Saturday, April 25, 2015

Adventures in Netflix

I had a Netflix account for literally years. At the time that I first subscribed to Netflix they did not even have streaming video. Back then one could only receive DVDs through the mail. I still had my subscription when Netflix introduced streaming video in 2008, although I could only watch streaming video on my computer. Sadly, I had to cancel my Netflix account in 2011 when I lost my old job. Without a steady income, I could hardly afford the luxury of Netflix. Of course, since that time things have changed a bit. Netflix's streaming business has since overtaken their DVD business. Netflix also separated the two, so that one can subscribe to their DVD service, their streaming service, or both.

Since I cancelled my Netflix account there have also been changes in technology. While Smart TVs were around before 2011, they have become much more common in the past few years. In fact, it would be this past November that my household would get our first Smart TV. It was our new Smart TV that was the impetus for my brother to subscribe to Netflix's streaming service. After all, unlike the old days we would not have to watch Netflix streaming video on our computer screens, but we could actually watch it on a TV set. While many people might not mind watching movies and TV shows on a computer, my family has always preferred a somewhat larger screen.

Quite naturally my brother set up profiles for the whole household and told all of us the password. The end result has been that I have been able to experience Netflix for the first time in four years. In some respects I am impressed by how Netflix's streaming service has changed in the past four years. In others I am a little disappointed. I have to say that I am largely impressed by Netflix's selection of television shows. They have several British shows, including Call the Midwife, Doc Martin, Sherlock, Midsomer Murders, Foyle's War, The IT Crowd, and so on. They also have the Canadian cult shows Murdoch Mysteries and Bomb Girls, and the Australian series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.

Of course, as would be expected Netflix does have a wide array of American TV shows to choose from. They have Angel, The Blacklist, Breaking Bad, Frasier, House, Leverage, Lost, Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, every Star Trek series ever made (including the animated series), The X-Files, and many, many others. One major change made not that long after I cancelled my Netflix account is the service's acquisition of original TV shows.  I have not yet watched Netflix's first original series, House of Cards, but I have watched both Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Daredevil and I was impressed with both. I plan to watch Orange is the New Black, which I have also heard good things about. The one area with regards to television shows where I am disappointed with Netflix is classic television. Netflix really does not have that many classic TV show to choose from, and most of the ones they do are easily accessed elsewhere: Adam-12, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, Cheers, Columbo, Leave It to Beaver, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files, The Twilight Zone, and so on. My one suggestion to Netflix with regards to television shows is that they should try acquiring several classic TV shows that one cannot see on Cozi TV, Hulu, Me-TV, Retro-TV, TV Land, or a dozen other places.

I do have to say that in some respects I am disappointed in Netflix's selection of movies. The simple fact is that many recent hits are not available on the streaming service. Do you want to watch Marvel's The Avengers? You can't do it on NetFlix. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies? It's also not available on Netflix. That having been said, Netflix does have several other films one might not see elsewhere. I was impressed that they have the French film Populaire, which I have wanted to see for ages. And Netflix does excel with regards to certain genres. I rather suspect most fans of Asian martial arts films would not be disappointed with their selection. While it could use a good deal of improvement, Netflix does have a good selection of classic films. Indeed, they have several Buster Keaton movies available for streaming (all of which I added to my queue), as well as other silent classics such as Metropolis and Nosferatu. Much to my surprise they even had four movies starring my beloved Margaret Lockwood besides The Lady Vanishes: Highly Dangerous, Hungry Hill, Night Train to Munich, and A Place of One's Own.

There is one major complaint I do have about Netflix. By default Netflix is set to automatically play the next episode of any TV show one is watching. Now one can go into Playback Settings on one's PC and uncheck the box labelled "Play next episode automatically". Unfortunately, this seems to have no effect on a Smart TV, which is where I do all of my Netflix viewing. While I realise that many people who binge on TV shows might appreciate having the next episode of a TV show play automatically , those of who do not binge on TV shows (at least with any regularity) find it more of an irritation. They really need to fix it so that when one has the "Play next episode automatically" box unchecked in one's settings on his or her PC, episodes will not automatically play on a TV set.

Over all I do have to say that I think Netflix's streaming service is well worth the money. The past few weeks we have already gotten a lot of good out of it. I've watched several episodes of Doc Martin, Farscape, Firefly, Keeping Up Appearances, and Vicar of Dibley, among other TV shows, as well as the movie Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. I can't say how Netflix compares to other services, such as Hulu, but if one enjoys more recent TV shows and original programming, it is a very good service.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Richard Corliss R.I.P.

Richard Corliss, longtime film critic and editor at Time magazine, died yesterday at the age of 71. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Richard Corliss was born in Philadelphia on March 6 1944. He was only five years old when he saw his first film: Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). It was when he saw Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) at age 16 that he realised film could be an art form. He attended St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia where he helped edit the school newspaper. He later earned a master's degree at Columbia University and graduate work at New York University.

Following college, Mr. Corliss began writing about film for such publications as the National Review, New Times, and the SoHo Weekly News. In 1970 he became the editor of Film Comment. His first book, Talking Pictures, was published in 1974. It was followed that same year by his second book, Greta Garbo.

It was in 1980 that he joined Time. He would become a senior writer for the magazine in 1985. Although best known for his film reviews, Richard Corliss wrote about a bit of everything at Time. He often reviewed television shows, and even acted as the magazine's theatre critic at times. Over the years he wrote about everything from Disney World to the songwriters and singers of the Brill Building. His third book, Lolita, a study of both Vladimir Nabokov's book and Stanley Kubrick's film, was published in 1995. His final book, Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love and a Few You Love to Hate, was published last year.

Richard Corliss was one of my favourite film critics. That is not to say that I always agreed with him.  He disliked Robert Altman's movie M*A*S*H (1970), which numbers among my favourite films of 1970. He liked The English Patient (1996), which I have always counted among the very worst films ever nominated for any Oscar, let alone Best Picture. That having been said, we agreed more often than not, and in some respects his tastes were quite similar to my own. He loved classic Disney animated films and Hong Kong martial arts movies. He was a fellow admirer of Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut. Even those times when I disagreed with Richard Corliss (as in the case of The English Patient), I understood why he liked or disliked any given film.

Indeed, Richard Corliss was very good at getting his point across. Unlike many film critics he did not simply say that he thought a film was good or bad, but he explained why he thought a film was good or bad. What is more, his writing style was lively and entertaining. He could be very witty, whether he was tearing down a film or praising its merits. Even those times when I disagreed with Richard Corliss, I was entertained by his reviews. What makes the quality of Mr. Corliss's writing all the more remarkable is that he was very prolific. He wrote around 2500 articles and reviews for Time magazine alone. He also served as a film critic on the magazine longer than any other person.

Of course, what made Richard Corliss such a great film critic is that he truly loved the movies. As stated in Richard Zoglin's obituary of Mr. Corliss in Time, when asked if a particular film was worth seeing, he would reply, "Everything is worth seeing." Even when writing about a film he did not like, one got the sense that Richard Corliss truly loved movies. Indeed, Mr. Corliss was no film snob. His tastes ran from Ingmar Bergman to Stephen Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino. As a critic he has been described as a "populist". I think it may be more accurate to say that he simply loved film. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Five Reasons that Google+ is Alive, Well, and Thriving

The past month has seen a few articles claiming that Google+ is dying or dead. I have no idea why certain individuals in the media dislike Google+ so much that they have to proclaim its demise every few months, but I can assure you that none of it is true. I have been on Google+ since it was only 9 days old and, if my experience means anything, it sees more engagement than it ever has. While I have not done an in-depth analysis of how much engagement my posts have received over the past year, it appears to me that it has increased. In fact, it has been a few years now that I have been getting more engagement on Google+ than I ever had on Facebook.
Not only is Google+ very active, but Google seems to be showing no signs of abandoning it any time soon. It was only recently that Google+ revamped the look of Communities on Android devices (for those of you who are not on Google+, Communities are something like Groups on Facebook). The look of Google+ Help was also given an overhaul on the web version of the social network. Google recently launched "Google My Business", which according to Google "...connects you directly with customers, whether they're looking for you on Search, Maps, or Google+ (emphasis mine)."  All of this would seem to indicate that Google is still committed to Google+ as much as they ever have been, probably much to its naysayers' chagrin. And, given how much engagement actually takes place on Google+, there is little reason Google should not fully support it.

As to why Google+ is an active, thriving social network despite the bricks occasionally hurled its way by its detractors, I can list at least five reasons, although I could list many more if I wanted to write a book rather than a blot post!

1. Your Posts Are More Likely to Be Seen: I am sure all of us have had it happen at some point or another. You post a link to a blog post to Facebook or perhaps a picture of your new niece or nephew only in the end to receive very few "likes", let alone comments. The reason for this is that Facebook's News Feed  is filtered by its notorious algorithm.  In theory, when viewing the Top Stories News Feed, Facebook's algorithm is supposed to show one those stories in which he or she will most likely be interested. In practice it sometimes hides those stories in which one will most likely be interested. Your friend is having a baby? Facebook might conveniently bury that story in the nether reaches of the Top Stories feed, all the while displaying the latest Kardashian memes so they are easily seen. Now one can always switch his or her News Feed to "Most Recent", which displays posts in reverse chronological order, but then one runs into the problem of real posts being buried among "So-and-so liked such-and-such" and "So-and-so commented on someone-you-don't-even-know's post". Anyhow, the end result is that it is all too easy for someone's posts on Facebook to go unseen.

While on Facebook users are at the mercy of its seemingly capricious algorithm, on Google+ users have much more control over what they see. One sorts his or her followers into Circles (which are something like Facebook or Twitter's lists). From there one can decide how many posts from people in any given Circle appear in the Home Stream (More, Standard, Fewer). The end result is not only that one is more likely to see posts in which he or she will be interested, but that his or her posts will more likely be seen by his or her followers. This makes Google+ a much better promotional tool than Facebook. Indeed, my blog posts get proportionately more hits from Google+ than they do from Facebook.

Here I also have to point out that Google+ is the second biggest social media site after Facebook. That's right. Google+ is actually bigger than Twitter. One's posts on Google+ then stand the possibility of being seen by a much larger audience than one's tweets on Twitter. While Twitter is a very good promotional tool, many people might actually find more success on Google+.

2. You Control What You See: As I discussed above, on Facebook one is pretty much at the mercy of its algorithm. Other than simply creating lists of one's closest friends, you can't guarantee what posts you will actually see there. Indeed, even creating lists is no guarantee of seeing those posts from the people closest to you, as sometimes Facebook will even fail to display every post by people on list feeds. In the end much of what one sees on Facebook is pretty much determined by the site's algorithm, over which one has no control.

On Google+ one has much more control over what he or she sees. As mentioned above, one can set how many posts from any given circle he or she will see in the Home Stream. Do you love knitting? Do you want to see more posts on knitting in your Home Stream? Then all you have to do on Google+ is create a circle filled with your fellow knitters and set it so that more posts are shown in the home stream. One can also mute followers? Do you have a follower whose engagement you enjoy on your posts, but you don't find his or her posts particularly interesting? You can always mute him.

3. More Control Over Who Sees What you Post: Provided one's posts are gets past its algorithm, Facebook does give one control over who sees his or her posts. One can make posts so they are seen only by friends, specific lists, specific Communities (something like Facebook's groups), or even specific people. This is true of Google+ as well. One can make posts so they are seen by one's Extended Circles (sort of friends of friends), all of one's Circles, specific Circles, or even one specific individual. That having been said, Google+ goes even further than Facebook. One can set one's account so that it is only seen by people over 18, over 21, or even seen only by people in a specific country.

4. Communities: Google+ Communities are a lot like Facebook Groups, only in many respects they are superior. Just like Facebook, Communities can be public or private. What makes Google+ Communities different from Facebook Groups is that one can create various categories or topics for discussion in Google+ Communities. For instance, the TCM Fans community I moderate on Google+ has such categories as "TCM Programming", "TCM Cruise", "TCM Classic Film Festival", et. al. These categories make it much easy for Community members to find posts that interest them.

Google+ has a wide variety of Communities devoted to various interests. And Communities have proven popular with Google+ users. In fact, I know a few people who spend most of their time on Google+ in the various Communities. That having been said, I do have one complaint about Google+ Communities. Quite simply, Google+'s spam filter often intercepts legitimate posts as spam! While I appreciate that no spam will reach my community, I hate having to approve legitimate posts that should have gone on through.

5. Google+ Listens to Its Users: Remember when Facebook rolled out its double column Timeline? Remember how many people hated it? Remember how many people protested it? Now remember how long it took Facebook to give users what they wanted, a single column Timeline. Facebook is not only notorious about making unpopular changes to the site, it is notorious about not listening to its users.

Fortunately, Google is more open to listening to users' suggestions. Many of the changes to Google+ over the years have come about because of we users. At one point Google+ changed the cover pictures on profiles so they were absolutely huge (they covered most of my desktop PC's screen). After complaints from users it was only a matter of months before they changed the size of cover pictures so that they were smaller. When there were complaints about Google+'s original name policy, Google+ changed that as well. Google+ is much more open to suggestions than many other social media sites, particularly Facebook.

Here I must point out that Google+ listening to its users goes beyond making changes to the social network based on users' suggestions. Facebook is notorious for its lack of customer service. This is not the case with Google+, whose customer service is among the best of any social media site. A while back after changes had been made to Hangouts/Chat, my Hangouts/Chat stopped working. I notified Google+. Now it did take two weeks to fix, but the entire time they kept me and other users affected abreast of what was going on. Another example of the quality of Google+'s customer service is when they introduced the multi-column stream. Many of us did not care for the multi-column stream and said as much. Google+ let us know right away how to change our stream to a single column. While any complaints or bug reports might all on deaf ears at other social networks (*cough* Facebook *cough*), Google+ does seem to honestly care about its users.

Over the years for whatever reason Google+ has had many detractors. What is apparently lost on these detractors is that Google+ is a thriving social network filled with users who post to it multiple times a day. It is a place where lively discussions take place on topics ranging from classic television to psychology takes place. I have made many dear friends on Google+ over the years. What is more, Google+ is a far better tool for promotion than any other social media site except perhaps Twitter. Not only do my blog posts get more hits from Google+ than any other social network, but I have sold more copies of my book through Google+ than any other social network except possibly Twitter. Contrary to what its naysayers have been claiming, Google+ is not dying, let alone already dead. It is well and thriving.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music

I am feeling a little under the weather and not up to a full blog post, so I thought I would leave you with a song. As many of you know, I am not a big fan of the movie The Sound of Music (1965). I have always found the film a bit dull. That having been said, I do love the songs from the film. Among my favourite songs from the film, and the one that gets stuck in my head the most often, is "The Lonely Goatherd". Here, then, from the movie The Sound of Music, is "The Lonely Goatherd".

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Pictorial Tribute to Anthony Quinn on His 100th Birthday

Anthony Quinn was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca 100 years ago today in Chihuahua, Mexico. His mother was Manuela "Nellie" Quinn (her maiden name was Oaxaca). His father was Francisco "Frank" Quinn. Frank Quinn had a rather interesting life himself. Frank's father was an Irish immigrant from County Cork and had fought alongside Pancho Villa. Anthony Quinn was still young when the family moved to El Paso, Texas and later to California. There Frank Quinn worked as a property man for the Selig movie studio. Sadly, Frank Quinn would be killed in a car accident when Anthony Quinn was 9 years old.

Anthony Quinn worked as a professional boxer for a time before studying art and architecture under Frank Llloyd Wright. When Anthony Quinn expressed an interest in acting, it was Frank Lloyd Wright who encouraged him. Mr. Quinn made his his film debut in an uncredited role as a fight spectator in the The Milky Way in 1936. Over the next few years he would primarily play bit parts, often playing heavies or what was called during the Golden Age of Hollywood "exotic" parts.

By the early Forties Anthony Quinn's roles in films had become somewhat larger, so that he had substantial roles in such films as Bullets for O'Hara (1941), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). It was with the Fifties that he achieved stardom. He won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Viva Zapata! (1952) and Lust for Life (1956). He appeared as Zampanò in La Strada (1954), Gino in Wild Is the Wind (1957), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956), and Tom Morgan in Warlock (1959).  Later in his career Mr. Quinn would appear in such films as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Guns for San Sebastian (1968), Lion of the Desert (1981), and Mobsters (1991). Anthony Quinn died on June 3 2001 at the age of 86.

In tribute to Anthony Quinn on the 100th anniversary of his birth, here are a few photos from his career.

A young Anthony Quinn

Anthony Quinn from Road to Morocco

Anthony Quinn and John Wayne in a still from Back to Bataan

Anthony Quinn in Ride, Vaquero!

Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Anna Karina, Sir Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn, and Candice Bergen in The Magus

Anthony Quinn in 1995