April 2008

 
 

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DVDs I bought or received in the month of April

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD
  • 101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition (R1 USA, DVD)
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
  • The Aristocats: Special Edition (R1 USA, DVD)
  • The Black Dahlia (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Bonnie and Clyde (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • The Frightened Woman (R0 UK, DVD)
  • Holby Blue: Series 1 (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Juno (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Maltese Falcon (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Mother of Tears (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (R2 UK, DVD)
  • An Unsuitable Job for a Woman: Series 1 & 2 (R1 USA, DVD)
     
 
Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 11:59 PM
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | TV
 

Clash of the tits

Would you like to punch this man?

Above: Would you like to punch this man?

Source: Dread Central

Dr. Uwe Boll is at it again! Not content with making some of the worst movies known to humankind, the man behind House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark has issued a personal challenge to Michael Bay, calling on him to meet him in the ring to battle it out, mano a mano, and determine once and for all who is the better director.

You may remember a previous escapade involving Uwe Boll and a boxing ring. Two years ago, he famously challenged his harshest critics to a punch-up in the ring. In something of a perverse twist of fate, Boll resoundingly thrashed all five opponents, proving that it doesn’t matter how bad a filmmaker you are, provided you can pack a mean punch. Frankly, I don’t fancy Bay’s chances if he chooses to accept the challenge.

You can view the Herr Doktor’s video message to Bay at MovieSet.

 
Posted: Monday, April 28, 2008 at 4:11 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Web
 

Blu-ray brattiness

Blu-ray

Unfortunately, high definition doesn’t make Juno MacGuff any less moody and obnoxious than her standard definition counterpart, but she, her posse and their surroundings certainly look considerably more detailed and lifelike, courtesy of one of 20th Century Fox’s best transfers to date. “Grain!” I hear you say. “Good!” I say. Juno has a look not unlike that of Atonement (HD DVD screen captures here), but is considerably less eroded, resulting in a far more satisfying experience overall. The clots at DVD Town, IGN (“Only marginally better than the standard [definition DVD]” - pffffft!) and the like may have been pretty lukewarm in their reactions to this transfer, but rest assured that Captain Whiggles will be giving it a glowing appraisal come review-time.

Juno
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 26.9 GB)

Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno Juno

 
Posted: Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 8:34 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews | Technology
 

DVD review: Mother of Tears

DVD
All things considered, Mother of Tears could so easily have been a much worse film than it is. As a conclusion to the Three Mothers trilogy, it’s not even remotely satisfying, paying lip service to various plot elements from the previous entries but failing to continue their thematic concerns in anything but the most superficial manner. Taken on its own terms, however, you have a pacey and at times very entertaining romp through various pieces of 70s and 80s horror iconography, bolstered by some stand-out set-pieces and gung-ho violence. It’s something of a reflection of how much times have changed that I can honestly say I enjoyed a Dario Argento film more as a fast, silly rollercoaster ride than as a work of art, but I prefer to look upon this as a “glass half full” endeavour. No, it’s not Suspiria or Inferno, but nor is it the disaster it could have been.

Three decades after starting his Three Mothers trilogy, Dario Argento comes full circle with Mother of Tears. I review Optimum’s R2 UK release.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 1:43 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Reviews
 

DVD Review: Holby Blue: Series 1

DVD
Holby Blue seems to suffer from something of a crisis of identity. Piggy-backing on the success of a medical series, it masquerades as a police drama when in actual fact it seems to want to be nothing more than a soap. With The Bill running bi-weekly on rival network ITV and the likes of Waking the Dead and various American imports fulfilling the higher brow end of the market, it’s questionable whether there is really room for another police series, let alone one so unsure of its own target audience. It’s watchable enough, but it all seems a bit pointless, and, for all its surface gloss and high aspirations, doesn’t really seem to have anything fresh to say.

A police drama spun off a medical series, you say? Whatever next? I get out my magnifying glass and gives Series 1 of Holby Blue a grilling in the interrogation room.

 
Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 7:17 AM
Categories: DVD | Reviews | TV
 

Naturellement la version panoramique

Yesterday, I received a copy of the new R1 USA Special Edition DVD of Disney’s The Aristocats via DVD Pacific. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to have to report that this is yet another “cropped to 1.75:1” atrocity:

The Aristocats

DVD

I’m sorry, but would someone like to explain to me why this is being done? I don’t care that this was how they would have been projected theatrically (the chances of finding a cinema equipped to display 1.33:1 material in 1970, when this film was released, would be small in the extreme) - anyone can take one look at the image above and instantly tell that something is not right about the framing. It was nice to see this trend reversed for 101 Dalmatians, but that doesn’t change the issue of several other titles having been bungled and continuing to be bungled.

This release, incidentally, seems to have been done on the cheap. For a so-called Special Edition, you really don’t get much that’s all that special, barring a pointless Virtual Kitten game, a brief piece on the Sherman brothers, some image galleries and a deleted song. Additionally, a sure sign of a rush job, the film’s original mono mix is no included, instead porting over the 5.1 remix from the older European release (the previous US disc featured a 2.0 surround remix). On the plus side, the image hasn’t been subjected to the same level of excessive grain reduction that has resulted in most Disney re-releases since Alice in Wonderland looking as if they were shot digitally, but at the same time the compression is pretty damning.

I know The Aristocats is far from a shining example of what Walt Disney Feature Animation was capable of (it and Robin Hood are, in my opinion, the studio’s weakest animated features this side of Pocahontas), but that’s no excuse for a second-rate DVD release.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 3:34 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 13: Wolves at the Gate, Part Two

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Drew Goddard; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty

Another month, another wondrous Buffy comic. The previous issue was irksome because of the Buffy/Satsu nonsense, but this one is completely and utterly bloody infuriating. First of all, this episode has more Andrew in it than any previous one - Goddard must be in love with this character, and it’s one of my main reasons for my considering him to be utterly overrated as a writer. Seriously, it absolutely astounds me that he and illustrator Georges Jeanty have managed to make this character every bit as annoying on the page as he was on screen. That must constitute some sort of dubious special talent.

Secondly, the character of Xander continues to be run into the ground with the revelations, spoken (by Andrew) without a hint of jest, that he and Dracula “stayed in touch” post Buffy vs. Dracula, writing “the occasional letter here and there”. I mean, seriously. This is the Xander who, after freeing himself from Dracula’s spell, gave a bit speech about how he would never again be anyone’s butt-monkey. But even this pales in comparison to the statement that, after Anya’s death, Xander went to live with Dracula for several months because he “needed some guy time”. Oh, and taught Dracula how to ride a motorbike.

I know this shouldn’t really be surprising. The character of Xander was treated like absolute crap in the final two seasons of the TV series, and indeed Nicolas Brendon has since stated that, at around the beginning of Season 5, Joss Whedon essentially told him that his character arc was finished and was welcome to stay but shouldn’t expect any meaningful storylines (he only stuck around because he felt he needed the money). But this is a new low. It demonstrates, to me, that those involved have lost any interest in telling a believable story about people the audience can empathise with and instead are content to trade the core characters’ dignity in favour of a cheap laugh here and there.

By this stage, I was pretty close to tearing my comic in two and chucking the two halves in the bin, but I hadn’t even finished page 7 at this point, so against my better judgement I persevered. If I hadn’t kept going, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy the sight of Buffy completely blanking Satsu and barking orders at her, and a whole cavalcade of jokes suggesting a homosexual relationship between Xander and Dracula, each one more hilarious and mature than the last. Oh, and Willow pestering Satsu to tell her what Buffy’s like in the sack. That, by the way, comes after Satsu saying she knows Buffy’s not “a dyke”, surely the most tasteful piece of writing since that infamous deleted exchange in the Season 6 episode Dead Things where Tara sympathises with Buffy’s sordid relationship with Spike by pointing out “Sweetie, I’m a fag. I been there.” (You think I’m kidding? Just follow the link.)

Following this hearty recommendation, I’m sure you’ll all be rushing out to buy copies of this masterful work of literature. Myself, I’d cancel my pre-orders for Parts 3 and 4 of this four-part arc if I could.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 2:32 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV
 

Amazing, just amazing

Actual conversation I had at work today:

Woman: I need you to help me find a book.

Me: Sure. Have you got the title?

Woman: No.

Me: Okay, well, do you know the author?

Woman: No.

Me: Right, well, okay, what’s the subject matter?

Woman: Oh, it was something about religion.

Me: Well, is it fiction or non-fiction?

Woman: I don’t know.

Me: You’re not giving me very much to go on here. Is there anything you can tell me about this book?

[Pregnant pause.]

Woman: I think it’s got a pink cover.

Me: Well, without more information, I’m not sure I can be of much help. I can only suggest you go through there to the religion section and see if there are any pink books.

Woman: You’re not much use, are you? I thought you were supposed to be a librarian.

Me: Actually, I’m not.

 
Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 9:52 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Books | General
 

R.I.P. Ollie Johnston

Cartoon Brew reports that Ollie Johnston, the last survivor of Disney’s Nine Old Men, died today at the ripe old age of 95. This definitely marks the end of an era in the history of filmmaking, and he leaves behind a truly impressive legacy in terms of character animation.

 
Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 10:02 PM
Categories: Animation | Cinema
 

So many discs, so little time

Blu-ray

The last few days have heralded a shed-load of DVD and Blu-ray releases pouring through my letterbox, most of which I’ve scarcely had time to give more than a cursory glance. Most of them were free review copies, and a good thing too as I recently had to pay off my Graduate Endowment, so my coffers are looking a little empty at the moment.

First up, and one that I did pay for, was Sony Pictures’ UK Blu-ray release of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It looks to feature a decent transfer for a catalogue title: detail is, on the whole, very good, but the tell-tale signs of grain reduction are consistently evident. At the moment, I’d peg it as being slightly better than the re-release of The Fifth Element, also from Sony, but more investigation will be needed.

DVD

Next up, on Saturday, Shameless Screen Entertainment’s UK DVD release of Piero Schivazappa’s trippy 60s shocker The Frightened Woman (a.k.a. Femina Ridens). As a nice surprise, they sent me a fully boxed copy rather than the “DVD in a paper wallet” affair that most of the UK studios favour, so I can savour the tacky artwork in all its, erm, glory.

Unfortunately, I can’t say anything particularly positive about the transfer. Yes, it looks considerably better than my old VHS dupe, but that’s not a fair or particularly realistic comparison. A more valid counterpoint would be Severin Films’ release of The Psychic, which had similarly poor image quality, with a lack of detail and what looked like a dodgy scaling job, manifesting itself in the form of jagged diagonal lines. I wonder what caused this. Perhaps both films were acquired from the same licensor, or perhaps both companies used the same (incorrectly set up) encoder? Either way, if I’d paid for a company to encode my film and it came back looking like this, I would have rejected it outright. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, this is nothing to do with the quality of the source materials, which, barring some tape-based inserts for scenes which wouldn’t be sourced from a print, appears to be in great shape. This issue here has nothing to do with that and everything to do with the way it has been treated at the authoring stage. Not impressed.

DVD

Also in the package was the 2-disc release of the first series of Holby Blue, from 2 Entertain (the BBC’s front for commercial exploitation via optical disc). This is interesting, because I recorded the entire series directly to my computer via my USB TV stick back when it first aired, so I had a point of comparison to refer to when examining the image quality. The results, which you can see by clicking the smaller images below, are quite surprising:

Example 1
(Left: Commercial DVD; Right: My recording from DTV)
Holby Blue Series 1 Holby Blue Series 1

Example 2
(Left: Commercial DVD; Right: My recording from DTV)
Holby Blue Series 1 Holby Blue Series 1

Example 3
(Left: Commercial DVD; Right: My recording from DTV)
Holby Blue Series 1 Holby Blue Series 1

That’s right: the DVD release is considerably more filtered than what was broadcast on BBC1. Obviously, there are considerably more compression artefacts in the captures taken from my off-air recordings - that’s not surprising, given the notoriously shoddy standard of BBC’s encoding (BBC1 has a fixed 6 Mbps bit rate to play around with, so there’s really no excuse). I am, however, surprised, by how much more detailed my recordings are. A further black mark against the DVD release is that 2 Entertain have unceremoniously lopped off the “Previously” and “Next week” segments at the start and end of each episode, sometimes incredibly badly: the music has noticeable jump cuts and generally reeks of shoddiness. Is it so unreasonable to expect a complete package when you shell out your hard-earned cash for a TV series that you already helped pay for with your robber baron tax? (Ignoring the fact that I got the DVD for free, and, not being a home-owner, don’t pay the robber baron tax.)

DVD

The final disc in this package of joy was Optimum’s UK release of Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears. Audio options are Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English, with no subtitles, while the only extra is the trailer. Image quality (and I’m aware of sounding increasingly like a broken record here) is not too bad, but not too great either. There’s plenty of evidence of ringing as a result of brick wall filtering, and also a massive amount of noise reduction which robs the image of its natural grain. A couple of people who got advance copies of this disc mentioned that the film looked as if it had been shot on digital video, and I see what they mean. I wonder if Medusa’s Italian release (which doesn’t have any English audio options) looks any better?

DVD

This morning, I received an order from DVD Pacific containing the US release of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. This was an ITV adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name (which I’m reading at the moment), starring Helen Baxendale and Annette Crosbie, and the DVD contains all four three-part episodes. My interest was piqued when I discovered that one of the three-parters was written by Barbara Machin, creator of Waking the Dead (the seventh series of which incidentally started tonight), so I decided to pick up this DVD set, fully aware that all four episodes feature standards converted transfers. This is, unfortunately, as far as I’m aware the only release of this programme on DVD, and beggars can’t be choosers. I won’t start watching till I’ve finished reading the book, though.

Blu-ray

Finally - and this is where my luck with image quality finally changes - I also received a review copy of the US Blu-ray release of Juno. My good friend Peter M. Bracke opines that this is “a fairly good-looking presentation”, but as usual I beg to differ. This is definitely the best high definition transfer I’ve seen from 20th Century Fox so far, bearing in mind that I own fewer of their films than any of the other major studios. The source material is such that it won’t make you leap out of your seat, marvelling at all the detail on display, but even so it’s an excellent presentation of a fairly low-key, muted-looking film.

Expect full reviews of The Frightened Woman, Holby Blue, Mother of Tears and Juno at DVD Times before very much longer.

 
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008 at 11:19 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Books | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Brody goes yellow

Film

Source: ComingSoon.net

Its production has been pushed back and it appears to have lost almost its entire original cast (which included Ray Liotta, Vincent Gallo and Asia Argento), but Dario Argento’s latest film, Giallo, looks set to go begin shooting in Turin on May 12th, this time boasting Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner in the cast. Brody, who will executive produce the film along with Oscar Generale, Claudio Argento, Luis De Val, David Milner, Billy Dietrich, Patricia Eberle, Donald Barton and John Hicks (co-production, anyone?), must be a particularly impressive casting coup for Argento, giving the impression that the maestro may, after several false starts, be about to crack the mainstream, and to tell you the truth I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.

I must confess that, as happy as I am to hear that Argento is working on another film so soon after Mother of Tears, what I’ve heard about Giallo doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. He’s once again working from someone else’s pre-written script, again the product of an American duo, Jim Agnew and Sean Keller, and it sounds like this will be very much a nudge-nudge wink-wink “homage” to gialli, albeit hopefully not in the same way that Scream was to the Halloween-inspired slasher movie gravy train. I hope I’m pleasantly surprised, but this sounds a bit ho-hum and fairly pointless for Argento at this stage in his career. I’m yet to be convinced that this will do anything Sleepless didn’t already do.

 
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008 at 7:18 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli
 

FYI: PS3 DTS-HD MA no longer MIA, OK?

DTS-HD Master Audio

Source: High-Def Digest

Proving once again what a versatile and admirably future-proof piece of hardware it is, the Playstation 3’s latest firmware update will add internal decoding for DTS-HD Master Audio to its Blu-ray playback capabilities. DTS-HD MA decoding is supported on some of the more recent high-end players, but given how cheap the PS3 is, this seems like a remarkable deal. Now if only I had an HDMI 1.3-compatible audio receiver to take full advantage of it…

The update, version 2.30, is due out tomorrow.

 
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008 at 7:08 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Technology
 

Happenings in Whedonsville

TV

A couple of recent goings-on in tellyland for your attention, both concerning Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. The first, and probably least interesting from my perspective, is that Firefly, his short-lived sci-fi western series, looks set to get a Blu-ray release at some point down the line. The release is still a considerable way off, given that it is described as only being in the “early development stages”, but it has been confirmed by a 20th Century Fox spokesperson, so this news will surely please its many devoted followers. Myself, I could never get into Firefly, which is odd, given how much I enjoyed its big screen follow-up, Serenity. In its defence, I didn’t try particularly hard to watch it, and had a lot of other things on the go when I rented the first disc of the DVD set, so perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance. I’d certainly be up for revisiting it in high definition to see if my view on it has changed.

Eliza Dushku

Above: Eliza Dushku

Secondly, and in my eyes far more excitingly, is the news that Whedon has a new television series in the pipeline, which will be titled Dollhouse and will reteam him with Eliza Dushku (Faith in Buffy) and, erm, 20th Century Fox. Yes, the same 20th Century Fox whom he vowed never to work with again after they, in his eyes, screwed him over so royally with Firefly. Also, I must admit that, in light of the debacle that was Buffy’s sixth and seventh season, and its shark-jumping comic book continuation, my faith in the man to put together a half-decent show has waned somewhat, but there’s a little part of me that is nonetheless excited to hear that he’s returning to television, paired with the always-watchable Dushku no less. And come on, you’ve got to admit that the premise has promise:

Echo (Eliza Dushku) [is] a young woman who is literally everybody’s fantasy. She is one of a group of men and women who can be imprinted with personality packages, including memories, skills, language - even muscle memory - for different assignments. The assignments can be romantic, adventurous, outlandish, uplifting, sexual and/or very illegal. When not imprinted with a personality package, Echo and the others are basically mind-wiped, living like children in a futuristic dorm/lab dubbed the Dollhouse, with no memory of their assignments - or of much else. The show revolves around the childlike Echo’s burgeoning self-awareness, and her desire to know who she was before, a desire that begins to seep into her various imprinted personalities and puts her in danger both in the field and in the closely monitored confines of the Dollhouse.

The word is that former Angel (and Firefly, and Wonderfalls) executive producer Tim Minear will also be involved, so here’s hoping he’ll help steer this new show in the right direction.

 
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008 at 6:56 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | TV
 

DVD review: Waking the Dead: Series 5

DVD
Waking the Dead’s fifth series is, on the whole, not up to the standard established by its predecessors, although it does offer some real gems of entertainment at various points throughout its 12-episode run. Like Boyd, the programme may not live in the real world and may at times baffle with its seemingly nonsensical twists and tangents, but, when it’s firing on all cylinders, the journey, however convoluted, is always an engaging one.

Waking the Dead’s seventh series begins airing tonight on BBC1, and, to coincide, I’ve reviewed 2 Entertain’s DVD box set of Series 5, containing all 12 episodes on six discs.

 
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008 at 12:00 PM
Categories: DVD | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

There’s no place like home

Windows Vista

My Windows Vista experience has been temporarily halted, after slightly under 72 hours. I’ve come to the conclusion that the video playback situation, at least in its current state, is too inconvenient for me to stick with. This morning, when I popped in The Maltese Falcon, I discovered that PAL overlay playback is severely borked: material such as subtitles and menu selection gets drawn for NTSC resolution, which means that everything is displaced and wonky. It’s something that can be worked around, but it makes it a pain the neck attempting to select anything on a menu, and means that, when watching a film with subtitles, the text ends up half-way up the screen. Oh, and for some reason, screen capturing in PowerDVD doesn’t work for PAL discs in Vista when hardware acceleration is enabled, which means that, when taking screenshots for reviews, I first have to switch the player into software mode. Not the end of the world, of course, but a giant pain in the neck and something I don’t see the point of continuing to struggle with.

Beyond the video support, I have no major issues with Vista whatsoever. Then again, I don’t exactly have any significant complaints about XP either (other than that it doesn’t look quite as pretty), and its video playback works the way it’s supposed to. For the time being, though, I’m going to continue to use XP and hope that a solution to my video woes eventually materialises, either in the form of better drivers from ATI, better DVD software from Cyberlink (or anyone else, come to that), or an end to this “no overlay” nonsense from Microsoft.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 11:41 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Thoughts on The Maltese Falcon, and various giallo/film noir observations

DVD

I had my first proper film noir experience today in the form of John Huston’s celebrated 1941 offering, The Maltese Falcon. I don’t mean by that that it was the first film noir I’d ever seen, but rather that it was the first time I sat down to watch a film thinking “Right, this is a film noir. What does that mean and how does it manifest itself?”

The Maltese Falcon is currently ranked as the 69th greatest film of all time on IMDB, and, regardless of how much or how little faith you put in such lists (personally, I think they’re generally of little value), it’s tough to deny that it’s difficult to approach any film with that sort of reputation, particularly one that’s over 60 years old. How do you even begin to comprehend how it would have been viewed at the time of its release, and how do you begin to appreciate its various innovations in that context, knowing full well that they have now been assimilated into the everyday language of film? The answer is that you don’t, unless you possess both a time machine and a means of erasing all of your existing knowledge and preconceptions regarding the type of film in question. The Maltese Falcon is very much a quintessential film noir, but it wouldn’t have been seen as such in 1941, given that the movement didn’t enjoy its glory period until some years later, and it would take even longer for people to begin actively referring to these as film noirs.

So anyway, did I enjoy The Maltese Falcon? Yes, I did - considerably so, in fact, although, as I find to be the case with many films that are considered the greatest of their respective genres or movements, my enjoyment didn’t develop into out and out awe or adulation. I found it consistently witty dialogue-wise and at many points engaging, but there were also several moments for me where things began to sag a bit and my interest started to wane. Each time that happened, a plot development would generally show up in a few minutes to regain my attention, but my overriding reaction was “Yeah, this is a really good film” rather than “Wow, this is one of the greatest films of all time!” (Oh, and a minor criticism: I must admit that the continual continuity flubs, mainly actors changing position between shots, kept taking me out of the drama.) That said, I’m pretty sure my reaction to Deep Red was somewhat similar the first time I saw it, and we all know how highly I regard it now.

Bogart!

Anyway, as I’ve continued reading up on film noir, the similarities between it and the giallo movement have become all the more pronounced. I’m not sure that much, if any, of this comes from my viewing of The Maltese Falcon, but I thought I’d note a few of my observations regarding the ties between the two movements:

- The giallo began in the late 60s as an offshoot of 30s pulp literature, whereas film noir kicked off more than two decades earlier, in the early 40s, drawing on the influence of 10s/20s German Expressionism (for the visuals) and hard-boiled detective pulp fiction (for the narratives and themes).

- For both movements, there is a broad agreement on what constitutes the key iconography, but no single universally accepted definition. In addition, broadly speaking, it is agreed that neither the giallo nor the film noir constitutes a genre. To describe film noir, Alain Silver uses the word “cycle”, which has obvious connotations of time, indicating that the movement is part of a specific period, an is echoed in writing on gialli which uses the Italian word ‘filone’, used to refer to trends and cycles.

- Key traits include moral ambiguity and sexual motivation, often involving a contemporary urban setting.

- Although there are a number of high profile exceptions (The Maltese Falcon being a case in point), the majority of gialli and film noirs tended to be B-movies, with modest budgets and a lack of major stars.

- Both movements seem to have emerged in times of social and/or political unrest:

— Literary gialli arrived in the 1930s during the rise of fascism.

— Filmic gialli emerged during a period of intense violence and terrorism in the early 1970s, and following considerable progress in the women’s emancipation movement.

— The hard-boiled detective novels which influenced film noir emerged in the US during the Depression of the 1930s.

Film noir as a movement took off during the aftermath of the Second World War, and its portrayal of powerful, independent women as dangerous (i.e. the femme fatale) can be seen as representative of the fears of a generation of men who returned from war to find that women had entered the public sector in their absence. The vilification and ultimate destruction of the femme fatale can be argued to constitute an attempt to restore ‘order’ and return women to what was perceived as their rightful place.

- Shared (partial) roots in German Expressionism: Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is considered to have sparked the main thrust of the giallo boom, has professed to having been influenced by German Expressionism, particularly the films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

- In both cases, the ‘colour’ terminology appears to have been applied retrospectively. ‘Film noir’, or so says Wikipedia (remind me not to quote that in my bibliography!), was first coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, and likewise the term ‘giallo’ does not appear to have been actively used when the films in question were initially released (trailers which do attempt to classify them tend to use the word ‘thrilling’, e.g. Deep Red). It may be that the giallo movement’s literary origins were only noticed and acknowledged later. (Does anyone know? An investigation of contemporary Italian press publications would probably be needed here.)

- Oh, and Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), referred to by some (e.g. Gary Needham) as the first cinematic giallo, was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, itself adapted in the US in 1946 and considered a major film noir.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 7:45 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Gialli | PhD
 

DVD debacle

DVD

Tomorrow, my film noir crash course will begin in earnest, starting with a morning viewing of The Maltese Falcon, which I picked up today during my lunch break. I also snagged The Lady from Shanghai and The Postman Always Rings Twice, so a sincere word of thanks to everyone who suggested titles for me to look into.

I also decided to nab The Black Dahlia to give me a flavour for a more recent take on the noir framework. I’ve heard mixed reports about it, but I figure I might as well give it a whirl.

DVD

I got home to find a package from DVD Pacific waiting for me, containing the Blu-ray release of Bonnie and Clyde and the recent Platinum Edition DVD release of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. I’ve always had a strange relationship with the latter, since it’s one of the few Disney features where I actually read the source material before reading the film, and, perhaps for that reason, the adaptation never really stood up for me. It’s a very enjoyable film, don’t get me wrong, and Cruella De Vil is one of the greatest screen villains ever created, but the book, for me, just paints a much richer and more appealing image in my head.

An interesting point about this release is that, whereas the recent re-releases of The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood (and the upcoming The Sword in the Stone) were all matted to an aspect ratio of 1.75:1, 101 Dalmatians retains the open matte 1.33:1 format favoured by every prior home video release, something which pleases me greatly considering how borked The Jungle Book looked when matted. The behind the scenes documentary for 101 Dalmatians, contained on the second disc, mattes the image to a widescreen ratio, with disastrous results, and watching it made me thankful that Disney have opted for a full-frame presentation for this release. I mean, take a look at the image below and try to imagine how you might matte it without completely destroying the composition:

101 Dalmatians

Hopefully there will be a full review at DVD Times in the near future.

 
Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2008 at 10:26 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | PhD
 

Media Center is da bomb

Media Center is da bomb

I’ve been exploring some more of the new features included in Vista, in particular Windows Media Center, the all-in-one multimedia application that comes with the Home Premium edition of Vista. I’m particularly impressed by its TV recording capabilities, not least for its smooth, streamlined interface, excellently integrated programme guide (see the image above), and last but not least the fact that it actually detected and was able to interface correctly with my notoriously finicky USB TV stick. Until now I’ve been using the ArcSoft TotalMedia software which came bundled with the stick, but I think I’ll now stitch to Media Center as my recording device of choice.

Of course, there is the slight problem that Media Center saves your TV programmes in the DVR-MS format, which, in addition to having the capability to inflict all sorts of DRM nastiness on you, is not exactly the most widely-supported of standards. Luckily, those plucky reverse engineers anchored off the Barbary Coast have sprung to my rescue once again, this time with a helpful little program called AutoDVR Convert, which strips out the all the metadata guff and rewrites the file as a vanilla .mpg (MPEG2), all in a matter of milliseconds. Hoorah for the modding community!

 
Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2008 at 11:15 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | TV | Technology
 

Kane lives on my PC

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

Well, I got fed up with playing the same two missions and skirmish map over and over in the demo release of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium War, so I decided to pony up and pick up the retail version. It arrived yesterday, and I’ve been spending this evening playing through the first few single player missions, as well as trying my hand at some skirmish maps.

(Incidentally, the version I picked up was the so-called “Kane Edition”, which includes five additional maps, as well as a bonus DVD containing behind the scenes material, wallpaper and strategy videos. I didn’t actually realise this was the version I’d ordered, so it was a nice surprise. For a supposed special edition, though, you really don’t get anything that feels very special: just a standard amaray case with the game disc and manual, and the bonus disc crammed into a paper sleeve. Oh well, we can’t always get the Blizzard treatment.)

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

Anyway, so far my observations from the demo version still stand. This is a very polished game in every sense, from the delightfully cheesy high definition FMV sequences to the slick user interface and neat, compact graphics. Presentation may not be the most important aspect of a game, but you can really tell when the developers have taken the time to add a little spit and polish, and it usually translates into a more enjoyable experience.

Commander, in my spare time I cure life-threatening diseases with Hugh Laurie.

Above: “Commander, in my spare time I cure life-threatening diseases with Hugh Laurie.”

What really matters, of course, is the gameplay, and, while I’m still not “getting it” in the way that I “get” the likes of Warcraft III and Starcraft, now that I’m beginning to learn the various quirks and tricks, I’m starting to enjoy things a lot more. Skirmish maps tend to be rather frustrating in that it’s possible to get a fully upgraded base laid down in a matter of minutes, which means that things tend to be over rather quickly (with me laying waste to the CPU at the lower difficulty settings, and vice versa if I crank up the slider), but I expect that’ll change once I’ve learned enough to be able to hold my own against a reasonably skilled adversary. At any rate, the single player campaign is delightfully silly, replete with hammy acting, plastic sets and computer-generated extras in the background, and is holding my attention as I work my way through the single player missions.

 
Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2008 at 9:30 PM
Categories: Games | Technology
 

What did I just say?

Windows Vista

From the second-last paragraph of yesterday’s Windows Vista post:

(Of course, I’m sure I’ll discover some additional niggles as soon as I post this.)

This evening, I discovered one. I actually managed to solve it fairly straightforwardly, but the trial and error process involved certainly took long enough.

Basically, today I discovered that, in the Windows Media Player (and Windows Media Center) video decoders that ship with Windows Vista, there is no support for hardware accelerated playback. I know, I know, pick up your jaws from the floor - I didn’t believe it either at first. It’s true, though - everything runs in software, something which can quickly be confirmed by hitting the PrintScreen button while a video is being played and seeing whether or not it copies to the clipboard. (If you get nothing but black where the video should be, the overlay is being used and hardware acceleration is working properly. If you get a screen capture from the video, then it’s playing in software mode.) People were aware of this problem as early as late 2006, and the problem goes unfixed to this day. In other words, say goodbye to the performance boosts, improved image quality and motion adaptive deinterlacing that today’s modern video cards offer.

Maybe it’s intentional. Programs which do properly use the overlay for their video playback, such as PowerDVD, must disable the fancy translucency effects of Vista’s Aero interface for the duration of the video’s playback (hardly the worst thing in the world, but there you go), so maybe Microsoft figured users would prefer having to watch substandard video to seeing their taskbar go opaque when they sit down to watch Man & Guns: The Movie. That’s the only possible explanation I can think of (unless, of course, you think it’s all a big conspiracy between Teh Evil Conglomerate$ to make you buy a copy of PowerDVD), because it’s a major oversight and it means that Windows Media Player is really not an option for me when it comes to video playback.

Luckily, there are alternatives. I already mentioned PowerDVD, although it does have a rather clunky interface that doesn’t exactly make it ideal when you just want to grab an .avi and get going. Another option, and the one that I am using right now, is Media Player Classic, a freeware program patterned after Microsoft’s own Media Player 6 (a much less bloated and more streamlined piece of software than the monstrosity currently in circulation), which offers something that the official Media Player simply doesn’t have: control. The makers of this small piece of free software have thoughtfully included an options screen which allows you to specify how you want your video to be displayed. In my case, that meant unchecking “VMR9 (renderless)” (the option used by the official Vista Media Player) and selecting “Overlay Mixer”.

Common sense

Result: hardware acceleration is up and running and my videos now look every bit as good as they did in Windows XP.

It’s the little things like this that generally make me so wary of upgrading to newer versions of software. If you’re going to remove functionality in a new iteration of a program, surely it makes sense to give the user the option to re-enable it? Hide it away in some obscure sub-menu if you have to, but don’t saddle me with inferior quality without a valid reason. It’s not as if overlay support is impossible in Vista: PowerDVD and Media Player Classic prove that it’s as easy as pie. I’d really like to hear Microsoft’s explanation for this one.

 
Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2008 at 7:41 PM
Categories: Technology
 
 

 
 
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