Friday, February 26, 2010

House Call

I guess I need to finish up my Fourth Doctor review series, so that I can get caught up on my Tenth Doctor episodes. Because now I see I'm about to be two Doctors behind....

BBC America has announced that season 5 will debut on Saturday, April 17th, less than two weeks after it airs in Great Britain (on Easter, or April 4th).

I did watch the Eccleston-era episodes, but I only just got started on the David Tennant episodes before it dropped off my radar, for some reason. So I've got about two-and-a-half seasons worth of shows to watch if I want to get up to date before the premiere.

I've finished my rewatch of Tom Baker's Season 17 - I just need to write it up. And then I'll need to slog through Season 18; can you tell it's not one of my favorites? Oh, well.

(From BBC via Topless Robot)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Movie Review: Drunken Master II

AKA The Legend of Drunken Master in the United States.

This is it. I've reviewed a whole heap of Jackie Chan movies, but if you watch only one, this is the one to watch. Unlike some of the older movies, you aren't waiting around for the big fight at the end to see the fireworks. Here, just about every fight sequence is outstanding - a staff-versus-sword fight underneath a train, a drunken fighting battle in a marketplace, Jackie taking on an axe-wielding gang with a bamboo pole, and the final classic scene in a foundry with Jackie taking on kick-fighting expert Ken Lo (and a pit of red-hot coals). This is Jackie at his top form- fluid, acrobatic and imaginative.

And for a change, the non-action scenes mostly keep up with the action. This is mostly due to the efforts of Anita Mui, playing Jackie's step-mother (despite being younger than Jackie). She channels her inner Lucille Ball here, switching from comic schemer to penitent dutiful wife in an instant when her long-suffering husband appears. Between Jackie's Wong Fei-hung and Anita's wife, it's amazing the husband stayed sane as long as he did.

The plotline is not unusual for a Jackie film. He plays a young man (despite his being way too old for that type of role by this point) who is talented in martial arts but undisciplined. He finally run afoul of his father (too much drunken boxing, even if in a good cause) and is cast out. Unlike other films, though, he doesn't end up getting trained by an older master - here, he just finds the right path by himself. He ends up working to battle the typical "evil British masters" who are working to smuggle out jade artifacts and close a local factory and take over Jackie's family home. As I said, little pieces from many movies in the past, but put together much better here.

This really is the peak for Jackie Chan films. Five stars for sure. Up next in the Festival: Jackie tries a new occupation, getting behind the wheel in Thunderbolt.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It's Nice To Be Wanted

I cancelled my DirecTV service that I have had since 2002 and switched over to AT&T UVerse. I called to cancel my service on Sunday night. Since then, two and one half days later, I've received ten calls to my house from a 1-800 number that I've since found out is owned by DirecTV. Ten calls - averaging four times a day. They haven't ever left a message, but I can see all of the missed calls courtesy of UVerse's digital phone service, which logs the missed phone calls for me.

For the record - I didn't particularly have any problem with DirecTV. I thought their customer service, for the few times I used it, was generally good and effective. And I didn't have any real issues with the DirecTV service itself - I grumbled when the prices increased, of course, but not to excess.

I dropped DirecTV because (a) UVerse was cheaper, especially once I bundled in HDTV upgrades, (b) UVerse provided better functionality than DirecTV (in particular, the Total Home DVR), (c) the UVerse TV/Phone/Internet combo was cheaper and a better deal than the corresponding DirecTV/SBC/Earthlink combo I had at the time, (d) UVerse stuck in a $400 rebate, and (e) there wasn't a contract period with UVerse, so I felt I could switch back if the service proved unsatisfactory.

Now, I told the DirecTV customer support person when I cancelled that I already had started service with a new provider. So there really isn't any reason for ten calls in two days. I've now forwarded calls from DirecTV to come over to my cell (another nice UVerse service), so I can catch one of these calls and hopefully bring them to an end. Hopefully, this won't prove to be an ongoing problem. But I think it is an indication of how cutthroat things are for cable/satellite providers right now that they would put this much effort into holding onto a customer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Chance At History

Has there ever been a team start 17-0....and not make the NCAA tournament?

They might still be one of the top 65 teams in the nation, but they aren't in the top 32. This team is bad. Is it baseball season yet?

Monday, February 8, 2010

More Stuff I Now Know

Some things I found out today:
  1. Looks like now that I am with UVerse instead of Time Warner Cable/Earthlink, I now have access to for streaming video. I'll have to see if this is accessible on my TV (presumably by streaming through my PS3, as I doubt there is direct access from the Bravia TV itself. Yet.). At any rate - cool. More stuff to watch.
  2. I also get access to AT&T Wifi hotspots, which is good for my iPod touch.
  3. In dealing with the Hulu-blocking-PS3-access issue, it looks like some people were having success getting around this by using a proxy server to change the User-Agent HTTP header to mimic a standard Windows browser. More recent messages seem to indicate that a new block has been put up that stops even this. My guess - they are now querying the Flash run-time for user-agent info, and Flash isn't going through the proxy server. So I won't even try to get that up and running yet. Why does Hulu hate this path so much?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

HDTV Review: Sony KDL-52W5100

So, now that I've got my new UVerse installation up and running, it was time for the next step - the new HDTV. I've finally picked up a Sony KDL-52W5100. I was originally aiming for a 46- or 47-inch model at around $1000, and Costco has a Sony KDL-46VL150 on sale for $800 now. But at the last second, I decided I would go for the next bigger model, on the theory that you should always by as much capacity as you can afford. The next step up at Costco had the 52-inch W5100 on sale for $1200. Besides the larger size, this model also has an updated video processor (Bravia Engine 3 vs 2), and also network capabilities.

This last one was the final tipping point for me. I've posted a few times about streaming to my home theater from the media on my Mac through my Playstation 3. Well, this TV is also supposed to support the same DLNA client functionality, meaning I could have one less device in the loop. The W5100 also has various network apps provided by Sony, such as some rather useless Yahoo widgets and a variety of streaming audio and video channels.

So far, the streaming audio and video provided by Sony works great. No stuttering with my UVerse 12Mpbs service. The quality is what it is - most video channels look pretty good, except for the YouTube video, which is being blown up a little too much for its own good. The real find for me so far is the support for the Slacker radio service. I was familiar with Pandora, which is a similar service. But while Pandora provides streaming radio "stations" based on your preferences, the Slacker service seems to provide more control over what goes into your custom stations, and also provides a large collection of existing stations. The selection of Rock stations is great, and the audio quality is wonderful. There's also a Slacker app for the iPhone. I'm going to be using this a lot, especially since the URGE music channels provided by UVerse are rather meager in comparison.

However, the current downside is that the DLNA streaming so far is not working. The Bravia reports finding both Mac-based (MediaLink, Rivet) and PC-based (Windows Media Player sharing) servers, but then reports a problem connecting to either of them. I don't know if this is a router issue - maybe the UVerse router is somehow blocking access? Or maybe DLNA is not as "standard" as I think - maybe DLNA for the PS3 is somehow subtly different than DLNA on the Bravia. At any rate, it still needs work.

[Update: I've now gotten WMP to share with the W5100. In WMP, you have to approve each device individually for connection. I thought the TV was on the list, but they were all listed as "Unknown Device", and it turns out the two I had approved were my PS3 and the UVerse set-top box (which also has some media streaming support). Once I approved the Bravia TV, the sharing worked fine. Of course, this doesn't directly help me, since my main goal is to share from my Mac-based iTunes library, not my Windows-based WMP library. But at least it's a step forward.]

Video-wise, I'm mostly satisfied with the W5100. It's my first HDTV, so obviously anything is an improvement over what I had. Considering all of the horror stories out there, I found that this TV actually does a pretty good job with standard-def signals. Ordinary DVDs look great, too, although I don't know if the Playstation 3 upscaling or the Bravia TV processing is responsible. The High-Def looks great, as well - the only problem I've seen is a little bit of fuzz around some players while watching a basketball game, so I'm going to have to keep an eye on the high-speed processing. But TV shows, other sports like football, etc. all look great. No Blu-Ray disks yet, so I can't report on how wonderful they look compared to plain DVDs.

So, finally - I've scrambled up to 2008-level home theater technology! Now where's my hovercar?

Friday, February 5, 2010

UVerse First Impressions

So, I never thought I would say this, but - I'm now an all AT&T shop. My cell phone has been with AT&T since I got it (well, technically it was Cingular to start with, but still the same provider). But now I've switched over my phone, tv and internet to AT&T UVerse. It did take a while - the UVerse web-site didn't believe I was in a service area until I alerted them to the problem. But once that was resolved, the order and install went pretty smoothly. My install took about two hours, which included installing a new junction box (or whatever they call it) on the outside of my house and replacing a telephone port on one wall, but not running any new cables. We just reused the coaxial cable from my existing DirecTV installation to connect the set-top box in my living room to the main gateway box in the back office.

First impressions:

  • The Total Home DVR service is nice. I can setup and view recordings on either of my two boxes, with up to four streams recording. My previous DirecTV setup only had one box capable of recording/viewing, with two streams maximum.
  • The DVR itself is not quite as capable as the Tivo box from DirecTV. There is no thumbs-up/thumbs-down ranking available, no automatic recording suggestions, and while there are searches available, it doesn't look like I can setup a recording schedule based on that search. It terms of the basics, however, the UVerse DVR is certainly capable enough for most use cases.
  • Basic TV viewing is fine. The channel surfing is faster than the DirecTV boxes, but I haven't found a way to only surf through my favorites. I don't really want to pass by the channels that I don't even receive - that's just a dumb interface. The Tivo box was much better in this regard.
  • There are some rudimentary interactive capabilities. The Weather On Demand might get some use (I had this problem with DirecTV also - no local weather from The Weather Channel), but I tend to use the internet on my iPod touch for "instant" weather information. But at least they are there, and maybe they will get more robust over time.
  • There is home media server support through Media Share on UVerse, but it is officially Windows-only. My media is on my iMac, so I'm going to poke around to see if there is any way to trick Media Share into seeing my iTunes-based library.
  • On a related note, the UVerse router is blocking my existing UPnP-based media sharing (which I currently use to stream from my Mac to my PS3). I'm going to need to find out what firewall rules need to be relaxed for this to work - this is a major show stopper for me.
  • Other than this UPnP issue, the router itself seems to work fine. None of my devices (computers, iPods, PS3) had any problem connecting, and the speeds and signal strength seem to be good enough for my house. According to SpeedTest, I'm getting close to the advertised 12 Mbps speed for downloads.
  • The phone service also looks good. I was able to switch over my cell phone to use the same voicemail system as the UVerse land-line, so now both phones drop messages into the same box, and the messages can be retrieved on phone or over the web. Nice.
  • UVerse comes with its own branded version of the Yahoo services. However, I already had my own Yahoo account (along with related accounts like Flickr). It isn't clear that I can merge the two in any way, so I have to decide if I want to migrate to the new AT&T Yahoo account, stick with the old one, or maintain both of them.
So, really, the only big sticking point for now is the UPnP blocking. It also remains to be seen how the HDTV signal looks, once I get my new TV (which may be happening this weekend). And of course, it's nice that the bundle is going to be cheaper than my existing SBC/DirecTV/Earthlink combo, while also providing me with better features. Ah, technology.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Movie Review: Crime Story

After the extremely goofy City Hunter, we now rebound in the opposite direction in the Jackie Chan filmography. Crime Story is a rarity for Chan - a relatively serious film. The overall concept certainly isn't new. Jackie once again plays one of the few competent police detectives around, here tasked with first protecting and then rescuing a kidnapped businessman (guess the "protecting" part didn't work out so well). Jackie's character, "Eddie" Chan, is unknowingly battling a crime syndicate that has a highly-placed mole in the police department, working to lead the investigation astray until the ransom can be collected.

What is different is the movie's tone. There is no wacky subplot where Jackie's girlfriend misinterprets some innocent action and goes off on Jackie. There's no comic sidekick character causing trouble for Jackie until the end when he suddenly becomes barely competent. Instead, things are played as a relatively straight procedural, and it ends on a relatively ambiguous note - the businessman is saved, but Jackie isn't in on the final rescue, and most of the bad guys seem to have gotten away with most of the ransom money. However, it is a "normal" Jackie Chan movie at times - near the end, a fight breaks out at the apartment complex with the most flaming natural gas leaks ever seen.

Now, don't get me wrong - this isn't Infernal Affairs or Heat. There isn't a lot of complexity or depth here, just a few hints. But compared to the usual tenor for Jackie's movies, it's a noticeable change. It does, however, come at the expense of the martial arts action. The focus here is more on stunts and gunplay, with Jackie doing a particularly painful-looking series of stunts on board a ship. As usual, there's good stuff there, and it builds up towards the end, but the emphasis isn't on hand-to-hand work.

This is a good solid effort, and there's a few echoes of this later on in Jackie's New Police Story. Three stars. Next up in the Jackie Chan Film Festival, a true classic: Drunken Master 2 (aka The Legend of Drunken Master).