The apes are back!

The Planet of the Apes franchise is coming back yet again this summer for another go but this time it’s quite different from the previous six iterations. None of the previous tellings have really tried to explain how these apes came to have human-like speech and cognitive abilities.

This is where the prequel “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” comes in.  A researcher played by James Franco inadvertently “creates” the apes that will take over where humanity left off.

The other major difference this time around is the visuals. The last Apes movie, directed by Tim Burton was almost universally panned except for the look of the apes. Unlike the obvious rubber masks worn by Roddy McDowall and his cohorts in the late-1960s and early-1970s, Burton’s apes looked more like the real deal.

This time around there will be no makeup jobs on the actors. Instead the visual effects gurus at Peter Jackson’s WETA studio have rendered the apes digitally after doing motion capture the way they did Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.  In fact, Andy Serkis who provided the motions and voice of Gollum is back as Caeser, the prime ape that leads the uprising. From the trailer, it looks really good, although so did Burton’s take on the apes. We’ll just have to wait until August for the real deal.

Apple goes too far with subscription money grab 4

You have to give Apple credit for chutzpah. Last week they announced a new subscription system for content available on iOS devices and they are trying to grab revenues that they have no legitimate claim too.  I love Apple design and I prefer to use Apple computers and iPods over any competing brands. However, I have avoided being drawn into the iOS ecosystem which includes iPhone and iPad. Apple simply exerts far too much control over these devices for my liking.

When Apple introduced the App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch several years ago they set up a system that allowed both paid and free apps. Aside from a one-time $99 to join the developer program, developers could create and distribute apps through the store at no additional cost such as hosting fees. Developers that opted to charge for their apps would split the revenues 70/30 with Apple. This wasn’t an entirely unreasonable split since Apple provided the distribution servers and credit card processing. It’s generally been acknowledged that Apple makes little or no profit on this deal since its costs were roughly comparable to its 30% of the take. A fair deal all around.

The new subscription system allows publishers to distribute apps such as News Corp’s “The Daily” and charge a recurring subscription fee for content, just like a newspaper or magazine sub. Apple insists on take a 30% cut of this revenue which is OK if it is handling data distribution and credit card processing. However at the same time that the subscription payment system was announced, it declared that any and all purchases through apps must be handled through its in-app payment system and the subsequent 70/30 split.

This is actually very problematic for many companies. For example, Amazon offers a free Kindle e-reader app for iOS devices (and Android and Blackberry as well). Kindle users can buy books directly on their devices but on other machines, the app sends users to a mobile browser to search for books and make purchases on the Amazon web site. The books can then be downloaded through the app from their library.  Nowhere in this process is Apple facilitating anything. They are not serving data or handling financial transactions, Amazon is bearing all the costs of distribution. So why does Apple deserve any payment.

This actually started when Sony submitted a reader app similar to the Kindle App that also tried to bypass the in-app purchase system and Apple rejected it. Apple subsequently told Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other distributors that they could no longer get away without paying Cupertino its due. The situation gets even worse for streaming media providers like Pandora, Rhapsody, Netlfix and Hulu.

Those companies spend a lot of money on licenses and a distribution backbone independent of Apple.  Apple provides no service to them other than then customers that bought its products and want to use a variety of services. However, Apple already profited handsomely when it sold the devices. If Apple wants an ongoing revenue stream from media streaming it needs to get off the pot and open its own service.

Being forced to pay Apple 30% of gross revenue for the privilege of access to its huge customer base is just outright extortion on Apple’s part. Most of these companies are money losers already losing such a large chunk for no reason would make then totally unviable. If they raise prices to pay off Apple they will also have to raise the price charged to users on other platforms like Android and Blackberry because Apple also mandates that media distributors cannot charge its users more than any other platform.

The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice have apparently opened a preliminary anti-trust investigation into the new Apple practices.  Unfortunately it seems unlikely that the feds will end up doing anything of significance to Apple. Given that, people should stop buying iOS devices until Apple backs down on this issue. The money grab needs to stop.  Apple should not be paid for doing nothing.

Spartacus: What a difference 50 years makes

Having now watched the first two episodes of the Starz series Spartacus:Gods of the Arena and re-watched last year’s Spartacus:Blood and Sand, I decided to go back and re-watch the 1960 Stanley Kubrik film based on the revolutionary gladiator.  Wow, what a difference half a century makes. I’ve long been a fan of Kubrik’s work and he created some amazing films including Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket.

However, sitting down and watching Spartacus this afternoon I’m reminded that Kubrik also often needed a strong editorial hand on his work. Of course given his reputation as something of a control freak, it’s unlikely that he ever would have accepted such oversight in the final cutting of his films. Despite having won four Oscars, I found the movie to be very uneven and often plodding with long wordless sequences of the camera panning over the camps of escaped slaves or other scenes that really did nothing to move the plot forward or develop the characters.  Both the dialog in many places and the performances also left much to be desired, although the bath scene with Laurence Olivier’s Crassus and Tony Curtis’s Antonius remains a classic.  Don’t even get me started on the This three hour epic could have easily been cut by a third without losing anything of significance.

Aside from being set in a ludus (gladitorial school) in Capua, the modern iteration of this tale couldn’t be more different from the film. In typical modern fashion, the new Spartacus takes advantage (or is that disadvantage?) of lots of digital effects.  Unfortunately, much of it used to produce gratuitous amounts of violence. Despite that, the story telling and character development in this modern iteration is actually quite good and goes well beyond what Kubric achieved 50 years ago.  The back stories of many of the characters are quite fleshed out, especially in this second season which is actually a prequel. Andy Whitfield who played Spartacus was unable to film the second season after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

The full first season and each of the episodes of season two are available for streaming on Netflix and well worth checking out.

Movie remakes

We got the new 2006 version of The Omen in the mail from Netflix today and it raises a question. What is the point of remaking a film shot for shot from a one that was good to start with? If you have nothing new to offer, why bother to spend tens of millions of dollars to re-shoot it? With the new version Battlestar Galactica, the producers took the basic premise of the original, and then expanded and took it in new directions. This new version of The Omen, like the remake of Psycho, a few years back, is a complete replica of the original, with new actors and sets but nothing else new. Between shit like this and all the sequels it’s no wonder Hollywood is going down the tubes and it’s well deserved.

Best Ford and Sony commercial ever

aston martin dbsJules, Max and I went to see Casino Royale this afternoon and it’s definitely the best Ford and Sony commercial yet. Oh yeah and it’s also a really good James Bond movie. The first chase sequence after the opening credits was absolutely amazing, and must be seen to be believed. The whole movie was really good, and Daniel Craig was a great choice to be the new Bond and is probably the best since Connery. Judi Dench looks great for 72 and as usual she put in a great performance as Bond’s boss M.
There was actually a decent story line and character development, with part of the plot here being the beginning of Bond’s career as a “00” agent. It’s not a great artistic triumph, but it is well crafted and entertaining.

However, it was hard to ignore all the product placement. As always, cars played a prominent part, with recent Bond films featuring a return to their Aston Martin roots after using Lotus and BMWs for several films from the late 70s to early 90s. These days Aston Martin is owned by Ford and the company definitely got their money’s worth in terms of screen time. In addition to the old ’64 Aston DB5 from the first Bond movies, there was a new custom made DBS, as well as lots of Jaguars, Land Rovers, Ranger Rovers and assorted other Ford brand vehicles. There was also a nicely shot sequence that would make a great commercial for the new European Ford Mondeo. Cell phones and laptops also played an important part in the plot, and the Sony-Erricson and Sony Vaio logos were clearly visible and legible at every opportunity.

In spite of all the logos, if you’re in the mood for a good, entertaining action flick that also has a plot and acting Casino Royale is definitely worth seeing.

Improving bad Star Wars Dialog 1

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long been accused (rightfully so) of being incapable of writing decent dialog. Some of his dialog has in fact been truly awful especially in the Episode 1,2 & 3 movies. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Checking Digg this morning, I found the following site. Top 176 Star Wars Lines Improved By Replacing A Word With “Pants”. Just a sample of the improvements avaiable:

Chewie and me got into a lot of pants more heavily guarded than this.

The Force is strong in my pants.

In his pants you will find a new definition of pain and suffering.

We need to try this with Star Trek lines.

Young FrankenSteve

Some years ago a video surfaced on the internet that could probably be considered one of the earliest viral videos. This video became widely known as the MonkeyBoy video. Someone shot it a Microsoft professional developers conference during a speech by Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer. Ballmer has always been known as being rather loud and annoying to put it mildly, but this video plus another one shot at another conference truly put him over the top. The second video, known as the developers, developers video brought new meaning to the word sweat. Now someone has created a mashup of the creature presentation scene from the classic Mel Brookes film Young Frankenstein and the two Ballmer videos. Enjoy!

It’s time for the big one

OK the time has come for long awaited big earthquake that sucks California into the Pacific. At least Hollywood needs to be put out of our misery. They clearly have nothing worthwhile left to offer the world. I was scanning through Digg tonight and what should I find but a story about the trailer for Rocky 6. Yes you read that right Rocky Balboa is back for another round. Now would someone please explain to me why anyone would fund this movie? A quick check of IMDB shows that Sylvester Stallone tuned 60 last week. Why the hell is this guy making another Rocky movie? Worse guess what he is doing next. You got it, Rambo is back. Rambo 4 comes in 2007 Does Hollywood actually have any original ideas? If not then please shut it down.

On a side note, why do we need HDTV to watch the US Poker Championships? Since when is Poker a sport anyway? Why is ESPN showing Poker championships at all, let alone in HD? More evidence that the mainstream media is completely hopeless.

An Inconvenient Truth

We went to see Al Gore’s global warming movie yesterday, An Inconvenient Truth. The movie was great and really laid out all evidence of global heating. Although I have seen and heard much of this evidence before, seeing it in one place really brings it home. One thing that concerned me going in was that the whole tone was going to be depressing and leave me feeling hopeless. On the contrary the final part of the presentation was a retelling of some of the amazing achievements of humanity to demonstrate what we can do. The point was that we have the capability to change our ways and maybe reverse this process. We just need the will to do it. The whole tone was one of hope rather than despair. Everyone should see this film. It is not perfect but it is very good. As I have said before, the earth will carry on. Species will go extinct and homo sapiens are one of them. Species have always gone extinct in the past and new ones have evolved to take their place. This has happened many times through the history of the planet. The big question is can be maintain the earth’s climate and ecosystems so that we can extend our time here? I believe we can but we need to work at it and change our behavior now.

One of the trailers we saw before the film was for a new documentary called The U.S. VS John Lennon. I hadn’t heard of this one before but it looks very interesting. It tells the story of the Nixon administration’s battle to have John Lennon deported because of his anti-war activities. It’s such a shame that we don’t we have a John Lennon among us today. Instead we are stuck with the likes of Bill O’Rielly and Anne Coulter. On the other hand, we do have this amazing communications medium of the internet. We have the capacity for millions of us to make our voices heard through blogs, podcasts, music, films and many other mediums. The thing we need to remember is that even in a democracy being in power is a corrupting influence. It has happened to people on all sides of the political spectrum, although corruption seems to bring out a particularly nasty streak in politicians on the right. This film appears to document the lengths that an administration went to silence one outspoken musician. It is a very important story to see in this time of NSA spying on Americans, people being locked up without charges or access to a lawyer, people being picked up from streets of foreign countries and transported to secret prisons for torture and other atrocities. Don’t forget that just because, or maybe especially if they keep bringing up God in their speeches it doesn’t mean that a politician should be trusted to protect your freedoms.

The one thing that makes the United States special is our constitution. Defend the constitution, without that you have no real freedom, and without that security really means nothing.

Free video for small devices

I recently replaced my Motorola V710 cell phone with a palm Treo 650 smart-phone. The phone came free as a result of a class action settlement with verizon wireless. The timing worked out great because although the v710 worked great for me as a phone, the batteries in both the phone and my palm tungsten T2 were at the point where they would barely hold a charge anymore. So I took the opportunity to replace 2 devices with one. After I got the new phone I remembered a site I heard about some months back shortly after the Ipod with video support came out.

There used to be a concept called public domain. When the copyright on a work expired, that work entered the public domain, so that others could use it and adapt it to create new works. This is how the Walt Disney company made most of there fortune. Movies like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Treasure Planet and the Hunchback of Notre Dame are based on stories that have passed into the public domain. The way intellectual property laws are going these days it is entirely possible that copyright protection may become perpetual and no more works may enter the public domain.

Anyway back to my original point. There are a lot of old movies on which the copyright has expired which are now in the public domain. There is a site called public domain torrents that has a list of almost 800 films and serials that are in the public domain and available for purchase on disk or free download via bit-torrent. If you are not familiar with bittorrent, it is a completely legal open-source technology for peer to peer file sharing. It is being used by many companies for enabling faster, cheaper downloads. It is also used for a lot of trading of copyrighted works but that does not detract from it’s legitimate uses. Azureus is an excellent cross-platform (works on windows, Linux and mac) bit-torrent client. The videos on public domain torrents are available in variety of formats (mp4 and divx) prepared for different hardware platforms, including the ipod, the playstation portable, and various pdas and smart-phones. I currently have Nosferatu, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the original Little Shop of Horrors (including one of Jack Nicholson’s first film roles) on my 1GB SD flash card.

Of course the treo doesn’t come with software that can play these files but fortunately I found TCPMP. The core pocket media player is an open-source (there’s that term again) project that is available for both Palm OS and Windows Mobile platforms. TCPMP has codec plug-in support for most of the popular audio and video codecs including mp3, ogg, wma, divx, xvid, mpeg1, mpeg4 and many others. On the bright 320×320 screen of the treo these videos look really good. The treo and tcpmp is also great for watching video podcasts like Rocketboom a daily 5 minute video starring Amanda Congdon.