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Film Toxic Custard newsletter TV

Video shops are dead – but streaming video ain’t perfect

Let’s see if I can go a whole week without writing a blog post about level crossings.

Video shops are dead. For a while there was one (or more) in every suburb. Where I live now in Bentleigh there were at least two. Even Glenhuntly, where I lived in the late-90s, had two.

They were close enough that mostly, I could walk to them. M’s house in Footscray was the exception — the video shops around there dealt with the local migrant populations, and you had to go further afield to find English language movies (or even movies with English subtitles).

Over time the video shops ditched VHS and morphed into DVD shops. But in the last few years, almost all of them have closed, disappeared along with CRT non-widescreen analogue TVs. As with many industries, the internet is taking over.

Ye olde CRT TV (November 2004)

Blockbuster was one of the biggest video shop chains — they now seem to have only four stores left in Melbourne. I’m not sure about Video Ezy — if the White Pages is accurate, they still have about a dozen stores. Any number of individual stores have vanished.

(From my observations, a surprising number of old video shops seem to have turned into fitness centres. Some kind of transformation from couch potato to gym junkie.)

For a while, DVDs by snail mail was the thing. It never caught on at my house. It’s just not the way we watch movies. Usually the decision to rent something is spontaneous. You need to go to a physical shop, or stream it. The other option I’ve tried is renting on iTunes. Unfortunately this isn’t streaming – downloading a movie in HD first can take ages – far longer than it would take to find one of the few remaining video shops.

Streaming video is good, the technology and infrastructure around it has matured, but none of the services are perfect — I’ve now sampled most them.

I used Presto ($9.99 per month for TV or movies, $14.99 for both) for about 6 months. It had a good range, but no HD, and is more expensive than the others if you want TV and movies.

Then I moved onto Netflix ($11.99 for HD). Good range, terrific apps (virtually every platform you can think of) and hooray for HD.

Then I tried Stan ($10, including HD). Good range, slightly clunky iPod app which looks like it should be able to use a cable to your TV, but can’t.

I haven’t tried Quickflix.

The problem with all of these is that the range is good but not brilliant. There were just far too many times I would think of a random movie, go looking for it, and discover it wasn’t available. Ditto with TV.

In a great discussion on the Talking Headways podcast from late 2014 (I’m working my way through the earlier episodes) they talk a bit about Netflix and other streaming services vs the old video shops, and come to the same conclusion: the range isn’t great. It’s probably more restricted than at many of the old video shops.

And even today, the biggest range of TV and movies is at your local JB Hifi store… as long as you’re prepared to buy, not rent.

At the moment I am without a streaming service — we’ve got a few of those old-fashioned DVDs to watch. But I have slowed down DVD/Blu-ray purchases. Barring Star Wars: Force Awakens (out on Wednesday), I’m not planning to splurge on any more discs for now, so I may get back to streaming again soon.

Which one? Depends what I want to watch. I have found these web sites which let you search their databases to see what’s available, without being a member:

These are useful tools, but I’m amused that Finder’s intro text talks about Game Of Thrones, which isn’t available on any of the services they compare.

It seems the streaming rights to that are locked up by HBO for their streaming service… which is only available in the USA. Sigh. Given the range of programming they’ve got, I reckon if they were to launch in Australia, they’d get a lot of happy subscribers.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem with the current streaming services — the content owners have much greater control over what each service can offer, so unlike those old video shops, whole ranges of movies from particular studios are just completely missing. “The long tail” was meant to solve this, but other factors have come into play.

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Film Geek Photos from ten years ago Toxic Custard newsletter transport

Ten years ago: Arise Lord Vader

Here’s another in my series of ten year old photos.

Arise Lord Vader — episode 3 got a lot of promotion. Or, as I joked at the time: Connex was aligned with the Dark Side.
Arise Lord Vader - Flinders Street station, May 2005

The Dungeon: platform 13 at Flinders Street. The screens have been replaced with a flat model, and an escalator was installed to the concourse, but I’m not sure it’s changed that much otherwise.
Platform 13, Flinders Street Station, May 2005

M and I must have been out on a dog walk and found this sign. Edgewater (then under construction, now a thriving infill suburb) is in that abyss somewhere.
Edgewater, May 2005

Also on the dog walk. Evidently the residents of Rippon Street were very proud of their second prize from 16 years earlier. Google Streetview shows the sign was still there in March 2014.
Near Vic Uni Footscray Park, May 2005

It was ten years ago this month that we had the funeral for Tram Stop 7 (on Collins Street and Russell Street) — since merged with the Exhibition Street stop in favour of a mid-block tram stop. I think it was the first time the “one stop per block in the CBD” rule started to be diminished — these days it’s near-impossible to know where the closest stop is to Street X. It got plenty of media interest. Naturally to this day you see trams stop there for the traffic lights, but unable to pick up or drop off passengers. (More pictures)
Funeral for a tram stop, May 2005

My desk back then. Old computer (bought earlier that month), old fat screen, old bulky printer. Copy of Train Simulator on the desk. Blue Linksys router in the background — WiFi antennae up, I don’t even recall if I used WiFi for anything back then.
My desk, May 2005

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Film Geek Toxic Custard newsletter transport Video games

Crowdfunded documentaries

I’m aware that my blog has evolved… these days most of the posts are about transport, reflecting my current interests.

I wonder if this is a bit dull for those who have been on the old Toxic Custard mailing list, which is the descendant of the humour-based email list I started while at uni.

Yet transport posts get by far the largest number of comments. Hmmmm.

Here’s a post to mix it up a bit.

Crowdfunded documentaries

Last year I helped crowdfund two documentaries:

Bedrooms To Billions — the story of the beginnings of the computer game industry, from the perspective of UK developers. In the 80s, the first games were written by schoolboy (mostly boy) coders with cheap computers in their bedrooms, manually copying tapes and sending them out by post. I was in that age group, and tried to write my own games too…

I knew much of the story, but the extensive interviews with those involved at the time made this really interesting, especially the first half or so.

I probably got a bit carried away: I contributed enough money that you’ll find my name in tiny writing in the credits somewhere.

Well worth a look if you’re into retro gaming.Thumbs up!

The Outer Circle — Melbourne’s forgotten railway — many would know that the Alamein line and linear parks and bike paths are all that’s left of a line which once ran from Fairfield via Camberwell to Oakleigh.

This documentary manages to have a lot of detail in it, without ever being dull, and has some terrific accounts from actual users of the line, as well as archival footage and photos. I for one had no idea that John Monash built the line. Well worth catching.Thumbs up!

I’m pretty happy my contributions helped these two get made.

I’ve since donated to the sequel to Bedrooms To Billions, and I’ll be on the lookout to see what others get proposed which are worth a look.

Back in the mid-70s when Monty Python was developing The Life Of Brian, they got a sizeable contribution of funds from George Harrison, because he “wanted to see the movie”. That’s not an option most film makers have, of course.

Crowdfunding is something that has probably only become practical since the spread of the internet. The long tail of interests means a special interest group like this can reach the numbers of people necessary to make it viable.

It’s nice to see technology being used in this kind of way — something that would have seemed unimaginable just a decade or two ago.

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Film Melbourne Toxic Custard newsletter transport

1978 film “Mouth to Mouth” includes scenes of Melbourne anti-freeway protests

The recent anti-motorway protests in Melbourne are nothing new. In fact the very same area was subject to protests in the 1970s, when it was proposed to link the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway by way of an aboveground link, by converting Alexandra Parade to a freeway, ploughing through neighbourhoods in Collingwood, Carlton and Fitzroy.

Film and television can sometimes provide little glimpses of these events. M told me that on Sunday night, Channel 31 as part of their classic Australian film series, was showing 1978’s Mouth To Mouth“, about four youngsters trying to survive on Melbourne’s streets.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

About 43 minutes in, there’s a scene were one of the characters looks out of a window and spots one of the anti-freeway protests. I assume it was staged for the film, as they are marching to an audience of nobody, but the placards look to be directly inspired by real life, one criticising the then-Premier — partly out of shot, but I think it says “What about your 1972 promise – No more freeways, Mr Hamer”.

Others such as “Melbourne needs a transport plan!” and “Freeways – Money for jams” wouldn’t be out of place today.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

I missed the scene on Channel 31’s broadcast, but found the DVD for the bargain price of $5 plus $1.30 shipping on Umbrella Entertainment’s web site.

In other scenes you can glimpse bright orange trams, safety zones, rows and rows of telephone boxes, a red rattler train, the old Coles cafeteria, and numerous old cars. There’s also a scene set in a plush hotel — possibly the Southern Cross.

And apart from the scenery, the film itself isn’t bad either. Apparently it got three AFI nominations.

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Film Toxic Custard newsletter TV

Doctor Who breaks new ground for television

It would seem Doctor Who is breaking new ground in some interesting ways.

They’ve engineered a “world tour” which involves the show’s stars jetting around the world for live appearances in 6 cities around the globe over about a week. It’s just about finished now… I’d imagine they’d be suffering horribly from jetlag by the time they get back to the UK. It was a set of public screenings for fans, but given limited capacity at each venue, I suspect was mostly set up as a media event.

Doctor Who: Deep Breath cinema ad, The Age, 15/8/2014

Next week “Deep Breath”, the new series opening episode will be simulcast on the ABC at the same time as it airs in Britain — 7:50pm Saturday in the UK, 4:50am Sunday in eastern Australia. It’ll then be available on iView straight afterwards, with a prime time repeat at 7:30pm. The same occurred with the 50th anniversary episode “Day Of The Doctor” last November.

It’ll also be shown in the cinemas on the Sunday: from the looks of listings on yourmovies.com.au, almost 100 cinemas in Victoria alone will show it.

Cinemas do seem to be moving into this kind of special event area. Perhaps they are looking to diversify from traditional movies, and also sensing that people will willingly pay a higher “event” price: Village is charging $25 for tickets, about $6 more than the normal price, and $40 for Gold Class, which is about the usual price.

They’ve recently taken on screenings such as showing the Monty Python live concert from London, a similar Stephen Fry event, classical music concerts and operas — and Doctor Who episodes — “Deep Breath” follows “Day Of The Doctor” in this regard, and some cinemas have also shown other episodes in the past (though well after the TV broadcast).

I guess the production of TV programmes in 1080p HD now allows projection onto the big screen, and digital media allows distributors to rush it to cinemas worldwide without messing about trying to get physical film out there. But still, in the world of television, this and the simulcast appear to be almost unique to Doctor Who.

Of course there’s long been a relationship between TV and cinema. In the 60s in particular it was common for TV series (particularly in the UK) to be remade as films, sometimes with the same cast and writers, and considered part of the TV series; sometimes independent (as with the 1960s Doctor Who movies).

Many of our family is going to see “Deep Breath” in the cinema. The kids are going to screenings with their friends — M and myself have splurged on Gold Class, and will most likely avoid the early TV broadcast and try and avoid spoilers until we see it on the big screen. (I avoided seeing “Day Of The Doctor” because it was only shown in 3D, which doesn’t work on me.)

Notably, booking on the Village Cinemas web site, we found that on top of the ticket price there was a $2 booking fee for standard tickets… but a whopping $10 for Gold Class. Using the identical web site of course, and you have to print the ticket or show it on your mobile phone. The cheek of it.

Oh well, cost aside, it should be great — but it makes me wonder: Doctor Who is probably helped into this situation by being a cult show that’s also very popular, and being targeted at all ages… but is any other TV show getting this kind of treatment?

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books Doctor Who Film Retrospectives Toxic Custard newsletter TV

Before home video

In the days before home video, we had to resort to other means to re-live movies and TV shows.

Novelisations of productions were common. I knew people who had hundreds of Doctor Who novelisations — virtually every story had a book published. I had perhaps a dozen.

WarGames book coverOther books made it into publication — scripts, programme guides, and spin-off material. Of course these are still common, but perhaps only for specific “cult” titles that the makers think will sell really well.

I used to have the script for The Singing Detective. At home I still have two books from The Goodies, which have a wealth of quite amusing material. I didn’t bought them, but acquired them both from the primary school library during clear-outs.

Some people would record TV shows onto audio tape. About a hundred 1960s Doctor Who stories are still lost — but audio recordings exist for every single one. (It’s perhaps a sign of the priorities of big bureaucracies like the BBC that paperwork exists for all the stories, despite the actual stories having been thrown out.)

In the 80s before I had saved up for a VCR, I recorded some stuff onto audio… from memory by just putting a tape recorder close to the TV, though I may have later rigged up a cord connecting the two directly. The Young Ones was an example — I had most episodes on cassette, and listened to them regularly for a while.

One of the movies I bought the novelisation of back in the day was WarGames, which as I’ve written about before, was very influential on me. As I recall it follows the movie script closely, but has a few extra titbits: such as that after the movie ends, David gets a summer job doing computer work at NORAD, and his school is convinced to buy some computers to teach computer studies to the students.

I don’t know what happened to my copy of the book. Presumably I got rid of it during a house move at some point. So in the best traditions of nostalgia, when I got curious and looked on eBay the other week, I found a copy for under $10, and bought it again.

I still love the movie. I bought the 25th anniversary Blu-ray release recently as well — it looks great in high-definition. I’ll probably re-read the book at some stage. It’s only 220 pages — it’ll be a pretty quick read I’m sure.

Nowadays, people can record anything off TV easily using cheap technology, and perhaps every major TV show and movie is released on DVD and/or Blu-ray, and (eventually) repeated ad infinitum on one of the many TV channels. No wonder novelisations have mostly disappeared, and few people record audio off the TV anymore.

  • Ever wondered about the term “Wardriving“, meaning to look for open Wifi networks while driving? It’s derived from “War dialling“, meaning to ring lots of phone numbers looking for computers answering… the word came from the movie.)
  • Speaking of scripts, there are over 80 made freely (and legally) available for download here: Go Into The Story
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Film Health TMI TV

Physical wreck: There will be snot

I’m a physical wreck this weekend, from head to foot.

Some new shoes are fine for me, but the ones I wore on Thursday resulted in three blisters: one on each heel, and another on one of my toes. I’m sure the shoes will settle down after a couple of wears, but in the mean time, I’ve got bandaids on every time I leave the house.

And I’ve got a head cold. It’s not at the top of the scale when it comes to colds and flu, but it’s not very pleasant either.

The movie In The Loop (which is a spin-off from the TV series The Thick Of It) has some very funny deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray disc. In one, Jamie (aka The Crossest Man In Scotland) rants to Malcolm about going to see the movie There Will Be Blood… he complains that there’s hardly any blood in it.

My weekend so far could be called There Will Be Snot. On Saturday I went through an unbelievable number of tissues, thanks to an alternating blocked/sneezy/runny nose. The house sounded a little as if someone was doing a day-long really really bad trumpet rehearsal.

So far Sunday is looking like it might be a day for a sore throat rather than lots of nose action, but we’ll see.

Hopefully this cold will be on the retreat by tomorrow. I’ve got important things to do during the week.

Here for your enjoyment is Jamie McDonald, the Crossest Man In Scotland. (Coarse language)

Finally, what is amazing about In The Loop is that they managed to construct a trailer with no swearing (apart from one bleep):

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Film

The Hobbit part 1

Finally got around to watching The Hobbit part 1.

I thought being the first of three films, and at 2 hours 45 minutes, it would drag a bit, but it really didn’t. Nicely done.

Cumberbatch really nailed Smaug, didn’t he. I can just see him going into a studio to record his voice for part 1. “Okay Benedict!” “Rrrrroooooooaoaaaaaaaarrrrr!” “Excellent, thanks very much — see you next movie.”

(Yeah yeah, I know, he also played the Necromancer.)

And 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy as Radagast was good. No spoons to play though, thankfully.

The Hobbit: Gandalf and Radagast

It all looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, of course. One notable thing though, it’s one of a small number of discs I have which drops a few frames in some scenes on my setup. Might be an image correction/quality setting on the TV which isn’t handling the throughput — perhaps I can switch it off.

Anyway, very much looking forward to part 2.Thumbs up!

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Consumerism Film TV

Given the price differential, it’s hard to see that GST on imports would make any difference

AU cash and JB cardAmong the presents I got for my birthday was a JB Hifi gift card. This always presents a challenge: what bargains can I pick up?

Browsing around the store one day, I found the two Harry Potter movies we don’t already have — the Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2 — on Blu-ray, for $14.98, and on a two-for-the-price-of-one deal. Sold.

But what to spend the remaining $14.02 on?

Here are the prices of some movies and other discs that are on my To Buy list… with a comparison between Amazon UK, JB Hifi and Ezydvd.

Title JB Hifi EzyDVD Amazon UK
Firefly (TV series) Blu-ray [1] $36.98 $42.97 £15.00 ($21.93)
Doctor Who (series 5) Blu-ray $133.99 $139.97 £17.00 ($24.65)
Doctor Who (series 6) Blu-ray [2] NA $119.97 £18.25 ($26.35)
Tintin(movie) Blu-ray 2D [3] $49.99 $52.97 £8.25 ($12.72)
The Slap DVD[4] $55.99 $57.97 £6.77 ($10.71)
  • [1] Firefly was recently about double this price in Australia for the Blu-ray. It seems they’ve now brought it down to a reasonable price at last.
  • [2] JBHifi online only lists the part 1 and part 2 Blu-rays of Doctor Who series 6, which excludes extras.
  • [3] The Tintin movie in Australia appears to be only available on Blu-ray with bundled (but in my case, unwanted) DVD and digital copy. Amazon has this edition as well, at 10 pounds more than just the Blu-ray. In Australia, the 3D Blu-ray is another $10, making it around $60.
  • [4] I’m not really in the market for this, but I thought I’d throw it in as an example of an Australian production. In Australia the price of the DVD or Blu-ray seems to be equally high. Amazon UK only lists the DVD; no Blu-ray.

The dollar prices for Amazon UK above are with the VAT deducted, and the £1.49 per item delivery cost added. There is an additional £2.09 ($3.27) cost per delivery, which is why most people try and buy multiple things at once, rather than ordering items one-by-one.

But even with delivery costs, some of these items are ludicrously more expensive buying in Australia. It’s not hard to see why people are importing — and also not hard to see that while some retailers want 10% GST added to imports, it would make hardly any difference at all — not when in some of these cases Amazon will deliver it to you for a fifth of the Australian price.

The rise of the Aussie dollar has obviously played a part here, but this isn’t new… it’s been over 60 UK pence for about two years.

And I’m not saying the retailers are necessarily to blame here, but something somewhere in the supply chain for these products is obviously very fishy indeed.

PS lunchtime. Obviously the price differential is quite different for various products and types of product. I think I actually got a pretty good deal on the Harry Potter Blu-rays, and I doubt they are cheaper via Amazon… this of course makes it all the more puzzling. Ultimately someone in the supply chain believes that Australians shopping locally are prepared to pay higher prices than our UK friends… that, after all, is how the free market operates.

By the way, unlike for DVDs, the UK and Europe is the same region for Blu-ray discs as Australia (region B).

PS 18/11/2012: I did eventually buy a couple of these yesterday during a JB Hifi “20% off DVDs and Blu-ray” sale. Firefly (still at around $37) went down to about $30, which is close to the US price (though still a bit above the UK one), and Tintin now has a new Blu-ray only edition retailing for $19.95. At 20% off that took it down to about $16. I also noticed The Slap has dropped to about $40.

Categories
Film TV

DVD vs Blu-Ray picture quality

I never quite believed I’d see much of the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray on an 80cm (32 inch) TV. But with brand-name Blu-Ray players now below $100, and releases such as the complete set of Star Wars movies out on Blu-Ray, this past Christmas seemed like the right time to jump in and try it.

One of the presents I got was the Blu-Ray of Tron: Legacy, which also included the original Tron movie. Since I already had the DVD of the former, I’m able to compare the DVD against the Blu-Ray versions.

The scene from Flynn’s arcade had a lot more detail on the Blu-Ray, but you can’t really see it in a photo, so I won’t post it here. Jeremy and I looked carefully at this scene and were able to identify the names on some of the machines, for instance, which is impossible using the DVD.

More stark is the difference in this shot from the lightcycles scene, first on DVD:
Tron: Lightcycles on DVD
(See it bigger)

…and on Blu-Ray:
Tron: Lightcycles on Blu-Ray
(See it bigger)

There’s a lot more contrast in this scene on the Blu-Ray version. I think it’s not just a format question, it’s also that they’ve taken a lot more care in remastering the video. But the resolution being better also undoubtedly helps, and this is particularly noticeable (on the TV, perhaps not in the photos) with the grid lines.

Things to keep in mind:

  • The DVD was from before the sequel movie was made, and it’s entirely possible that not a great deal of care was taken in the mastering. In comparison it appears they took a lot of care on the Blu-Ray version. It’s entirely possible that the current edition DVD is better.
  • These comparisons were snapped off my TV with a camera, with the blinds drawn to reduce light. The snapshots were not taken under ideal conditions. (I don’t currently have any Blu-Ray drives in a computer, so I’m unable to grab a Blu-Ray image directly.) As noted above, it’s difficult to convey the difference seen on the TV in a photo.
  • I’ve used the freeze frame, which may impact the picture.

There’s no denying the higher quality of Blu-Ray, even on an 80cm screen.

Question is, which movies or TV would I consider worthy of upgrade, and at what cost? I can’t see myself shelling how lots of money for discs of movies I already own. But for future purchases, I’d certainly lean towards the newer format if the price is not prohibitive.

(I did find The Life Of Brian on Blu-Ray, with lots of extras, for $8 yesterday at K-Mart.)