Thursday, February 26, 2009

More On Rivet

Just as a quick followup on my Rivet testing...

I've been seeing how well Rivet and my wireless router do on streaming video. So far, I've had no problem streaming standard definition TV shows from iTunes - they've all worked just fine, with no stuttering issues. However, I also tried ripping one of my DVDs with Handbrake, using its PS3 settings. This resulted in a 2.1 GB file (just for the main feature). But for whatever reason, streaming this file gave me consistent stuttering, enough to make it not watchable.

So, I don't know if this is a limitation in Rivet, my wireless router, or the PS3 wireless client (I haven't tried running an Ethernet cable over from my router to the PS3 - that's a longer run than I have cable for). I'm going to play around with some other Handbrake settings - there's enough to tweak in there that I'm sure I can find a good balance between video quality and "streamability".

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

DVD Spending Tab III

Three-for-three on Jackie Chan films so far...

City Hunter for $3.00 via Craigslist.

Yearly total: 3 DVDs, $10.70 total, $3.57/movie.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Movie Review: Police Story

And so my long-running Jackie Chan Film Festival now reaches the second classic series from Chan's filmography, the Police Story series. Depending on how they are counted (films like these are frequently labeled as being sequels of each other, even if that wasn't the original intent), there are four, five or even six films total, each featuring Jackie as the only cop who can do the job - even if the job happens to be more like spying in foreign countries than being a Hong Kong police officer.

Like its predecessor, Project A, this one is as much about the stunt work as it is about the fighting. Oh, and there's some plot. Here, Jackie's cop single-handedly arrests a drug lord after a police operation goes awry (they planned to ambush him in the middle of a crowded squatters camp - brilliant!). This one's set up mainly for the stunts, as Jackie and team destroy the hillside camp by driving cars through it, followed by Jackie dangling from the side of a double-decker bus. All pretty good stuff here.

Sadly, we then enter the romantic comedy portion of the film. Here, Jackie is tasked with protecting a witness, the drug lord's attractive female secretary. This leads to an extended and painful sequence with Jackie trying to put the moves on the witness while also keeping his girlfriend around, with both women finding out and turning the tables on him. This results in Jackie losing the witness and thus the case against the drug lord. It's all the same kind of non-action "comedy" scenes that Jackie kept trying to get right, but which just don't seem to work out that well.

Fortunately, the ending of the film makes up for the slow middle. Jackie, having been framed for a murder and now on the run, makes a one-man attack on the crime lord's gang, who are trying to retrieve new evidence against them. The place for the attack - a crowded shopping mall, obviously! If you've ever wondered just how much glass there is in a shopping mall....well, you won't after seeing the last fifteen minutes of this movie. People (including Jackie) are dropped, punched, thrown and driven into just about every type of glass surface you can think of. Very impressive work. Oh, and there is some very good fightwork going on as well, with some especially furious legwork, and some fairly brutal beatdowns with bats. It may be the best fifteen minutes of Jackie's career (although the end of Drunken Master II is also in the running there).

I'm going to have to dock this film slightly for its silly center section - it just didn't work for me. But this is still essential viewing for anyone getting into Jackie Chan. Four stars. Next up: Jackie slows things up a bit with a more dramatic role in Sammo Hung's Heart Of Dragon.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Streaming From Mac iTunes to a PS3

Well, my love of Guitar Hero was tempting me to go out and buy a Playstation 3, but it was learning about media streaming to the PS3 that finally pushed me over the edge. Well, that and a 20%-off sale at Dell - I don't think I remember seeing the PS3 on sale very often.

But back to streaming - one of the reasons I purchased my 80GB iPod Classic was the thought that I might eventually use it as a kind of small media server to my TV and stereo. I don't yet have a lot of video, but I do have about 40GB of music. So I wanted a good way to get it onto my main receiver in the living room, and I've been using my iPod through a standard dock to do that. I hadn't yet bought the video cables needed to output video ($50? Come on, Apple - it doesn't need to be that much, does it? Yep, I'm cheap).

But then I learn that it's possible to stream from both PCs and Macs straight to a PS3 via its Wi-Fi connection. Ah, wonderful! Now I can stream my content to my living room, plus add a game system and a better DVD/Blu-Ray player, and it gives me an excuse to sell my iPod classic and pick up an iPod touch instead! But there's a strict requirement - it must support my (non-DRM) iTunes content and playlists. So what software to use?

So far, I've taken a look at a few alternatives:

MediaLink seems to be the current marketshare leader. It installs as a Preference Pane, and exports iTunes songs, videos and playlists, and iPhoto albums. You can also expose arbitrary folders, for those of you who don't use iLife to manage your files. It was easy to install and set up, and has a 30 minute trial available. Everything showed up pretty well in the PS3 menus, with one exception - for some reason, my groups of TV Shows all appeared scrambled up in one large list called Unsorted. This may be due to the way I had them tagged or something (I don't think iTunes handles TV shows very well right now anyway), but it was an annoyance. MediaLink is $20 to unlock.

I then poked around at some open-source packages. There's a Java-based server called (appropriately) PS3 Media Server. It's a cross-platform Java application and makes no attempt to use any settings to appear as a native Mac application (yes, it can be done to a degree). I didn't play around with it much, but all it appeared to do was expose selected directories out to the PS3. It didn't tie into iTunes or iPhoto at all, and so didn't know anything about its playlists, etc. It probably could have been made to do so given some scripting work on my part, but I wasn't really looking for a programming task just now.

[Update: It appears that newer versions do now have support for exposing iTunes libraries automatically, although I'm still having some issues with it correctly detecting updates to the library. More on that in this later post.]

Another free package that got several mentions in my Googling was the ominously-named MediaTomb. Since I already had MacPorts installed, and since MediaTomb was available as a MacPorts package, I tried to install using that. Well, MacPorts decided it needed to build and install Perl, Python, OpenSSL, and a whole raft of other things that probably were already on my system. So after a few hours, I have a MediaTomb installation on my machine - along with a bunch of other redundant stuff. And like many open-source packages (don't get me wrong - I'm heavily dependent on open source in my technical life and have contributed a bit here and there), it looks like it is going to take a bunch of tweaking to get up and running. It also doesn't look like it's going to do anything with my iTunes playlists either. I'll poke around with it a bit, but it doesn't look like it's going to make the cut.

Finally, I saw a mention of a relatively new release - Rivet 2.0 from Cynical Peak. Apparently, this was previously an XBox-only streamer, but now has added PS3 support. In my brief exposure, it has three advantages over MediaLink: it's slightly cheaper ($18.95 instead of $20), it sorted my TV shows correctly out-of-the-box, and it has a security setting to restrict connecting machines (if that is a concern). Otherwise, it seems to work just like MediaLink - songs, playlists, videos, podcasts, photos all just show up in the right place on the PS3. Rather than a Preference Panel, it is presented as a menu-bar icon on the Mac. It also has a different trial period - you get one video and ten songs of your choice until it is unlocked. As I mentioned, about $19 to unlock.

I haven't gotten any stuttering with either MediaLink or Rivet, but there have been some reports of that with MediaLink (which admittedly has been around longer, so it has had more time to be pounded on by the general public). I think I'm going to kick the tires on Rivet a little more, and if everything looks good, I'll probably go with that one.

Edit: I've since found a small advantage for MediaLink over Rivet - MediaLink does support cover art display on the PS3 (at least for Mac OS X 10.5). Rivet doesn't currently, although their support forums indicate it is a planned feature. It's of somewhat limited use, since album art only shows up (as far as I know) as a small icon in both the XBR browser and in the bottom corner of the music visualizer screen - it isn't used nearly as prominently as in iTunes and on the iPod. But if it matters to you, MediaLink has the edge there, at least for now.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

DVD Spending Tab II

Another Jackie Chan hole filled...

Around The World In 80 Days: $4.01 from eBay.

Yearly total: 2 DVDs, $7.70 total, $3.85/movie.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Movie Review: Project A

Finally, my Jackie Chan Film Festival has hit one of the true classics. Project A is just such a quantum leap ahead of the immediately preceding films in his catalog (Dragon Lord, The Big Brawl), especially in terms of production values. Jackie, here writing, directing and producing in addition to starring, finally moves from an endless string of films set in Imperial China and moves up to Colonials times, with Britain running Hong Kong. So rather than having Jackie join one martial arts school that is battling another martial arts school over some triviality, we instead get a four-way confrontation between the colonial navy, the police force, a band of pirates and the gangsters that are playing all sides against each other.

Here, Jackie plays a navy man named Dragon (although I'm pretty sure my English dubbed copy called him "Jackie" at one point). With the Navy suffering a series of embarrassing defeats at the hands of the pirates (due to insider info coming from the gangsters), their men are conscripted into the police force to help stop a gun-running operation. This introduces the great Sammo Hung as a conman involved in selling the stolen rifles, although even he doesn't seem quite sure who is conning who in this operation. Fellow Three Dragons member Yuen Biao also appears as a police force captain whose investigation into the gun-running leads him back to the pirates.

So the plotline is already a step above the usual "you-killed-my-master-now-I-must-kill-you" plot so many earlier Chan films followed. What really sets this film apart, though, in the stunt work. Jackie assembled what looks like a massive number of stunt people who look willing to take all kinds of punishment. It's not quite up to the level of the beatdowns that Tony Jaa was dealing out in Ong-Bak, but it's amazing how many people crash into furniture, plummet off of balconies, get smashed over the head with bicycles and are blown up with grenades in this film. And of course, Jackie is right there as well - this film features the famous clock tower stunt (an homage to Safety Last! - although a scene right before set in the clock's innards brings Modern Times to mind as well). An extended foot-bicycle chase also shows the typical inventiveness of the stunt work during this phase of Jackie's career.

If you are a novice Jackie Chan fan, this is probably the earliest film you should start with, but it's also one of the best there is. I've got to go ahead and give this one five stars, just because it manages to avoid some of the minor pitfalls that I already know will be coming up in some future films (mostly awkward romantic comedy beats - Jackie manages to stay mainly unattached in this one). Up next: another candidate for best Jackie film? Could be! It's Jackie Chan's Police Story.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

DVD Spending Tab I

Wow, I've completely zoned out on this blog, haven't I? I haven't even gotten around to the next Jackie Chan movie. Well, at least I can keep tracking my cheap DVD purchases.

Last year, I bought 24 DVDs for a total of $82.71, an average of $3.45/movie. This year, I resolve to try to be even cheaper. Purchase #1...

Rush Hour 3 (2-disc edition): $3.69.

Dang, I'm already over budget by 24 cents....