Quibi-ckly Forgotten Triple-Feature: ‘The Stranger’ / ’50 States of Fright’ / ‘When the Streetlights Go On’

Progress? (Image via Quibi)

Customer: “What if DIVX goes out of business?”
Salesman: “That’s a fair question. But here’s the bottom line: it’s almost impossible to believe that Divx could go under. DIVX is supported by major movie studios like Disney, Universal, Fox, DreamWorks, Paramount and MGM; and manufacturers like RCA, Proscan, Pioneer, Panasonic, JVC and Harmon Kardon. However, should there be a problem, you would still have a fully functioning DVD player, that will still play your existing Divx movies. Most importantly, when you see how DIVX works, I think you’ll agree that it’s gonna be a big hit!”
– 1998 Circuit City training video (at the 10-min. mark) instructing sales teams on how to promote DIVX, the failed optical disc format competing with DVD. The format failed in under a year, with losses estimated between $117m – $330m.

Quibi… it never stood a chance, did it?

It was tough enough leaping head-first in an already-crowded pool of streaming services, but doing so on a mobile-only platform with name sounds like a Pokémon character (though I do give you points for not adding an arbitrary “+” to the moniker)? Yeah, Katzenberg can blame the pandemic all he wants – because people with a lot of free time somehow won’t watch videos? – the truth is he stacked the deck against himself from the start.

Established streamers have possibly peaked in terms of new subscribers. Pushing a new one that puts all its eggs in the basket of mobile video severely overestimates the function of mobile video, namely that it’s a means to an end. People watch videos on their phones because they don’t have a laptop or plasma screen they can move with the same portability. Sure, the quality of video on phones has improved (my Samsung S10e has 1080p), but it’s no one’s first choice – for shooting, maybe, but not watching.

And that’s just from a tech angle; on the artistic side, Quibi is disrespectful to film-making. It’s bad enough that even though 16×9 HD is now the standard, studios and television networks still can’t grasp the basics of aspect ratios. Where once there were David Lean films chopped to fit on 4×3 TVs, now old 1.33:1 episodes of Frasier are “stretched” for HD broacast. Hell, a film shot in 2.35:1 will still have its sides chopped off to fit in a 16×9 frame. (And that’s not even mentioning goddamn motion-smoothing.)

No real film-maker or film-lover wants to see a cinematographer’s work butchered on a format that’s one step removed from FlikFX.

To summarize: Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted customers to pay the (admittedly reasonable) price of $8/month (for no advertising, $5/month with it) to watch a format with a glut of content with almost no buzz, a format that wasn’t supported on Apple or Roku or other popular streaming providers, a format that further butchers the visual work of a visual medium, and – most notably – a format that one can’t watch on the pristine HDTV for which they paid hundreds (if not thousands) to own?

And he blames the pandemic?

But what, you may ask, of the content itself? Whether the format fails or succeeds, the content deserves to be judged on its own merits. Well, as it turns out, Quibi had several “series” that, when binged together, create feature-length films. If, like me, you’re a professional critic or part of an advanced screening program, you got to see at least a few of these films in one sit-through. No turning your phone, no waiting for the next installment – just a bunch of slick-looking films that, paradoxically, were all shot in the widest frames possible.

Here are the three I saw. SPOILER: they were nothing to write home about.

The Stranger

“I was attacked via nearly every facet of my online life by a loosely-coordinated cyber mob. All of my social networks were flooded with a torrent of misogynist and racist slurs as well as threats of rape, violence and death. The Wikipedia article about me was vandalized with similar sentiments. When I publicly shared what was happening to me, the perpetrators responded by escalating their harassment campaign and attempting to DDoS my website and hack into my online accounts. They also tried to collect and distribute my personal info including my home address and phone number. They made pornographic images in my likeness being raped by video games characters which they distributed and sent to me over and over again. Attempts were made to discredit me and my project by creating and posting false quotes or fake tweets attributed to me. There was also a flash game developed where players were invited to “beat the bitch up”. Unfortunately I still receive threats and explicit images on a semi-regular basis.”
– Anita Sarkeesian, in an interview with IGN (6 June 2013)

Oh, Dane DeHaan. Has it really been three whole years since I last saw you in another supposed “thriller” that squandered its potential?

The Stranger is such a cliché story that you can already piece it together from the opening frames, especially if you’ve seen The Hitcher with Rutger Hauer. Maika Monroe of It Follows stars as Clare, an LA-based driver for an Uber-like rideshare service that seems to be as poor at vetting as the real Uber. She heads to a far out affluent neighborhood to pick up her rider, a guy calling himself “Carl E.” (DeHaan).

At first, the guy – who enters the car with a really big bag – appears to be just a TMI neurotic. Then he “jokes” about having killed everyone in the house he just left. The knife he pulls out suggests he isn’t joking.

She escapes him by crashing the car, but it isn’t long before he finds her wherever she goes – almost to the point of already knowing where she’ll be. The police don’t believe her. Her mother doesn’t believe. But he keeps getting closer as the bodies continue to fall all over LA.

Okay, look: if you’re gonna do the “killer-knows-who-you-are-and-where-you’ll-be” thing, then that’s the first story element you have to ground in reality. Wes Craven’s Red Eye did this well by having its villain be a professional killer who obviously would do the sort of research on his target beforehand. That’s why none of his moves come off as superhuman, just terrifyingly smart.

The Stranger takes a much lazier route. We know that Carl E. is a tech wiz and all – hacks into her accounts to discredit her to the cops, yadda-yadda – but his ability to track Clare goes beyond that into him being psychic. Even in a connected world, there are ways to easily hide. Carl E. finds her anyway… until he doesn’t. Because the plot needs her get away for that section. This isn’t ingenuity on the part of our heroine, it’s weak plot development from a writer who wrote themselves into a corner.

Add to that performances that are merely adequate (DeHaan is no Rutger Hauer) and you have a movie – not a “series”, a movie – with two key problems: 1 – much like the laughably stupid Invisible Man, it tries to go for face value “Grrl Power”, but takes too much glee in the misery of its female lead to be sincere; and 2 – since it’s so derivative and uninspired, it’s forgotten as soon as it’s over.

In a way, that latter point makes it the quintessential Quibi project.

GRADE:                                                            C-

50 States of Fright

“I’m afraid of Americans/
I’m afraid of the world/
I’m afraid I can’t help it/
I’m afraid I can’t”

– David Bowie, “I’m Afraid of Americans”

Listen, I love Sam Raimi as much as the next horror-loving ‘80s kid, but the guy has had some truly horrific misfires. For every Darkman, there’s the god-awful Spider-Man trilogy; for every A Simple Plan, there’s OZ: The Great and Powerful; for every Xena episode blessing us with Lucy Lawless, there’s an episode of Hercules sending residuals to Kevin Sorbo. I could go on, but you get the point.

50 States of Horror is… actually not a bad idea in concept: 50 horror stories, each based in a separate state of the union. It’s easy to forget that the US is still a relatively young country in the worldwide scheme of things, but its stubborn insistence on bullshit “individualism” has resulted some interesting bits of folklore. This is land stolen from a people still here, created on the backs of people dragged here in chains, and ruled over by people who have somehow trumped (ahem) the tyranny they were trying to escape.

That leaves no shortage of stories to tell.

Of the fifty states and stories, the screening I viewed presented only two of them. The first is “Michigan”, in which series creator/director/co-writer Sam Raimi and co-writing brother Ivan – both natives to the Great Lakes State – stage a contemporary retelling of the old folklore tale of “The Golden Arm”: a well-off farmer has a gold-digging wife who loses an arm in an accident. The farmer, being the industrious sort, builds his wife a mechanical arm, but not even that’s enough to sate her vanity. At very great expense, the farmer builds her a golden arm that looks purrty, but is juuuuust a bit toxic. So toxic that it kills the wife… or does it?!

The Raimis succeed at making a nice-looking “quiet” thriller that’s competently put together, but there’s nothing about it that really says “Sam Raimi”. When a guy like that spends his entire career carving out a definitive visual style, it’s just not exciting to see him fall back on a sort of cookie-cutter technique. (It’d be different if he shook up his style, as he did with A Simple Plan.)

And that’s the main problem with this one: it’s just okay. There’s nothing truly bad about it, but there’s nothing about all that unique. It looks like it was shot for tv, “scope” aspect ratio notwithstanding. As such, I don’t hate it, but I can’t think of any good reason to recommend it either.

My screening paired the above film with the non-Raimi-directed “Almost There”, set in Iowa. This one involves a young girl who escapes from the group suicide of her Amish(-like?) cult. She grows up to be a maintenance worker called in to fix a windmill during a snowstorm. This is bad for two reasons: 1 – she’s afraid of heights (then why take that job?); and 2 – she’s still haunted by the sight of her family’s bodies swinging from nooses. And when I say “haunted”, I mean literally.

This was the better of the two, as it built tension well and actress Taissa Farmiga (younger sister of Vera) does well against the somewhat douchey character played by Ron Livingston at his Ron Livingstoniest. The flick is a bit too heavy on jump-scares and could – nay, should – have had a more psychological ending to match its lead’s questionable mental state. Still, I could see myself putting this one on during a horror movie night.

Not as the sole focus, but definitely part of the programming.

“The Golden Arm” GRADE:                                                                     C

“Almost There” GRADE:                                                                           B-

When the Streetlights Go On

“If you’re one of those people who don’t like movies where some person you can’t see talks the whole time and covers up all the holes in the plot and at the end says ‘I was never the same again after that summer’ or whatever, like it was so deep they can’t stand it, then you’re out of luck. Things get very complicated here very quick. And my guess is you’re not going to be up to it without me talking.”
– Deedee Truitt, The Opposite of Sex, written by Don Roos

How do you waste Queen Latifah like this? I mean, I’ve seen both Brining Down the House and The Cookout, so I can say that this isn’t nearly as bad as those two (the latter of which she produced and co-wrote). But her non-factor appearance here – as a detective investigating a suburban double-homicide – emphasizes how poorly misplaced are this story’s priorities.

When the Streetlights Go On has all the hallmarks of a debut novel turned into a cheap indie or made-for-tv movie. So much so that I actually had to look up the fact that it wasn’t. Instead, it’s a coming-of-age drama masquerading as a murder-mystery and failing at both.

Also, it’s the story of a bunch of white people told fondly through the eyes of a Black boy… because that’s a cliché we totally needed to bring back.

It’s 1995 in Colfax, IL. Young Charlie Chambers (Chosen Jacobs, the Black boy from the recent IT remake) narrates the story of a popular girl whose murder in the woods alongside her Econ teacher exposes their affair to their quiet town. The girl’s bad boy boyfriend is the chief suspect and her sister falls in and out of the shadow of her now-deceased sibling. And Charlie narrates it all, only occasionally having a life of his own.

If that description sounded at all like Twin Peaks, rest assured that I’ve made it sound far more interesting than it actually is. Aside creating a not-all-that-convincing portrayal of the Midwest in the ‘90s, a story pretty much as to be The Great Gatsby in order to convince us why this Black kid cares so goddamn much about these white folks whom he only knows tangentially. (Charlie’s Blackness is never brought up and the original tv pilot for Streetlights used a white actor in the thankless narrator role.)

And at least Twin Peaks investigated (and solved) the murder that was its story’s catalyst. Streetlights just occasionally has Queen Latifah’s cop character pop in every now and then to remind us that the investigation is still active, even though it has little relevance to the plot proper. I guess I won’t spoil it for those foolish enough to plan on watching this flick, but suffice it say, the revelation of the killer at the end is a forehead-slappingly dumb plot twist so contrived that you’d expect M. Night Shyamalan to have come up with it (no, no one’s a ghost or alien or anything supernatural, it’s just lame).

When the Streetlights Go On pretends to be a thriller, but has no thrills; acts as if it’s a drama, but only has melodramatic flourishes; and puts a Black boy in the lead as means of color-blind casting, but ignores the fact that it would be an issue in small-town USA (yes, even in the ‘90s – I know because my teenage Black ass was there). It’s a film that doesn’t bother living, it just exists.

GRADE:                                                            D

And that sorta sums up Quibi as a whole: it merely existed, it didn’t prove itself worthy of anyone’s time. As a tech firm, it somehow overestimated the public’s use of tech and prohibited them from using the (very expensive) tools already at their disposal. As a film format, it billed itself as a return to the cinematic serial style that birthed the film industry, but its narrative entries aren’t proper series so much as films broken up into glorified Blu-Ray chapters (I haven’t seen their reality or documentary entries).

And the rotation feature is just dumb. Cropping the image is an insult to the cinematographers who create those images and the viewers who see them.

Both the company and format represent an act of corporate hubris that, like everything else is 2020, no one will miss now that it’s gone.

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