Monthly Archives: February 2011

Pop Culture of a Bygone Era

As a rule, I can’t stand the 70s. It’s developed into a physical revulsion: there’s a gutteral, instinctive dirtiness I feel from 70s pop culture and paraphernalia, developed, doubtlessly, when shopping at countless garage sales with my mother in my youth, and seeing the aged board games and toys on display. These toys, typically vintage 1975-80, bore not the slightest bit of interest from me, but did feature a layer of grime that felt like handling fireworks, or perhaps a toy that had been well-loved by both a toddler and a dog. Movies and pictures of the era also do nothing to help the dirty feeling: grainy, brownish and cheap Kodachrome (earlier eras are in vivid and beautiful Technicolor®), and everyone has a cigarette in their hand. Also, the fashions of the era are grotesqueries: the women appear to reek of perfume, while for men the fashion statement of the era tended to be, “I’ve let myself go;” their pictures conjure a vivid memory of BO. And all that is to say nothing of the era’s horrendous pop music.

So I can’t remember what made me stick “Love Story” in my Netflix queue. Maybe I’d read an article about it, what a giant blow-the-doors-off-their-hinges success it was, how every teenage girl in America, nee, the World saw it multiple times and cooed over the romantic lead Ryan O’Neil, and yet it went on to be nominated for 7 Oscars. It was, in other words, the 1970 equivalent of Titanic.

Well, finally having watched it, I can say that it slightly exceeded my expectations, but not much more than that. It’s a simplistic melodrama, coldly calculated at milking a teenager’s penchant for us-against-the-world romance. The leads, O’Neil and Ali McGraw, are good looking and talk in a terribly stilted, stagey way, like the cast of Dawson’s Creek. It’s also quite badly dated cinematically, featuring a relentless and soppy piano theme song that seems to insert itself whenever there’s a quiet moment, and plodding, methodical edits that you can practically feel go through the Steenbeck viewer with a click. It felt somehow wrong seeing the film on DVD; the feeling is akin to watching an old educational film on 16mm.

The plot is pretty much a cliché, though I have no way of knowing how cliché it was in 1970: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl against the wishes of his cold and demanding dad, boy marries girl, girl dies. (That’s not a spoiler, everybody in America knew how this movie ended when it came out, as the book sold 6 Million copies or so.) If that synopsis doesn’t inspire an eye-roll in today’s cynical viewers, I don’t know what will. Despite this, the film does successfully build believable characters and an emotional connection, but it’s a pretty tenuous one. It’s cute, it’s flimsy, it’s not worth making an effort to either see or avoid.

If there’s anything to snark about, it’s the fact that it inspired an insipid sequel (EIGHT YEARS LATER), featuring the widower O’Neil falling in love again. Audiences and critics hated it, despite it featuring Candice Bergen, who I always thought was hotness even in her waning years.

Also worth mentioning is how, despite the film itself being moderately progressive in its day, how sexist the world was in 1970. Audiences apparently thought nothing of a doctor telling a woman’s husband that she’s dying, and keeping it from THE PATIENT HERSELF. The girl’s father is also shocked that they’re having a wedding in which the woman gets to speak. At one point, after having been “saved” from having to work herself, O’Neil asks where McGraw is. “In the kitchen, where I belong,” she jokes back. I don’t know many women who’d be so cheery about being in that position today.

Love Story is a trifle, and really only worth seeing as a yardstick of American pop culture. It looks today how films like The Blind Side will look in 40 years: old and silly.


Cocktail Shakin’!

The last few years and its boom of HD-capable internet streaming has brought a ton of really really cheaply made “Web TV programs” from startup online “networks” like Revision3, Howcast, and countless other startups and podcasters. Most of it is unwatchably dull pop culture and nerd news and commentary, involving someone who really shouldn’t be a TV host trying to be a TV host on a set that is clearly somebody’s office or living room. It’s all very amateur, and most of it is not worth watching.

Of course, since all of this content is available through Boxee apps, nights of boredom often find me sifting through them, trying to find something special. And indeed, I did find something special.

Produced by startup On Networks from 2007 to 2008, Cocktails on the Fly is a series of short clips on how to make cocktails, hosted by “flighty hostess” Alberta Straub. Ms. Straub is a prominent San Francisco-area bartender with a goofy attitude and a closet full of vintage air travel stuff. Shooting in what is clearly somebody’s apartment kitchen, Straub takes on one drink (or common home-made ingredient) in each clip.

Ms. Straub is a riot. No television professional would ever try to put her on TV. She has the performance of a spastic high school girl giving a report on a book for which she’s already written fanfiction, often going off onto bizarre tangents or nervously putting on weird voices — or even singing. (In one clip, she goes on about her taste in TV men and fantasizes about dating Gilligan.) She also clearly suffers from estropia (cross-eyes). Between the set, Ms. Straub’s non-traditional oddball camera style, and the low-fi feel of the show, it all feels like you’re watching someone’s audition reel more than an actual show. (Most episodes are clearly shot in one take — she regularly spills a little or puts something in front of the drink she’s making so we can’t see.)

But so many amateur productions are boring. This most certainly is not. Ms. Straub is captivating (though not always in the way that’s intended), and her lessons on cocktail preparation are pretty educational. Her cocktails might be quite famous, but they often look terrible on camera — most of them are muddy piles of whole herbs and spices, and look like they barely have any actual liquid in them. The unappetizing look of the cocktails just adds to the surreal nature of it all. It’s like you’re trapped watching TV in some David Cronenberg film.

This is cheap educational web TV at its most nutty. It’s worth checking out. Since On Networks stopped producing the show Ms. Straub has posted the series at She currently tends bar at The Parlor in San Francisco (I will definitely go at some point!), and she says she has something else cooking, web-TV wise. I can’t wait — she can count me amongst her fans!

Home Theater PCs

I love my home theater PC. After a rocky start, the software has finally matured to the point where it’s an easy to throw one together out of a stock Windows box. If you can get a tiny one with a built-in Blu-ray player and a remote control (like, say, this one here), all you need to add is a USB TV tuner and a few pieces of mostly-free software.

Here is what I recommend for anyone wanting to use their PC with their TV.

  • Latest video card drivers and latest version of Flash. They make a huge difference.
  • Windows 7 x64 Home Premium. Comes with the amazing Windows Media Center, which is so good it’s shocking that it’s free. Netflix is now baked-in.
  • Arcsoft TotalMedia Theatre. Unfortunately it’s $100, but it’s by far the best blu-ray software out there, and it integrates nicely with Media Center.
  • Hulu Desktop. Free, authorized software with which you can watch pretty much everything on Hulu with a remote control. Doesn’t always play smoothly, but the latest Flash upgrades fixed that for me. Integrates with Windows Media Center with the freeware Hulu Desktop Integration.
  • Shark007 Codec Packs for WIndows 7 (with x64 components). It’s a pain in the butt to keep this updated, but it’s the best way of maintaining compatibility with every wacky video format under the sun.
  • Media Control x64. This extension for Media Center allows you to switch audio and subtitle tracks when playing back files. Doesn’t always work properly, but still nice to have.
  • Amazon Unbox Video Player. Automatically downloads your new Amazon VOD purchases and puts them in a place accessible by Media Center. Unfortunately, there’s no good remote control interface for their new Amazon Prime subscription streaming service.
  • iTunes. I’m sure you’ll need it at some point. There is a program that will integrate it with Media Center, but it looks like it hasn’t been updated for Windows 7 and it costs money, so I haven’t tried it.
  • Boxee software. For a bunch of other websites that don’t have remote control interfaces, and a few stray video formats that Shark007 doesn’t support, most of them will work with Boxee. You can launch it from Media Center with Boxee Media Center Integration.
  • Mobile Mouse client. Most of the time you won’t need to use a mouse or keyboard from your couch. I do it rarely enough that it’s not worth fussing with the limited range of a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse unit. Instead, with this installed and an iPhone app, you can VERY comfortably just use your iPhone/iPod Touch over WiFi.
  • DVDFab Passkey Lite. A free solution to break region codes for both DVD and Blu-ray. (It also breaks copy protection, but you won’t take advantage of that, will you? 😉
  • This should be all most people need. There are a few other add-ons I haven’t yet tried out (most notably MCE Buddy, which converts your recorded TV into useful formats and removes commercials), and quite a few I tried and couldn’t get to work. But after 3 years I think I finally have a pretty solid setup. Hope someone found this useful.

    Microsoft has apparently stopped development on Media Center for Windows 7 because few people use it. That’s a real shame. Even after all this time and all the set-top boxes that have been developed, my Home Theater PC is still the only machine that can play literally everything. I spent a lot of money on it, and I don’t regret it for a second.

    “Parade” of the Walking Wounded

    One of the biggest tragedies of Japan’s declining status in the world is the end of its art film boom. Growing out of the Pink-Eiga (softcore art-porn) industry in the 80s, Japan’s art film output reached amazing heights in the 90s and early 2000s, bringing us spectacular new talents such as Shunji Iwai (PicNic, All About Lily Chou Chou), Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Maboroshi) and Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer).

    But in recent years Japan’s art-film output has slowed substantially. For every bizarro film like Love Exposure, we get 20 maudlin pieces of TV-quality garbage, or a handful of slow, badly made Hollywood-style blockbusters. Japan, as Roger Ebert has said, is one of the 3 countries with a strong artistic filmmaking tradition, and seeing its output slow to a trickle has been nothing short of heartbreaking.

    And so it’s with a sense of celebration that I discover a new, fairly off-the-beaten-path film with artistic proclivities, even if it’s from a director I already know. In this case, Isao Yukisada’s “Parade” pretty much delighted me from the get-go.

    Taking place largely in a crowded 2-bedroom apartment, its young inhabitants consist of a slacker college student Ryosuke, heavy-drinking illustrator Mirai, an aspiring actress (who’s dating a celebrity) Kotomi, and film distribution salaryman Naoki. They hang out together occasionally, and live as young roommates often do; their lives criss-crossing and co-mingling, without probing too deeply.

    Things get stirred up a bit with the arrival of the drifting teenaged prostitute Satoru, who seems to be homeless. Ryosuke and Kotomi are convinced there’s a brothel being run out of a neighboring apartment and conspire like kids to infiltrate the place. (Both of them also have some personal drama going on with the people they’re respectively dating.) Mirai is pretty screwed up and goes on regular drinking binges. Naoki is a fitness nut who needs his wisdom teeth pulled.

    On the surface there’s not much going on here, and most of the film settles into a comfortable, amusing slice of their lives. However, the film takes some very strange turns in the second half, exploring each character’s background, their damage, their loneliness, and how while they might never admit it, they need each other. The college-like atmosphere of the apartment might seem like something they’d be outgrowing at their age (Naoki, in particular, is 28) and most of them are considering moving on, but something is keeping them there, and keeping them together.

    Most intriguing is the character of Naoki (Tatsuya Fujiwara, in his best role since the original Battle Royale), who often feels the discomfort of being the group’s big brother. He’s also carrying one hell of a secret around with him, and it’s this secret that leads to some of the film’s biggest, most emotional statements. The resulting choices that the characters make, and what it says about where they place their values, is something I’m still rolling around in my head.

    Yukisada’s filmography is pretty long, including plenty of TV dramas and films alike — good, and bad. I loved his 2001 film “Go”, but two years later he was making drippy schmaltz like “Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World.” Despite (or even because) of such a young and hot cast, Parade is something of a shock, a true personal artistic statement of the sort Japan barely makes anymore. It’s subtle, it’s real, and it’s kind of amazing. If you have a chance to see it, take it.

    The Slow Process of Legalization

    In my younger days, I used to be a pirate. A hardcore pirate, in fact. My Bittorrent client would run for weeks at a time, gobbling up software, video games, movies and music. I was constantly burning copies for my friends, chipping their XBoxes, installing their software. I was “that guy” that people talked to whenever they wanted to see something, or had some media-related desire they couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay for.

    It felt pretty good to be that guy. It was a point of pride for so many people to depend on me. And I never felt particularly bad about it, either — after all, I couldn’t afford most of the stuff I was pirating, and would likely never pay for it even if I could. Media, to me, was disposable. The movies I really loved, I still bought, but truthfully, I purchased precious little other media.

    It’s hard to say when things changed for me. Maybe it was a combination of seeing my friends lose their jobs en masse when the anime industry imploded, and remembering my roots as a collector. Slowly, over a period of years, I began to get more and more into collecting, and more and more interested in replacing my illegally gotten media riches with legal copies. Around the same time, DVDs started plummeting in price, making the purchase of these things a feasible option.

    Cut to today, several years later, and I am now almost entirely “square”, as far as I can tell. I’ve bought so many DVDs and Blu-rays I can’t even afford the space to keep their cases around anymore. I didn’t exactly go through my MP3s and try to tell which I had acquired legally and which I hadn’t (there’s really no way to do that), but I buy pretty much every new song I acquire, if it’s available from iTunes or Amazon. I still have a pile of movies I ripped off of Netflix rentals years ago, but I consider those time-shifted rentals, and I’ll only watch them once before deciding if I want to buy them and then they get trashed. I also maintain a (gigantic) stash of anime that will probably never be available legally (but if they do come out, the “buy it or trash it” rule applies). I don’t play many video games, but I legally buy downloads from XBox Live these days.

    That just leaves software. The real marvel, in my opinion, is how much software has been taken over by free/open source software. There was once a time where 75-90% of the stuff I used everyday was commercial stuff that I had to either buy or pirate. Now, it’s probably less than 10%, and if my standards were lower, it’d be even less.

    It seems like nearly every piece of must-have software of yesteryear can now be replaced by something free or very very cheap. I’ve replaced Photoshop with the speedy and lightweight Pixelmator ($30!), legally bought Office for Mac (though I have on the laptop), and just paid to update to the 2011 version of iPhoto. CeltX for screenwriting, Audacity for light audio editing, iTunes for music.

    But honestly, I barely had to spend much money at all. Must-have software like web browsers? FTP and IM clients? Video players and codecs? 100% free. Very nerdy things, like video compression, are now more or less owned by open-source solutions, which are often better than their commercial counterparts — some of which often cost in the thousands of dollars.

    In fact, the only place where Open Source really falls down is in pro-level creative development. Video editing and compositing (Final Cut Pro/AVID/Adobe Premiere, Motion and After Effects), desktop publishing (Adobe InDesign), audio and music editing (ProTools/Logic/Live) and 3D rendering (Maya, etc.). For the foreseeable future, all of these things will continue to require giant, expensive software packages that cost more than most PCs.

    I suppose that’s fair. Shelling out $3,000 for Blu-ray authoring software last year almost killed me, but using it professionally, it’s made me enough money to be well worth the investment. And that’s precisely what professional software should be, an investment.

    But for the rest of us, who don’t do magazine layouts or video editing, who mostly just use PCs to browse the web, for e-mail, and an occasional paper or letter, there is simply no need to pirate anything. The free software is more than good enough. DVDs and BDs are cheap as hell. Music is still around 99¢ a track, and there are lots of ways to watch a stockpile of stuff without copying it. And now, free of all the hacks and cracks and ways around, I feel a huge sense of relief.

    Piracy usually seems like the easy, lasy option, but the truth is that it’s never been easier to not be a pirate. And I gotta admit, it feels pretty good to live cleanly — a sense of satisfaction akin to quitting smoking or losing weight. But to those who aren’t ready to go 100% legit like I did, it’s hard to judge them too harshly. I was there once, I get it. But I think that, in the back of every pirate’s head, they know what they should do. But like smoking and power-eating, it can be a really really hard habit to break.

    The Trouble With Blu-ray

    As a consumer, I love Blu-ray. It’s pretty much the best thing a media packrat like me could ever have. The video quality is so good, any further improvement requires a wall-sized screen to even be visible. The audio formats, DTS-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, are literally capable of quality beyond the limits of human hearing. I will never need to upgrade most of the movies I buy on Blu-ray ever again, as the technology has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

    However, as a professional, I freaking hate Blu-ray. It’s the worst-implemented, most poorly thought-out, unnecessarily confusing professional video specification ever invented, clearly the product of being rushed out the door in order to compete with HD-DVD. The format was designed to be as future-proof as possible, featuring layers of interactivity and flexibility, almost none of which even work.

    Here are just a few things that bother me:

  • Java-based menus – When the formats were just being unveiled, Java sounded pretty damn good. Unlike DVD menus (and HD-DVD menus, which weren’t much different), Java offered the promise of full interactivity and even gaming. Java (not to be confused with the web language Javascript) is a C-based programming language that was once really exciting because it’s never compiled into machine language. It stays human-readable, and is interpreted into computer commands as it’s being run. This has the benefit of being platform-agnostic; you can switch processors, architectures, or even generations of technology and still expect pretty much the same result. And because it was a full programming language (rather than a limited menu mark-up language), you could make it do almost anything. At least, in theory.

    The first problem with Java is that it’s SLOW AS BALLS. The second problem is that it’s an actual programming language, and if you really want to take advantage of it you need to hire an actual programmer. This is well outside the wheelhouse of most home video companies, and in terms of what most discs need to do, ridiculous overkill. Most discs require a fairly standard, similarly structured menu and little else. Well, in order to make these, an authoring program has to give you a design interface to map out the disc and its interface, and then attempt to approximate what you did in Java. The whole process is horrifyingly buggy, and the result is, frankly, not great. Meanwhile, on the high-end studio side of things, only a few discs have managed to scrape together barely-usable and dog-slow games and interactive features. Java sure seemed like a great idea at the time, but in retrospect it was a gigantic mistake.

  • It Can’t Render Text – This one is a pisser, because it’s actually part of the Blu-ray spec, and one of the most basic things a “real programming language” like Java can do. Technically, a menu can render text on-the-fly, or text can be overlaid onto video. This would’ve enabled live on-screen chats, additional subtitle tracks and annotation, and potentially much more. Unfortunately, no fonts are included in the player specification, so in order to get the disc to draw text, you’d need to license and bundle a font on the disc itself — subjecting the publisher to an additional licensing fee. Beyond that, the players themselves are simply bad at it! Text looks sloppy, jaggy, poorly spaced and kerned. It’s simply not acceptable looking, and changes from player to player. For subtitles and other text-heavy features, Blu-ray authors are forced to render everything as graphics. Just like with DVD.
  • It Can’t Stream Video – Perhaps the most galling part about this is that they actually updated the spec and pushed this as a new player feature called BDLive. And perhaps the funniest thing about this is that some of the major Hollywood studios are still trying to pretend it works. Rather than use any of the now-ubiquitous technology now being used by YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and everyone else to flawlessly beam HD video around the net, the Blu-ray guys had to reinvent the wheel by jamming together their oddly incompatible video format specs with an outdated internet transmission format, and then not giving the players enough RAM to smooth out the playback of streamed HD video. The result is so choppy and terrible looking that it’s unplayable. Don’t believe me? Unlock one of the “free streaming movies” that came with the Scott Pilgrim BD and see if the glitch every 5 seconds doesn’t make you want to put an axe through the TV. But hey, at least you had to spend 15 minutes downloading an update before you could play the disc, right?
  • It Can’t Make Managed Copies – One of the early promises of BD was that you could easily pop it into a “Managed Copy”-ready set-top box or piece of software, and after a few minutes of grinding, it would spit out your movie in any number of different compatible formats, for portable devices or even as a standard DVD. The problem was, not only was this feature never finished, it was never even developed. Nobody could decide on a method to maintain copy protection for the transcoded content, Apple (maker of the world’s most popular media players) refused to play along with the insanity that is Blu-ray, and so the project languished. That didn’t stop the Blu-ray committee from making authors buy a uniquely generated ID code for every BD they made (which had to be bought from a single company in the USA), and add them to the disc itself, as well as a URL to your “managed copy server” that you were responsible for building and maintaining. There was even a point last year where they simply refused to replicate the discs if you didn’t go to all that trouble.

    Never mind that there isn’t, and never has been, any such thing as a “managed copy server” — they were never invented. Nor was any player that would talk to one, or read the ID code. But if you were a BD publisher, no matter how small, you had to play ball and buy the stupid ID code, in the belief that SOMEDAY managed copy might exist. The committee finally dropped the whole asinine idea when the one company that issued the numbers in North America filed for bankruptcy and closed their doors. Last I heard, the whole “managed copy” thing is now dead, and everyone’s just including a regular DVD with their Blu-rays, which is a lot easier for everyone.

  • And those are just the published features that don’t work. How about all the little quirks and bugs we have to work around? Or the fact that, even 3 years into the format’s maturity we still don’t have a BD authoring program with a decent interface? Or its half-assed support of standard-def extra features? I love the performance and storage of Blu-ray, but my god, this format is just BROKEN.

    Failures: Journey to the Western Xia Empire

    Watching obscure movies means there’s nobody to tell you you’re wasting your time. Finding the gold pieces often means wading through miles of crap. Case in point, last night I watched a mainland Chinese movie from the 90s called Journey to the Western Xia Empire.

    Now, I love the idea of mainland Chinese films from this time period. Until about 10-15 years ago, China was kept largely isolated from the glitzy, Westernized star system that so permeated Taiwan, Hong Kong, and really most of the rest of Asia. While being subject to the strict government censorship of communist China, several local film studios in Beijing, Xian, and a few other cities have maintained decades of creative output. Low in budget but rich in ambition, these mainland films sustained the population’s need for arts and entertainment during China’s decades-long isolation. There’s a lot of junk here (a good 50% seems to be WWII propagandistic stories of bravery in the face of the evil Japanese), but some true unloved treasures as well. I’ve discovered a small pile of of my favorite films by spelunking this cave.

    A 103-minute warriors-on-horses movie set in the 1030s A.D., Journey to the Western Xia Empire might have been one of those. A more recent (1997) film, it contains some truly breathtaking photography of beautiful, desolate wilderness… and a whole lot of freaking awful brutality.

    Following a tribe of raiders in the Northwest of China, we watch as they attack and brutalize a village, (literally) throw around the women, and collect a “blood tax” of ten male babies. They get drunk, they round up the kids like cattle, they head back across the desert. One kid gets lost, so they take a pregnant woman instead. Once she gives birth they take the baby and dump the woman, who lumbers after them pathetically.

    Aside from this being fucking brutal to watch and not having a single redeeming story element that I could find, I couldn’t tell one character from the next. The warriors act like stupid frat boys (“See if she’s carrying a girl or a boy.” “She’s not a horse, how can I tell?” “Just treat her like one!”), the villagers act more or less like cattle. The camera is so distracted by scenery that we never get a close-up or even a dramatic cut. I could barely even tell what was happening when the birth was taking place. It’s never explained just why the Xia warriors needed to steal children, and there’s clearly no moral dilemma taking place, or any other thought for that matter. This film utterly lost me on every level. Truly awful subtitles didn’t help matters either.

    The film had English titles, which is rare for mainland Chinese film of the era, and implies that they were aiming to enter this into festivals, and it apparently did win a few international awards. Along with about 40 other films it was purchased into a collection by an American collector of Chinese film, who sloppily subtitled and transferred the lot of them to video and has since put on a few film festivals and tried to sell them to distribution. Unfortunately the materials he made are so rough that most companies couldn’t consider them; a few of the decent ones ended up at Facets Multimedia (a low-cost art house distributor who generally takes what they can get) who put them out on DVD. Journey to the Western Xia Empire might have ended up getting a release, but God Almighty, it is not a good movie.