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January 10, 2007

Peking to Paris

Filed under: Television — Bob @ 9:29 pm

From the newspaper Le Matin on January 31, 1907:

What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?

I was flipping around the TV listings one afternoon a few weeks back and discovered a program titled Peking to Paris on the Book Channel. The program’s basic premise: recreate a historic race from modern-day Beijing to Paris using century-old automobiles and take along a TV crew to film the whole thing. I was hooked immediately.

The most fun appears to be meeting interesting people along the way during such a race. The least fun is likely the numerous breakdowns although crossing the border from Mongolia into Russia didn’t look to be a laugh. On a positive note, the frequent breakdowns turn into new opportunities to meet people such as a rough-looking motorcycle gang who turn out to be excellent mechanics and who also know a very skilled blacksmith who can make replacement leaf springs by hand.

The show concept is great, the narration is really delightful, and the visuals are excellent. There are four episodes in total; the first three involve getting from Bejing to the Ural mountains, halfway to Paris, and certainly the toughest half. The second half of the trip as well as the conclusion are all wrapped up in a single episode

I understand from the Wikipedia article there have been a number of recreations although none as accurate as this one. I also see there is another recreation coming up this year to commemorate the race’s centennial anniversary.

I think it would be really fun to enter such a race. Maybe someday! Anyone else find this sort of thing irresistible?

Edited January 28th: there were only four episodes total, not eight as I originally predicted.

November 20, 2006

HD + PVR = Happy Happy, Joy Joy

Filed under: Software,Television — Bob @ 8:52 pm

I’ve discovered new joy in life, in the form of HD television and a PVR – a digital video recorder similar to a Tivo. Eileen’s folks gave us a beautiful Toshiba LCD HD television recently, and we upgraded to the Shaw HD terminal with the PVR feature. Sure it was expensive but well worth it.

At this very moment, we are watching last night’s Without A Trace episode, sans commercials. Earlier we caught up on some Daily Show episodes from last week, again we fast-forwarded through the commercials. This new gadget has really altered the way we watch television. Instead of trying to catch certain shows at certain times, we just record them for later viewing at a more convenient time. We record every episode of our favorites so we never miss out even if we are out being social.

I have thought about buying a Tivo for a long time now. I even considered building a MythTV appliance to make it even better. The only things that stopped me were the lack of HDTV support (although I understand this is now available from Tivo and you can buy HD tuner cards for MythTV) and the lack of integration with Shaw’s cable service for encrypted channels like the Documentary Channel. And the cost isn’t really less for either solution, especially if you end up with a good quality case for the MythTV solution.

Shaw’s service isn’t flawless but its darn near perfect. The recording feature integrates with the “guide” of upcoming programming, recording is a single button press, and it offers to automatically record every new episode of a given show. I have it set up to record every episode of the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, Numbers, and Battlestar Galactica.

I would like to have larger recording capacity but honestly I haven’t found it really necessary. And I’d like to have a text search to find programming to record but even that hasn’t been terribly limiting.

October 9, 2006

Why? Why does it always happen to the best ones?

Filed under: Television — Bob @ 4:59 pm

I just found out that the television program Smith was cancelled last Friday.

I was looking for it on the guide, I was expecting it to be on later tonight on CTV. I couldn’t find it, so I went to the CTV website but there is absolutely no references to be found. The CBS website is far enough behind that they are still talking about last week’s episode.

A search on Google turned up the Wikipedia link so I visited it, and found out the news.

Sure, episode two wasn’t as good as episode one, but episode three was really fantastic and both Eileen and I were eagerly anticipating tonight’s episode.

So sad. So tragic.

September 19, 2006

Heist Television Gets Edgy

Filed under: Television — Bob @ 7:53 am

untitled11.jpgLast night we watched the pilot episode of Smith starrring Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen. It was pretty good, and a welcome change from the latest trend of “good guys” shows like Law & Order and CSI. Unlike the classic stories of Robin Hood (rob from the rich, give to the poor) or The Thomas Crown Affair (rich guy steals but doesn’t hurt anyone) this story has sharp edges and blunt-force trauma.

I think the writers looked at every other drama on television and said “nothing that appears in those shows will appear in ours”. It was really different, and really enjoyable. I strongly suspect it will be ignored by most people as it contains a lot of violence, the characters are significantly flawed, and the storyline requires some thinking.

We’ll watch again next week for sure. If you enjoy a different kind of drama, you might like this too.

Did anyone else catch this?

February 5, 2006

Serenity

Filed under: Movies,Television — Bob @ 2:22 pm

We watched Serenity last night. This is the fifth time I’ve watched the movie: twice in the theatre, twice on DVD and now again with our friend Alan. He was visiting last night, he was curious to see it again, and of course I was happy to oblige.

I really loved the original Firefly series. I wasn’t a huge Joss Whedon fan before, and didn’t watch Buffy or Angel regularly at all. But Firefly was really interesting; maybe because it was set in a dark, space-faring future it was more appealing to me than vampire hunting.

There are lots of reasons why Firefly never took off (it only lasted half a season) but none of it had to do with the quality of the story, or the quality of the acting, or the quality of the directing, or the quality of the photography. You can blame FOX if you want: they didn’t run the pilot episode first, they put it into a late Friday night time slot, they didn’t do enough promotion, etc.

My opinion: the story is too sophisticated for the audiences that tune into FOX, or any broadcast television programming for that matter. Compare Firefly with the new Battlestar Galactica. Both have large casts, extensive sets, special effects, and complicated story arcs. But if you put BSG onto FOX (or NBC, for that matter) it would flop. Broadcast television simply does not attract the type of audience that wants stories like Firefly.

Anyways, I digress. What I really wanted to write about is what I thought was good and bad about Serenity. Its easy to start with the good stuff. The direction is very good, its revealed in every shot. Sets are complete. Dialogue is just right. Lighting is perfect. Actors deliver the emotional punch on cue. Everything is correct.

The entire movie is filled with great dialogue; the actors are good (not great) but the dialogue smooths over the points of bad acting. The original casting was really good. A whole bunch of unknown actors, but each was well matched to their role. And clearly the cast gets along well.

Mostly you have to appreciate the photography. In the first scene where you see Mel and the ship’s crew, its a four and a half minute continuous hand-held shot. No cuts. You are introduced to all the characters on the ship as well as the ship itself in one long walk-around tour. That is very atypical: most shots are 30 seconds max, and often much shorter. The classic technique calls for quick cuts to keep up pacing and often used to create a frantic setting.

Yet this shot really works. The Serenity ship set is huge and complex. During the walk-around the interactions between characters are established immediately. You see the contrast to the Alliance world (first portrayed in the opening scenes). You feel the hectic pace as the ship is shuddering through its landing cycle. You sense the depth and complexity of the crew’s relationships. And its funny. The dialogue is sharp, witty and clean.

The camera work is good; there are plenty of interesting shots from interesting angles and nothing feels out of place. Joss Whedon used hand-held work to maximum effect in both the original series and in the movie. Many of the special effects shots are done with the same feeling. You often will see the “camera” focusing in on the external view of the ship hanging in space. The shot is entirely computer-generated. The ship doesn’t exist, the “camera” isn’t a real camera, and yet it still feels like a wobbly just-coming-into-focus hand-held shot. I’ve noticed the same thing happening in BSG. It adds a sense of realism too.

Now for the bad. The concept of Mr. Universe was terrible, as it provided no real value to the story. As a plot device, was full of contradictions. Supposedly ships couldn’t be observed descending into the planet’s atmosphere, yet somehow communications signals were able to travel in to and out from the planet’s surface without interference? Planet-side there were very large structures, a landing strip, etc. and yet the whole place was inhabited by a single person (plus love-bot)? Mr. Universe is an unsophisticated character, a simple and shallow plot device that doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. Dumb.

The ending was decidedly poor. Mel had no reason to let The Operative (the villian) live; out of character for Mel in my opinion. The Operative had no real reason to “see the light” even after watching the video about Miranda and the effects of the Pax. As a deadly instrument of the Alliance, he already accepted that extreme measures where often required. He certainly had no motivation to allow the Serenity crew to escape. He should have ordered the Alliance forces to take prisioners. And he certainly should not have visited Mel prior to the ship’s departure. But all of that was completely unnecessary for the storyline.

The crew could have escaped without running into the Alliance at all. It would have left the story in the same place it started: the crew was on the run at the start, the crew should have still been on the run at the end. Essentially, the movie could have gone from the big “River vs. the Reavers” fight directly to patching the ship and flying away. Let The Operative die, or let Mel kill him with his own sword, that would have been better, and move on.

Oh well, no movie is perfect. This one was very good though. Likely there are people who disagree with my opinions. But they are wrong. :^)

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