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Give Frank Fritz his own show!

There was a time when American Pickers was my favorite TV show (of the ones currently broadcasting). Even amid allegations that the show is staged (what reality series isn’t?), it was always a treat to see what the presenters, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, would find on their next middle-of-nowhere road trip.

When the series announced an upcoming visit to my former home town of Lawrence, Kansas, in 2018, I was intrigued. But when many long months passed with no updates, I emailed a friend back in Lawrence to find out if the show and crew had been through town. Turns out the visit got canceled before it could happen, but this wasn’t widely publicized at the time. (The show still made stops in Kansas City, but I never did catch the episodes that filmed there.)

The draw of American Pickers is hard to explain if you’ve never seen an episode. It’s basically two guys (sometimes guy and girl) driving around the dusty backroads of the U.S. (typically the South or Upper Midwest), searching for “rusty gold”. They’ll trawl through ramshackle outbuildings, sheds, detached garages, cellars, attics, finding and acquiring anything they can resell for a profit. They especially would buy motorcycles, vintage bicycles, rusted-out Packards (often lodged under a tree for 60 years). Little bits of history and interviews with the property owners were interspersed with idle chitchat between Wolfe, Fritz and some of the colorful recurring characters on the show.

Frank Fritz pictured a year or two after leaving ‘American Pickers’. This man should be hosting a TV show. (Photo from The Sun.)

One of the things that made the series work, from its first episode in 2010 until the last episodes with Fritz aired in 2020, was the chemistry between Wolfe and Fritz. It made the show work.

But, sure enough, as of March 2020, Frank was gone from American Pickers. Fired, if you believe press reports. It doesn’t look like he’s coming back.

Fritz was the heart of thew show. Sure, Wolfe is the “brains”, the show’s creator and a producer. But Frank Fritz brought something to the equation. (It’s just one of those things that’s hard to explain.)

I’m really trying to quantify what Frank Fritz brought to the series. Maybe it’s just that he came off as a super-normal guy who’s in it for the gear, the motorcycles, getting to know the folks he’d meet all over the U.S. Or maybe that it’s that he never seemed to mug for the camera. He was just there, enjoying himself, enjoying discovering new “picks”, just having a good time. And we, the viewers, had a good time along with him.

Frank’s replacement on the latest (2022’s season 23, for those keeping track) batch of episodes is Robbie Wolfe, older brother to Mike. Robbie is fine, but he doesn’t really bring the same je ne sais quoi to the show that Fritz did. Viewers noticed, and stopped watching in droves.

That’s why I say it’s time to give Frank his own TV series. Give him a camera crew and a sound person. The show could be about practically anything. I’d watch. I know a lot of Pickers fans would watch, too. I mean, it could be about showing off Frank’s motorcycle collection. Or a show devoted to his tattoos. Anything.

I’m not that far off. It appears Frank has pitched his own show to network executives. This is a good idea. The man can obviously handle the rigors of daily production, and, to repeat myself: the guy could talk about his matchbox collection and people would watch.

So someone, please, give Frank Fritz his own show.

Will Netflix survive 2022?

Lots of negative publicity lately for Netflix. Just two weeks ago, I praised Netflix and called it the “#1 streamer … [at] the top of the … heap”. (That was only two weeks ago.)

The competition–HBO Max, Paramount Plus, and others–are stealing Netflix’s programming thunder (they’re now streaming the catalog titles Netflix used to offer) and its subscribers. The competitors boast lower prices, great content, linear programming (such as Paramount Plus, which offers access to live CBS network television), live sports, and an underrated, but ever-important aspect: how friendly the company is to the customers/members/subscribers who pay them every month.

As I see it, there are four reasons Netflix is struggling:

  1. It keeps losing catalog content, and its original series are lacking. (It’s true; Netflix’s shows, even the ones I like, like Ozark, have a lot of filler.)
  2. It keeps raising prices.
  3. It’s becoming unfriendly to subscribers (more about this below).
  4. One website puts it succinctly: “Netflix can’t renew your favorite shows, but it can spend $30 million per episode of Stranger Things.”

The last point is a sore spot. Due to the pandemic and other unforeseen turns of events, Netflix canceled GLOW, one of my favorite TV series, ever, on the platform. It was a fairly lightweight show, but that’s what made it enjoyable, and the carpet was pulled out from under it just when season 3 ended in a romantic cliffhanger of sorts.

I’ve never been able to watch a single episode of Stranger Things. I don’t find myself connecting with the story (or vice versa?), but I genuinely enjoyed GLOW and miss it. Perhaps this is why Netflix is having trouble: canceling the lower-budget shows people like to watch (but likely aren’t huge earners for the firm), while keeping in place the mega-expensive tentpole productions that get all the headlines (the same strategy was employed by HBO with Game of Thrones).

Also worth a mention here: there are a lot of documentaries, comedy specials, non-scripted programming and some movies available on Netflix that you know none of the other big streamers would touch. In the interest of not going down any rabbit holes of controversial topics, I’m not going to mention any titles here, but if you follow the news, you’ve probably heard some names in the past year or three.

I made a point in that previous post to mention I’d probably never let my Netflix subscription expire. Funny enough, just a few days later it did. When I went back online to update my payment method and restart the membership, Netflix literally would not restart my membership. In fact, they wouldn’t accept any form(s) of payment I entered into the membership screen. I opened a chat session with a customer service agent; they told me my account would be locked out for 24 hours! Because of “too many invalid payment attempts”. After a few Google searches, I discovered that Netflix no longer accepts payments from my particular financial institution. How bizarre!

Becoming paying-customer-unfriendly is just one part of what could be driving subscribers away. Canceling shows like GLOW is another, as is, of course, raising prices. Also, cracking down on password sharing (which I personally never did, but knew people who do) won’t win the company any fans. (Viewers who go to the trouble to use shared passwords to access Netflix aren’t likely to become paying subscribers when they lose access to their accounts. Rather, they’ll likely go to a competing streaming service or, worse, resort to piracy.)

One area in which I do give Netflix credit is their movie division. I liked 2020’s Mank, an Oscar-nominated drama/comedy about the co-writer of Citizen Kane. I also liked 2019’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Netflix produced. (El Camino is good… so good, I’m considering giving it an “A” rating when I publish a review of it in a few weeks. It’s light-years better than Felina, the final episode of Breaking Bad, and really saves(d) the series for me.) (I’ll write more about Breaking Bad in general, and Felina in particular, in a later blog post.)

Netflix’s ability to craft good movies from former TV series stands in contrast to an outlet like HBO, which produced 2021’s The Many Saints of Newark, a The Sopranos spinoff (prequel) movie I found to be a bit lacking. (I plan to publish a review of Saints also… someday.)

So… Netflix does produce good content: their movies and (some of their) series. Here’s the big question: will good content be enough to stop subscriber churn? Or draw in new customers? I hope so. Netflix still occupies an important position among the big streamers: it has content no one else will touch, and some of it is quite good. So, yes, I hope things turn around in positive way for Netflix. I hope it remains independent (there are current rumors Apple or some other tech giant might make a play to acquire it).

Other ideas… maybe a price lock would be a good idea, or an annual subscription with a discount, or… maybe friendlier policies toward ex-subscribers trying to restart their memberships? Who knows? It can’t hurt. And maybe someday they’ll renew GLOW for one more season. (I’d probably even accept a Deadwood-style reunion movie that wraps up all the loose story threads.)

Someone mentioned ads being a possibility in Netflix’s future. Subscribers who dropped Netflix aren’t going to be lured back by a lower-cost ad-supported tier. (At least, I don’t think they will.) But, my other thought is: every square inch of Netflix’s app and website is an ad for Netflix. There’s even a Netflix screensaver on the Fire TV (my streaming device of choice) app. Many ads on an ad-supported Netflix tier probably won’t get noticed by a sizable percentage of users. So hey, maybe lower-cost ad-supported pricing’s the way to go? Shrug.

Whither the Oscars?

I’m kind of a movie geek. To get at the heart of how irrelevant the Oscars have become, and again to stress that I’m in the core demo of people who would normally follow such things: The last Oscars Best Picture-winning movie I actually watched was… 2011’s The Artist (award handed out in 2012). Yep. Ten years since I saw one of their big winners. Now maybe they’ll just cancel the whole telecast for future years?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered (2022) 4K UHD review

Logo for 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture - The Director's Edition - Remastered'Here’s a question: why are there matte lines in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST:TMP) – The Director’s Edition – Remastered? Yeah, those odd-looking outlines on the Klingon ships in the opening battle scene, for example. Why are those there? This movie has been re-assembled from the original camera negative (rescanned) with re-composited analog (1970s-era) visual effects and re-rendered (2000s-era) computer-generated (CG) visual effects. So, why does the film overall look like it barely escaped the ’70s?

Since my childhood, there has been (and probably always will be) a level of my Trekkieness that appreciates Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In 2010, I wrote a review praising the 2001 Director’s Edition re-edit/gussying-up of ST:TMP. (I do remember writing it… it had been a long weekend away from work. I popped in the original DVD of the Director’s Edition of the movie, and really liked it.)

That was 12 years ago (hard to believe!). In the time since, and especially after I watched the original theatrical version of ST:TMP in a real movie theater in 2019, I’ve come to the conclusion, odd though it may be, that I like the original theatrical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture better than the Director’s Edition.

And that opinion puts me in the minority. Most anyone who’s written about ST:TMP since 2001 (when the DVD of the director’s cut was released) proclaims the Director’s Edition to be the superior version. However, upon my re-viewings, there’s something about the 1979 theatrical version of the movie that just seems to flow better than its 2001/2022 counterpart. As another critic wrote in 2009, “…the pacing of the Director’s Edition [is] too choppy, and [I] wasn’t much impressed with many of the new visual effects.”

Lost? No worries. Here’s the backstory, in one long paragraph: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (directed by Robert Wise, yep, the same guy who made The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews) was released in 1979. It was a no-expense-spared old-school Hard Science Fiction adventure movie (think more 2001: A Space Odyssey, less Star Wars). It was a box-office success, but received mixed reviews. The Motion Picture was the first official Star Trek live-action production of any kind after the original television series had been canceled in 1969. Even though it was a big-budget “prestige picture” with an A-list director, the movie was produced under some horrible working conditions and extreme duress. As a result, when ST:TMP was released to theaters in December ’79, Wise decided it wasn’t in a completed state. In 2001, the original studio, Paramount Pictures, released a DVD (home video copy) of the movie, containing Wise’s re-edit, with reworked visual effects (taking the original 1970s special visual effects and augmenting them with then-new computer-generated effects), a new sound mix, new dialogue in places, and a few other changes. Wise died in 2005, but in 2021, a group of filmmakers (who’d worked on ST:TMP in 2000-01), with Paramount’s backing, returned to the film and produced a new new version (incorporating Wise’s 2001 revisions with newer computer-generated effects, a newer sound mix, new music score mix, and further changes). That version, dubbed Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered, was released via Internet streaming in April 2022, with a forthcoming release to the physical 4K ultra high-definition Blu-ray format in September 2022.

Whoa, that was a slog. But if you’re among the uninitiated, that should bring you current to 2022, more or less!

The “big deal” about this 2022 version of ST:TMP is simply that the studio has re-rendered the 2001 Director’s Edition CG effects, and made other changes, to now be able to stream/broadcast/project the movie in the 4K “ultra high-definition” format, whereas before the movie, with Wise’s changes, was not available in that format.*

The thing is, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Even though it was a commercial success in 1979-80, there was a perception among critics and viewers that it wasn’t actually very good. One 1979 review, for example, called Robert Wise’s direction “listless.” The Motion Picture was criticized for being slow, talky, with a half-baked story that riffed on one of the better episodes of the original Star Trek television series.

In truth, as a lifelong fan of (old-school, original-cast) Star Trek, I like ST:TMP. I appreciate it for what it is… it’s not the best of the Trek series of movies, but it’s not the worst.

But, in the marketing surrounding this 2022 release of the movie, it feels like the powers-that-be are really trying to turn it into something it isn’t: which is to say, an action-packed sci-fi genre masterpiece, along the lines of something like The Empire Strikes Back or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. ST:TMP isn’t any of those movies and never will be.

After reading nearly every interview David C. Fein (the producer of the overall project) has given, it’s apparent, for this new release, there are are a lot of stakeholders, with a lot of goals, most especially: growing the Paramount Plus streaming service (which, to clarify, is not a bad thing in and of itself). The one remark from Fein that caught my eye is this: “[It’s] not a restoration.” (Then what is it?) The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” comes to mind.

After watching The Director’s Edition – Remastered twice, I think, on a technical level, it does surpass the 2001 DVD. I say think because, on my 5K computer monitor, which has been color calibrated, the color in a lot of the movie feels… really beige (or actually yellow). Viewing Director’s Edition – Remastered on a big-screen plasma television, the color does feel a bit more… right. But the question is, which is correct, the monitor or the TV? Ultimately, the color grading of the original theatrical version feels the most “correct” to me. And (after watching the 2019 theatrical re-release) I still personally prefer the original 1979 edit of the film to any edit released since.

There is a certain beguiling, 1970s aura and vibe to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It works without any changes. You don’t need Robert Wise’s 2001 changes, or Fein’s 2021-22 changes, to appreciate the movie. It works fine as originally made. And here is where the producers, including Fein, and the studio (Paramount) really did something good for “the fans”: *you can actually watch the original theatrical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 4K ultra high-definition. It’s available right now (April 2022) in an almost endless array of streaming and other formats (including physical disc, one of the few 4K discs I actually own). Unlike Disney and Lucasfilm, the owners of the Star Wars franchise [who have never (ever) released the original/unaltered versions of the classic (1977-83) Star Wars movies in high definition, on any format (even anamorphic widescreen)], Paramount has made the original, theatrical 1979 version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture widely available, and for that, they are to be commended.

To go back to the beginning of this write-up: after all these years, and changes made to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, why are there still matte lines around some of the ships/models in outer space? Why doesn’t the movie overall look amazing? Well, I’ll tell you why: the movie was made in 1979, and no amount of 21st-century digital magic can change that. Period. The marketing campaign has been pretty glossy (with fawning reviews from many outlets), but in the end, it’s still a 43-year-old movie.

All that said, I’ll probably spring for the physical disc version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered when Paramount releases it in September 2022. First, I want to see if it looks any better on disc than it does on streaming. (In my experience, home physical media usually does look better than streaming, if for no other reason than higher bit rates). But second, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an outlier: a “big space movie” with almost no violence at all; the sole “Hard Science Fiction” entry in the entirety of the Star Trek movie series. It was Wise’s first and last dalliance with theĀ Trek universe, not to mention (Star Trek creator) Gene Roddenberry’s only real involvement in any Trek movie, and, therefore, it deserves respect.

I’ll continue to watch, and enjoy, the original theatrical version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in its various home media releases (my personal favorite remains the 2009 Blu-ray version; I prefer it even to the 2021 4K UHD disc). I’ll shelve the 2022 Director’s Edition – Remastered alongside some previous versions (the 1980s Special Longer Version; the 2001 Director’s Edition) in my collection to be appreciated, but not cherished.

If I had to give it a grade (A+ to F):

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (theatrical version, 1979): B
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Special Longer Version (1983): C+
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition (2001): B-
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition – Remastered (2022): B-

Best song of the ’80s?

Someone asked me today what I’d pick as the best song of the ’80s. Without thinking, I said “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. It’s not that it’s a great song (it is). It reminds me of a particular place and time, when everything was right with the world (at least my world) and life was pretty great.