LG BD390 Blu-Ray Player Part 2

[Update 12/30/9:  After using my BD390 for six months I wrote a new post about it’s Netflix feature.]

I’ve had my LG Blu-Ray player for ten days now, and I’m learning a lot about this specific player, and Blu-Ray players in general.  I had been waiting for the price of a Blu-Ray machine to fall below $200 before buying, which it had, but I ended up spending $150 more for my player because I wanted Draft-N wireless built in, which only LG was offering.  I wanted a Samsung player, like my TV, but Samsung only offered wireless-G that plugged in as a dongle, which I gave a Bronx cheer to as a buying option.

Networking speed is everything.  For the first six days of owning my LG machine I was totally delighted with the built-in Netflix feature.  I was getting the HD bar on their little connection meter, and content looked fabulous.  Then Memphis was hit by a storm that knocked out the power to 129,000 homes (luckily, not mine this time), and networking hasn’t been the same since.  This isn’t LG’s fault, and I hope Comcast will eventually recover, but this lesson from nature has taught me something significant.  Without a very fast broadband connection, don’t count on those extra features of Blu-Ray players that make them cost more.

There are many factors to networking speed.  First, is the wireless speed between the device and your wireless router.  Draft-N is the fastest, and I think this speed is needed for streaming video well.  Then there’s the speed between your house and the Internet.  With Cable Internet, this varies greatly.  Finally, there is the speed of the video servers.  If those machines are hammered, things will be slow no matter how fast the other two connections.

Each evening since the storm, I’ve selected something from my Netflix menu only to be told that my connection was too slow and the machine asked me if I wanted to try anyway.  After hopefully answering yes on several nights, I’ve learned to just say no.  Movies and TV shows that were once quick to load and beautiful to look at were now almost impossible to load and horrible to watch.  Bummer.

I’m not an early adopter, and after several years of Blu-Ray refinements, I had hoped things would be smooth sailing by now.  Not so.  My wife keeps asking me why I don’t take the LG back.  She complained that her DVDs looked better on the old DVD player.  The Gilmore Girls jittered.  I could see it too.  And I had read on the Amazon reviews many complaints about playing DVDs on the LG player, whereas many reviewers said old DVDs looked great.  I got into the setup and changed the screen resolution to automatic, and Susan’s problems disappeared.  That’s one of the many hassles of digital TV, matching the resolution of the content to the resolution set on the TV.  I had set the LG to 1080p, wanting to get the max out of my Blu-Ray discs.  The TV was set to 4:3 for playing DVD TV shows.

So my advice to people getting into this Blu-Ray game is to expect a learning curve.  They aren’t as easy to use as DVD players with old-style analog TVs.  And I also say “buyer beware” to people wanting those new gee-whiz features.

I really wanted Pandora streaming music, a feature offered on Samsung players.  I even wrote LG to see if they were working on it.  Here’s my plea:  “Will the BD 390 be upgraded to handle Pandora streaming music, and Amazon Unbox video?”  Here is LG’s short answer after editing out the flowery marketing speak:  “Unfortunately this unit does not handle Pandora that is a feature of one of our new home theater systems.”  I would have thought their fancy Blu-Ray player was part of their home theater system.  At least I got my reply within 24 hours.

If I had seen LG’s support page before buying the player, I don’t think I would have bought my player.  It doesn’t offer system updates for downloading, or any information about updates.  The unit itself has a menu option for checking for updates, but that only works if you have  the box networked or if put the update on a USB drive and feed it to your machine directly.  But how do you get those updates if the support page doesn’t offer them?  I was also wanting a user forum on the support page.  A Blu-Ray player is essentially a computer.  It has tremendous potential for expansion.  Many great equipment sites have these kinds of features on their support site.

Forums are especially useful because volunteer tech-wizards will offer hard won discovery tips, and company techs will add inside knowledge.  I get the feeling LG wants people to accept what’s listed on the box as the only features their machine will ever have.  They are missing a marketing advantage by not promoting such goodwill.  The menu on the LD BD390 has 8 icons, with room for 4 more without reducing the size of the current icons.  They could squeeze 20 icons easily onto the screen if needed, offering 20 super features.

These machines are computers, and adding features is like loading software and updating the menu.  LG could offer Pandora, Amazon Unbox, Rhapsody Music, Lala.com, iTunes, Hulu.com, and many other multimedia networked services.  And maybe they will.  The BD 390 is new.  I’m going to be pissed off though if they sell the same box labeled the BD 490 with those features.  If I see that, I won’t be buying LG anymore.

For now, I’m not going to take my player back.  It does what was advertised on the box, although the box should have had in very big letters, a warning that these features need a very fast Internet connection and without such a fast connection these fancy features will suck.  Many people are going to be disappointed.  Probably only the top cable and DSL speeds will offer pleasing results.   Doesn’t Korea have the best broadband in the world?  Their marketing execs need broadband simulator for the other countries they sell to, so as to get an idea of how their products will perform in different markets.

I hope my very fast Comcast connection comes back.  [Comcast contacted me because of this blog and reset my modem, and I’m  getting 17-20 Mb/s download speeds and the Netflix feature is back to producing excellent results.  Thanks Melissa, I’m happy with my LG again, and impressed with Comcast’s service, let’s hope LG might be reading blogs too.]

But the future development of Blu-Ray players that have networked features is illustrated by my desire to have Rhapsody support.  I have a separate device, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 that supports getting music off my computer that is stored in Windows Media, iTunes and Rhapsody.  The LG BD390 sees the Windows Media, but supports another media server, Nero, and doesn’t see iTunes or Rhapsody.  Roku now makes a Netflix/Amazon Unbox decoder.  Apple makes a AppleTV device.  How many boxes will I need to buy for my den to work with my TV and stereo setup?  How many HDMI connections and combinations of HDMI connections will that take?  How many surround sound connections to my receiver will I need?

The solution is one box.  And the obvious place for that box, is the Blu-Ray player.  I waited out the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray fight for the winner to emerge, but now it seems many other contenders must duke it out.  There are already several online video distributors, and many music services.  Right now it’s like buying a different brand of TV for each TV network you want to watch, and a different radio for each music station you want to play.

If you’re sitting at your computer you can take advantage of all of these offerings.  That’s because a computer is a general purpose device.  We need to think of the box we hook up to our TV as a general purpose device, and a Blu-Ray player is a computer.  They should be upgradable by software, so each quarter, as manufacturers make marketing deals, they can upgrade their players to offer more choices.

Here’s a specific example of my problem.  I discovered a new musical group I like, The Kings of Leon on Lala.com.  I then went to Zune Marketplace and added their album to my Zune to play on my trip to Birmingham, Alabama.  When I got home I wanted to play them on my big stereo in my den.  I have Rhapsody set up to do this, but I had switched the optical fiber audio connector to my LG BD390 player, so my SoundBridge M1001 wasn’t hooked up.  I went to Target to buy the CD so I could rip it and put it on my computer so the BD 390 could see it.  Target was out of the CDs.  I already have rights to play this CD on two paid subscription services, but I was willing to buy it on CD so it would work with my new LG BD 390, but that didn’t work out.  So I shifted the optical fiber cable from the LG to the SoundBridge and played the CD.  When I want to watch a movie, I’ll have to shift the fiber audio cable back.

If the LG supported Rhapsody, Zune or Lala, I could have played it through the Blu-Ray box as it was set up.  By the way, even though my connection isn’t fast enough for streaming video from Netflix, it’s perfectly fine for streaming music.  The Kings of Leon sounded great.  I may still buy the CD to hear them in their best sound quality, but my SACD CD player won’t work if the LG BD 390 is connected because my receiver won’t take 5.1 RCA connection setup from my CD player and optical fiber input by the LG at the same time.  The LG will play a normal CD, but it doesn’t support SACD, an orphan technology that I need to keep the old SACD CD player around to play my handful of SACDs.  The LG could have offered SACD and DVD-Audio support.

Sometimes I want to just give up on technology for five years, and come back and see if the Geeks of Earth have worked everything out.  Man, the Amish must have it easy.

JWH – 6/18/9

Update 6/19/9:  Melissa at Comcast posted a reply to this blog offering help, and my network is working perfectly again.  The Netflix feature is back too, and this has a lot of implications.  I’m on Netflix’s unlimited 1 disc out at a time subscription, but with this new feature I can watch as many TV and movies I want from their Watch Now list.  I’ve converted all my queue to Blu-Ray discs.  I read customer reviews of the Roku Netflix box on Amazon, and many say how streaming Netflix movies and TV shows have changed the way they do things.  One thing they do is to cut their Netflix subscription down to 1 disc out at a time, and many talked about canceling their cable TV.  Streaming Netflix, when it works right is a game-changer.  I know, for the most part, I’ve stopped buying DVDs because of Netflix, and I won’t be buying Blu-Ray discs, because I can get them from Netflix too.  We know Comcast is reading this too.  I wonder if they will change the way they offer content.  Instead of me buying a zillion channels, I’ll pay a few and stream just the shows I want to watch.  Streaming content could mean the end of networks.

LG BD390 Blu-Ray Player

I woke up this morning, got the newspaper, and opened the ads to discover that the 40th Anniversary Edition of Woodstock the music documentary is to be released on Tuesday.  Hot-damn.  Not only that, but a special edition with even more un-shown acts was coming out on the Blu-Ray version.  I’ve been wanting a Blu-Ray player for years, but have been waiting for the price to come down.  I got on Amazon and found out if I ordered my copy of Woodstock from them they’d include a bonus disc with even more un-shown acts from that famous three days of love, happiness and mud, so I ended up buying my first Blu-Ray content before I actually owned a player.

I jumped on Google and started researching players.  I figured I’d want to be at Best Buy by 11am to get one, no use wasting any more time.  But which Blu-Ray player to buy?  I assumed I’d get a Samsung, since I’ve been a Samsung kind of guy for awhile now, but after reading many reviews I decided to give the LG BD390 a try.  It was $150 more than what I wanted to pay for my first Blu-Ray player, but it had wireless draft-N built in, whereas the Samsung used a USB plug-in wireless-G dongle.  The reviews and specs were more favorable to the LG.  Samsung had one thing I really wanted, Pandora streaming, but because of the funky wireless and more complaints, I was pushed to try out LG for the first time in my life.

I decided to pay the extra $150 for the nicer machine because it had wireless-N built in, so I wouldn’t have to run an Ethernet cable across my attic and down two walls.  Because the BD390 had 1gb of flash memory built in, so I didn’t have to buy a USB flash drive that stuck out the back of the player to store configuration data and other digital junk within the Blu-Ray unit.  Because it had a Netflix decoder, so I could stop wanting the $99 Roku Netflix player.  And finally, because it had media player support so I it might replace my SoundBridge 1001 and have a visual interface for looking up music to play on my stereo in the den.

I was at Best Buy by 11:07, and out by 11:27.  I grabbed the BD390 and gazed at the Blu-Ray movie selection, settling on the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Matrix as my test disc.  I got home and detached my Samsung up-converting DVD player/recorder, and attached the BD390 and put in The Matrix.  Total breeze.  Set the player to 1080p – the first time I saw media in this mode on my Samsung HDTV, which had been a buying point two years earlier.

Then I used the menu to tell the BD390 about my wireless system, which worked immediately.  I had remembered my secret security code okay, which made me feel good, since I’m forgetting so much now-a-days.  I then told the new LG player to update itself, which it did.  Again, a breeze.

After the update, I click over to the Netflix menu and the LG told me a 4 digit code to go enter at the Netflix web site.  I went back to my computer room, brought up Netflix, told them I was willing to spend $3 a month extra to add Blu-Ray discs to my queue, put in the code at /activate, added a few Blu-Ray titles to my growing queue and went back to the den to check on the BD390.  All the Play Now movies that were in my queue were now listed on my HDTV screen.  So I played the second episode from Star Trek, the original series, called “Charlie X.”  It was beautiful.  I’m thinking the Netflix streaming episode might have been from the newly re-mastered Blu-Ray episodes, but I don’t know for sure.  Netflix streamed perfectly and the video quality was excellent.

Many reviewers of the BD390 complained of having trouble setting up the media server.  I checked the menu and my Windows Media server was showing up, but it wouldn’t let me access it.  I took the computer install disc that came with the BD390 for Nero MediaHome 4 back to my computer room and installed it on my desktop with all my media files.  After a quick install the program scanned my computer for photos, videos and songs.  I went back to the den and found several folders of media, including 18,000  MP3 songs.  This was under the Nero MediaHome 4 server.  Still couldn’t get into Windows Media server that was also listed – I had two media servers in the menu now.

Went back to my computer room and installed the update to Nero MediaHome 4, which messed up the original setup.  I ran the update again and got the program running for the second time, but had to re-scan the folders for my media again.  Damn, it takes awhile.  Went back to the den.  This time I could see into both media servers, but the Windows Media files loaded far slower, and had interruptions when playing, whereas the Nero MediaHome 4 folders opened faster and played files flawlessly.

Now for my first complaints.  Nero MediaHome 4 is simple, but not elegant, although it plays the files perfectly so far.  But with 629 artists and 18,000 songs, jumping to a particular cut involves a lot of menu clicking.  I quickly discovered that I could search by artist by displaying 5 large folder icons, or 14 medium-sized folder icons, or 40 small folder icons at a time, by cycling through the Display button.  Page down, page down, page down… through 629 artists even at 40 at a time takes awhile.  LG needs to add a A-Z selector.  The media librarian is spartan, but works.  I’d like to see LG add a lot of polish to it, and I hope it can be done through firmware updates.

When you get to an artist’s folder, you’d think you’d see photos of all the albums, and the LG might eventually load them all and show them, but not while I waited.  The album covers get displayed when you open an album folder and then the album art is repeated for each song, so it looks stupid.  There are 14 tiny photos of Blonde on Blonde covers listing the songs to my favorite Dylan album.  Why not show the album covers to each album once in the artist folder?  And then just list the tracks by track number within the album folder?

Selecting music through the LG Blu-Ray menu is far nicer than looking up albums on the tiny LED readout of the SoundBridge 1001, but it’s not as fast.  Using an iPhone app on my touch is even faster managing the SoundBridge, and using a software program on my laptop is even faster still, but keeping those two machines on and charged in the den is a pain.  So is using 4 remotes to get everything turned on and ready for watching a movie or listening to a song. (Cable, TV, LG, Receiver).

The Nero MediaHome 4 also found my the movies I had bought and downloaded from Amazon Unbox, but it wouldn’t play them.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if LG worked with Amazon like it does with Netflix?  The BD390 does show CinemaNow rental movies and free YouTube clips as part of its menu.  The is so much technical potential out there, but it all needs to work together.  One player should be able to be a front-end for many online stores.  Who wants to own a device for all the different online movie outlets, much less all the online music stores.

I’m hoping LG will add Pandora, and even Rhapsody to their firmware via an upgrade, but this is probably wishful thinking.  Maybe ten years into the future I’ll have one TV, one box and one remote, and life will be simple.  I wish my Comcast DVR/cable box had everything built into it, so I didn’t need anything extra.  I fantasize about having a DRV with 2gb of storage, a Blu-Ray player and burner, a built in Surround Sound receiver/amp, a media extender for my computer files, all working perfectly integrated and controlled by a single elegant remote.  Ha-ha, dream on kid, what a fanciful fantasy.

I suppose someday 1080p video will be streamed, and Netflix will offer absolutely everything in streaming mode.  And Rhapsody Music will also stream through the same box.  And I wouldn’t have to worry about owning movies, TV shows or songs.  Just rent everything and select it from a menu.

I decided I couldn’t wait for Netflix to ship me  more Blu-Ray movies, so I went to Target this afternoon and bought Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp for $15, the only movie that I’d wanted to keep that was cheap enough to consider.  Both films look beautiful at 1080p, but not stunning like I’ve seen some Blu-Ray movies look at Best Buy.  I’m used to 1080i and 720p high definition and to be honest I could probably live with that quality of video for the rest of my life.  Blu-Ray is much better than up-scaled DVDs though, and now that special content is coming out for Blu-Ray, I’m happy that I bought a player.  I’m looking forward to re-watching Battlestar Galactica on Blu-Ray, and if Netflix offers that new Neil Young retrospective box set on Blu-Ray, I’m anxious to see it, but I wouldn’t spend the money to own it.  I was happy to spend $48 for Woodstock though, or at least I hope it will live up to my expectations of having a nostalgia summer, because it’s the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, my high school graduation, and Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.  Maybe NASA will offer a Blu-Ray retrospective this summer too.

Part 2 of my review…

JWH -6/7/9

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood’s End holds up extremely well in the 55 years since the book first appeared in 1953.  I just finished listening to the new Audible Frontiers audio book edition from Audible.com, and I was surprised in several ways.  First, I was surprised that a science fiction book from 1950s worked so well as a whole.  I’ve been re-reading a number of classic SF novels from the 1950s this year and many of them are fix-up novels, made by gluing short stories together, stories that were first published in the pulp magazines, and the results feel episodic.  The original idea of Childhood’s End started out as a short story, “Guardian Angel” from a 1950 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, but it works well as a novel even though it’s a series of encounters with different characters over time that could be also criticized as episodic.  It cohered for me perfectly.

childhood's end 2

Second, I was surprised how so much of the story had stuck with me since my last reading in 1985, showing how memorable the story is.  Third, I was surprised by how many classic SF ideas Clarke included in his novel.  Fourth, I was surprised by how many social issues Clarke dealt with that would explode later in the 1960s.  Finally, I was very surprised by Clarke’s belief in the limits of mankind.  Unlike Heinlein, Clarke suggests that man isn’t the toughest alien around, and is unfit to be the alpha creature of the galaxy.

Childhood’s End has to be somewhat inspired by the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.  In the film, Klaatu, a traveler in a flying saucer from a distant alien civilization comes to help the Earth.  In the book, Karellen, the leader and his crew from an advance alien civilization come to help Earth in flying saucers.  Of course, Arthur C. Clarke takes the idea much further than the “Farewell to the Master” story by Harry Bates which inspired the film.  And strangely enough both stories have deep religious undertones, with Klaatu acting out the Christ role, and Karellen and his crew acting out the role of angels, messengers of God, even if they look like Lucifer.

Klaatu came to Earth, preached about our evil ways and told the people of our planet to get their act together or face retribution from a higher power.  Karellen came to Earth and stayed, gently guiding the transformation of human society with miracle powers.  Both the film and book preached that human society is severely flawed, that the human race is a danger to itself, that our governments can’t help and that individuals are full of weak behaviors (the seven deadly sins).  Clarke is very philosophical about the future of mankind, and if you haven’t read the book yet, stop reading here because I’m going to give everything away.

To carry the religious metaphor further, both stories suggest that aliens from the stars will bring salvation to mankind.  Arthur C. Clarke goes even further, and suggests that mankind must be reborn before we can travel to the heavens because our current minds and bodies are too limited to see the wonders of transcendental society of higher beings.

Clarke explores what will happen to people when the aliens solve all of our big problems.  We fall back onto finding meaning in art, music, sports, sex and self education, but that isn’t enough.  Karellen won’t allow people to travel beyond the Moon, and Clarke says without the final frontier our lives will become meaningless.  In other words, life on Earth isn’t the real show, and it’s only until we evolve into a higher being that finally we will really understand our true purpose.  Isn’t that same exact message religion gives to us poor mortals.  Is this message built into our DNA?  Is it some kind of ancestral memory?

When I was young, back in the 1950s when I first saw the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the 1960s when I first read Childhood’s End, I believed in what Clarke was saying.  Science fiction was my substitute for religion.  I’ve been a religious skeptic since I was 12, but it’s taken me much longer to become skeptical of the preaching of science fiction.  Childhood’s End is a wonderful story, but so is the Bible.  I don’t believe either.  Whoever we are as a species, and as individuals of that species, is all we’ll ever be.  Nobody will save us but ourselves, and if we are condemned to oblivion, then we only have ourselves to blame.

We might not be alone in this universe, but for now, we stand alone.  Clarke really must have believed in higher psychic powers and that mankind would evolve into a super-being because the same message was replayed in his 1960s story, 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  ESP was a major theme in 1950s science fiction.  Science fiction writers obviously believed, or wanted to believe, than humans would one day evolve their own miracle powers and become god-like ourselves.  This is one hell of a wish fulfilling fantasy!  Of course this same fantasy appears in both religion and regular fantasy novels.  The same year 2001 came out, shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched were hits, and those power fantasies are still just as popular in various forms of entertainment today.

In the year 2008 I think we need to psychoanalyze Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke and his fans, rather than evaluate the novel as science fiction.  It is a metaphysical fantasy that needs to be interpreted.  Do people really believe that we can’t solve our own problems and need God or alien overlords to save us?  Will life on Earth always be meaningless without a purpose delivered from a higher being?  Is frail mortal life so worthless?  Do people really believe that homo superior will be telepathic?  Or that any adaptation of nature to our evolution will include ESP powers?

Arthur C. Clarke was a scientist, so could he have been savvy enough to have written Childhood’s End for the masses, well knowing Marx’s dictate that religion is the opium of the masses and fashioned his SF novel to addict science fiction readers in the same way and sell more books?

This is why back then, I was a disciple of Robert A. Heinlein.  He was “a better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” kind of guy, believing mankind would build it’s own spaceships and the Klaatus and Karellens of the sky better get the fuck out of our way, for we are a jealous people.

JWH 12/30/8

SnagFilms Film Widget

I’m testing out the new service called SnagFilms.com.

[clearspring_widget title=”SnagFilms Film Widget” wid=”4837b4759c19ccae” pid=”488224dbbd70beed” width=”300″ height=”250″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]

This is just a test of a new online service that promotes documentary films that I heard about on the Audible.com edition of the Wall Street Journal.  Watching the films at their site is slick, but I’m not sure about the snagging part.  Basically, you watch a film, and if you like it and want to promote it on your blog you hit the snag button and SnagFilms logs into your blogging site, creates a post and puts a graphic advertising the film and allows you to tag it with a little comment.

I would prefer how I put YouTube videos online, using commands within WordPress that embeds the video player in my post.  SnagFilms’ method is more viral, pushing people to their site.  But it doesn’t allow me to write my blog and introduce the video.  I’m writing this after the fact, so the initial RSS feed will just be icon for the video.  In the future I won’t use the snag feature and just post a link.

The current selection of documentary films at SnagFilms is small, but high quality.  There’s a review process, so you can’t just upload your masterpiece like at YouTube.  The video I’m testing is from PBS and narrated by Brad Pitt.  It’s a fascinating story about how China works to be environmental.  The film quality has been excellent so far, and the aspect ratio is HD.  Annoyingly, the second line of the subtitles for the foreign speakers and people identification is covered up, at least for this film – so parts are meaningless because all the interviews with Chinese speakers are missing half the translations.  Of course, they are in beta.

SnagFilms makes its money by playing a commercial before the film starts, and between each video segment, and the segments are about 15-25 minutes long.  You can also order a DVD from the site, and part of the money goes to the film maker.

I love documentaries, but most documentaries do not get wide distribution.  A few famous ones are shown in the movie theaters, and some of the rest get spots on TV, but many are only seen in art houses or on college campuses.  SnagFilms hopes to make documentaries more easy to see, which is a good thing.  Hulu.com, another video distrubtion site, has some documentaries, but mostly TV shows.  I’m getting to like watching video online because I can put one up in a window and watch while I’m working at my desk paying bills or other light duties.  Both of these sites have nice size videos that are smooth playing and have good sound.

Online videos are good for sharing with other people, and great for catching a missed episode of a favorite show.  They are starting to get good enough to bypass the old TV set.  Damn, I bet we all end up like the people in Wall-E – fat slobs reclining 24×7 in floating lounge chairs with our face always in a video screen.


Angels in the Movies

Although I’m a lifelong atheist, I love movies about angels.  Last night I saw a humdinger of an angel movie, Angel-A, a French film by Luc Besson, the guy who gave us The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and Le Femme NikitaAngel-A is a stunningly beautiful black and white film set in Paris.  The cinematography is superb, so even if you don’t like watching foreign films because you have to read the subtitles, this one is worth just watching for the imagery.  You could skip the words and still love this movie.


André, a French-Arab-American, played by Jamel Debbouze, is a low-life hustler on the run from several mobsters who have all sworn they will kill him before the day is over.  André decides to beat his enemies to the punch and jump into the Seine, but before he can, Angela, played by a strikingly tall blonde Rie Rasmussen, jumps in before him, so André rescues her instead of doing himself in.  Angela follows in the footsteps of Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Clarence tricked George Bailey into saving him, and likewise, Angela tricks André into saving her.  I wonder if Besson is paying homage to Frank Capra?

Angela isn’t your typical angel, she lies, she uses the F-word, she smokes and drinks, but she is on an apparently heavenly assignment to save André from himself.  As angel pictures go, this one has a rather simple message:  tell the truth.  Of course the conflict of the story, for André and Angela both, is seeing the truth.

Angel movies are always about teaching humans to understand the truth within.  Variations of the standard angel movie deal with angels making their own personal discoveries, like in this film and Wings of Desire/City of Angels.

Unless you know much about angels you would do well to read the Wikipedia article on them because there is a whole angelology behind these spiritual beings.  Ultimately, angels are great story devices.  To some, angels are beings much different from humans, and to others, angels are those people who have died and earned their wings in heaven.  There is also a weird variant of the second type where angels are beings waiting to be born as humans on Earth.  In each case, there are rules to follow.  Angela in Angel-A appears to be non-human and not a deceased soul, but the issue is clouded by her lies.

Tradition has it that angels are without gender and are given male names, but Angela is very definitely female.  Biblical angels were messengers of God, but movie angels tend to work as guardians of humans, although the angel of death is sometimes personified as a human, as in Death Takes a Holiday or On Borrowed Time – the later is one of my all time favorite angel flick where Death is called Mr. Brink.

Many angels, like those in A Guy Name Joe, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and It’s a Wonderful Life, work for a spiritual agency that is structured almost like the military and angels have rank.  Angela hints that she is working for such an organization and must follow rules.

This is a fascinating concept, although one I find creepy.  The idea that an organization of angels watches our every move can be embarrassing when you think about what they are seeing at times in our lives.  I think people like angel stories because people really want a personal God, but it’s hard to imagine one supreme being paying so much attention to every human.  It is easier to think that an angel with god-like powers could take a personal interest in how we live because it’s easier to imagine a large enough flock of angels so everyone gets to have their own personal guardian.  Also, it’s much easier to imagine hanging out with an angel than hanging out with God.

The trouble with angels and stories about angels is limiting their power.  Angela goes through some seemingly un-angelic behavior to help André earn money when we later learn she has the power to solve problems much more quickly.  And I had to wonder why the other low-life inhabitants of Paris don’t have their own angels to protect them.  Why is André getting divine intervention in his life?

When Dudley helps David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife does that mean the Bishop lacks the inner qualities to succeed?  Do the Angelas, Clarences, and Dudleys represent cheaters in the school of hard knocks for humans?  Bartleby and Loki in Dogma represent two angels with their own problems trying to beat the system.  Kevin Smith sets up the rules for Dogma early on and that helps make the picture better.  I think Angela-A would have been improved if we had learned the rules early on too.

Angela-A succeeds with me because of the stunning monochromatic photography and the fact that Angela and André are flawed but extremely likable characters.  We love Angela like we do the angel Michael in Michael because of their all too human attributes.  Like Michael says, “I’m an angel, not a saint.”

That’s the funny thing about angel pictures.  The more angels succeed at making humans perfect, the more we like angels imperfect, like us.


Battles of the Sexes in Juno

If you haven’t seen Juno, do not read beyond the first paragraph because I haven’t learned how to write a movie review that doesn’t give things away. I’m more interested in dissecting films. Subliminal philosophy and politics in pop culture inspires me to write more than helping people decide how to spend their money and time. Although, only a misanthrope would hate this charming movie about sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff’s struggle to find a good home for her unborn baby. Juno, played by Ellen Page, reminds me a lot of Tom Henderson (a.k.a. Chi-mo) in Frank Portman’s novel King Dork because of the music Juno and Tom both love. Juno the movie, lacks an edge except for Juno’s the character’s wonderful dialog, which zings due to the writer Diablo Cody. Cody, the author of Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, provides the one clue to one of my major questions about the film: Is the dialog and attitude of the young girls in this picture in any way representative of youthful females of today?

Juno is the realistic polar opposite of the unrealistic movie Knocked Up, a film I dissected in “Morality in Knocked Up Places.” Both films are about unplanned pregnancies resulting from smart women making stupid mistakes when it comes to having sex. You’d think with all the official and unofficial sex education that goes on in schools and pop culture that these basic skills would be ingrained in the current generation of young people exploring biological urges. But then comedy is often about exceptional mistakes.

In Knocked Up we had a career-successful female beauty mating unrealistically with a career-lacking loser of questionable physical charms, Juno realistically pairs a girl geek with a boy geek. Unlike Knocked Up, Juno spends more time exploring the abortion issue but both movies reject it. Cliché Hollywood is supposed to be about liberalism, but it’s my belief that both films promote common conservative ideals. Back in the 1960s and 1970s this subject matter would highlight the generation gap, but in Juno, Juno’s parents are savvy and supportive from the first moment this issue comes up. Juno isn’t abandoned by her parents, kicked out of school, shunned by her friends or required to move away for nine months and hide her shame. Hell, Juno isn’t even shown as being ashamed for being a dumbass and not having her boyfriend wear a condom.

In fact, this is a pretty guilt free movie, even though there are a lot of regrets expressed by the characters, and emotional suffering. The story and characters show a kind of Eastern philosophical acceptance about what goes on in life. Like I said before, this is not an edgy film full of intense overblown drama. There are two events in the film I would like to examine, and like I warned above, talking about them will spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it.

My first question about this film: Is Mark Loring, the potential Dad for Juno’s baby played by Jason Bateman, portrayed as a bad-guy in Juno? At the last moment he decides to leave his wife, ruining her plans for motherhood, and messes up Juno’s dream of giving her baby a better place in life than her life. At first viewing, Mark appears to be the poster male for the often stated remark of angry females that men are assholes. Vanessa Loring, played by Jennifer Garner, is at first shattered by the news but quickly accepts his decision?

Mark decides to do what the men of Knocked Up only dream about. He abandons marriage and child for personal interests and hobbies. Oddly in Juno, written by a female writer, this is accepted, but in Knocked Up written by a male writer it is not. I have to ask is it male guilt that maintains the monogamous status quo? Juno picks Mark and Vanessa living in their picture-perfect McMansion as the obvious place to let her baby nest and grow up even though it’s clear to both her and the audience that Mark and Vanessa have nothing in common. They are as different as the couples in Knocked Up, yet they hadn’t married because of pregnancy.

Juno MacGuff desperately wants marriage to be about living happy-ever-after forever, something her parents failed to do. Mac MacGuff has to advice Juno is to find the person that gets her and hope for the best. As Peeping Toms staring into the two worlds of Juno and Knocked Up – we the audience sees that most of the couples do not follow this advice. The philosophy expressed by Judd Apatow is men should abandon their personal desires and bite the bullet for children and family. Diablo Cody on the other hand expresses that friendship is more powerful than families.

Mark Loring is leaving Vanessa because he wants friends of his own kind, and in this movie that is accepted. The second piece of implied movie philosophy that I question though: Why shouldn’t the baby go to Juno and Paulie? Am I the only person to wonder why Juno and Paulie shouldn’t keep the baby once they discover how important their friendship is to each other? What is Diablo Cody and Hollywood telling us in this instance? Is the right thing for irresponsible sixteen-year-olds is to give up their babies? Yes, our society abhors teenage pregnancies, but does it also hate teenage marriages? Is Apatow taking a better moral stance than Diablo Cody? Sure Vanessa deserves to have a baby too, but doesn’t a baby deserve to have its genetic parents, especially when they love each other?

I can’t help but wonder if you got Judd Apatow and Diablo Cody together if they wouldn’t hammer out some kind of policy that up to a certain age people should be free of responsibility. Cody evidently believes if there are no children you can always opt out. In all of this I’m wondering if Hollywood isn’t slowly working out a philosophical position on modern morality, but one that probably trails the actual activities of the current generation.

Juno has a happy romantic ending with Juno and Paulie playing guitars together. We know the results of Juno’s agonizing decision making when we see her scrawled note to Vanessa framed on the wall, but we do not know the process of how she reached that decision. Juno never consulted Paulie, the biological dad, or her best friend Leah, or her parents, so her thoughts are never revealed to us. But I like Juno so much as a character that I believe she would be a wonderful mother and Paulie would be a good father. I feel sorry for the kids growing up with the Knocked Up parents because they were too much like my parents, married and staying married for the wrong reasons.

I’m quite sure most people will think I’m seeing too much in movies. However, I don’t believe writers write just to entertain, although that might be 99.99% in some cases. I think serious writers, even writers of comedy, want to say something about their generation and the world. As a baby boomer, I was bombarded by the fictional morality of the generation before me. I know the baby boomers demanded and expected the whole wide world to watch them. So, is it too much to expect that later generations might have reactionary messages hidden away in their stories? King Dork was a hilarious missive from Gen-X to the Catcher-in-the-Rye crowd.