January 2009

 
 

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DVDs I bought or received in the month of January

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • January 2, 2009: The Messengers (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 2, 2009: The Untouchables (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 2, 2009: Poltergeist (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 2, 2009: Black Sheep (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 5, 2009: Death Proof (Region ABC USA, Blu-ray)
  • January 5, 2009: Planet Terror (Region ABC USA, Blu-ray)
  • January 22, 2009: The 39 Steps (2008 BBC TV version) (Region 2 UK, DVD) [review copy]
  • January 26, 2009: Peep Show: Series 5 (Region 2 UK, DVD)
  • January 29, 2009: Shaun of the Dead (Region 0 UK, HD DVD) [gift]
  • January 30, 2009: The Butterfly Effect (Region A Canada, Blu-ray)
  • January 30, 2009: American Psycho (Region ABC Australia, Blu-ray)
  • January 30, 2009: The Descent (Region ABC Australia, Blu-ray)
 
Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 10:42 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | TV
 

Houston, we have a problem…

Technology

As of this evening, my PC’s sound system won’t turn on. Nothing happens at all: the whole thing appears to be dead. Reading around the web, it would appear that the most likely explanation is that the fuse has blown. Apparently, this is a fairly common problem with this system (Logitech Z-5500), with a number of users reporting an extremely short lifespan for the fuse that comes with the speakers. Assuming this is the problem (and I’m crossing my fingers that the issue isn’t more complex, because I could do without the hassle of having to return the whole kit and caboodle), then fixing it should be fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to have a pile of 2-amp fuses lying around, so it looks as if a trip to the shops will be in order tomorrow. It’s funny - you don’t realise how much you rely on sound until you find yourself without it.

 
Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 10:35 PM
Categories: Technology | Web
 

Another bonzer Aussie BD

Blu-ray Blu-ray

Back in February 2007, Lions Gate released Mary Harron’s film American Psycho on Blu-ray Disc in the US, and a thoroughly cack-handed job they did of it too, delivering an image so processed that every single edge had masses and masses of ringing surrounding it, and all the actors looked like they’d been deep fat fried. To add insult to injury, Lions Gate encoded their horrible image in MPEG-2 on a single layer disc, and junked most of the extras from its DVD counterpart.

Flash forward just under a couple of years, and the film materialises on BD in Australia, under the auspices of Sony Pictures. Now, I try not to judge books by their covers, but come on: Sony or Lions Gate? Who would you trust to get the job done? I ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday, and we had a fine evening watching Bruce Wayne… sorry, Patrick Bateman… slicing and dicing his way through a variety of yuppies, hookers and bums. So, is the Australian disc an improvement on its woeful US counterpart? You bet it is. No, it’s not a stellar-looking title by any means, suffering from a degree of ringing and a slight diffuseness, but it’s a significant step up all the same. The upgrade to an AVC encode on a dual layer disc gives the film more room to breathe, reducing artefacting, while detail and overall realism are greatly improved thanks to considerably less ringing and noise reduction. By the looks of it, the same master was used for both discs, but Sony managed to restrain themselves from subjecting it to the added round of digital post-processing applied by Lions Gate. You just have to look at Examples 13 and 14 to see how much less distracting ringing there is, and Examples 6 and 8 to see how the reduced filtering makes subtle (and some not so subtle) improvements to the overall level of detail. Unfortunately, as with the Lions Gate release, a number of the extras are still MIA (the same ones, actually), but, in every other respect, the Australian release constitutes a major upgrade from the miserable-looking US disc… meaning that Lions Gate got pantsed by the Aussies twice in a row (c.f. The Descent).

(Screen captures after the jump…)

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Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 8:21 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

The pinacle of writerspeak

The scriptwriter's most dangerous weapon

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the writerspeak, i.e. the phenomenon of a character in a work of fiction serving as a mouthpiece for the writer and delivering dialogue (often expository in nature) that no real person would utter. Today, while at work, I found myself with nothing to read during the lunch hour, so, casting my eye around for some literature, I came across Jumping the Cracks by Victoria Blake. The cover art was striking, and the synopsis on the back made it sound interesting.

Unfortunately, I quickly realised that what I’d picked up was in fact the fourth instalment in a series of novels featuring the same character, Oxford-based private investigator Sam Falconer. That’s not necessarily a problem - I have a habit of starting midway through a series and catching up later. However, the author of this particular book opts to fill the reader in on the events of the previous novels with some of the most blatant writerspeak I’ve ever come across. Here, for your pleasure, is an extract from a conversation between Sam and her business partner, Alan, regarding their new office. On page 6, Sam is showing Alan the new sign for the window:

‘We don’t have to change the name [said Alan]. We can still use “The Gentle Way” if you want.’

‘It’s a new start, Alan. And anyway in the last year my life has felt like one of those protracted car crashes that closes the motorway for miles in both directions. There’s been absolutely nothing gentle about it at all. I’ve had petrol poured over me and been threatened with being set on fire, I’ve been beaten up I don’t know how many times, I’ve been shot at and threatened with a knife and hung over Putney Bridge by my ankles, you’ve been stabbed, and then Mark was kidnapped.’

That’s just a brief sample. Virtually the whole of the first chapter is filled with conversations like this, in which the characters tell each other things they already know in considerable (and eloquent) detail for the benefit of the reader. I must stress that I am, all things considered, rather enjoying the book, and the writerspeak does begin to recede after a while, but a scorcher like the one quoted above is hardly the best impression to give a reader. So does anyone have any prize examples of writerspeak that they would like to share?

 
Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 7:59 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Books
 

Australia to the rescue

Blu-ray Blu-ray

My copy of the Australian Blu-ray Disc of The Descent, distributed by Icon Home Entertainment, arrived today (along with some other BD goodies which I’ll hopefully get a chance to post about tomorrow evening). You may remember my post from a week ago which outlined the situation regarding this release and its rather dramatic colour palette difference from the US version put out by Lions Gate. So, how does it measure up? Given that the pressing of the US release which features the superior AVC encode is now extremely hard to come by, with the poorer quality MPEG-2 version having all but replaced it, is this Australian version, itself AVC encoded, an adequate replacement? The answer is “yes”… and then some.

First, some screen captures. There are so many significant differences between the two versions that I ended up with a large number and struggled to cut it down to a reasonable amount. Eventually, I settled on 20 images for each, down from approximately 70 beforehand (!!). Hopefully these give you some idea of the improvements made with the Australian release.

(Screen captures after the jump…)

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Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 10:52 PM | Comments: 12 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

A very bloody Christmas

Television

I’m afraid there won’t be a DVD review this week. I’ve simply been too busy, both with PhD work (I need to turn in a draft of what will eventually become my first analysis chapter before the end of March) and with the day job (since the beginning of the year, I’ve been getting sent on relief to various libraries around Glasgow, with the travel cutting into my “me” time). Rather than post nothing, though (which would be bad manners after I promised a review every week), I decided to dig up a piece I’d previously started and polish it up to a standard fit to be seen by other eyes. It’s a review of the 2-parter Barbara Machin wrote for Casualty during Christmas 2006. As such, it’s a bit late coming, and it’s a little on the long-winded side, but hey - at least it allows me to avoid breaking one of my New Year resolutions.

 
Killing Me Softly and Silent Night
Series 21, Episodes 15 and 16
Written by Barbara Machin; Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence
Originally aired December 23rd and 24th, 2006

It's been too long.

It’s been too long.

A normal Christmas Eve shift in Holby City Hospital’s Accident & Emergency department: patients suffering from various ailments, minor and major, are waiting to be treated, and the staff are knuckling down while each having to juggle the demands of the job with their own personal woes. However, unbeknownst to them, two members of the team are about to come face to face with death in a very literal sense as what seems like a bog standard day turns into anything but. Nothing will ever be the same again come the end of the shift…

I’ve probably watched this two-parter more times than any other episode of Casualty made in the last decade, and with good reason: as far as I’m concerned, these are the best episodes that have been made at least since we entered the twenty-first century, and you have to go back to, oh, say, Series 12 and Love Me Tender to find an episode of comparable quality. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any great episodes between “Love Me Tender” and this two-parter - there definitely have, but the calibre of these episodes is such that they eclipse everything else made in recent years.

I think that part of what makes these episodes stand out is that they fall bang in the middle of a very rough patch in Casualty’s history. Series 21 is, as I’ve said a few times now, in my opinion the absolute worst series of all time, due to a combination of lazy writing, inconsistent characterisation, unbelievable storylines and a genuine sense that no-one on the writing staff knew or cared what they were doing. It says a lot about how bad things had got that it took an outsider to turn the show on its head and, arguably, show the regulars how it should be done. That someone, of course, is Barbara Machin, who, along with the likes of Bryan Elsley (Skins), Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford) and Peter Bowker (Blackpool), was part of a bold, daring team of writers that joined the show when it was in the early stages of becoming Great Television (™) and helped lead it through its golden age period. Machin left Casualty after writing Series 13’s excellent episode One From the Heart, and from then went on to do Waking the Dead, of which I’m a massive fan, as you probably know.

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Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 12:13 PM
Categories: General | PhD | Reviews | TV
 

How on earth did that happen?

Blu-ray HD DVD

So far, the Universal titles that have made the jump from HD DVD to Blu-ray have been a bit of a mixed back. Broadly speaking, titles on BD that are sourced from a digital intermediate (DI) have generally at least been the equal of their HD DVD counterparts, if not actually bettering them (some, including Miami Vice, have benefited from the increased bandwidth and bit rates afforded by BD), while those taken from print sources (such as U-571 and the first two Mummy films) have suffered from an added layer of DNR, resulting in the not-so-hilarious irony that the versions available on a defunct format actually look better than those released on the winning system. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it has applied to most of the cases that have come under the microscope.

When I posted captures for the HD DVD release of The Bourne Identity back in December, I half-jokingly said that I’d taken these screenshots so I had evidence ready for when the BD version came out in January, probably looking inferior. Well, fortunately for all concerned, I now have to eat a slice of humble pie. You see, not only does the BD of The Bourne Identity not look worse than its HD DVD predecessor, it actually looks better.

Yes, in a curious twist, Universal would appear to have finally woken up and heard the criticism being hurled at them on account of their inferior BDs. The newly released BD of The Bourne Identity, available in The Bourne Trilogy box set, actually shows more visible grain and detail than its predecessor. Captures have been posted by Xylon at the AV Science Forum, and they show that, while not night and day, the improvement is significant enough to potentially warrant double dipping (although I personally will wait for the set to come down significantly in price). The increased bit rate afforded by BD’s larger capacity also means that noticeable improvements have been made to the compression on The Bourne Supremacy, while The Bourne Ultimatum, already a magnificent HD DVD, looks set to be at the very least its equal on BD.

All in all, this is very promising news, and I hope it means that we can now expect better from Universal on BD. I don’t doubt that they’ll continue to dust off grotty masters for some of their catalogue titles, but at least it looks like there’s now a good chance that they won’t look any worse than their HD DVD counterparts. Potential customers can buy with impunity: the Bourne BD box set looks like a winner.

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 2:15 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Donkey Punch Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Last night, we watched a rental copy of Optimum’s Region B Blu-ray Disc release of Donkey Punch, a British horror movie from 2008. I didn’t really know anything at all about it going in, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised by it. Note that I’m using “pleasantly” in the loosest possible sense of the word, as in actual fact it’s a pretty nasty little movie that rarely pulls any punches and is the absolute antithesis to the PG-13 “horror” movies Hollywood tends to churn out over the summer. (It’s also considerably nastier than many of the so-called “torture porn”* R-rated Hollywood horrors, if only because psychologically it’s a whole lot more unpleasant.) I didn’t actually know what the enonymous “donkey punch” of the film’s title was, and for those who are in the same position as me, I’m not going to spoil it. Instead, I’ll just say that the film is tense, ballsy and unpredictable, and definitely worth a look if you’re tired of your horror movies always coming in one of the two approved configurations (PG-13 horror-lite or R-rated “torture porn”).

So, tarmaccing, huh?

Donkey Punch was shot using some sort of reasonably high-end digital apparatus, and this is readily evident in Optimum’s BD, which alternates between looking very good and not very good at all. The whole image has been slightly filtered, as evinced by the consistent ringing at the top and bottom edges of the 1.85:1 frame. Luckily, there aren’t many high contrast edges in the film, so this is less destructive than it is in, say, Kung Fu Panda, which I watched a couple of days ago and which suffered from exactly the same issue. Compression artefacts do show up on a number of occasions; see, for example, shots 3 and 5. By far the biggest issue, though, is digital noise. Shots which take place in bright light generally look very good indeed, but many of those that take place in the dark are afflicted by a large amount of pronounced interference, which looks nothing like film grain and gives the image a rather cheap, home-made appearance. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the digital photography, which means that what we find on the disc is pretty much an accurate representation of the source materials (barring the filtering), but it’s not nice to look at. 6/10

Donkey Punch
studio: Optimum; country: UK; region code: B; codec: AVC;
file size: 18.5 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 26.76 Mbit/sec

Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch

* Note: I actually hate the term “torture porn”, but it’s in such wide usage that it seems to be the most straightforward way of conveying the sort of films I’m talking about.

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 10:29 AM | Comments: 13 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Death Proof Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

We watched the BD of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof last night, and I must say that the film has gone up a little in my estimation since I last saw it. While, previously, I felt that only the final half-hour was worth anything, I actually found myself getting into the first half a lot more this time round. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that, watching it in high definition on a 123” screen, I was able to appreciate the vibe Tarantino was aiming for much more easily. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but what I do know is that, after the first half, when the focus switches from one set of girls to another, I began to lose interest, and that didn’t pick up until the justly lauded final half-hour. The fact that Tarantino, for some reason, opts to dispense with the deliberately degraded film stock once he moves on to Zoë Bell and her chums, does a lot to back up my earlier theory. Simply put, there’s something cool and atmospheric about watching a bunch of people wittering away in Tarantino-speak on what looks like a beat-up old print, but, when doing the same with another bunch of people, only this time on a pristine print, the effect is lessened considerably. Still, barring that sag in the middle, I do think this is a pretty decent film. It’s no masterpiece, for sure, but I’m not convinced it’s the train wreck some people think it is. I just wish it could have been edited a little tighter. Tarantino’s biggest problem is that he’s infuriatingly self-indulgent (and I’m not just talking about him inserting himself into roles in his movies).

On to the transfer, and, as with Planet Terror, it’s quite difficult to objectively assess the image quality, because once again the look is intentionally that of a grubby old print, at least for the first hour or so. The big difference is that, unlike Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino actually shot his segment of Grindhouse on film, and then physically degraded the elements, rather than resorting to artificial digital trickery. As a result, it looks a whole lot more authentic than anything in Planet Terror, and vastly more atmospheric. Perhaps as a result of the real world degrading, Death Proof is significantly less detailed than its partner in crime, but in my opinion more pleasing to look at overall.

Moving on to the “clean” half of the film, this part is much easier to critique because, this time round, it’s not meant to look bad. Perhaps because he didn’t want a repeat of the overly clean Kill Bill, Tarantino opted not to go for a digital intermediate on this film, so the master used for this BD is derived from a print source. Wisely, The Weinstein Company have opted to leave the material alone, so the grain appears to be intact. There is a degree of softness to the image, and some prominent haloing (see Example 14 for a particularly pronounced example), but I suspect that this is down to the source materials rather than any trickery on the digital front. Aesthetically, it’s not as nice as a lot of recent films on BD, but I’m fairly convinced it’s a faithful reproduction of the film elements.

As with Planet Terror, I’m going to refrain from giving this disc an overall rating for image quality, but, looking at the “clean” segment alone, I suspect a high 8/10 or low 9/10 would be in order.

Death Proof
studio: Weinstein; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 27.7 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 34.92 Mbit/sec

Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof

 
Posted: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 10:47 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 11 and 12: Yahrzeit

DVD

Written by Declan Croghan; Directed by Tim Fywell

We finally come to the final episode of Series 6. It’s been a long trawl, and at times has felt like a chore, but at least we get a half-decent episode to finish off the season. This one finally brings to a head the “Mel’s bracelet” plot that has been simmering in the background throughout the series, and it does an interesting job of finally bringing Boyd to properly acknowledge her death, while as the same time concocting an interesting tale around the murder of a young girl in a London backstreet in 1945. We kick off with a ceremonial Nazi dagger being delivered in a package addressed to Mel at CCHQ, with the plot thickening when it is discovered to have originated from a derelict house once occupied by the Dusniaks, a family of Polish-Jewish refugees who settled there at around the time of the young girl’s death. The dagger is discovered to be the murder weapon, and as a result Boyd launches an investigation into the Dusniaks, unearthing a whole lot of secrets that certain members of the family would prefer to remain hidden.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out why it is that this episode works better then the rest of series, and the best explanation I can really come up with is that it presents us with a tangible idea. Most of the cases this series have been rather oblique, exhibiting a strange ethereality and dealing with vague ideas, more often than not focusing more on trippy hallucinations and flashbacks and less on deduction. Yahrzeit’s story is not only a concrete one but a deeply emotive one, using the backdrop of Josef Mengele’s experiments on children under the Third Reich and spinning a complicated web involving subterfuge identity theft. The puzzle at the heart of the episode isn’t particularly hard to work out, though. Once an elderly man in the throes of dementia who is supposedly a Polish Jew starts wittering away in German and calling his grandson by the wrong name it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, and this is only compounded when his daughter begins waxing lyrical about her life in Panama and attempts to spirit him away there, before admitting defeat and providing him with a cyanide pill when the police start asking awkward questions. Still, the plot is at least well-concocted, and, as is often the case with Waking the Dead mysteries, the fun lies in trying to work out the specifics of who did what to who and why rather than the broad whodunit.

Not that I’d class this as a particularly “fun” episode. Indeed, given the subject matter, it’s understandably bleak, albeit ending on a note of optimism that I must say feels a tad forced. Much of this has less to do with the central mystery itself and is more concerned with Sarah (Michelle Forbes), a mysterious American woman who enters the picture as a nuisance and ends up canoodling with Boyd in front of an uproariously unconvincing blue-screen New York backdrop. Sarah is in fact a Mossad agent, and was communicating with Mel just prior to her death. To go into specifics would be to give the game away, and would probably be rather boring to read, but it’s not spoiling too much to reveal that, despite Mossad being illegal in the UK, Boyd allows her to swan around with the rest of the team, make key decisions as regards the investigation and generally act like a snotty bitch. Michelle is a rather loathsome character, and it’s a little too much to swallow that the thoroughly dictatorial Boyd would tolerate her, let alone enter into a relationship with her. (I also have trouble processing the image of her and Mel being friends, but there you go.)

Incidentally, in this episode, we are told that Mel was attempting to trace her Jewish roots prior to her death. Given that Mel was almost certainly not Jewish by birth (as revealed in the Series 4 episode Fugue States, she was born Mary Price and adopted as a baby), I’m not entirely convinced by the use of the word “roots”, but then again, I suppose you can argue that it fits with the “you are who you choose to be” message that the writer clumsily shoehorns into Boyd’s dialogue towards the end. Personally, I’m more content to see this as nothing more than a continuity gaffe, albeit a minor one compared to the clunker the writers drop in the next series in the form of Boyd’s son.

“Yahrzeit”, by the way, is a Hebrew word, meaning the anniversary of a relative, commemorated by the lighting of a candle for the deceased and the reciting of religious text. Thematically, it’s a very appropriate title for the episode.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 10:06 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

A close call

iDoorstop

Recently, while looking into 1080p monitors for my PC, I came very close to considering an Apple LED Cinema Display. I can’t say that Apple is generally the first supplier I think of when it comes to purchasing computer components: I’m not a Mac user, probably never will be, and in any event their goods tend to be a little too expensive for my tastes. That’s not to say, however, that I have anything against the peripherals they sell; it’s just that, as a PC user, it doesn’t generally cross my mind to go for products designed for Macs, even when compatibility isn’t an issue. Still, I have to admit that the LED Cinema Display is a very attractive beast, and I don’t just mean it’s made of nicer plastic than the competition. Its main draw is its use of LED technology, which, in comparison with the more widely used LCD technology, uses less power, is less likely to fade over time, and may also result in more uniform backlighting.

Unfortunately, the LED Cinema Display currently sells for about £600. That’s a lot of money to fork out for a 24” computer screen, although not, in my opinion, if you have very exacting standards and the product ends up delivering what you’re looking for. Some people pay a premium for fancy clothes, jewellery, or fast cars; for me, it’s computer equipment, particularly where image quality is concerned. So, while the price tag did make me shudder, it certainly wasn’t enough to deter me from looking into the product.

I’m extremely glad I carried out this preliminary research, therefore, because, had I just waltzed into Glasgow’s Apple temple and picked up this monitor, I would have got home to find that, not only does it not have a power button of any kind (this is, you must remember, coming from the company that removed the ability to select songs from one of its MP3 players and marketed this as a “feature” rather than the lack thereof), but actually can’t be connected to PCs. Not unreasonable, you might think, given that it’s an Apple product designed first and foremost for use with their own systems. But then, after digging a little further, I discovered that not only have PC users been shut out in the cold, so too has just about every Mac user. The LED Cinema Display, rather than using a conventional DVI or HDMI connector, is equipped with Apple’s own proprietary Mini DisplayPort, which is only compatible with the MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro with Mini DisplayPort. That’s right: even the majority of Mac users are locked out of using this device.

Well done, guys. You almost had me for a moment. I strongly doubt that I’ll ever switch from Windows to MacOS or buy an Apple computer instead of building my own PC (if you’re not going to run MacOS, what would be the point?), but I might at least have been tempted to buy one of your glamorous displays, were it not for the fact that it would be nothing more than an attractive doorstop. Genius, just genius.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 7:34 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Technology
 

Kung Fu Panda Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

I don’t like to tar an entire studio with the same brush, but broadly speaking I haven’t thought much of DreamWorks’ animated output. Barring their collaborations with Aardman, most of their stuff leaves me cold, with unattractive character designs, stiff animation, bland celebrity voices, irritating pop culture references and a lack of actual story development. Tonight, though, we watched the UK Blu-ray Disc of Kung Fu Panda, a rental copy of which has been sitting on my desk for some time, and I have to say it entertained me. It still suffered from some of the same problems that have plagued other DreamWorks films, most notably the overuse of celebrity actors who no-one remembers for their voices, as well as some truly hideous-looking character designs, but it was, overall, an enjoyable 92 minutes and certainly a whole heap better than, say, Shrek. Overall, I’d say it clocks in a couple of pegs below Pixar’s worst, which would be (in my opinion) A Bug’s Life.

Transfer-wise… well, this one has been praised in virtually every circle as “perfect”, “reference quality”, etc. Some viewers do seem to be under the impression that digitally-sourced animation is inherently flawless and couldn’t possibly look bad on BD. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, it can. Discs like Ratatouille and Open Season are basically perceptually perfect (at least to my eyes), but, at the other end of the spectrum, The Simpsons Movie and Asterix and the Vikings, both of which are traditionally animated but were composited entirely on computers, suffer from needless low pass filtering, which removes the finest level of detail and adds unsightly ringing to edges with his contrasts.

Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda is in this latter category, again thanks to filtering. The overall effect is actually far from awful, and indeed I can even understand why many people have failed to notice this problem, but it’s definitely there, and it’s consistent throughout. If you look at any of the screen captures below, you’ll see that the letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the image suffer from a mild amount of ringing. This sort of thing is almost always indicative of filtering of some sort, and indeed if you look at, for example, the branches in Example 13 or the rope bridge in Example 14, you can see clearly the extent to which it affects the image as a whole. In the end, it’s definitely a very watchable transfer, but it’s a shame it looks like this, because it didn’t have to. Digital animation may not automatically look perfect, but it could and should. 8/10

Kung Fu Panda
studio: Paramount; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 22.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 35.44 Mbit/sec

Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda

 
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 9:48 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

DVD Review: Trial & Retribution: The Fourth Collection

DVD
With this fourth collection, essentially all the Trial & Retributions that are worth owning have been released on DVD. The subsequent 2008 series really wasn’t much cop at all, and, going by what has aired so far of the 2009 series, things are unlikely to get any better. Perhaps the time has come to put Trial & Retribution to rest: as it stands, it has now completed its de-evolution into another run-of-the-mill police thriller and is therefore serving no particular purpose in a schedule already jam-packed with run-of-the-mill police thrillers. What started out as a unique and inventive take on the investigative and judiciary processes is now left with precious little sense of its own identity, and while the three episodes included in this set are all of a decent standard, all but one of them are a far cry from what was being produced in the series’ heyday. At least the relatively agreeable price tag - less than £15 at our cheapest affiliate - helps cushion the blow somewhat, with Curriculum Vitae coming close to justifying the cost alone.

With the latest series of Trial & Retribution currently airing on ITV1, I examine the fourth volume of the series on DVD, which contains the final three episodes from the 2007 season. Review at DVD Times.

 
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 8:37 PM
Categories: DVD | Reviews | TV
 

Deeper descent

Blu-ray Blu-ray

You may remember, when I wrote my review of the US Blu-ray Disc release of The Descent, that I mentioned that two completely different colour grades of the film appeared to have been created, with the US BD showing a completely different colour palette from my old 2-disc UK DVD. This wasn’t simply a case of the colours having been pushed slightly in the direction of, say, accentuating the reds or the blues, or the contrast having been tweaked: someone had to have gone in and altered the digital intermediate. (You can see a couple of examples of these differences if you visit my review, the second of which shows one of the most extreme instances of this discrepancy.) Personally, while I hold the US BD up as one of the best-looking high definition titles ever released, I’ve always been slightly disappointed that the darker, richer “UK grade” hadn’t made it to BD.

Until now, that is. Recently, Icon Home Entertainment released The Descent on BD in Australia. Discussing this new release at the AV Science Forum, poster kingkong650, having noticed differences in the colour palette when compared to the older US release, said:

Following on from what I mentioned in a previous post about the difference in colour I noticed between the US MPEG-2 version and the Australian version, I decided to investigate a little bit further, so I went looking for my UK DVD of The Descent, the version where I watched the film for the first time, to see what the colours were like on that version. Once I finally found it under piles of dvds stashed away, what I saw was pretty interesting.

The part where I’ve really noticed a big difference in colour is just after they arrive at the hole, when they’re preparing the ropes and harnesses to go down. The US MPEG-2 version has a strong blue tint while the Australian release’s colours are more natural looking and also seem a little brighter. When Juno goes down the hole and looks up, in the US version the light streaming through the hole looks white and the reflection on her face is tinted blue, while in the Australian version, the light streaming down is more golden and the reflected light on her face reflects that.

When I put the UK DVD in and jumped to the same bit in the film, the colours were very similar to the Australian version, with the light looking golden rather than white and no sign of the blue tint of the US release. It’s bizarre that they released different colour schemes for this film. Makes me wonder which one the director considers the definative version?

You can follow the discussion that ensued for yourselves, but the long and short of it is that we think the Australian BD has the same colour timing as the UK DVD. I’ve been trying to avoid double dipping of late (except when it comes to upgrading titles I own on DVD to BD), but my admiration for this film, and my preference for the “UK grade”, caused me to cave in and order myself a copy of the new edition from DVD Crave. A full comparison will be carried out once my copy arrives. Given that the US BD (well, the AVC version at any rate, rather than the inferior MPEG-2 re-release) is one of the best-looking titles out there, the Australian release will have its work cut out trying to match it, let alone beat it, but word of mouth so far seems very promising.

PS. In case anyone’s wondering, the Australian release has been confirmed to be region-free, just like the US version.

 
Posted: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 9:09 AM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology | Web
 

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 9 and 10: Double Bind

DVD

Written by Richard Warlow; Directed by Andy Hay

Confession time: the first time this episode aired, I gave up on it at the end of the first part. That, for me, is incredibly rare. Generally, if I start watching a show, I stick with it, especially if it’s part of a long-running series I’ve been following since the beginning. For whatever reason, though, something about this episode served to distance me from it so much that I just couldn’t continue with it. Maybe it was the dizzying jump cuts, time lapse photography and clumsily “trippy” scenes. Maybe it was Miles Anderson running around gurning like a ninny and doing a piss-poor job of portraying a man off his face on LSD. Maybe it was the fact that Grace barely appears in the episode. Or maybe it was because I was feeling under the weather at the time - I can’t actually remember.

The point is that something about this episode was so unpalatable to me that I did something I almost never do. What makes this double strange is that, watching it for a second time, and actually watching both parts instead of just the first, I didn’t get the same feeling of revulsion or apathy (whichever it was). For reasons that I’ll go into in a moment, this is not a particularly good episode, but it’s far from the worst of the season or indeed the series as a whole. Basically, the story goes that, as a teenagers, Daniel Lennon (Miles Anderson) stabbed both his parents to death and has spent his entire life since then incarcerated in a psychiatric unit. One day, on the way back from a trip to the ophthalmologist with his psychiatrist, Dr. Caroline Ritter (Jill Baker), he forces the car off the road and, in the confusion, escapes. The first thing he does is to log on in an Internet café and send an email to the owners of a house in Hampstead, telling them to dig up their flowerbed. Surprise, surprise, there’s a body buried there, and a post-mortem reveals that the death is likely to have taken place weeks before Lennon killed his parents. Is he another of Lennon’s victims, or is (in Waking the Dead tradition) more going on than meets the eye? Meanwhile, Grace has had enough of Boyd’s erratic behaviour and, declaring that she can’t work with him any more, walks out on the team.

I’m still not entirely sure why Grace was all but written out of this two-parter. In terms of characterisation, it makes sense for her to walk out, and it actually comes as something of a pleasant surprise to hear her finally telling Boyd that enough is enough. The problem is that it’s never resolved. Grace leaves, comes back briefly (in Part 2) to interview a key witness, then leaves again, but come the next episode, it’s as if nothing ever happened. As someone who stuck with the show for so long because I enjoyed the characters and their interaction, this feels like a complete slap in the face. Okay, I’ll grant you, there is some nice writing here and there, with the team’s discussions often petering out or reaching dead ends because, without Grace there to provide the psychological perspective, a vital component of what makes them work is missing. It’s also mildly amusing to see Boyd rooting around in Grace’s office, pouring over some of her textbooks and trying to figure out the psych angle himself, but, bereft of the character, the show feels remarkably empty.

The central mystery that is the focus of the episode can’t make up for this lack either. While it starts out reasonably promising, with Part 1 raising numerous questions and the web of clues and suspects suitably tortuous, the pay-off simply doesn’t justify the setup. To be blunt, the explanation to the mystery is utterly mundane, meaning that the journey to get there hardly feels worthwhile. Oh, and a certain character’s identity, a major issue particularly in the second part, is staggeringly obvious you wonder why the writers even bothered trying to set it up as a puzzle.

On a side note, my reviews have now caught up with my viewing. Now I just need to watch Yahrzeit and Series 6 will be done and dusted. I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see the back of it.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 1:48 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 7 and 8: Mask of Sanity

DVD

Written by Laurence Davey and Declan Croghan; Directed by David Thacker

James Jenson (Nicholas Beveney) is released from the secure psychiatric unit in which he has spent the last 20 years. Prior to being incarcerated, he was the prime suspect in the murders of three men connected to the children’s home in which he grew up, but was deemed unfit to stand trial. On the day of his release, however, the widow of one of his victims receives a package containing the wallets belonging to each of the three dead men. Boyd reopens the investigation and, in the process, digs up a veritable hornet’s nest in the form of a catalogue of abuse surrounding the children’s home, of which James was but one of many victims. Were the murdered men the perpetrators of this abuse and were their killings acts of revenge carried out by their victims, or is there more to the case than meets the eye?

Mask of Sanity is far from the worst episode of Waking the Dead, but it is an incredibly derivative one. The theme of the institutionalied abuse of children was already handled with far more panache, and indeed by the same director, in the Series 3 episode Breaking Glass. Here, we have an unusually generic tale that essentially plods from plot point to plot point, and not always particularly convincingly, offering up a portrait of cruelty that somehow manages to be both quite harrowing and utterly mundane at the same time. None of the various characters paraded before us, or their tortuous web of relationships, are particularly interesting, and the unravelling of the mystery itself is played out in such a way as to leave this episode virtually indistinguishable from that of any other halfway competent detective drama.

I should probably also mention that, in this episode, Boyd’s behaviour towards the rest of his team, particularly Grace, becomes utterly despicable. In the early years, Boyd’s temper was like an ever-present fuse just waiting to be lit, and his flare-ups were generally interesting to watch. Here, however, there’s no rhyme or reason to the way he treats his colleagues or his suspects, repeatedly undermining Grace in incredibly demeaning ways and, early on, deliberately goading a clearly frightened and mentally deficient suspect into committing an act of violence. This sort of behaviour has gone beyond ever being charming and now just seems mean-spirited.

Oh yeah, and, with this episode, my dad, who is suffering through this project with me, commented: “Is it just me or are they [i.e. the writers] trying to make Spence look as stupid as possible?” I think he may be right. By this stage, the character has all but stopped ceased to function as an actual person and is now relegated to merely being the dim-witted, bumbling plod who constantly loses suspects he’s supposed to be tailing or gets himself beaten up by thugs when he blunders into their path.

Holby connections: until recently, Richard Dillane (Ricardo Rivelli) had a recurring role in Casualty as orthopaedic consultant Sean Anderson.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 5:35 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 5 and 6: The Fall

DVD

Written by Damian Wayling; Directed by Robert Bierman

The conjoined corpses of a man and a woman, shot dead with the same bullet during a sex act, are discovered when the floor of a concealed room gives ways in a former City bank, which went down the tubes in the aftermath of 1992’s Black Wednesday. The man is identified as Mervyn Simmel (Nigel Whitmey), one of the bank’s directors, while the woman turns out to be Katherine Keane (Alison Doody), a journalist known for having a string of affairs with wealthy older men, many of whom hold down prominent government positions. The team’s investigation reveals several potential suspects, one of whom, Lucien Calvin (Peter Capaldi), a former partner at the bank, now clearly deranged and lecturing on the evils of capitalism, seems to be the likeliest.

This episode is undoubtedly a step up from its dire predecessor, but, watching it, one gets the impression that the writer relied a little too heavily on The Da Vinci Code for inspiration - not a good state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination. What this means is that, while Peter Boyd is a considerably more interesting character than Robert Langton (not that it’s difficult to be more interesting than Robert Langton), he does spend rather a lot of time chasing self-flagellating members of a secret society - yet another secret society with the spectre of religion hanging over it, which, hot on the heels of Wren Boys’ sinister nunnery and Deus Ex Machina’s Islamic overtones, means that things are beginning to feel a bit samey.

The highlight of this episode is undoubtedly Peter Capaldi, a fantastic character actor who plays the character of Calvin brilliantly, imbuing him with just the right mix of eccentricity and sinisterness. In the scenes in which he appears, the episode comes alive, and his interaction with Boyd and Grace is fascinating on many levels. In the most straightforward sense, it’s a pleasure to watch three extremely talented actors playing off each other; on a deeper level, writer Damian Wayling weaves a fascinating “family” undercurrent, with Boyd and Grace fairly obviously serving, in Calvin’s eyes, as surrogates for his own domineering father and docile mother, respectively. In Series 6 and 7 there is, on the whole, very little of the Boyd/Grace dynamic that helped make the first five series so enjoyable, so it’s very nice to see it making a welcome, albeit brief, return here.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 4:52 PM
Categories: Books | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 3 and 4: Deus Ex Machina

DVD

Written by Nicholas Blincoe; Directed by Andy Hay

This episode manages quite a remarkable feat: on the one hand, it’s completely different from any other episode of Waking the Dead ever aired; on the other, it totally forgettable. It plods along to its conclusion, going in one ear and out the other, leaving no lasting impression. The plot is an odd one that doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the series, clumsily roping Boyd and co into recovering the Skull of the Mahdi, an artefact taken from Sudan as a war trophy more than a century ago, when a prominent Sudanese politician, Khaled Ahmed (Abdi Gouhad), goes on hunger strike. The team are also tasked with re-investigating the murder of an Iraqi refugee, Omar Jaffiri (Hassani Shapi), whose death may be related to the case of the skull. Along the way, they come across the Fakir society, a crowd of pretentious academics who like to dress up in robes and perform bizarre, masonic-like rituals.

Struggling to put my finger on just why this episode left me so cold, I popped over to the BBC’s official Waking the Dead web site and took a gander at the various user reviews that had been submitted. One writer, Ian Gould, hit the nail on the head:

There were too many loose ends and the first part gave the viewer no ideas at all. I expect to be confused but this was beyond confusion, almost bordering on boredom.

[…]

The top and bottom of this episode is that it was based on three ideas of interrogation and that seemed to be the whole plot. I have never been disappointed with this excellent programme before but this particular episode was rubbish.

I apologise for using another viewer’s review in place of my own, but this simply demonstrates how much of a non-entity this episode was for me. Barring some striking images injected by the director, among them Eve’s physical reconstruction of the scene of Jaffiri’s murder, which mixes the past with the present in a manner reminiscent of Series 3’s vastly superior Breaking Glass, I can’t recall a single memorable moment in the storyline’s entire two-hour duration. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I actually watched the episode (I’m currently playing catch-up with my reviews), but I didn’t in any way feel compelled to revisit it. When it aired it was, by a considerable margin, the worst Waking the Dead episode to date, and while I feel that the next season’s Wounds was even poorer, there’s not really all that much between them.

Holby connections: in addition to his appearance in Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, Adam James (Michael Leonard in this episode) had a recurring role in Casualty as lawyer-cum-rapist Pete Guildford during Series 19.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:31 AM
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Cheap and cheerful

Fujitsu Siemens Amilo 3230T

Voilà my new monitor, the Fujitsu Siemens Amilo 3230T.

On January 31st, just as we were about to sit down to the last evening meal of the year, my brother suddenly alerted me to a stupidly good deal over at Misco.co.uk, offering this 23” 1080p display for a mere £137.99 including VAT. I’d been mentioning recently that I wanted to replace my 21” Sony 1680x1050 display with a 1080p model, and this magnificent deal seemed too good to simply pass up. The trouble is, other people clearly felt the same day, as it took until this Tuesday for Misco to source enough stock and Wednesday for it to reach me.

So how is it? Well, it’s clearly a budget monitor, offering no real frills to speak of and using a TN panel and therefore being afflicted by the usual caveats associated with the technology, namely 6-bit “dithered” colours and a poor viewing angle. I can’t say the angle limitation concerns me unduly, as I always sit looking directly at my screen. Really, what do I care if it takes on an orange tint if I look at it from the side? Likewise, while I can see some people being bothered by the dithering, for me it isn’t an issue unless I actually press my nose against the screen… and, with my current cold, that would simply lead to it getting all snotty, which we definitely don’t want. Also an issue, albeit a slightly less documented one, is a moderately irritating tendency for the bottom of the screen to be slightly brighter than the top, which has affected every TN panel I’ve ever come across to some degree. On this one, it’s not bad, but nor is it ideal. It also lacks a height adjustable stand, a problem because I’m pretty tall and it sits a little too low on my desk for comfortable usage, but I solved this problem fairly easily by sitting it on top of a reasonably chunky hardback book that is unlikely to be needed any time soon (Language Intervention Strategies in Adult Aphasia, in case you’re interested).

Two other complaints frequently levelled against TN panels are poor colour reproduction and contrast ratios. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my brother’s attempts to calibrate my screen using the MonacoOPTIX calibration tool and Colorimètre HCFR software turned out to be pretty successful. Once properly set up, the thing boasted an average gamma of 2.20 (which, my brother tells me, is basically as accurate as it gets) and a contrast ratio of 934:1, both a healthy upgrade over my previous display. (And yes, I’m well aware that Fujistu Siemens claims the display has a ratio of 10,000:1 - that’s just the usual marketing bullshit and bears no resemblance to real world use.) It’s true, the blacks on this new display aren’t as deep (relatively speaking - we’re talking LCD technology and their varying shades of milky grey here) as they were on the old one, but the numbers suggest a finer delineation of the scale between the darkest and brightest hues.

Perfection? Nay, but I never expected it at such a price. In switching from my old Sony MFM-HT205 to the Amilo 3230T, I’ve had to let go of uniform brightness and deeper blacks, but in the process have gained increased desktop real estate, an improved grayscale, and the benefit of now being able to watch 1080p video content without it being downscaled at all. (Incidentally, unlike most widescreen computer monitors, which have an aspect ratio of 16:10, this one is actually true 16:9. This means slightly less vertical resolution - 1920x1080 versus 1920x1200 - but it has the benefit of being a far more widely used ratio, especially as far as video content is concerned.) It also takes up considerably less space and has a much sleeker appearance. Oh, and I no longer have to put up with the MFM-HT205’s reflective surface which, during the summer months, turned the screen into a bloody mirror. Ultimately, I suppose I see this is an interim display to tide me over until I find a screen I really like - and no doubt one that will be considerably more expensive. I don’t foresee myself living with it forever, but for the price I paid, I don’t regret this purchase for an instant, and overall would consider is an improvement on my previous setup.

You can read more about the monitor and its specifications at the Fujitsu Siemens web site.

 
Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009 at 10:55 PM | Comments: 12 (view)
Categories: Books | Technology | Web
 

DVD Review: Trial & Retribution: The Third Collection

DVD
This third Trial & Retribution box set provides us with three episodes that are each, to differing degrees, flawed, but each engaging in their own way. The first two episodes, despite their shortcomings, ultimately make for solid television, with only the third episode threatening to collapse completely due to its shortcomings. It helps, I suspect, that all three episodes were personally penned by Lynda La Plante. This would change all too soon, with La Plante gradually reallocating these duties to various writers-for-hire, but here at least she seems to have been fully invested in the material, which gives the drama both the polish and the truthfulness that lifts her work above that of many other crime writers.

With the latest series of Trial & Retribution currently airing on ITV1, I take a look at the third volume of the series on DVD, containing three episodes produced between 2005 and 2007. Review at DVD Times.

 
Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009 at 8:19 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DVD | Reviews | TV
 
 

 
 
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