When it comes to the streaming wars, “content is king” is a phrase you hear repeatedly. The idea being that if you want to get subscribers, certain things matter—availability; user interfaces; branding; etc.—but the one thing that really matters is programming.
I am … skeptical this is the case. At least in a general sense.
Look, if all that mattered was content, HBO Max and Disney+ would be running away with the streaming wars. Disney+, to its credit, is, and in no small part because they have the entire Star Wars, MCU, Pixar, and classic Disney animation catalog to offer viewers, a panoply that covers the entirety of the age range so long as you’re looking for nothing more outré than a PG-13 comic book movie.
HBO Max is similarly positioned. They have quality TV content for viewers young (Looney Tunes, Sesame Street) and old (the entirety of the greatest television channel of all time, HBO), as well as the absolute best lineup of movies of any of the streaming services, given their access to WB’s enormous library. And yet, HBO Max’s troubles are so profound that parent company AT&T has decided to dump the entirety of Warner Bros.’s 2021 lineup on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously.
All of which is to say that Roku’s acquisition of Quibi’s library of content is kind of head-scratching. You may remember Quibi as the thing that Jeffrey Katzenberg lit billions of dollars on fire to create, a sort of mobile streaming service that offered ten-minute episodes of things designed to appeal to people standing in lines.
Roku has long desired to have more original content of it is own. Its Roku Channel—an ad-supported streaming service, available on the web and on Roku devices—offers a mix of not-recent movies, lower-tier TV shows, and content available through deals worked out with other streamers. As part of the negotiations over bringing HBO Max to Roku’s devices, Roku tried to strong-arm programming out of HBO. Roku’s leadership understands that its status as a pass-through service is untenable in the long run as tech behemoths Apple and Amazon and Google all have their sights set on the OTT market. (“OTT” stands for “over the top”; it’s shorthand for the dedicated devices you use to stream, like Chromecast or Apple TV.) And content, after all, is king.
Except. Quibi has already proven that their content isn’t king? There was nothing buzzy or captivating about Quibi’s programming, nothing worth watching. Nothing that got people to pay attention to it, aside from a strangely captivating clip of Rachel Brosnahan playing a woman with a golden arm.
Which brings me to my point: it’s not content that’s king. It’s buzzy content that’s king. It’s must-watch programming that’s king. It’s water-cooler conversation that’s king. It’s Stranger Things that’s king. It’s The Mandalorian that’s king. Disney+ might have a great library, but it’s unclear if they’d be in the position they’re in now without the first season of The Mandalorian debuting at the same time as the channel. HBO Max, on the other hand, launched with a great library but no killer app, no huge show. Just the promise of a huge show—Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League—sometime in the distant future.
Roku’s desire to get into original content is understandable. But right now it just feels like another place no one’s going to watch Quibi.
Speaking of killer content being king: Across the Movie Aisle’s Bulwark+ members-only podcast about Bean Dad has been a pretty big hit and I’ve heard from a number of folks who were glad we could explain why Bridgerton is such a hit. To get more exclusive podcasts like those, make sure to sign up for Bulwark+: it’s just ten bucks a month, helps ensure the sustainability of this newsletter, and gives you access to great, members-only livestreams, newsletters, and podcasts. You won’t regret it, I guarantee.
Reviews: Promising Young Woman and Hunter Hunter
After watching Promising Young Woman, which is in theaters now and hits PVOD on January 15, the movie that came to mind was 2019’s billion-dollar sensation, Joker. Both are very much concerned with their age, both focus on the frustrations of those who feel overlooked by the system and society, and both are made with obvious skill.
But Promising Young Woman too frequently pulls its punches, an odd choice for a movie that has positioned itself as a sort of exploitation-adjacent picture. It’s a rape-revenge movie where we don’t see who needs to be avenged, where we’re not shown what was done to the person who was wronged, and where catharsis comes in the form of flashing red lights rather than glorious fountains of blood.
Coffee-shop employee Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) spends her evenings pretending to be hammered at clubs so she can trick “nice” guys into taking her home in the hopes of taking advantage of her. The first is a business-oriented dudebro whom the movie positions as a defender of women by suggesting business deals shouldn’t be done at men-only golf courses before trying to get into her passed-out pants. Another, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin himself!), waxes rhapsodic about the joys of David Foster Wallace, suggesting he’s a novelist himself, though it’s slow in the offing—he’s a perfectionist, you know.
The meat of the movie involves Cassandra’s efforts to exact final revenge on a group of people she met in medical school, people who did not believe her friend Nina when she said she was sexually assaulted by a group of dudes who all had sex with her when she was too drunk to say no. There are the dudes, of course, but also Nina and Cassandra’s mutual gal-pal Madison (Alison Brie) and Dean Walker (Connie Britton), neither or whom believed Nina when she said something had happened to her. They are women who have betrayed their fellow women to uphold the patriarchy—women who don’t want to ruin the lives of young men by subjecting them to accusations that could never possibly be proven.
If you’ve spent any time on the Internet, you realize these aren’t characters so much as archetypes, Twitter villains, antagonists who exist to be dunked on by those truly committed to the cause of equality. In this, Promising Young Womanbears a passing resemblance to Black Christmas, a truly dreadful 2019 picture written by someone who thought relitigating years-old Twitter spats could serve as the basis of a script.
Promising Young Woman is undoubtedly better than Black Christmas, in large part because of the stellar cast. Mulligan has the alternatingly dead-eyed and devilish stare of someone who enjoys hurting people she imagines to have hurt other people. I haven’t even mentioned Alfred Molina, who has a couple of key scenes as a defense attorney wracked with guilt over his efforts to obtain “justice” for his clients accused of sexual assault; his twitchy, charismatic performance calls to mind the behavior of a conspiracy theorist who has come to realize that he was the one pulling the wool over the world’s eyes after all. Alison Brie should be in every movie, she’s truly fantastic. Plus: Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge!
And writer/director Emerald Fennell has put together a stylish feature here, one that takes great care in how its shots are blocked and framed. You can feel it in the opening moments, when the camera settles on Cassandra at some distance, mimicking the point of view of a trio of dudes on the prowl: there’s something almost ethereal about her pose and positioning, a devil in Christ’s pose offering herself up for temptation to the unsuspecting sinners of the world. But it’s not salvation she offers.
It’s a shame, then, we don’t see that devil deliver any proper punishment to said sinners. (For instance: Cassandra keeps track of her “conquests” in a journal by way of hashmarks, but we have no idea what her color-coding of said hashmarks means or if it corresponds to the trapped lads getting anything worse than a scare.) Promising Young Woman has a fantastic setup, a solid story, and a wonderful cast. It’s just more interested in telling us things than showing them.
Hunter Hunter, meanwhile, has no problem with showing. It shows and shows and shows, telling us very little, allowing the movie’s shattering conclusion to hit us like an expected, but unavoidable, blow to the solar plexus that drives the air from our lungs and leaves us scrambling about the floor, trying to pull ourselves up. Not quite as slick as Promising Young Woman and lacking its star power, Hunter Hunter nevertheless feels a bit more successful by leaning into the grimier, grubbier aspects of its artistic forebears.
Mersault (Devon Sawa) and Anne (Camille Sullivan) live off the grid, in the woods, on federal land with their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell). Mersault is a hunter, teaching his daughter how to live off the land: how to trap an animal, how to skin that animal for fur that can be traded for money or goods, and what meat can be eaten. Anne has grown tired of this life, worried about what their daughter is missing out on by having no friends, worried about her missing out on proper schooling.
Worried about what she’ll eat. Because their way of life, a sort of pseudo-frontierism, has ended. Animal pelts can no longer provide enough income to feed the family and pay for gas and cover the cost of clothing. They can hunt for food, sure, but it’s no way to live in modern times. Compounding their problems is a vicious wolf loose in the woods, stealing their captured rabbits and badgers and raccoons. And, of course, putting their lives at risk.
Mersault goes on the hunt for this creature, and finds something more horrifying than any animal. Or, at least, any non-animalistic human.
I don’t want to say much more than this about the plot; you deserve to watch this unspoilt. However, I do want to highlight Nick Stahl’s appearance here, who has largely been absent from the world of film and TV. Though Stahl is probably best known for filling in as John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, his best work involves him relying on his naturally intense, somewhat mysterious mien, a mode that shows up as early as The Man Without a Face and continues through to the woefully underseen Carnivàle and Bully.
Stahl stepped away from the world of acting for a few years to get a meth problem under control, and it’s good to see him back onscreen; he’s not in Hunter Hunter for very long, but his work as Lou in this picture is an eye-opening, skin-crawling turn. I hope he can continue to get his career back on track, because his brand of intensity is not easy to come by.
Writer/director Shawn Linden is working rawer and rougher than Fennell in this picture, with a tighter budget and, if I had to guess, a shorter shooting time. There’s a git-’er-done quality to some of the shots here, though the efficiency pays off. Clocking in at just 93 minutes, Hunter Hunter is lean and mean—with an emphasis on the mean. There’s no god in the machine coming to save Mersault or his family; if they’re going to survive the ordeal they find themselves in, it’ll be by their own hand. It’s a merciless movie, pitiless. Many viewers will find it disturbing.
But it’s honest in its cruelty. And honesty counts for something.
Assigned Viewing: Carnivàle (HBO Max)
Carnivàle is a frustrating watch, in a way, since the show ended on a cliffhanger in the second season and wasn’t renewed for a third. But it’s a great example of HBO doing what HBO did best, taking a chance on a weird piece of TV set during an unusual time for a TV show to be set. Daniel Knauf’s tale of a traveling carnival during the Great Depression that may or may not be a key part in a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil.
I’m assigning this because it stars both Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown, costars of the above-reviewed movies, and also because it’s just awesomely weird. A fantastic mélange of biblical chatter and mythmaking in a decidedly American milieu that grapples with the rise of mass media and the decline of an American way of life. While I remain sad the show never properly wrapped up, it’s good that it exists at all.