Thursday, December 28, 2006

Which Scrooge is the Best?

I know that Christmas is over but I'm doing this one anyway. I spent Christmas Day watching the George C. Scott version of a Christmas Carol. I really think that this is the best although there are some close runners-up.

During the 1970s CBS had an annual tradition of showing the musical version "Scrooge". When they announced a new, non-musical version people asked, "Why?" Aside form it being the first serious remake in a generation, the real answer comes from watching it. It is really good. I was never a fan of Scott but I really liked him as Scrooge. Many other cast members were also fairly distinguished. The script is very true to Dickens with many of the lines being copied straight.

There are some other versions that deserve mention. I always enjoyed the Mr. McGoo version and it holds up surprisingly well. The Muppet version was very enjoyable and Bill Murray did a good job of updating the role for the 1980s.

I don't care a bit for the 1938 or the 191 versions and I was disappointed by the Patrick Stewart one.

There are innumerable other versions. This is one of the two most overused plots for Christmas specials (the other is It's a Wonderful Life). Interestingly, both involve time-travel and alternate worlds. As a twist, in Blackadder's Christmas Carol, Blackadder starts as the nicest man in England and changes when he sees his past and future. In the WKRP version, Mr. Carlson, the station manager, has visions after eating some questionable brownies. Other version are more strained.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

My New Sansa

Instead of talking about media, I'm going to review a media player. I got a Sansa media player for my birthday last week. This is not my first MP3 player but it has a number of differences from the others I have owned.

The biggest difference between this and the other MP3 players I own is how songs are organized. The others either put songs in the order they are copied to the device or in alphabetic order. The Sansa ignores all of this and reads the MP3 tags. This surprised me the first time I ripped a CD, copied it, and played it. I was expecting the tracks to be in alphabetic order. Instead the Sansa recognized that they were all from the same album and played them in order by track.

While a great improvement over other MP3 players, this does have a downside. Not all of my MP3s have full tags, especially ones I had recorded from LPs. I had to use an extra program to fill in the tag information. Many of my MP3s came from free downloads from the old and other sites. Most of these do not have genre filled in.

All of this is mainly a one-time chore. Once the MP3 tags are filled in they stay filled in.

Beyond that, the Sansa is a good player. It is flash memory-based so it does not have the huge capacity that the iPods or the Zune have. At the same time, it is cheaper and smaller. Mine is the low-end 2-gig model which is more music than I normally listen to in a month.  I can always move songs back and forth between the Sansa and my PC. For those who need it, it can go up to 8 gig plus additional memory can be added through a micro-SD slot in the side.

I loaded it with a gig of Christmas music, plugged it into a set of amplified speakers and played it most of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Then I removed all of that music and loaded my normal selections.

Sound quality is very good. The controls are fairly simple to figure out. I haven't bothered to look at the manual for this yet. I played with a friend's iPod last summer and had a more trouble figuring it out.

The Sansa has a small, color display. This normally goes dark after a few seconds of inactivity. It comes back on when any control is touched and shows the song, artist, the amount of time elapsed and remaining on the song, battery charge, and which song out of how many this is.

You can also use the display to show photographs and movies. These come out pretty tiny and this is not the first use I would make for the Sansa.

Like most MP3 players, you have to have a PC to use it. Unlike most of them, there are no special drivers to attach. You plug it in and it shows as a drive. You then use the Windows Explorer to copy files to and from it. Pictures and movies require a special converter. It also has a different connect mode in case you are using music protected by Windows DRM (Digital Rights Management). In this case you use the Windows Media Player to move music back and forth. I have not tried this.

In fact, DRM is why I went with the Sansa in the first place. The iPod uses DRM that ties it to a particular computer and essentially takes over your music collection. The Zune does something similar. Also, the iPod has a dark side - the batteries die and are hard to replace. The Sansa makes the batteries easy to get to.

The earbuds that came with the Sansa sound fine but hurt my ears after a while. I switched to a pair of Koss ones that I already had. The Koss earbuds go partway into the ear and sound great. On the other hand, the stock earbuds are better if you are going to spend most of your time wearing them. With the stock ones I can hear other people and carry conversations. With the Koss I have to pull out at least one.

The Sansa can receive and record FM radio. It can also record voice. I tried this during an Irish session and was surprised at how good the quality was - much better than other digital recorders I have used. This is recorded in .wav format.

All told, the Sansa is a good device.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Fantastic Four II

I saw the trailer for the new Fantastic Four movie, Fantastic Four, the Rise of the Silver Surfer. It was really good. I was smiling all through it at how cool the Surfer looked. The trailer had more excitement than the entire first movie combined.

BTW, the trailer can only be seen with Night at the Museum which is really funny and much better than the critics will admit.

Monday, December 18, 2006

LoTR Extended vs Theatrical Releases

THe cable channel TNT has been showing the Lord of the Rings the last two weekends. As it happens, I've been watching the extended versions. While I have seen both versions before, I have not seen them so close together so I was struck by how different the extended editions are.

Most DVDs contain deleted scenes but these are normally shown separately, without context. It is up to you to figure out how they would have been incorporated into the original movie. The Extended Edition of the Fellowship of the Ring changed this. Peter Jackson re-edited it and had it re-scored. The result was a move that could have been a theatrical release very similar to the director's cuts that are sometimes made.

Now, in the Fellowship of the Ring, it didn't make that much difference. We saw a longer opening with some background on Hobbits and a few other scenes that added depth but slowed the pace of the movie.

The Two Towers was a little different. Most of what was added was fun but optional. We saw Merry and Pippin spending the night at Treebeard's place and drinking his special Ent brew. Later we saw them stumbling on Sauruman's larder. More important, we saw what really happened to Sauruman's army of orcs - they were killed by an army of trees from Fangorn forest.

But these are nothing compared to the Return of the King. That movie was judged too long for theatrical release so some important scenes were cut for time. This was obvious in two places in the final version. In one, Gandolf and company go to confront Sauruman but then leave. Much later, Aragorn leads his commanders to the gates of Mordor. The gates open and he runs back to his army. Obviously something happened here.

In the Extended version we see the confrontation with Sauruman and the Mouth of Sauron.

A lot more is there in the Extended version. A number of connecting scenes are restored. Battles are longer. In at least one place, the order of events is changed.

In the theatrical version, the orcs are breaking into Minas Tirath. The orc general is ordering his troops to kill anyone they meet. Then horns blow and the Riders of Rohan appear. Back in Minas Tirath, Pippin finds Gandalf an fetches him to save Faramir.

In the extended version, the orcs are breaking into Minas Tirith and the general is instructing his troops. Pippin fetches Gandalf. On their way to save Faramir they are confronted by the Witchking. He breaks Gandalf's staff but is distracted by the horns. We see the general turn then we see the Riders of Rohan.

BTW, Gandalf goes through a lot of staffs. Sauruman takes the first one. The second is lost in Moria. The Witchking breaks the third. When Gandalf saves Faramir he has to snatch a guard's pike.

There are also scenes showing Aragorn and company attacking the revers and curing the people who were sickened by the Nazgul.

In all, after seeing the Extended Edition of the Return of the King I have trouble enjoying the original version.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Not-So Funny Pages

The comic section is going be a bit less comic next year. Fox Trot is cutting back to Sunday-only and For Better or Worse is rumored to be ending later in the year.

There aren't that many strips that are consistently good and these two are in a short list at the top.

A few other strips continue to be funny. Zits and Sherman's Lagoon are the most consistent. Get Fuzzy and Agnes are uneven but stand-outs when they score (which is more often than not). Stone Soup can get a laugh.

Then there are the strips that used to be funny. Doonesbury was really funny when it started in the early 1970s but turned into a liberal rant before the end of Nixon's administration. It's hard to believe but Garfield was really funny when it started. For the last decade or two it has been the laziest strip in comics. The repeated jokes about boredom mirror the content of the strip.

Dilbert continues to be amusing but narrowed its focus to office humor a few years ago. When it first started it was broader and funnier.

Then there is Funky Winkerbean. This started out as a kids-in-high school strip with formulaic jokes. Many jokes were repeated in different forms. Often a week was devoted to inanimate objects such as the school rock, a school wall, or the last leaf of autumn. Then, following Doonesbury, it suddenly jumped ahead a few years. The regular cast was now older and had jobs. It became a continuity strip, often covering uncomfortable territory. The title character got married then divorced and developed a drinking problem. Other characters married and coped with problems such as cancer. One character is slowly dying. It's not that much fun any longer.

Then there is the strange case of 9 Chickweed Lane. For years it was about a Juliette, a university professor who lived with her mother and daughter, Edda. Other characters included Milo, the daughter's nerdy friend and the staff of the Catholic school where Edda and Milo went. Then, two years ago, everything changed. Edda and Milo moved to New York and started making out. Juliette stopped teaching, bought a farm, and married her long-time boy-friend. Unlike Funky Winkerbean, the tone of the comic never changed.

For an object lesson there is Bloom County. One of the best strips of the 1980s (it won a Pulitzer Prize) Berk Breathed, the creator became tired of doing it and replaced it with a Sunday-only strip called Outland. This started out completely new except for one or two characters from Bloom County but eventually morphed back to the original. Then it quit. More recently, Breathed felt that he missed having a voice so he revived it again, this time as "Opus" but still Sunday-only.

I can't canvass the comic strip without mentioning Peanuts. Currently, at least in my paper, they are reprinting strips from the late 1950s. Many of these have lost their punch. Things have changed over the last half-decade. The last weekly and Sunday strips were memorable because they carried on the tradition of bitter-sweet comedy that was Peanuts' trademark.

And finally there is Calvin and Hobbes. It was always funny and it ended too soon.