Shared Viewing

There isn’t any word on when/if it will be deployed but there is some very interesting information about the direction that Netflix is heading with their Watch Now feature. Of particular interest to several people I know at about 7min into the presentation they show a shared movie viewing interface that allows you to sync up movie viewing with people that are, presumably, on your Netflix Friends list. There is also a built in IM client for chat.

A few of the other things that they show off are Firefox and Macintosh compatibility as well as support for Chapters and Subtitles which are all extremely welcome additions.

Something else that is not stated, but I think is at least somewhat implicit is that since the new player is built on Microsoft’s Silverlight (formerly WPF/e) technology it should be relatively easy to create a Media Center plug-in that can run the player. I’m hoping that is part of their design plans but I’m not quite holding my breath just yet.

All that said I have to say that I actually think that the existing implementation is an excellent start. There have been a couple of occasions when I was between movie shipments and wanted to watch something that I was able to use Watch Now to see a few things, including all of Red Dwarf Series 2 and 3. While it is not nearly as comfortable to watch things at my desk as it is from my couch, the convenience was still nice.

Recent Reading: Dark Cities Underground by Lisa Goldstein

I finished “Dark Cities Underground” by Lisa Goldstein yesterday, and I’m still having some trouble figuring out exactly what to say about it, but I think I need to say something.

To begin with, I really adored the idea behind this book. While it isn’t entirely original, it is a very nice twist on several similar ideas seen in books by Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Robert Rankin and is related in many ways to movies like “Stranger than Fiction”. It is a sort of meta-fiction where the line between fiction, mythology, and the real world is a sometimes elusive thing. If you are like me and enjoy that blurring of reality the basic premise of “Dark Cities Underground” is worth looking for despite the problems of the narrative.

Oh, the problems of this narrative.

For the record: I am not one that needs a lot of depth to my characters. I’ve been reading and enjoying mediocre SF and Fantasy for long enough that as long as the story or idea is good the characters can be borrowed from the front of a high sugar cereal box and I’m just fine with that. I do however have my limits and the lack of depth in Ms Goldstein’s characters is pretty amazing. I think that it might be possible to argue that this lack of depth could be appropriate for the meta-fiction context by placing simplistic characters in a blended world of fiction and reality except that my personal definition of meta-fiction involves putting realistic characters in that blended world where the edges of fiction and reality are vague. Without good characters my suspension of disbelief just can not kick in, and I end up writing a paragraph about how I didn’t like the characters.

Cardboard characters themselves would not by themselves inspire such caution about recommending this book to friends. The plot, or more specifically the author’s use of the Plot Stick of Doom, is where I get reticent to even mention this book. If you have ever watched classic horror or SF movies before George Lucas got into the industry you would be hard pressed not to have noticed the obvious strings, models, and primitive blue screens that were the state of the art until the late 1970s. If you have ever watched an episode of Star Trek and noticed that “rock” is Styrofoam or an episode of Doctor Who and the plethora of bubble-wrap costumes, you will have some idea of how subtle Lisa Goldstein is with plot. If you don’t like books that are telegraphed early and often you will not like this book.

Despite all of that I kind of liked it. Despite the flawed narrative the very interesting core idea is explored very well and in decent context. I still don’t think I can call it a good book, but it might be worth reading.

Update: Intelliflix

Just an update about how Intelliflix is doing. I decided back in July that it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to cancel my prepaid 1 year membership, so I’m just keeping track of how it’s performing at this point.

A couple of interesting tidbits:

  • The inventory of Xbox 360 titles displayed on their site has not changed since I joined on April 8, 2006, even though 24 titles have been released since then.
  • I have received exactly 2 game discs from Intelliflix, both of them Xbox games. (I joined because they advertised that they rented Xbox 360 games.)
  • I have received a total of 25 discs from Intelliflix in the time that I have received 69 discs from Netflix.
  • It takes an average of 6 days for a movie to report as “shipped” before I see it in my mailbox. (Fastest: 3 days. Longest: 10)
  • It takes an average of 4 days for a movie to be reported as “returned” after I ship it back. (Fastest: 3 days. Longest: 5 days)
  • Longest time between shipments in a queue: 52 days. (At the suggestion of their customer support department, I have my account split into 3 queues. The “game” queue has shipped 2 discs to me in the time that it has existed, I have received one of those. The queue was created on July 5, 2006.)
  • The most notable feature added to their website is that now they tell you which of the items in your queue they apparently do not have in their inventory.

As you can see I’m still not particularly happy with the service, but I think it would be far more trouble to cancel my 1 year prepaid membership than to continue to track how well they are doing and maybe satisfy my curiosity about whether they actually have any Xbox 360 games at all or not.

The Horror

I just don’t know if I can even begin to be properly pessimistic about the chance that the newly announced series of Avengers movies is going to be even watchable. Have you seen the travesty that is The Ultimate Avengers Movie? It’s not even like the recent Marvel movies have been really very good. The decline in quality is obvious, and by the time they get around to this long list it will be Captain America all over again.

Test Video: DailyMotion

Despite a fairly busy and somewhat inflexible layout, DailyMotion seems to have a really nice feature set. However my attempts to post through their “Post to Blog” feature rather than copy/paste the string into my own software doesn’t quite seem to be working with my installation of WordPress at the moment. Update: It actually appears that it did post successfully every single time, but was showing an error on the DailyMotion side of things. Kind of odd. I’ve left the best of those three attempts in place.


Butterfly
Uploaded by nstohlma

It wasn’t meant to be funny. Probably.

Michael J. Nelson from the now gone MST3K has a new gig, but doing the same old thing. RiffTrax are audio commentaries that you play on your portable media player while watching a particular movie.

It’s not _quite_ an original idea, since it is basically like the commentary podcast that is put up for Battlestar Galactica episodes. The differences are two-fold: These won’t end up on the movie DVD, and in theory they’re funny.

Still, it’s a good enough reason to put “Road House”, the only track available right now, in my Netflix queue. Given the way the poll on their site is going however, it looks like “The Matrix” may just be next.

(Found on Paul Thurrott’s personal blog)

Over the desert and through the hills…

I saw Pixar’s new movie, Cars last night. Short version: Amazingly beautiful and hilariously funny, but more shallow and less original than I normally expect from this source.

Every time that Pixar puts out a new movie, it is more beautiful than the one that ran before it. Comparing Toy Story to Toy Story 2 is an education in itself in the way that computer animation has grown by leaps and bounds in the few years between those productions. Cars is another leap, though the focus this time is not so much on realistic objects (Toy Story), organic movement (A Bug’s Life), almost touchable textures (Monsters, Inc.), or dynamic fluids (Finding Nemo). This time the focus is on depth of detail, and it has it in scads. From the opening scenes at the stadium with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles rendered to be individuals in a teeming world, to the inescapable dust of the desert, to the debris back on the track, every image in this movie is about cramming as much detail as possible into every frame to narrow the gap between animation and real video. Not to say that the visual style does not have it’s fair share of improbably smooth surfaces (cactus plants) and slightly oddly proportioned objects (The cars themselves), those are part of what people expect to see in a Pixar animation. There is a fingerprint of style there that is as consistent throughout the studio’s animations as Disney’s ever was. It gives the products of the studio a cohesive identity. But looking beyond that to the world around the characters, the scope of how much they can really show to you has expanded immensely and is shown off in amazingly detailed and subtle ways, like the ubiquitous road surfaces.

Past the visuals though, the movie is both very satisfying in being a really very funny romp and yet lacks the emotional depth seen in their other films. I think that the opening scene from Finding Nemo might possibly be the most effective way to set a tone for an environment ever filmed. It filled the rest of the movie with a tension about the very real dangers of the story’s environment that made the emotional connection to the characters as they experienced it’s beauty and horror that much more visceral. Cars goes about trying to connect you with the characters by showing you how pretty, and happy, and friendly the world they inhabit is and it’s kind of a let down. Even when the catastrophic happens a recovery is only a new quarter panel and coat of paint away. The main character is only ever slightly humiliated because of his own actions and never has to face up to a world that has an ultimately capricious nature that can take seemingly everything. There is no drama in Cars, it is purely an American comedy.

Despite that lack of depth, the humor is rich and well composed. From excellent sight gags, small and somehow appropriate potty humor, all the way through classically funny characterization and witty, zingy dialog, I found it hard not to laugh most of the way through the movie. I’ll never look at a combine harvester quite the same way. The story is a good version of an over-used classic with enough small twists to keep it interesting and a couple of fun elements that ensure the serial numbers aren’t quite what you’ve seen before, though you would have to be brain dead or driving on bald tires to miss most of the corners.

Overall, Cars is definitely worth seeing and, possibly because of it’s lack of drama, more appropriate for very young audiences than anything that Pixar has ever produced though it’s length will certainly be a problem for the more active of that group. If you have ever been accused of being a car nut or have any love of car culture or Route 66-style Americana, you would be crazy to give this a miss on the big screen.