Friday, December 28, 2007

On why modern music sucks

It's all down to "The Loudness War".

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On screwing the consumer

For my nephew's Christmas present, we bought them the last of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies on DVD. Christmas Day phone calls are made and my wife asks if they liked the movie. "It won't play in any of their DVD players. It just says "bad disk".

Now I find this very weird. Of the 200 or so DVD's I own I have NEVER had a disk fail to play. I've had some that won't play in a particular device. (For example the new "Twin Peaks" boxed set, the menus won't work on disks 4 and 6 on my computer, but work fine on set top DVD player) but of my three DVD devices here, I can always play something in at least one of them. 99% of the time there's no problem at all in any of them.

My mother-in-law was staying with my nephews and came down to see us on Boxing Day and brought said disk with her. I pondered what the problem could be as I saw no dye issues or anything else on the disk, and then it occurred to me. Bloody copy protection. (Or "Fair Use Prevention" as it should be more accurately known as.) You see in their continuing paranoid quest to deny you your fair use rights on every piece of media you own so you have to buy it over and over again, some companies are adding new forms of copy protection to their DVD releases that are, in essence, breaking the standard of the DVD format. This particular cancerous protection comes from Sony and is known as ARCCOS.

ARCCOS disks are known to not play in a variety of DVD players, including one from Sony themselves. I won't go into the technical details as the Wikipedia link above tells you all you need to know really. Disney is one of the companies that uses this on some titles, including the aforementioned "Pirates" movie. I did some digging, and found out that the disk won't play AT ALL in certain newer region 1 devices. I took said disk, put it in my new-ish but cheap off-brand DVD player, and the disk played just fine. Same on my computer.

So once again, copy protection has screwed over a legitimate consumer. I decided to see if this act of deception on the part of the media companies had any impact on the availability of pirated versions. A quick trip to a well known Swedish torrent site revealed multiple copies of the movie for download. Not just AVI rip's, but images of the entire DVD. So clearly the protection is doing nothing, other than preventing legitimate end users from using the disk they legally own.

My mother-in-law is returning the disk later today. Now of course we all know the scam that WalMart and their ilk like to pull. They do it with software. You buy software with copy protection, whether it be Securom, Safedisc or, god forbid, Starforce, and you may very well be one of the people who find you've bought a coaster and you can't play the game. So you go to return it to the store only to be told you can't have your money back. Why? Because YOU MAY HAVE COPIED THE GAME!

This is another rant along the same lines which I will save for another day. (Since I can REALLY go off on this subject. In fact it's a large part of why I almost never buy games off the shelf anymore.) Suffice it to say I am very curious to know how much stress and aggravation will be required to return said disk that won't play (I have written down all the details on ARCCOS for her to tell them) and exchange it for another movie. Will update if there is anything to report in this regard.

List of known ARCCOS protected DVD titles.

UPDATE: As expected WalMart refused to take the open package back. To prove a point about how utterly worthless this copy protection is and how it does nothing but screw over the consumer and doesn't protect any of their precious content. I took said disk upon my mother-in-law's return home, and within half an hour had ripped a copy and had it playing on my DVD player, and gave her the copy to give to my nephews whose Christmas was extremely disappointing thanks to this asinine business decision to rape the consumer of their rights. Now my nephews can see the movie I bought as their present. No fucking thanks to you Disney assholes.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

On the best movie of the year

I am a movie geek. Where most people watch movies and take them at face value, I like to analyze them. I find shot choices fascinating. Lighting. Sound editing. I love commentary tracks on DVD. I love extras. Behind the scenes. In short, I love movies. I love learning everything I can about the craft of making movies.

2007 wasn't a bad year. Going in there were multiple movies I was looking forward too. All either met or exceeded my expectations. First of all, there was "300". Now I could be pedantic and say the title should have been "302", since it's pointed out that it's Leonidas, his lieutenant, and 300 of his best men. That equals 302 in my books... Let's not get derailed though, "300" was a great movie, but not without its issues.

My biggest issue with the movie was the "Meanwhile, back in Sparta" segments which I later found out don't exist in the comic book. In fact they bog down the movie so much I've taken my DVD and made a re-edit of the film to remove all these scenes. (Which sadly means removing the awesome Dominic West.)I always feel slightly bad about this, as it feels akin to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The Sparta scenes, however, really killed the movie stone dead, and refocusing the film onto the 300 Spartan's fighting nine foot tall God Kings and their armies made for a much tighter, exciting movie. And what a movie! The visuals in the film are stunning. A lot of criticism of film today is aimed at the speed of the edits. I read something earlier this year that said in the average action movie, there is an edit every 3.8 seconds. I can believe it, as most action movies are edited this way. It makes it all frenetic, but carries with it a degree of smoke and mirrors. Without the edits, the pace isn't as frantic. Quick cuts in the editing room equal cranked up tension from potentially pedestrian footage.

"300" on the other hand had scenes that marveled in the single, long shot. There is one particular sequence of Leonidas fighting his way through the Persian army... Incredibly violent, but it's all shot so wonderfully, in slow motion, that it's almost balletic. There is beauty in the violence. I would put the scenes on a level with the work of John Woo in "Hard Boiled" and similar. It transcends violence and becomes art.

"300" was a truly epic cinematic achievement.

Next up on the list of movies that I personally loved and was really looking forward to was "Grindhouse". Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's double feature of sleaze and violence. A truly unique concept, releasing two movies in one feature, complete with faux trailers in between. Sadly the Weinstein's totally screwed it.

You've got this super violent throwback of a movie, bringing to mind the heady days of the grindhouse and cheap double features, so what do you do? Why you release this grand theatrical experiment at Easter, when family movies traditionally open, then act surprised when it tanks. MORONS! Not only did the movie fail spectacularly in the theatre, the Weinstein's, in their attempt to claw back some money, split the two component movies, Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" and Tarantino's "Death Proof", and released the DVD's seperately! As of right now, the only way you can see "Grindhouse" in the form it was supposed to be seen is by downloading from a torrent site. There are rumours of a proper DVD release next year, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

The movie was terrific. The trailers made the experience all the more enjoyable, especially Edgar Wright's "Don't". Then there's the actual movies themselves.

I could honestly write multiple entries on both films. Audiences seemed split, preferring one movie over the other. I'm a very rare minority in that I liked both movies equally. I'm a zombie movie nut, so "Planet Terror" hit the spot. I'm also a Tarantino fan, so "Death Proof" hit the spot too. I'd be very hard pressed to pick which I liked better.

Edgar Wright's fake trailer is interesting, as a lot of the people involved were also in my movie of the year.

I knew Simon Pegg from stuff I'd seen in the past, and his spectacularly awful American accent in "Band of Brothers". However I had never heard of Edgar Wright. Then in 2004, I kept hearing things about this movie called "Shaun of the Dead". On a whim, I checked it out. "Shaun" led to "Spaced", and me becoming completely and utterly hooked on the works of Messrs Pegg and Wright. Simon wrote "Spaced" with Jessica Stephenson. Edgar directed it. "Shaun" was written and acted in by Simon, and directed by Edgar. It was a great homage to zombie flicks, especially those of Romero. They showed, with this opening theatrical endeavour, that they know how to balance comedy with drama.

The instant I heard about their latest project, "Hot Fuzz", I was interested. I grew up around law enforcement and nearly joined the police, so have a soft spot for them. I was intrigued by the concept. Taking the traditional buddy cop movie genre, and transplanting it onto the English police.

"Fuzz" didn't just beat my expectations, it took them down the alley, gave them a good duffing up, then stole their wallet and left them in a pool of their own blood. The problem with most cop buddy movies are the plots. Asinine and stupid. I mean for all it's action, "Point Break" is as dumb as a box of hair. "Bad Boys" as well. Edgar and Simon took the concept of those films and elevated the genre further than anyone ever has before. The central plot of "Hot Fuzz" is genius, and I found it genuinely interesting, far from just being bolted on. Worthy of the best British detective dramas on PBS. It was a clever, well thought out story, and only has one tiny plothole (which I won't go into as I really don't want to spoil the movie) and even then I could just be being picky for the hell of it.

Simon Pegg is a tremendous comic actor, so to see him play the relatively straight role of police officer Nicholas Angel was an interesting change. Throw in his usual partner in crime Nick Frost as the kind hearted but relatively dense Danny Butterman, and like "Shaun", it's comedy gold. Or comedy fried gold if you will.

I won't reveal anything about the plot of "Hot Fuzz" as it's best to discover it yourself. I pathologically avoid spoilers, cover blurbs, and most trailers these days simply due to too much being given away. "Hot Fuzz" is easily the best British movie in years. A stellar cast, a fantastic script with an extremely well crafted mystery, and a veritable "Who's Who" of British acting talent. Easily the best movie of the year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

On the horror of Christmas

Now I realise that it's once a year, but why, dear god WHY do people act like it's the apocalypse? I like to act with surgical precision over this festive period. Strict military planning. Plan the arrival, the path that'll minimize casualties and time lost, and if we lose a man, we'll raise a glass to his memory that night.

Sadly this plan has become harder to carry out in recent time as people get progressively more insane around this time of year. With five days to go yesterday, I decided that rather than leave stuff until the last minute, it was time to get done. I hit two grocery stores and a liquor store.

The first grocery store was insane. Everyone was crowded into the tiny produce section. Apparently their entire lives were staked on the need to buy a turnip! Sadly I needed a turnip. I managed to snatch one and run before the slavering hordes realised I had stolen one of their prizes. The onions proved less troublesome and I managed to snag me a nice one before bolting for the baking section.

Everyone is so damn miserable when you're out shopping for Christmas. I try and stay chipper. Since having kids I've rediscovered my love of Christmas. Not only that, I approach it with the mentality that we're all in this together, and why be so down about it all? It takes more muscle to smile than it does to blah blah bloody blah.

I'm bored with this entry now. Reliving the horror is no fun... "You weren't there man..." Suffice to say my final shopping experience yesterday sums up everything. For the first time in eight years, I decided to buy some beer. Moosehead to be precise. I know nothing about beer, and my wife hates beer, but remembers having some 15 years ago and it being quite nice. So I pick up a six pack of bottles. I notice a sign that says "Get a free glass when you purchase a six pack of Moosehead." So I figured "SCORE! First time buying beer in eight years and I get a free glass. Sweet!" So I take it to the counter. "It says I get a free glass with this." Judging from the reaction I think it must have sounded like I said "It says I get one of your lungs when I buy this pack." I was given a look by the girl behind the counter like she may turn feral at any moment. She sighed loudly, and reached beneath the counter and with seemingly all the effort in the world, retrieved my free glass. Then proceeded to ring up my purchases while asking the customers behind me for their ID. Asked if I wanted stuff bagged, to which I said yes. This was met with another sigh as stuff was double bagged... Then my receipt was thrown at me and before I'd even managed to put away my bank card she was half way through serving the next customer.

Still, at least I got a free glass...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On strange videos

This video amused me way more than it should have. Especially the Mayor Quimby quote at the end.

On The Mitchell Report

So The Mitchell Report has created a lot of debate in some groups I hang out in. This is the report that lists a good number of Major League Baseball players as having been involved with steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

Now I am old school when it comes to sports. I like to know that I'm watching is a fair competition. Some people seem to think it's not fair to hold athletes to a higher standard than, say, a McDonalds worker. I, however, disagree.

These are PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES. They are not called PROFESSIONAL DRUG USERS. Taking the stage as a professional athlete carries with it certain obligations and responsibilities to those who pay to see you. The guy who walks up to bat and then hits it out of the park. Those who have paid his wages should rightfully expect it to be a display of his athletic prowess. Not the prowess of a guy in a lab.

I don't give a damn about the excuses like "I didn't know what it was". That's crap. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own actions. I guarantee if you've been to the doctor recently and had a shot, you know what it was for, and what it was.

I don't expect the guy at the gas station to be drug free. Hell, to be quite honest, having been a pump jockey myself in the past, I'd be amazed if they WERE drug free, given the cavalcade of drugs I was offered.

But when I sit down to see one team play another, I expect the team that performs the best to have come upon that ability honestly. The results and records are all meaningless if the winner or holder is hiding a syringe behind his back.

Whether steroids were illegal or not at the time is beside the point IMO. It's common sense that receiving a medicinal advantage to perform better in a paid sporting endeavour is both wrong and unethical.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On the writers strike

This is going to call back to my prior "Larry Sanders" post below to a certain degree.

I'm a writer. Freelance. Over the years I've run a very popular sports related website. I've written for various publications on the subject of computers. I've also written about games for a site I won't name here as the site was taken over by suits who ousted me for the exact reasons they hired me in the first place (my attitude toward the game industry), and they don't deserve the publicity. I've reviewed movies, games, books. I've also written comedy pieces for other places. I have a screenplay finished. I have a script for a sitcom largely finished. I've got piles of other ideas. I've got short stories. Kids stories. An entire archive of sports writing. Hell, in a few months I'll have a lot on this blog. (Maybe.)

I've spent the last eight years of my life dedicated to writing for a living. I am a good writer. I know that makes me sound like a cocky prick, but I'm really not. Anyone who knows me knows how I'm my harshest critic, hate a lot of what I write, always put myself down... In short, I am not one to praise myself. While I think a lot less of my writing than friends and readers over the years have, writing is one of the few things I consider myself good at. (Being a Dad is the other. Most of the time anyway.)

Yet I sit here unemployed. Over the last eight years many many people have said "Man, how are you not writing for (insert a variety of publishers or scenarios here)!" I can't give them an answer as I genuinely don't know. I guess it all comes down to breaks, and I haven't gotten mine. Am I bitter? A little perhaps, but writing is one of the few things I really enjoy, so if I never receive another dime for it for the rest of my life, while that would hurt, both on a financial and emotional level, that's just the way it is. I never started writing thinking "I can make money at this!" I started writing for the sheer joy of writing, and stumbled backwards into freelancing when, on a whim I wrote to a magazine and said "Hey, here's a sample. Hire me!" And they did! Sadly this was right before, for want of a better word, a "regime change". I started writing at age five on a battered old typewriter, and while the hardware I use has evolved considerably, I still get that same joy from writing I did when I was a kid. Writing is a joy. Any financial remuneration is greatly appreciated, but secondary to the enjoyment I get from writing.

So when the shadow of a writers strike loomed earlier this year, I was thinking "Yeah! DOWN WITH THE SUITS! WITHOUT WRITERS THEY'RE NOTHING! NO NEW PORSCHE FOR YOU! WE RULE!" All viva la revolution and other typically naive rantings from someone who hadn't taken a step back to consider things.

Now here we are. We're what now? Two months into the strike? At the start I had sympathy. I mean make no bones about it, the media companies are unethical and screwed the writers 20 years ago on home video residuals and want to continue that reaming. Writers also make nothing from online content they write, as it's considered "promotion". The companies rake in money from film and TV. Were it not for the writers they'd have nothing to hire actors for. In fact we're at the point now where a lot of actors can do what they want due to force majeure. Despite what many would have you believe, without writers, there IS no Hollywood movie industry, and television becomes a wasteland of reality shows. It's already on its way there. I just want to make sure anyone reading this knows I am not on the studios side in any of this.

My sympathy for the writers started to collapse when I read of a campaign to mail pencils to studio heads to show your support for the writers strike. Pencils! Yes, I see the metaphor. I get the joke. It's pathetic. The WGA claim that at any given time, around 45% of their members are unemployed. So 45% are unable to put food on the table, or at least that's the claim. So by that token, almost half the people on strike didn't have a job anyway. Surely sending money to support the striking writers and their families so they can put food on the table makes more sense than sending Les Moonves a box of HB's.

So now we reach the point that has slowly gnawed away at me over the weeks to get me to the point I'm at now. Where I just don't care anymore.

I am a huge fan of "Lost". I am certain that on some level, JJ Abrams and friends are just messing with us. Pulling stuff out of a hat. Rolling a dice. Making stuff up as they go along, claiming that it's all going somewhere. Regardless of any theories I have about the writers of that show laughing at us, I love the show to bits. My favourite network TV show of all time is "Twin Peaks", and "Lost" is the closest any hour long has come to equaling it I think. Great acting, great scripts and that hard to quantify "What the hell?" factor that I find so compelling. Fantastic overall story arc as well. ABC are burning off the eight episodes already produced for season four early next year. Beyond that, who knows when we'll be back to the island. Season four was already shortened to sixteen episodes. Apparently the last of those eight episodes we're getting ends on a massive cliffhanger. I'm sure I'll be angry and ecstatic in equal measure when I see it.

That is it, however, for current network programming. I look at the rest of the output and in large part shake my head. It's very hard to keep sympathy for the WGA, because an awful lot of them are talentless hacks who have no business writing, and either never had the talent in the first place, getting in via means other than talent and ability, or actually HAD talent, but squandered it and lost interest along the way, choosing now to phone it in for an easy pay cheque.

Case in point: Shows like "Arrested Development" die, and even when alive always seemed to be under threat of the axe at any moment. I was never a big fan of AD, but I know quality writing when I see it, regardless of whether I actually like a show or movie. AD was a top quality show.

It's dead, and yet "According to Jim" lives on. Conclusive proof that Satan really has found his kingdom on Earth. I've seen a few episodes over the years of this atrocity. The show isn't funny. End of story. It's poorly written, relying on tepid, reheated jokes that weren't funny twenty years ago, and every comedic cliche in the book. Despite not being a fan of "Arrested Development", I could not sit through an entire episode stone faced. Something would make me laugh whether I wanted it too or not. That is the sign of good comedy writing. When you sit down, and like a force of nature, something makes you laugh.

Not a problem with "According to Jim". It is easy to sit through multiple episodes showing absolutely no emotion. (Since I don't think disgust is technically an emotion.) Yet the show lives on. Clearly there are people out there that watch it. The same people who voted for Bush probably. Either that or Belushi has a massive extended family that are all Nielsen households.

The same is true of movies. In fact before the year ends I will endeavour to write pieces on my favourite cinematic jaunts of the year, (to use a tiresome Internet meme, "Wright and Pegg FTW!") as there has been some good stuff this year. Yet vast cinematic experiments like "Grindhouse" tank, while the latest family friendly garbage starring washed up 80's comics or former gangsta rappers take in the national debt of several third world countries on opening weekend, then does the same on DVD. (In "Full Screen" no doubt as well.) Just like "According to Jim", it's WGA members writing these cinematic abominations.

With other strikes it's easy to sympathize to a certain degree. I remember the fire fighters strikes that happened in the UK. Now there is a group of people that do important, valuable work. I don't think there is one person who can make the argument that fire fighters don't deserve more money.

Then we've got the writers strike. For every writer who writes for something the quality of "Lost", there is one who writes for something akin to "According to Jim", and to be quite honest, the latter deserve to never earn a single cent again, as they are an insult. Both to viewers intelligence and writers as a whole. I have a friend who likes the "CSI" shows. I don't especially like them. (Even if Caruso rules the world!) However I can see their appeal. Same as "Law and Order" and it's many spinoff shows. Not a fan myself, but I can understand why folk dig them.

In the fifth season of "Red Dwarf" there was an episode titled "Demons and Angels". Without going into details, something happens that causes the ship to be split into two versions. On one there is all that is good and pure. On the other all that is bad and putrescent.

A similar concept for writers guilds would be great.

We'd have one that is all that is good and pure. The good writers. The talented writers. The ones who excel in their field. They all belong to this guild. They picket. They win. They get the residuals from home video they deserve. They get paid for their work appearing online. They continue to produce exceptional scripts and screenplays.

The second guild is filled with the talentless hacks, the lazy ones, the bottom feeders, the writers who just can't be bothered and churn out utter crap to make money. Who never aspire to push themselves or the boundaries of the medium they write for. They choose the easy route, filled with old jokes, tired concepts etc.... They lucked into their career by being in the right place at the right time, and while completely unworthy, continue to be gainfully employed writing absolute garbage while other, more talented writers, struggle to make ends meet.

In a fair world, the second guild would never work again.