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Lola redux


This is a follow-up to my previous post on the Blu-ray release of Run Lola Run, Dear Universal, this is what a catalogue release SHOULD look like.

In the comments section to that post, I was contacted by a regular reader who called into question the Blu-ray transfer and its authenticity as regards Tom Tykwer’s intentions, due to comments made by his friend, a hardcore fan of the film, who reacted in horror, upon seeing my screen captures:

At first glance, I always thought the colours looked messed up on those pics (based on my memory of the film). Lola looked green/yellow-ish on lola4.jpg, and Manni looked purple on lola7.jpg. I compared them to the DVD. And I can now say the colours are totally messed up on the BD. There is also framing issues. As the BD looks cropped on the left/right sides. I’ve seen this movie probably well over a hundred times, and based on these pics, the BD presentations is WAY to much on the green side. I’ve attached pics that showcase all these problems.


My regular reader also sent me a few more of his friend’s thoughts on the transfer (among other issues) via email, and, with his permission, I thought it would be worthwhile to post some of the material that pertains specifically to the matter at hand.

Regarding his familiarity with the film (lest he be accused of basing his opinion on how it should look solely on the previous DVD release):

Well, I’ve seen the film theatrically, but it wasn’t the best presentation. As it was one of those tiny garbage arthouse theatres, with a screen smaller than todays Plasmas and no better than stereo sound.

But I never remember the film looking that green. And, 10 years ago, I had near photographic memory.

The reason I’m taking the time to post all this is to provide an alternate viewpoint on the issue of the film’s transfer. I don’t feel qualified to make a case for the transfer being right or wrong - clearly, my reader’s friend has a familiarity with the film which I do not possess (I consider it a favourite of mine, but at the same time I must point out that I have only seen two versions of it: the Region 2 UK DVD and the Blu-ray release), and on that basis alone (not to mention his obvious technical knowledge, when discussing such issues as VC-1 compression and digital intermediates in his email), I am inclined to trust his viewpoint.

But it’s not my place to say whether the Run Lola Run Blu-ray release looks “correct” or not. I suspect that, as is always going to be the case with a medium like film, especially when we are in the realm of lab printing, which does not provide the accuracy of digital colour timing (where you can create a single master with a locked down colour palette), every source is going to look somewhat different from the others, meaning that it is virtually impossible to identify a single correct look. Looking at the comparison shots linked to above, it should be clear to all that there are obvious differences between the DVD and Blu-ray releases in terms of colour palette, but that’s the one thing I can say for sure.

What I can’t say with any degree of certainty is whether one is more accurate than the other. Yes, you could argue that the Blu-ray release looks a bit too yellow in terms of flesh tones, but someone else might just as easily turn round and say that the DVD looked a bit too magenta. In any event, I’m always somewhat wary of using flesh tones as an indicator of the accuracy of a transfer’s colour palette. Lighting conditions, film stock and all manner of other variables can all affect the look, and that’s before you get into the issue of artistic intent. Who’s to say Tykwer was going for natural flesh tones anyway? One can hardly consider this to be a film with a naturalistic style.

As is always the case with issues like this, the one person who can truly clear up the issue is Tom Tykwer. Did he supervise the original DVD or the Blu-ray release? Did he supervise both or neither? How does he feel about the new look? I don’t know, and, therefore, the only advice I can really give on this matter is to use your own judgement based on the evidence at your disposal. The bottom line is that I’m very happy with the look of the Blu-ray release, although I readily admit that it could be the wrong look. Caveat emptor, and all that.

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008 at 8:44 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology

The rat that got the cream


Ratatouille may have been denied a Best Picture nomination by the Academy, but there can be no doubt it absolutely owned the animation industry’s own equivalent of the Oscars, the Annie Awards, on February 8th. Nominated for virtually every category in which it was eligible, and winning most of them, this is a success that seems to have been matched only by Brad Bird and Pixar’s previous collaboration, The Incredibles.

Ratatouille’s wins were in the following categories: Best Animated Feature, Character Animation in a Feature Production (Michal Makarewicz), Character Design in an Animated Feature Production (Carter Goodrich), Directing in an Animated Feature Production (Brad Bird), Music in an Animated Feature Production (Michael Giacchino), Production Design in an Animated Feature Production (Harley Jessup), Storyboarding in an Animated Feature Production (Ted Mathot), Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production (Ian Holm), and Writing in an Animated Feature Production (Brad Bird).

The short piece, Your Friend the Rat, included on the Ratatouille Blu-ray and DVD releases, also won Best Short Subject.

In addition, animation historian John Canemaker, Ren & Stimpy creator/director John Kricfalusi and veteran Disney animator Glen Keane were honoured with the Winsor McCay Award (for career contributions to the art of animation), while historian Jerry Beck picked up the June Foray Award (for significant and benevolent or charitable impact on the art and industry of animation). Flash creators Jonathan Gay, Gary Grossman and Robert Tatsumi, meanwhile, received the Ub Iwerks Award for technical achievement, while a Special Achievement Annie Award went to Edwin R. Leonard for “promoting the Linux open system for animation in animation studios and gaming software development”.

For a full list of the nominees and winners, see here.

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008 at 11:15 AM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology

Early warnings from Warner

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

Source: High-Def Digest

Warner has announced some of the high profile titles forthcoming coming to Blu-ray (and DVD) over the course of the next year (covering the rest of 2008 and early 2009). These include, in Q2 2008, a Dirty Harry Ultimate Collection, a Batman Anthology in Q3, and, looking further ahead, Gone with the Wind, North by Northwest and The Wizard of Oz in 2009. You can certainly pencil me in for a copy of North by Northwest, which has been one of my most anticipated titles for high definition treatment since the possibility was initially raised at Warner’s Home Theater Forum chat in February 2007.

Obviously, don’t expect to see any of these titles on HD DVD, given that Warner is cutting its ties with the format at the end of May… although Batman Begins did see a (decidedly sub-par) HD DVD release back in 2006.

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2008 at 2:34 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Web

The Criterion mind game


Today, I received my copy of Criterion’s recent re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. This new 2-disc edition, released in November 2007, replaces the old single-disc version from May 1998. As one of the first DVDs Criterion put out (both the original release and the new one are number 3 in the collection), it left rather a lot to be desired in the transfer department, taken from a composite source and filled with dot crawl.

I’m happy to report that the new transfer is a massive improvement, although it does suffer from an extremely irritating practice known as windowboxing, which Criterion have been applying to all their transfers for Academy ratio films for at least a couple of years. Essentially, the entire image is shrunk slightly and surrounded by a black border on all four edges. According to the booklet included inside the DVD case, this is done “to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors”. What they should have said is “to ensure that the maximum image is visible on improperly calibrated televisions”. Overscan is an issue with most television displays, cropping off as much as 10% of the signal image. However, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that those who are serious about film will do everything they can to minimise, if not eliminate, overscan, or buy a display that does not suffer from it in the first place (such as most projectors, as well as the majority of modern 1080p LCD or plasma displays).

A nice improvement, but what's with the black border? Click for full size image.

Above: A nice improvement, but what’s with the black border? Click for full size image.

Why, then, is Criterion, a company that caters specifically to cinephiles and prides itself on the highest possible quality standards (more on this later) effectively authoring discs, as one of my fellow netizens put it, “to look best on the worst equipment”? I can think of no other studio who routinely shrinks the image and therefore throws away valuable resolution. This is standard definition NTSC we’re talking about, with a resolution of 720x480. Every line of resolution should be valued, not thrown away in order to prevent a small amount of the image being cropped on Joe Sixpack and Mary-Jane Rottencrotch’s tube display. The windowboxing on this release is certainly not excessive, but it does mean that the image is approximately 12-13% smaller than it could have been, and as a result has 12-13% less detail than would overwise have been possible.

(Left: old version; Right: new version; click for full size images)
The Lady Vanishes (old) The Lady Vanishes (new)

The long and short of it is that I am of the opinion that Criterion’s reputation as being the absolute best of the best in the DVD field is largely a mind game propagated by a number of factors, ranging from their pioneering work in the LaserDisc days (it’s unlikely that you would have audio commentaries or be able to expect an original aspect ratio presentation of a film as the rule rather than the exception if not for them) to their extremely high standard of publicity and design. Their packaging is always eye-catching and, even if they occasionally confuse plainness with minimalism (The Rock is a cover that only Criterion could get away with!), broadly speaking the sort of artwork they put out is clever, tasteful and light years ahead of anything the mainstream studios (or indeed the indie studios, most of whom seem to delight in making their wares look as schlocky as possible, as if it’s some sort of badge of honour) are doing. Essentially, pick a Criterion DVD off the shelf and it looks like you’re really getting something special. The old adage is “never judge a book by its cover”, but all too many people do.

There’s also the niche factor: broadly speaking, I doubt that your average moviegoer will have heard of, let alone seen, the bulk of the films Criterion have released. Intriguingly, this often seems to lead to a sense of reverence: “They’ve put out a film in a foreign language with a title that’s hard to pronounce about nuns in S&M gear painting each other pink - they must be really dedicated!” I am of no doubt that the people at Criterion are absolutely devoted to their craft and truly love what they are doing. However, what I am trying to say it that I’m not convinced that their grand reputation is entirely justified. While their choice of films (barring the odd Armageddon), bonus materials and packaging are all very high-brow, their transfers are often not that much better, if indeed better at all, than the competition.

Surf to various review sites, and you’ll find that Criterion’s transfers are often held up as the benchmark to which all other companies should aspire. In reality, though, the majority of the Criterion transfers that I’ve seen are fairly average. The Rock and Naked Lunch are at the upper end of the spectrum and are truly great (if imperfect) pieces of work, but at the lower end you have the likes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which in terms of its lack of detail is one of the worst DVD transfers I’ve ever seen that wasn’t pulled off a VHS tape or LaserDisc master. Oddly enough, many people praised it as a welcome improvement on the earlier Universal DVD.

They are practically the same transfer, folks.

Don’t believe me? The pictures speak for themselves. The same master has clearly been used, the level of detail is almost exactly the same, and the only significant (and I use the word loosely) difference between the two is minutely looser framing on the Universal disc. Hardly the stunning improvement that most would have you believe, and, given that the Universal disc was rightly criticised by a number of people at its time of release all these “5/5” and “10/10” reviews for the Criterion version look mightily suspect.

All this is not part of some deliberate attempt on my part to pour scorn on Criterion or turn people away from their products. They deserve a great deal of praise for putting out films that no other company would touch (even if most of them aren’t to my tastes), their packaging is top notch, and I love the fact that they routinely include chunky booklets filled with reviews, analyses, interviews and artwork - something I’ve really come to appreciate since many of the majors have given up even including a chapter insert. However, I don’t think Criterion’s releases should be celebrated as the absolute best that the DVD format can look. Like just about every other company, they’ve put out a handful of great-looking titles, some absolute turds and a vast number that merely look quite good. “Quite good”, it must be said, is an awful lot better than what an awful lot of the independents are putting out, but, when you routinely charge $40 for a single film and lay claim to “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality”, “quite good” isn’t really enough.

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2008 at 9:59 PM | Comments: 16 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Technology | Web

DVD review: Halloween (remake)

Essentially a film of two halves, neither of which works on its own and which fail to gel together as a single cohesive whole, Zombie’s version of Halloween falls somewhere between a crass, ass-backwards attempt to shoehorn the more superficial elements of his style into an origin story, and a soulless, slavish copy of the original.

I review Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, presented here in its unrated form in a 2-disc set, and wonder how to get two hours of my life back.

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008 at 6:38 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews

DVDs I bought or received in the month of January

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD
  • 28 Weeks Later (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Cat People (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Eastern Promises (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Factory Girl (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Little Children (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Munich (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • The Plague Dogs (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Simpsons Movie (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Y Tu Mamá También (R2 UK, DVD)
Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:43 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD

It’s called having standards

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think this is fair?

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

Here come the Razzies


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

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

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

The case for euthanising Tom Green


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

- Baron Scarpia, December 8th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Isn't this funny?

Isn’t this funny?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HD banditry


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

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

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

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

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

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

Now this is more like it


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

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

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

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

DVD review: The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs is a film that I can honestly say I don’t ever want to watch again, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’ve reviewed Optimum Home Entertainment’s recent release of The Plague Dogs, Martin Rosen’s second and final animated feature and a spiritual successor to the earlier Watership Down. Optimum’s DVD includes both the shorter theatrical cut and the much longer director’s edition.

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008 at 12:03 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD | Reviews

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…


Apologies for the lack of updates yesterday. So far this year, I’ve done a pretty good job of posting at least one new item every day, but last night, I wasn’t feeling jolly enough to turn my mind to the wonders of the interweb. The reason for that is that I’d just watched Optimum’s recent DVD release of The Plague Dogs, a check disc for which I’d received on Tuesday for review at DVD Times. I’d never seen the film before, but I had seen director Martin Rosen’s previous animated feature, Watership Down, so I knew I shouldn’t expect a laugh riot. I also knew how the film would end, but despite this, the final scene hit me like a punch in the gut and left me emotionally drained in a way that I can’t remember a film having done to me in over a decade.

I’m currently in the process of putting the finishing touches to my review, and late last night, while sitting in front of my computer writing about the final scene, I did something I’ve never done before: I sat there and bawled my eyes out. It’s not a perfect film, and in fact along the way there is some frankly boring and meandering material, but it’s worth sitting through for the ending, provided you don’t have a problem with feeling like shit for some time afterwards.

The review should go up at midday (GMT) today, and I must say I’ll be relieved to get this over with, because I don’t particularly want to think about the film again for a long time, much less rewatch it.

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008 at 10:12 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | DVD | Reviews | Web

DVD debacle


It’s funny, all this hoo-ha over the Warner Blu-ray announcement, and what did I end up doing yesterday? I went out during my lunch break and bought some standard definition DVDs. In my defence, they were practically giving them away, with the bulk of them £3.99 and several included in a “Buy two, get a third free” deal. I ended up with Y Tu Mamá También, Little Children, Munich and Factory Girl, with these titles chosen for a combination of reasons, ranging from “I’ve wanted to see this but never had the opportunity” to “People said this one was good” to “I can’t think of another title to get, so I’ll pick one at random.” Care to guess which was which?

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2008 at 10:37 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD

Run Blu-ray run


I’m a bit behind with reporting this, but, as the saying goes, “better late than never”. Run Lola Run, one of my favourite films, is to get the high definition treatment courtesy of Sony Pictures’ Blu-ray release on February 19th. As High-Def Digest reports, it will come on a single layer BD-25 disc with an AVC encode, German (and English, pfff) Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio and the main extras from the standard definition DVD, including the excellent commentary by Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente. It also features the hilariously bad tag-line of “Fast cash, crazy fate & true love”… although, given the recent hilarity of the blurb on the Resident Evil: The High Definition Trilogy box set, which Lyris received yesterday, I’m now more convinced than ever that someone at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s marketing department is taking the piss.

Consider this, one of the few HD discs announced so far this year that I’m actually interested in, pre-ordered.

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2008 at 12:00 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology

Setting the record straight: The Psychic


A week ago, I wrote a post on Severin Films’ release of Lucio Fulci’s DVD of The Psychic, criticising its image quality based on flaws which I believed indicated a PAL to NTSC video standards conversion. The truth is actually more complicated than that, and I would like to apologise for misleading anyone in any way.

However, rather than asking you to take my word for it, I thought it would be better if I let someone else explain it - someone who knows more about this subject matter than me and has had first hand experience with video encoding.

David Mackenzie says:

Michael has given me this disc for my input. It’s a very strange one and sadly, I have to say that it is definitely a poor disc. The opening shot of the car driving clearly shows a lot of motion judder and also some interpolated frames (strange for a Progressive disc). The frame rate is 29.970fps, and not the correct (for telecine’d film) 23.976fps.

For those that would like to get into technicalities, this is not a video standards conversion in the typical sense. I can understand why it would be mistaken for one because of the aforementioned doubled frames in the opening shot, but it’s different. It is actually worse than a traditional standards conversion. With typical PAL 50i->NTSC 60i conversions, better Deinterlacing hardware (in high-end TVs, projectors, DVD players, video processors etc) can attempt to recover much of the original resolution, albeit with the caveats that standards conversions bring to the table (slight motion blur).

However, this disc is a badly done Progressive one. That means that no matter how good your video processing hardware is, it’s never going to look much better than this. The video for this film has not been handled correctly. The entire film has a lot of aliasing (which is probably why it was mistaken for a 50i->60i standards conversion in the first place) which appears to be the result of it being run through a crude Deinterlacing process. This creates jaggies and causes a loss of resolution. On the up-side, there’s no motion blur for most of the film.

Mike also showed me the French R2 PAL release. It’s MUCH better (despite having some more film damage). It doesn’t have the jagged lines, and there’s no motion blur on any scene.

I realise that companies releasing “cult” foreign material on DVD have enough problems to worry about - rights issues, tracking down good masters, etc., and I realise that not everyone is a video enthusiast, so smaller labels won’t necessarily know what to do in every case. That said, proper conversion between the formats is not at all difficult 99% of the time, so it’s a problem everyone could do without.

With that in mind, if anyone at Severin would like to contact me, I’d be more than willing to explain how to convert a PAL master tape into NTSC Film (23.976fps progressive) using the correct method.

- David Mackenzie
Hardware Reviewer and DVD author

Posted: Saturday, January 05, 2008 at 7:26 PM | Comments: 10 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Gialli | Technology

Ultimate quality


Tomorrow, I will be sending my review disc of The Bourne Ultimatum back for a replacement. The reason? It’s the first high definition disc I’ve received, on either format, that suffers from severe playback issues. By “severe”, I mean “half the time, the disc won’t even start”. HD DVD/DVD combo discs like this do, apparently, have a higher fail rate than single-sided discs, so I’m pretty surprised that it’s taken till now for me to end up with one. Before packaging up the disc, however, I did manage to take some screen captures - mostly from the first half of the film, as I got a whole bunch of read errors during the second. Enjoy.

The Bourne Ultimatum
(Universal, USA, VC-1)

The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum The Bourne Ultimatum

Posted: Friday, January 04, 2008 at 4:41 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology

The Year in Review, 2007

Well, another year has been and gone. We’re all a year older, but probably not much wiser. As usual, I’m going to do a brief run-down of various events and issues that I’ve touched on in my news posts over the year. It’s generally not my style to comment on current affairs, so I won’t be saying anything about the murder of Benazir Bhutto, Tony Blair’s departure from office or anything like that. This year, I’ve decided to split things into several sections.

Life Itself

Life™ was somewhat different for me this year. The biggest change was, fairly obviously, that, at the end of March, I landed myself a full-time job, working for the NHS on their Smoking Cessation programme. I spent four and a half months working thirty-seven and a half hours a week in an office, entering data and phoning people to ask them whether they had managed to successfully stop smoking, and, while I’m not about to claim that this was the most unpleasant way anyone could ever spend four and a half months, I won’t deny that I was extremely relieved to see the back of the place in August, at which point I went into a part-time Library Assistant position at the Gallery of Modern Art. To say that I find this job vastly preferable to my previous one would be the understatement of the year, and that’s not just because I work fewer hours.

On a not entirely unrelated note, my application for funding for my PhD was unsuccessful, but my four and a half months of back-breaking (I kid) labour with the NHS was enough to pay for my first year of part-time study, and more besides. I started the PhD, on portrayals of gender in the giallo (following on from my MLitt dissertation on the same area), at the end of September and, while illness in November prevented me from making as much headway as I would have liked, the work that I’ve done so far has certainly gone a long way towards getting me back into the swing of things, academically speaking, and I look forward to properly delving into my subject of choice over the next twelve months.

Zeros and Ones

HD DVD and Blu-ray

The big technological issue of 2007 was the ongoing battle between the two rival high definition home video formats, HD DVD and Blu-ray, and the perpetual game of teeter-totter in which each format continued to vie for supremacy, engaging in a conflict of words as much as sales. A war in which what your opposition doesn’t have is every bit as important as what you do have, the biggest surprise was undoubtedly Paramount’s shock decision, in August, to ditch Blu-ray entirely and concentrate on HD DVD. With no end to the format war in sight any time soon, 2008 looks set to be another interesting year.

For me, my most significant purchase was that of a Japanese Playstation 3, reneging on my single format stance and embracing neutrality. Personally speaking, the balance continues to lie firmly in favour of HD DVD in terms of exclusive titles (a fact only compounded by the aforementioned Paramount decision), but I can’t deny that it’s nice to be able to own and watch high definition copies of Casino Royale, The Descent and Ratatouille.

I also bought three additional pieces of hardware: a new desktop PC in May, an Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive in July (to replace my clunky and oversized stand-alone HD-A1 player), and a Blu-ray enabled laptop in October. In the case of the latter, my original intention was to use it primarily for PhD work, although, in reality, I’ve got just as much, if not more, use out of it as a convenient means of taking screen captures from Blu-ray discs.

At the Pictures


Perhaps largely due to my period of full-time employment, I watched somewhat fewer films this year than in the previous two years. By my calculation, I watched a total of 164 films, 77 of which were ones that I hadn’t seen before, down from 216 (99 new) in 2006. Still, I did manage to see several significant films, including the great - 2001: A Space Odyssey, Babel, Black Book, Black Sabbath, the Final Cut of Blade Runner, Blood Diamond, Children of Men, Full Metal Jacket, Grindhouse, Hot Fuzz, Inside Man, Life of Brian, The Lives of Others, Pan’s Labyrinth, Ratatouille, Sicko, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Zodiac - the reasonably good - 1408, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Brokeback Mountain, Brotherhood of the Wolf, The Bourne Ultimatum, Chicago, Crank, The Game, Hard Candy, Idiocracy, Mission Impossible, Mission Impossible III, Mother of Tears, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Red Road, Syriana, Tideland, Transformers - and the guff - Aeon Flux, Fantastic Four, The Fountain, Futurama: Bender’s Big Score!, Hostel, House of the Dead, The Matrix Revolutions, Mission Impossible II, Norbit, Paprika, A Scanner Darkly, The Simpsons Movie and the remakes of Poseidon and The Wicker Man.

Best new film I saw in the year? Either Black Book or Children of Men. Worst? Without a shadow of a doubt, Norbit.

I bought or otherwise received 118 films on disc, 42 of which were HD DVDs, 31 Blu-ray discs and 45 standard definition DVDs. I wrote 44 reviews for DVD Times, down from last year’s 66. Of these, 16 were for HD DVDs, 12 for Blu-ray discs and 16 for standard definition DVDs.


The Historian

I read the following books: Legion by William Peter Blatty, The Naked Drinking Club by Rhona Cameron, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File by Frederick Forsythe, Carrie by Stephen King, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Red Dahlia by Lynda La Plante, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli, The Dead Hour by Denise Mina, The Mephisto Waltz by Fred Mustard Stewart, Odette by Jerrard Tickell, Mercy Alexander by George Tiffin, and The Devil Rides Out, Gateway to Hell, Strange Conflict and To the Devil - a Daughter by Dennis Wheatley. Which, now that I think about it, is a heck of a lot more than I’d expected.

Song and Dance


I snagged the following CDs: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Ennio Morricone), Blood Diamond (James Newton Howard), Cars (Randy Newman), The Descent (David Julyan), Grindhouse: Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez/John Debney/Graeme Revell), The Iron Giant (Michael Kamen), Kingdom of Heaven (Harry Gregson-Williams), Mother of Tears (Claudio Simonetti), The Professional (Eric Serra), The Secret of NIMH (Jerry Goldsmith), Serenity (David Newman), This is the Life (Amy MacDonald), V for Vendetta (Dario Marianelli), Veronica Guerin (Harry Gregson-Williams), Why Bother? (Peter Cook and Chris Morris).

Well, all in all, I think that’s it for another year. Look back on it, it reads a bit like a shopping list with the occasional personal titbit, but I suppose that’s the way of things in our evil capitalist society. Anyway, here’s to a great 2008 and yet more wanton spending.

Posted: Tuesday, January 01, 2008 at 4:26 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Books | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | General | Gialli | HD DVD | Music | PhD | Reviews | TV | Technology | Web

Ave Satani indeed…

Omen IV: The Awakening is my first film of the new year. Unfortunately, I can’t say we’re off to a great start…

The Omen is one of my all-time favourite films. Its script may not be a masterpiece, but its tight execution by Richard Donner, stellar cast, including Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw and David Warner, not to mention masterful score by Jerry Goldsmith, conspire to make it a first-rate exercise in horror. Its two sequels, Damien: Omen II and The Final Conflict, demonstrate the law of diminishing returns and, barring a handful of set-piece sequences, are generally not worth bothering with. Still, their flaws pale in comparison to this third sequel, one of the worst and unintentionally funniest films I have ever had the (dis)honour of seeing.

Omen IV: The Awakening eventually made its debut on television in 1991. However, I suspect that it was originally intended for a big screen release, a theory compounded by the fact that the DVD comes with a theatrical trailer, not to mention that the film itself is in a ratio of 1.85:1, which would have been unheard of for American TV in the early 90s. Presumably, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox actually realised that they had, in all likelihood, commissioned a train wreck and opted to let it rot on the small screen rather than risk the end of Western civilisation by subjecting it to moviegoers around the world. And these are the people that deemed Glitter to be releasable.

Can you guess the plot? A married couple (Faye Grant and Michael Woods) adopt an orphaned child from a convent, only for it to emerge fairly quickly that the hapless couple have in fact been lumbered with the spawn of Satan (literally). The child, this time round, is not Damien but Delia (Asia Vieira), but, barring this change of gender, it’s business as usual.

Things begin to go horribly wrong right from the start. “Wait till you see her,” declares a beaming nun, talking on the phone to Delia’s parents-to-be. “She’s a tiny miracle.” Jump cut to a shot of storm clouds accompanied by a thunderclap, then back to the ladies of the cloth, while Mother Superior intones dramatically that “Clouds sweep away the colour. Leaves everything like a black and white photograph.” I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the heebie-jeebies already.

Scene after ridiculous scene unfolds before us. During Delia’s baptism, the child begins to scream and bawl, prompting looks of horror from all and sundry. (I’m not sure why they find this so strange: every baptism I’ve attended has resulted in the victim howling his or her head off. And naturally, for the crime of attempting to indoctrinate the child, Satan strikes the guilty priest down with the sudden onset of a heart attack.) Later, a nanny is pursued by a Rottweiler and then falls backwards through an upper storey window in slow motion. A crowd of carol singers in bad goth make-up lip sync to the “Jesus Christus, Ave Satani” lyrics of the soundtrack. We even have a fervent get-together for born again Christians, in which one of the aforementioned nuns, now welcomed into the bosom of this cult and inexplicably, out of nowhere saddled with a strident Southern accent, hands out snakes to members of the congregation (no, I’m not kidding) and tells them they’ve “got the joy”. Eventually, she predictably ends up being bitten when the snakes turn on her, although the prosthetics work is so bad that it looks as if they are attacking a doll’s legs.

Aaargh! Not the choirboys!

Aaargh! Not the choirboys!

These are actually the high points of the film. The rest of it is so risible that I actually found myself missing The Final Conflict’s hapless assassin priests and their Keystone Kops antics. The absolute worst moment comes about a third of the way in, when Delia gets her revenge on a school bully. In the original film, Damien drove his nanny to suicide with a mere glance. Here, Delia’s ultimate punishment is to cause her tormenter to piss his pants, complete with a tasteful close-up of the urine seeping through his trousers. For a very strange moment, I thought that Delia had somehow wandered on to the set of Problem Child. And I’m not even going to give away the twist ending, which, even though I knew it was coming, had me howling with laughter. Special attention must be given to the phenomenally hammy acting, with Faye Grant taking the prize in the role of the harangued mother. Asia Vieira, meanwhile, has only one tone of delivery - bratty - leaving us convinced that, if she really is the child of the Devil, then Satan really needs to work on his parenting skills and exercise a little discipline.

Of course, given that this is a 90s film, the writer has to throw in nods to non-mainstream “spirituality” in case anyone was feeling a little left out (there’s nothing for the atheists among us, though, I hasten to note). And here’s my problem with this approach: if you’re going to tell a story that presents religion and the supernatural as real, then please do so consistently instead of throwing in this wishy-washy “everyone is spiritual” nonsense. The Omen films ostensibly present Christian doctrine as reality, so why, pray tell, would Delia react with such horror to a “healing crystal” worn around her nanny’s neck, and why would a gaggle of New Age mystics and assorted crackpots, upon seeing her, collectively go wide-eyed and begin opening and closing their mouths like fish out of water? (Incidentally, the healing crystal leads to one of the most hilariously awful moments in the entire film: the nanny reacts in horror as she discovers that the crystal around her neck has turned black, and, hurrying to the bedroom drawer in which she keeps various other trinkets, all of which have turned the same colour. Just in case we don’t understand what has happened, the filmmakers treat us to her exclaiming in voiceover: “They’re all black!” You couldn’t make this stuff up. Still, this is nothing compared to a mystic declaring that Delia’s aura is like “mud and molasses and swirls of red paint”.)

What’s worse, this is effectively little more than a remake of the original film. Barring a handful of minor deviations, the plot is virtually identical, right down to the details. In The Omen, various zoo animals went wild when confronted with Damien; here, Delia drives a crowd of horses to madness. In both films, the mother character ends up pregnant and becomes convinced that Damien/Delia will do everything in his/her power to prevent the child’s birth. We even get photographs of doom, a kooky nanny and a phenomenally badly staged repeat of the iconic decapitation accident. Even the film’s one good element is pilfered: Jonathan Sheffer’s insipid music is augmented by the liberal borrowing of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for The Omen and The Final Conflict. And, of course, at the end, we’re effectively back where we started, with another Antichrist in the world and the potential for any number of sequels. Thankfully, the decision-makers opted to nip this in the bud rather than let things continue.

I suspect there’s a reason this film was omitted from the initial UK Omen box set, and that’s that, even in comparison with the first two sequels, it’s tragically awful. It is, however, very funny (unintentionally, of course), considerably more entertaining than that dire 2006 remake of the original film, so, oddly enough, I find myself in the position of giving a stronger recommendation to what is, technically, the worse of the two.

Posted: Tuesday, January 01, 2008 at 1:16 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews | TV

DVDs I bought or received in the month of December

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD
  • 28 Weeks Later (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Blade Runner: 5-disc Complete Collector’s Edition (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • The Bourne Ultimatum (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Four Flies on Grey Velvet (R0 Germany, DVD)
  • Halloween: Unrated Director’s Cut (R1 USA, DVD)
  • Inside Man (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Jackass Number 2 (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 5 (R1 USA, DVD)
  • Masters of Horror: Season 1, Volume 3 (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Masters of Horror: Season 1, Volume 4 (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • The Psychic (R1 USA, DVD)
  • Running Scared (R0 Germany, HD DVD)
  • Sicko (R1 USA, DVD)
  • Tekkonkinkreet (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Tideland (R0 Germany, HD DVD)
  • Veronica Guerin (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Wolf Creek (R0 UK, HD DVD)

A pretty shockingly large line-up to send off 2007. I guess I should count myself lucky that several of these were either free or Christmas presents.

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2007 at 11:59 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Gialli | HD DVD | TV

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