Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why I'm not excited about "Filmstruck"

The announcement that Turner is starting a TCM-branded SVOD service called Filmstruck has many movie lovers salivating. I don't blame them; the initial announcement was worded in way to raise expectations. But if you look closely at what is actually being promised when the service launches this fall, there's less reason for optimism. Here are reasons why I will take a wait and see approach:

1) Hulu loses Criterion: Hulu-Plus is an affordable service that offers tons of content in addition to the Criterion Collection. Now this great movie content goes elsewhere to yet another premium channel. Wouldn't it be better for all of us if Netflix, Hulu, etc., just kept/got more of this kind of content instead of all it being parceled out among different expensive channels? More niche services like Mubi and Fandor are being targeted by Filmstruck, too.

2) Filmstruck won't even have all Criterion: No, Criterion will have its OWN premium channel you'll have to buy ON TOP OF Filmstruck. This "movie lover's dream" is gonna be pretty expensive. Some Criterion content will be on Filmstruck, but how much? This question leads us to...

3) "Curated": Everyone is using the word "curated" to describe this service. Beware when a streaming video outlet boasts of being curated. That's a fancy way of saying, "Don't expect to get all the stuff you get on Netflix or Hulu. We're not gonna give you access to more than a fraction of what we have."

4) This ain't TCM: The TCM brand name is very powerful, but the movies being touted, while  not incompatible with Turner Classic Movies, are not at all representative of the bread and butter of TCM. It sounds like this will have a distinctly modern focus, with indie and arthouse favorites that have already been seen many times.

5) Remember Warner Archive Instant? This same company started a niche product several years ago and touted it as a movie lover's dream. Now it recycles the same content when it bothers to update at all and stands as a massive letdown, nowhere near the TCM on Demand many thought it might be.

6) What's the price gonna be? I'm guessing it'll be 9.99 a month for way less content than you get on other leading SVOD servives. I'll be happy to be proven wrong.

There are some promising signs, too, like the announcement that companies like Kino and Flicker Alley are in on this.  It may well be a fantastic service. Overall, though, it doesn't look like great news, and I think movie lovers should really lower their expectations until launch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 5

1) Amazon Prime: Now offering a month-to-month option, something I wanted for years. Some analysts pooh-poohed this, but I want to applaud them for doing it. Now add some good content.

2) Hulu: Quiet this week, but still one of the biggest players week in and week out.

3) Pub-D-Hub: Every now and then, they slip in a "new" title that's already available, which kind of irks me, but my love affair with this outfit continues.

4) Netflix: Stock dropped, and more importantly to me, I saw the list of stuff coming up in May, and it's weak: An Adam Sandler movie, Chelsea Handler, and some other uninspiring originals. So much for my wishes of a big surprise to mitigate that price hike. "Minions" was the token high-profile movie add of the past week.

5) Shout Factory TV: Can't wait to see what's coming in May.

6) Weather Nation: Because I can turn on my Roku, load this channel, and instantly see the weather forecast without any BS.

7) Seeso: I signed up for them through a promotional offer, and so far, the content is a little underwhelming, but the big problem is the slowness of the site and the technical issues I had over the weekend.

8) HBO Now: Good: "Game of Thrones" returns. Bad: Users report widespread outages during the premiere and complain. Because God forbid people lose their ability to LIVE TWEET their witticisms during the premiere.

9) MLB-TV: Would it kill them to put a Pirates joint in its Free Game of the Day? On the verge of dropping out of the rankings.

10) Warner Archive Instant: Still a huge failure, but it's close to getting me for a month again after re-adding "Flo" this past week.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Shameless Self-Promotion: Ant and the Aardvark review at ClassicFlix

I really enjoyed Kino Lorber's Blu-Ray collection of "The Ant and the Aardvark" cartoons. I expected something that would be fun but best watched over a period of some time, yet I wound up tearing through the set. Despite the formula, I found I could watch a bunch in a row. Plus Kino did a commendable job.

Check out my review by clicking the link below, and tell 'em Cultureshark sent you. Don't you dare miss it!

The Ant and the Aardvark
Hijinks Ensue with The Ant and the Aardvark
04/21/2016 | by Rick Brooks
It's possible most fans today remember The Ant and the Aardvark as a television property only, but it began as a theatrical product. In the wake of Warner Brothers' decision to shutter its animation department in the early 1960s...

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cultureshark Remembers Garry Shandling

This is long overdue, but I am not going to pass up the chance to talk about Shandling just because it's been a few weeks since he died. Of course, being a "Cultureshark Remembers" post, it's actually going to be about me, so let me say first of all that Garry Shandling was an all-time great, a hilarious comedian who helped bring us two of the best television programs ever made. My personal favorite Shandling trademark: The pained facial expression he would give, often to the camera, either in reaction to another performer or sometimes just to his own joke.

Of those two of the best television programs ever made, I think "It's Garry Shandling's Show" is somewhat neglected these days. "Larry Sanders" deserves its prominent role among those in the know, but Shandling's 1980s sitcom was just as good and possibly just as influential. There is a certain kind of self-referential comic sensibility that I think is often credited to "The Simpsons," among other places, but I remember watching Shandling as a kid and being blown away by it: the breaking the fourth wall, the constant send-ups of television conventions, the sense that anything could happen. All of it was within a format that allowed for a sitcom story of some kind to unfold.

"Burns and Allen" featured plenty of talking to the camera, but it was more than that on "It's Garry Shandling's Show." Not only did Garry acknowledge the viewer, but he also addressed the studio audience, even involving them in the story. The cameramen, people with cue cards, grips--all were part of the environment and liable to be part of the action. Combine this exciting landscape with Shandling's standup persona and sharp writing, and you got a classic. I loved it.

My dad loved it, too, and for a while, we actually had Showtime--I think for the "Honeymooners Lost Episodes" as well as for Shandling, but Garry was certainly a highlight.  And let's face it, there wasn't a whole lot going on in Showtimeland back then. At some point--my memory is hazy on this part--my dad must have figured, "Eh, you know, Showtime kind of bites. Let's get rid of it, and then in 25 years when 'Ray Donovan' is invented, we'll sign up again."

However, the young FOX network picked up the show in some kind of shared deal with Showtime and put it on late Sunday nights. It started at 9:00, but by the end of its run, it was airing at 10:30 PM, which is pretty damn late for a network sitcom.

This may be the reason why: It's ratings stunk. I don't have access to anything other than my fading memories of old Nielsen ratings layouts in "USA Today" (Remember how great the Life section was back then?), but my recollection is that I looked each week to see how Shandling was doing and always saw it languishing near the very bottom of the list. Sure, it was the fourth network, sure it had unenviable timeslots, but it was one of MY shows, and nobody was watching it.

It was one of my first lessons that quality television will not always be supported by the masses. Nowadays I can see why such an unconventional show might not be a massive hit, and I can even get that Shandling himself might not have been a long-term mainstream prime-time kind of star. But back then, it was a crushing blow. Didn't people like good stuff? How could they not be checking this out? Was it because everyone had already seen it on Showtime (I actually ruled that out immediately)?

Garry Shandling brought a lot of joy and laughter into my life over the years, but he also taught me the pain of advocating for quality underappreciated work. At least the series got an excellent, if extremely expensive, DVD set from Shout Factory a while ago. Still, it seems telling that though a new HBO deal for "Larry Sanders" was announced right after Garry's sudden passing, all is quiet on the "It's Garry Shandling's Show" front. I'd love to see Shout TV bring it back.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 4

(Note: This week's rankings were compiled before breaking news of Amazon's new Prime option. We could not reassemble our blue-ribbon panel of experts, social gadflies, and convicts to redo the rankings. Watch next week to see how that news affects the rankings)

1) Pub-D-Hub: They're back and updating every week, and I saw some good stuff this week. Life is good. Let's give them another week on top.

2) Hulu Plus: Hey, I watched an episode of 11/22/63. It was pretty good. Elsewhere, people seem excited about the return of "Mindy Project."

3) Netflix: Yeah, "Kimmy Schmidt" is back, but what about that looming price hike?

4) Shout TV: Since it only adds content at the beginning of each month, there's not a lot of variability week to week, but steady wins the race sometimes...or at least it's good for fourth.

5) YouTube: They didn't do anything notable, but I watched a lot of cool old commercials last week(Note: This is the free version, not whatever they are doing with "YouTube Red").

6) Seeso: Streaming comedy service sends me an email offering me a deal, then shows up on Cultureshark power rankings. Coincidence?

7) WWE Network: Adding a lot of archive content lately. It's not what I particularly want to see, but it's been a nice flow of content.

8) Warner Archive Instant: The good news is they added a bunch of TV shows. The bad news is, it's all stuff that was on the site before, then yanked. Still, it's nice to know someone's still paying attention over there.

9) Amazon Prime: New season of "Catastrophe" gets great reviews, almost makes me wish I had  Prime.

10) PBS: I give credit to PBS for putting last week's great "Jackie Robinson" on its Roku channel, complete with total transparency about how long it would stay (two weeks). I take credit away for the apparent inability of the Watchlist to function, plus the lack of a "Continue Watching" feature.

Monday, April 18, 2016

5Q Movie Review: The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Q: Is this an embarrassment to Peanuts fans everywhere and to the legacy of Charles M. Schulz?
A: No, not at all. I think overall it's a worth extension of the franchise and a nice way to introduce a new generation to the world of Charlie Brown. There are a lot of things in here Schulz wouldn't do, and there are some things I don't really care for, but it's a fun movie. It feels like Peanuts and captures the spirit of the source material--maybe a little too much in some places.

Q: How does the animation style work for Charlie and the gang?
A: Surprisingly well. It takes some getting used to at the beginning, but soon the Blue Sky CG animation style blends in a lot better than I expected. The character designs are solid. There are a few new angles and perspectives, like the overhead shot of the whole neighborhood early on, that open up this world in a pleasant way. We still don't see grownups or anything, though, so it's not that radical an approach.

Q: Is the story big enough to justify a feature film?
A: Well, I don't think Peanuts necessarily needs nor should even have a "big" plot for its own sake. In this case there isn't much of a story, which makes the film play a little long. Charlie spends much of the film pining for the little red-haired girl who moves into the neighborhood and joins his class. There are some vignettes and assorted bits here and there, but that's pretty much the deal: Charlie works up the courage to talk to her.

Even the older Peanuts features made when Schulz was still alive and the strip was thriving feel a little padded. I think these characters are better suited for the half-hour TV special format. Even at 80 minutes or so, "The Peanuts Movie" seems just a tad long.  Numerous fantasy sequences with Snoopy flying his "Sopwith Camel as a World War I flying ace don't work and add to that feeling. I know similar sequences in the "Great Pumpkin" special make up a seminal part of the Peanuts world, but a little of it goes a long way, then as now. There is some interesting animation in these segments, reminiscent of how the old movies and specials would use Snoopy to introduce some funkier work, but there's just too much.

One great thing about the film that may be related to its feature film status: Just about everyone gets some kind of moment. Many characters are neglected in the specials, but here you actually see just about everyone get at least a line or two of dialogue. I was especially pleased to see long-absent Violet and Patty (the non-Peppermint variety) get decent representation.

Q: Is it more geared to current adult fans or to youngsters?
A: My small children both enjoyed the movie, with my youngest laughing a lot more. He responded strongly to the physical humor.  It's a fine movie for kids, but I question the rewatch value.  As humorous and charming as it is, it's not something I feel I need to see again anytime soon, and I suspect kids will not want to put this on endless loop as they have other recent animated hits.

Q: What do you mean that it follows the source material "a little too much"?
A: Often, "The Peanuts Movie" runs through some of the old greatest hits rather than coming up with new situations and gags for the characters. I'm not even talking about taking dialogue directly from the original comic strips--the old specials did this all the time--but the film recycles moments and shots from those specials. It sounds weird to use the term "fan service" with regards to Peanuts, but there's way too much of it here.

However, there are some differences here and there. For example. this story makes the red-haired girl a visible character who talks, as opposed to just an offscreen (or off-panel) unattainable fantasy. Charlie gets some actual moments of triumph. Snoopy actually comes off much better than he does in many of the specials and the later comic strips: self-absorbed, perhaps, but all in all a loyal friend and eager assistant to Charlie.

"The Peanuts Movie" is a solid 3-out-of-4-star kind of movie, a funny, heartwarming picture for the whole family. I support trying to keep the franchise viable. I hope its success encourages the creators to go in a more ambitious direction next time, moving away from recycled material and trying to do something that will more fully support motion-picture length. That said, I would be all in favor of this team creating occasional half-hour televised specials.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 3

Week 3, and there is some significant movement in the list! Let's get to it.

1) Pub-D-Hub: One of my favorite channels finally returned this past weekend with a nice little update, including a new category for Gold members: "Yesterday's News," with old TV newscasts. Apparently the physical move of the service's headquarters took longer than expected and/or brought some complications, but Pub-D-Hub is back, and we should all be happy.

2) WWE Network: I'm giving it a nice lofty ranking again because, though content adds haven't been impressive since Mania, I am enjoying the hell out of the 1980s territory episodes (World Class, Smoky Mountain, etc.), paltry as the selection still is.

3) MLB TV: Hey, I'm still happy baseball's back, but I'm disappointed there was no free trial of this like there was for Extra Innings, so since I don't get this one, it'll drop out next week.

4) Hulu: Quiet lately at Hulu, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's still adding last night's TV (except CBS shows) every day of the week.

5) Watch TCM: Hey, did you guys know there was a way to stream TCM live--both East Coast and West Coast feeds--and see a decent selection of old movies each week? You have to have cable provider authentication, but it's otherwise free. If this had a Roku channel, it would be in my top 5 easily.  I'll write more about this down the road, but this is the kind of thing we hoped Warner Instant would be--sure, a lot less content, but also a lot less cost.

6) Netflix: Getting a lot of bad pub lately for its upcoming price hike. I really hope they have a May surprise of content, but I am starting to doubt that. In the midst of this news about price hikes, Netflix added a wacky Hitler comedy and another season of "Girl Meets World." I'm not sure which is more offensive.

7) Shout TV: I'm torn between wanting to spread the word on this channel and being afraid that if it gets too popular, it'll start to suck.

8) Starz: You know, there was a big announcement about a standalone Starz "over the top" service, and then it quickly faded from the conversation. I think people are happy about the return of "Outlander," though.

9) Slacker: My kids and I enjoyed Slacker Radio while  playing with toys this past weekend. I was grateful to hear "clean versions" of several tracks.

10) Amazon Prime: Still quiet lately, but I did read some good things about "Bosch" this week.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

5 Streaming Video on Demand Offerings I'd Like to See in 2016: #5: Something Old--Anything Old--Nothing New

For the final installment in this series, I just want to throw this out there: How about a service dedicated to quality (read: uncut) presentations of vintage material--TV, films, or both? Believe it or not, there are people who like older stuff AND don't have medical bracelets. We know that advertisers hate (that's right, I said it: openly LOATHE) older people, but now digital subchannels have proven there is an audience out there just waiting to buy motor scooters.

Ah, but the beauty of SVOD is you don't need to get ads. No, you can market directly to the old geezers and have them sign over a portion of their Social Security checks each month!

OK, I'm being somewhat facetious, but the fact is vintage material is already an afterthought in this streaming video revolution. I believe there is a market for a service focusing on this niche. And by that I mean I have no idea if it would be profitable, but I don't care because I want one.

Some of us thought Warner Archive Instant might be that service a few years ago, but it inexplicably stopped updating while maintaining the same high premium price. Netflix bleeds pre-1990 content each month and seems to have little interest in replenishing it.  There are only a handful of SVOD services really offering decent  amounts of "old" content: Pub-D-Hub, which is all public domain; Shout TV, which is hardly limited to older stuff; and Hulu, which is Hulu and, to its credit, has not yet given up on adding new library programming.

It would be fantastic to see someone offer a selection of commercial-free classics at an affordable price. Even a rotating collection of titles each month would be all  right as long as the service was up front about when material would be leaving. Sure, media conglomerates are hogging a lot of the content now, but perhaps it could be licensed to streaming as a separate proposition from those diginets. It's not like Netflix is interested in any of it.

Warner may want to save its material for its own channel (Ha!), and Disney is Disney, but Fox isn't doing anything with its old movies other than running them mornings on one of its obscure cable channels. Same with Universal and Sony. CBS isn't doing anything interesting with its All Access service, and it has a whole lot more than just "Perry Mason" and "Twilight Zone."

How about something called "Retrovision," which for 5 bucks a month would offer an assortment of films each month? The vintage TV shows would last a little longer. The short license periods might make acquiring a wide variety of properties more affordable. Every month, a lot of material would leave, and I'd hate that, but a lot more would arrive. I would prefer unlimited content for longer periods of time, but I think this model is more feasible for an entity relying on other people's material (even though it might be bidding against itself).

Here's another idea: Make everything available on demand, but also add a live feed. Have some fun with it, including a Retrovision-branded Robert Osborne knockoff (I'd pay an extra buck or two a month if you could get the actual Bobby Osbo to introduce, say, episodes of "Coronet Blue")  to introduce movies and episodes from the library each day. People could choose on demand or just veg out in front of the live stream.

Depending on the price, I don't think an overwhelming amount of content would be necessary to make this a worthwhile experience if the presentation is done right. Someone make this happen!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 2

There are going to be some weeks the rankings are not that meaningful because not much is going on. But the beginning of the month brings NEW NEW NEW content all over the place, so that gets me PUMPED to do the rankings. Let's have at it!

All rankings are highly subjective, but, hey, it's me. You can trust me.

1) WWE Network: This was the biggest weekend of the year for the channel, with WrestleMania and other festivities. After months of complaining I would not join up until it added more archival content, I buckled under and got a month to see Mania. It was a disappointment, but the network reached a record high in subscribers (albeit many on free trials), so there's that.

2) Netflix: Did a good turn by adding "Animaniacs," but I am not going to rave about the debut of an Ashton Kutcher sitcom. More importantly, it lost "MASH." Now, Fox may be difficult to work with, but Netflix only added "MASH" a year ago, and it took a while before it had the entire run. At the time, I thought, "OK, I am not a big fan, but at least Netflix is still trying and still adding things from before 1980." Now, only a year later, it's gone. Who licenses an 11-season program for one single year?

3) MLB.TV:   Because it's Baseball 2016! I hope they offer a free preview week.

4) Hulu: "Curious George," "Rizzoli and Isles," and "The O.C." joined Hulu this past week. Then "Missing" (the Vivica Fox one) joined the service. Do I want to watch those series? No, but at least Hulu is still trying. There's also a smattering of catalog movies--the most important of which is clearly "The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant"--and Hulu just unveiled the finale of "11/22/63." I'd love to talk about that, but I still need to watch the whole damn series.

5) Shout TV: Quietly one of the best out there. This month's update is one of the weakest overall since Shout TV premiered, but this SVOD service gets big points for not deleting content each month just for the sake of it. Besides, it's worth the (zero) price

6) HBO Now: Is "Game of Thrones" hype peaking early? "Trainwreck" premiered, which I guess is kind of a big deal.

7) Tubi TV:  Added a lot of interesting and random content this month, including "The Hurt Locker," the "Bill & Ted" movies, "Hotel Rwanda," and the original "12 Angry Men." Hey, I just realized "Alf" is on here, too.

8) Acorn TV: First Monday of every month means new programming. The highlight this month looks like series 2 of "The Detectorists." It seems that they have scaled back somewhat.

9) Amazon Prime: Added some Coen Brothers movies as part of its April 1 catalog drop, but a pretty quiet week overall.

10) Pub-D-Hub: I'm getting worried. No updates for several weeks, and the same outdated message is still up on the page. Everything still works, but, hey, guys, are you still open for business?

319) Crackle: Crackle is doing something very annoying: Streaming premiere episodes of series like "Outsiders" and :Underground," but only the first few, and then yanking them. I don't see that as a nice way to make it easier to see the WGN shows.  I see it as a bait and switch--or maybe just a bait and remove.

Otherwise, the big movie Crackle is promoting at this writing is...the trailer for the upcoming "Ghostbusters" reboot? Lame. Plus it apparently eliminated the "collections" feature, which was generally useless but which allowed me to see the new titles and the ones leaving soon. Worst of all, when I launched Crackle to look for this info (it's not there), "Airheads" started playing, and I couldn't get it to stop except by starting something else. Crackle keeps finding new ways to suck.

Monday, April 4, 2016

TV Time EXTRA: Revisiting The Fugitive: The Judgment

In my latest TV Time column for ClassicFlix, I continue looking at the top-rated episodes in TV history, and one of the most prominent is part two of the classic series finale of "The Fugitive," "The Judgment." It's a crackerjack (do people still say that?) episode with thrills, chills, and because it's David Janssen, grimaces.

Let's not totally dismiss Part 1, though. My favorite scene is when Richard Kimble, seeing a report that the elusive one-armed man who he thinks killed his wife is in custody, calls the authorities to confirm. Is it really the Fred Johnson he's been pursuing?

Kimble has a brilliant explanation to give the cops for his snooping. "He owes me some money."

At police HQ, guest star Lloyd Hanes says there's no record that the man in custody used that name. “Could you give me some kind of description?”

Kimble replies, “Well, he's about 6 feet...210, maybe 215 pounds, dark hair...right arm is missing.”
I love how Kimble buries the lead. Maybe he thinks it would be too obvious or, worse, self-incriminating, to give away the whole not-having-a-limb thing?

Then Haynes' character says, “Hmm. Could be him, I guess. You got anything else to pin it down?” Anything else to pin it down! Yeah, do you have anything to distinguish him, like a mole?

Of course, our man Kimble ain't no fool. He eyes the copper and says, "Uh, no thank you," before getting the heck out of Dodge (NOTE: "The Fugitive" series finale does not actually begin nor end in Dodge).

"He's on to me! I KNEW I overplayed it by mentioning the arm thing. Nobody would ever use that to identify someone."

Friday, April 1, 2016

Vault of Coolness: Hey, look who it is on CHiPs!

Every now and then, CHiPs does something wacky, and it often involves some kind of sport or outdoor activity. For example, what the hey, why not have an almost random skydiving scene in the middle of an episode?

Yes, somewhere in this shot are people with parachutes. Yet none of these 3 jumpers is Ponch. Jon is supposed to be part of this, using Ponch's skydiving lessons he can't use while he's recoevring from a serious accident, but, no, Officer Baker is on the ground watching in civilian mode.

The jumpers get together afterwards with Jon to shoot the breeze, and look who shows up:

Whoa! It's Michelle Pfeiffer looking impossibly gorgeous in classic late 1970s.early 1980s fashion. Here's the thing, though: This is her only scene, and then she's gone. Can you imagine seeing this when you're editing the episode and thinking, "Eh, that's plenty of her. Let's finish cutting the third freeway chase"?