La La Land: a sort-of review

Griffith Observatory

I watched La La Land just over a week ago, and have gone through a sort of evolution in my thinking about it:

  1. During the movie, i was fully in love with it. The cinematography, the acting, the music, the decoration.
  2. Then it ended. That Ending! I really wasn’t sure what I thought about it.
  3. Walking out, chatting with Leah, I absolutely loved the movie again – it was chipper and light and lovely and everything I’d wanted in the movie when I was walking into it: it met – and exceeded – all my expectations.
  4. Over the week, I kept thinking about the movie, and, slowly, a comparison came to me. Have you ever seen the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the SameIf you haven’t, don’t. If you’re not a Led Zeppelin fan, there’s no reason to. If you are, don’t: nothing destroys your heroes like humanizing them. However, I think there’s a lot of similarities between some principals at play. The Song Remains the Same is a display of musical virtuosity: Musicians at their best, knowing this, and playing with that fact. It is both stunning, amazing and worst kind of Music-God onanism – guitar solos, drum solos, weird “ahh”ing vocal solos.
    La La Land is that. Damien Chazzelle is Really. Really. Good – and he knows it. And this film is film-making wankery at its very worst. It is so self-knowning, and winking and mannered. So yes, it is amazing and wonderful to watch – in the moment – but, like unnecessary guitar solos, afterwards, it leaves you annoyed.
  5. It strikes me (now) as incredibly sexist: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), careens through this film, ending up getting almost exactly what he wanted at the beginning of the film. While he ostensibly takes actions for Mia (Emma Stone), he still never sacrifices for him. Both he and Mia are performers, and yet, somehow, he never once sees her perform, while her story arc is continuously informed and catalyzed by her watching him perform. She has to give so much of herself – to him, to her career – and he doesn’t really give anything. Even his so-called sacrifice (taking a job he doesn’t really want so she’ll see him as a success), is wildly successful, and leads directly to him reaching his own goals.
  6. Still though, that ending.  I could probably watch that end-sequence 100s of times, never tire of it, never not see/think something slightly different. Even as I write, I both hated and loved the ending, and, following on from that, everything that precedes it.

Disrupt TV

We recently at home installed “Shaw Gateway“, to replace the previous PVR we had – mostly because we have 2 TVs, and remembering where I’d recorded what was a hassle. And it’s better in many ways than the previous system. I generally like the UI better, although it is still terrible. Everything about this says “I was designed by an engineer”. For something that exists almost entirely as end-user interface, it’s shockingly bad. But it’s no worse than the systems I’ve seen for Telus or Comcast, so I’m assuming they’re all more or less the same. Like DVD/Blu-ray/TV menus. The Apple TV menu, which still is pretty shitty IMO (see how many clicks it takes to find, then play, a video stored in your itunes library), is so much better than all of these, it’s no wonder that people are clamoring for a “real” Apple TV.

When will there be a Nest for TV interface? I’m currently assuming the reason for all of this is that all the software is locked down by the broadcasters so that they maintain a monopoly on the devices used to watch their programming. Sort of like Carriers/hardware pre-iPhone.

Most of all, given the existence of such services as “on-demand”, and the relative costs and support-headaches of providing physical hardware with fallible hard-drives is why this is stored at my house at all. Over christmas, I downloaded a saved game from Skyrim onto a brand-new xbox in a totally different city and continued playing it. I feel like I should be able to do the same with anything I’ve PVR’d. There’s got to be a business model in there that makes sense:

  • Let people have an allotted space (let’s say 50GB), with their cable subscription, or, charge them pennies per GB per month, scaling on range
  • You could potentially charge people to stream shows they’ve recorded, but that seems “mean” – after all, they pay a monthly subscription to cover costs.
  • much like the super-annoying ads that you can’t skip on some DVD/blu-ray discs, providers could sell non-skippable ads prior to a streamed show (perhaps in lieu of charging for storage or bandwidth).

What cable-providers “own” is the content they provide. Sure, they’re just conduits for networks, but there’s a HUGE convenience to the end-user. Imagine if you had to order/pay each network separately to get access to their content? Sure, some people would, but it would be a hassle (aside: this channel-as-app trend is worrisome. Less choice is often better than more choice, if more convenient. But why not open up the ability to access that content? Write an API, let anyone create ways to access it. Charge for that access. Think of the business savings of having only a few B2B accounts to manage, rather than 10s of thousands of end-user customer accounts. Let new, innovative startups find new, interesting ways to provide your content to people, while you sit back and focus on large-scale infrastructure & volume deals.  Cablecos and telcos are sort of the same: their business should be providing large scale infrastructure and charging for the use of that infrastructure (data,voice,video,audio). The iPhone and the subsequent smart-phone revolution have started the process of revolutionizing how we interact with our carriers (particularly as more and more phones are sold “unlocked”). I don’t personally think that TVs themselves are a great hardware/software business for apple to get into. A TV is just a monitor. Sure, Apple and others make some gorgeous monitors, but not because the software in them is great – just solid industrial design. Where TV can, and, should be disrupted are these little, (somewhat) cheap, (somewhat) disposable boxes through which we interact with the content on our TV. This is where the disruption should happen. Something that people can afford to upgrade hardware every few years, with software updates in between. Much like I currently pay Rogers for access to their infrastructure (and they subsidize the cost of my phone over a 2-year contract), while I pay Apple and other 3rd parties for hardware and software, why am I not paying Shaw for access to their infrastructure, but someone else for the hardware and various software options to use on my device?

Over-thinking Star Wars

I remember first watching Star Wars. The sense of excitement of watching a scrappy band of rebels try to overcome the infinitely more powerful Empire, led by the mysterious and evil Emperor was thrilling. It feels great to root for the underdog. I had imagined generations of freedom fighters laying down their lives fighting this ruthless inter-planetary dictatorship. It was awesome.

And then the prequels came out. And I learned that the Empire was only about 20 years old. And worse yet, the Republic, which in the original trilogy was an idyllic supposed utopia, worth striving for turns out to be a corrupt, decadent, bureaucratic nightmare ruled by a squabbling, ineffective senate clearly under the influence of special interest groups, and susceptible to meddling and manipulation. The citizens in the undercity of Coruscant live terrible lives in the dark; the ruling elite, while so physically close to them leading a life so unlike their own as to be unrecognizable.

The republic, faced with a threat, readily betrays principles of self-determination and personhood all in the name of winning the war against the separatists by embracing the use of clone-soldiers to fight their war, not a volunteer army of citizens. Worse than this, the Jedi Knights, supposedly a detached, impersonal embodiment of all that is good and right in the universe are culpable political puppets, doomed to defend  a society their own ideals should abhor.

Now with this in mind, the motives of Princess Leia become suspect: Is she really a devoted freedom-fighter? Or is she merely royalty who misses the perks her family used to have as ruling elites before the Emperor usurped their power?  Bail Organa, her adoptive father, is clearly a very influential member of the senate prior to the dissolution.

There is no doubt that the Emperor is a caricature of an evil, manipulative ruler. But I’m not convinced after watching the prequels that the lives of anyone except for the previous ruling elite were any worse for his rule. Indeed, if you look at the example of Lando Calrissian’s upward mobility in becoming the ruler of Cloud City on Bespin (no matter how short-lived, or how puppet-like it may be), the lives of the lower- and middle-classes may actually have improved with the loss of the previous ruling elites: there’s room for them to move up in the world.

How to improve the Oscars

Like (based on the evidence of my Twitter feed) a lot of people, I watched some of the Oscars on Sunday night. It was a pretty horrible telecast, as is standard. The hosts were desperately unfunny, the “in memoriam” forgot Farah Fawcett, the dance number was cringe-worthy. And yet, somehow, listening to the winners give their thanks, whether pointed & cogent (Mo’Nique), touching (Jeff Bridges) or so sweet I assumed a team of Hollywood’s best writers had been hired to craft it (Sandra Bullock), it rises above all the crap to be touching. The Twitter back-channel chat, like all live “communal” events I’ve watched recently (with the exception of the super-bowl – apparently football fans are not witty), greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the show.

aside: Given how much I love the twitter back-channel chatter, I would love some way to show my twitter feed on my TV for certain events – as a sidebar, perhaps. Not sure if that should be a cable-provider interface or built into the TV, but I could see it being fun.

But, as always, the middle part of the show sags. And there’s a very good reason for it: None of the recipients of the mid-show awards are celebrities. Virtually none of the tv audience knows who these people are, and they, as a rule, don’t know how to deal with the limelight. So here’s my (by no means original) suggestion for the Academy for upcoming awards: Only televise the acting/directing/music awards. Don’t let screenwriters, editors, designers or even producers speak. These are the behind-the-scenes heroes of cinema, not whom the public associates with the films.

There’s already a technical Oscars. Why couldn’t either that show be expanded, or there be a third show, for the “technical production staff”. This show could be expanded to include all sorts of vitally important on-production technical work that isn’t currently awarded (my vote for first new award: Credits design). These technical production people could then have an awards show that is truly about them, where they can actually invite their friends and family, not just be the one guy in the crowd no one recognizes. By getting rid of all of the categories that don’t highlight the celebrities, the show itself could be shorter, tighter. There’d be room for special recognition for lifetime achievements, letting recipients speak, rather than just standing & waving as Roger Corman did on Sunday night. Much like they have a presenter talk briefly about the technical awards, someone could talk briefly about the production awards, highlighting the winners there.

The power of Twitter & the “Ellen Effect”

So, on Thursday, one of my clients, the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA) was linked to from the Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Blog, after being mentioned on the show. At the same time, a tweet was sent from the @TheEllenShow twitter account (As an aside, the reason for all of this is that Anna Torv, who is the star of the Vancouver-filmed show Fringe, fosters kittens for VOKRA, so she’s now much cooler in my books than she was before I knew this). Because of this one-time spike, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at VOKRA stats to see what sort of effect this had on their site, particularly as I had been worried a huge flood of traffic might down our servers (for the record, they passed with nary even a flinch. The charts below will show why).

The Ellen Bump
The Ellen Bump

As you can see, traffic generated from Ellen gave VOKRA a huge, but very brief, jump in traffic, from an average of 300 visitors a day to 3900 visitors. Which is nice to see. But, given Ellen’s reach (she’s the 4th-most influential woman in media & has over 3 million followers on twitter), I had been expecting a larger bump from it.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is how that traffic arrived at VOKRA:

How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA
How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA

Twitter blew the link on Ellen’s blog out of the water, driving 3 times more traffic to it than the links on the blog. Of the twitter traffic, all but 100 of those clicks came either from the individual tweet or the main page of Ellen’s account – the split is about 50/50 (of those 100 remaining visitors, all but 3 came from my own tweet – thanks, followers!). Being mentioned on the show was nearly as powerful as the tweet. Breaking down those Google searches, the most common was “kitten rescue vancouver ellen“, which suggests to me that comes from people watching the show and searching. A mere 839 visitors clicked through from the blog post itself. Although, perhaps not that surprising: It takes far more investment in the topic to do that, as likely, you’ll

  1. Watch the show & become interested in the topic
  2. THEN go to the Ellen show’s website and read more
  3. AND FINALLY, click through to the end point.

Which is yes, only one extra step, but in terms of buy-in, seems much, much more to me.

A final analysis. What VOKRA wants more than anything when you go to their site is one of 2 things:

  1. Apply to adopt a kitten
  2. Donate to them

What’s disappointing is that all this traffic had almost no effect on either of those 2 goals. There were a few more applications than usual over the past couple of days – a total of 14, vs, I believe, 8 for same period the previous week. And there was no effect on donations – no increase in either number of donations or amount over the previous week (given the increase in visitors, their donations-per-visitor ratio in fact just took a huge hit).

My conclusions to the above? VOKRA’s homepage is not as effective as it should be in communicating those 2 goals, and should be looked at (hopefully this analysis will mean that I get the chance to do). Analyzing what visitors did at the site, nearly every visitor clicked on the big cat banner picture – and then nothing else. The 2nd most popular click was to the blog post about being on Ellen – and then nothing else. In fact, the links to adopt & donate did not see a similar-sized jump in clicks, whereas the blog, gallery  & about us pages all did.

My PVR and my vision for my TV-viewing future

I’ve been thinking lately around the business model for Cable/TelCos & PVRs, and it seems to me that the current model is likely to be short-lived, with good reason, for both the companies and consumers. Why? Because it’s a one-time sale for the companies, and the storage on them is ludicrously small for consumers.

Currently, how I watch TV is that I go home, and I search my channel guide for:

  1. TV series that I want to watch, then record the series
  2. upcoming 1-off shows that I want to watch, like movies or sports, and set a recording for those.

This is all fine and dandy, except for a few problems:

  1. I have to be in front of the TV to set a new recording
  2. I have to use my remote to navigate the interface as well as “type” when searching, for which task it is most wretched
  3. I have to use the TV I recorded the show to in order to watch it (I only actually have 1 TV, but many, many homes I know have more than 1 – and can’t record a show on one TV to watch later on other TVs)
  4. I don’t have enough room to store an entire season’s worth of shows (or even several seasons) worth of shows on my PVR for later watching.

Now, the techies amongst us will say “Use a media PC!” – and that’s true, I can – that certainly takes care of some of these issues, as long as keep buying hardware to store this stuff, and have the technical know-how to link up 1 or more TVs scattered around the house to a centralized media server – certainly not something I could imagine many of my peers doing, let alone my parents. Slingbox solves many of these problems, it is true – but for the Cable/TelCo’s, it doesn’t do anything – a win for consumers that my guess is, angers the companies.

So after my rant, I suspect many of you can see where I’m heading – the cloud. Shaw is my current cable provider, so we’ll use them as the test case here for how infrastructure should be built. And note that most of it can be built on already extant technology that is currently available to consumers:.

Shaw builds a web portal for all cable customers. In this portal, I can browse listings, search shows based on any number of criteria (actors, studios, genre, directors, writers,etc) – most of this information readily available on services like IMDB, and so can simply be pulled in via Web Service for my use. Once I’ve found shows, let me set up a recording for my PVR – on the website (I believe that ComCast already offers something along the lines of this). This would then record to my PVR. Much like Tivo does, the service could very easily and quickly provide recommendations based on previous behaviour, what other customers have chosen, to allow me to extend my recordings. Take this one step further, and add a social component – allow me to share my recordings with my friends, and see their recordings. Let us recommend series/episodes/events to each other, and interact on the site regarding our shows. So now I’ve got a vastly more robust way to find & record shows. When I get weekly newsletters from things like MovieCentral, or whatever, I could easily click a link or two and have that movie set up to record – from wherever in the world that I am.

The next step is where to store these recordings, and the answer is simple: up in the cloud. Why? because then the storage is unlimited, and it can provide yet another revenue stream for the companies. For each level of subscription package, offer a certain amount of space, starting at, let’s say, 10GB – a paltry amount. But give customers the option of upping their storage, for a nominal fee – again, because storage is dirt cheap. That way, if I wanted to store the entire season of Lost, Heroes, the Daily Show for later watching, I could. Because I could just pay for more storage. At home, my interface remains the same: I click the “list” button, but instead of things stored locally, I’m now browsing my cloud storage. Of course, the list itself could download and be stored locally for ease of use/whatnot.

Once this model is working, a whole ream of future possibilities opens up for the Cable/TelCo’s to provide service (and make money), including:

  • Let me add OLD shows to my library – similar to buying an episode from iTunes – either free (or dirt cheap) with Ads still in the show (and could be current ads, not from the original air date) or more expensive, but ad-free. Again, these old episodes could be rented by me or sold.
  • Take a page from XBox Live and allow viewing parties – hell, integrate with XBox live, so I can watch a show with my friends, chatting over the mic, or with our avatars in front, what-not. It would be great fun for Leah to watch ANTM with her friends, even though they can’t all get together because of kids or whatnot. Again this could be a free, free-x-times-per-month, free-with-y-package or even a pay-per-use service.
  • Build (& sell) clients for computers, phones, anything, so I can actually watch my shows from anywhere. How great would it be to sit down in my seat on a WestJet or Air Canada plane and connect to my Shaw Library to watch shows while traveling? Or on my iPhone? Again, this could work in a pure-streaming method, or a “temporary download” or any number of any methods, depending on available technology & bandwidth.

None of the above strike me as terribly complicated things to accomplish, technology-wise. It’s possible (though I don’t know) that we wouldn’t even need new set-top boxes – just a firmware update, as they’re clearly able to connect online for the On-Demand services.

So why is this a win? Because it keeps Cable/TelCo’s in control of distribution in a way they’re rapidly losing on right now to Hulu, iTunes. It provides a more convenient service to customers, it provides a slew of new revenue streams, and what’s more, potentially huge cost-savings to these companies. Now, I highly doubt that any savings would be passed on to customers, but it could be. It keeps networks happy because they can still sell  ads that might be seen, it can provide the producers with some measurable viewing stats, because each stream of a show from the cloud could easily be tracked, which might fix the current ratings-are-down-because-people-pvr-the-show problems. And it wins because it is future-friendly – as new options become available, they only need to update a centralized service, which can easily be segmented into beta-test populations, not roll out a new hardware set-top box to millions of houses. And as/if these companies settle on some standards, hardware manufacturers can start to build hooks directly into TVs and whatnot.

What’re your thoughts?

Obama’s media image

Having seen an awful lot of images of President Obama in the media these past few days – both video and still, I’ve noticed a striking contrast between his appearance in the media and former president Bush’s: If Obama is in conversation, answering questions, or opining, the shots are often close up, often just framing his face & shoulders. Additionally, he’s sitting a lot, or being shot at eye-level, putting him on the same level as the viewer. When being filmed with other people, he is invariably leaning towards them, either listening to them or addressing them. There’s a sense that Obama is talking to you, rather than addressing you. The exception so far has been “official” announcement from podia, which tend to be filmed from a set distance. Perhaps what’s actually different is the amount of footage of Obama interacting with people, rather than announcing items from a podium.

Contrast this to how Bush was filmed – now, I cannot remember how he was filmed when he started his presidency, but in the last year or so, Bush was often shot from below, with him looking down on the viewer. Alternately, there were a lot of wide shots showing Bush in isolation – standing alone at a podium, or in front of a group of people, rather than in a group of a people. When there were close-ups on his face, they tended to be solely reaction shots, then pull back again for when he’d speak. Finally, when listening to someone else, Bush would often appear to lean back on his heels, rather than lean in towards the speaker.

Now, I’ve no idea how much of the angle of coverage is due to the media, how much is due to the President’s media advisors, how much stems from personality of the men, and how much is due to the fact that Obama’s ‘new’, but I do find it quite interesting. I wonder if one could gauge the relative popularity of a president (or prime minister) by the angles and distance from which he is filmed?

Thinking about DRM & the subscription pricing model

It seems clear to me that companies, Apple (with Apple TV) and Microsoft (with the XBox) in particular, are pushing to eliminate the need for physical media to watch movies. It does, in many ways, seem inevitable – bandwidth is cheap, storage space is cheap and discs are prone to scratching, etc.

I’m not particularly offended by DRM for this purpose. I loathe DRM on anything I own. It’s my feeling that I’ve bought it, I should be able to make 2 million copies, remix it, re-edit it, transcode it to whatever formats I feel. But the rental system it makes sense. Currently, I can rent a movie, keep it as long as I like, watch it as many times as I like, then return it. And for that privilege, along with those restrictions, I expect to pay much less for a rental than I do to own it. I’m a Zip member, and my current subscription settings allows me to rent an unlimited number of movies, but only 3 at a time. For this I pay $25/month. And it works out well. Most months, I receive 7-8 movies, or +/- $3/movie. However some months I only get 1 or 2, so it costs me more. The point is thought, is that I don’t have to think about the cost of a particular movie. I’m far more willing to give any movie a chance when I’m not paying specifically for that rental. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) many movies that I would never have gambled on had I needed to pay for it individually.

And this is the problem with both the current Apple TV and XBox offerings (beyond in the embarrassingly small collections when compared to Zip or Netflix) – I have to evaluate the individual item for cost. The same holds true for iTunes – tellingly, I have an eMusic account, for the simple reason that the cost is aggregated out and so I can take risks on individual tracks, sometimes even entire albums, because I don’t have to judge, in advance, if that particular track is worth $0.99. It’s purely a psychological difference, but regretting 1/40th of my $12 monthly is, for me, much better than regretting a single dollar spent (of course, the fact that each track at eMusic in reality about $0.30 helps too).

So what does this all boil down to? for media, and rentals in particular, a subscription model works well – certainly NetFlix has proven this. Beyond that, the DRM system needs to be more flexible to support this idea – set it up so that it knows in aggregate how many movies I am currently renting. Allow me to watch each of them as many times as I like, for as long as I like – or at least for a month or so before automatically ‘returning them’. Restrict me only  by how many I can be renting at a given time, but don’t make pay per transaction. I’m not convinced that current DRM models, which are tied to the individual media, really supports this. What I’m suggesting is that DRM models be tied to the individual consumer, rather than the media, to allow greater flexibility in pricing and consumption models. We know enough about online identities at this point (viz – the standard ‘5 devices/1 account’ models of DRM’d media stores) to be able to accomplish this. My gut tells me until control over consumption is handed back to the consumer, we won’t see mainstream acceptance of current digital delivery initiatives on a massive scale.

3 bad movies

I watched 3 bad movies over the weekend, each of which suffered more from predictability rather than terrible writing or acting. The offenders were:

  1. You, Me & Dupree – I think Owen Wilson’s innate charm is wearing thin. This movie just annoyed me.
  2. John Tucker Must Die – to be honest, this movie was actually better than I expected. Seeing as all teenage rom/coms are essentially the same, I at least was entertained throughout the movie.
  3. The Oh in Ohio – An “indie” film about sexual dysfunction in America. Fine enough, and it was pleasant to see that Mischa Barton was playing a different character from her O.C. role, but still, too predictable, and a little overly cutesy.

Aside: Why is fictional America (and I’m assuming, by extension, factual America), so hung up on sex? A recurring theme across this movie was sexual repression – women horrified by the idea of masturbating, or calling more exploratory women sluts, etc. – this was all played straight more or less, as if it’s a generally accepted paradigm, rather than something to be laughed at. The women who masturbated or had more sex were played for awkward humor. It’s really baffling to me.

Recent Movie Viewings

In light of it having been so long since I posted that my homepage was empty when I loaded up, here’s a couple of quick summaries of movies that I’ve seen recently:

  1. Click: A wretched piece of crap that should never, ever have been greenlighted. The first 10 minutes made a vaguely funny sketch, but after that, it deteriorates into schmalzty pap made worse only by an “aging” Adam Sandler getting pointlessly angry at himself.
  2. Le Samourai: mixing American Noir with French New Wave Pop-Culture cool, this film is a masterpiece, pure and simple. If you love cinema, particularly crime drama, you owe it to yourself to see this film. You can see its influence on nearly every lone-wolf crime movie since.
  3. A Prairie Home Companion: Like so many of Altman’s later movies, not so much a story as an extended scene, it is again filled with strong acting and a sense of actors having fun together. While I never bought the “world” portrayed within (being too aware at all times of the actors themselves), I enjoyed this one. Not his strongest, but if you’re an Altman fan, you’ll like it. If you don’t like Altman at the best of times, run screaming from this one.
  4. L’Enfer: This film is perhaps more famous for how hard it was to finish (it took 30 years to make) that for the story. Depending on your point-of-view, it’s either an insufferably slow and over-dramatic French Film about nothing (Leah’s take), or a beautiful, haunting meditation on the destructive power of Jealousy (my take).
  5. The Pursuit of Happyness: A strong performance by Will Smith in an otherwise fairly weak, predictable movie. I get that it’s based on a true-story but that doesn’t excuse the over-the-top manipulativeness of the direction. A subtler hand could have made an even more powerful film about the importance of vision, staying true to oneself, family, etc..
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