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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button BD impressions

Blu-ray

A couple of nights back, we watched the BD release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and I must confess that I found it a real disappointment, considering that I’ve enjoyed everything else David Fincher has signed his name to. This is his first true misfire, a bloated, overlong and fundamentally insincere fictional biopic based on a premise that simply can’t sustain itself for its duration. The film, which was stuck in development hell for years, is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eric “Forrest Gump” Roth’s script plods lethargically from scene to scene, failing to give us anything noteworthy beyond the central gimmick that the protagonist ages backwards. I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s short story, but I assume it must have played better in that form, because there’s nothing in the material to justify the film’s running time of almost three hours. At times, it seems more like a tech demo for digital de-ageing technology than anything else. It actually pains me to see a director of Fincher’s calibre wasting his time with a sluggish, maudlin biopic such as this. I know a lot of people felt that Panic Room was beneath him, but at least it was well-paced, engaging and, most importantly, entertaining. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will make you go “Wow, how did they do that?” a couple of times, but that’s about it.

The BD release is a joint venture from Paramount and Criterion, but from what I understand of the matter, Paramount was responsible for the lion’s share of the disc’s content, including the encode and all the extras. (Perusing the reactions to Criterion basically “whoring out” their “C” logo is actually more entertaining than watching the film.) Regardless of who was responsible for the transfer, though, they did a bang-up job. Barring a small number of 35mm-based inserts, Fincher shot the movie digitally, and while you can debate the relative merits of the technology’s aesthetics (personally I find it to be remarkably dead-looking, although this may be partly due to the sheer amount of CG manipulation), there’s no denying that the BD looks spectacular in a technical sense. Whereas Fincher’s previous film, Zodiac (also shot digitally), suffered from some slight edge enhancement in its BD/HD DVD incarnation, you won’t find any of that here - just a pin-sharp image that reproduces every single pore and wrinkle that hasn’t been airbrushed out as part of the de-ageing process. The one overt flaw that I noted in the image was some rather pronounced ringing during the sequence where Brad Bitt and Cate Blanchett cavort in the sea and on the beach (see Example 12). This could be a flaw of the original photography or it could be the result of some form of manipulation, but it distracts for less than a minute. A very solid effort all round. 9.5/10

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
studio: Criterion; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 44.2 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 38.18 Mbit/sec

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

 
Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 7:46 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Million Dollar Baby HD DVD impressions

HD DVD

The HD DVD of Million Dollar Baby was the first high definition disc I ever purchased, way back in the summer of 2006, and I remember being a little underwhelmed by both the film and the image quality at the time. I watched it again the other night for the first time since then, and while my opinion on the image quality remains largely unchanged, the film definitely went up a couple of notches in my book. I still think that Clint Eastwood’s recent Changeling is a far better display of his directorial talents, but there’s a lot to be said for this understated and rather grubby tale. Mark Kermode calls Eastwood an “unfussy” director, in that he learned the craft working in low budget cinema and has a very workmanlike, “let’s get this done” approach to what he does, which I think works extremely well for films such as this.

Picture-wise, this isn’t exactly an overwhelming-looking disc, and the problems are mainly related to the degree of grain reduction that has been applied. Detail is reasonable but nothing special, and the grain has basically been turned to mush, and there is some pretty noticeable smearing on textures. Take a look at the brick wall of the gym at the start of Chapter 3 - it’s not pleasant. The BD of Changeling was similarly affected, which does give me pause to wonder if Eastwood is a fan of the grain-free look. (I’ll be very interested to see how Gran Torino looks when the BD comes out in June.) Some shots show prominent ringing (see, for instance, Example 4), but I’m tempted to attribute this to the optical process. There seems to be some degree of disagreement as to whether or not the film received a digital intermediate (DI), but regardless the master used for the HD DVD (and presumably BD) came from a print source. There’s also a heck of a lot of artefacting in the shadows, something that becomes very noticeable when watching on a projection setup in a darkened room (VC-1 encoding, I’m told, has come a long way in this respect since the early days). I’m genuinely curious as to how the MPEG-2 BD version compares, and will be renting it for comparative purposes. 7/10

Million Dollar Baby
studio: Warner; country: USA; region code: N/A; codec: VC-1;
file size: 15.3 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 15.76 Mbit/sec

Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby Million Dollar Baby

 
Posted: Monday, May 04, 2009 at 4:23 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

BD reviews: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum

Blu-ray Blu-ray Blu-ray

A little while back, Universal sent me check discs for their recent UK Blu-ray Disc releases of the three Jason Bourne movies, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. They seem to want the discs back but neglected to provide me with a return address, and in any event, they’ve been available on store shelves for long enough for me to suspect that there’s not much point in them having them returned.

That’s what I’m hoping at any rate, because the image quality of all three films have been improved over their HD DVD counterparts, and it would suit me very well to be able to hang on to them. The Bourne Supremacy sees the biggest improvement and The Bourne Ultimatum the least, with The Bourne Identity lying somewhere in the middle. In each case, the improvement seems to have come from the improved disc capacity and bandwidth of Blu-ray over HD DVD, resulting in fewer compression artefacts and a more natural reproduction of the film grain. The Bourne Identity is still the weakest-looking overall and The Bourne Ultimatum the best, but all three are a testament to the improvements that can be made when a studio harnesses improved technical specifications to provide the audience with a better viewing experience. (Warner, take note.)

The first two films also gain a lossless audio track each (The Bourne Ultimatum’s HD DVD had a lossless track to begin with), and while I couldn’t discern any difference between the lossy HD DVD and lossless BD tracks for The Bourne Supremacy (despite several blind tests), The Bourne Identity seems to get a little moore “oomph” in the bass. It’s extremely difficult to objectively compare sound, but as you probably know, I’m more than a little suspicious of those who claim that the difference between lossy and lossless audio is “night and day”, believing that it’s far more important to get yourself a decent sound system (well, okay, I have my brother and his meaty speakers to thank for that). I’m not saying I don’t think lossless audio should be used whenever possible - just that I think some people have a tendency to claim they hear a difference when there isn’t one there.

Anyway, check out the links below to read about each disc in more depth.

 
Posted: Monday, April 20, 2009 at 6:00 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Reviews
 

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
 

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 | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

That was the year that was

Writings

With another year been and gone, now seems like a good time to sit back and reflect on the past 365 days. I’ve experienced some highs and lows, the lowest of which would undoubtedly be losing my last two surviving grandparents in the space of a few months. On the upside, I feel that I’ve begun to make real progress with my PhD, which is finally evolving into something tangible, the process of which will no doubt continue in 2009. Otherwise, I can’t say that very much has changed for me. I continued to work part-time in my job at the library, with the various rounds of staff transfers mercifully passing me by and life continuing as before. Is it my dream job? No, I should say not, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go through periods of finding it (and the Great British public) incredibly frustrating. However, all things considered, I can think of plenty other less desirable jobs I could be doing. At least this one is convenient and, all things considered, reasonably well-paid.

 
Zeros and Ones

Logitech Z-5500 Digital

In relation to the battle between rival high definition formats Blu-ray and HD DVD, last year’s annual round-up included the statement “With no end to the format war in sight any time soon, 2008 looks set to be another interesting year.” Well, it seemed that I’d barely finished writing those words when the HD DVD camp threw in the towel. To be honest, the writing had been on the wall for some time, but several people, myself included, still adopted an “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” mentality in the early days of 2008. With Warner’s abandonment of the format only a few days later, however, the writing was well and truly on the wall. Within days, the game was up and the remaining HD DVD-supporting majors (Universal and Paramount) were pledging allegiance to the Blu flag. In any event, once the stragglers got up and running, it turned out to be a pretty damn good year for HD content, with some truly amazing transfers seeing the light of day, while the arrival of several high profile titles such as The Godfather trilogy and The Dark Knight, plus the certainty afforded by there now only being a single HD format, undoubtedly contributed to more people taking the plunge and lending their support to the platform.

I bought myself a new computer - a full tower system after my brief dalliance with the world of small form factors the previous year. After relying on my more technologically competent relatives in the past, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to build the whole thing from scratch myself - seriously, deciphering some of those poorly translated user manuals practically requires a diploma in itself. I also upgraded my PC’s aged Creative audio system with some nice new Logitech speakers and a veritable beast of a subwoofer. I also ultimately succeeded in going region-free for Blu-ray playback, thanks to SlySoft’s AnyDVD HD software, allowing me to use my system as a multi-region HD home theatre PC.

 
At the Pictures

HD DVD

This year, my brother put together a pretty impressive projection system, accompanied by a meaty sound setup, allowing us to enjoy a film-watching environment that more closely approximates the big screen experience. Despite this, however, my overall viewing figures were somewhat reduced in 2008 compared with 2007 (themselves a reduction from 2006). I maintain a log of all the films I watch, and the total tally for 2008 is 128, 67 of which were first time viewings. The increasingly wide array of available Blu-ray titles certainly led to me taking increased risks with titles I hadn’t previously seen, but at the same time caused me to be far less likely to tune in to television broadcasts of films. (I watched 56 films on Blu-ray, 44 on DVD and 14 on HD DVD, versus 7 on TV.)

I got the opportunity to see several what might be termed “significant” films, among them the great - 28 Weeks Later, Across the Universe, Atonement, Bonnie and Clyde, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dark City, Eastern Promises, Enchanted, Fight Club, The Fly (the David Cronenberg version), Juno, The Life Before Her Eyes, The Maltese Falcon, A Matter of Loaf and Death, Mean Girls, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Orphanage, Persepolis, The Plague Dogs, Rabid Dogs, The Shining, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Volver, Wall-E - the good - The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Almost Famous, Blow, The Brave One, Chungking Express, La Femme Publique, Grindhouse, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Memento, My Blueberry Nights, Nikita, Resident Evil: Extinction, School of Rock, Shaun of the Dead, La Vie en Rose - the disappointing - 30 Days of Night, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Dark Knight, Doomsday, Gone Baby Gone, Running Scared, Tekkonkinkreet - and the downright dreadful - Freddy Got Fingered, Omen IV: The Awakening and, last but not least, Seytan.

Best film I saw this year? Definitely Atonement. Worst? Oh, come on, do I even have to answer that? I saw Freddy Got Fingered, for god’s sake.

 
Bibliothèque

Garnethill

Much to my chagrin, my reading this year was pretty limited. In addition to perusing a number of academic tomes as part of my PhD research, I sat down with The Field of Blood, The Last Breath, Garnethill, Exile and Resolution by Denise Mina, Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James, Demo by Alison Miller, The Deceiver and The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsythe, and Above Suspicion by Lynda La Plante. I also re-read Mercy Alexander by George Tiffin, and tucked into The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - the latter serving as my sole piece of non-fiction reading that had no direct relation to my PhD. I also started Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, a celebrated classic that I must admit I’m making very slow progress with indeed.

 
Song and Dance

I picked up the following CDs: Atonement (Dario Marianelli), Echoes of War: The Music of Blizzard Entertainment (Eminence Symphony Orchestra), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Pink and the Lily (Sandi Thom) and Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez).

 
Posted: Thursday, January 01, 2009 at 5:36 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Books | Cinema | DVD | General | HD DVD | Music | PhD | Reviews | Technology
 

Reap what you sow

Blu-ray Blu-ray

Zavvi, the UK version of what used to be called Virgin Megastore, has gone into administration. Now, this may have had something to do with its main supplier, Entertainment UK (which also provided the bulk of Woolworths’ goods), having recently gone down the crapper, but I’d imagine replacing the memorable Virgin brand with a name as stupid as Zavvi didn’t help either. Either way, I decided to make the most of their clearance sale on Saturday and picked up a few Blu-ray titles at reasonable prices: Hannibal Rising (the one Hannibal Lecter film I’ve yet to see - don’t worry, I’m well aware that it’s supposedly awful), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and, because there’s no shame in watching the odd bit of mindless crap from time to time, Mr. Michael Bay’s The Island and Transformers (the latter an upgrade over my brother’s HD DVD copy, given the BD’s inclusion of lossless audio).

Blu-ray Blu-ray

I’ve already done image galleries for the HD DVD versions of The Island and Transformers, which feature the same video encodes on BD, and will be doing the other two titles before too long. However, as a little sneak preview, I must say I’m very impressed by how good Night of the Living Dead looks. I’m an unrelenting pessimist and wasn’t really expecting much, particularly given how bad some of this film’s DVD releases have been, so I was pleasantly surprised when I popped the disc in to find a transfer that is, at least based on my initial cursory examination, the equal of Warner’s Casablanca.

 
Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008 at 12:07 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | General | HD DVD | Technology
 

The Bourne Identity HD DVD impressions

HD DVD

Universal catalogue titles are notorious for their lacklustre transfers; this is actually one of the better ones. The only film in the Bourne trilogy to have not gone through the DI process, this one has a different look compared to its successors. There’s a fair bit of ringing around high contrast edges and some evidence of degraining, but overall detail levels are reasonably good, and the end result is fairly easy on the eyes. The two sequels definitely look a lot better in a technical sense, but of course the downside to them is that the camera is constantly shaking around, so it’s somewhat difficult to appreciate this. With The Bourne Identity, at least the camera stays still long enough for you to be able to spot the edge enhancement! I’ll leave you to decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

I wasn’t planning on doing any more image galleries like this one for HD DVD releases, but this film is coming to BD in January, and I wanted to have the visual evidence ready so we can curse Universal when they once again port one of their catalogue titles over to BD and succeed in making it look worse than its HD DVD counterpart. (Note: this is purely speculation on my part, going by their track record with non-DI material.)

The Bourne Identity
studio: Universal; country: USA; region code: N/A;
codec: VC-1; file size: 18.8 GB; average bit rate: 21.7 Mbit/sec

The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity The Bourne Identity

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 7:29 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Warner has Warner’d The Dark Knight

Technology

Screen captures have appeared for Warner’s upcoming release of what is surely its flagship title for this winter, The Dark Knight, and it looks like all is not rosy in Gotham City. Not that is ever was in Christopher Nolan’s plodding, po-faced and frankly yawn-worthy “why-so-serious” bore-fest to begin with, but it shouldn’t have looked like this. You want edge enhancement? It’s there in abundance. Smeared facial textures, you say? Got those too.

It becomes even more disheartening when you look at the comparison posted at the AV Science Forum, which places one of the DVD Beaver shots head to head with a frame from the same shot as seen in one of the downloadable h.264 trailers that accompanied the film’s theatrical release. Here is pure, unadulterated proof of image quality being degraded for a high definition home video release. You might find the notion of a freely downloadable trailer looking better than an actual Blu-ray disc release laughable, but I assure you, it’s anything but.

It’s also nothing new: this has been going on for a considerable amount of time now. I believe the first time I became aware of this practice was when I noticed how much worse The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’s DVD transfer looked than that of the trailer for the same film that was hidden on the Rush Hour 2 DVD. I noticed similar problems with The Dark Knight’s predecessor, Batman Begins: the high definition Windows Media trailer I downloaded from Microsoft’s web site looked excellent, but the eventual HD DVD release looked blurry and anaemic. Unfortunately, the DRM on the Windows Media trailer meant that, after a certain date, I was no longer allowed to play it (don’t you love DRM?), preventing me from doing a proper comparison, but luckily smart people have captured the evidence of The Dark Knight’s insidious mangling for all to see. Of course, the usual crowd of “it looks fine on my telly” and “direct screen captures aren’t accurate” ninnies are poo-pooing the evidence, but that’s nothing new. There were people who claimed (and still claim) that the HD DVD of Traffic wasn’t a standard definition upconvert, for crying out loud!

My plea to the studios is this: stop it. Just stop it. Please. You can’t fool us. We’re not stupid. We know you’re doing it. Now kindly get back to delivering superb discs that take full advantage of 1920x1080 resolution instead of diluted mush like this. Whether this was done at the DI or mastering stage, find out who is doing this, rap them soundly on the knuckles and bring in technicians who know what they’re doing. Thank you.

 
Posted: Monday, November 24, 2008 at 5:14 PM | Comments: 26 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DRM | DVD | HD DVD | Technology | Web
 

Hannibal Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Well, it took long enough, but Ridley Scott’s Hannibal has finally been released in high definition. In my opinion the best of the Hannibal Lecter films, this was one of my most eagerly anticipated titles for an HD release since both formats launched. It was initially announced for an April 2007 Blu-ray release from MGM in the US, but it disappeared into the same void that claimed several of the studio’s catalogue titles when distribution partner 20th Century Fox staged an abrupt exit from the format over copy protection concerns (LOL). Then, it showed up in the schedules again on the other side of the Atlantic, this time as a French HD DVD release from Universal. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with French home video releases, it missed its August 2007 release date and ultimately never surfaced. Luckily, however, German distributors Universum Film, UFA and Tobis have come to the rescue, releasing it on October 30th. My copy arrived today.

First, the good news. It’s region free, and includes separate English and German DTS-HD High Resolution (i.e. non-lossless) 6.1 audio tracks, with PowerDVD reporting a constant bit rate of 4.6 Mbps. English and German subtitles are included, both optional. Finally, all of the bonus materials from the original 2-disc DVD release have been ported over, including the Ridley Scott commentary, deleted scenes and 75-minute documentary Breaking the Silence: The Making of Hannibal.

On to the transfer, we have a VC-1 encode on a dual-layer BD50, and it’s an above average but not particularly amazing presentation of the film. The same master that was used for the various DVD releases appears to have been trotted out again here, as evinced by the higher than expected amount of print damage and gate weave that it exhibits (not that either of these are overly troubling, but for a film from as recent as 2001 they are surprising to see). The biggest problem appears to be noise reduction, which particularly affects the wide shots, giving them a waxy and insubstantial look. It’s not Dark City bad, but it’s closer to that particular disaster than I would have liked. Close-ups fare far better, as close-ups invariably do, and luckily they take up the bulk of the film’s running time. There’s a moderate amount of ringing on display, again most noticeable in the wide shots, while the grain tends to look a little clumpy. Detail is about average, never really “popping” but at least offering a sizeable improvement over the Region 2 Superbit DVD, previously the sharpest of the bunch (Julianne Moore’s delightful moustache, for instance, is for the first time readily visible during the tense climax in the kitchen).

In the overall scheme of things, I’d rate this somewhere around the middle echelon for catalogue titles. It’s nothing like as bad as, say, Universal’s worst, but at the same time don’t expect anything as ravishing as The Godfather: Part III or Scott’s Blade Runner. With a new master, I suspect the image quality could have been noticeably improved, but I have a feeling that isn’t going to happen any time soon. I certainly wouldn’t hold out for MGM to get off their fat asses and release it in the US: we’d be unlikely to see any significant gains in the image quality department, and they’d probably drop all the extras to boot. Basically, you can safely buy this with the assumption that it’s the best you’ll get in the foreseeable future.

Hannibal
(Universum Film/UFA/Tobis, Germany, VC-1, 33.1 GB)

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Update, November 5th, 2008 09:16 PM: I should point out that the extras are all standard definition PAL rather than NTSC, and as such won’t play on North American equipment.

 
Posted: Tuesday, November 04, 2008 at 5:01 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of October

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • Carrie (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Chicken Run (R0 France, Blu-ray)
  • Disturbia (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • The Fourth Protocol (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Frighteners (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • How the West Was Won (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • In the Folds of the Flesh (R0 USA, DVD)
  • L.A. Confidental (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Léon: The Professional (RB Germany, Blu-ray)
  • Lewis: Series Two (R2 UK, DVD)
  • A Mighty Heart (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • Monster (R0 Germany, Blu-ray)
  • The Omen Collection (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Sleeping Beauty (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Trial & Retribution: The Third Collection (R2 UK, DVD)

Oh god… that sound is my bank balance groaning. It’s been a long, long time since I bought this many titles in a single month - chalk it up to timing more than anything. I shall have to take care to ration myself strictly for the next little while.

 
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 10:42 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Gialli | HD DVD
 

Dead format + cheap-ass discs = a fun night at the movies

Blu-ray

Ever since the demise of HD DVD, the price of standalone players as sky-rocketed, while, at the same time, the exact opposite has happened to the media they play. Over at HMV’s UK web site, a number of HD DVD titles, some of them very good, are being pawned off for silly amounts of money, starting at £2.99 per title. Always on the look-out for a bargain, I picked up Disturbia, an extremely derivative but actually rather enjoyable rip-off of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring that annoying kid with the stupid name from Transformers and the new Indiana Jones film. I also grabbed A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie in blackface FTW!!!) and The Frighteners (a sort of half-way point between Peter Jackson’s earlier adventures with over the top exploitation romps and his later obsession with poorly edited, overly long CGI reels).

Disturbia features a rather good transfer taken from a decent master, albeit one that has been excessively grain reduced. The grain can’t have been that heavy to begin with, as facial features are, for the most part, still there, but it does mean that the image has a somewhat synthetic appearance, particularly in the opening sequence in which LaBeouf and his pops mash some fish and then, in a curious Karmic twist, get mashed themselves while on the road. Still, not bad at all for under three quid.

Disturbia
(Paramount, UK, AVC, 19 GB)

Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 3:14 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Home Alone comes to Blu-ray

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD

Aboard the HMS Whimsy, it is a long-held tradition that, each Christmas, we watch the holiday classic Home Alone (and it is a classic, whatever the naysayers might claim). In years gone by, we were forced to make do with the old Region 2 PAL DVD from 1999, one of the worst standard definition DVDs ever released (and beaten only, or so I’m told, by the even worse Region 1 NTSC version). Then, in 2006, we were able to upgrade to the newly released Family Fun Edition, which, shameful name aside, turned out to be a massive improvement over its predecessor.

This Christmas will be something special, however. Why? Because, for the first time, we will be watching Home Alone in high definition.

Yessir, Home Alone is coming to Blu-ray. As reported by High-Def Digest, 20th Century Fox have scheduled it for a December 2 release in the US. No details have been announced yet, barring the RRP of $34.99, but this is definitely one title I’ll be pre-ordering without a moment’s hesitation. Laugh at me if you like, but this is one of my most anticipated HD releases and has been since I first got wind of Blu-ray and HD DVD.

 
Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2008 at 5:39 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

I have a new toy

Ain't she a beaut?

Above: Ain’t she a beaut?

Today, I found myself in possession of an Xbox 360 Arcade System. If you’ve been reading my brother’s blog, you’ll know that his Xbox 360 recently died a tragic death. It came back the other day after being repaired after Microsoft refused to service it (apparently it didn’t have enough red rings or something), sounding like a vacuum cleaner thanks to its new cooling system, which we both agreed wasn’t ideal for watching movies: until it pegged it, it doubled as both a games console and our HD DVD player.

With prices of standalone HD DVD players having gone through the roof after being discontinued, I decided that the only semi-cost-effective solution to having a way of playing my 60+ HD DVD titles was to pick up a 360 myself. I ended up getting a reasonable deal on the Arcade package, which gives you five free mini-games, plus a retail game of your choice (I went with Mass Effect, which I haven’t checked out yet), and it arrived today. The timing was, though I say it myself, impeccable, as Lyris’ 360 died yet another death within two hours of the new system’s arrival.

The irony of the situation is that I’ve never bought a single console game in my life, and yet I now own both of the current generation of games consoles. (I hear there’s a little thing called the Wii as well, but last time I checked there wasn’t very much software available for it that actually qualified as what I would call “games”.)

 
Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 11:27 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Games | HD DVD | Technology
 

Film on Blu-ray in “looking like film” shocker

Blu-ray

On Saturday, I received my copy of The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration on Blu-ray, containing all three films in the series, the transfers for the first two being derived from new restorations carried out by Robert A. Harris, arguably the best man in the field of film restoration. The Godfather Part III, intriguingly enough, is the best-looking of the bunch on Blu-ray, although to what degree this is due to the state of the elements, the way these elements were manipulated, or Coppola’s original aesthetic choices, is unclear.

What is clear is that this disc constitutes the new gold standard to which all film-sourced transfers in high definition should aspire. I was floored by how good this disc looks. As a broad rule, I’ve tended to find that the best-looking titles released in high definition are invariably those sourced from a digital intermediate rather than film elements, with film-sourced materials generally either being treated poorly (see many of Universal’s back catalogue titles) or simply having less available “resolution” to begin with due to the inherent shortcomings of a process which results in reduced quality with each subsequent generation. The Godfather Part III, however, is up there with the best of the DI-sourced transfers. I can see no evidence of any sort of tampering - the grain is wonderfully reproduced, the detail is excellent, and (a rarity, I’ve found, in film-sourced transfers) there is no artificial edge enhancement or ringing to be found. This would be a definite 10/10 were it not for the fact that the compression seems slightly dicey at times - strange, given that the bit rate is approaching 40 Mbit/sec more or less throughout.

Still, a phenomenal achievement throughout and one that has raised the bar as far as transfers for catalogue titles are concerned.

The Godfather Part III
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 44.3 GB)

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There’s an excellent article on the restoration process at the American Society of Cinematographers web site.

 
Posted: Monday, September 22, 2008 at 3:32 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

The first person who says it looks grainy gets a good hard slap

HD DVD

Way back last December, back when the ill-fated HD DVD format was still just hanging in there, I was pretty psyched when German distributor Senator Home Entertainment announced high definition releases of Planet Terror and Death Proof, the two instalments of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the B-movies of yesteryear. With US rights holders The Weinstein Company having disappeared off the face of the HD map, it looked as if Senator were our best chance of seeing these films in full 1080p glory.

Then Bob and Harvey struck. Apparently the Weinsteins didn’t like the idea of these films appearing in HD in Europe before they had been given such a release stateside, so the release date was pushed back and back and back again. Then, of course, the HD DVD ship capsized, with Blu-ray editions remaining on the schedule; however, with the likelihood of them being coded for Region B only, they obviously wouldn’t be of much use to Region A people like myself. Anyway, to this day they still haven’t come out.

Grindhouse

Thankfully, The Weinstein Company has finally got off its fat ass and announced US Blu-ray releases of both films. As High-Def Digest reports, they will be released separately on December 16th. No specs have been revealed yet, but I would imagine that they will mirror the currently available standard definition DVDs in terms of content - in other words, they’ll be the longer extended cuts, and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror will be in its home video aspect ratio of 1.78:1 instead of its theatrical 2.39:1 (when paired up with Death Proof, it was reformatted to match the ratio of its stablemate). Currently, the Japanese 6-disc release from BroadMedia is the only way to see both films as they were shown in cinemas, and by the looks of it the picture quality on the theatrical version isn’t too hot.

I’m rather looking forward to seeing these films again. I rented the DVD versions of both earlier this year (these days, I’m rather reluctant to buy standard definition copies of major studio films that stand a good chance of an HD release), and liked Planet Terror considerably better than Death Proof, which was Tarantino at his most annoyingly self-indulgent, with only the killer final half-hour redeeming it. I’m definitely interested to see how the intentionally grubby, scratched-up look translates to 1080p, having only seen them in SD so far.

 
Posted: Friday, September 12, 2008 at 7:57 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Could you shake that camera a bit more, Mr. Bay?

HD DVD

At the time of its release, Transformers was the fastest selling film on any HD format, shifting 100,000 copies in its first day, for a total of 190,000 in the first week. As such, it’s fair to say that this would be a large number of people’s first introduction to high definition, so it’s probably a good thing it looks as great as it does. That’s not to say it’s perfect: in terms of compression, the action-packed final half-hour is something of a struggle for the encoder, whether because of disc space or bandwidth limitations, but by and large it looks excellent. I suspect that it may have been pre-filtered just a teeny-tiny bit, but this is still a sterling effort from Paramount and one that would belong in every HD enthusiast’s collection if the film itself wasn’t such a heap of dung.

Transformers
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 25 GB)

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Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 10:54 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

The only waxiness here is in Rowan Atkinson’s facial expressions

HD DVD

Mr. Bean’s Holiday seems like a slightly odd choice for a day-and-date high definition release. Even stranger is how good it looks. If I were to use the words “demo material”, you probably wouldn’t normally expect me to utter this film’s title in the same breath, but, honestly, I think I would. It has exactly the same look two other Universal 1.85:1 releases, Children of Men and Eastern Promises, and by that I mean that there is a small amount of filtering going on, resulting in a very slight loss of detail and some ringing, but nothing overly wondering. I wonder if Universal have two different algorithms for their day-and-date releases: one for 1.85:1 movies (slight filtering) and one for their 2.39:1 ones (no filtering). I’d have to investigate more 1.85:1 titles in order to be sure, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday
(Universal, UK, VC-1, 16.1 GB)

Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday Mr. Bean's Holiday

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 10:01 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Things can get a little hazy in the Bayou

HD DVD

For a catalogue title from Universal, The Skeleton Key actually looks pretty decent, probably due to the fact that it was taken from a Digital Intermediate rather than Telecine source. It does look a little soft at times, but I’m inclined to attribute at least some of this to the way in which it was shot: it certainly has the “Panavision look”, where things tend to appear smooth rather than pin-sharp. Certainly I don’t see any of the ringing that normally shows up in Universal’s filtered titles. Unfortunately, the image has at some stage been subjected to a fairly intensive noise reduction pass, sucking out the grain and resulting in some trailing artefacts. Still, as far as catalogue releases go, this is a pretty reasonable one, and one that I’m inclined to look upon more favourably in light of recent developments regarding Universal’s Blu-ray ports.

The Skeleton Key
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 16.7 GB)

The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key The Skeleton Key

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 9:10 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Universal mangles some more

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD

A while back, I did a series of posts on some of Universal’s particularly repugnant-looking catalogue HD DVD titles, in which I warned Blu-ray users that they had these transfers to look forward to when Universal began rolling out its back catalogue for the winning format. Unfortunately, it appears that I may have been a little premature with this statement. You see, it turns out that, far from simply porting over the same flawed encodes, Universal have, in some cases, taken the opportunity to go back and make them look worse.

I first got wind of this when I took a look at DVD Beaver’s review of The Mummy on Blu-ray. The article features a number of full resolution 1920x1080 screen captures, which immediately struck me as quite a bit more waxy-looking than how I remembered the HD DVD, which I had briefly rented some months prior. Of course, memory can play funny tricks on you, but a little later, the proof arrived in the form of an image comparison by AV Science Forum member Xylon, whose screen captures are one of the main reasons I visit that forum and are worth more than a thousand text-based reviews. The difference may not be massive, but it’s there: Universal have added further noise reduction for the Blu-ray release. The Mummy Returns shows a similar situation: again, the Blu-ray version is noticeably less grainy and more synthetic-looking than its HD DVD counterpart.

Finally, today’s scandal involves U-571, once again released on Blu-ray by Universal with a vulgar level of noise reduction applied to it. The difference should be clear to even the most visually-impaired of viewers: the HD DVD (and its D-Theater counterpart) was hardly a stellar-looking disc, but the Blu-ray version looks positively alarming, sucking much of the grain out of the image and rendering it fake-looking and waxy. Predictably, the usual suspects have emerged from the woodwork to decry Xylon’s findings. Unfortunately, whatever such individuals might attempt to claim, the pictures speak for themselves and reveal the truth that no amount of whitewashing or “it doesn’t look like that on my screen” nonsense can hide.

In summary: as a rule, Universal treated their catalogue titles rather badly on HD DVD, and now they are making them look even worse on Blu-ray. What will it take to hammer it into these fools’ heads that this sort of image degradation is neither necessary or wanted?

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 7:24 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Web
 
 

 
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