More HDMI inputs then there are in heaven..

My latest project is replacing my gaming set-up with a home cinema set-up.  I’ve pretty much given up on the Odeon Limitless pass.  I’ve spent a few weekends at home on call more than is perhaps absolutely necessary of late, plus when I am off-call, I spend the time going food shopping and running errands.  Oh, and let’s not forget the railway improvements which stops me getting to and from Guildford easily.

I’ve pretty much given up on the Odeon Limitless pass.  I’ve spent a few weekends at home on call more than is perhaps absolutely necessary of late, plus when I am off-call, I spend the time going food shopping and running errands.  Oh, and let’s not forget the railway improvements which stops me getting to and from Guildford easily.

So home cinema is what I’m aiming at.  So far I’ve replaced the Xbox One S and Sony RX100M4 with an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-Ray player.  It’s certainly not cheap, but it’s currently the best player on the market.  Will hopefully last a good few years.  The firmware is regularly updated, plus the bonus is that their UK HQ is based in Norwich – specifically in an area I used to go through each day on my way to work.  The Oppo is a good choice for superb picture quality and sound, and Deadpool UHD/4K looked particularly good during testing.

The second component is the Pioneer VSX-S520D AV receiver.  I originally opted for the Denon AVR-X2300W, until I realised that the unit wouldn’t fit in my shelf space underneath the TV.  This is what happens when you order without measuring stuff first.  The Pioneer is much slimmer and is even smaller (in height) than the Blu-Ray player.  I’ve still had to re-arrange stuff  – moving the Virgin Media Tivo V6 box to just behind the TV (I can still see the status light).  The AV shelf now consists of the Oppo UDP-230, the 4th generation Apple TV and the Pioneer AV receiver.  The Tivo, Oppo, Apple TV and an HD Google Chromecast are all plugged into the receiver’s HDMI inputs.

Is is strange to buy an AV receiver without speakers?  Yes.  Yes it is.  The main reason was to buy it initially for HDMI switching, but giving me the option to add speakers at a later date.  I usually listen to the TV through wireless headphones to drown out the neighbours.  The Pioneer allows me to plug the headphone transmitter into the front of the unit and I’m able to listen to all devices through the receiver without any issues.  The best thing?  No lip sync issues at all.  But at some point I will buy speakers to give me full 5.1 surround sound (neighbours be damned).

Picture quality from the Pioneer is good.  It supports 4K passthrough and upscaling, and everything I’ve thrown at it has been fine.  The Tivo V6 has actually seen a substantial improvement!  I couldn’t use the 2160 Passthrough option directly through the LG TV for some reason – the signal would just drop – but through the Pioneer it’s working really well and has got rid of a lot of the jerky 4K playback I reported after initially getting the Tivo V6 set-up last month.

The Pioneer also supports DAB and FM radio, though I still have to get the aerial to work properly – so far I’m just getting static.  It also supports music streaming services such as TuneIn, Spotify, Pandora (not in the UK), TIDAL and all sorts of things.  It also has built in ChromeCast and AirPlay services – albeit for audio only.  At some point I’ll hook up the turntable and will likely add a CD player to the unit – there’s space to hook those up thanks to the myriad of connections at the back of the Pioneer.

From Breaking Bad’s prequel series, Better Call Saul – I dread to think what we’ll get in the next season..

In short – very happy with the current set-up.  It’s my first steps to proper home cinema.  It’s a shame my TV supports 4K, but not HDR.  This is the result of the film studios and electronic manufacturers failing to agree on things in a timely manner.  4K has had a troublesome birth, and continues to do so, but it’s getting better.  I doubt we’ll see 8K for quite some time given that 4K is still so new.

Meanwhile, did you know that movies used to ship on vinyl discs?  Watch this for a fascinating look into a video format of old…

 

More bad Breaking Bad distribution foul-ups

Update: I’ve found the workaround.

A while back I mentioned how flawed the Blu-Ray edition of the Breaking Bad: Complete Series was in how it used cardboard cases that scratch the Blu-Ray discs, providing a horrible experience to people who have paid a lot of money for it.

Well, I thought I had a way around all that when I spotted Breaking Bad Deluxe series 1-6 (series 5 is split into 2 in order to bring in more profit) on iTunes.  It contains all the same features of the Blu-Ray, but none of the potential scratchiness of terrible packaging – plus the ability to play across all Apple devices.  So it includes lots of audio commentaries, extra features, documentaries and so on.

ALAS!

The audio commentaries, which are presented as separate titles, do not play on the Apple TV.  You only get the original episode audio for some reason.  I examined the info while playing the commentary episodes – there’s just one audio stream.  There’s no ability to switch to any other audio stream/track.  So where is the Apple TV getting the audio from if the commentary episodes are self-contained?  Or are the commentary episodes just containers pointing to a separate audio file that the Apple TV can’t parse?

The audio commentaries play absolutely fine under MacBook Pro iTunes, the iPad and the iPhone 7 Plus.  No problems at all.  But the one method I want to play it on – the Apple TV (and the latest 4th generation at that) – doesn’t work.

Fan-bloody-tastic.

As an experiment, I tried to stream an audio commentary episode from the MacBook Pro to Apple TV – nope – the original episode audio played.

Sigh.

I’ve dropped Apple quite a few reports about this, and I’m waiting for them to get back to me.   All I will says is: God help Apple if they tell me that I need to take this up with the content provider.  There will blood – probably mine as I bash my forehead repeatedly against the desk.

And film/TV studios wonder why people turn to piracy…

iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.

Forrest Gump UHD – Pixels UHD – Liverpool vs. Barcelona UHD – Anomalisa – Trumbo – High Rise – The Good Dinosaur – Hail, Caesar!

It was a weekend at the movies.  At home.

Sky had kindly stuck a copy of Forrest Gump and Pixels in 4K UHD on their service for us 4K folk to try before they official launch their UHD services.  I’ve always loved Forrest Gump, but seeing it in UHD was like watching it in the cinema again.  A 35mm film scan to 4k has yielded a superb sharp picture, with glorious colours.  This film has never looked or sounded so good.  Pixels is another story – wasn’t impressed as much with image quality and that was taken from a 3,4K digital intermediate.

Then there was the Liverpool FC vs Barcelona.  Live.  In UHD.  Alas, I did not see it live, but set the Sky Q Silver box to record it whilst I watched a few other films instead.  When I came to watch it, however, I was impressed with the quality of the image.  Sports certainly do look better in higher resolution – indeed, Japan’s NHK is filming this year’s Olympics in Rio in 8K.  It requires a $125,000 TV to watch it, and it’ll be probably be obsolete in a years time, but hey, it’s technology.  It’s also being broadcast in select theatres in Japan at full 8K res for those without a burning hole in their pockets.

Meanwhile, on Amazon Prime (my replacement to iTunes), I rented a few movies.

Anomalisa – directed by Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson.
Kaufman is a wonderful filmmaker whose oddball and provocative (yet thoughtful) films are a great inspiration.  Being John Malkovich was the first really odd film that caught my attention.  Adaptation in which Nicolas Cage plays twin versions of Kaufman himself was utterly insane.  Synecdoche, New York, with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, took all of that and ran through the streets naked before diving into a teapot of jelly.

Anomalisa’s overall atmosphere reminds me that of Being John Malkovich meets Lost In Translation.  It was made using stop animation with some of the most expressive puppets I’ve ever seen on film.  They’re so good, there’s a sex scene which took Duke Johnson and his animators SIX months to animate – because they wanted to do it properly.  The film stars David Thewlis as Michael Stone, a highly successful customer service/motivational speaker who stays overnight at the hotel Fregoli in Cincinnati, Ohio, before speaking at a conference the next day.  While he’s there, he calls up an old flame which, as you may imagine, doesn’t go at all well.  He eventually meets two women attending the same conference, one of them is Lisa, an insecure young woman.

I should point out that other than Michael and Lisa, everybody else is voiced by character actor Tom Noonan.  He plays absolutely everybody else – from waitresses, Lisa’s friend, Michael’s wife and son, their friends, the hotel manager, all the secretaries – everyone.  The reason for this is that Michael is depressed.  He perceives everybody around him – apart from Lisa – as identical white men with the same faces and voices .

All in all, this is a very strange film.  I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and I think it’s worth tracking down on Blu-Ray when the price is right.  Technically one of the best films I’ve seen.  Kudous to everybody involved in making it.

Trumbo – directed by Jay Roach
This is the first non-comedy film for Roach, whose previous works include the likes of Austin Powers, Meet the Parents/Fockers, Dinner for Schmucks, etc.  And it’s a blinder of a film.  I would have to say that this has fast become one of my favourite films of all time.  I love biopics, and this is definitely one of the best I’ve seen.  In part, perhaps, due to the excellent and strong casting, including Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston in the role of Dalton Trumbo, Louis C.K. as Arlan Hird, and Alan Tudyk as Ian McLellan Hunter.

Trumbo concentrates on the part of Dalton Trumbo’s life that concerns his blacklisting in Hollywood thanks to the McCarthy hearings (the House of Un-American Activities).  The USA was exceptionally paranoid during the height of the Cold War, and if you were suspected of being a communist, you’d go to jail.  Many people lost their jobs, families and even their lives during this time, and this film brings home just how horrific it was.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom.  Trumbo is punctuated with humour throughout, and what makes this film so good are the performances.  We get to see the relationship Trumbo had with Edward G. Robinson: Robinson ratted out Trumbo in the end, albeit not before handing Trumbo a massive cheque to fund his defence; after everything blew over, Trumbo paid Robinson back, with their friendship now ended.  Of continuing to write scripts whilst blacklisted and using false identities to cover himself up.  During this period, his script ‘Roman Holiday’ went on to win an Oscar – albeit for Ian McLellan Hunter who was persuaded by Trumbo to take the credit.  Many years later, the Academy would hand Trumbo’s widow a new Oscar with the corrected credit.

As we know (well, I didn’t actually), Otto Preminger saw Trumbo and got him to write Spartacus.  This would be the first time since the blacklist that Trumbo’s name was restored to his work.

A truly wonderful film.  Oscar and BAFTA nominated in its own right, but didn’t win, it’s still a very worthy contender for your time.  I’ll be buying the Blu-Ray – this one’s a keeper.

Hail, Caesar! – directed by the Coen Brothers
Set in a spookily similar period and surroundings to that of Trumbo, this fictionalised comedy drama about real-life studio fixer Eddie Mannix sees the big star of a forthcoming big budget Roman epic motion picture kidnapped by a group of communist writers who demand $10,000 in cash.  Or else!  As Mannix deals with this crisis, he’s also dealing with a Western star that’s been shoehorned into an upmarket period piece, gossip columnist twins (both played by Tilda Swinton), and other diversions (including contemplating a very generous offer of new employment from Lockheed).

Hail, Caesar! is a great farce, but ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere.  Quite unsatisfying as a story.

The Good Dinosaur – directed by Peter Sohn
In the same year that Pixar released Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels more like a bonus side-attraction rather than a fully fledged feature.  But what there made me cry like a little baby at the end, as do most Pixar (and Studio Ghibli) films.  Pixar are experts in the art of storytelling combining up-to-date technology, and even if it’s not their best film to date, it’s nevertheless heartwarming and technically brilliant.

High Rise – directed by Ben Wheatley
I was really looking forward to this adaptation of J. G. Ballad’s science fiction novel.  I do like a bit of dystopian future, me.  But I found that I couldn’t stomach this film at all.  It’s horribly depressing, the characters completely unrelatable, and even the plot seems to be disjointed.  I gave up a third of the way through the film.

Other films:

Kung Fu Panda 3 – directed by Jennifer Yu Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
A good few years ago, back when I was married, we were looking to adopt from China.  We went as a far as volunteering for an NGO outside of Beijing where we got to help look after children who were being prepared for international adoption.  But as for the adoption itself?  It never happened – for many reasons.  But I still have an interest in the entire adoption process, and I’ve found the Kung Fu Panda movies to be one of the best at explaining and looking at adoption in a very positive light.  In fact, there were a few times in Kung Fu Panda 3 where I broke down and cried.  I can’t tell you how well this handles a very sensitive topic.  But adoption aside, this is a fantastic film that manages to keep the momentum of the franchise going nicely.  We meet old friends and new, and the background artwork (principally produced by Oriental Dreamworks) is fantastic.  It’s perhaps the first major collaboration between a US and Chinese film studio and the result is something that’s very special indeed.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Justice League – directed by Zak Snyder
Haven’t gotten around to finishing this one as it’s THREE hours long.  And boy, do you feel every minute with this one!  That said, what I’ve seen so far makes sense, but I’m just not sure whether this needs to be the War & Peace of DC films.  What I will say is that the UHD works very well – worth the investment.

And what can we learn from these films?  That I should avoid any cartoons or family films, because I’m likely to blub.  Already 40, I appear to be turning into an emotional wreck.  On the other hand, you could say that as storytellers, the filmmakers have done a superb job – if you’re that engrossed that you can empathise with a character or characters, it must be good!  Or maybe not.  I don’t know.

Coming up: Finding Dory (cinema), The Suicide Squad (cinema), In Bruges, Whitnail and I, The Man from UNCLE (Guy Ritchie version), Labyrinth, Deadpool UHD, The Room.

For my 40th birthday..

.. (which was yesterday, BTW), I was stuck indoors having had a chest infection for the past two weeks.  During that time I’ve been on holiday and off-work, and have had my ex-wife come by to help sort out her stuff at the house.  But as the coughing/vomiting wasn’t getting any better, I went along to the docs on Tuesday to get some antibiotics – which is working, more or less.

During the time I was sick, I started to run out of food.  So I gave Amazon Prime Now a chance.  It’s pretty good – two hour, same day delivery window.  It doesn’t have as much selection as a proper supermarket, but it does cover the basics.  So I bought bread milk, cheese, mineral water and other bits and bobs.  As I was getting a bit bored, I also bought a 7 disc X-Men movie collection.  Due to an error in the checkout process, the promotional £10 off a £30 spend didn’t work.  So I called Prime Now support who credited me £10.  It was then I discovered that the £10 promo HAD been applied and in fact got £20 off the shop.  Effectively I paid for the movie, and got the food for free.  As I spend a lot of Amazon anyway, I don’t feel too guilty about getting an extra £10 off.

I also bought a few other Blu-Rays during the week: The Lady in the Van, Bridge of Spies, Room, The Hateful Eight, and Steve Jobs.  I’d already seen Steve Jobs before and deem it to be a most excellent film (interestingly for those looking for the excitement of product announcements, forget it – this is very much a human drama about his relationship with his daughter, Lisa).

I’ve never been too fond of westerns before my colleague Dave at work introduced me to some classics, but I really got into Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.  Shot in the good old Ultra Panavision (65mm, projected at 70mm) with lenses that came from the old cameras back in the 60s, this is a wonderfully tense western almost entirely set in a single location – a cabin caught in a dreadful blizzard.  As the drama unfolds, you’re treated to violence that would make Game of Thrones look like the Teletubbies.

The Lady in the Van was a pleasant surprise.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it when it hit the cinema (and had avoided it), but I’m very glad to have bought the Blu-Ray.  As you’d expect, Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd is wonderfully cantankerous.  She really did live in Alan Bennett’s drive for 15 years, and his interactions with her are comedic and yet heartfelt.  The ending is fantastic (both figuratively and literally).

Perhaps the best of all was Bridge of Spies.  Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by the Coen Brothers and Matt Chapman, this film is inspired by true events.  In 1957, the FBI captures Rudolf Abel, a suspected spy for Russia.  Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer with criminal law experience who is asked to represent Abel in court.  When the US sends a pilot in an experimental plane to spy on Russian territory which goes horribly wrong, Donovan is sent to East Berlin to negotiate the release of the American – in exchange for Abel.  The entire story is riveting from start to finish, and one of the best Cold War thrillers I’ve seen.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve not seen Room yet – probably will get a chance to do so this week.

So that was it.  My 40th birthday.  Two more years until the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.