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Slacker Radio

28 Apr

MacWorld’s review:

Slacker Radio is an interesting hybrid music service. On the one hand, the free version—like Pandora—lets you listen to pre-made stations or create stations of your own based on artists, albums, or tracks you choose. When you create such a station, it’s populated with tracks that are supposed to be harmonious with the original selection. If you purchase a Slacker Premium Radio subscription for $10 per month—as with such subscription services as Mog, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Spotify – you additionally have the ability to play songs, albums, and single-artist stations on demand as well as cache albums and playlists on your portable devices (including iOS devices). As such it can be quite flexible, though it has some rough edges.

Music for nothing (or next to it)

If you’re familiar with Pandora, you understand the idea behind the free version of Slacker Radio. While listening to music, you must put up with the occasional audio ad (or video ad if you listen via the website). In my tests I heard ads after every fourth or fifth track. The ads aren’t terribly long, but they certainly disrupt the musical mood. With each station, you’re allowed up to six skips an hour (meaning you press the Next button to move to the next track in the queue). However, if you switch to a different station, you’ll have an additional six skips per hour. Pandora offers a somewhat similar scheme, but limits you to 12 total skips across all stations per day. Slacker doesn’t have a daily skip limit.

You have the ability to tweak your stations a bit when listening to the free version. You can, for example, choose broadly how often you want to hear tracks you’ve marked as favorites, whether you hear “greatest hits” or more obscure tracks, and choose older or more recent tracks associated with the source artist, album, or track.

If you’re willing to cough up $4 a month for the Slacker Radio Plus plan, you can dispense with many of the annoyances of the free version. This removes all audio ads as well as banner and video ads on the Slacker website. The plan also provides you with unlimited skips. Additionally, you can cache mobile stations for those times when you’re not connected to the Internet. Choose this option and you can download the contents of a station to your iOS device or other device supported by Slacker (an Android device, for example). You can cache up to 25 stations. These downloads are of a lower bit rate than the 128-kbps MP3 tracks the service streams. Slacker Radio Plus additionally gives you access to ABC News and ESPN Radio content and provides complete song lyrics where available (not all labels allow lyrics distribution).

What $10-a-month buys you

Slacker Premium Radio is the plan to pick if you want to choose specific music—a track, album, or a station that plays music from just a single artist. In this regard, it’s like the premium subscription music services I mentioned earlier. This includes all the perks of the Plus plan, and you can cache entire albums and playlists you’ve chosen, as well as create playlists. The cached content is regrettably still offered at a low bit rate—a form of AAC encoded at 64 kbps. You can cache content on only one device at a time—if you choose to cache content on an additional device, any content on the first device will be erased.

Selection and programming

Slacker offers more than 10 million tracks for station streaming. However, the number you can play on demand is smaller. I compared some of its on-demand selections with the same tracks on Rhapsody—the service I’ve found that offers the most complete music catalog. In some cases, I found Slacker wanting. I searched for Nick Lowe, for example, and while his entire selection of albums appeared in the results, nearly all of their tracks were unavailable for on-demand streaming. The service told me that they could be included as part of a broader station, and asked if I would like to create such a station. Rhapsody, on the other hand, had these tracks. I then perused Jonathan Coulton’s albums. Slacker listed his Smoking Monkey album but offered no tracks for on-demand listening. Rhapsody had them in playable form. When searching for Ludwig van Beethoven on Slacker, no albums appear whatsoever (though you can stream select “songs”). Rhapsody had dozens of albums of Beethoven’s work. I very much enjoy the work of Bleu, a pop songwriter/performer. Slacker lists his work, but no available tracks. Once again, Rhapsody came through with the complete catalog.

This is all about the licensing deals Slacker has struck with the labels. In some cases, a label will allow you to stream an artist’s work as part of a station but won’t allow you to download it. For example, if you create a Beatles station, you’ll hear Beatles tracks even though you can’t cache those tracks.

Of course, there are plenty of albums that Slacker does have. If you want the work of mainstream popular, rock, country, soul, hip-hop, and jazz artists, you’ll find it. It’s when you dip into more obscure artists or the classics that you come up empty.

Speaking of the classics, Slacker touts its use of professional DJs for selecting songs that populate its stations. And it should, as some of its programming is quite good—particularly popular hits of the past several decades. But it’s not good across the musical spectrum.

Its classical programming, for example, is awful. I understand that “art” music isn’t a favorite among Slacker’s audience, but what the service currently offers is embarrassing. Not only are there only three classical stations that largely offer the over-played hits of the Baroque and Classical periods, but even when you create a station around a composer who epitomizes a rich subgenre—J.S. Bach and the Baroque period, for instance—Slacker can get it terribly wrong. Not only did I hear soupy hits from a good 150 years after Bach’s death mixed in with my Bach station, but also selections from Jesus Christ Superstar and The Music Man. Pandora does a far better job with classical music.

Filtering stations

I like the idea that you can tweak what you hear on Slacker by not only listening to the work of just a single artist (available in the premium plan) but also configuring settings so that you hear more obscure tracks. This feature needs a bit more work, however. I tested it by asking Slacker to play “fringe” recordings by James Brown. It played “Make It Funky,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Lost Someone,” “Mother Popcorn Pt. 2,” “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing Pts. 1 – 2,” and “Please, Please, Please.” I’m familiar with the Godfather of Soul’s catalog and believe only two of these tracks border on obscurity—“Lost Someone” and “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” The others have all appeared on greatest hits collections making them anything but fringe. This is a case where better tagging by someone familiar with the artist’s catalog would pay off.

Web versus mobile

The not-entirely-dirty-secret of music subscription services is that navigating them via a Web browser is clumsy. Slacker is no exception. Under the free plan, the Slacker site is painful to look at—it’s not unusual to find a couple of video ads and large image blocks. Even when you’ve paid to turn ads off, the look of the site is anything but sleek.

In regard to the player interface, it’s crowded. Tracks are presented in a too-small area as album covers in a Cover Flow-like view. Play controls differ depending on the kind of content you’re playing. When streaming a station you find Back, Play/Pause, Next (Skip), Favorite, Ban, and Volume buttons. When using the premium plan to play on-demand music, the controls include Back, Play/Pause, Next, Shuffle, and Volume.

Under the free plan, you can’t see the name of the next track in the queue (with a paid plan you can), however you can view a list of what’s already played. This is a great feature for those times when you’re not next to your computer, a song has played, and you want to know the name of the artist and track so you can explore further.

The player also includes a search field for finding artists, tracks, and stations. And you additionally have access to artist biographies, album reviews, and lyrics (partial with the free plan and full with a paid plan). The information found in the biography and reviews sections can be quite good.

The Slacker iPad app is everything the Web interface isn’t—it’s one of the nicest iOS players I’ve used. All the elements found on the Web page are here, but organized in a more accessible way. The iPad app also has a Cover Flow presentation of tracks as album covers, but you can swipe those covers to move from track to track. When viewing the Home screen you can easily access existing stations by category as well as create a new station or playlist with a tap. Tap a Station History button to view tracks that have played. The Artist Bio and Album Reviews button take you to the appropriate content and work with both the free and paid plans. Tap Lyrics with a free account and you see the first verse followed by a button that reads Upgrade Your Account For Full Song Lyrics. With a paid plan, you see the complete lyrics when available. Use the Search field to seek out artists, songs, albums, and stations.

On the Play screen, tap on a downward-pointing triangle and you see these entries: Play Album (works with premium account only), Add To Playlist (another premium feature), Rate as Favorite, Ban Song, Ban Artist, Buy, View Album Page, and View Artist Page. When you tap the Buy button, the iTunes app launches and you’re taken to a page that features the track, ready to purchase.

The iPhone/iPod touch version of the universal Slacker app lacks the room to cram all these features into a single screen, but they’re nicely arrayed among multiple screen that are easy to navigate. One difference: The iPad version allows you to stream Slacker over AirPlay, while the iPhone/iPod touch version doesn’t.

Sound quality

It’s easy to get caught up in audio specifications—this service has a higher bit rate than that one and is therefore better—but it really comes down to the quality of the encoding and your equipment and ears. Next to other streaming services, Slacker’s 128-kbps MP3 bit rate—whether from the free or paid plans—is not impressive. Pay for Pandora’s $36-a-year Pandora One plan and you get a 192-kbps stream. (Its free stream is of a lower bit rate.) Mog and Rdio offer higher bit rates, and Rhapsody encodes in AAC—which is designed to sound better at lower bit rates like 128 kbps. Almost all services offer lower bit rates for files downloaded to a mobile device, but some provide the option to download higher bit rate files. I’ve heard rumblings of Slacker increasing bit rates in the not-too-distant future, but this is what they offer at the moment.

Using my ears and some decent speakers rather than relying on specs, I found Slacker’s stream perfectly acceptable for non-critical listening—streaming cached files from my iPad over AirPlay less so. Most of these cached files lacked definition and some of the classical tracks sounded poorly encoded—featuring lots of flanging on the top end. And, as with other streaming services I’ve used, you hear gaps between tracks that, on a CD, flow into each other.

Summing up

You can look at Slacker from two perspectives—as a free or low-cost service that competes with Pandora or as a premium service that goes up against Rhapsody, Spotify, Mog, and Rdio. As a Pandora alternative it has some nice advantages, including the lack of a daily skip cap, the ability to somewhat fine-tune what you hear, the extensive biographies and album reviews, and the ability to scan back through your listening history. But some of its programming isn’t up to par with Pandora’s—the classical content in particular. Users who’ve tired of Pandora’s content should give Slacker a spin.

Turning to paid plans, the Slacker Radio Plus plan has some good things going for it. As with Pandora One, you ditch the ads and can skip an unlimited number of times. The ability to cache stations is great as are the lyrics. But it would be nice if that plan also came with a higher bit rate stream, as does Pandora’s paid-for plan.

As for Slacker Premium Radio, work remains to be done. If Slacker wants to compete with services like Rhapsody, Spotify, Mog, and Rdio, it needs a bulked-up music catalog. There are just too many missing tracks. That $10-a-month plan is even more difficult to justify when you consider that other subscription music services also allow you to create and stream single-artist and track-based stations. Before paying for Slacker’s premium plan, explore these other services. Each offers limited free trials.


Streaming: New releases

25 Apr

April showers bring… more time to snuggle up and stream! From new episodes of your favorite shows to post-apocalyptic thrillers and classic comedies, we’ve got your weekend entertainment covered. As always, if you have suggestions for the perfect lazy Sunday flick, please post ‘em in the comments. Happy streaming!

Netflix New Releases:

  • Punished– This dark Hong Kong crime thriller follows a powerful real estate tycoon who sends an ex-con to slay his daughter’s murderers – and videotape each execution (2011)
  • The Pack– After picking up a hitchhiker, a woman suddenly finds herself facing off against a master of the undead in this lively French horror flick (2010)
  • Donnie Darko– A mind-bending indie trip starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled Midwestern teenager plagued by incessant sleepwalking, family drama and visions of a menacing 6-foot-tall, doomsday-prophesying rabbit (2001)

Hulu Plus New Releases:

  • Parks and Recreation: Live Ammo– Without considering the negative impact on her campaign, Leslie fights City Council against its proposed budget cuts to the Parks department (2012)
  • The Office: Angry Andy– Andy’s job – and manhood – are called into question as he returns with Erin to Scranton (2012)
  • Private Practice: It Was Inevitable– Charlotte and Cooper try to help Mason accept Erica’s condition (2012)

Crackle New Releases:

  • No Good Deed- A kidnapped police detective connects with his attractive captor (2003)
  • Homegrown– Three inept laborers on a Northern California marijuana plantation take over the operation after their boss is murdered and get in way over their heads (1998)
  • Things Are Tough All Over– Cheech and Chong embark on a hilarious misadventure when they are hired to drive to Las Vegas, unaware that five million dollars in dirty money has been stashed in the car (1982)

Amazon Prime Instant Video New Releases:

  • Then She Found Me– A New York schoolteacher (Helen Hunt) hits a midlife crisis when her husband leaves, her adoptive mother dies and her biological mother shows up to turn her life upside down (2008)
  • Half Nelson– Ryan Gosling stars as an inner-city junior high school teacher with a drug habit who forms an unlikely friendship with one of his students after she discovers his secret (2006)
  • Panic Room– When her home is invaded by armed robbers, a divorced woman (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter hide in their specially designed “panic room” but end up in a deadly cat-and-mouse game anyway (2002)

Amazon Instant Video New Releases:

  • The Divide– In this graphic post-apocalyptic thriller, nine strangers escape a nuclear attack by hiding out in a New York apartment building’s bunker-like basement (2012)
  • 16-love– When the number one junior tennis player in the country is injured, she begins to discover the teenage life she never got to live – and find the love she never thought she’d have (2012)
  • Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol– Agent Ethan Hunt and his elite team uncover a plot to start a nuclear war and must use every high-tech trick in the book to stop it (2011)

Using the HuluPlus Queue

16 Apr

I figured this out but this tutorial is helpful for new HuluPlus subscribers:


Rating the streaming services

30 Mar

Consumers are faced with a growing number of technological conundrums: Mac vs. Pc, Kindle Fire vs. iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Nexus vs. Droid Razr, just to name a few. One of the recurring dilemmas in the new tech-age is how to best watch movies and television shows. As standard cable packages become obsolete, users have turned to online streaming to access everything from classic films to last-night’s episode of Gossip Girl. If you’re in the market for a new online streaming package, what is the best deal for you?

Amazon Prime ($79 per year)

Amazon Prime offers access to over 10,000 instant videos, including NBC and CBS television shows. The service is $79 for one year of access. Amazon’s Instant Video services also allow users to rent individual films or episodes of television shows, which extends users’ access to over 90,000 films.

Selection: Amazon Prime offers over 10,000 instant videos, including popular TV shows such as Lost, Arrested Development, 24, the Tudors and Grey’s Anatomy and hot movies, like Ip Man, Notting Hill, The Shawshank Redemption, among others.

Price: The service costs $79 per year. If you use Amazon to purchase gifts and books, the service will be especially useful because a Prime subscription comes with unlimited free two-day shipping with no minimum size order and, for Kindle users, a Kindle book to borrow free each month from the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. While Amazon Prime only offers a year-long subscription, for comparison’s sake, a month of Prime would cost users approximately $6.59, which is the cheapest of all the packages we have reviewed.

User Friendly: The Amazon store has a lot to offer, but Prime’s selection of television shows and film is difficult to navigate. It is easy to confuse which films are eligible with a Prime membership and which films will require you to pay extra to rent or buy them.

Our Verdict: While Amazon Prime is one of the cheaper options available, compared to Hulu+ and Netflix the selection leaves much to be desired. You might be better off spending a little more for a wider selection of videos.

Netflix ($8 per month)

Netflix is one of the few services that offers both an online video collection set for streaming and a wider collection of films and TV shows that can be ordered by DVD. While Netflix has been widely popular since it first debuted, price increases over the summer lead many consumers to switch companies. For the instant video option, Netflix costs $8 a month and gives access to an enormous selection of TV and film options.

Selection: Netflix has a large and promising selection of television shows and movies for users to watch instantly. Popular television shows, like How I Met Your Mother, Futurama, Mad Men and Gossip Girl can be streamed within seconds on your computer, Television, Kindle Fire or tablet computer. The service also gives access to thousands of popular films, like Iron Man, Shutter Island, The Fighter, Elizabeth and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For an additional fee, you can subscribe to have one DVD at a time sent to your home, which will allow you to gain even further access to Netflix’s enormous selection of films, television shows and documentaries.

Price: Netflix has different packages depending on your interests. For $7.99 per month, users can access unlimited movies and television shows instantly on your computer or television. There are no commercials and you can watch any film or episode as many times as you would like. Netflix offers a one-month free trial so you can get a taste of what films, television shows and other offerings an “instant” subscription will give you. For $15.98 per month, users can access unlimited material streaming online and get one DVD shipped to their home at a time.

User Friendly: Netflix’s store is incredibly easy and accessible. After signing onto the site, Netflix distinguishes clearly between videos you can watch instantly and those you will need to order on DVD. You can rate videos for future recommendations and the store will also offer you suggestions based on your past viewing patterns. You can keep track of the videos you have already seen and also keep track of videos you would like to see in the future.

Our Verdict: Netflix is accessible, easy to use and offers one of the largest selections of instant online streaming. While a subscription might be pricier than other alternatives, you will find yourself impressed by Netflix’s growing online collection.

Hulu Plus  ($7.99 per month)

Hulu Plus costs the same as a Netflix instant subscription, but offers both classic movies and television shows as well as the most recent episodes and seasons of your favorite shows.

Selection: Hulu offers a number of shows for free, but the Plus service offers a much wider selection with over 43,000 TV episodes from more than 1,650 current and classic television shows. Hulu Plus also offers over 2,500 films including exclusives from the Criterion Collection. Hulu Plus’ television selection includes: The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Nikita, America’s Next Top Model, 90210, Ringer, Hart of Dixie, Family Guy, Saturday Night Live, The Office, Parks & Recreations, South Park, New Girl, Modern Family, The Daily Show, Desperate Housewives, Glee, Bones, and many more.

Price: Hulu Plus costs $7.99 per month, which is approximately $96 per year. The service offers a one-week free trial.

User Friendly: Hulu Plus is streamlined and very easy for users to navigate. Unlike Netflix, however, Hulu Plus is ad-supported to keep the cost of a subscription down and users might find the commercial interruptions bothersome.

Our Verdict: If you’re a die-hard television fan, Hulu Plus is the best option for you. The service offers access to the most popular shows with new episodes uploaded the day after the show airs on television.

Vudu ($1 to $5.99 per video) is a new video-streaming service offered by Wal-Mart Stores. Unlike Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu Plus, Vudu is pay-per-view and does not offer a subscription package. Users can stream films directly to their PlayStation 2, Blu-ray Player, HDTV, Computer or tablet.

Selection: Vudu offers a wide range of popular films and television shows. While TV options are not as good as Hulu Plus, the movie selection is impressive. The company claims to offer new releases the same day they come out on DVD, which is significant as Netflix sometimes takes weeks before offering a DVD and months before offering an instant option for a new film.

Price: Some might find Vudu’s pay-per-view option relaxing, while heavy movie goers will find that costs quickly add up. While users can watch unlimited material on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, five or six videos will quickly add up to $20, more than any of the other packages cost per month.

User Friendly: Vudu is not as clean looking as its older alternatives, Netflix and Hulu Plus, but it is more streamlined than Amazon Prime. Users can easily navigate between collections of films and TV shows. Vudu also clearly indicates new releases and popular films. Each video is rated with stars, so users can quickly see whether a show or film has been popularly received.

Our Verdict: For those looking to watch under five movies a month, Vudu is for you. The on-demand option will be more cost-efficient than a subscription and you will have wider access to movies and TV shows.


Penny Pinchers: Amazon Prime is the cheapest subscription though it offers a smaller selection of films and TV shows. The added bonuses of free two-day shipping and a free book from the Kindle lender’s library makes Amazon Prime the cheapest option.

TV Fanatics: Hulu Plus offers the widest selection of current television shows and offers full seasons of current and classic shows. For those looking to keep up and catch up with current and classic episodes, Hulu Plus will be your best best.

DVD Desired: For those looking for the widest selection of films and TV shows, but don’t mind paying a bit more, Netflix’s package including unlimited online streaming and one DVD will give you everything you want and more.

Occasionally Viewers: Vudu is the best deal for those looking to occasionally stream a movie or TV show, but who do not want the cost and commitment of a subscription. Vudu allows you to pay for what you want and the selection will not disappoint you on a Friday night.


The 25 best independent films on Amazon Prime

30 Mar

1. Mysterious Skin. Gregg Araki’s adaptation of Scott Heim’s book stars Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as teenagers who have found different ways of coping with childhood abuse by their Little League coach. Wrote Peter Bowen in Filmmaker, “To avoid the sensationalistic and cloying aesthetic that marks films of abuse, Araki worked with d.p. Steve Gainer and production designer Devorah Herbert to create a mysterious candy-colored view of childhood, a world that is at times dark and scary and at others magical and filled with wonderment. Ironically, Araki, in moving past the punk adolescents of his earlier films to this drama of childhood, has created his most mature film to date.”

2. Helvetica. What’s in a font? In Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica, the mid-20th century typeface is a postmodern every-symbol, inflecting an aura of cool modernity on everything from artist works to corporate messaging.

3. Half Nelson. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling, is one of the ‘aughts’ essential indies, a character-based drama that connects to the decade’s important political dialogues. Wrote Matthew Ross in Filmmaker, “Half Nelson is a withering indictment of life in Bush’s America (never have the ’60s seemed such a distant memory) as well as a sensitive character study of a troubled soul at war with himself.”

4. Jesus Camp. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing directed this complex documentary about an Evangelical children’s camp. Wrote Annie Nocenti in Filmmaker, “Beautifully shot and edited, at times unintentionally funny, Jesus Camp is ultimately as chilling as a horror film. One mom points out, ‘There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those that love Jesus, and those that don’t.’ Or, as one child puts it, ‘Whenever I am around non-Christians it makes my spirit feel yucky.’”

5. Old Boy. Park Chan-Wook became an international superstar with this wildly inventive tale of revenge, obsession and, unexpectedly, romance. Wrote Nick Twemlow in Filmmaker, “Though Dae-su and his captor, Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), are nominally the film’s main characters, Park’s complex narrative structure and bold stylistics, which mix intense bursts of violence, odd animation and hallucinatory flashbacks, steals the show. ‘Time is very important to this film,’ Park says. ‘Playing with non-linear time can be a cliché, but in Oldboy the characters are haunted by the issue of vengeance, which has hindered their emotional development. They are obsessed with something that happened years ago.’”

6. Me and You and Everyone We Know. A single dad, played by Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes, and an artist/Eldercare driver (writer/director Miranda July) are the idiosyncratic would-be romantics in artist July’s playful and wholly successful transition to long-form narrative.

7. No End in Sight. This is the essential documentary about the Bush administration in the Iraq War — perhaps because it concentrates less on combat operations and more on the aftermath of the war, crony capitalism, and the flawed decision making that has led to prolonged and violent civil conflict. Read my interview with director Charles Ferguson here.

8. A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy. Writer/director Dennis Dortch describes his film: “Black love and sexuality with European sensibilities told through six vignettes.” Wrote Filmmaker‘s Brandon Harris at his blog, “Mr. Dortch’s film is as earnest and consistently amusing about the sexual behavior of post millennial Los Angelenos, black or not, as any filmmaker has been in a long time. Full of jump cuts, naturalistic camera work, and situations never before glimpsed in narrative films, A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy exorcises the demons of Toms, Coons, Mammies and Bucks that honest black cinematic representation is constantly attempting to dislodge from the American psyche. Never salacious or mean spirited, the vignettes don’t shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of modern sexuality and maintain a healthy irreverence in their sexual politics.”

9. Hunger. Artist Steve McQueens’ debut feature about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands is a flat-out masterpiece. Wrote Peter Bowen, “McQueen captures in painstaking detail the physicality of life within the prison walls (the stench, the maggots, the numbing cold), but the larger emotional hunger that fuels this tragedy remains purposefully enigmatic.” This is an emotionally grueling film, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.

10. Following. Before Inception, The Dark Knight, Memento… there was Following, Christopher Nolan’s debut feature. Another narratively nifty thriller, Nolan made the film for a tiny budget over the course of a year.

11. Humpday. Two straight guys decide to make a porn film together. Wrote Nick Dawson for Filmmaker, “Humpday is a true crowdpleaser, and certainly fulfills the rich comic potential of its outrageous premise, but it is more than simply an absurd tale of one-upmanship. Whereas the Apatow model for such movies might have settled for superficial laughs, Shelton delves deeper into the unease behind the laughs and dares to ask more serious questions about her characters’ lives and their motivations for pursuing this folly to its illogical conclusion. As on her previous films, Shelton uses an improvisational approach that blurs the line between the role of actor and writer, demonstrating a rare ability to elicit from her cast naturalistic performances within rich and interesting narratives.”

12. Afterschool. Nick Dawson from Filmmaker about Antonio Campos’s debut feature: “It tells the story of Rob (Ezra Miller), an introverted teenager at a prep school in upstate New York who witnesses the tragic death of two female classmates one day in a hallway at school. A frequent watcher of internet videos, Rob is a member of the school’s A.V. club and is asked to create a video tribute to the deceased girls, however his unconventional approach to the project causes problems. Afterschool is a dark and damning examination of the YouTube generation, with Campos presenting a socially withdrawn protagonist who is more emotionally engaged by the funny, violent or sexual videos he watches online than by real life. The film has a cold, stark quality reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s work and is remarkably assured, both stylistically and in its tackling of the themes of voyeurism and violence in a post-Columbine world. Indeed Afterschool is so accomplished and powerful a piece of filmmaking that it stands out not only among recent debut features, but also among all American films of the past few years.”


13. Paranoid Park. This recent film from Gus Van Sant is one of my favorites. When I interviewed Gus for the magazine, I wrote: “Based on the young-adult novel of the same name by Portland-based writer Blake Nelson, the film tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a quiet, gentle teen skateboarder who, after slipping away from home one night to visit the downtown Portland skate spot Paranoid Park, becomes involved with the accidental death of a security guard. Even without a police investigation adolescence is a turbulent time, and with a cool yet sensitive eye the film captures Alex’s jumbled and conflicting emotions as he grapples with guilt while shielding his feelings from his parents and friends, including his cheerleader girlfriend who has decided that she finally wants to sleep with him…. Paranoid Park belies the oft-stated and lazy screenwriter’s assumption that it’s near impossible to adapt a book that’s heavy into a character’s interior life without cluttering it up with more things that “happen” and which “can be seen.” Through its own exquisite and delicate rhythms and textures, Paranoid Park opens a door into a set of feelings, thoughts and reckonings that have rarely been captured so beautifully on film.”

14. Ellie Parker. For Naomi Watts, before Mulholland Drive and Fair Game, The Ring and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, there was Ellie Parker. A series of no-budget shorts by filmmaker Scott Coffey, Ellie Parker stars Watts as a struggling L.A. actress, an Aussie import hilariously navigating the city’s film and social scenes. Said Coffey when we selected him as a “25 New Face of 2001,” “”Modern identity is so fractured in L.A. that no one can really be themselves here. Ellie is one thing in therapy, one thing in auditions, another thing with her boyfriend. The only time she is truly herself is when she’s alone, in her car.” The feature version unites and extends the story and is a fantastic showcase for this great actress.

15. Nobody Knows. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows is one of the best movies ever made about childhood. It’s based on the true story of three young children who survived in their house for 200 days after being abandoned by their mother.

16. Okie Noodling. This short doc examines the world of “noodling,” a form of catfish-fishing involving bare hands and fingers as bait. Wrote Hazel Dawn-Dumpert when we selected director Bradley Beesley to be one of our “25 New Faces of 2001, ” A true-blue chunk of Americana, Okie Noodling is at once a thorough document of noodling itself — its history, its contemporary manifestations — and a portrait of a group of men fiercely devoted to their hobby. It’s also a bit of a love story, as Beesley moves from a position of ironic detachment to fascination to out-and-out ardor (Beesley has himself become an avid noodler).”

17. Cavite. Wrote Jason Sanders when we selected directors Neil Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon for our “25 New Faces of 2005,” “[Cavite is an] ingenious cell-phone-centric thriller about a young Muslim Filipino American forced through the slums of Manila by a terrorist organization. Made with a crew of two and a cast of basically one, Cavite fashions its one-camera, one-actor motif into a surprisingly entertaining, highly unnerving action film as suspenseful as any blockbuster.”

18. Mutual Appreciation. It was director Andrew Bujalski’s soundman who, as legend has, coined the term “mumblecore,” and any chronicler of aughts indie cinema owes it to himself to revisit this early classic set in the world of indie rock clubs.

19. Murder Party. Jeremy Saulnier’s Murder Party was a big hit at SXSW a few years ago. It’s an After Hours-ish horror comedy about a lonely single guy who accepts an invite to a costume party only to find he’s the sacrificial object of a group of murderous conceptual artists. Both the gore and the production values are high in this anarchic low-budget picture.

20. Crush. In Alison Maclean’s cool, complex debut feature, Crush, Marcia Gay Harden stars as a woman who, after causing the car crash that hospitalizes her literary critic friend, winds up infiltrating the life of her novelist subject and his teen daughter. The film was the cover of the third issue of Filmmaker.

21. Keane. Damian Lewis stars as a schizophrenic father trolling Port Authority for his lost daughter in Lodge Kerrigan’s riveting portrait of a man on the edge.


22. Great World of Sound. About one of the best indies of recent years, Nick Dawson wrote in Filmmaker,Great World of Sound focuses on a pair of hapless salesmen, straight-laced Martin (Pat Healy) and his streetsmart partner Clarence (Kene Holliday), who unwittingly find themselves working as “talent scouts” for Great World of Sound, a company that scams wannabe musicians out of their savings. A well-written and thought-provoking film, Great World of Sound is even more impressive given the technical demands of the shoot: Zobel shot all the audition material in a hidden camera set-up with real auditioners, placing extreme demands on both his crew and two leads in order to get the realism and immediacy he wanted.”

23. Choking Man. A delicate character study inflected with bits of magic realism, Choking Man was the winner of Filmmaker‘s Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You Gotham Award. Wrote Nick Dawson, “An inventive, understated New York indie, it tells the tale of Jorge (Octavio Gómez), an Ecuadorian dishwasher working in a diner in Jamaica, Queens, said to be the most cosmopolitan place in the world. Crippled by shyness, Jorge is almost incapable of communication and spends most of his time staring at the poster of the Heimlich maneuver that hangs above his work station, but sees hope of redemption in cheery Chinese waitress Amy (Eugenia Yuan) who owner Rick (Mandy Patinkin) has recently hired.”

24. Manito. Eric Eason’s debut feature Manito crackles with visual energy. Set in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, it’s the story of two brothers and their estranged dad over one long and ultimately tragic weekend. Manito, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, came out amidst the wave of Dogma ’95-inspired DV-shot indies, and it remains one of the best.

25. A Walk into the Sea. “25 New Face” filmmaker Esther Robinson’s uncle, Danny Williams, was a boyfriend of Andy Warhol and, with his Super 8 camera, chronicler of the Warhol’s Factory. Williams vanished one day and is presumed drowned, and Robinson’s doc is equal parts personal journey, art criticism and cultural archaeology. Appropriately, it’s a film that began when some of Williams’ films were found in an archive. Told Robinson to Nick Dawson, “When I saw Danny’s films, it’s impossible to describe… I love them, I love them like a person. They’re so singular, they really have this very specific cinema vision. His directorial sensibility is really idiosyncratic, and I was elated by it, and that immediate connection to the work meant that I needed to know what happened. I had to know what happened, and that became the fuel for making it. Movies are like that — they get you deep.”

Popularity of streaming

28 Mar

I was wondering how many others like me are out there – who has given up the cable in favor of streaming only?

Deloitte did a recent study.  Due to the attractive financial benefits of inexpensive online alternatives and increased accessibility, some Americans have already taken the cord cutting plunge while others are contemplating it for 2012.

According to a study conducted by consulting firm Deloitte, approximately 9 percent of users subscribing to premium television programming such as cable or satellite TV ditched those services in favor of online options during 2011. With more than 2,000 respondents between the ages of 14 to 75 participating in the survey, eleven percent are considering “cutting the cord” during 2012 since they believe their favorite television shows are already available online. Beyond that group, an additional 15 percent want to try out movies and television shows via online digital sources in the upcoming months.

netflix-streaming-demoYounger consumers between the ages of 23 to 28 were are the most likely to “cut the cord” in 2012 with nearly one-fifth of that age range considering the move. As age increases, Americans are less likely to ditch cable or satellite service. Only seven percent of people between the ages of 46 and 64 are considering the change and just five percent of people beyond 65 years of age are doing the same. However, many respondents value DVR service like TiVo almost as much as premium TV service and 80 percent of respondents have no plans to stop paying for cable or satellite service this year.

The study also found that increased accessibility to online media has driven usage up over the last two years. With set-top boxes, gaming consoles, smart televisions, Blu-ray players and smartphones offering access to digital media such as movies, the amount of people streaming movies has risen from 28 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2011. In addition, the amount of people that prefer watching a movie through a streaming source rose from 4 percent in 2009 to 14 percent in 2011. Other devices, like eBook readers and smartphones, have increased the amount of people consuming newspapers, books and magazines on a digital device over the paper alternative. The survey also found there are many more homes with smartphones in the U.S. as that number jumped from 25 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2011.


Technology I’m using

28 Mar

Streaming Players

I already have a DVD player with streaming capability.  I am using it downstairs in my living room.

I am streaming in my bedroom thru the Roku LT – cost, $50 ( I used my Amazon Visa rewards points, so did not actually cost me anything).  The Roku is newer and is my preferred device – I just like the content options better.  It is amazing to me how small it is – not much bigger than my mobile phone.

CNET reviewed the Roku 5 days ago and here is their summary:

The Roku LT earned our Editors’ Choice Award for two major reasons: price and content. Roku’s $50 streaming box has a truly impressive lineup of content, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Pandora, HBO Go, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, Epix, Crackle, Picasa, Flicker, Mog, Rdio, TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT.TV, NASA, and CNET. You can see a full list on Roku’s site, and the company has been aggressive about continually adding more content sources. YouTube is strangely missing from that list.

All of the content sources are great, but the Roku LT also gets many of the little things right that competing products don’t. The user interface may be a little bland, but it’s simple and easy to navigate, plus you can customize the layout of the channels. The same goes for the remote, which keeps only the essential buttons. (Roku’s remote now includes direct-access buttons for Netflix, Pandora, and Crackle.) The separate Channel Store is also a great way to offer a ton of content from partners without cluttering the main home screen.

Roku also offers several pricier models, but we think the Roku LT is easily the best value. The core streaming functionality is what makes Roku great, so most buyers don’t need to pay extra for a Bluetooth remote, microSD card slot, or USB port.If your main goal is to stream video and music from a ton of high-quality content sources, there’s no better value than the Roku LT.

Roku LT interface


I have a subscription to Hulu Plus (less than $9 a month) and to Amazon Prime ($79 per year; includes streaming TV/movies & some free ebooks; also provides free 2-day shipping on Amazon purchases).

Other equipment

I bought a HDTV indoor TV antenna – Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception.  It’s $38.79 on Amazon (I used my Amazon Visa reward points for this too) and it ships free with 2-day delivery … another perk of the Amazon Prime membership.  It has received 1582 reviews and a 4-star rating.

It will allow me to view all local TV free.  To see what stations you should be able to get with the antenna in your area, go to