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TV and Movies

Posts related to television and/or movies.

Movies Anywhere (mostly) opens the closed iTunes ecosystem

With the recent unveiling of Movies Anywhere, Apple has—willingly or not, I do not know—opened up the world of iTunes to movies from other places. Stated another way, you can now have movies in the Tunes ecosystem that weren’t purchased there, or that weren’t digital versions acquired by using an iTunes redemption code with a physical disc purchase.

To put it bluntly, this is huge; I’ve long wanted a way to get all of my movies into iTunes (and iOS) so that they could sync to devices, easily stream (without the computer on) to the TV, etc. The service goes well beyond iTunes/iOS, of course—the full list of supported players is quite extensive.

Important: As of now, Movies Anywhere is a US-only service. If you’re not in the US, hopefully something similar will be coming to your country at some point in the future.

What’s really amazing, though, is that you can not only combine purchases from multiple sources into iTunes, but convert and/or upgrade them in the process. Thanks to Movies Anywhere, I’ve been able to do two seemingly amazing things…

  1. Put an UltraViolet-only (i.e. no iTunes version) digital redemption movie into the iTunes ecosystem.
  2. Paid a modest fee—not to Apple—and converted an old physical DVD into a high-def —digital version.

Note: The original version of this post stated that you could convert a DVD into a 4K iTunes video. That is not the case, based on this article and my own testing. Thanks to @netnothing for the pointer.

How does this magic work? Honestly, I don’t really know.

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A deep dive into HandBrake and Video Transcoding

An obvious interest area of mine is in ripping (and watching) movies using my Mac. I’ve talked about everything from installing the tools I use to how I rip to how to make sure I update the ripping tools. And though I’ve included some comparison pictures in the how-I-rip article, I’ve never done a deep dive into the various ripping options and how they compare on three key fronts:

  • Speed: Faster is better; measured in minutes required to rip.
  • Size: Smaller is better; measured in MB of drive space used.
  • Quality: Higher is better; the closer the image quality is to the original, the better.

An ideal rip would be one that happens in seconds, saves into a 10KB file, and has quality matching the original. The reality, though, is far from the ideal. Ripping a movie involves making trade-offs between those three competing measures: Maximizing any one measure requires some sort of tradeoff with one or both of the other measures.

After ripping so many DVDs and Blu-rays over the years, I was curious about how HandBrake and Don Melton’s Video Transcoding tools handle those tradeoffs, so I decided to do some testing.

If you’d like to see what I discovered about ripping time, file sizes, and—with lots and lots of frame grabs—image quality, keep reading…

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Book: “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales…” by Cary Elwes

Like 95% of the audience and 97% of the critics, I’m a big fan of The Princess Bride. The movie turns 30 this year (special anniversary super-duper Blu-ray extended mega cut, please?), and it stands up well to the test of time. If you haven’t seen it yet, well, see it. It’s not only full of quotable quotes (“Inconceivable!”), the story is enjoyable, the acting campy and perfect, and certain characters are just incredibly memorable. Well worth the time.

But this post isn’t about the movie. It’s about a book about the making of the movie, written by Cary Elwes, who starred as Westley, aka The Man in Black. And in the interest of thoroughness, the book’s full title isn’t As You Wish, it’s As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

The book is well written (with some credit to Joe Layden, noted as the “with” on the cover), and details Carey’s experiences with the film starting with the original casting call (actually a note under his hotel room door) up through the release and some detail on the inept marketing behind the movie. It’s a great read, and very interesting on its own.

But what really made the book for me were all the quotes that Cary secured from others involved in the production. These are present throughout the book, and you seldom need read more than a page before encountering one.

They aren’t shown inline, which would interrupt the story flow. Instead, they’re presented as asides, like this one:

Each appears near relevant content, so they’re applicable to what you’re reading. But by separating them, you can read them when you like. These snippets have some real gems, such as the one above, which explains how The Princess Bride book came to be. Since finishing the book, I’ve gone back through it, just to read all these asides again; they really are wonderful.

If you’re a fan of The Princess Bride, Cary’s book is well worth your time.

Revisiting ripping Blu-ray discs

A couple years back, I explained how I rip Blu-ray discs. A lot of time has passed, and I now use a slightly different procedure that results in much faster rips—with the caveat that the resulting file will be larger than the “slow” method, and is technically of slightly lower quality, though I can’t visually distinguish the two.

The new method uses Don Melton’s amazing video transcoding tools, a set of Unix programs that optimize video conversion in ways you cannot do (or easily do) in the Handbrake GUI. If you’re new to Unix, but would still like to try these tools, I wrote a detailed set of instructions that should help get you up and running.

Using these Unix programs, you can rip a disc with various parameters, including one to optimize for speed (with good image quality) and another that tries to minimize the file size.

Here’s a quick comparison of all three methods, as tested with the three-hour Hamlet Blu-ray. The ‘Handbrake GUI’ rip was done using, well, the Handbrake GUI as described in my original article. The second and third rows use Don’s tools set to quick and veryquick modes, and the final row uses Don’s tools set to optimize the file size.

Method Data Copied Convert (hrs:mins) File Size
Handbrake GUI 47.5GB 3:52 6.8GB
transcode – quick 40.1GB 2:20 9.2GB
transcode – small 40.1GB 3:12 6.5GB

Tested on a late 2014 27″ iMac with a 4GHz Core i7 and 24GB of RAM.

Using Don’s tools in “quick” mode, you save time two ways: 7GB (15%) less data is copied to the hard drive, and the conversion process is over 90 minutes (38%) faster. The downside is that the final file size is 2.4GB (35%) larger. And that’s what they call a tradeoff.

Using the “small” mode in Don’s tools, you still save the 7GB (15%) of data copy, and still save 40 minutes (17%) over the original method. In addition, the file size is smaller than the Handbrake GUI version.

To summarize, regardless of whether you care more about file size or ripping speed, Don’s tools provide an advantage over the Handbrake GUI: Either method is notably faster, and the small option generates smaller (or probably at worst, very similar) file sizes. (There’s also a “big” option, if you don’t mind somewhat larger files at a higher quality level.)

Keep reading to see some examples of the image quality of each method, and information on how to install and use Don’s video transcoding tools.

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Plex and I do not get along

After hearing my The Committed podcast cohosts rave about Plex (a free media server), I thought I’d give it another shot: I’d tried a few months back, but because of the way I store my personal videos (using our own Usher app), it was going to be a big migration project, and I just never got into it. So today, I resolved to try again.

And today, I’m giving up again. I’ve spent the last few hours fighting Plex, and despite the awesomeness of the streaming (it *is* awesome), it’s just not worth the aggravation in configuration and setup—to me, of course. Plenty of others find it works just fine.

But for me, it doesn’t work at all, basically. Here’s a short list of some of the things that bother me about Plex…

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Force Awakens Day, based on the greatest movie speech ever given*

* No, not really. Not even close. But the President’s speech in Independence Day is perhaps corniest, most over-the-top movie speech ever given. And as such, it’s a good basis for this bit of Star Wars: The Force Awakens corny, over-the-top speechmaking…

Good morning. In less than four hours, people from this household will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest opening weekend for a movie in the history of cinema. You, Star Wars Fans, will be doing it.

Star Wars Fans—those words should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our dislike of Episodes One through Three. We will be united in our love of the one Original Trilogy.

Perhaps it’s fate that today is a Saturday, and you will once again be having an amazing weekend, not being subject to the tyranny of one man’s horribly wrong vision of the prequels. You will have freedom from the annihilation of the Original Trilogy through misguided editing.

We’re watching for our right to be entertained, to believe in The Force.

And should we all enjoy the movie, this Saturday will no longer be known as a simple weekend day, but as the day when the world declared in one voice:

“We will not be forced to watch the prequels! We will not endure any more Jar Jar Binks! We’re going to live on; we’re going to survive the prequel era!”

Today, we celebrate our Force Awakens day!

And with that, I’m off to see a little movie this morning.

Smart TVs know—and share—what you’re watching

If you own—or plan to own, or plan to give as a gift—a “smart TV” from LG, Samsung, or Vizio, are you aware that these sets share your viewing data with third parties? If not, you should be—even if you’re a very ‘open’ person, the amount of data collected and shared by these sets is quite scary.

For example, Samsung Smart TVs collect the following data:

Information about content that you have watched, purchased, downloaded, or streamed through Samsung applications on your SmartTV or other devices; Information about applications you have accessed through the SmartTV panels; Information about your clicks on the “Like,” “Dislike,” “Watch Now,” and other buttons on your SmartTV; The query terms you enter into SmartTV search features, including when you search for particular video content; and Other SmartTV usage and device information, including, but not limited to, IP address, information stored in cookies and similar technologies, information that identifies your hardware or software configuration, browser information, and the page(s) you request.

Vizio isn’t much better; here’s what their sets collect:

For VIZIO televisions that have Smart Interactivity enabled, VIZIO will collect data related to publicly available content displayed on your television, such as the identity of your broadcast, cable, or satellite television provider, and the television programs and commercials viewed (including time, date, channel, and whether you view them live or at a later time).

And while I couldn’t find LG’s privacy policy, it’s been caught spying on users.

All three manufacturers ship their sets with data sharing enabled, but it’s relatively easy to disable on all three brands. Consumer Reports provides clear instructions for all three companies; unless you really enjoy sharing your viewing habits with unknown third parties, I suggest you disable these onerous data collection tools in your smart TV.

The bizarre world of digital movie pricing

Recently DirecTV had a free HBO preview weekend; as we’re not subscribers, I set our DVR up to record a number of movies. One of those films was X-Men: Days of Future Past. I’d never seen any of the X-Men movies, and I really liked this one. So I decided to watch the other six films in the series, renting them on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

I was able to rent all movies except The Wolverine, which is only available as a purchase on either Amazon Video ($12.99) or Apple TV ($14.99). So I had to buy one movie, and rented the other five. In total, I paid $34.94—about $5.82 each—to watch six movies, including buying The Wolverine. That’s not outrageously expensive. (I paid an extra $2 to buy the iTunes version, as it’s a better viewing experience than Amazon Instant Video.)

But (excluding The Wolverine), that’s my cost to watch them just once. If I or anyone in my family wants to watch them in the future, we’ll have to pay again. If I want to own the movies, to make them free to watch any time, I could either buy them digitally or on Blu-Ray.

To buy all six movies on iTunes, I’d pay a whopping $89.94, as each is priced at $14.99. (You’d think the first three films, all being at least nine years old, would be cheaper…but you’d think wrong.) Over on Amazon Instant Video, it’d still cost $77.94 to buy the six movies on digital, as they’re $12.99 each.

Clearly, if digital is that expensive, then the Blu-Rays will be even more, right? After all, they have to be mastered, duplicated, boxed, sealed, and shipped to retailers. There are physical returns to worry about, and management of all the stuff in all of those steps…so these Blu-Rays are going to be incredibly costly, right? No, not right at all.

A quick trip to amazon.com leads to X-Men and The Wolverine Collection, which contains all six of the movies on Blu-Ray. And the cost for all six movies? Only $34.96, or exactly two cents more than I paid to to rent five and buy one in digital form!

(I found the exact same collection on walmart.com for the same price, too, so this isn’t some Amazon-only special pricing. And even at the full list price of $69.99, this collection is still cheaper than the digital versions.)

Even if I wanted to buy all six movies separately, the total cost for all six would be $73.78—still cheaper than either iTunes or Amazon Instant Video! (Most of this cost savings is because the older movies are indeed cheaper than the newer movies. And the newer movies are, in some cases, more than their digital counterparts.)

In a nutshell, I should have simply bought the six-disc collection and been done with it. (It’s also not too much work to rip them myself if there’s not a bundled digital copy, so I can watch on Apple TV, iPad, etc.)

I’d have spent all of two pennies more than what I did, and I’d own the actual movies, free to use when I like and how I like. Sometimes I really hate Hollywood.

Watch It: Noises Off

Noises Off coverNoises Off (1992) is a movie adaptation of a farcical stage play about the production of a stage play. The camera moves freely between front stage and back stage, so you get to see both what the audience sees, and the behind-the-scenes action the audience will usually never see. (The movie’s name is taken from a theater term for sounds produced offstage, and there are plenty of those in the movie.)

Just watching the movie, it’s fairly obvious that it would work better as a play (because of the layout of the set and the nature of the humor). But this movie is an entertaining and (according to those who’ve seen the play) faithful adaptation of the play.

The cast is loaded with recognizable names and faces, including Carol Burnette, Michael Caine, Marilu Henner, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker, Nicollette Sheridan, and the too-early-gone John Ritter and Christopher Reeve. They’re all quite funny to watch, and the timing amongst them is (and has to be) spot on for the movie to work. Thankfully, the timing is spot-on, leading to many humorous moments.

The movie follows the stage troupe working on their play, starting with rehearsals and opening in Iowa, traipsing through various other small towns, and finishing up with the big opening night on Broadway. Along the way, we get to watch as the group teeters on the brink of disaster, each night’s show bringing a fresh crisis. Whether it’s an alcoholic old-timer or relationship issues between some of the actors, there’s always something going on to disrupt the play’s normal flow. Many scenes stand out, but there’s one involving bottles of alcohol, flowers, and hijinks among the actors that leaves me laughing every time.

Sadly, this oldie hasn’t been remastered for Blu-Ray, nor is it available for legal streaming on any of the services I checked. That leaves just the Amazon DVD, or “alternative solutions” if you’re interested in watching some great actors have a lot of fun with a unique concept. Well worth watching, and probably not a movie style you’ve seen done before.

iTunes Store
Not available
Amazon
DVD
The Movie DB
Details
Rotten Tomatoes
Reviews [57%]

Search the iTunes Store from anywhere

This morning, I wanted to send someone an iTunes App Store search URL, so that when they clicked it, they’d see the list of matching apps in the iTunes App Store. There’s no apparent easy way to do this within iTunes, but after much futzing about, I figured out how to structure a URL that will open to to the search results screen in the iTunes App Store.

Because Apple has separated iPhone apps and iPod apps in the store, there are actually two separate URLs, one for each type of app. The iPad version of the URL is:

itms://search.itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZSearch.woa/wa/advancedSearch?entity=iPadSoftware&free=0&genreIndex=1&media=software&restrict=false&softwareTerm=TERMS+TO+SEARCH+FOR&submit=seeAllLockups

And for the iPhone, it’s identical except for the entity bit:

itms://search.itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZSearch.woa/wa/advancedSearch?entity=software&free=0&genreIndex=1&media=software&restrict=false&softwareTerm=TERMS+TO+SEARCH+FOR&submit=seeAllLockups

Hopefully obviously, replace TERMS+TO+SEARCH+FOR with the keywords you want to use for the search, separating words with the plus sign. You can then use the URL for whatever you like: send it to someone, add it to your bookmarks bar, whatever. When clicked, the search will run and the results will open directly in the iTunes App Store for either iPad or iPhone apps.

For example, iPad Apps related to the word foobar, or iPhone apps about hopping frogs.

You can further customize the URL to find anything you want—not just apps, and using additional criteria—within any of the various areas of the App Store. Read on for the details on how to do that.

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