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DVDs I bought or received in the month of August
- Angel-A (R2 UK, DVD)
- Arlington Road (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
- Mr. Bean’s Holiday (R0 UK, HD DVD)
- Red Road (R2 UK, DVD)
- Spooks: Season 5 (R2 UK, DVD)
- Trafico de Menores (R2 Spain, DVD)
A relatively quiet month, but I did get a free DVD out of it, and another for the price of a review.
Today Berlin, tomorrow the world
Lyris is currently in Berlin to report on the ongoing IFA 2007 consumer electronics show. The Blu-ray Disc Association paid for him to be flown out there and put him in an exclusive suite in a swanky hotel, all expenses covered, so he could be indoctrinated… erm, I mean, so he could report on their format. DVD Times has ongoing, up to the minute coverage of the show, including a summary of this afternoon’s BDA Press Conference, which he blogged live for the benefit of the rest of us who didn’t get to go and pow-wow with executives from Sony, Fox, Disney and Warner.
At the end of the conferences, a question and answer session was held, and the most interesting part in fact turned out to be a non-answer: namely, the refusal of everyone present to confirm or deny, even when asked repeatedly, whether or not they had been given any (how shall I put this?) incentives to back Blu-ray exclusively. Now, personally I don’t see what the big deal is about one company paying another for brand loyalty - it’s a business, after all. This is rather funny, though, in light of all the mud-slinging that has gone on following Paramount and DreamWorks’ decision to abandon Blu-ray and support HD DVD exclusively, with many Blu-ray (how shall I put this?) aficionados berating the HD DVD camp for effectively buying the studios’ exclusivity. It comes as no surprise, but it’s rather amusing to see the competition effectively admitting to doing exactly what they have had their mouthpieces attack the HD DVD Promotion Group for (allegedly) doing. (What, you think they would have said “No comment” if the answer had been “No”?)
Question to BDA: it’s about Paramount/Dreamworks. People speculated that Paramount were given ‘sweeteners”. The person asking wants a Yes or No answer from all of the studios - have you been ‘sweetened’ to stick exclusively with Blu-ray?
Answer: (Nobody wants to answer this).
The FOX exec is given the mic: “We were given very good content protection” (smiles).
(They continue passing the mic around).
Question to BDA: The guy who originally asked the question wants a definite confirmation that NO studio has received any sweetener to stay with Blu-ray.
Answer from Buena Vista: “That’s not what I said. I said no comment”.
Anyway, you can visit Lyris’ site for some pictures of the incentives that have been sent his way by the BDA. Now, obviously I’m sure Disney and Fox got slightly more in exchange for their exclusivity, but this is turning out to be into an interesting exposé into how the BDA does business, nonetheless. Not that I’m accusing anyone of trying to encourage the press to give them favourable coverage, heavens no!
I completed the online pre-registration process for my PhD on Tuesday, and I now finally have some definite dates for the start of the course. I need to attend a group meeting with my adviser of studies on Thursday September 20th, followed by registration and fee payment a week later, on Thursday September 27th. My starting date for my course is listed in my online student account as Thursday October 4th (they really like their Thursdays, don’t they?), but I’m going to get in touch with Theatre, Film & Television Studies to confirm this, in case the department itself has different plans.
I think I can safely assume at this stage that my application for funding was unsuccessful, as the documentation says that I should have heard by the end of July at the latest. Therefore, it’s high time I think one fictional deity or another for the four and a half months of full-time work I did for the NHS between March and August, because I can definitely afford the £1,620 fee for the first year. Apparently I can re-apply for funding next year, but after that I won’t be given any further chances to make my case.
Fun times ahead! I just hope that I’m sufficiently far into the Giallo Project by the time I start that I have some definite ideas about how I want to approach this affair.
The Giallo Project #6: Naked You Die
Alternative titles: Nude… si muore; Sette vergini per il diavolo; Schoolgirl Killer; The Miniskirt Murders; The Young, the Evil and the Savage; Director: Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson); Starring: Mark Damon, Eleonora Brown, Michael Rennie, Sally Smith; Music: Carlo Savina; Italian theatrical release date: February 20th, 1968
So far, all of the gialli that I’ve watched for this project have demonstrated a wide variety of influences. Naked You Die is where this all changes, as its sole frame of reference seems to be Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, with an all-girl boarding school standing in for the earlier film’s fashion house and its various pupils replacing the models. Margheriti, however, doesn’t have half the visual flare of Bava, and the cinematography is overall flat and unattractive, particularly when it comes to the lighting which, day or night, has the same harsh brightness. Nor does he possess Bava’s imagination: almost everyone dies as a result of a straightforward strangling, which seems to take little more than a couple of seconds.
Margheriti does, however, make occasional use of the subjective camera to represent the killer’s point of view, beating Dario Argento to this technique by nearly two years. (One of the interesting things about tackling these films chronologically is that you begin to get a sense of at what points various trends began to become popular.) There is also a rather effective moment in which a girl strangled in a basement drops to the floor, her head angled directly at the camera - staring, as it were, at the audience. That’s about it for creative kills, though, and the film’s title turns out to be incredibly misleading as most of the victims are fully clothed when they are murdered.
Elsewhere, a bland cast and unbelievable, perfunctory dialogue kill pretty much any potential interest in the plot itself. Mark Damon is hopelessly ill-equipped as riding instructor Richard Barrett, while the fact that virtually every girl on campus seems to be on the verge of swooning at his feet just boggles the mind - “I think I’m in love; he’s the man I’ve always dreamed of!” is an actual line, spoken within minutes of his arrival. Naturally, he has his own ideas about the students, and ends up romancing one hapless girl who - coincidentally - is deathly afraid of horses.
Naked You Die can pretty much be summed up by the first couple of minutes, as a woman sheds her clothes, takes a bath and is promptly murdered: Margheriti teases but shows very little with regard to violence and nudity. This is effectively an exploitation film without any exploitation, and there certainly isn’t anything more intellectually stimulating to compensate. It just amazes me that a giallo about a killer stalking the pupils of an all-girl school can be so damn chaste! One for completists only.
Next time, it’s another new discovery for me, Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah.
Almost Blue is an Italian giallo novel and, as far as I’m aware, one of the few to have been translated into English (although the blurb on the back refers to its as “noir”). The author is Carlo Lucarelli, who is probably known to most readers of this site as one of the co-writers of Dario Argento’s giallo Non Ho Sonno. Almost Blue was itself turned into a film, in 2000, by Alex Infascelli, and it was in that form that I was first introduced to it. Reading the book, therefore, has been an interesting experience.
The premise is a pretty intriguing one. A serial killer is doing the rounds in Bologna, killing students and assuming their identities. His modus operandi leads to him being given the nickname of “the Iguana”, and, fairly quickly, he is identified as Alessio Crotti, an orphan who grew up in a convent and has developed severe psychological problems. The only problem is that, as he continually changes his identity, any description of him is rendered useless as soon as he kills again (which he does with alarming frequency). By chance, a telephone conversation between him and an intended victim is picked up by Simone, a blind teenager who spends his life in his bedroom, listening in on phone conversations on his computer. Grazia Negro, a young detective brought in from Rome to crack the case, believes that Simone is the key… but can he lead her to the Iguana before he kills again?
Had this been written back in the 70s, it would probably have been given a deliciously convoluted animal title: then again, we already have a giallo film whose title involves (somewhat bafflingly) an iguana.
At less than 170 pages, it’s a very short book, and one that I could imagine many people blazing through in one sitting. I tend to read at a somewhat slower pace, however, as I rarely sit down with a book for an extended period (reading, for me, tends to be restricted to the three Bs: bed, the bus and the bog), but I finished it in a couple of days, which is fast by my standards. I prefer to read for a bit and then soak up the atmosphere of what I’ve read - and it is a very atmospheric book, contrasting the emphasis on sound when told from the blind Simone’s perspective with the killer’s emphasis on sight. It also transpires that the film is very faithful to its literary origins: with few exceptions, if a scene occurs in the book, it is also in the film, and hits all of the same main plot points.
Where the two differ, however, is in the foregrounding of the sounds heard by Simone. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that, as a visual medium, it’s hard to convey blindness in a film, so one can’t really complain too much about this, but what is regrettable is that, as a result, the film focuses a lot more attention on Grazia, turning the plot into a more typical detective thriller. This isn’t done by altering the narrative as such, but rather by drawing out her scenes for longer. It’s not that she isn’t an interesting character (she is, and sympathetic too) but even she loses something in the adaptation - her struggle to be taken seriously as a woman in a male-dominated environment. In the novel, this is a major point, because the fact that Simone can’t see is what attracts her to him so much, as this means he doesn’t make judgements about her based on her appearance. In the film, it appears that she makes a habit of banging her witnesses.
Overall, I’d recommend Almost Blue. It’s a fast, engaging read, and the English translation is very evocative (I’m assuming the Italian original is similar, if not better). The subtitle on the cover, “An Inspector Negro Novel”, suggests that this is part of a series, and I certainly intend to seek out further instalments.
The Giallo Project #5: Death Laid an Egg
Alternative titles: La Morte ha fatto l’uovo; Plucked; A Curious Way to Love; Director: Giulio Questi; Starring: Gina Lollobrigida, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Ewa Aulin, Jean Sobieski; Music: Bruno Maderna; Italian theatrical release date: January 9th, 1968
Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has married for money, which comes in the form of the chicken farm owned by his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). It’s a state of the art affair, employing all manner of high-tech machinery and avant garde music to get the chickens in the correct psychological frame of mind. Marco, however, has a few sordid secrets up his sleeve. Not only is he carrying on an affair with Anna’s cousin Gabriella (Ewa Aulin), he also takes regular trips to a hotel, where he indulges in the murder of prostitutes. Nothing is quite as it seems, however, with multiple conspiracies brewing beneath the surface, and everything eventually explodes in a cocktail of mind games, backstabbing and, yes, headless chickens. (From my review at DVD Times)
I defy anyone to claim that the giallo was a movement aimed exclusively at grindhouse audiences, as Mikel Koven’s book La Dolce Morte suggests, after watching this film. The clearest frame of reference seems to be Jean-Luc Godard, as evinced by the wildly experimental editing, while the sweltering heat that can be palpably felt throughout the entire film recalls the Western Django, Kill… If You Live, Shoot! for which Questi is best remembered. You won’t find much Bava here… then again, you won’t find much Antonioni either. Death Laid an Egg sports one of the most bizarre titles in the entire giallo catalogue, and is a baffling mindfuck of a movie. As an experiment, it’s an interesting one, but as a commercial film, the end result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, for, while the various avant garde techniques of narrative and editing that co-writer and director Giulio Questi exploits are definitely interesting and give the film a tone unlike any other giallo, they ultimately serve to make the film more frustrating than engaging.
This is a film that seems to be off-kilter right from the start, as the opening titles play out over stock footage of microscopic close-ups of living organisms, set to the crashing and banging of Bruno Maderna’s weird, jaunty, atonal score, which manages to be both incredibly annoying and incredibly catchy at the same time. This segues into a truly baffling scene showing various hotel guests doing a mixture of mundane and bizarre things in their rooms - polishing knives, combing hair, preparing to commit suicide, and so on. Like much of the rest of the film, this first scene promises much but ultimately delivers little: a series of non-sequiturs with little pay-off. In a sense, it doesn’t work because, despite using experimental editing techniques and throwing in a whole bunch of inexplicable cutaways and seemingly irrelevant plot strands, Questi still insists on tying it all to a relatively straightforward narrative structure. The thriller element, which doesn’t really surface until well into the second half, and has more in common with a domestic melodrama than the urban slashers popularised by Dario Argento, doesn’t really fit, while what seem to be various criticisms of commercialism don’t really go anywhere meaningful.
What does work very well, however, is the claustrophobic atmosphere. The film seems to take place in the middle of the Italian summer, with the light so bright and the heat clearly so intense that at times it feels as if the characters are actually being suffocated. Even during the night scenes, the characters (or is that the actors?) look as if they are on the verge of collapse, while the fact that everyone looks (and sounds, at least in the English version) incredibly bored and tired seems somewhat appropriate given the film’s rather biting portrayal of this section of society. In true giallo fashion, everyone is deceiving everyone else (the constant allusions to masks are perhaps just a little too bludgeoning), and the glee with which certain characters approach the prospect of pretending to be someone else just serves to underscore how thoroughly tedious their everyday lives are.
Death Laid an Egg has built up quite a following in certain circles, most likely on account of its obscurity and weirdness - how could a film which features genetically mutated chickens that are basically falls of meat with pulsating veins and feet not be embraced by the cult circuit? A film doesn’t, after all, have to be brilliant in order to develop a cult following: often, simply being weird is enough. While Death Laid an Egg is not a bad film per se, it is an unsuccessful one - one that add two and two together and doesn’t quite make four.
Next time, I’ll be tackling a film I’ve never seen before, Antonio Margheriti’s 1968 offering Naked You Die.
The funny things you find in libraries
I made an interesting discovery the other day at work: Almost Blue, a giallo novel by Carlo Lucarelli (who served as co-writer on Dario Argento’s Non Ho Sonno), which was made into a rather effective film by Alex Infascelli, has an English translation, and my workplace had a copy in stock. It’s a pretty slim tome - less than 175 pages - so I expect it won’t take long for even a notoriously slow reader like myself to get through. Judging by the review quotes on the back, the translation, by Oonagh Stransky, is itself rather highly regarded. I’ll let you know when I get the chance to read it.
By the way, the Giallo Project will hopefully be continuing tomorrow with Death Laid an Egg. Apologies for neglecting it for so long.
Cat People slinks off
Source: AV Science Forum
Proving to be as elusive as the felines themselves, it would seem that Cat People, due out on HD DVD on September 25th, has been removed from Universal’s schedule.
While I can’t say that I’m about to slit my wrists over this news (unlike certain Blu-ray fans over the recent Paramount announcement), I’m a bit disappointed nonetheless, as I was hoping to upgrade my rather underwhelming-looking standard definition copy. Then again, it may well have been cancelled or postponed (it’s unclear which) as a result of a poor master - if they were planning on using the same source as the DVD, they were probably wise to yank it. I’m sure the last thing Universal wants is another Traffic, and I’d rather they took their time releasing quality discs than merely shovelling them out, as they have been somewhat guilty of recently.
I got my hands on a few DVDs over the last couple of days. First of all, I received check discs of Spooks Season 5 for my upcoming review of the soon-to-be-released set for DVD Times. The only problem was that the public relations company responsible for supplying review samples neglected to send me a copy of Disc 1, instead providing an apology note to the tune that they didn’t have any left. All well and good, but unfortunately it’s rather difficult to review only part of the package and still feel that you’re providing readers with something approaching an authoritative perspective. Luckily, though, Disc 1 did turn up on Thursday, putting me somewhat behind schedule but thankfully now in a position to get the review done.
I also inherited a copy of Red Road, the Glasgow-based feature directing debut from Oscar-winning short director Andrea Arnold. I know next to nothing about the film, other than that the plot makes heavy use of CCTV, and that, when I saw a preview for it last year on Film 2006 (or a similar cinema television series), I thought it looked quite interesting. So, I’m looking forward to sitting down and watching it.
Oh, and, yesterday, while I was on my lunch break (I work Saturdays, remember), I decided to kill some time by wandering around Borders and looking at their overpriced books and DVDs. In addition to the discovery that they have a Blu-ray section (£24.99 per disc - as if!) but no HD DVDs, I came across the rather more reasonably-priced DVD release of Angel-A, which, when released in 2005, was the first film Luc Besson had directed in over seven years (after the debacle of The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc in 1999 he, somewhat wisely, some people might say, decided to concentrate on writing and producing). I’d been meaning to pick it up for some time but never got round to it.
Anyway, I’m exceedingly glad I did, because I watched it last night and enjoyed it immensely. I originally only popped it in to get some idea of how the transfer measured up (reasonably good, as it happens, although I’m increasingly finding it difficult to say anything positive about standard definition transfers unless I lower my expectations tremendously), but after watching the first five minutes, I found myself completely hooked. The plot, which involves a leggy angel (Ria Rasmussen) descending on high to help a hapless immigrant living in Paris (Jamel Debbouze of Amelie) overcome his debts and insecurities, is a bit hokey, but the whole thing is beautifully shot in breathtaking black and white (stylistically, this is a major departure for Besson), and it manages to be both funny and touching in its portrayal of this decidedly unconventional “odd couple”. It may be a little too obviously influenced by Patrice Leconte’s excellent La Fille sur le Pont (another French-language love story shot in black and white with an attempted suicide on a Parisian bridge as its inciting incident), but originality is overrated these days, and in any event the execution is hard to criticise. Highly recommended.
Can a leopard change its spots?
Following Paramount’s shock decision to back HD DVD exclusively, the web is abuzz with speculation as to what will be the next major development in high definition land. Undoubtedly, the entire landscape has been reshaped in the last few days, but I very much doubt that this is the end of the story. The biggest rumblings surround the news that Warner Home Video’s Steve Nickerson is to exit his position as senior vice president of the division. Nickerson was the key architect for Warner’s high definition programme, including the decision to back both formats instead of just HD DVD, as well as the development of the now-delayed TotalHD dual format. His departure has prompted a whole lot of theorising, and what this news means depends on who you ask.
Many desperate Blu-ray owners, still reeling from the kick in the balls that was the loss of Paramount, hope that the departure of this “pro-HD DVD” executive means that Warner could be going exclusive to Blu-ray… which I personally think is highly unlikely, given Warner’s stake in the HD DVD format, not to mention the fact that they already seem to favour it over Blu-ray, with many exclusive titles such as Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
By the same token, many HD DVD owners, gloating over the Paramount scoop and with morale higher than it has been at any other point in 2007 so far, will tell you that the departure of one of the main individuals responsible for Warner becoming involved with Blu-ray in the first place could be a good omen for them pulling a Paramount.
I personally think the second is the more likely of these two scenarios, and, if you were to ask me to make a prediction, I’d say that Warner will eventually go HD DVD-only. Not necessarily within the next few days as some have suggested, but at some point in the not too distant future. If this happens, then HD DVD, by my reckoning, will have the upper hand in terms of content. No other studio has made as much money from HD sales as Warner, and their back catalogue is by far the most impressive in terms of sheer number of titles. If it comes to an all-out battle with Universal, Warner and Paramount on one side and Sony, Disney and Fox on the other (as would have been the case had Warner and Paramount not decided to back both formats at the last minute), then my gut reaction is that the Universal/Warner/Paramount triumvirate (which, let’s not forget, also includes subsidiaries New Line and Dreamworks) would wipe the floor with the boys in Blu.
But that’s all rather academic at the moment. The other possibility is simply that nothing will change at all. Universal and Paramount will continue to shack up with HD DVD; Sony, Disney and Fox will stay wed to Blu-ray; and Warner will continue to play the bigamy game. In my view, that already makes the situation considerably more positive for HD DVD than it was as recently as last Sunday, and has ensured the format’s survival for the foreseeable future.
What’s needed now is for the HD DVD Promotion Group to make Lions Gate and Anchor Bay an offer they can’t refuse. Lions Gate is already bleeding money due to their decision to back Blu-ray, and a nice deal with the HD DVD gang could soften that blow (as well as allow them to hawk their wares to more customers).
Michael Bay: “Now I love HD DVD”
Source: High-Def Digest
This just gets funnier and funnier. After going off on a rant about how he wouldn’t direct Transformers 2 because Paramount had ditched Blu-ray, he has suddenly had an epiphany, deleted his original post, and come out in full favour of HD DVD:
As a director, I’m all about people seeing films in the best quality possible, and I saw and heard firsthand people upset about a corporate decision.
So today I saw 300 on HD, it rocks!
So I think I might be back on to do Transformers 2!
This guy flip-flops like a fish out of water! Who wants to bet Paramount executives woke up to find his words being bandied all over the web and had a quiet word with him?
Oh, and Paramount CTO Alan Bell has submitted to an extremely interesting interview with PC World, where he discusses his company’s reasons for switching to HD DVD exclusively in a commendably candid way:
Bell: Paramount has been getting experience with publishing titles in both formats for the last year. We’ve had a hands-on ability to see how these formats work in practice. And after some hands-on analysis, we decided that HD DVD was the format we wanted to support.
PCW: Why was that?
Bell: For one thing, the lower prices of the players: It’s good for consumers, it’s good for our customer base.
For another thing, HD DVD came out of the DVD Forum. The DVD Forum is very experienced at developing and managing specs. [HD DVD] was launched in a very stable way, with stable specifications, and they had specified a reference player model, so all players had to be compatible with the HDi interactivity layer, and all players had to be capable of the interactivity. So when we publish titles in the future that have interactivity, we can be assured that every HD DVD player will be able to handle this content.
Oh, and he reiterates that the current situation represents an “indefinite commitment”.
The Giallo Project #4: Blowup
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni; Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles; Music: Herbie Hancock; US theatrical release date: December 18th, 1966
“Slowly, slowly… against the beat.” - The unnamed photographer of Blowup
“What’s the meaning of this?” you ask. “I thought this was the Giallo Project?” It’s a valid enough question, and I thought long and hard about whether or not to include Blowup in this rogue’s gallery, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t afford to ignore it. You see, while I don’t believe it possible to describe this as a giallo in the truest sense (although both Blood and Black Lace and The Giallo Scrapbook 2 do so), I suspect that it had a profound impact on virtually every giallo beyond a certain point in history. It undoubtedly had a huge influence on Dario Argento, who adapted several of its themes into The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and indeed all of his 1970s gialli, and, in turn, the various directors who set out to imitate Argento’s work ended up adopting these same themes and stylistic traits second-hand - imitations of an imitation, as it were. Besides, I thought it only right that I do something to acknowledge Antonioni’s recent death.
Beyond the plot, which, if you break it down, is basically the same as virtually every Argento giallo - an artist living as an outsider in a contemporary urban space, flitting around unable to settle, witnesses (or believes he has witnessed) a crime taking place, the solution to which lies in a single image or memory that he can’t quite understand - it’s the very atmosphere that so closely mirrors everything from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh: a sort of decadence, a society of bourgeois excess, where people are obsessed with useless commodities and avant-garde art, and seem to have to real purpose in life. I wasn’t around to experience the 60s first-hand (far from it!), but I can easily see this as a defining statement of the atmosphere and mood of the period. In some respects, it makes the same point as Blood and Black Lace, and yet the bleak urban landscapes are a world away from the gothic opulence of Bava’s film.
David Hemmings’ unnamed photographer is clearly the forerunner to Sam Dalmas and Marc Daly - and indeed, Argento even cast Hemmings as Marc in the seminal Deep Red, itself a clever inversion of Blowup which actually manages to outclass its predecessor. In many respects, though, he’s a far nastier piece of work than the two of them put together. Daly had some rather antiquated ideas about the place of women in society, while Dalmas seemed to treat his girlfriend as a commodity, but they pale in significance to the character in Blowup (referred to as “Thomas” in many sources but never actually named in the film itself - actually, names are almost completely absent, a reference, perhaps, to the characters’ lack of identity and failure to find a place for themselves in the world), who manhandles several models, forcibly “posing” them and berating them for being useless, not to mention toying with blackmailing a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who objects to having her picture taken on the sly. That’s effectively Antonioni’s (and Argento’s) point, though: he is a vain, self-absorbed prick, continually searching for a perfect image that doesn’t exist, and searching for meaning where there is none. Of course, it’s therefore entirely appropriate that the central mystery is a single image whose very meaning continues to elude him (and the more he focuses on the image, the more he loses perspective).
In many regards, Blowup is about as anti-giallo as you can get - there are no on-screen murders, and the film is famous for its deliberate refusal to provide a solution to its central mystery - and yet in orders, you can see the roots of so many 70s gialli in it that it’s impossible to ignore it completely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the giallo of the golden age is effectively a marriage between Bava’s early efforts and Blowup, filtered through Argento’s sensibility and adopted by a slew of imitators - a reinterpretation of the form in the context of the post-1968 cultural revolution. It’s a brilliant, baffling, mesmerising film in its own right, but when you consider the knock-on effect that it had on the giallo movement, its importance becomes all the more clear.
Next time, I’ll be dipping into the bizarre world of Giulio Questi’s baffling Death Laid an Egg.
A suggestion to Michael Bay: stop your whining
Until today, I didn’t realise that Michael Bay, director of such, er, delights as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor (and The Rock, but I wasn’t going to mention it as I actually like that film), had his own web site. Turns out he does, though, and he has been using his forum to mouth off about Paramount’s decision to drop support for Blu-ray, which affects his most recent film, Transformers:
I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For them to deny people who have Blu-ray sucks! They were progressive by having two formats. No Transformers 2 for me!
So, Mr. Bay, where were you when Disney elected not to release The Rock and Pearl Harbor on HD DVD? It works both ways, you know. I must admit, it’s quite amusing watching a big-shot Hollywood moviemaker (albeit not a very good one) throwing a tantrum because one of his films isn’t coming out on what is fairly obviously his preferred format. Not to worry, though - I’m sure he’ll still have a promising career producing limp horror remakes once he’s finished burning his bridges with the major studios.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you
I was going to post about this yesterday, but it sort of got overshadowed by the massive news regarding Paramount and Dreamworks (which I’m still trying to properly digest). Anyway, my copy of the Blu-ray release of Arlington Road arrived yesterday from DVD Pacific, and it serves as something of a reminder that Universal isn’t the only studio putting out underwhelming-looking catalogue titles in high definition. Arlington Road feels like it should have come out a year ago, when Sony were being justifiably harangued for the shoddy treatment of their Blu-ray releases: it’s MPEG2-encoded and comes on a single-layer BD25. It also appears to have been sourced from a dupe print, and, when taking all these factors together, it’s unsurprising that it doesn’t “pop”. There doesn’t appear to be any artificial enhancement, but it looks rather flat and diffuse, and the inefficient codec combined with the lack of available disc space creates some rather unsightly artefacts in the grain-filled low light scenes (and, in this film, there are a lot of those). It’s not really a bad disc per se, just not a particularly great one - a mid-range 7/10.
Oh, and Christ, is that cover artwork bad or what?
Fox: “Don’t worry, we’ll still release our overpriced crap on Blu-ray”
Source: AV Science Forum
The news that Paramount and Dreamworks have dropped Blu-ray has clearly caused a bit of a stir among their former cohorts, as 20th Century Fox, notorious for having announced a slew of titles for the format at CES ‘07 and then released absolutely nothing since March, swiftly released a press release confirming their support for the format with “an aggressive global Blu-ray Disc release strategy including 29 new release and
‘must-have’ catalog titles that runs through the end of the 2007 calendar year”. Well, I hate to rain on their parade, but if, as most people suspect, this was specifically designed to counteract the loss of a major studio and its subsidiaries, then it looks a little tragic:
Master & Commander - October 2nd
The Day After Tomorrow - October 2nd
From Hell - October 9th
The Fly (1986) - October 9th
Edward Scissorhands - October 9th
28 Days Later (shot on standard definition DVCAM!) - October 9th
Robocop - October 9th
Amityville Horror (1979) - October 9th
Battle of Britain - November 6th
A Bridge Too Far - November 6th
I, Robot - November 13th
Die Hard - November
Die Hard 2: Die Harder - November
Die Hard with a Vengeance - November
Red Dawn - November
Mr. and Mrs. Smith - December 4th
Independence Day - December 4th
Cast Away - December 4th
Ronin - December 4th
So what d’you want to bet? MPEG2, BD25, no extras, $40 MSRP? With the first titles due out on October 2nd, by my reckoning that gives Fox just under six weeks to start cancelling these releases. I mean, why break with tradition?
Update, August 20th, 2007 10:33 PM: As per DVD Times’ coverage, we can expect AVC encodes.
Blu-ray: “We’ve just lost Paramount”
Sources: Viacom; Lyris Lite
The underdog fights back! After fighting a losing battle against Blu-ray for the better part of the year, the HD DVD camp have just launched a massive salvo against the rival format by securing the exclusive support of Paramount Pictures. Paramount, and all studios whose movies are distributed by them, including DreamWorks Animation SKG, DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Nickelodeon Movies and MTV Films, will release their films exclusively on HD DVD as of August 28th, when Blades of Glory will become their first title not to be available on Blu-ray.
The only exception to this new state of affairs will be Steven Spielberg-directed films (those he merely produced will still be exclusive), which, to quote the press release, “are not exclusive to either format”.
All I can say is that this is really, really going to hurt certain people when the likes of Shrek, Transformers, Titanic and Braveheart are released.
Update, August 20th, 2007 06:51 PM: I’m currently camping on the Blu-ray.com announcement thread. It’s a laugh riot.
The Giallo Project #3: Blood and Black Lace
Alternative titles: Sei donne per l’assassino; Director: Mario Bava; Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner; Music: Carlo Rustichelli; Italian theatrical release date: March 14th, 1964
Whenever the topic of Blood and Black Lace comes up, I always seem to find myself apologising for not liking it more. I’ve seen it four or five times now, and on each occasion I find myself feeling strangely distanced from it and unable to see it in quite the same light as its many, many admirers. Maybe it’s the fact that it lacks a single clear-cut protagonist to whom I can relate, or perhaps it’s because, to date, there has not been a satisfactory presentation of the film on DVD (it’s fickle, I know, but there have been occasions when a better transfer has improved my appreciation of a film, particularly those that are visually-oriented). In any event, for whatever reason, Blood and Black Lace is an entry that I see as important on account of its influence, but considerably less interesting when taken on its own merits.
Dubbed “the first authentic body count movie” by VCI on the cover of their (frankly pretty poor) DVD release, Blood and Black Lace builds on the thematics that Bava developed in his previous two gialli, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Telephone segment of Black Sabbath, and injects a vital new component that would come to characterise so many other films in the genre: the protracted, deliriously violent murder sequence. While Girl’s death scenes, such as there were, were pretty perfunctory, they are Blood and Black Lace’s raison d’être, and are quite shocking in their intensity. The very first, occurring in a windswept park at night within the first five minutes, is brutal and frenzied, unveiling the fedora-clad, black-gloved killer (his face concealed with a mask), who, thanks to his sheer viciousness and lack of identifying features, feels more like a force of nature than an actual person.
Actually, it’s difficult to fault the murders at all - they are all incredibly well-executed and almost always incredibly sadistic. One unfortunate victim is slapped about before having her hand and then face scalded, while another receives a blow to the face with a spiked glove, prefiguring the killer’s modus operandi in Death Walks at Midnight by several years. A further death, occurring late in the film, also sets the template for many a giallo bathtub drowning. However, the scenes designed to connect them together (and I believe that this is all they really are) are considerably more mundane, with the plot never sustaining my interest in that way that Girl’s does. Thomas Reiner’s wooden Inspector Silvester plods from scene to scene without doing anything particularly interesting, and the various women of the fashion house around which the events revolved are given only enough characterisation for us to know what dirty deeds they have been getting up to in between shows.
Admittedly, some of this really is quite clever. In typical giallo form, everyone is hiding something, whether it’s drug addiction, thievery or blackmail, and to an extent you can almost imagine the killer representing a force of brutal retribution. Bava also indulges in one of his favourite pass-times in opening up an outwardly respectable society and revealing it to be corrupt to the core. Furthermore, I don’t need to tell you that it’s impeccably shot, with Bava’s trademark gel lighting giving the various locations an otherworldliness while still anchoring them firmly in reality. However, Blood and Black Lace remains, for me, a stepping stone in the giallo’s journey rather than the landmark that many consider it to be. I like it, but I would never afford it masterpiece status.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal Blowup (don’t worry - all will be explained).
The Jungle Book coming to Blu-ray… oh wait, no it’s not
A couple of days ago, the shills at Blu-ray.com announced that Disney’s classic The Jungle Book would be coming to Blu-ray on October 2nd, alongside the film’s Platinum Edition standard definition DVD release… then promptly retracted the statement, admitting that no, it actually wasn’t coming out. Their source appears to have been an issue of Home Media Magazine, whose editors got their wires crossed. A simple enough mistake, you might say - although Blu-ray.com did themselves no favours by beginning their rather official-sounding statement with “Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has announced that…” The cynic in me sees this as pure Blu-ray: announce a major title and then swiftly retract it once you’ve got enough attention. Blu-ray.com may be a completely unofficial site, but they’ve certainly picked up the tricks of their idols. Then again, the HD DVD camp can’t exactly talk, given their official announcement then retraction that several Spielberg titles would be coming to the format.
Disney themselves quickly rectified the matter, categorically stating that there are currently no plans to release The Jungle Book on Blu-ray. Those who want classical Disney animation (i.e. not Chicken Little or The Wild) in HD will have to wait till Autumn 2008, when Sleeping Beauty will be making its Blu-ray debut, at around the same time as Pixar’s Finding Nemo (which I’ll definitely be buying - the standard definition transfer for that film is by far Pixar’s worst to date).
Universal, where have you Bean?
If you’ve been following the coverage of the high definition formats recently, you’ve probably noticed a fair amount of negative press surrounding many of Universal’s most recent transfers, with many agreeing that their treatment, especially of catalogue titles, has left something to be desired. For the record, I thought The Skeleton Key and The Bourne Identity looked fairly decent, whereas Lost in Translation, The Game, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could charitably be considered average-looking. Every now and then, however, Universal puts out a disc which reminds us that they really can deliver the goods when they feel like it. Their latest is Mr. Bean’s Holiday, which features a visual presentation that I’m sure many are going to say is better than the film itself deserves. My copy arrived yesterday from Play (its UK street date is tomorrow), and, barring a terribly minor amount of filtering, which leads to the occasional bit or ringing on high contrast edges, it looks absolutely perfect: a very high “9” on my HD image quality scale and just about on par with the much-lauded Blu-ray release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (without the noticeable edge enhancement, into the bargain).
As for the film itself, it’s no masterpiece - but you probably knew that already, didn’t you? The critics gave it a complete slating, but in my opinion it’s really not that bad, and considerably funnier than The Simpsons Movie, the only other 2007 comedy I’ve seen so far. I actually laughed out loud several times, and if the plot doesn’t appear particularly substantial, then at least it’s more faithful to the original television series than the previous movie, which rather clumsily shoehorned Mr. Bean into an American family and a rather unconvincing storyline. This one is mainly an excuse for Rowan Atkinson to indulge in various extended episodes of physical comedy, and as a result it really does feel as if someone has given the TV show a larger budget and plonked it on the big screen. Like the previous film, it tends to reuse gags (with Atkinson even delving into a routine from his stand-up days on one occasion), but it’s undemanding, and its good-naturedness is quite infectious.
The Giallo Project #2: The Telephone (segment of Black Sabbath)
Alternative titles: Il Telefono; Director: Mario Bava; Starring: Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Milo Quesada (uncredited); Music: Roberto Nicolosi; Italian theatrical release date: August 17th, 1963
I hadn’t originally considered including The Telephone in this project, as I was originally planning on only covering feature-length gialli, but Marcus over at Dark Discussion suggested I give it a look. In the end, I’m still not completely sure that it should be included here, since I would only consider it to be a giallo in the broadest possible sense, but it has an important place in history nonetheless, since not only was it the first film of this sort to be shot in colour, not to mention having a profound influence on everything from Black Christmas to Scream in its use of the telephone as a device of dread, it also potentially marks the first instance of the iconic black gloves later to be donned by many a giallo killer!
The plot takes place entirely within a single location, focusing on the protracted terrorising of Rosy (Michèle Mercier) by phone by a voice claiming to be that of Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), a man who, having been put away as a result of Rosy’s testimony, has now escaped from prison… only there’s more to this than meets the eye, as it turns out that the calls in fact originate from Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), Rosy’s former friend and (as is strongly implied) lover, as part of a bid to rekindle their friendship (and relationship). There is, however, a twist in the affair. Can you guess what it is?
Black Sabbath is introduced by host Boris Karloff as “three brief tales of the supernatural”, but, at least in the Italian version (the US edition, like The Girl Who Knew Too Much, features a radically different edit), there is nothing supernatural whatsoever about The Telephone. Rather, it’s a very straightforward thriller mixing that perennial giallo cocktail of sex and violence: the voice on the phone discusses killing Rosy in decidedly erotic terms, while a strangling by stocking only serves to underscore the manner in which the two are conflated. As the protagonist, Michèle Mercier is certainly easy on the eyes, and Bava seems to delight in tantalising the audience with the briefest flashes of bare shoulders and legs (of which the voice on the phone approves so much). However, despite looking the part, she lacks the pluckiness and spontaneity that made Letícia Román so appealing in The Girl Who Knew Too Much; she seems more like a forerunner for what would eventually end up becoming the Edwige Fenech role in later gialli of the harangued, attractive victim. Lidia Alfonsi, meanwhile, is rather more effective as the ice-cold femme fatale.
More psychological than most gialli, the horror of the situation comes not from sadistic violence (there isn’t any till the final few minutes) but from the fact that the speaker on the phone knows Rosy so intimately, while the room in which the entire segment takes place, despite being quite spacious, takes on an incredibly claustrophobic quality. The transition from black and white to colour, meanwhile, has not harmed Bava’s ability to make the most of light and shadow to create tension, while the richly saturated hues, especially on the excellent transfer provided on Anchor Bay’s recent DVD, at the same time provides a drastically different aesthetic (one can only dream of Blood and Black Lace looking this good on DVD). Roberto Nicolosi’s score, meanwhile, starts out with some of the jazzy lounge aesthetic of Bruno Nicolai’s contributions to later gialli, but quickly gives way to a more menacing, sinister tone.
In many ways, this is a minor entry in both Bava’s filmography and the history of the giallo - a sub-heading rather than a full chapter, if you like - but it shows many of the tropes that would be established in Blood and Black Lace in a smaller-scale, more rudimentary, form, and works rather well as a short, sharp exploration of mounting dread.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Mario Bava’s second feature-length giallo, Blood and Black Lace.
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