How to Kindle a Fire

“There’s a nice deal on a Kindle Fire. That’ll make a great coaster for my iPad” – Stephen Colbert

I’ve always been a little jealous of my wife’s iPad. She uses it every night while we sit in front of the TV and surfs the web with big bold print, uses her blog reader, or just plays Bejeweled. A new iPad was definitely not in the budget this year but my wife saved her scheckels and kindly bought me a shiny new Kindle Fire from Amazon.

Kindle Fire: Everything I think about the Kindle Fire seems to have a but attached.

The Kindle Fire is a great price ($200 for a tablet versus a minimum of $500 for an iPad) but it does come up short against the iPad. The 7″ inch screen is a wonderful upgrade from a smartphone but print is still ridiculously small on most websites I tried. Yes you can enlarge the print and scroll around with your fingers but this is imprecise and a little cumbersome (but far superior to a smartphone).

The “revolutionary” Silk browser is not ultra-fast as Amazon claims. Firefox on my computer loads much faster. Silk is supposed to learn from your browsing history and speed up – I have only tested it a little bit so maybe my speed increase will kick in later. I certainly like the idea of a browser accelerated by Amazon’s servers. Silk does support Flash so that is certainly a point against Apple.

If you are used to Apple’s App store then Amazon’s App choices will seem a joke. Yes they do have the ubiquitous Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies. Still one of the things I most  liked about the iPad was the ability to play board games. I looked up Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. All of them are available in nice editions on the iPad but none are available on the Fire. You can get Monopoly and Scrabble but I don’t care for Monotony and I don’t play Scrabble because of the rampant availability of cheat programs.

Fine – I went to my back up options. I looked up Puzzle Quest, Galactrix, and Puzzle Quest 2. Still a no-go on the Fire in spite of them being available on numerous other platforms. I went back to my trusty Plants vs. Zombies. It looks and plays great but it only has Adventure mode – no Zen garden and no mini-games which, as you might guess, are my favorite parts. Hopefully Popcap will update this like they did the iPod/iPhone version.

Amazon does feature a FREE app every day which is very nice. I always use my Fire daily if only to snag the freebie. I even got Bejeweled 2 for FREE and it is much better on the Fire than on a smartphone. I look forward to Amazon’s app store filling up at some point.

Netflix and Hulu Plus work great and are easy-to-use. The 7″ Fire screen is absolutely gorgeous. I was surprised to find how enjoyable the screen-size was. Sound is only okay as half volume is inaudible and full volume is just a normal level (mind you the family does accuse me of being deaf – personally I can’t hear them).

If you own movies and/or music from Amazon then it is very easy to transfer them wirelessly to the Fire. 8 gigabyte is not a lot but it fits all 13 episodes of The Walking Dead from Amazon plus two movies. Transferring movies from your computer requires a micro USB cable. I have one but have yet to try this feature as I suspect that I will have to play with video formats, sizes and resolutions.

Verdict: The Kindle Fire is no iPad killer and doesn’t even really play in the same ballpark. It is however an incredible value if you use it as a traveling movie machine with games. Also buying a Kindle Fire leaves you $300 to do something silly like feed your family.

Note: While I am critical here of the Fire, I am enjoying it quite a bit and am bound to enjoy it more as the Amazon market matures.

R.I.P. Ken Russell – 1927-2011

British director Ken Russell has passed away at the age of 84. He left behind a huge body of work over the course of half a century. Much of his work was raw, boundary-pushing and controversial and I think it’s a shame that he fell out of favor by the 90s. Netflix has several of his films available for streaming (though not his best ones sadly)

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) – Not rated

In this final installment of the Harry Palmer spy trilogy, Palmer (Michael Caine) has left the espionage game to work as a private eye but is pressed back into service when an American general (Ed Begley) tries to foment an uprising in the Soviet Union. Tasked with thwarting the lunatic general — who’s using a supercomputer to carry out his sinister plan — Palmer must join forces with his former Russian foil (Oskar Homolka).

I really liked the Harry Palmer series of books by Len Deighton. They were more serious than James Bond but not nearly as impenetrable/convoluted as John Le Carre’s George Smiley series. Having said that, this movie is dated and quite silly but still entertaining due in large measure to the presence of Michael Caine and Russell’s visual sense.

The Music Lovers (1970) – Rated R

Creative passion, sexual desire and astounding excess dominate director Ken Russell’s controversial biopic, which follows flamboyant composer Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) through his marriage to nymphomaniac Nina (Glenda Jackson) and his love affair with a count (Christopher Gable). The score features the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor André Previn performing several of Tchaikovsky’s works.

This one will give you a real taste of what Russell was like as a director. With the gloves off, Russell gets to revel a bit in sexual debauchery, homosexuality, and camp. Naturally great music accompanies this film.

The Russia House (1990) – Rated R

After intercepting a Russian manuscript meant for small-time publisher Barley Blair (Sean Connery), CIA agents urge Blair to follow up on the deal. He wants nothing to do with it — until he sees a photo of the book’s beautiful editor, Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer). Based on the John le Carré novel, this beautifully photographed tale of Cold War intrigue was one of the first U.S.-produced films to be shot largely on location in the Soviet Union.

This film is so restrained that I still have trouble believing it is a Ken Russell film. Still Sean Connery is fun and Michelle (Catwoman) Pfeiffer is gorgeous. The cinematography is gorgeous as well but the plot moves at a glacial pace.

Other Ken Russell films currently on Netflix streaming:

Salome’s Last Dance (1988) – Rated R

Framed as a play within a film, Ken Russell’s otherwise faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” — a tale of a young biblical temptress — follows the writer (Nickolas Grace) as he watches the performance while lounging in a brothel with his lover (Douglas Hodge). After John the Baptist (Hodge) spurns her advances, Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott) demands that her stepfather, King Herod (Stratford Johns), deliver the disciple’s head on a platter.

Lady Chatterly (1993) – Not rated

At the urging of her paralyzed, impotent spouse, Lady Chatterley finds a lover in the form of her husband’s handsome gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. After embarking on a steamy affair with Mellors, the noblewoman experiences a sexual awakening.

Trapped Ashes (2006) – Rated R

Trapped in a house of horror, seven people discover that the only way they’ll get out alive is to tell their scariest stories, setting the stage for five tales from directors Ken Russell, Sean S. Cunningham, Joe Dante, Monte Hellman and John Gaeta. This anthology includes spine-tingling tales of sexy succubi, possessed breast implants, nightmarish dream hauntings and more. Jayce Bartok, Lara Harris and Henry Gibson star.

I have yet to see this but Ken Russell directed the segment, “The Girl with Golden Breasts”. Rest in peace, Mr. Russell – you will be missed.


Netflix & Hastings Folly Updated

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was The Man last year. Among other accolades, he was Fortune’s 2010 Business Person of the Year. He was making the push to take Netflix global which is a very worthy, albeit expensive goal.

Then in July, Netflix announced a massive price increase and a split between the streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray options. Netflix (either option or both) is still a great deal but come on 40-60% increases across the board? They expected and braced for a hit in subscribers. Hastings Folly cost Netflix over 800,000 subscribers – obviously far more than they had anticipated.

Netflix’ bungled attempts at communication came off as arrogant. Perhaps that’s because underneath the prose, the message boiled down to “you will take what we give you and like it”. Even after the uproar they didn’t backtrack except to declare that discs would not be spun off into a separate entity.

This brings us to today. As an article on Gawker noted, buried in a NetflixSEC filing is “as a result of the relatively flat consolidated revenues and previously announced increased investment in our International segment, we (Netflix) expect to incur consolidated net losses for the year ending December 31, 2012.”

Yikes – no profit in 2012 for a company that had such a meteoric rise. I hope this doesn’t bode ill for next year’s content purchases. On the other hand with Hollywood accounting, no movie ever makes money so who knows.

Happy Thanksgiving! and the Thursday Horror Show

In celebration of all things turkey, our local Carolina Cinemas will be playing The Giant Claw in the cinema lounge at 8.

“The Giant Claw (1957) introduces the viewer to the age of alien invasions and military paranoia. Opening with a great shot of an Earth diorama orbiting in space, the film chronicles Mitchell MacAfee (Jeff Morrow), an electronics engineer who reports from his aircraft shadows of a large bird dive-bombing his plane. Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday) stands by at home base, continually ready for action. When one does manage to see this elusive shadow, the viewer can almost make out the giant avian claw that looks like a chicken foot.”

In addition to The Giant Claw, they will be presenting an episode of Flash Gordon Goes to Mars at 740 and Turkey sandwiches will be available in the lobby.

They also announced their December line-up and I’m looking forward to all of them. All movies begin at 8 with an episode of Flash Gordon Goes to Mars at 740.

12/1 Island of Lost Souls (1932), a rarely seen classic with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.

12/8 Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) with Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi. Truth in advertising but only for the last ten minutes or so – this is the fifth of eight in the Universal Frankenstein line. House of Frankenstein next month maybe?

12/15 The Funhouse (1981) by Tobe Hooper.

12/22 The Devil Doll (1936) – Directed by Tod Browning and starring Lionel Barrymore. This is one I haven’t actually seen.

12/29 The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick’s visual tour de force is a wonder even if it doesn’t follow King’s novel all that well. I really miss the topiary animals in the book.

Arrested Development

Arrested Development (2003-2005)

This wickedly funny Emmy-winning sitcom follows the tribulations of the Bluths, a wealthy California clan gone to the dogs after paterfamilias and real estate tycoon George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) gets busted for fraud. Now long-suffering son Michael (Jason Bateman) keeps the family business afloat as he spars with his boozy mother (Jessica Walter), vapid siblings (Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett and Tony Hale) and other wildly dysfunctional relatives.

“Remember there’s always money in the banana stand.”

Well I had intended this week to just cover some truly awful turkeys but I felt I had to digress. Netflix finally announced that they will show NEW episodes of Arrested Development in 2013 and that they will be showing exclusively on Netflix. Now it will be quite a wait but you can start by watching the first three seasons right now on Netflix.

Arrested Development features a wonderful if unwieldy ensemble cast. Jason Batemen anchors the show as everyman Michael Bluth but most of the other characters are completely off the wall. Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Tony Hale, Jessica Walter, Alia Shawkat and David Cross all play quirky relatives – each one vying for attention. Everyone seems to have a different favorite character.

The wonderful ensemble extends to the frequent guest stars. Look for Liza Minnelli, Henry Winkler, Charlize Theron, Amy Poehler, Carl Weathers, Ben Stiller, Jane Lynch and many more in multi-episode story arcs.

The writing is wonderful and it is amazing that they are able to fit all nine family members in each episode. I love the running  joke where each episode has a preview of the next episode and none of those events ever occur in the next episode.

People Watch: Yes that is Ron Howard narrating each episode and look for noted terrible (yet enthusiastic) singer William Hung playing himself in two episodes .

Thanksgiving week – Turkey Galore

Ah the holidays! Like many folks, I look forward all year to a turkey feast with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce (the good stuff – not the junk that comes out in the shape of the can), and pumpkin pie. I thought this week I’d prepare a virtual turkey feast.

I covered Thankskilling last year and it is truly an awful film. Unfortunately it is not awful fun but simply awful. I was the only one in the family who sat through it.

Much higher on the so-bad-it’s-fun scale are previously covered turkeys Battlefield Earth and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Both are still available on instant Netflix if you are inclined to laughably bad movies. Each has their own particular charms. Battlefield Earth is almost unbelievably bad and has a jaw-dropping performance from John Travolta.

I’m going to try to cover a few new bad movies this week. Borrowing from wikipedia’s list of the worst films ever made, these are the ones currently available on instant Netflix: Battlefield Earth, Santa Clause Conquers the Martians, At Long Last Love, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Howard the Duck, Mac and Me, North, Gigli, Troll 2, and Birdemic: Shock and Terror. There are a few others under the Mystery Science Theater 3000 label but it’s hard to properly condemn, I mean judge a film with nonstop chatter played over the soundtrack.

The Great Train Robbery – Trains = Money week

The Great Train Robbery (1978) – Rated PG

Victorian rogue Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) crafts an ambitious plan to stage England’s first hold-up of a moving train. To get to the 25,000 pounds of gold bars on board — which are well-guarded by a complex key system — Pierce enlists a bedmate (Lesley Anne Down), a safecracker (Donald Sutherland) and a tough guy (Wayne Sleep). Director Michael Crichton adapted the script from his novel by the same name, which is based on actual events.

“Now, on the matter of motive, we ask you: Why did you conceive, plan and execute this dastardly and scandalous crime?” – “I wanted the money.”

In addition to directing, Michael Crichton wrote the screenplay based on his own novel. He has a fine eye for detail without bogging things down. The film feels fun and Geoffrey Unsworth’s Victorian cinematography is gorgeous. This film is dedicated to Unsworth’s memory.

Sean Connery is delightful (and clearly having fun) as Edward Pierce. Yes he really does run on top of the train while it is moving at 40-50 mph. Lesley-Anne Downe is quite good as Miriam, his love interest and accomplice.

Donald Sutherland gets to play his normal delightfully goofy 70s self, the robber Agar – thankfully reined in just a bit by Crichton. Wayne Sleep plays the fourth robber, Clean Willy and was a member of the Royal Ballet Company.

This is first and foremost a caper film and follows the standard tropes associated with that subgenre, even though it takes place in the mid-19th century. Crichton delights in both the details and language of the 19th century criminal underclass. You can learn quite a bit simply by paying attention to this film and yet it doesn’t come off as preachy. Crichton also manages to throw in a wonderful double entendre conversation for Connery and a fun ending to bring the film together.

People Watch: This was the last film of Hammer regular Andre Morell. He plays the Judge.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Trains = Money week

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – Rated PG

Legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) display their gifts for perfect comedic timing and charisma as they pull off heist after heist in this Academy Award-winning film from director George Roy Hill. To evade a relentless posse, the boys flee to Bolivia, thinking they’ll find easier pickings there. But trouble finds the charming desperadoes wherever they go, prompting yet another run.

“Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?”

George Roy Hill directed his masterpiece here from a script by the prolific William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Misery). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is only peripherally a western. It begins with a wonderful credits sequence alongside “footage” of the Wild Bunch/Hole in the Wall gang and then segues into a nice sepia-toned scene followed by segueing into full color. Although Godfather II used sepia better, Butch predates Coppola’s film by several years. The film then touches on a few random events for the Wild Bunch before our three leads hightail it for Bolivia.

Butch Cassidy won four Oscars: Best Writing (William Goldman), Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall), Best Music (Burt Bacharach) and Best Song (Burt Bacharach, Raindrops Keep Fallin on my Head). It was also nominated for Best Sound, Best Director and Best Picture but lost to Hello,Dolly for Sound and Midnight Cowboy for director and picture. Please keep in mind that while Raindrops is now elevator fodder, it was very popular 40 years ago.

Paul Newman was already an ‘A’ lister when this came out but Butch Cassidy is probably the role he is best remembered for. Robert Redford had a few lead roles before this but this is the movie that made him a star. Their camaraderie is infectious and would lead to them being paired again in The Sting (also by George Roy Hill). Katherine Ross fills out the requisite romantic triangle as Etta Place.

There are plenty of other people in the film but this is primarily a vehicle for Newman and Redford – even Katharine Ross seems pushed to the side at time. George Furth as Woodcock provides several laughs and Ted Cassidy makes a good foil as Harvey Logan. Cloris Leachman and Kenneth Mars would seem to point to this being a comedy and while Butch is quite funny in spots, it is more of a light drama than a comedy.

George Roy Hill keeps the atmosphere very light in spite of the story being that of the downfall of the Hole in the Wall gang. We never see what happens to any of the members after Butch and Sundance head for Bolivia but trust me, historically it does not go well for any of them.

Sidenote: For a marvelous postscript to this story, see the independent film Blackthorn starring Sam Shepard or put it in your Netflix DVD queue.

People Watch: Perennial westerner Sam Elliott makes his film debut as Card Player #2. He would eventually marry co-star Katherine Ross although they didn’t meet until they filmed The Legacy (1978).

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – Trains = Money week

I love trains and it turns out there are quite a few train movies I haven’t covered yet so this is Trains=Money week. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the original) is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – Rated R

Deep in the bowels of New York City, a gang of men led by “Mr. Blue” (Robert Shaw) hijacks a subway car and radios the transit authority with a demand: Deliver $1 million in cash in the next hour, or they’ll shoot one passenger each minute. Now, it’s up to Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) to keep a cool head, secure the money and deliver the ransom before time runs out. Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Earl Hindman round out Mr. Blue’s crew.

“Now, then, ladies and gentlemen, do you see this gun? It fires 750 rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition per minute. In other words, if all of you simultaneously were to rush me, not a single one of you would get any closer than you are right now. I do hope I’ve made myself understood. “

I like Denzel Washington but the remake of this movie was a steaming pile of garbage, full of completely nonsensical action and actions. Please give the excellent 1974 original a try – just don’t mind the quaint million dollar ransom.

Walter Matthau is fantastic as the beleagured Lt. Garber. He is a great example of how 70s stars could be effective without being a “pretty boy”. Thankfully he keeps his comedic persona to a minimum. Jerry Stiller (Ben’s father) aids Garber as Lt. Patrone.

Robert Shaw plays an excellent, very nuanced villain in Mr. Blue who not only has to deal with the police and passengers but also keep Mr. Green from cracking under pressure while keeping Mr. Grey’s psychopathic tendencies in check. He does all this with military precision and is quite cool.

Martin Balsam does a good job as the jittery Mr. Green as does Hector Elizondo as the maniac Mr. Grey. Earl Hindman rounds out the villains as Mr. Brown.

The action is intelligent and, unlike modern movies, does not always revolve around the two central characters. David Shire provides a nice driving beat for the tense situations. The movie was filmed in New York’s subway with many of the scenes filmed at or near the current location of the New York City Transit Museum.

People Watch: Instead of featuring a brief role by an up-and-comer, note that this film is where Quentin Tarantino got the character names for the Reservoir Dogs criminals.

Extreme Measures – Bad Doc, No Biscuit! week

Extreme Measures (1996) – Rated R for violence, language, some nudity and graphic ER content.

In director Michael Apted’s medical thriller, emergency room doctor Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant) is haunted by the disappearance of a strange patient’s records. Against the advice of his nurse friend Jodie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Guy pushes the investigation. The trail leads to Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman), a brilliant doctor with a clouded conscience whose experimental surgeries, which allow spinal cord victims to walk again, hint at the sinister.

“You made a moral choice and not a medical one. I guess I’m kind of surprised, that’s all. “

Okay Extreme Measures starts off well with two naked men escaping a medical facility pursued by men in a car. Unfortunately it then segues into Hugh Grant as Dr. Guy Luthan controlling an ER. Twenty medical professionals standing around and the only one capable of dealing with things is the cute floppy-haired guy. I started giggling. I dare you to watch the scene and not giggle.

Unfortunately Hugh Grant appears to have only one forte – romantic comedy. He is not as one dimensional as Keanu Reeves but it is very hard to take him seriously in this movie. His investigations really beg the question of what happened to the other Hardy boy.

Sarah Jessica Parker is okay but the role doesn’t require her to do much of anything. Gene Hackman, who I normally like, simply collects a paycheck here. Bill Nunn and David Morse are fine character actors but don’t add much to the film.

This was the first movie for Simian Films, founded by Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley and was a financial flop. This was released the year after his arrest for lewd conduct. Seriously a long-term relationship with one of the pre-eminent super-models of the day and you get caught in a parked car with a common streetwalker. Sheesh!

There is a good chuckle to be had when we are introduced to two police officers named Burke and Hare (after the infamous 19th century graverobbers/murderers). Apart from that most of the laughs are unintentional.

People Watch: Look for Director David Cronenberg’s brief appearance as a hospital lawyer and the always welcome J.K. Simmons as Dr. Mingus.