Sunday, January 27, 2008

Router Problems

It's been a fraught weekend. I always leave my accounts to the last minute and Saturday was spent mostly catching up on the last 3 months so I could file and pay my latest VAT return. For me this is a big improvement - I normally procrastinate and leave it to the last possible moment on the Sunday, which means it hangs over me all weekend. Not this time and I was feeling quite virtuous when the whole lot was done by 8pm last night.

By way of reward I watched the new HD-DVD release of David Finch's Zodiac which, in the director's cut presented here, clocks in at a mammoth 2 hours 40 minutes - but a thoroughly gripping and engrossing 2 hours 40 minutes it turned out to be. The film had more of a final resolution than I'd expected fromt the reviews that appeared around the time of the theatrical release, and a truly 'reference quality' picture (as one would expect given that the film was made using mostly high definition cameras). HD-DVD may be officially dead, but until Blu-Ray has the rights to films like this from Paramount and Universal the battle can't be considered entirely over.

Alas, plans to do some work/catch up on studying fell apart on Sunday when intermittent problems with my network router locking up every half hour, and then needing a 15 minute cool-off period each time, got to the point where I couldn't put off installing a new one any longer. What a nightmare! What with wired connections, wireless security, and far too many devices to be connected (laptops, MediaServer, XBox, Blu-Ray player, HD-DVD player) and the way British Telecom insists on configurations that are not "standard out the box" it's taken most of today, and a long phone call to BT, just to get the internet connectivity I've had in the past.

However, everything's up and running now, and the MediaServer automated backups that have been failing overnight on every single PC because of the router lockups are now zipping through like greased lightening.

Even better, Reiner the Nabaztag is now up and running. On the old router he just wouldn't play, but now I guess you could say he's a 'happy bunny', and sits twirling his ears, flashing his lights, and reading me the latest weather, newsflashes and text messages in very silly voices with even sillier music every 20 minutes. Cute for now, but I suspect by the end of the week I'll be sick of some of the more gimmicky alerts and turning them off!

It's not hard to see why Nabaztag has turned into a popular toy amongst the geeks, and at work they're seriously talking about using one to monitor the status of our builds - apparently there's a "Cruise Control" application that lights the rabbit's front up with green, yellow or red depending on the latest status of the build. Must have a look at the API some time to see what else he can be programmed to do.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

R.I.P. Heath Ledger

Some actors achieve notoriety and great fortune through endlessly repeating the same part (usually themselves) in every film they're given.

Then there are those who are different in every film they appear in. Even the turkeys ("Brothers Grimm" anyone?!) gain something by their participation.

Heath Ledger was one such actor - an actor whose name usually guaranteed a film's place on my 'must buy on DVD' list.

The oscar-nominated "Brokeback Mountain" may be the film which most of the newspaper obituaries are talking about, and it is a personal favourite to the extent that I have a framed poster from the film with Ledger's autograph, along with that of the other main cast members, on my living room wall. But Ledger gave memorable performances in a whole host of other films too. "A Knight's Tale", "The Patriot", "Casanova", and "Ned Kelly" to name just a few. I was looking forward to his performance in the Bob Dylan flick "I'm Not There", and even more so to his performance as The Joker in the forthcoming Batman film "The Dark Knight" which was already being promoted as the film that would lift his career into the stratosphere.

At the time of writing there are reports all over the web of 'a drugs overdose', although it's too early to say yet what the real story is. An interview with The New York Times, back in November, holds some depressing clues as to the possible reason for his death. He told the paper that the Dylan film stressed him out a little too much and he had trouble sleeping while portraying The Joker, whom he called 'a psycopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy'. Talking about his sleep problems the actor went on to say 'Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted and my mind was still going' before going on to say he took Ambien pills, which only worked for an hour.

Whatever the cause of death, today's news is not just sad, but depressing. We've lost an eminently watchable actor who never appeared to 'sell out' and appeared to inflict a punishing work schedule on himself, whether working on a big Hollywood production or a small indy film. It's sad that the cost of his performances, which always seemed to be of 'The Method' variety, appear to have exacted such a price on this genuinely talented actor.

Rest in Peace, Mr Ledger, and thanks for the wonderful movie memories!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Some Shiny Disc Mini-Reviews

It's been a bad start to the new job, with the dreaded stomach flu laying waste to most of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and meaning next week is going to be 'catch up on work' week instead of 'sort out dentist and blood pressure issues' week instead. In the meantime, here's some thoughts on a whole bunch of new shiny discs, which I've been watching over the last few days. Some of these viewings were interrupted by projectile vomiting or attacks of 'the squirts' (I know - too much information!) so that should probably be taken into account. And if you're wondering why so much coverage of releases on the reviled region-locked Blu-Ray format - HD-DVD is now officially all-but-dead, following Warner Brothers' Judas-like betrayal at CES in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

I hadn't realised how much I miss The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's political masterwerk set in The White House, until this weekend. Officially released in a DVD boxed set tomorrow, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was writer Sorkin's first new TV series to hit the airwaves when The West Wing was axed, and itself got the chop at the end of its first season a few months ago, presumably because the average American viewer just isn't interested in intelligent, beautifully written drama. Not that we Brits are any better - at least if the endless fan 'blog post' ravings, license fee payer -funded ads and repeat commissions for infantile rubbish like Torchwood or Robin Hood are any indication!

There are several familiar faces from The West Wing appearing in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but it's the writing rather than the acting that stands out and makes one feel one is watching a favourite old series again. In the UK we're very lucky to have Jimmy McGovern, whose excellent first season series of The Street is available on DVD at ridiculously low 'sale' prices of not much more than a fiver, with the second season due out in a few weeks. In some ways I guess you could regard Sorkin as the closest thing the Americans have got to their version of McGovern.

This time round Sorkin uses the ins and outs of a popular, weekly, Friday night comedy TV programme at one of the big broadcast corporations as the premise for his witty, politicial, humorous and amusing look at big business politics. I'm only four episodes in, but already totally hooked by strong characers, challenging storylines that intelligently debate the role of religion, sex and politics in broadcasting, and a cast able to deliver on the strengths of the premise. The only cloud on the horizon is that with four episodes down I have only eighteen more to go before it'll all be over.

Shoot 'Em Up

At the other end of the extreme I watched Shoot 'Em Up, which received a bit of a panning from British critics, despite it having a not-too-shameful score on imdb of 7.2 at the time of writing. On Blu-Ray disc, the release features some fairly generous extra's, including the picture-in-picture documentary feature that has been the exclusive domain of HD-DVD until Sony got their act together and released 'Profile 1.1' hardware (making all existing players, other than the PS/3 which updated itself via an Internet firmware upgrade, obsolete) earlier this month. On those extra's the writer/director of the film is at pains to point out that he was determined not to make a cartoon - which seems somewhat ridiculous since that's EXACTLY what he's produced, albeit one with real-life actors, notably Clive Owen, appearing in real-life sets. Having the central character continually chomping on a carrot makes things pretty clear from the get-go, as if the cartoon violence that explodes every few seconds on screen wasn't a subtle enough clue in the first place.

Shoote 'Em Up's script is laughably bad. The premise is that an angry hot shot 'shootist' witnesses some thugs attacking a young woman with a baby and gets stuck with the baby while the thugs chase him, determined to kill it. It's endless cartoon violence of the Wile E. Coyote variety with what little plot there is being completely ludicrous and as unbelievable as the 'oh! he's survived and got up again!' violence. At one point we are expected to believe that despite our following him from his first accidental encounter the 'hero' has somehow managed to manufacture off-screen an expensive animatronic version of the baby complete with tape recorder that's fooled us and the bad guys! Yup, you need to deposit your brain at the door before starting on this one. All that being said, it's a real romp of an action/cartoon-in-real-life movie and, thanks to its non-stop action and gimmicky cinematography, I enjoyed it a lot - not as much as Crank, which covered pretty much the same territory, but with more panache and wit - but a lot more than British critics had lead me to expect. Over on rotten tomatoes the US critics have given it a 66% 'fresh' rating, which seems about right to me. Definitely worth a rental if you like your films full of action and excitement, and possibly a purchase if you like lots of impressive, slo-mo explosions and flying stunts.


I was much less impressed with Kenny, which received rave reviews when commercially released a few months back. A spoof-documentary about an Australian 'toilet plumber' this has the usual quips about 'shit' that one might expect from someone dealing with effluent, but little to differentiate it from a real documentary that one can see any night of the week on TV. 'The best comedy of 2007' the cover proudly proclaims - I'd like some of whatever 'thelondonpaper' were on when they made that comment, please!

Admittedly the film is quite sweet-natured, following a 'salt of the earth' good-natured plumber guide around as he performs his job and shares his philosophy on life. But I just don't get the point of it all! I smiled a few times, as one does at 'real life' incidents, but if I want real life I can go out and experience it or watch a real documentary, not a 'spoof' one. Truth is I'd expected some jokes, and even the back-stories they try and work in (the central character has a son from a previous marriage, and is totally oblivious to the way an air stewardess keeps trying to throw herself at him) but there are no belly laughs here. One is left feeling one has just watched a 'written' reality show like 200 other reality shows one's already seen. Why would you want to pay £13 to see that when it's on TV every night?


I've mentioned Judd Apatow before - he seems to be 'flavour of the month', following the release of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, seemingly because journalism is so bad these days that journalists are happy to peddle Hollywood marketing hype as if it were fact. Both those films were good, if nowhere near as 'intelligent' or fantastic as most critics made them out to be. This week the latest in the formulaic line, Superbad, is released on both Blu-Ray and standard DVD. Apatow's shctick is 'in your face' gross-out vulgarity of the kind pioneered by American Pie, albeit with underlying truths about the human condition which apparently makes it alright to laugh at racist, misogynistic and homophobic dick, fanny and arse jokes. This time round Apatow is only executive producer, with the script written this time round by Seth Rogan, who has starred in Apatow's previous work. There's a lot that's familiar here, and I have to admit I laughed a lot more at this than I did at what 'thelondonpaper' called 'The best comedy of 2007', but still think the hype over the movie is over-rated. In many ways it's like a comedy version of Shoot 'Em Up - cartoon-like stupidity that's a bit like fast food: enjoyable at the time, but one can't help wondering afterwards what the long term effects of mass consumption of this sort of fare will be.


And finally, a plug for Flyboys out on Blu-Ray disc this month. Mercilessly slated by the critics, this tale of World War I pilots can be accused of plagiarism and playing it far too safe - indeed it's a film we've seen several times before - but it's beautifully made, and the aeriel sequences are stunning. I found it infinitely preferable to the execrable Memphis Belle, which it riffs heavily on. The cast, especially James Franco, best known as 'Harry Osborne' from the Spider-Man movies, give good performances from an average script, and the cinematography is stunning. If you want an old-fashioned 'epic' it's hard to think of anything that's been released recently that fits the bill as well as this. I enjoyed it far more than the reviews had indicated I would.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Juno A Good Character Movie When You See One?

Over the last week I've seen three films, all of which have several things in common:

  • They're all character focussed, rather than story-focused

  • They've all had rave critical reviews, but comparatively few people went to see them

If this all sounds as depressing to you, as it does to me, there are signs for hope. One of the three films, only just about to go on general release in the UK, is gathering momentum as the new Little Miss Sunshine - ie an indie film that could cross over through word of mouth. For the other two, released on shiny disc last week, one suspects that retail sales will be as weak as box office performance was because we live in a world where all anybody cares about is watching state-of-the-art CGI or reliving their youth through poor sequels to films made over 20 years ago.

The indie film is Juno - a film I would have gone to see based solely on the fact it stars Ellen Page, who made an impressive debut with my favourite film of last year, Hard Candy. She plays a very different teenager character this time round: a happy-go-lucky teenager who gets herself pregnant, and decides to give away her baby to adoptive parents. The plot sounds just like one of those 'gloom and doom' reality indie films doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth because this is in fact a sweet, if rather quirky, comedy 'feel good' film. It features some really outstanding performances from the whole cast, not just Page, who's performance is so natural that if one hadn't seen her previous work one could be fooled into thinking she isn't acting at all. It's tastefully directed by Jason Reitman, most famous for having written and directed the sleeper hit Thank you for Smoking last year. And it has a stand-out script from newcomer Diablo Cody. Now why can't we in Britain make fantastic, low-budget, films like this? If you get a chance to see this at your local emporium I'd recommend you do so - it has plenty of laughs, and I can't imagine anyone would regret seeing it.

The Walker is a more difficult film to like. It's notable mostly for the quite amazing performance from the central figure played by Woody Harrelson. The film is another in the 'variation on a theme' series' from writer/director Paul Schrader, a theme he apparently started with Taxi Driver and American Gigolo. I have to say I admired the film more than I enjoyed it, mainly because of its lack of coherent or believable plot, although I can see that it was always meant to be a deep character study. Harrelson plays Carter Page III, a society 'walker' whose job is to escort the wives of the rich and powerful to events their husbands cannot accompany them to. The wife of a liberal senator finds her lover murdered and Carter offers to pretend it is him who discovered the body to protect his friend and her husband, soon finding himself ostracised and deserted by those he'd thought were his friends. The central plot, together with a photographer boyfriend and rather silly skullduggery, never really convince and are merely the excuse to embark on a subtle character study of the 'walker' of the title. Critics are rightly praising Harrelson's performance as a career best, and if there were any justice in the world, or this had performed better at the box office, this one would definitely be up for an oscar. It's certainly worth seeing, but it's not up there with Schrader's earlier work, and I found it hard to empathise or even sympathise with the central character, such that the whole thing felt like a bit of a downer.

I was much happier with Sherry Baby, which had a much more upbeat feel and ending than the advance reviews (who all loved it) had lead me to expect. Filmed almost documentary style, the film follows the life of Sherry Swanson, an abused single mother and drug addict, after she's released from a two year prison sentence and tries to rebuild her life with her daughter, being looked after by her brother and sister-in-law. Arguably featuring the 'Best Female Performance of the Year', Maggie Gyllenhaal more than steps up to the plate in playing the role of Sherry, and delivers a film that is at turns shocking, sad, funny and most-of-all incredibly moving. Definitely worth a rental if you like good movies!

Today is my last day of freedom before the new 'day job' starts up tomorrow, and already the weekends between now and my Las Vegas trip (primarily for a Microsoft conference event MIX08, but with 3 extra days holiday tacked on) are filling up. I've somehow managed to volunteer to film at the upcoming ALT.NET conference, which takes place the first Friday/Saturday of February (it's not so much the filming that worries me in terms of taking up time, it's the editing!), and then hope to knuckle down for the launch of the new Shiny Discs web site which I'm hoping will be a big improvement on what appears to be available at other DVD Review sites today!

All of which means I'm not quite sure when this blog will next get updated, but hopefully I'll still get time to post the odd DVD mini-review before Shiny Discs properly launches some time in March.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Week Ahead (I have a new job!)

Suddenly everything seems to have shot into overdrive. I had an interview over in Hatton Gardens late on Friday and start work for a company there next Monday. Very much looking forward to it, if slightly nervous at how much new stuff I will need to get up to speed with very quickly.

My last week of freedom is already filling up quickly.

On Wednesday I'm attending the BETT Show, apparently famous not just for its appallingly slow and almost unusable web site, but as an exhibition show for educators. I'm going there to meet Yevgeny Subotin from mitcorp who'll be on the Sony stand, to discuss green screen (chroma key) options for an upcoming project that will help launch the long-delayed Shiny Discs web site.

For the past few weeks I've been admiring the work of Philip Bloom. His blog (use his name above as the link) is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the new Sony PMW-EX1 camera, cinematography or just short film making in general. He has some quite amazing short films on his web site, all shot with a one-man film crew on digital camcorder - check out My Autumn's Done Come, Piccadilly Furs, and Kew Gardens/Lost Time to see artistic talent creating some wonderful visual poetry. When Phillip posted on the dvinfo forums that he was looking for 'a spare pair of hands' to assist on a personal project he was shooting on Thursday I rushed to volunteer. The project is currently on hold, pending some building approval, but fingers crossed things go ahead as I'd love the opportunity to witness first-hand how Phil gets the results he does.

Pretty much the rest of the week is likely to be spent playing with Sony Vegas Pro 8. Like many, I'm sick of Adobe's over-priced software and ridiculous upgrade pricing and appalling customer service (more like 'customer complete-lack-of-service') so resisted the temptation to just rush into purchasing Adobe Premiere, particularly since so many professional broadcasters seemed to be talking up the new video editing package from Sony (Aaaargh! I hate Sony!). Sony's 'Vegas' software is a fraction of the price of Adobe Premiere CS3, and allegedly a LOT more usable. I have to say that after just an hour or so playing with Vegas Pro I love it and am looking forward to getting more to grips with its more obscure features over the coming months.

I have some film clips and some 'toys' and training videos from the superb Digital Juice site (check out their 'DJ TV' video tutorials which are free) to play with, so suspect there will be little chance to see many new films or shiny discs this week, although I do have a preview screening of Juno, receiving rave reviews everywhere, to look forward to at the British Film Insitute on Wednesday evening.

Like I said, a busy week, with a schedule that's likely to get even busier once I start 'the day job' on Monday, with Microsoft's MIX08 conference in Las Vegas only 8 weeks away (yikes!)

Smile of the Day comes courtesy of a video from the opening keynote speach at CES in Las Vegas yesterday, given by Bill Gates. It's a send-up video of Bill Gates last day at Microsoft, starring not just Mr Gates but also Stephen Spielberg, George Clooney and Bono amongst others. It looks like money can buy you a lot of high profile friends! You probably need to check this one fast before it's taken down as usually the agreement with the celebrities etc on these videos is the stars only take part if it's NOT downloadable or available to the general public at large!