning I cancelled my Amazon Prime Instant Video subscription with an exasperated sigh. I will explain why.

I was an early adopter and enthusiastic user of Lovefilm. I remember the dreadful old days, when trips to the local Blockbuster would usually end in disappointment because all of the decent films had been rented or the film I wanted to see was unavailable on their pitiful back catalogue. If I did find something to watch, I’d have to hand over the best part of a fiver before dashing back to the store within a day or two in order to avoid a late fee. The thought of the £10 fine I received once still rankles to this very day. So the emergence of a postal DVD rental service with no late fees and an enormous back catalogue was a most welcome development.

But things have changed. Not long back, Lovefilm started stripping back their subscription model – first they stopped renting games, and then they abolished the pay as you go model, forcing everyone onto fixed monthly subscriptions. Not ideal from my point of view, as the number of films I watch per month tends to vary hugely, but it was still generally a good deal.  But then at some point Amazon took over Lovefilm, and chaos ensued.

All Lovefilm subscribers have been forced to merge their subscriptions with their Amazon account, and the Lovefilm site has been discontinued. The postal service has been renamed ‘Lovefilm by Post’ and the streaming service, ‘Lovefilm Instant’, has been given the dreadful moniker ‘Amazon Prime Instant Video’ and been separated entirely from the postal service.

I’d signed up for Lovefilm Instant a few months before its migration to Amazon because it was advertised as being free with one of the monthly postal subscription packages. However, it’s clear that whereas once the streaming service was an extra on top of the postal service, the opposite is now true. In fact, the postal service has been so badly implemented into the Amazon website that I’m certain it will be abandoned entirely by Amazon very soon. I tried to change my postal subscription earlier so I could receive two discs at a time instead of one, and it appears that all options to adjust postal subscriptions have been removed – the only option was to cancel my account. If that’s not a sign that Lovefilm by Post is not long for this world, then I don’t know what is.

But I’m not ready to abandon my postal DVDs just yet, because streaming just isn’t fit for purpose in its current form. For a start, internet connections just aren’t reliable enough – I have BT Infinity but I still experience buffering and picture quality reductions when viewing at peak times, which annoys the hell out of me. Then there’s the paltry selection of titles: most of the films on my Lovefilm rental list are unavailable for streaming, and it’s a similar story over on Netflix. A couple of months ago, Ian and I took out a trial subscription to Netflix in an attempt to watch a few of the films that had been recommended to us: out of the 50+ films on the 101 Films list of recommendations, only 5 were available to stream.

Then there’s the problem of films being taken off the streaming list. I added The Battle of Algiers to my ‘watch list’ a couple of months ago, but when I wanted to watch it over the weekend I found that it had been removed for some reason. And not long before that, the same thing happened with Peeping Tom. It’s like putting a DVD on your shelf and then finding it’s been taken without warning when you go to watch it.

And with Amazon Prime Instant Video in particular, the user interface is utterly dreadful. For some bizarre reason they’ve mixed two subscription models together: Amazon Prime and Amazon Instant Video, as well as paying for individual films. After weeks of using it I still can’t get my head around how it works – in essence it just means that when I click on a film I want to watch sometimes I get told it’s not covered by my subscription and I have to pay extra for it, which is as annoying as it sounds. Visually too, both Netflix and Amazon push a handful of titles and make it very difficult to go hunting for anything that’s not being promoted.

No, I don't want to watch Jack & Jill.

No, I don’t want to watch Jack & Jill.

All of these problems are likely to be fixed with time. But right now, streaming is the poor cousin to postal DVD rental services in terms of reliability, picture quality and, most importantly, choice. Yet as consumers, we’re being forced onto streaming whether we like it or not: the only DVD rental services still going are Lovefilm and Cinema Paradiso, and as I said earlier, signs are that the Lovefilm by Post service might be not long for this world.

Streaming services are useful, and they’re a great way to find something to watch when you’re at a loose end. But until we have 100% reliable connections, consistent HD picture quality and a decent range of choice, they’ll be an optional extra. And after my trials and tribulations with Amazon’s lacklustre streaming service (and Netflix, for that matter), they are an optional extra I’d rather do without.

Too many films to talk about

You may have noticed a lack of podcast last week – unfortunately we’ve just been too darn busy to record one recently, what with work commitments and frantic Christmas preparations. On top of that, we’ve been going to a heck of a lot of screenings recently – for once, we’ve actually been too busy watching films to find time to talk about them.

I blame the BFI. They’re currently hosting the BFI Gothic season, which has seen a slew of brilliant horror films brought back to the big screen, and we’ve been eagerly watching as many as we can. Last month we saw Cat People, Nosferatu (the excellent Werner Herzog remake), Night of the Eagle (starring the fantastic Peter Wyngarde), The Pit and the Pendulum (Vincent Price as his eye-boggling best) and the German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. I also managed to see Vincent Price in Dr Phibes Rises Again with an introduction by 101 Films favourite Kim Newman, and it has rapidly risen to become one of the best films I’ve seen all year. If anyone wants to get me its (apparently even better) prequel, The Abominable Dr Phibes, for Christmas then by all means do.

We also managed to hike to the IMAX to watch Gravity, which looked sensational: it’s the only 3D film I’ve seen since Avatar that actually justifies the use of 3D. Not sure how good it will be on the small screen though… and it’s worth taking some of the science with a pinch of salt. And speaking of big-screen epics, we also managed to catch Gone With The Wind the other week. Neither of us had seen it before, and we were both more than trepidatious about the four-hour run time, seeing as overly long movies are a personal bugbear of ours. Thankfully, and to our relief, it turned out to be fantastic (although to be honest it only really starts getting good after Clark Gable turns up 20 minutes in). Oh, and speaking of Vivien Leigh films, I also went to see A Streetcar Named Desire, which was phenomenally good, and possibly worthy of a podcast sometime soon. Watch this space.

It doesn’t end there: a couple of weeks ago we went to see Ghostwatch, which is a brilliant but almost forgotten BBC One drama from 1992 that mixed reality TV with the supernatural way before Dead Set and its ilk hit our screens. As an added bonus, the director and cast – including Michael Parkinson – turned up for a panel discussion at the end, which proved very illuminating, and also made me wish Parkie was on the TV more these days (and it furthermore provided the revelation that his friends call him Parkie too). Then the other week we saw Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, a decidedly mixed bag of 1970s horror shorts that was worth watching simply for the spectacle of seeing Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Roy Castle, Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman and Donald Sutherland share a train carriage, which is every bit as brilliant as it sounds.

Finally, last weekend we popped back to the BFI again for a double bill of Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. Satan’s Claw was wonderfully shot and created a very believeable version of the 17th century countryside, but it barely held together as a film, with lots of twists and turns that didn’t altogether make sense. Witchfinder General was better, with Vincent Price on chilling form, far from his later camp portrayal of Dr Phibes. The film was every bit as “grim and unrelenting” as the reviews promised, and after the violent climax, my shocked two-word review to Ian was simply: “F***ing hell.”

On a lighter note though, before the screening we managed to stumble across a premiere. On entering the BFI, we were surprised to pass Caitlin Moran and Stephen Moffat on the stairs, then we were confused as to why there was a throng of teenaged girls hanging around in the foyer. We threaded our way through them towards the cinema entrance, only to find ourselves alone in a corridor that was deserted save for a lone security guard bearing down on us. We looked round and quickly realised we were standing downwind of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch giving interviews to the press – it turned out that the premiere of the new Sherlock Holmes series was being held that very afternoon.

Oh, and we also saw Griff Rhys Jones in Eat. The glamour of London Town.

Anyway, as you can tell, there’s been little time for podcasts recently, but we should be back with a podcast just before Christmas – we’ve got a slightly different Christmas special planned for this year… See you next week!

Remembering Legends of the Screen: Blawp

Unfortunately there’s no podcast this week as we’ve just been too busy to record one, so instead let us present the first in an occasional series dedicated to remembering legends from the silver screen. The inaugural feature in this series is in praise of Blawp, the undisputed star of the classic 1998 sci-fi film Lost in Space, which was a veritable tour de force of acting talent and special effects wizardry that slammed into audiences worldwide like a fireball of awesomeness. Not since The Avengers, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in perhaps their career-best performances, had so much money been spent on reimagining a classic TV series and making it better in every conceivable way for the big screen. Both films were united in casting away old-fashioned ideas such as plot and sense, and were uncompromising in their dedication to reimagine the subject matter in the language of the New Hollywood Blockbuster, i.e. massive explosions and utterly convincing CGI effects, interspersed by occasional acting.

Blawp’s acting debut was a highlight of the Lost in Space reboot, perhaps second only to the acting powerhouse that is Matt LeBlanc, who used this film as a springboard to launch his stratospheric Hollywood acting career. (Who can forget his performance alongside Eddie Izzard in the cross-dressing wartime romp All The Queen’s Men?) For me though, Blawp is the undisputed star of the show, his blurry edges melding seemlessly with the other actors, who all but melt into the background whenever Blawp is on screen, such is the acting power of this cuddly chimpanzee-like extraterrestrial. Indeed, when I saw Lost in Space in the cinema for the first time, I clearly remember the groans of delight that arose from the audience when this lovable creature first appeared. For me, Blawp single-handedly lifted the film from the level of merely amazing to the heights of utterly astounding, and I’m sure you’ll agree that his appearance in Lost in Space was a cinematic moment that you will never, ever, ever forget.

Blawp later went on to star in two under-rated Woody Allen comedies and a sitcom starring Ted Danson before retiring to live comfortably with his extended family under a bridge in LA.