Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Pirates of Silicon Valley

If Big Media insist on behaving like scammers in the name of protecting their intellectual property, they will be the ones to miss out... big time.

For the time being traditional media outlets continue to produce most of the best content that is out there. This may not last but that, my friends, is a conversation for another day. American TV in particular is enjoying a particularly good run of form with series like The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing  making it difficult for even the most committed telly addicts to keep on top of it all. This is great, of course, and long may it continue. 

In the spirit of wanting to see such good works continue and in the name of supporting the artists (as well as the studios) who make such fine works possible, I recently bought a copy of Game of Thrones on Blu-Ray. Purchased from a well known British retailer (apparently one in six pounds are spent in its stores), this handsome high-definition presentation, replete with Dolby mastered 6.1 sound and numerous extras set me back some £31.99 - and very happy I was too. 

As soon as I had finished watching the first two episodes, which I did back to back, I knew that I had bought a bargain, and I was glad I had waited to watch the genuine article. Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage et al's impeccable acting, George R.R Martin's intricate plotting and the glorious landscapes of Scotland, Ireland and northern England were a joy to behold. No digital download I have ever seen could have hoped to rival the clarity, depth or vibrancy of the image. 

I was one happy customer, as they say. Until... (don't tell me you knew there was a twist coming) one day, out of the blue, Power DVD requested that I update the software on my computer. Within seconds the download was complete and the Blu-Ray disks for my lovely new Game of Thrones box set refused to play. 

Like any computer-savvy consumer I immediately turned to the Internet for help. What was this nonsense? Forum after forum described the exact same problem. None offered solutions. 

Maybe I just need to upgrade the software? 

Well, yes and no. Apparently, at some point in the relatively recent past new DRM restrictions on Blu-Ray disks have caused PowerDVD to withdraw Blu-Ray disk support for older versions of the software. Disks that previously worked no longer do. My entire Blu-Ray collection is now unplayable on my computer unless I pay an additional ~£35 to the company that makes PowerDVD, which seemingly has some sort of exclusive license for the HD drivers that convert the digital information encoded on the disks into sounds and video.

I cannot help but notice that this is the exact same 'business model' adopted by malware scammers. 

Personally, it makes me much more disinclined to buy any more Blu-Ray disks. How about you?

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Holding up the Mirror

Ghost in the Shell is a highly influential Japanese cyberpunk science-fiction film from 1995.  The film concerns a female cyborg assassin called Major Motoko Kusanagi, the leader of an elite counter-intelligence unit called Section 9 and its brushed chrome style influenced the look of The Matrix, which also borrowed its scrolling green alpha-numerics.

Tasked with apprehending a dangerous hacker called the Puppet Master, who has been using 'ghost hacked' humans to accomplish shadowy political aims by proxy, Kusanagi starts to question the validity of her subjective experience as an artificial human. One striking sequence in an interrogation cell depicts a ghost hacked human confronted with the truth about the simulated experience the Puppet Master has programmed into his brain in order to manipulate him. "Will I get my old memories back?" he opines, desperately.

Short and snappy at 80 minutes, Ghost in the Shell takes science fiction norms familiar from the writings of William Gibson and Blade Runner, and lends them a sinewy sense of Oriental otherness.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The fullest cinema I have seen in a very long time and a much broader demographic than I anticipated turned out to watch the new Joss Whedon movie - Marvel's Avengers Assemble - on Saturday afternoon. Disney's marketing executives have been having a pretty torrid time of it of late, what with John Carter (of Mars... or not of Mars, as the case may be). Marvel's Avengers Assemble therefore is the rather clumsy title they have plumped for in the UK, to distinguish it from tongue-in-cheek British spy series of the 1960s and Hollywood box office flop of 1998, The Avengers.

There are a million different ways in which approach a review about this particular film. From a business perspective it is the culmination of a four-year long franchise film cycle that started with Iron Man in 2008. From a creative perspective it is the latest in a vast array of Hollywood superhero movies produced since they decided to start giving these hyper-real juggernauts to serious filmmakers, beginning with Bryan Singer and X-Men in 2000.

For this particular outing Marvel has turned to the talents of writer-director Joss Whedon, probably best known for his work on American cult TV series, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. His assured handling of witty repartee makes him an obvious choice to helm what is essentially a superhero ensemble piece and even his action sequences is surprisingly solid - shots that looked televisual in the trailers really come to life in movie.

What of the film itself?

At times Robert Downey Jnr threatens to unbalance the entire enterprise, so supple is his handling of the throwaway comic quip. But he is just about kept in check by Mark Ruffalo's quietly powerful work as Bruce Banner and his mean, green alter ego. There is a moment early on when Ruffalo threatens Scarlett Johannsen's Black Widow that made me immediately love his character, a darkly mischievous streak that leans heavily on the fact that he knows people are terrified of making him angry. I had never seen anyone explore that aspect of Banner's character before. Chris Evans deserves plaudits for portrayal of the earnest all American boy-cum-military athlete extraordinaire Captain America. Playing opposite Downey Jnr's wisecracking genius billionaire playboy philanthropist he certainly risks coming across as too good to be true, but Evans invests his characterisation with an honesty and a warmth that makes you root for him too. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is probably less well served than any of his compatriots in the gang, but he doesn't put a foot wrong with the material he is given to play.

Of course, heroes are only as good as their villain, and in the form of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, The Avengers are onto a real winner. I was not sure that his character would prove substantive enough to propose a legitimate threat to such a mighty gang but, as played by Hiddleston, Loki is everything he should be - a snivelling but oddly charismatic man-boy who happens to have the powers of a Norse God.

Yes, I know it is another Hollywood superhero movie. Yes, I know it is the centrepiece of a multi-platform multimedia movie-gaming franchise. Yes, I know it is predictable in places and cheesy in others, but Whedon writes with wit, directs with style and his cast have just the right mix of fun and fantasy threat. Check your cynicism at the door and just go with it, remember what is was like to wake up early on a Saturday morning and watch the Marvel Action Hour - pure escapism, if you've got sufficent imagination to embrace it.