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February 23, 2009

"He sees policemen in his soup."

Hello kids and welcome to another week of entertainment fun. I assume some of you paid attention to the Oscars last night. Stacie and I chose to skip it once again. I just can't seem to get all that interested in it anymore. Part of it has to do with the fact that I see so few movies in the theaters these days so I hadn't seen any of the big nominees. I'm sure there's some good stuff in there that will be worth a rent on BD. The other thing is my weariness of the whole awards business. I'm just tired of it. I don't have a huge problem with it per se, but don't really find it all that compelling. Guess I'm just gettin' old.

Now for a rant about a business I *do* want to gripe about: cable/satellite TV. You may want to skip this part as I've ranted about this a lot before!

In a few months I will rip the Directv dish off my roof and another will not take its place. I've been a customer of theirs off and on since the late 1990s and have had enough. Our family had cable while I was growing up in Rapid City so we could get a few Denver stations to supplement that weak local channels we had. Needless to say I've found some value in cable for a long time. My specific problem with this company is the fact that I got an HD box from them a while back and a service commitment was part of the deal. I don't really remember agreeing to it at the time, but I'm sure it was there in the fine print somewhere. Okay, so I find that I'm not really watching it and want to cancel. When I call to do that this past year, I am told that due to the commitment, I either have to continue service through January 2009 or pay a nasty cancellation fee. Hmm, that sucks but I choose to ratchet down my service to the cheapest service with the intent of canning it when January came around.

Quick break in the saga: this cheap package, which they offered up when I complained that I was spending $60+/month for a couple of channels I watch on occasion, was their so-called "Family" package. This package has all the kid channels (except for Cartoon Network, natch), all the home shopping channels, all the religious channels, and a couple of misc. channels like Food Network and National Geographic. This does not include *any* cable news channels. The local channels are there, but they cost me zero dollars over the air (and look better with the new Digital TV signals). Also, they make me pay a $10/month "HD Access" fee since I have the HD box. They don't let you opt out of that if you have the HD box. So it's $40/month plus a bunch of fees and taxes for the Food Network (I don't count the locals which cost me nothing). Yep, that has been the only channel I watch on this lineup. Wow, some bargain. They would offer another package that has channels I'm interested in (something besides kids/god/infomercials), but it's at least $25 more per month, which is back where I was when I decided the service wasn't worth it. I simply do not have enough time, even with a Tivo, to watch enough for it to be worth money. This is far form typical in the cable biz. The entertainment companies set it up this way and it appears that an a l'carte system of choosing only the channels you want will probably never happen the way things are structured. It isn't really a technical problem since all satellite and much of cable is already digital with remote-addressable boxes that can do this; it's how they charge you for only HBO and not Showtime. The problem is that the whole cost model is based on packages with "big" channels like ESPN (which accounts for ca. $14/month of the average cable bill) are thrown in with all the niche channels that hardly anyone watches. Take away the bundles and a lot of the small fry will go under. I'm really sure that isn't such a bad thing. ABC Family is a throw-away channel that is probably inferior to some other kid networks, but is artificially kept alive by it being bundled with ESPN and other Disney stuff.

I've read into this a bit and the consensus is that a lot of channels would go dark if I have my way, including some which represent niche and minority interests. Well, that may be unfortunate, but it just says to me that the business model is out of date. This stuff should be on the Internet and while not everyone can afford good Internet, it costs less than your average cable bill.

Which brings me to another point: I am looking forward to the Internet destroying the classic cable tv business model. I really am. The stuff I want to watch that happens to be on cable can easily be sold to me via the 'net. I can get much of it right now, but the companies make it cumbersome and more expensive to do so. The obvious example is TV shows on iTunes. Sure, I can download episodes/seasons of Top Chef, a show I like on cable, but I am being sold it to purchase (at least $30 for a season-15 episodes). Stuff like that for me is disposable: I won't probably want to watch it again. So, why does iTunes rent movies and only sell TV? It has to be the content companies not wanting to have people ditching cable to get the shows they like online. They are discouraging people from having their choice and picking just the shows they want by making it expensive. It's the same kind of tactic that they're using to help BD against downloads. You can only rent HD movies, but you can buy standard def movies. If you want to own a movie in HD, you have to buy it on disc. It's all about choice: I want to choose whether I want to rent or own a movie, TV show, or whatever. That's the problem I have with the system. The obvious solution is to just avoid it altogether (or use less than legal means). Yes, TV is not a necessity and no one is forcing me or anyone else to subscribe. I know a number of you who have done exactly that: just stopped watching the channels (but still catch some content on DVD). I can also believe that some, if not the majority of people out there use cable tv enough to find it worth the money. Getting that same content over the 'net is possible, but much less convenient, by design. This will change and I hope Directv ends up in the same boat as satellite radio.

OK, so where was I...oh yeah, so January comes around and I call them back to cancel. I ask them to confirm that as of that date, all I owe is the current month's programming charges and that's it. The rep says yes, I am clear to go and closes the service for me. I then have to ship the HD receiver back to them. Yes, when you "buy" a satellite box at a store, you don't really own it. In the old days (through 2004ish) you bought the dish and boxes at a store and you just paid for the service. Now they have you buy the box and pay a lease charge. When you terminate the service, they get the box back. Hmm, sounds like cable where you lease a box forever, but at least with cable, they bring the damn thing out to you and don't charge you to "buy" it. Hmm, OK, so I agree to do that (after all, what am I going to do with a Directv box?). A couple of weeks later I get a statement from them saying I owe a $160 "early cancellation fee." WTF? So when I call them to ask about it, they say that the reps got it wrong and I still have three months left so I was hit with the charge. I talked to several people and they would not budge on this. They did not care that they made the mistake and that by the time I knew this, I'd already gotten on the roof and disconnected the dish and boxed up the receiver. Not one dime was offered in discount and I had the choice of paying the charge or turning service back on for 3 more months, which ends up being the same money anyhow. So here I am back with the $40/month Food Network. If Directv had lifted one finger to help, even just cut the fee slightly, I would have just paid it and not bothered to write this (but still think the business model is messed up). They don't give a rat's ass about it, so may their satellites fall from the sky in fiery blazes of doom! (that's showing 'em!)

OK, sorry about that (but why write a blog if you can't go off like that sometimes?), on to this week's new stuff:

Badland (2007)

Breaking Bad: Season 1

The French Connection (1971) New to BD this week. The director did some interesting color changes with the film. Worth a look for film geeks and the good DVD Savant review found here.

FTA (1972)

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder Also on BD.

Ironweed (1987) First time on DVD for this one.

Just Shoot Me: Season 3

The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008) Yes, another one.

Sex Drive (2008) Also on BD.

February 16, 2009

"You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate."

Hello gang. Before the usual list, if you're into Star Trek, go check out this link for the latest poop on the upcoming Trek reissues. Yes, they're preparing a big bag 'o Trek releases to cash in on the new film. The good part, for me at least, is that a lot of stuff is coming to BD. This includes the Original Series (both enhanced and original versions in HD) and the first six feature films. The films are going to be the theatrical versions for the time being. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek VI theatrical versions were never on DVD before. Also encouraging is the statement that a full blown restoration of Star Trek II has been done. Cool beans. Trek fans, prepare to have your wallets emptied: make it so!

Now, on to this week's stuff:

Body of Lies (2008) Also on BD.

Changeling (2008) Also on BD.

Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection

Faces (1966)

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) Also on BD.

Hobson's Choice (1954) First time on DVD for the David Lean classic.

Quarantine (2008) Also on BD.

Religulous (2008) Not on BD, but take comfort in the fact that The Passion of the Christ is being released in HD this week. Woot!

February 13, 2009

Fighting Musicians

A bit of an off-topic post today. As you may or may not know, I've been substitute bass playing with the Minnesota Jazz Orchestra for the last couple of years. As far as I can tell, they're one of the better big bands in the metro area (I've managed to sub for a number of them). It's been really fun to do this kind of music again, something I really haven't gotten to do since my days at U of WY.

The regular bassist in this band, along with several other members, is about to (or already has, not sure) ship out to Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division "Red Bull" band (National Guard, they're supposedly back in February 2010). For a story on this band's deployment, click here. Of course I was totally opposed to W's decision to invade, but I have enormous respect for what these guys are going to be doing over there. The military bands are, more than ever, serving a good purpose. Groups like this really help the people serving in, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult situation. Believe it or not, I seriously considered doing military music when I got out of high school. I don't regret for a minute choosing not to do this, but at the same time wonder how things would have turned out had I done this. Quite different, no doubt, but this kind of thing makes you think, no?

While I am glad to have the chance to play regularly with this big band, my thoughts are with these men and women overseas who are serving their country with live music. I may wish for our troops to be out of Iraq ASAP, while they're there, they deserve some good tunes. My (virtual) hat is off to this group!

February 9, 2009

"I read, I smoke, I admire."

Here we go, another round of new stuff.

Against the Dark (2008)

Blindness (2008)

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Friday the 13th: Season 2

Frozen River (2008) Also on BD.

My Name is Bruce (2006) Also on BD.

Miracle at St. Anna (2008) Also on BD.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) Also on BD.

Simon & Simon: Season 2

Simon of the Desert (1965)

W. (2008) Also on BD.

February 7, 2009

TOS Rewind #24: "Errand of Mercy"

Today's episode: Errand of Mercy (03-23-1967)

My drink this time: A Margarita: to mark the passing of Ricardo Montalban. We talked about the Khan stuff back here.

Eric, Rob, and I did a podcast for this episode. The whole installment is late this time due to the fact that the first podcast got trashed due to a Garageband crash and our general busy-ness. We'll try and get the next one out quicker!

Download the podcast

Here's my brief take on this episode (more detail in the podcast).

At the risk of repeating myself, this is a crucial episode in the series. It would be important if for no other reason that it introduces the Klingons, quite well I'd say, and sets up a lot of material for Trek material going far beyond the Original Series. The whole point about making the Federation and the Klingons "get along" paves the way for an awful lot of material in The Next Generation. Sure, the Klingons aren't all that exotic, regular guys with dark hair/skin, but the detail that's presented about their Empire really helps get us beyond the usual Trek alien-of-the-week thing.

Kor is a great villain, one of the best Klingons I can think of. He's ruthless and cunning, plus he has a sense of humor: very important in a space opera. Kor can have large groups of innocent civilians put to death at the drop of a hat, but can still be cool enough to have a drink with Kirk, his big enemy, pointing a phaser at his chest. What a guy! As Rob pointed out in the podcast, it's really interesting to watch Kirk, while disguised as a peaceful Organian, virtually blow his cover just because he can't resist being called out by Kor calling him a coward. Classic. We miss the usual McCoy dialogue (one of the few TOS episodes he doesn't appear in) and you'd think Scotty'd be running the ship in crisis after his tough performance in "A Taste of Armageddon." Oh well, he needed the week off. And of course, at the end of the episode, Kirk has to sit back and admit how foolish he was to be pissed at not being able to go to war with the Klingons. Spock has a good smirk at the typical human inconsistencies. If you watch this episode, do it an tell me the Organia sets don't look like a weekend at the MN Renaissance Festival!

And of course, we have the concept of the uber-powerful aliens putting we puny humans (and Klingons) in our place. We really have no true frame of reference with regard to the Organians. Only Spock seems to fully realize this. It's not unlike the situation in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The aliens aren't going to let us screw things up. The message: knock off the warmaking or we'll take away your ships! Hmm, beats having your entire race wiped out by Gort and Klatuu...


And now Eric's turn:

This is going to be a short review, since we covered most of the important stuff in the podcast.

One thing I didn’t mention is that the title “Errand of Mercy? is taken from “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby? by Charles Dickens: "It is an errand of mercy which brings me here. Pray, let me discharge it." A cool title for a great episode. It is, in fact, one of my favorites. The characters are superb (especially Kor) and the Democracy vs. Dictatorship analogy is well done. But the main reason I like this episode is that it evokes a powerful sense of wonder.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it is science fiction’s ability to evoke a sense of wonder that appeals to me. And as “Errand of Mercy? demonstrates, classic Star Trek, when at its best, wielded this ability magnificently. The story draws you in and makes you think that the Organians are meek, ineffectual simpletons. Kirk and Kor strut around, waging their interplanetary pissing match, secure in their superiority only to be brought up short when the Organians reveal that they are actually incredibly powerful, highly-evolved beings who have a problem with the lower life-forms disturbing the peace. So they put a stop to it. Conclusively. This is the kind of story that makes you think about humanity’s place in the universe and the possibility that their could be other intelligent life out there that is significantly more advanced than we are. Heady stuff. I guess I’m just a junkie for anything that will spark my imagination.

Next time: “The Alternative Factor?

February 3, 2009

"This is just like television, only you can see much further."

I thought I'd start out with a few viewing updates...

We finally get started watching season 4 of Battlestar. I wanted to wait until the second half of the season was up and running so there wouldn't be a massive gap between the halves. So far, so good: and weird. The story and characters, as usual, have taken on some new twists. It's one of the things I really enjoy about this series. They are always shaking things up to keep the momentum going. I am really looking forward to getting this on Blu-Ray eventually.

We watched Mamma Mia (2008) the other night. I thought it was very amusing in all its cheesy irony-free fun. The plot, such as it is, isn't really worth discussing (but who cares?). The film doesn't try to be something it isn't. It's a cheesy fun musical and that's OK. Meryl Streep is the real standout in this film. She sings well and is, as usual, fun to watch. She totally gets into the spirit of the film and embraces it head-on. The rest of the cast is good, save for poor Pierce Brosnan. The guy has the looks for the role, but can't sing. This is one of those times where some dubbing would have been a good idea, just like the old days. No producer with computers could fix his shitty tracks (with apologies to Ben Folds).

ABBA fans must have been pleased with the film. Musically, it sounds right. The arrangements have the appropriate levels of over-production, but it doesn't sound out of place. The instrumentation is a bit more modern sounding, but gets the style right. It should sound right since a number of the people playing on the film's music track played on the original ABBA albums. I couldn't help but appreciate the great Euro-pop bass playing by Rutger Gunnarsson.

We watched the standard DVD. It looked very good and I can only speculate that the BD must look very nice with all that beautiful Greek scenery. If I really wanted to see it again, I'd go for the HD version.

The Professionals (1966) I am not a huge fan of Westerns, so when I watch one, I want it to be good (and yes, Westerns can be great movies). This isn't a huge paradigm-shifting, genre-shattering epic, but it is a good example of a big budget Hollywood Western at the end of an era This was right before the Sergio Leone films hit and right before The Wild Bunch shook things up.

The cast is excellent and even Jack Palance playing a Mexican works well. The story moves along well with snappy dialogue and action set pieces to spice things up. Not a true "message" Western, but it does flip the "noble cowboys saving the common people" bit of The Magnificent Seven on its ear. A fun and interesting Western that was well worth the rent.

The BD of this movie looks great. The desert photography really snaps on the HD transfer. This is where you really see the picture advantage of good film and hi res video. The sound was decent if unremarkable (fine for 1966). Extras are pretty minimal, but I didn't have to wait all day for Java BS to load either. No complaints here.

OK, on with this week's stuff:

Being There: Deluxe Edition A re-do on DVD and a title that's getting its first BD release. There are a few new bonuses, but nothing that really compels me to re-buy. The film will never look incredible as it is and the old DVD is probably good enough. A great movie, no doubt.

Brainstorm (1983) In interesting film that I used to like many years ago with some reservations. The ideas and effects are really good, but the ending is quite frustrating. It was Natalie Wood's last film and is being reissued this week as part of a bunch of her films on DVD. It would be interesting to see this one in HD (no BD at the moment) if it was done right. This film has an interesting technical background. Here's a quote from the Wikipedia entry on the film:

The "Brainstorm" virtual reality sequences were photographed in Super Panavision 70 at 60 fps with a wide aspect ratio of 2.2:1,but the rest of the film, was shot in 5 perf 70 MM at 24 fps and cropped for standard 35 mm Scope print down with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. In the original 70 mm theatrical release, the brain-scan playback scenes appeared dramatically wider and much sharper than the regular scenes because they were shot at 60 fps, giving them a sense of heightened reality and excitement. Brainstorm was to be Trumbull's introduction of the full Showscan 60 fps 5 perf 70 MM process, but both MGM and Paramount backed out of a commitment to release the experimental picture in the new format after the death of the principal star Natalie Wood fearing the expensive process launch would not be profitable. Unfortunately, the video and DVD versions have Showscan 70 mm sequences letterboxed in their respective aspect ratios, spoiling the intended effect. The laserdisc release, however, presents the movie as it should be seen: the brain-scan playbacks take the full width of the screen (with black bars on the top and bottom since the presentation is letterboxed) and other scenes are narrower, having black bars on the sides as well. In the theatre the curtain would have been opened to show the entire 2.2:1 sized image so brain-scan playbacks would fill the entire screen making quite an impression while other scenes would be narrower. The sound also changed dramatically between brain-scan playback and other scenes with playback scenes having enhanced surround effects and other scenes being predominantly centre-channel only.


Needless to say, BD would be a good way to do this, but since the film is not exactly a blockbuster or a classic, who knows. I have yet to read any reviews of the new DVD, but the old one was bad enough (old analog transfer) that it almost has to be an improvement.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) Also on BD.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIV

Natalie Wood Collection I believe some of these films are new to DVD. DVD Savant has a review of the set here.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008) Also on BD and as-seen on college campuses everywhere!

Night Court: Season 2

Our Man in Havana (1959)

The Partridge Family: Season 4

The Secret Life of Bees (2008) Also on BD.

Space Buddies (2009) Also on BD.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) Also on BD.