27 July 2010

What To Make Of The Digital Copy Compromise

Whether the record labels like it or not, consumers have become accustomed to importing ("ripping" to you fogies out there) their CD's for use in their portable digital libraries.  The MPAA, however, has done a much better job at preventing consumers from being able to do the same with video content.  I'm not going to explore the pros and cons of this situation in this blog, but rather focus on the compromise solution that has been in place for a couple of years now: the Digital Copy.

You buy a DVD or Blu-ray that includes a Digital Copy ("DC" hereafter if I get lazy), and while you cannot rip the video content itself, the studios allow you to download a digital copy (hence the term) of the feature content onto your PC.  Often, though not always, DC's (told you I'd get lazy) are stored on a separate disc.  A one-time usable authorization code included with your purchase is needed for the redemption of the DC.  Once completed, you'll have the feature content available on your PC and in most cases, can transfer it to a portable device such as an iPod with video playback.

There are problems, of course.  Firstly, not every DVD or Blu-ray includes a DC, so you as a consumer aren't guaranteed that you'll be able to have your favorite movies accessible in a digital format.  So far, out of my library of well over 700 titles, only ten of them have included DC's.  It's great that I have the 1989 Batman in my digital library, but I sure would like to have Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, too.  Alas, Fox didn't offer a DC with Butch.  And I don't know yet of any TV show releases that have included DC.

Secondly, that one-time usable code has an expiration date.  Some are generous; others not so much.  Disney, from what I've read online, has been honoring DC codes well after their expiration date, whereas Warner Bros....well, Warner gets their own paragraph later.  The bottom line is, if you don't purchase and redeem quickly, you are not guaranteed to be able to redeem the DC download.  This has become increasingly aggravating as DVD's including DC's have shown up in places like Walmart's $5 assortment or at overstock vendors like Big Lots.  Yes, you just found Family Guy: Blue Harvest for a more reasonable $5.00, but that Digital Copy expired three months ago.

There is also the issue of backing up or transferring your downloaded files from one PC to another.  I'm in the obnoxious position of not having a DVD burner on my PC (I know, I know) and a movie file is simply too large to fit on a CD-R.  Ergo, I cannot back up my DC files to disc.  I am entirely at the mercy of whether or not my external hard drive decides to crash or become corrupted--as happened to its predecessor.  As long as I keep the content on my iPod, I can rescue it that way if needed, but of course I'm occupying 14.94 GB of my iPod's storage capacity to keep them there.  That's not counting any other digital video content I've downloaded from iTunes.  Apple doesn't appear to have a solution for those without a DVD burner for archiving their video content, other than to suggest you get one, or an external hard drive.  I'm not sure what Apple's response would be if I inquired, "What happens if that external hard drive becomes corrupted?"  I suspect the artificial intelligence that runs their "genius" department would freeze and begin sputtering, "Does...not...compute...!"

Warner Bros.'s Digital Copy Software
Warner Bros. recently made the decision to take Apple out of the equation altogether and created their own Digital Copy software used for redeeming, accessing and organizing Warner Bros. DC's.  Once installed, it can search your drive for previously redeemed Warner DC's you might have and make them viewable within the new software.  It's not perfect, though; mine found The Dark Knight but doesn't recognize Batman.  The most recent Warner product I bought that included a DC was the Blu-ray Disc release of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.  To redeem this DC, I have to insert the Blu-ray Disc itself into the computer...which, of course, requires a Blu-ray drive.  Thanks, Warner Bros.  It's not enough I can't back up my DC's because my DVD drive isn't a burner, but now I can't even redeem this one because I don't have a Blu-ray drive on my PC.

From a logistical point of view, however, including the DC on the Blu-ray Disc with the rest of the content makes sense.  After all, once a DC has been redeemed (or expires), the disc it occupies is effectively worthless.  Discs can't be recycled, so dedicating a pile of them to content that times out of usefulness is wasteful.  I've kept my DC discs, but only because I'm wired that way.  I've read of others tossing them out, or even selling them on eBay with the code, and then trying to decide what to do with the empty disc hub left in the package.  I've heard of fans who move the remaining discs and artwork to a new case, and others who put the corresponding soundtrack album in the vacant hub, or the DVD version if they have that for some reason.

Some fans have lamented that the Digital Copy has been offered in lieu of the kinds of interesting bonus materials that made DVD so alluring for cinephiles.  I was tempted to believe this hypothesis until recently, when I noted that even DVD and Blu-ray Discs released without Digital Copies aren't necessarily being supplemented by the kind of behind-the-scenes featurettes we'd come to take for granted.  Studios simply aren't convinced that the average movie-buyer even cares about those things, and they've largely been given the ax as studios--like every other business--try to trim their expenses.  And, really, do we need to see the inspiration for, and creation of, Couples Retreat?  It seems that with most comedies, any insights are likely to be shared in a commentary track, and a spattering of outtakes are sufficient for viewing.

Which reminds me: So far, I know only of one release that includes a digital download of bonus materials and that's Twilight.  The caveat, though, is that that release was exclusive to Target.  It would be nice to see bonus materials offered for download as well.  In fact, I'd actually be more likely to watch bonus features on my iPod here and there than I am to sit down and watch them on my Blu-ray player.  Unless I'm going to watch most (or all) of the bonus features from a disc at once, it just seems like a lot of trouble to load a disc just to watch a brief featurette or two.  Whereas, on my iPod, I just have to scroll to what I want to watch and go with it.  Of course, now that iTunes has rolled out their iTunes Extras version of digital movies that include bonus material, it may be that Apple has discouraged studios from offering that content with the DC of the feature itself.

So you might be surprised after reading all this to learn that I'm a fan of Digital Copy.  I know it's possible to rip video content, but I'm really not that interested in finding the necessary software and going through the process of converting formats, etc.  DC is a relatively quick and easy way of expanding my viewing options for my library.  I own a Blu-ray player and it's connected to an HDTV via HDMI cable; why would I want to watch something anywhere else?  It's simple: I'm not always there with my home system.

Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder
It's not often that I like to watch movies or TV while traveling; it's just not my thing.  But this year, my wife and I had to spend almost two weeks visiting my in-laws to take care of some stuff.  My Crohn's was particularly obnoxious most of the time we were there, and one night I pulled out my iPod and decided I was in the mood to re-watch Star Trek.  I couldn't help but recall that scene in Tropic Thunder where Ben Stiller, lost in the Vietnamese forest, sits hunkered over his iPod, watching the classic original series episode, "Arena."

Is a 3" screen ideal?  Of course not.  But it's serviceable, and in any event I wasn't in ideal circumstances anyway.  The entire point of a portable digital player is to have access to one's digital library, and to be able to enjoy content away from home.  My iPod let me do that, and for two hours I was able to escape to the 23rd Century.  And unlike watching the Blu-ray at home, when I had to run to the bathroom, I just took the iPod with me and kept watching.

Disney has even gone a step further; once I redeemed the Magic Rewards Code for Up, it was available for me to stream through my Disney Movie Rewards account page!  So long as I have Internet access with sufficient bandwidth, I can access that film anywhere I go.  I'm still keeping the DC on my iPod, but it's nice to have the option.

What I would like to see from studios is this: Expand the Digital Copy to all releases, except budget releases (like those "4 Movie Favorites" combos).  Set it up so that instead of wasting discs to house the DC, we can instead simply enter a code to authorize the download.  It shouldn't be too hard to do that.  I realize it'll take more time to download than to transfer from disc, and I'm perfectly willing to make that trade.  It's a one-time thing, after all.

Also, Warner Bros. (and any studio considering following their example) needs to get back into bed with Apple.  I don't have a laptop I can take with me.  If I was going to stay where my PC is, I'd just watch the Blu-ray of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.  You've deprived me of any meaningful reason to download the DC...which, of course, I can't do anyway because I don't have a Blu-ray drive in my PC.  Now that the current model of the Apple TV has an HDMI jack, I've got that at the top of my wish list.  It would be nice if the Blu-rays I bought in the future included Digital Copies I could put on it.

One last thing.  I should note that Warner Bros. really did come through with Watchmen.  The Director's Cut Blu-ray included a Digital Copy of the theatrical cut, but they offered to send me a disc with a Digital Copy of the Director's Cut if I wanted at no additional charge.  I thought that was pretty generous of them.

21 July 2010

Star Trek: May the Future Not Recycle the Past

Either J.J. Abrams or Weyoun
Ever since the announcement came that J.J. Abrams's feature film would be set during the early days of Kirk and Spock, fans have been all a-tingle with musings about potential big screen stories.  Now that Star Trek has established a new continuity, Trekkers have been poring over the previous 43 years worth of episodes and movies to see what elements were still in play prior to the change in timeline (such as the return of the Voyager 6 probe to Earth) that might be re-imagined.  The one thing nearly everyone has insisted should be the topic of the next feature film is Khan.  I've considered this as much as the next geek, and now I'm going to explain why it's a bad idea.

Like most (if not all) of the best science-fiction, Star Trek is at its best when it is an allegory for the issues before our society.  It was no coincidence that the original series appeared in the final three years of the 1960s, with the Civil Rights movement and Viet Nam dominating America's attention.  And the reason that the series has endured all these years and continued to find a new audience isn't that Khan, or the Gorn or the Doomsday Machine were all cool (though they were and are).  It's because the stories that those talented writers came up with explored some very serious issues in a way that gave some perspective and reassurance to an anxious audience.  Those issues have evolved, but the stories were told in such a fashion that the metaphors remain relevant.  Star Trek storytelling should not be about Star Trek; it should be about our world, using Star Trek.

The Re-Imagined Doomsday Machine
The remastered original series episodes are sufficient for getting a more up-to-date look at that era.  I've seen the hokey Doomsday Machine, and I've seen the truly menacing Doomsday Machine.  If they want to recycle it for a feature film, I'm open to the idea but they better come up with a really solid story to justify showing me something I've already seen.  The same goes for any other element already established in the Trek canon.

It's a big galaxy; there's plenty of opportunity for entirely new stories with new characters.  That's the thing I appreciated most about the original series when I rewatched it on DVD a couple of years ago: aside from the Romulans, Klingons and Harry Mudd, there were no repeat visits by species or characters.  (Yes, we saw two green skinned chicks, but only one was actually an Orion; the other was a human appearing as an Orion.)  Each time out, we saw something new in the fictitious galaxy, and each time it represented something different about ourselves.  Gene Roddenberry's made-up world evolved concurrently with his vision of humanity's potential.

By the end of The Next Generation, I felt like there was nothing left to explore because we were seeing familiar faces on a semi-regular basis.  It worked on Deep Space Nine to have recurring characters because of the nature of the show.  But among my long list of complaints about Voyager is that it took them two seasons to traverse Kazon space and then five seasons to get through Borg territory.  I realize the Borg had a pretty good grip on things, but the fact that an episode exclusively dealing with them would be followed by an episode dealing with a society that didn't seem to be under any duress living within Borg territory dispelled the whole thing for me.  Either they're absolute conquerors or they aren't, and Voyager made clear that they're not.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that repetition of species and characters is something that I think contributed greatly to the decline in fan interest.  Maybe it's because we didn't feel like we were seeing anything new, maybe it's because the writers became complacent or lazy or developed tunnel vision for the Star Trek elements and forgot to look outside to the world in which they lived for inspiration.  I don't know; I wasn't in the writers's room.  I just know that when I contrast the original series with its spin-offs, I see a much clearer sense of exploration--of the fictitious as well as the issues of our world--in the original.  If they are serious about reinvigorating the franchise, they have to resurrect that energy, and they can't do it by recycling things we've already seen.

Legends of the Dark Knight, Part Two

I was discussing this comic title in an online forum earlier and got to thinking about why Legends of the Dark Knight held such appeal for me as a younger reader, and why I've been lured back to its pages in recent months.  If you're reading this, then you know I am lazy and so here's the disclaimer that I have outright copied and pasted my thread post into this blog entry.  Why go to the trouble of creating an entire blog entry for something I already posted elsewhere?  Simply put, I liked the points I made and realized I hadn't made them in my previous blog entry about the subject.

I always felt when reading LotDK that I was reading a more advanced level of Batman story. Maybe I wasn't, but the fact that it wasn't sold at gas stations or grocery stores, carried that higher price tag and not a CCA approval all told me it wasn't "off-the-rack" Batman. And I always liked that it wasn't linked to Batman or Detective Comics at all. Maybe that was part of the appeal; it spoke to my inner snob, that wanted to be part of a more exclusive readership. I know admitting that makes me pretty shallow and petty, but in my defense I was an adolescent at the time (which is to say, my entire world was pretty shallow and petty).

I also liked that stories could be Elseworlds-type tales from time to time, showing us Batman in different time periods and such. I wasn't a huge fan of those kinds of stories as a rule, but every now and again it was nice to break away from "Year One"-era Gotham, or even away from modern times at all. The only thing I wish they'd have done more of with that title would be the occasional Golden or Silver Age style goofy tale. I know it would have been incongruous with the more sophisticated nature of the title, but it always seemed to me that Batman is the one character that can be interpreted in any fashion and still work. That there are still ardent fans of the Adam West era in the Christopher Nolan era is proof positive of this to my mind, and I would have liked to have seen some of those more lighthearted takes on Batman. Maybe that's why I always appreciated the appearances of Bat-Mite.

The other thing that always kind of stuck with me about this title was how rarely big name villains appeared. It seemed (at least during the first 100 or so issues, when I was a regular reader) that virtually none of the Rogues Gallery appeared in those pages. I still recall issue #50, "Images," depicting Batman's first encounter with The Joker, and that was preceded by one of my favorite Bat-stories of all time, the four-part "Heat" in which Catwoman figured prominently, but I can't say I recall Riddler, Penguin, Scarecrow or Ra's al Ghul at all. There was a two-parter with Poison Ivy, and I seem to recall Harvey Dent appeared maybe, but of course not as Two-Face.

And it worked because it pitted Batman against more plausible enemies; thugs working for organized crime bosses, corrupt cops, etc. And, I think the absence of those villains helped set the title apart from the more mainstream Bat-titles; the implication being that this was a title that didn't rely on stunt appearances to sustain readership. Hell, the series opened with a five-parter called "Shaman" in which we see Bruce Wayne caught in a mess involving a shaman from Alaska he met during his pre-Batman training period. Think about this for a second. They launched the series in 1989 to cash in on the buzz from the release of Tim Burton's movie and the first five issues feature not The Joker, or someone comparable, but...an Indian shaman and a sniper. It seems so anti-climactic that I have to admire the audacity of the launch. Can you imagine an idea like that being approved in the era where comic books have become a peripheral element of the circus that is San Diego Comic-Con?

04 July 2010

Brooks & Dunn: A Fan's Reflections

People who learn my socio-political leanings first tend to be surprised that I love country music.  I try to argue that, like any genre of music, there are some artists whose music is artificial and vapid, but that there's some authentic and solid material to be found, too.  I grew up listening to country music in the 1980s, and by the time I entered middle school in the early 90s, I'd grown tired of it.  I was still exposed to it, so I was aware of Brooks & Dunn from the beginning of their career, but I wasn't interested in exploring their music at the time.  In fact, the first time I heard a song of theirs that I really liked was "How Long Gone" in 1998 or 1999, I guess it was.  It wasn't until 2001, though, that they really grabbed my attention.

Steers & Stripes

B&D released a monster album, Steers & Stripes on 17 April 2001.  The lead single, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," opens with some very striking guitar work and the rest of the song juxtaposes a completely masculine sound with lyrics that confess the narrator is unequivocally overwhelmed by a woman.  I couldn't get enough of that song in 2001, and I can listen to it over and over still to this day without getting tired of it.

By this point, my brother and our friends had gotten into the habit of attending concerts so we were on the lookout for a tour that year.  They launched one, alright; the Neon Circus and Wild West Show, easily the most memorable concert I've ever seen.  The bill featured then-budding star Keith Urban, working off his eponymous American debut album; Montgomery Gentry, riding high on "She Couldn't Change Me" from their sophomore album; and Toby Keith, who'd finally had his breakout year in 2000 off his How Do You Like Me Now?! album.  Keith Urban seemed out of place on paper, but his wicked guitar work--restricted to a mere six songs in the set--made believers of a lot of fans that year.

My 4/29/01 Ticket Stub
My brother, his then-girlfriend and I drove down to Bowling Green, picked up a friend of ours and headed to AmSouth Amphitheater in Antioch, TN on Sunday, 29 April 2001 for the second show of the tour.  My friend and I had previously seen a couple of shows in Chicago, but it was still thrilling to see a show out of town.  I remember balking at the over-priced bottled water (which I bought anyway, because the gates opened at 3:00, and we were in line before then; I knew better than to drink beer the whole time, no matter how convincing those ubiquitous Coors Light banners were).  Outside the actual stage area, they had all kinds of carnival acts roaming, from fire-breathers to jugglers and a guy on stilts.  There were face-painters, the standard artist merchandise vendors and the over-priced concessionaires to whom I have already alluded.  And to carry over the carnival atmosphere, comedian Cledus T. Judd served as the master of ceremonies on stage, performing between each artist and introducing them.

I was impressed by Keith Urban (even though his adaptation of the Charlie Daniels Band hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" as "The Devil Went Down to Nashville"--in which Johnny plays guitar, complete with the line "rosin up your pick," was awkward and clunky), and I'd already seen Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith, so I knew what to expect from them.  Finally, the sun had yielded to night and Brooks & Dunn opened their set with a wicked, Hendrix-style guitar performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" which segued into "Only in America."  The eventual music video perfectly captured not only the stage performance from the tour, but the hopeful, pre-9/11 patriotism that makes the song so special.

Maybe it's because it was the last new song I remember hearing about our country before that terrible day, but every time I hear "Only in America" it puts me back in touch with those feelings that used to be common before a decade of fear and divisiveness came to dominate our political discussions and patriotism was supplanted by nationalism in song.  Younger fans may not understand what the song felt like at the time, and that breaks my heart because there used to be a time when we could praise America without having to make sacrifices at the altar of the military just to prove we really mean it.  (No offense to our brave men and women in uniform here is intended; surely even they've grown tired of all the shoddy lyrics from songs into which they've been shoehorned over the last several years.)

I still maintain that the greatest crime in music is that "Go West," featuring lead vocals by Kix Brooks, was never issued as a single from Steers & Stripes.  It features everything I look for in a song: an ear-catching sound, well-crafted lyrics that create a world into which the listener can easily identify and to which the song offers to take him or her.  I picture this frustrated, young couple daydreaming about just hopping in their car, chasing the sun across the western sky in hopes of finding their hopes and dreams somewhere other than their stifling small town.  In a lot of ways, it's everything I love about "Only in America," but without name-dropping "The American Dream."  I sincerely hope that Kix considers re-recording this song and releasing it as a single as he takes his stand as a solo artist.

I'd heard "Neon Moon" for years before hearing Ronnie Dunn sing it live.  In my younger days, I thought it was a pretty good story song with clear descriptions of the bar scene that had a good sound.  Now, I'm convinced it's one of the greatest songs ever written, and his live performance just kills.  I highly recommend fans check out their iTunes Essentials digital album, which features a performance of the song that reflects the live arrangement.  Dunn's vocals deftly navigate the tenuous waters between drowning in apathy and trying to find some solace in the old adage that misery loves company.  It gets me every time I hear it, though it doesn't always mean the same thing to me each time.  It's a brilliant song.

I've bought every Brooks & Dunn album since Steers & Stripes and I enthusiastically made the trek out of state to catch a show on each of the subsequent Neon Circus and Wild West Show tours (28 June 2002 in Indianapolis and 21 June 2003 in Maryland Heights, MO) before they finally came to Louisville as part of the 2004 Kentucky State Fair.  In four years, I saw Brooks & Dunn four times in four different states.  I enjoyed them all for different reasons, but I have to confess that there was something kind of empty about that last appearance.  The Kentucky State Fair was a poor substitute for the Neon Circus and Wild West Show.

Red Dirt Road
Red Dirt Road disappointed me at first, because it wasn't Steers & Stripes II.  It took me a while to get on board with the album, but once I did I fell in love with it, too.  There's a much more organic aesthetic throughout that album.  Its predecessor was the album to drive a macho tour like the '01 Neon Circus and Wild West Show; Red Dirt Road was a more mature, reflective work of two men who'd reached a point in their lives where they didn't have to prove anything to anyone anymore.

It's funny; I recently rated all their songs in my iTunes library, and the only song I gave 5 stars to was the unlisted bonus track, "Holy War."  I even gave a mere 3 stars to three of the songs ("Believer," "Good Day to Be Me" and "Good Cowboy"), but I wouldn't hesitate to give the album itself 5 stars.  Every now and again, an album comes along that is greater than the sum of its parts, and for my money, Red Dirt Road is such an album.  Its sequencing and production bring the listener from a raucous bar to a lonely dirt road "off of Rural Route 3" to the brink of Armageddon.  It's hard to imagine a universal experience not touched on somewhere among these fifteen songs.

I haven't loved everything they've done, of course; neither have they (which is why not one song from their 1999 Tight Rope album appears on any of their compilation releases).  But man, I'm here to tell you that when they hit the floor running, they delivered the goods.  Whether you're limping off a heartache or letting the good times roll, their discography is a very welcome friend.  Right now, they're still on the road for their Last Rodeo tour.  Once the first of their respective individual releases surfaces, it will introduce a new layer of nostalgia to "Only in America" for me.  Not sure how I feel about that yet.  The good news is, if it sucks, I can sulk along with "Neon Moon."

02 July 2010

Certificate of History

When President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010, Organizing for America offered a chance for supporters to receive a certificate commemorating the historic achievement.  Naturally, yours truly signed up immediately.  It finally arrived with yesterday's mail. It's on a textured stock and features a facsimile of Mr. Obama's signature (I didn't really expect the president to hand sign all of these, but that would have been seriously sweet).

In case you don't care to click into the scanned image, here's what it says:

The Patient Protection
Affordable Health Care Act of 2010

Together, we reduced the cost of care.
We established the toughest patient protections in history.
And we achieved the dream of generations--high-quality, affordable health care
is no longer the privilege of a few, but the right of all.

"That our generation is able to succeed in passing this reform
is a testament to the persistence--and the character--of the American people,
who championed this cause; who mobilized; who organized;
who believed that people who love this country can change it."

****President Barack Obama****