Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Reviews of Media and Related Things

Okay, I've got several reviews stored up. All are unrelated, aside from the fact that they are in *some* fashion involved in audiovisual media. But what the heck -- they make a varied posting...

DVDR72 DVD Recorder: About two months ago, right at the end of the TV season, I decided to finally buy a DVD recorder. This isn't particularly in order to get higher video quality for our timeshifting -- it's just to take up less space. Since msmemory and I tend to never throw anything out, storing six hours on a DVD is a big win over doing so on a VHS cassette.

Well, Costco had a DVD Recorder, and they've tended to do well by me in the past, so I picked that up. It was a Philips DVDR72, and it largely sat for the next couple of months, since there wasn't anything new to record. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, Stargate restarted. And at that point, I realized I had made a dreadful error.

The DVDR72 is, not to put too fine a point on it, an Unmitigated Piece of Crap. It's pretty in many ways: nice displays, cute icons and so on. But all of that masks a machine that just plain doesn't work very well. Specifically:

-- The very first DVD I put through it failed. And it didn't fail elegantly: it recorded one show just fine, then tried to record another, failed in the middle, and trashed the disc. Not only did we lose the show, the disc was entirely unreadable afterwards -- even the DVDR72 itself simply spat the disc back out when I tried to use it. Bad way to start.

-- The thing turns out to be *incredibly* hard to use. I mean, I'm no technology naif: while I do tend to read manuals, it's just to get the subtleties. But I couldn't even figure out how to record a show using VCR+ on this machine without the documentation. And I had to reread the manual again the next week, to remind myself of how to do it. That's a singularly bad UI.

-- Perhaps worst of all, the Fast Forward function was just plain broken. The unit *claims* to support three FF speeds: 4x, 8x, and 32x. Since the two of us are primarily time-shifting, fast forward is a very important function, so I need those levels. But in fact, every time I tried to go up to 8x or 32x (and I tried all of the provided approaches: via the remote, the front panel and the menus), it instead went into some sort of undocumented chapter-skip mode, moving forward three *minutes* per second. After listening to me swear a blue streak at the damned thing for two hours, because I couldn't fast-forward the machine, msmemory was more than ready to see me replace it.

DMR-E85H HDD/DVDR: Fortunately, Costco has a very lenient return policy. Given that it had been two months, they actually wanted me to state a reason why I was returning it, but "it's eating DVDs" sufficed. Time to go get something better.

For the replacement, I bit the bullet and bought what I had wanted in the first place, a hard drive / DVD Recorder combination unit. I'd talked myself out of this due to price -- the plain DVD recorder was only $300, as opposed to $500 - $700 for the combination unit. But the problems with the plain DVD recorder convinced me that I want more flexibility than that could give me.

So I went shopping, and came home with a Panasonic DMR-E85H. There were a couple of competing units with good reputations -- this one has a particularly large hard drive (120 Gig, which I can kind of respect), and good-looking features, so I went for it.

Capsule review: after doing a bit of taping with this, I'm *much* happier. While it's not as easy to use as a VCR, I find the controls fairly intuitive and easy to use. My one general complaint is that it has *such* a plethora of features that it can be a little hard to choose. It can tape via TV Guide, VCR+ or direct programming buttons. It allows a variety of simple editing functions, as well as all sorts of taping options. It has high-speed dubbing from the hard drive to the DVD, which matches our usage model well -- it means we can record to the hard disc, watch things there, and then archive to DVD if we choose. That might help us combat our packrat tendencies, by letting us ask, "do we really want to keep this?" before committing it to hard media.

(And it has one major function that we haven't tried yet: it appears to be able to control the cable box via infrared. This makes it one of the first serious contenders I've seen to replace our Sony VCR as our primary unit. It's very important that the "VCR 1" slot be filled by something that can control the cable box, so it can change channels and record the scrambled movie channels.)

Overall, a good choice. Pricey as hell (over $600), but so far I'm cautiously optimistic that it'll suit us well. Only complaint is that the TV Guide listings don't seem to be showing up, which may simply mean that none of my channels are carrying them. Pity, but easy to survive.

For a while now, I'd been hearing about Invader Zim, a cartoon on Nicklodeon. I've always been willing to give cartoons a chance -- Animaniacs is one of my all-time favorite shows -- so when I found a copy of the first season on DVD I decided to give it a try.

This is great fun. Not exactly deep, but good violent silliness in the old Warners tradition. The high premise is that our protagonist, Zim, is the vanguard of an invasion force that is gradually conquering the galaxy. Being both incredibly arrogant and not entirely competent, Zim has been assigned the conquest of a minor backwater planet -- Earth. To accomplish this goal, he decides to blend in with the Earthlings, by masquerading as a schoolchild (being three feet high, blending in is a bit difficult otherwise).

The series is messy, complex and utterly over the top. Zim is incapable of doing anything (like eating a sandwich) without giving a foaming-at-the-mouth speech. His arch-enemy Dib is basically a fanatical 12-year-old version of Fox Mulder, determined to prove to the world that Zim is an Evil Invading Alien and never quite managing it. Both of them indulge in preposterous science as a constant backdrop, so their battle includes everything from food fights in battle armor to the dangerous interactions of time machines and rubber pigs.

Wonderful fun, which I recommend to anyone who likes old-fashioned cartoons with a brain. I look forward to the next season...

Today's outing was to see Life: A Guide for the Perplexed, by The Flying Karamazov Brothers. This was the best show I've seen in ages, and reminds me of why I like these guys so much.

For those who haven't seen them, the high concept: the Brothers K are a four-man juggling troupe, who do full-length shows that combine music, a little dance, strange scripts and of course a lot of juggling. Their previous high point was a production of Comedy of Errors many years ago, which sadly has never been made available in recorded form. This may well have been better.

Life is a strange meditation on, well, Life, the Universe and Everything. Dmitri is having a midlife crisis, and comes across the book of his life. This tells a story that starts at conception and runs all the way through -- unlike most Karamazov shows, this one has, if not exactly a plot, then at least a story to tell. It's not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as they sometimes are, but it's funny straight through, and more thoughtful than I was expecting.

Along the way, this show delves deeply into themes drawn from, reminiscent of and sometimes explicitly ripped off from: Maimonides, Gollem, Woody Allen, Dante, John Stewart, and not least, Devadashi dancing. (No, really -- every time Alexei went into the "Krishna playing his pipe" pose, our corner of the audience fell into hopeless giggles. Lakshmi must see this show, if only to learn the "girl who smells like new car leather" pose. It's not necessarily *good* Devadashi dancing, but they did do some homework, and had a lot of fun with it.)

They did have to make some compromises, of course: since there's a lot more story to tell, they don't spend as long on their usual distractions. There are only two sections of "playing musical instruments using the pins", and they were shorter than usual. But there's still lots of great juggling, and they even manage to turn their trademark group-pin juggling routine into an ongoing metaphor for several basic principles of life. And there is more new material than they've had in at least ten years -- this show is fresher and cooler than they've been in ages.

The production values are excellent. The "set" consists mainly of four remarkable little triangular towers, each of which opens up in a plethora of different ways. They are shoved and spun all around the stage constantly, turning into something like a dozen distinct sets. They've also continued to refine their musical skills: while there is less juggling with exotic instruments than sometimes, they work even more normal ones in than usual. No really catchy tunes this time, I'm afraid, but a lot of good music.

The show runs through August 8th at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square. I commend it highly -- this is a good afternoon or evening out, that will make you think a bit while marveling at the spinning pins...

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