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.

Weekend Roundup: Samsung’s a tad busy – The Jungle Book may be the best VFX movie ever

Samsung’s going to be a bit busy for the next couple fo weeks

Now that the cat’s out the bag, I’ve been in touch with Carphone Warehouse (where I purhcased my Note 7) to try and clarify what I need to do to get a new, non-exploding Note 7.  They’ve said:

I’m really sorry to hear you’ve been affected by the recent news about the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

I called you today on [REDACTED] to discuss this further but I wasn’t able to reach you. As you’ve heard, there have been some reported faults with the battery on this particular phone. Because of this we have halted further handsets being ordered, and put a stop to any more handsets being dispatched as a precautionary measure.

Samsung have released the following status:

“Samsung is committed to producing the highest quality products and we take every incident report from our valued customers very seriously. In response to recently reported cases of the new Galaxy Note7, we conducted a thorough investigation and found a battery cell issue.

“To date (as of September 1) there have been 35 cases that have been reported globally and we are currently conducting a thorough inspection with our suppliers to identify possible affected batteries in the market. However, because our customers’ safety is an absolute priority at Samsung, we have stopped sales of the Galaxy Note7.

For customers who already have Galaxy Note7 devices, we will voluntarily replace their current device with a new one over the coming weeks. For more information, customers need to contact the customer service team on 0330 7261000.”

Alternatively, a replacement can be provided by ourselves directly as soon as we receive the stock. We don’t have a date at this point however as soon as we’ll know we’ll make an official announcement.

Please accept my sincere apologies for any upset or inconvenience that this matter may have caused you.

If you have any other questions please reply to this email or alternatively, you can call our Customer Support team on 0370 111 6565. Our lines are open Monday-Friday 8am-7pm, Saturday 9am-6pm and Sunday 10am-5pm.

I never received any notification that Carphone Warehouse tried to call.  I did get a text message from them to say that Samsung were definitely recalling the phone, but that’s it. Anyway, I’ve swapped back to the Galaxy S7 Edge for the time being and tried to call Samsung UK when their office opened on Saturday only to be kept on hold for nearly an hour before I gave up.  So I used their web site’s contact form to leave a message (along with serial number, etc.) to ask them what I need to do to get the phone swapped.

I’m giving Samsung until the end of the week to reply, otherwise I’ll just go through Carphone Warehouse (after all, that’s whom I paid and my contract is with them for the sale).  If all else fails within the next two weeks, I’ll just return the phone and get my money back.

While I don’t have plans to go back to Apple, I’ll be watching this Wednesday’s presentation with interest over the iPhone 7, which leads me to think that the biggest problem with technology at the moment is that with everybody releasing a new device every year, Quality Assurance is being compromised.  There’s not enough time to test the hardware and software: everything is being released too quickly.  While I appreciate these companies have got to keep making money, they’re also harming their own products and reputation at the same time.

The Jungle Book Made Me Weep With Joy

I’ve always enjoyed the 60’s Disney version of the Jungle Book, but was blown away by the most recent live action/animation blend.  Featuring complete artificial environments and creatures by my former employers MPC and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, this retelling of the Rudyard Kipling classic is much, much closer to the book than the cartoon.  In many ways this reminded me of the John August/Tim Burton version of Charlie & The Charlie Factory – a more faithful (at least in tone) adaptation against the book than the previous incarnation.

But what struck me about this version of the Jungle Book is just how brilliant the visual effects came out.  I’ve seen many films in which the effects, while pretty nifty, look more like an unplayable console game.  Getting photorealism into VFX produced on computers is very, very difficult.  But I do believe both MPC and Weta Digital have outdone Avatar in producing a very believable photorealistic environment, similarly populated with talking photorealistic animals.

The interaction between Mowgli and his wolf mother before Mowgli heads alone in the jungle made me shed a tear.  It made me believe in the characters rather than think that, other than the actor playing Mowgli, the entire scene was completely artificial.  THAT, my friends, is the sign of good VFX work.  Of course, all this  visual work is all helped along with great performances from the likes of Bill Murray as Balloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, and Idris Elba as Shere Kahn.  Christopher Walken as the massive King Louie is just brilliant.

I am incredibly proud of my former colleagues (many names stand out in the credits of people I worked with over eight years ago) at MPC for their work on this film.  It’s by far the best work they’ve ever produced – more so than Prometheus which also blew me away with the quality of the visual effects work.

I’ll be buying the Blu-Ray as a keepsake.  Jon Favreau is to be heartily congratulated on producing a film that everybody can enjoy.  Including this soppy 40-year-old.  This is Kipling done right.

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.

Sky Q UHD: It’s here, but we don’t have any content yet..

Sky has enabled UHD (Ultra High Definition) output on the Sky Q Silver boxes, and thankfully it works with my TV.  My biggest gripe with UHD has been that it has taken so long for engineers and their Lord High Muck-a-mucks to agree on a set of standards that make UHD a possibility.  The transition to UHD/4K has been quite the palaver in comparison to say, standard definition to HD.

But anyway, Sky has enabled UHD 2160p at 10 bit colour resolution, and we’re ready for all that lovely 4K content.  Except, ALAS, most TV and film workflows haven’t taken 4K into account either due to budgetary or technical constraints.  For example,  UHD content takes up more disk space, has a higher bitrate, and working with it on most systems is a PITA unless you’ve got decent disk I/O, RAM and CPU – which, trust me, isn’t the case for a lot of TV companies. Plus of course, you’ve got to record video in 4K in the first place – a lot of professional film & TV digital video cameras can do this now, and have been for a while – and at even higher resolutions too – but due to everything I’ve just mentioned, hasn’t developed a full 4K workflow yet.

Then there’s the delivery issue.  You’ve got to generally have fast enough bandwidth to get the data to your TV.  This is helped in part due to the video codec.  With Sky Q, 4K content will be delivered via just one of the 12 tuners in the Sky Q box.  Other content will be delivered via the Sky Q download service which uses broadband.  Since Sky’s VoD system downloads rather than streams, this won’t be a big problem for a vast majority of Sky Q customers with slower connections.

I already watch some 4K content via Netflix streaming.  Amazon Video is still lacking considerable content.  In both cases you can normally see a difference from normal HD – but it depends on the DoP and director as to just how much 4K will matter.  Your camera phone may record 4K video as well, but it makes no difference if you’re just recording people falling over or having amusing accidents.

I’m replacing my Xbox One with the XBox One S next week which will give me the ability to watch UHD Blu-Ray discs.  It will be the cheapest way to watch UHD Blu-Ray content versus expensive (£500+) from the likes of Samsung and Sony.  Also, better integration with Windows 10 makes an Xbox a good companion in the living room.  Well, that’s what I told myself anyway.  Although I do wish Microsoft would have released a better remote control for the Xbox One.  The official one is a PITA.  I’d like something resembling a normal Blu-Ray player remote, and not a cut-down game controller.

The UHD revolution is finally here, but we need Sky to start pushing out content – both live (especially sports – but I don’t subscribe to those channels), and on demand (Sky Cinema movies in 4K – yes please!)

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.