January 2008

 
 

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DVDs I bought or received in the month of January

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD
  • 28 Weeks Later (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Cat People (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Eastern Promises (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Factory Girl (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Little Children (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Munich (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • The Plague Dogs (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Simpsons Movie (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Y Tu Mamá También (R2 UK, DVD)
     
 
Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:43 PM
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

No weddings and a funeral

This is just a quick note to say that there almost certainly won’t be any updates to the site on Wednesday and Thursday. My gran died last Monday, and the funeral is in Warwick on Thursday. We’ll be heading down on Wednesday at midday, and won’t be back till Friday afternoon. I’ll be taking my laptop with me, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to get a wireless internet connection there, so don’t be surprised if there are no new posts before the beginning of February.

I tend to have more time for funerals than weddings, incidentally. Not because I enjoy the whole people dying issue, but because they tend to be more economical, less drawn out and less filled with insincere outpourings of joy. I don’t personally get anything out of them (from my cold atheistic perspective, I don’t really see anything to be gained by singing a few tuneless dirges and sitting in a chilly temple on an uncomfortable pew listening to a preacher who never met the deceased going on about how great they were), but I certainly don’t begrudge them to other people.

 
Posted: Monday, January 28, 2008 at 5:42 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: General | Web
 

What’s so bad about a little ADHD?

HD DVD

Perhaps I’ve been a bit hard on Michael Bay. Armageddon and Pearl Harbor may be awful excuses for films, and my brother doesn’t have a single kind word to say about Bad Boys 2, but everything else that I’ve seen from him has entertained me to some degree. The Rock is undoubtedly his best work, and Transformers, while far too long and filled with bad attempts at humour and tedious robot fights, is actually quite fun at times.

I’ve now seen the UK HD DVD release The Island, his solitary box office flop, and I have to say that I did like it, despite it being little more than a poorly disguised knock-off of Logan’s Run (hardly the best film to use as your source material in the first place). Like all of his films, it demonstrates the aesthetic sensibilities and world view of a teenager, but I’m going to buck the trend and say that I don’t think Bay is a completely incompetent filmmaker. True, he may overuse fast cutting and shakycam to an obnoxious degree, but he certainly knows how to shoot and stage a chase scene, which The Island has in abundance, and he seems to have a knack for getting nicely lit tight close-ups of the Beautiful People™ (and the not so beautiful). I can’t defend it as a great work of art or even anything particularly thought-provoking (although I’m sure you could make a case for it being Bay’s anti-stem cell research film if you put your mind to it - hey, he is a Bush supporter, after all), but I had fun, which, when all said and done, about all you can really ask from a summer blockbuster.

The HD DVD transfer (not doubt the same as what is to be found on the Blu-ray release), by the way, is pretty nice, albeit with some caveats. The look of the film is very similar to that of Transformers, but, unlike that particular HD DVD, someone was let loose with the filters of nastiness. There is a light sheen of edge enhancement at all times, particularly noticeable in wide shots and in Bay’s trademark “posing in front of the sun” money shots, not to mention some light compression artefacts in some of the more action-intensive shots - a by-product, I suspect, of capping the bit rate to ensure that it would fit on a single layer BD-25. Still, a good presentation all in all, with a solid audio mix. I’d consider picking up a copy if I found it in a sale somewhere.

The Island
(Warner, UK, VC-1, 20.6 GB)

The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island

 
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 9:44 PM | Comments: 16 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

It’s called having standards

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

My respect for the majority of DVD production houses has just plummeted to a record low. Why? Well, my brother is currently involved in the production of an upcoming DVD release. Because it hasn’t officially been announced yet, I can’t tell you what the title is, but while the DVD is certainly not a cut-price endeavour by any means, it has not had the amount of money thrown at it that the majors (and even the more prominent independents) have access to.

Anyway, my brother’s main capacity in this operation (in addition to performing editing work on the exclusive director’s commentary, typing up the first ever English subtitle translation, designing the menus and a host of other tasks) is to handle the video transfer. He received the DigiBeta master tape and personally transferred it, and recently did his first pass on the DVD encode.

To say that the end result blows away every single commercially released DVD I have ever seen would be the understatement of the century.

A typical highly-lauded DVD transfer for a multi-billion dollar movie from a major distributor. Where's the detail?

Above: A typical highly-lauded DVD transfer for a multi-billion dollar movie from a major distributor. Where’s the detail?

I only wish I could show you direct screen captures at this time, because they really make a mockery of what pass for prestige releases from other studios. The level of detail is sublime (there are moments where, if you’d told me it was an HD DVD or Blu-ray release, I’d have believed you), the grain is accurately reproduced, and compression artefacts are basically a non-issue. It’s not even as if my brother had a brand new element to work with: on the contrary, the DigiBeta master he was sent was previously used by an other company who put out a release which, while not exactly awful by regular DVD standards, really left me scratching my head when I saw the quality of the master itself. A perfect example of how a company can take a decent master and then proceed to screw it up by applying a whole load of pointless “enhancement” algorithms.

So, what we will have here is a DVD for a low budget film that is more than 20 years old and was converted from DigiBeta to DVD-friendly MPEG-2 without anything being done to it beyond painting out a handful of cue marks and instances of print damage, and looks ten times better than what the big-shot studios are putting out for films that are only a few months old. For god’s sake, the damned trailer, taken from a dupe print that has presumably been lying around someone’s garage for the past two decades, shows more detail than any commercial DVD I’ve seen released in the last year.

Do you think this is fair?

 
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 5:16 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Proving that good taste is a rare commodity

What it means to be enlightened

Above: What it means to be enlightened

Demonstrating themselves once again to be a pillar of taste and decency, the notorious Westboro Baptist Church have made it known that they plan to picket the funeral of actor Heath Ledger, who, as I’m sure you know, died on January 22nd.

Apparently, the reason for this “protest” is that Ledger played a gay character in the film Brokeback Mountain, an action that, in the eyes of the criminally insane Fred Phelps and his small band of brainwashed followers, is about the worst thing anyone could ever do:

“You cannot live in defiance of God. He (Ledger) got on that big screen with a big, fat message: God is a liar and it’s OK to be gay,” said Shirley Phelps in a statement sent out by the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church.

The only thing that amazes me more than the complete and utter stupidity of these people is that Mrs. Phelps actually managed to get through that entire sentence without making a single reference to homosexuals eating excrement, an act which she appears to be convinced is an integral element of the gay “lifestyle”, and one which, according to her, all homosexuals practice (see the Louis Theroux documentary The Most Hated Family in America for more details). Ledger himself may not have been, to use the Westboro Baptist lingo, a “fag”, but he was, in their eyes, the next worst thing, a “fag enabler”, and therefore, as far as they are concerned, deserving of their own particular brand of special treatment (again, see the Louis Theroux documentary for an explanation of how this apparently works).

This is one of these instances where there is absolutely no point in attempting to pick apart what she says or trying to demonstrate why she’s wrong because (a) if you have even a shred of common sense, you’ll know she’s off her nut, and (b) everything that comes out of this woman’s mouth is so whacked-out that it actually defies conventional criticism. To dignify her arguments by attempting to refute them requires you to actually come down to her level, and I’m sorry, but I can’t stoop that low. I’ve got a bad back.

I really shouldn’t be so surprised - that the Phelps clan would leap on this bandwagon was as set in stone as the fact that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. What I wasn’t expecting, however (although perhaps that just shows my naivety), was the reaction from Fox News to Ledger’s death:

Fox News’ John Gibson on Jan. 22 opened his radio show with funeral music and mocked a signature line from “Brokeback,” saying, “Well, he found out how to quit you.” (When Gibson was contacted to explain his comments, he declined.)

Again, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I’m all too aware of Fox News’ world view and agenda, but even by their standards this is pretty incredible.

 
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 10:44 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | General | TV
 

The gate reopens

Games

Back when Flagship Studios’ Hellgate: London was first released, I was one of the people who chose to subscribe to the additional online content available to paying customers. To say that the initial line-up of bonuses was underwhelming would be putting it lightly. A couple of seasonal quests and unique items aside, there really didn’t seem to be much in the way of value for money, particularly for those who, like me, purchased the Founder’s Offer for a one-off payment of $150 (as opposed to the more typical monthly instalments of $10).

Hellgate: London

Thankfully, the tide is now beginning to turn. On Tuesday, Flagship released its first major content push, Patch 1, The Stonehenge Chronicles, which, in addition to providing bug fixes and balance changes for all, gives subscribers a host of new materials, not least a brand new location and quests. With the mystical site of Stonehenge as their base, the new areas do a lot to counter the criticisms of monotony in the levels that shipped on the game’s release. The lush countryside and forests featured in the new maps are a breath of fresh air given the endless grey tunnels and city streets in the initial release, while the enemies, although similar to (and in many cases the same as) the ones found in the original levels, have been beefed up and show more variety in terms of strategy, upping the overall challenge factor.

As the creators themselves put it:

Stonehenge is a new, non-linear adventuring area that can be accessed through a special portal in Templar Base. The quests and areas around Stonehenge scale in difficulty to challenge characters of any level. This is to allow players to return to this section of the world numerous times and complete the longer associated quests, missions, and raid areas.

Stonehenge itself is a new hub that holds a larger number of players than most Underground Stations. There are new NPCs, new quests, and most importantly, new adventuring areas that are unlike anything within the confines of London.

Hellgate: London

I haven’t had much opportunity to take more than a cursory glance at the new additions, but if Flagship can continue to provide new content in this manner on a regular basis, then I can foresee myself sinking many, many hours into this game. I’d also encourage players who were less than thrilled by the initial release to give the new content a go and see if it causes them to re-evaluate their opinions.

A full list of changes is available here.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 9:42 PM
Categories: Games
 

Let the back-patting commence

Film

The Razzies may be where it’s at, but it seems that another awards ceremony has been set up in mockery of the Golden Raspberries! Calling itself the Oscars, the notion behind this two-bit stunt is to celebrate positive achievements in the film industry. What’s that all about?

Anyway, all joking aside, you can read the full list of nominees here. Once again, I haven’t seen too many of the titles listed (I tend to be a bit slow off the mark in that regard, due to my lack of visits to the cinema), but of the ones I have seen, I think Viggo Mortensen’s Best Actor nomination for Eastern Promises is more than deserved, and I’ll be rooting for Ratatouille in the Best Animated Film category. (Ratatouille is also up for two other awards, Music [Score] and Writing [Original Screenplay], but as I know next to nothing about the competition in these categories, I can’t really comment.) It’s nice, too, if slightly predictable, to see Michael Moore’s Sicko in the Documentary Feature category, although, given that it’s the only documentary released in the last year that I’ve seen, once again I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. I also note that the brilliant Sarah Polley is also up for her first ever Oscar nomination, albeit in the Writing (Adapted Screenplay) category, for her feature length directorial debut, Away From Her, rather than for her better known talent, her acting ability.

Once again, however, I find myself wincing the further down the page I go and the more entrants I read for the more minor categories, like Sound Design and Makeup. While I’m not about to claim that the sound effects in Transformers are unworthy of praise, or that the various guises in which Eddie Murphy appears in Norbit are cack-handedly executed, there’s something very wrong with the notion that the latter film can now legitimately be described as an “Academy Award nominee”. (At least the fact that it is also up for eight Razzies helps soothe that stinging wound - not that it would be the first time this happened by any stretch.) I’ve said this before, but I’m convinced that the “smaller” categories should have a different name compared to the more significant ones like Best Picture and Best Director. Mini-Oscar, maybe, or Oscar Jr? Anything to prevent people from thinking that bloody Norbit is worthy of some sort of recognition.

Oh, and another thing that irks me: The Bourne Ultimatum in the Best Editing category. For all that film’s strengths, I really don’t see its editing as one of them. The trend of ultra fast, confusing cutting is really not one that I’m particularly eager to see celebrated.

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 3:58 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Cinema
 

Hangin’ on in there

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

Source: High-Def Digest

Universal has once again reiterated its commitment to HD DVD, claiming that it has no plans either to abandon the format or make any changes to its current strategy. This statement is not altogether surprising, and should probably be taken with a pinch of salt given that, a little as three weeks before its surprise switch to Blu-ray exclusivity, Warner was still claiming that it had no plans to alter its stance of neutrality. Still, regardless of how you feel about the situation (I’m of two minds about it, personally), it does at least sound as if we can expect to see plenty of new material from Universal in the near future, rather than them crawling into a hole and hiding till it’s all over.

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 3:54 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | HD DVD
 

Lots of grain and gristled chins

HD DVD

I watched the HD DVD release of Running Scared last week. I can’t say I particularly warmed to the film it all, unfortunately. On paper, it sounds like an interesting premise (a minor gangster is charged with disposing of a gun used to kill an undercover cop, but the kid living next door to him steals it, uses it to shoot his abusive father and runs off, prompting the aforementioned gangster to head off on a madcap chase through the city to track the kid down and get rid of the gun), but, as is usually the case with me and gangster movies, it didn’t click at all. I found it all a bit boring, to be perfectly honest, with the occasional inspired idea (the climax, set at an ice rink, is pretty unique) not really doing enough to hold it all together. It’s a shame, because I really liked writer/director Wayne Kramer’s earlier film, The Cooler. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

At least fans of the film will not be disappointed with the HD transfer. EMS has given this movie a stellar presentation, accurately depicting the film’s heavily stylised, contrasty, grain-wrought appearance. Given the often jittery camerawork, and the fact that it is the moving grain particles that gives the film much of its detail, the static screenshots below might not completely do it justice, but take my word for it, this is a very, very nice transfer, and one that would probably have been in my personal Top 10 (or at least Top 15) transfers of 2007 if I’d seen it in time for it to qualify.

Running Scared
(EMS, Germany, VC-1, 20.9 GB)

Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 1:53 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Not so import proof after all

HD DVD HD DVD

Remember the post I made last week where I said that Germany HD DVD publisher Senator Home Entertainment was going Blu-ray exclusive? Well, guess what: they’re not. That’s right, it was all a load of hooey.

Apparently, Cinefacts, who first reported the false story, got the “news” direct from the Blu-ray Disc Association (the BDA), but have now retracted the announcement. So, once again, the BDA have been caught lying. Well I never! Unfortunately, whoever said that cheaters never prosper clearly never bore witness to a format war.

This is hardly going to save HD DVD, but it does mean that we should be able to get region free HD releases of the likes of Death Proof and Planet Terror.

 
Posted: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 10:22 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD
 

Here come the Razzies

Film

Stop press! Hold everything! The nominations for the 28th Annual Razzie Awards have been revealed. The full list of nominees is at the official web site, but I can tell you already that this year is going to be one to remember. I Know Who Killed Me, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Norbit are leading the race, with nine, eight and eight nominations respectively. Eddie Murphy, meanwhile, has set a new achievement with an impressive five nominations in a single year (one of the downsides to playing several characters in the same film, it would seem - not to mention taking a screenwriting credit).

For fans of bad cinema, the Razzies are surely the most important awards ceremony of the year, far more so than the Oscars (pfff!), since they allow buffs to plan their DVD rentals and viewings for the year ahead. I mean, just looking through the full list, there are several films that have somehow passed me by.

 
Posted: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 9:48 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Web
 

The case for euthanising Tom Green

DVD

I will watch and review Norbit, a film I hoped never to see, if you watch and review Freddy Got Fingered, one of the only two films in the world that I actively hate. ‘Tedious, mean-spirited, nasty, unfunny, noxious, loathsome, fucking tragic waste of celluloid’? Oh, Michael, you have no idea…

- Baron Scarpia, December 8th, 2007

It took me long enough, but I eventually got there. I have now watched Freddy Got Fingered. Given the 83 minutes of sheer agony that I have just suffered through, fulfilling the second half of the bargain should, in comparison, be a doddle.

As we sat down to watch the film, my brother said to me: “You know, I bet you anything you like that there will be one joke that absolutely kills us buried somewhere in all this.” He was right. Just under twelve minutes into the film, we see an animation executive talking on his cellphone. Here is his dialogue:

Listen, you tell Hanna-Barbera to go fuck themselves, okay? I got twelve Korean teenagers in a tiger cage that can draw a fucking dog wearing a cape.

It’s one of those little “it’s funny because it’s true” moments that should put a smile on the face of anyone who knows the mentality of the average animation executive. Unfortunately, this means that there are still more than 72 minutes of pain to follow. Freddy Got Fingered has three things working in its favour:

1. It’s only 83 minutes long.
2. Of which 4½ are the closing credits.
3. I watched a PAL release, which is 4% faster than the NTSC versions. Had I found myself landed with an NTSC copy, it would have lasted 87 minutes. On balance, I consider myself to be extremely lucky.

Isn't this funny?

Isn’t this funny?

Unfortunately, from here on in, the positives will have to be restricted to the fact that the experience of sitting through this film did not actually prove to be fatal. Freddy Got Fingered stars Tom Green, not as Freddy (more about him later), but as Gord Brody, an aspiring cartoonist. Stop and think about this for a second. Tom Green. As a cartoonist. Broadly speaking, good cartoons require two things: they have to be funny, and they have to be drawn well. Tom Green is not, by any stretch of the imagination, funny. He isn’t funny when he’s performing someone else’s material. When he’s performing his own (he not only stars in, but also directed and co-wrote this film), he’s fucking tragic. His cartoons, which I suspect Green himself didn’t actually draw, are not particularly well drawn, but on balance are probably as good as or slightly better than 95% of the animated fare you’ll see when you turn on your television.

And here’s the problem: I’m not sure whether or not we’re supposed to take Gord’s aspirations seriously. Is he supposed to be a great cartoonist, or is the joke that he’s a hopeless one? The quality of his output certainly doesn’t give us any clues, since it’s not god-awful, but it’s not any good either. I’m not even sure whether or not we, the audience, are expected to like Gord, let alone his cartoons. On paper, he is as vile and loathsome an excuse for a human being as you could hope to find, but then again, given that he seems to be a stand-in for Green himself, one can only assume that either Green suffers from a serious case of self-hatred, or, more likely, he thinks he’s a comic genius and that masturbating a horse, slitting open a dead deer and wearing its skin Ed Gein-style, and spinning a baby round and round by its umbilical cord are the height of entertainment.

You're supposed to laugh because she's disabled.

You’re supposed to laugh because she’s disabled.

This film also stars Rip Torn as Gord’s vulgar father. When I first saw him, I thought for one awful minute that it was Jack Nicholson, but thankfully, not even he, who has recently starred in such classics as Anger Management, has delved that low yet. Eddie Kaye Thomas, who appeared in the American Pie comedies, plays Gord’s younger brother, Freddy. In an absolutely “hilarious” scene, Gord accuses his father of molesting Freddy, hence the film’s title. Freddy ends up in a home for abused children. Isn’t that funny? Better yet, Green’s wife at the time, Drew Barrymore, also shows up to embarrass herself in the minor role of a secretary at the animation studio. The fact that she divorced him less than a year after the film was released does a lot to redeem her in my eyes. Oh, and Marisa Coughlan, the only element of the film that even approaches pleasantness, plays Gord’s girlfriend-to-be, a wheelchair-bound lady who enjoys sucking his cock and having her legs whacked with a bamboo stick. That we are spared seeing her actually putting Tom Green’s penis in her mouth and performing fellatio on him can, I suspect, give us one reason to be thankful for the rating criteria of the Motion Picture Association of America and the fact that the mainstream studios generally won’t put out anything with an NC-17 certificate.

I’m not even going to attempt to critique the film’s plot (or lack thereof), cinematic technique (or lack thereof), performances (or lack thereof), or any of the other elements that one might expect to find in a movie. (I do, however, want to point out that, when I first head about this film, I assumed it was something that had been shot on a consumer grade camcorder or, at most, DV. Never in my life did I expect it to be shot on 35mm, which isn’t cheap and actually requires some degree of technical know-how to shoot on.) I simply want to conclude by saying that, until now, I have never given anything a rating of “0/10”. Previously, no matter how awful a film appeared to be, I always held off slapping it with a score that low because I was sure that there must be something in the world that was worse than it, and that I couldn’t make use of this score until I could be sure I had seen something approximating the worst film ever made. That long search is now over. While I can conceive of there being other films that are as bad as Freddy Got Fingered, the notion of there being anything more awful is beyond my reasoning. I have gazed into the abyss, and it gazed back at me. And it wanked an elephant off.

 
Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 4:12 PM | Comments: 21 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 10: Anywhere But Here

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Joss Whedon; Illustrated by Cliff Richards

Ugh. Kennedy’s back. And the manner in which she is drawn conveys all the irritation of her “personality” without the added bonus of sound.

In this episode, Buffy and Willow go flying on what I can only assume is a voyage through a dream state to gain information from some sort of demonic beast with a television attached to its head. It’s a bizarre image, but it works. What doesn’t quite work is the whole “dream logic” thing, which Whedon pulled off with great aplomb in Restless (my personal favourite ever Buffy episode) but doesn’t quite accomplish on the page. It might be that the compressed nature of this single-issue storyline (we only get 25 pages, several of which are given over to Dawn’s ongoing non-storyline), but tonally is seems a lot more muddled than any of the dreams we saw in the original series. It doesn’t help that Christian Bale and Daniel Craig both appear in the dream, something that wouldn’t have been possible on the show - to me, it just seems like self-indulgent pop culture for pop culture’s sake. Not that Buffy ever shied away from pop culture - on the contrary, it positively revelled in it - but here, it feels like poorly written fan fiction. Fan fiction written by the series’ original creator.

At the crux of this issue appears to be a partial explanation of why Willow has been avoiding Buffy, and more to the point keeping Kennedy away from her. Apparently, by resurrecting Buffy back at the beginning of Season 6, Willow feels that she set in motion the events that eventually led to Tara’s demise, in effect choosing Buffy over her girlfriend. Now, she’s concerned that her current piece of ass (that’s all I can dignify Kennedy as, since even in comic book form you can sense the complete lack of chemistry between the two of them) will meet a similar fate (if only), so she’s intentionally keeping her out of Buffy’s reach. Oooo-kay. Not only does this not make the blindest bit of sense, I’m still not getting why it’s taken Willow until now to come to this conclusion. She didn’t seem to have any problem hanging around Buffy throughout Season 7. (They throw in a rather trite explanation that she didn’t realise how she felt until she saw Warren again, but this blatantly makes no sense at all, since she and Kennedy were hidden away long before he showed up again.)

On a side note, this issue was drawn by Cliff Richards, who is apparently something of a veteran of the Buffy comics. His style is similar to Georges Jeanty’s, but with his own individual quirks. He captures Dawn’s likeness much better, and does quite well with Willow as well, but his Buffy is inconsistent.

I don’t know, I’m just not really feeling it. It’s enjoyable enough to read, but once you actually stop to think about what’s going on, it makes less and less sense. I find it hard to believe that Whedon’s heart is in this any more - certainly no more than it was during Seasons 6 and 7 - and none of the character progressions strike me as believable. I’m going to continue to read this series, but more out of mild curiosity than because I actually consider it canonical… which I don’t, even if it’s supposed to be.

At this stage, I personally think that those looking for their Buffy fix would be better served by The Chosen, a fan-written continuation which adheres as closely as possible to the format of the original TV series, and has the added bonus of being free. It’s currently just over half-way through Season 9 (where it has admittedly been stalled for some time, although the writers have given continual reassurances that their plan is to eventually take it all the way to the end of Season 10), and, while re-reading some of it recently, it struck me how much better it works than the official comic continuation. It takes a few episodes to find its feet, but once the writers perfect that Buffy “voice”, it rarely becomes anything less than completely convincing and, 99% of the time, is vastly preferable to anything in Seasons 6 and 7. It even has a few episodes that I think compare to the best of the official series, with the writers taking great pains to right many of the wrongs committed during the final two seasons of the original show. In Season 9, for example, an episode set in an alternate reality gives Anya the closure she was denied in the final episode of the real show. Don’t ask me to explain it, but it works, as a sort of bitter-sweet inversion of The Wish. The writers are also comfortable enough with writing the characters that, when they have someone do something radically unusual (such as Faith and Tara going off to get pissed in the woods in the most recent episode), it still seems natural rather than out of character.

I know a lot of people are some what suspicious of these fan-written continuations, and rightly so, because the vast majority of them are indeed poor, but this one proves to be the exception to the rule and is why, ironically enough, the official continuation of the series feels more like fan fiction than an actual example of fan fiction.

 
Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 12:02 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV | Web
 

The Giallo Project #11: Death Walks at Midnight

DVD

Alternative titles: La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte; Director: Luciano Ercoli; Starring: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Peter Martell, Claudie Lange, Carlo Gentili, Luciano Rossi; Music: Gianni Ferrio; Italian theatrical release date: November 17th, 1972

Note: this review contains some spoilers.

Now comes the part where I get to revel in my own hypocrisy. Last time, I looked at Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and picked it apart for its narrative shortcomings and weak-willed heroine. This time, however, I’m going to talk about a film that I enjoy much better on the whole, although it’s not one I can really defend. Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, the producer-turned-director’s third and final giallo, suffers from some pretty significant problems, not least the leaden pacing in its second act, but, if a giallo is going to be kitschy rather than serious, it’s a lot closer to the sort of kitsch I personally enjoy than that which is to be found in Mrs. Wardh.

The plot centres around Valentina (Nieves Navarro), a glamorous model who agrees to take an experimental new hallucinogenic called HDS for a story her journalist friend Gio (Simón Andreu) is writing. While under the influence, Valentina sees (or thinks she sees) a woman being bludgeoned to death by a man wielding a spiked glove in the apartment facing hers. With virtually everyone, including Gio, her boyfriend Stefano (Peter Martell) and the requisite cigar-chewing inspector (Carlo Gentili) passing her vision off as nothing more than the result of a drug-induced stupor, Valentina sets out to do her own detective work, particularly when the same killer she saw begins menacing her…

This is one of these films that you have to take at face value and accept for what it is. It is not, by any means, great art, and looks decidedly out of place when positioned alongside the better genre offerings by Argento, Fulci, Bava, Dallamano, Lado and the like. Essentially, it’s just a light, gory, kitschy romp in which a beautiful woman is menaced by various unsavoury types, and as such it has a lot more in common with the Sergio Martino films that tend to leave me cold. For some reason, though, I really do enjoy Ercoli’s gialli, and this is by far my favourite. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the way in which the heroine is portrayed. Ercoli, it would seem, attempted to establish his wife/leading lady Navarro (credited here, as in many of her films, as Susan Scott) as a rival to Edwige Fenech, without much success (she only played the lead in three gialli: this, the earlier Death Walks on High Heels and Maurizio Pradeaux’s snorefest Death Carries a Cane). Part of this might be due to her arriving on the scene late: she was much older than Fenech when she made her first giallo, and, by the time Death Walks at Midnight, arguably her strongest outing, came along, 1972 was nearing its end and the giallo craze had entered its twilight. However, I suspect that another reason is her on-screen persona.

To put it bluntly, “victim” is really not in Navarro’s repertoire. She literally exudes sexuality, her self-assured “I’m gorgeous and I know it” pout a far cry from the sort of innocent damsels who tended to be the leading ladies in most gialli. Passivity seems to be an alien concept to her, and she controls virtually every scene in which she appears (and I can think of only a handful in which she is absent), continually giving as good as she gets and, unusually for a giallo heroine, absolutely refusing to give up. (It’s also kind of interesting that, although she is a model by profession, unlike Fenech in Mrs. Wardh, she never takes her clothes off and is, on the whole, much more modestly dressed. That’s not a criticism or a compliment, just an observation.) True, she gets slapped around a bit, but those who decide to take her on tend to get far worse from her in return, and, while the various men in her life all seem to treat her as a bit of a joke, you get the impression that she has the last laugh.

Death Walks at Midnight

Valentina is, ultimately, an example of an extremely rare breed in a giallo territory: a confident, self-sufficient woman who takes shit from no-one: Julie Wardh she is not. A complete and utter narcissist (a giant blow-up photograph of herself hangs over her bed), you get the impression that she is in love with no-one but herself, despite having a boyfriend who has his own key to her apartment, and something of a love-hate relationship with Gio, the specifics of which are never made clear (personally, I suspect they probably had a relationship in the past). There is also a strong dose of comedy both in Navarro’s performance and in her interactions with her co-stars, showing that she is not afraid to take the piss out of herself, flopping about on a bed with her arms flailing and wittering on about purple ice cream, red priests and murderers. While we might speculate that the injection of comedic elements implies that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the notion of a tough, independent woman, we tend to laugh with Valentina rather than at her. All the men she meets either treat her as an attention-seeking child or like crap (or both), but, ultimately, she’s right and they’re wrong: she did see a murder, and there was a man after her, trying to kill her. Most of the laughs come from her eye-rolling as Gio attempts to worm his way into her favour, or from the number of people she slaps, punches or knees in the balls.

Perhaps the strongest possible indication of the difference between Valentina and Julie Wardh comes in a scene in which Valentina and Gio are sitting in an outdoor restaurant. Only half-listening to what Gio is saying, Valentina allows her mind to wander and suddenly spots the killer standing in a crowd nearby, watching her. Realising he has been spotted, he turns tail and runs, while Valentina immediately gives chase, berating a reluctant Gio into tagging along. Julie would probably either have fainted or collapsed into George Hilton’s arms, begging him to take her back to the safety of his bachelor pad (no doubt for a bout of reassuring sex on the sofa), but giving up is the last thing on Valentina’s mind. Throughout the film, she is the driving force in getting to the bottom of the mystery, and all the amateur sleuthing is carried out by her. I’m not trying to suggest that this is anything approaching a feminist tract, but in comparison with Mrs. Wardh, it seems positively radical.

I think Valentina’s relationship with the world of men is perfectly summed up in the scene where, attempting to exit the asylum she has been visiting, she has to fend off a room full of crazed inmates, who crowd around her, pawing at her or acting up to get her attention. She seems ultimately to be the lone woman and voice of reason in a world dominated by mad or immature men, some of whom with to do harm to her (e.g. Stefano and the assassins who come after her), while others simply don’t realise they’re getting in her way and are too preoccupied by their own concerns to see her point of view (e.g. Gio, Inspector Seripa). Even random individuals seem to want to do her harm: a driver whom she flags down for a lift back into town ends up trying to rape her (and finds her foot connecting with his groin for his troubles). When we finally meet another female character - the pale, frightened Verushka (Claudie Lange), obviously a “kept woman” - the difference between her and Valentina is striking.

As I said at the beginning, I can’t make too many excuses for Death Walks at Midnight or claim it to be a lost masterpiece. It is, in places, a whole lot of fun, and has some very nicely-directed scenes (in particular, the opening hallucination and the rooftop fight which rounds things off), not to mention a great, charismatic heroine, but it really falls off the rails in the middle, giving way to a seemingly pointless subplot involving Stefano and two Japanese children who he is looking after (I’m assuming the point of this is to reveal some sort of latent longing for a conventional domestic life in Valentina, but it is buried before it has a chance to be explored). Still, for all its faults, it’s an agreeable, breezy giallo with a nice sense of self-deprecation and a lead who doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang out with Valentina than with Julie Wardh. Provided she didn’t start thumping me.

I’m not sure which film I’ll be looking at next time, but hopefully you won’t have to wait too long for it.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 3:31 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Reviews | The Giallo Project
 

The DVNR bandits strike again

HD DVD

The other day, I ordered a copy of the soon-to-be-OOP US HD DVD release of Pan’s Labyrinth from New Line. I did this fully aware of the controversy surrounding the noise reduction that had been applied to the transfer, sucking out much of the grain and fine detail. My reasoning behind this was that the UK release, which I reviewed late last year, also showed signs of noise reduction, so I figured that both would feature the same decent but flawed transfer, with the US release having the added benefits of lossless 7.1 audio, picture-in-picture and other additional extras.

Unfortunately, it looks as if I was wrong. Screen captures have surfaced at the AV Science Forum showing, in their full 1920x1080 resolution, the same frame from both releases (as well as the French HD DVD and EU H.264 broadcast versions), and to say that the US release makes the UK version look stellar would be an understatement. This is probably the worst example of grain-sucking I’ve seen on an HD release this side of Cat People or American Psycho, and while many people are predictably praising the US release for looking “smooth” and “clean” (words which always put the fear of Pazuzu in me when used in reference to material shot on film), the more informed among us are justifiably outraged.

Pan's Labyrinth

I’m now really sorry I ordered this release, and at this rate I won’t even be bothering to unwrap the cellophane. It also makes me slightly suspicious of the rave reviews that New Line’s other HD releases have been receiving, and I have a feeling I’ll need to pick up one or two of them to get to the truth of the matter. The problem is that none of the titles they’ve put out so far appeal to me, least of all Rush Hour 3.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 11:38 AM | Comments: 11 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Reviews | Technology
 

Import proof

HD DVD

Apparently, German distributor Senator Home Entertainment, currently an HD DVD distributor, will be following in Warner’s footsteps and dropping support for the format to concentrate exclusively on Blu-ray.

Among the various titles the format owned the rights to and planned to release on HD DVD were the two halves of Grindhouse, Planet Terror and Death Proof, the latter of which was even listed on Amazon.de and which I had pre-ordered. With it now unlikely to see the light of day, I’ve cancelled my order.

The sad part of this is that, so far, Senator’s Blu-ray releases have apparently been region coded, which means that, unless I supplement my Region A Playstation 3 with a Region B model, I probably won’t be able to play any eventual Blu-ray releases of these two films. Aren’t you just loving this new Blu future?

 
Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 10:27 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD
 

HD banditry

HD DVD

Although they have been floating cover art, vague specs and a “coming soon” release window for some time now, Universal have, until today, not unveiled many specifics about their upcoming HD DVD release of Ridley Scott’s latest film, American Gangster.

Today, however, they issued an official announcement, confirming its release date as February 19th, along with its full specs. This will be an HD DVD/DVD combo release, and, oddly enough, while the HD DVD side contains only the theatrical cut, the DVD side, via seamless branching, also throws in what is being described as an “Unrated Extended Cut”, clocking in at 19 minutes longer than its theatrical counterpart.

My first reaction upon reading this announcement was “No!!! You morons! What are you thinking releasing it like this?” The more that I think about it, though, the less this annoys me. Does anyone remember the last Ridley Scott film to be released as an “Unrated Extended Cut” (as opposed to a “Director’s Cut”)? It was Gladiator, and it opened with a visibly pissed off Scott, scarcely able to hide his contempt, telling us that the version we were about to release was categorically not his director’s cut. The fact that he and writer Steven Zaillian have provided an audio commentary for the theatrical version rather rather than the extended cut suggests to me that this is their preferred version. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that the extended version was just another Gladiator, with a few scenes that were rightly left on the cutting room floor spliced back in.

Bottom line, it would have been nice to have had both versions in HD, but I’m not losing sleep over this. Unlike some people, I’m not about to cancel my pre-order.

I am, however, disappointed to note that many of the extras from the DVD have been left off this release… although it may turn out that much of the missing material may be replicated in the picture-in-picture feature on the HD DVD.

 
Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:56 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

Apparently, I don’t hate the entire world

You are 42% stereotypically misanthropic. Whoopie.
 

You have a weakness for those wretched humans. Were your parents hippies? Still, you can be appropriately unfriendly given impetus, of which there is never any shortage.

How stereotypically misanthropic are you?
Make a Quiz

I’m as surprised as you are.

 
Posted: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 10:42 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: General | Web
 

Now this is more like it

HD DVD

Last night, Lyris and I watched his recently-acquired HD DVD of the Director’s Cut of Zodiac. Like Crank (see here), it was shot entirely in the digital realm, but unlike Crank, it didn’t have a bunch of chimpanzees fiddling with the image control knobs. Zodiac continues Paramount’s winning streak for new releases, with a virtually flawless transfer that makes the standard definition release appear even more embarrassing than it did already. If you look very closely, you can see a teeny tiny bit of sharpening, which I suspect was added during post production (the on-screen text, such as credits and location type, are unaffected), but otherwise this is one of the absolute best presentations of a movie I’ve ever seen (at least in a technical sense - I’m personally not a fan at all of the completely grain-free look).

Zodiac: Director’s Cut
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 24 GB)

Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac Zodiac

 
Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 3:40 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

What edge enhancement is and why not to use it

Blu-ray

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, which is why I’m going to keep this post brief. The screen captures below are taken from Lions Gate’s Blu-ray release of Crank, a disc that has been praised by many reviewers but gives me a headache every time I look at it for more than a few minutes. Why? Because it is riddled with edge enhancement, and I suspect that seeing this sort of ringing at a resolution of 1920x1080 will give you some idea of why I am so against this practice.

The weirdest part is that this video vandalism appears to have been intentional, added during the film’s post production phase, presumably as a means of adding “intensity” to the scenes that have been affected. A number of shots and even some entire sequences are unmolested, a good example of which can be found in the sixth screen capture below. In this scene, a split-screen effect has been employed, with the shot of Jason Statham manipulated to buggery but the shot of Amy Smart seemingly unmolested. It really beggars belief.

Crank
(Lions Gate, USA, MPEG-2, 19.8 GB)

Crank Crank Crank Crank Crank Crank

 
Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 3:24 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 
 

 
 
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