Saturday, August 29, 2015

Streaming Showcase: Crackle

It's time for the debut of my series of reviews of major SVOD (streaming video on demand) services. Note that my comments and grades, unless noted otherwise, are based on my viewing on Roku 3. When evaluating each channel, I consider content, navigatability (spellcheck be damned, I'm going with it), and overall value.

First up is the easiest one to review: Crackle, a free service offering uncut movies and television shows from the Sony library along with a small assortment of originals. It's easy to evaluate something you never watch. Crackle used to be OK for a free channel, but the latest version is not worthy of my time, and it's certainly not worthy of borrowing the name of one of our nation's great candy bars.

I used to enjoy Crackle every now and then. I checked out its rotating assortment of "Seinfeld" episodes, "The Larry Sanders Show," "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," and the occasional movie or old "Sanford and Son" episode. The ads were annoying, and the Roku channel wasn't the easiest to navigate, but it was free.

Then a few months back, Crackle rebooted, and I had to reinstall it. Uh-oh. Streaming video channels love to change things nobody asks them to change (Witness Netflix's constant tinkering, usually not for the better). When I launched the new channel, a Crackle Original movie (I discovered later) started playing, somewhere in the middle and at extremely high volume, no less.

Autoplay is the single most obnoxious feature on any Roku channel. It's perhaps the single most aggravating aspect of Yahoo! Screen and why I rarely go back there now that "Community" is over. I groaned as soon as I saw Crackle was now assaulting unsuspecting viewers with an unwanted video. At least, I think I groaned; I couldn't actually hear myself over the movie.

It got worse, though, as I tried to get out of the movie and find some semblance of the old interface. I was looking for, you know, a way to view what else was available to watch. What do they call that? Oh, yeah, a MENU. Roku crashed. I was irritated, but I tried again. Roku crashed again. I tried again later with the same result.

A week or so later, I was able to stop whatever dumb movie was forcing itself on me and get to a menu. Only now, only 3 seasons of "Larry Sanders" were available instead of the complete run. I tried to navigate my old watchlist and had troubles. I tried to watch something and had problems selecting an episode.

You know what? Even at the low, low price of FREE, Crackle isn't worth it. "Seinfeld" is now on Hulu, and it's the whole series, not a measly 10 episodes per month. I'd like to catch up on "Comedians in Cars," but I may have to do it on the web. I've been meaning to just get "Larry Sanders" on DVD, anyway. Nothing else on Crackle is essential, especially since it mostly consists of samplers of popular TV shows instead of complete series.

NOTE: Before writing this post, I figured I'd give Crackle another shot on my Sony Blu-Ray player, even though I have had problems on it as well. No autoplay--Good. Easy to access my watchlist--Good. Able to find a "Comedians in Cars" episode and play it--Good. Episode started with a commercial--Not good but acceptable since it's free.

But after the ad, the screen went blank, and I soon got an error message saying the video was unable to play. Nice of them to do that after the commercial. I tried again, and it wouldn't even play. So long, Crackle.

Grade: F.  There is some worthwhile content on Crackle, and I appreciate that it's free, but what's the use of it on a channel you can't play even if you want to play it? This revamp is a disaster, and though I did not delete it from my Roku lineup, I did bump  it down several rows in my grid. THAT'LL learn ya, Sony!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Vault of Coolness: ESPN was a lot different in 1984

I'm looking through a January 1983 edition of the esteemed "Guide," and one good thing about the L.A. edition is it includes some cable listings. This is what ESPN showed at 10:30am:

TENNIS The final of the Hartford (Conn.) Open, taped  Dec.19.

December 19! I have nothing against tennis being on instead of the inane debate shows in the morning, but ESPN ran a two-week-old match in broad daylight. I think ESPN still shows football game reruns the same week as the original, but, man!

That's not even the worst of it, though, because directly preceding this at 9:30 was...

FIGURE SKATING The Ennia Cup competition taped Nov. 9-14 in the Netherlands.

November 9-14! ESPN aired an almost two-month-old event in that slot. How long before Denise Austin and Kiana Tom would provide something a little fresher?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Shameless Self-Promotion: New at ClassicFlix

Just posted yesterday: My review of the brand-new DVD collection "The Rebel: The Complete Series"  from Timeless.  Sneak preview is below. Don't you dare miss it!

The Rebel - The Complete Series
TV TIME: The Rebel Lives Up to Its Name
Yesterday | by Rick Brooks
Johnny Yuma was a rebel

He roamed through the West

And Johnny Yuma, the rebel

He wandered alone

Timeless' 11-DVD collection of The Rebel offers both seasons and all 76 episodes of the 1959-1961 half-hour Western, each uncut with the iconic theme song sung by Johnny Cash. The series, which originally aired on ABC, is a provocative and distinctive example of the genre and is itself worthy of a purchase, but a solid group of extras give the set significant added value.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Checking back in with Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll (All right!)

The title of my post comes from the previews I saw over and over and over again while catching up on the latest season of "Louie." A few weeks ago I mentioned I may have to "hatewatch" this new Denis Leary FX comedy. Well, I'm watching it, but I'm not hating it!

Yes, some of the things I worried about have already surfaced. By the end of the first episode, there was already tension over whether Leary's aspiring rocker daughter, played by Elizabeth Gilles, would sleep with Leary's former bandmate, Flash, played by John Corbett. I worried about that scenario because we saw a similar dynamic on "Rescue Me" before it went off the rails. Plus for some reason I just really don't want John Corbett to get to sleep with her.

In the second episode, the band staged a sort of intervention to try to get Leary's Johnny Rock sober enough to write some songs. I worried about this scenario because "Rescue Me" went down the recovery road (road to recovery seemed trite, but see how I reworked it) soooo many times.

Fortunately this show is not "Rescue Me," though it is already going to the same well. Leary is more the butt of the joke in this series. "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" is more pure comedy than "Rescue Me," which makes the whole thing pretty easy to take. And most importantly, this is a half-hour program, so it gets in and out quickly before it can seem too indulgent.

So far, so good. The show is exactly what you think it would be but not yet what you fear it would be. It's not as ambitious nor as fresh and exciting as "Rescue Me" was when it began, but nor is it as tiresome as "Rescue Me" was at the end. After a few episodes, I'm ready to sit back, enjoy, and stop comparing it to "Rescue Me."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Cultureshark Remembers...all those TV shows that have left Netflix

R.I.P., all the older high-profile TV series that left Netflix in the last two months. They include:

*Mission Impossible
*Amazing Stories
*Knight Rider
*Hawaii Five-0 (seasons 1-10 of the original series)
*Miami Vice
*Dragnet (1960s version)
*Leave It to Beaver
*Magnum P.I.
*MacMillan and Wife

Leaving this month: Family Ties and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.

I complained about this a while ago, but I held out hope that Netflix would renew some of its agreements with CBS/Paramount and/or Universal to retain some of these shows. After all, we've had scares before that turned out to be temporary blips with some of the Netflix library programming. Plus many CBS/Paramount and Universal shows remain on Netflix streaming.

However, enough time has passed that I think it's safe to say these shows are gone, and if they come back it's not a renewal of existing agreements, but a new deal of some sort. That's a shame because to me a big part of  the service's value is this back catalog television selection. Netflix has not added much of this lately, which makes the deletion of so much of it all the more alarming.

It's possible that it's not Netflix's decision to remove these shows. CBS has a new (and really lacking) streaming service, and Universal may be funneling more shows to Hulu as exclusives. Plus "Mission Impossible" is now on Amazon Prime. The thing is, Netflix is so opaque about this kind of thing that there is no way of knowing if this is a conscious strategy to de-emphasize older programming.

Let's thing back on the good times we had cramming as much of these programs as we could into our routines before Netflix pulled them. There's a good kind of "binge watching," and then there's the desperation binge watching stemming from the knowledge that the whole damn thing is leaving in a few weeks.

I will fondly remember scrambling to watch Mission Impossible before it expired, then discovering Hawaii Five-0 was leaving. I will look back with a warm feeling as I recall the strange relief I felt when they did expire, immediately followed by the anxiety caused by the realization that even more series were disappearing the next month. Ah, the joys of streaming video. It's been a great summer, Netflix!

Monday, August 3, 2015

5Q Movie Review: Draft Day (2014)

Q: This movie features the cooperation of the NFL in the form of real team names and logos, appearances by NFL Network personalities, and even a role for Commissioner Roger Goodell as himself. Is this an authentic look at the annual NFL player draft?
A: No! The entire scenario that unfolds in "Draft Day," involving multiple last-minute trades of high draft picks, Costner's general manager making rash decisions without involving anyone in his organization, etc., is laughable. The story strains credibility at the beginning, then becomes increasingly ludicrous.

Q: Do you have to be a football fan to enjoy "Draft Day"?
A: It's hard for me to judge how a non-fan would react to it, but I think it helps to know how the NFL Draft really works, not because it enhances your appreciation of the movie, but because it lets you enjoy how bad it is. A mediocre film becomes a true howler.

The story centers on the pursuit of a franchise QB named Bo Callahan. Costner makes a reckless move to get the number one pick so he can get Callahan, THEN decides he needs to research the player. This is on the day of the draft, mind you. Then he changes his mind and starts making more reckless trades, and THEN the movie contorts itself so that the team he originally traded with has to reverse its position for no reason, all so that Costner's GM (who is compared to Joe Montana) can be lauded as some sort of genius. In real life, the guy would be pilloried for not understanding the process, even if he somehow were able to do everything he does in this story.

Q: Is Kevin Costner at least credible as the Cleveland Browns general manager?
A: The stuff he does is ridiculous, but Costner in a sports movie delivers just about every time. It's a good thing because while "Draft Day" half-heartedly tries to weave in threads about his complicated relationship with Jennifer Garner's salary cap guru and with his mother and late father, there isn't much else going on here. The focus is on the machinations of the draft, and there is little compelling about any character in the film, Costner included.

Q: What about the rest of the cast?
A: It seems like a waste to cast Denis Leary as a head coach but not give him a chance to do a lengthy rant--at the team, at Costner, at the guy who does research for the media guide, anybody. He just kinds of bitches about things the whole time until he suddenly does a 180 and embraces Costner's character like he's Ron Wolf.

Jennifer Garner doesn't have much to do, but then again, neither does anyone else. It's kind of nice to see Rosanna Arquette again for a few minutes. I assume someone owed Sean Combs a favor and that's why he has a role as Bo Callhan's agent. I would have rather seen more of Terry Crews, who plays a different agent.

There's a small taste of "Veep" with Kevin Dunn and Timothy Simons, plus Tom Welling in a small role. I have to admit I didn't recognize Welling. Frank Langella and Ellen Burstyn do decent work as (basically) a-holes: the a-hole team owner and Costner's a-hole mother.

There are a lot of other recognizable faces, too, plus a bevy of ESPN and pro football cameos, but none stands out. It's a very Costner-centric movie.

Q: What should Costner's next sports movie be?
A: Even if I don't like the movies, there's something about Costner in a sports flick that's just so easy to watch. I want to say him play a fictionalized version of Vince McMahon in a period piece about 1980s professional wrestling.

How about a story with Costner as a controversial former tennis pro who sees a chance for redemption in training a rising superstar? We don't  get enough tennis movies.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Many Faces of William Shatner at ClassicFlix (Shameless self-promotion)

For my latest ClassicFlix piece, I thought it would be fun to write about the iconic Bill Shatner without discussing Star Trek and Twilight Zone. Please check out The Many Faces of William Shatner, and check out the rest of the site--both the selection and the writing--while you're there. Stay tuned for more content here this week!

TV TIME: The Many Faces of William Shatner
TV TIME: The Many Faces of William Shatner
    Here's how big an icon William Shatner is: If you wiped his most famous role out of existence, one of the most popular characters in television history, he would STILL be one of the biggest icons the medium has ever known. In addition to his unforgettable performances as Captain James T. Kirk, the 84-year-old Canadian stars in two of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes, "Nick of Time" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." In fact, his post-classic-era work is arguably enough to make him a TV immortal...[click here to continue]