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Making life easier

Web

Often, I have a deep fear of upgrading software, whether it be my operating system or the publishing platform I use to maintain my web site. From bitter experience, I’ve learned that, if there’s a way of something going wrong, it will. In the case of Movable Type, I’ve had to relearn a lot of what I thought I knew about the platform in the process of switching versions from 3.x to 4.x as I design my new site. (The hours I put in yesterday trying to get the comments function to work would be a case in point.) Today, however, I finally got to try out one of the main reasons I decided to switch to the new edition: custom fields.

Arvind Satyanarayan originally created the Custom Fields plugin for version 3.x of Movable Type, which was then acquired by developer SixApart and fully integrated into the professional edition of Movable Type 4.x. By default, Movable Type only has a limited number of available fields for each post - e.g. title, date, entry body, extended entry, post time. These are generally sufficient if you just want to blog about your pet cat, but if like me you’re doing something slightly different, such as maintaining a DVD database, this sort of thing is woefully inadequate. In the current iteration of the site, each DVD entry essentially consists of an entry body field which contains a massive block of text and code, providing both the data itself and the layout:

<table width=”100%” border=”0” cellspacing=”0” cellpadding=”0” align=”center”> <tr> <td valign=”top”> <h2 class=”heading”>831</h2> <h3 class=”post-title”>Australia <br> <span class=”subhead”>Blu-ray <br> <img src=”http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/images/star_1.gif” alt=”*” width=”23” height=”22”><img src=”http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/images/star_1.gif” alt=”*” width=”23” height=”22”><img src=”http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/images/star_1.gif” alt=”*” width=”23” height=”22”><img src=”http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/images/star_1.gif” alt=”*” width=”23” height=”22”><img src=”http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/images/star_0.gif” alt=”0” width=”23” height=”22”> </span> </h3> <p>Review: <a href=”http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content/id/70644/australia.html”>DVD Times</a></p> <p><em>Region:</em> B (UK) <br> <em>Director:</em> Baz Luhrmann <br> <em>Label:</em> 20th Century Fox</p> <p class=”small”><em>Added Wednesday April 29th, 2009</em></p> </td> <td width=”10”><p>&nbsp;</p></td> <td width=”120” valign=”top”> <a href=”http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content/id/70644/australia.html”><img src=”http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/images/bd-australia.jpg” alt=”BD” width=”116” height=”149” class=”left”></a> </td> </tr> </table>

That code is just for a single entry (the BD of Australia), which really amount to very little on screen at the end of the day. Now, imagine that code duplicated around 830 times for my entire collection. That’s just not efficient. Worse, though, it makes updating the collection to reflect a new site design an incredibly time-consuming process, because so much of the layout is hard-coded into each entry.

This is where the joy of Custom Fields comes in. Now, instead of coding the layout for each individual entry, I can simply create a master layout, give Movable Type the code telling it where to put the data for each field (corresponding to things like region code, director, cover art, rating out of 10, review link where applicable, and so on), and enter the data into the Movable Type database. Here’s the master layout code:

<mt:Entries> <div class=”blockcontainer”> <div class=”leftblock”> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataDvdcover”><img src=”http://www.landofwhimsy.com/images/dvd-<mt:EntryDataDvdcover>.jpg” alt=”DVD” width=”116” height=”165” class=”collection” /></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataBdcover”><img src=”http://www.landofwhimsy.com/images/bd-<mt:EntryDataBdcover>.jpg” alt=”BD” width=”116” height=”149” class=”collection” /></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataHddvdcover”><img src=”http://www.landofwhimsy.com/images/hd-<mt:EntryDataHddvdcover>.jpg” alt=”HD DVD” width=”116” height=”149” class=”collection” /></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataCustomcover”><mt:EntryDataCustomcover></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataRating”><br /> <img src=”http://www.landofwhimsy.com/images/stars<mt:EntryDataRating>.gif” width=”118” height=”36” alt=”” /></mt:If> </div> <div class=”rightblock”> <h4 class=”dvdtitle”><span class=”number”>#<mt:EntryDataNumber>.</span> <$mt:EntryTitle$> <img src=”http://www.landofwhimsy.com/images/format-<mt:EntryDataFormat>.gif” alt=”Format” width=”29” height=”8” /><span class=”dvddata”><br /><mt:EntryDataEdition></span></h4> <p><strong>Region:</strong> <mt:EntryDataRegion><br /><strong>Directed by:</strong> <mt:EntryDataDirector><br /><strong>Label:</strong> <mt:EntryDataLabel></p> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataContents”><mt:EntryDataContents></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataAlttitle”><p class=”small”><strong>Original title:</strong> <mt:EntryDataAlttitle></p></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataReviewlink”><p class=”small”>Read the review at <a href=”<mt:EntryDataReviewlink>”><mt:EntryDataReviewsite></a></p></mt:If> <mt:If tag=”EntryDataAdded”><p class=”small”><em>(Added <mt:EntryDataAdded>)</em></p></mt:If> </div> </div> </mt:Entries>

That’s it. Don’t worry about trying to understand the code above - the point is I entered that once and now simply add the required information into the database for each entry. “<mt:EntryDataDirector>”, for instance, tells Movable Type that I want to display the director associated with this entry, so it calls up that information from the database and places it automatically:

Custom fields

Hardly rocket science, but it’s streets ahead from what I was doing before. Of course, I do have to re-enter all my data, but that’s far more straightforward when you’re just copying text into the correct fields and letting the database worry about where to put it all. You can see the new system in action here (at the time of writing, I’ve entered the first 80 discs in my collection).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some serious button-mashing to do. In the meantime, here’s a picture of Hollywood’s finest thespian, Lindsay Lohan, to tide you over:

Lindsay Lohan

 
Posted: Monday, May 25, 2009 at 6:15 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DVD | Technology | Web
 

They just don’t make things easy, do they?

Web

Current status of the new site is: after several hours of fiddling with the Movable Type code, I finally have the news system and all its main sub-pages (individual entries, archives, search results…) working properly with my layout. I switched from XHTML 1.0 Strict to XHTML 1.0 Transitional due to the severe headache that was getting Movable Type’s comment entry and search forms to validate properly. Sometimes there’s only so much bashing my head against a brick wall I can put up with.

The upside of this is that I now have a definite date for the switch-over from the old site to the new: Monday, June 1st. I decided I wanted to make the break at the start of a new month in order to provide a clear delineation between the old and the new as far as archiving was concerned, and also because this will provide me with around a week to (a) make sure any remaining kinks are ironed out and (b) get working on converting the other sections of the site to the new design. I imagine this process will be fairly straightforward, though, as most of the ground work was done on the News section. (And, luckily, I don’t have to wrangle with comments on any of the other pages.)

See you in the funny pages!

 
Posted: Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 6:25 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

Duck and cover!

Fallout 3

On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Fallout 3 at GAME. While I was a big fan of Black Isle Studios’ Icewind Dale and especially Planescape: Torment, for one reason or another I never really got into their Fallout series. However, after reading a lot of good things about Bethesda Softworks’ third game in the franchise (Black Isle having been unceremoniously dissolved in 2003), spotting the hefty discount at which it was being offered, and starved of any good, in-depth RPGs of late, I decided to give it a shot.

I’m glad I did, because while Fallout 3 has problems, it feels very much like a spiritual successor to the great Black Isle RPGs of yesteryear. While the game is decidedly combat-oriented (and can be very punishing if you wade in out of your depth), there’s also a decent amount of emphasis on plot development and conversations with NPC characters. The character system is pleasingly complex without being incomprehensible, with a wide array of different stats at your disposal, many of which affect your ability to bribe, intimidate or lie to characters through dialogue (if you so choose). This is not unlike Planescape, which bestowed considerable rewards to those who pumped their Intelligence and Charisma, therefore delivering a more interesting experience to players who used their brains instead of their fists.

The biggest downside is that the game is fairly ugly - a somewhat significant problem given how long you spend looking at it. I don’t mean that the graphics are technically bad, but rather that the visual style is unappealing. True, I wouldn’t expect any depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland to be rainbows and cherry blossom, but there’s something repetitive about the never-ending grey and brown environments in which you spend most of your time. I even decked my character out with a shock of bright red hair in an attempt to alleviate some of the monotony. The character animation is also wooden, with the pseudo-realistic designs all too often falling into that “uncanny valley” pitfall. I realise that 3D is what all the cool kids want nowadays, but personally I miss the good old days of Black Isle’s top-down 2D RPGs, with their artful, wonderfully detailed pre-rendered backgrounds.

(Oh, and the voice acting matches the animation. I found out a few moments ago that the player character’s father is voiced by Liam Neeson - yet another example of a live action actor turning out to be a poor voice-over artist.)

Another significant problem comes in the form of the game’s combat system. I’m not referring to the VATS system, whereby you can pause the game and issue orders at your leisure, targeting a specific part of the enemy for that optimal kill-shot. This is a great feature that adds a pleasing amount of tactical strategy to the action. Unfortunately, the real-time model is less than ideal, and this is really the only viable option in close quarters. You end up strafing about like a ninny, trying desperately to land a hit, with the wooden animation providing very poor visual feedback. The control system simply isn’t suited to this type of combat, and I now find myself regretting having chosen to specialise mainly in the “up close and personal” side rather pumping the abilities relating to ranged combat.

From what little I’ve experienced of it so far (preparing for the post-graduate symposium having sucked up much of my time this week), Fallout 3 is a great game and a welcome return to the glory years of PC role-playing games. Elements of it are rather clunky, but it would be unfair to say that this is any different from the old Infinity Engine games, which always struck me as being decidedly flawed when it came to the combat side of things. (One of the reasons I loved Planescape so much was the extent to which combat was downplayed in favour of dialogue, neatly circumventing the engine’s biggest failing.) On the contrary, shifting the formula into the third dimension has simply resulted in many of the same problems being present in a slightly different form. Despite these flaws, the qualities of the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world still managed to shine through, and I’m confident that Fallout 3 is very much in the same vein. Perhaps I’ll re-roll and start again with a more tactically-oriented character.

 
Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 11:18 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | PhD | Technology
 

Testing, testing…

Web

A test version of the main page for my new layout is now available at http://www.landofwhimsy.com/indextest.html. At the moment, the Movable Type code has been implemented for the main page, while the rest of the pages (individual entries, monthly archives, etc.) still have the default Movable Type template and style sheet. In theory, though, it should be fully functional as a blog, and you’re welcome to peruse it, and try posting a comment or two if you like. You’ll probably find that a lot of the links don’t work yet, of course. (And the meaning of the “more posts” section at the bottom of the page will become clear once there are a few more entries.) And, as always, feel free to tell me what you like and don’t like about it. I’m particularly eager to hear about any browser incompatibilities.

I’ve decided not to go with a calendar-based archive, by the way - not because of any difficulty in implementing it, but because I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a fairly pointless endeavour for a site like mine, which often has more than one entry posted to it in a single day, and operates around individual and monthly rather than daily archives.

Oh, and a quick word on fonts. I’ve selected Arial as the “main” font (with Helvetica as a fallback for those who don’t have it), and Garamond for post titles and the first paragraph of each entry. Most of the headings default to Calibri, which is currently my favourite sans serif font. Unfortunately, Calibri is only distributed with Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac and the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack, so I’d imagine a lot of people won’t have it. In that case, the style sheet will fall back to Arial, then Helvetica.

 
Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 7:24 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

When technology tries to be clever

Web

Installed Movable Type 4 last night. The process went without a hitch, though the cheeky bugger did see fit to locate and transfer (without my say-so) all my posts from the current designer over to the new database. As a result, my old Movable Type 3 control panel isn’t working quite the way it should - for instance, it now tells me I have no blogs, although I can still navigate to them using the correct URLs. I would simply use the MT4 control panel, but due to plugin and code incompatibilities between the two versions, that won’t be possible without a lot of retooling… which I won’t be doing given that I’ll be switching to a fresh blog before too long. I don’t think this should cause any problems at the user end, but if you see any weirdness, you’ll know why.

When the new layout goes live, I’ll probably disable the comments function for the old database, in order to avoid the hassle of having to continually delete spam, approve and respond to comments in two different blogs. I’ll provide a “grace” period, though, to give people the chance to respond to any posts they want to on the old site. Alternatively, I might duplicate the last week or so of posts on the new site. We’ll see. At any rate, this is probably all still some way off.

 
Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 10:37 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

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
 

Behind the velvet curtain

Web

Shh! Here’s a sneak preview of the next iteration of this web site. Bear in mind that this is very much a work in progress. In other words, the whole thing could have changed by the time it goes live. Conversely, it could stay much the same as looks here. I’m pretty happy with how it looks at this moment in time, but, when it comes to things I’ve designed or written, I’m notorious for changing my mind at the drop of a hat and suddenly finding myself hating what I was previously satisfied with.

Any feedback is more than welcome.

Version 2 sneak peek

(Click the image above to view it full size.)

By the way, today’s little doozy, which took a good couple of hours to troubleshoot, was what is known as the 1px background image shift. Basically, it affects sites that use a centred background image in conjunction with a fixed width. Because browser’s can’t calculate half pixels, elements will shift around on the page ever so slightly depending on whether your browser’s window has an odd or even pixel width. This causes things to look a little wonky… at least in Firefox and Safari; Internet Explorer 8, surprisingly, didn’t have any problems displaying it properly. The problem is fairly widespread - not even the President of the United States is immune (try resizing your browser window on the fly and watch the left hand side of the “Organizing for Health Care” banner).

Luckily, there is a partial solution (scroll down to reply #3):

To prevent this 1 pixel shift in Firefox I added margin-left: -.1px to the content div (thats a negative 0.1 px). This fixed the shift in Firefox 2 and 3 while still working for IE7. Of course this is not ideal, but it works.

This did not fix the problem for Internet Explorer 6 (IE6). I minimized it by color choice in my centered background image.

I implemented it, and it does indeed fix the problem in Firefox. The issue still persists in Safari, but let’s face it, the only people browsing in Safari are Mac users and PC users who wish they were Mac users… Just kidding, guys. Seriously, I’d like to make the site as compatible as possible with all browsers, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.

 
Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 10:43 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

A change is gonna come

Web

Over the last week or so, in between preparing for the Postgraduate Symposium on Thursday (20-minute presentation from yours truly - eep!), I’ve been going some work on what will ultimately be the next iteration of this site. For the purpose of streamlining, I’ve decided to make a few significant changes to its structure and code.

First of all, I’ve decided to wholeheartedly embrace Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) after using them to a somewhat limited degree in previous designs. Since the very first version of this site was launched, way back in 2001, I’ve been using tables to lay out my pages, which I’m told is just sooo passé. More importantly, it also results in a lot of bloated code. I’m now going to be using CSS to control the layout, which has proven to be an absolute bitch to get to grips with. I now finally have a working shell of the front page, which isn’t much to look at right now but is at least something. However, it’s been a case of trial and error every step of the way, and I’m still not convinced I fully understand how I finally managed to get it to work the way I wanted. (Conversely, I’ve always found tables very easy to work with, even when it came to nesting tables inside tables nested in tables. Well, it all makes much more sense to me than floats and divs and negative margins and hidden overflows and…) Still, I got there eventually and the code is undeniably cleaner than in the current iteration.

The second big change in store is that I’m going to be dropping the “whiggles” subdomain and storing everything on landofwhimsy.com proper. I barely use the “whiggles” pseudonym at all nowadays (in case anyone’s wondering, it was the first thing that popped into my head when naming my first ever Diablo character back in 1997, and it just sort of stuck), and I’d quite like to be able to finally rid myself of the whiggles.com domain that costs me £23 every year and is really just a redirect to whiggles.landofwhimsy.com. This change will, unfortunately, necessitate rather a lot of upheaval, given how many URLs, both on this site and on other people’s, point to the whiggles.landofwhimsy.com subdomain. This is why I’m going to maintain what currently exists as an archive but start afresh for all subsequent content with a new install of the Movable Type publishing platform on the main landofwhimsy.com.

I’m currently weighing up whether to take the opportunity to upgrade to Movable Type 4.x. Movable Type 3.x has served me well, but it’s a bit long in the tooth now and is unsupported by a lot of the cool new plugins that I’m itching to try out. The only thing holding me back is the terrible time my brother had with MT4, even prompting him to temporarily ditch it in favour of WordPress… That said, I wonder to what extent his problems stemmed from performing an upgrade from MT3 rather than a fresh install, which is what I’ll be doing. In any event, it can’t hurt to give it a shot. The worst thing that can happen is that, if it proves to be more trouble than it’s worth, I delete it and install a new copy of MT3 instead.

Something else I’d like to attempt is to have a single blog which serves as a “hub” of sorts for the entirety of the site’s content. Currently, I’m running the main news blog (the first thing you see every time you come to this site), and then five additional blogs for each different main section of the site: DVDs, movies, reviews, image comparisons and miscellaneous pages. This is hardly the most efficient way to do things, but I’ve stuck with it until now mainly due to my own stubbornness when it comes to breaking away from the structure I created for the site way back before I used a publishing platform. In what I envision as the new structure for the site, most (if not all) content will basically be part of the new blog - everything from “significant” articles that would currently go in the Essays section (which I’ve just realised is still formatted for the previous site design - crikey!) to image comparisons. Such is the joy of the “MTEntryIfExtended” and “$MTEntryMore$” tags, which allow me to effectively have a brief summary of each essay/comparison/whatever on the main page, followed by a link to the extended entry, which will provide the full article. I actually planned to do something like this with the previous redesign, but ended up chickening out due to the amount of upheaval that would ensue. Now, however, there’s going to be so much upheaval anyway that I might as well go the whole hog.

Other miscellaneous changes that I’d like to implement include streamlining the number of categories for the news section (or alternatively switching to tags instead, comme ça), and implementing a calendar like the one on this site. It all depends how worthwhile this sort of stuff proves to be at the testing stage, and how easy to implement. There’s no current ETA for the new version of the site going live, given that I’m very much sailing in uncharted waters at the moment, and have only just got started. Still, this should provide me with an interesting little project to engage with in the next few weeks or months, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on its status.

Incidentally, as Movable Type-powered sites go, Barack Obama’s is by far the best-looking I’ve come across.

 
Posted: Monday, May 18, 2009 at 10:57 AM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona BD impressions

Blu-ray

When the lights came up at the end of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (a review copy of which I received on Friday), I was very much left with the impression that not a lot had actually transpired in its 96-minute duration. The film is pleasant, but incredibly insubstantial. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work as a comedy, as it’s not particularly funny (“You tried to kill me… with a chair!” notwithstanding), nor as a drama, as there’s no real depth to the characterisation and Allen’s observations about relationships rarely get more complicated than “love’s a bitch”. Penélope Cruz undoubtedly steals the show and, in many respects, saves it from being completely pedestrian. The rest of the cast try valiantly, but something about this film feels amazingly indifferent in its writing and direction. And, let’s face it, when it comes to giving characters distinctive voices, Woody Allen is every bit as bad as Quentin Tarantino.

Optimum’s Region B-coded UK release looks rather pleasing on the whole. Ever the classicist, Allen opted to do his colour timing in the lab rather than processing the film digitally, and, while the image does look rich for the most part, any shots involving opticals do end up taking a hit as far as detail is concerned. Unfortunately, Woody is a little too fond of fades, which means that a fair number of shots are affected in this manner. The whole film has a deliberate orange-yellow glow, which is perhaps a little on the oppressive side but is undoubtedly down to artistic intent rather than any problem with the disc itself. 7/10

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
studio: Optimum; country: UK; region code: B; codec: VC-1;
file size: 18.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 28.03 Mbit/sec

Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona

 
Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 3:20 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Paris, je t’aime BD impressions

Blu-ray

As a love letter to Paris with a romantic theme, Paris, je t’aime, consisting of eighteen short films about the French capital, is very much a mixed bag. Gathering together a variety of top-notch directors and actors from around the globe (ranging from the Coen brothers to Gus Van Sant to Sylvain Chomet and Bob Hoskins to Juliette Binoche to Maggie Gyllenhaal), it lurches from segment to segment with a decidedly uneven quality, transporting the audience from the very good to the spectacularly tedious in a matter of seconds. The most common failing of the weaker shorts is a tendency towards navel-gazing, a criticism often levelled against French cinema as a whole - although it’s worth pointing out that less than half of the filmmakers involved are actually French in origin. This is at its most tedious with the piece by Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu, and the one by Richard LaGravenese, both of which languish in the sort of middle-aged cod-philosophising that is almost guaranteed to have me reaching for the fast-forward button.

These scenes of tedium mingle with the obnoxious (Gurinder Chadha’s patronising celebration of the hijab), the bafflingly incompetent (Wes Craven’s poorly written and acted Oscar Wilde piece), and even the sheer what-the-fuckery of Christopher Doyle’s downright batty piece. At the other end of the spectrum, Sylvain Chomet’s Tour Eiffel features more imagination than any of the other shorts put together (and he actually makes it entertaining, something that most of the other directors seemed to forget to do), while Vincenzo Natali’s vampire flick is stylistically and tonally so removed from the rest that I can’t help but love it. Tom Tykwer creates a superb sense of rhythm with his Natalie Portman-starring piece, evoking much of the same feel as his earlier Run Lola Run, while Alexander Payne’s closing piece just about perfectly encapsulates the bitter-sweet “happy-sad” feeling it aims for.

It’s a nice idea, but it ultimately outstays its welcome. The running time could have been tightened up significantly by excising some of the weaker pieces, which would have gone a long way towards improving my overriding impression of the film. There’s some very good stuff in there, but a lot of self-indulgent piffle too, which muddies the waters and ultimately left me feeling rather frustrated. There’s a thread on IMDB where members are listing the shorts in order of preferences, so I thought I’d do one of my own:

  1. 14ème Arrondisement (Alexander Payne)
  2. Tour Eiffel (Sylvain Chomet)
  3. Quartier de la Madeleine (Vincenzo Natali)
  4. Faubourg Saint-Denis (Tom Tykwer)
  5. Tuilieres (Joel & Ethan Coen)
  6. Quartier des Enfants Rouges (Olivier Assayas)
  7. Parc Monceau (Anfonso Cuarón)
  8. Place des Victoires (Nobuhiro Suwa)
  9. Place des Fêtes (Oliver Schmitz)
  10. Loin du 16ème (Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas)
  11. Le Marais (Gus Van Sant)
  12. Bastille (Isabel Coixet)
  13. Montmartre (Bruno Podalydes)
  14. Porte de Choisy (Christopher Doyle)
  15. Père-Lachaise (Wes Craven)
  16. Quais de Seine (Gurinder Chadha)
  17. Quartier Latin (Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu)
  18. Pigalle (Richard LaGravenese)

For image quality, the BD is actually pretty nice, albeit hampered somewhat in the detail department by the application of unnecessary filtering. Grain density (moderately heavy) and detail levels (good to very good) remain largely the same across the board, with the notable exception of Wes Craven’s segment (Père-Lachaise), which looks unnaturally soft and underwhelming (see Example 15). Compression artefacts are a non-issue in spite of the use of a single-layer disc, and the image looks pleasingly film-like overall. 8/10

Paris, je t’aime
studio: First Look; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 20.9 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 24.85 Mbit/sec

Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime Paris, je t'aime

By the way, a word of warning about subtitles on this disc: the film’s dialogue is a mixture of French in English, with the former being the predominant language. For subtitles, however, First Look have only provided an English SDH track, which subtitles everything and includes captions for music and sound effects. As a result, there’s no way of only having the French dialogue subtitled short of switching the subs on and off manually - which is an ineffective solution at best, given that some shorts (Alfonso Cuarón’s, for instance) jump between the two languages, sometimes mid-sentence.

 
Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 2:10 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Australia BD impressions

Blu-ray

My review of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia will be going live at 6 PM tonight, so I won’t repeat myself here by going into depth about what I thought of the film. Therefore, I’ll just provide you with the short version: I thought it was great.

As far as this BD is concerned, the film looks very good from start to finish, although it doesn’t look quite as crisp as some titles I could mention. While far from unpleasant to look at, a very slight hint of softness lingers throughout, although I’ve no idea whether or not this was digitally induced. There is certainly nothing processed-looking about the image, barring a couple of shots that appear to have been artificially sharpened (for instance, shots of Nullah climbing on the water cooler at 00:04:25 and again at 00:30:12 appear to have been manipulated in this way and as a result suffer from some pronounced ringing), and the grain is nicely rendered throughout. In addition, despite the lengthy running time and fairly average bit rate, compression artefacts are never an issue. It may not reach the dizzy heights of the absolute best the Blu-ray format has to offer, but the image is very nice indeed and is unlikely to cause any significant complaints. 9.5/10

Australia
studio: 20th Century Fox; country: UK; region code: B; codec: AVC;
file size: 33 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 28.57 Mbit/sec

Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia Australia

 
Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 4:13 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews | Technology
 

Waltz with Bashir BD impressions

Blu-ray

When it comes to animation, I’m pretty much a snob and I make no apologies for it. I think it’s a marvellous medium and one with almost limitless untapped potential, which is why when I watch films like Waltz with Bashir, hamstrung by the constraints of live action, I always feel a bit let down. For those who don’t know, this film is about an Israeli soldier’s repressed memories of his involvement in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese by Christian militia. That soldier is the writer/director himself, Ari Folman, and the dramatised sections are intercut with actual interviews conducted by Folman of fellow soldiers recounting their own memories of the events. The bulk of the material, therefore, appears to have been live action originally, but everything was ultimately overlaid with Adobe Flash cut-outs (barring some horrific real life news footage at the very end). Although the technique appears to have been slightly different, it looks very similar to Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly in practice. I hated the look in that film and it’s just as grating here. My brother, I think, hit the nail on the head when he described it as “floaty toilet paper”, in that it has no real consistency or weight to it. It reeks of stylisation for stylisation’s sake and, while there are some undeniably arresting images on display, the overall effect is to distance the viewer from the reality of what is being portrayed on screen.

At least Waltz with Bashir is a somewhat better film than A Scanner Darkly, though in my opinion far from the masterpiece some have claimed. It strikes me as being rather too aware of itself as an “issue film” for its own good, leaving this viewer at least with the impression that he was being preached to, while the “animation” style is on the whole an eyesore. It also suffers from a degree of tunnel vision: very few of the on-screen events are set in context. You could argue that this is appropriate given the confusion and mindlessness of the carnage being depicted, but on several occasions I found myself somewhat lost and wishing I had a better idea of what was supposed to be happening.

By the way, Hillel Halkin, who fought in the war himself, has written an extremely interesting account of the events which is in part a response to Waltz with Bashir. I must confess to finding it infinitely more enlightening, and more eloquently expressed, than anything in Ari Folman’s film. I’ll say one thing, though: I admire Folman immensely for having the balls to paint such a damning portrait of his country of origin and its involvement in the horrific events that occurred in Lebanon in 1982. In doing so, it has predictably attracted accusations of anti-Semitism, which I must say I fail to understand… unless you’re of the belief that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, a notion that I find incalculably asinine.

Visually, Artificial Eye have done sterling work for this UK BD release. The image is crisp, and the veneer of artificial grain that was added by the filmmakers shines through with no apparent attempts to reduce or mask it. It’s a little too much for the encoder to handle, and a number of the shots below show artefacting. In motion, it’s rarely an issue, although you can occasionally spot blocking in shots with large washes of the same colour. The disc is a BD-25, and I wonder if switching to a BD-50 would have given better results, as it would have given the compressionist more room to play with. High contrast edges (in other words, the black outlines of the characters) show a slight amount of haloing, though I can only speculate as to the reason for this: Filtering? Edge enhancement? Downconversion from the higher resolution source? In any event, it’s rarely bothersome, but it and the slight compression issues to prevent this disc from attaining full marks. 9.5/10

Waltz with Bashir
studio: Artificial Eye; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 21.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 34.64 Mbit/sec

Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir

 
Posted: Wednesday, May 06, 2009 at 10:35 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | 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
 

Let the Right One In BD impressions

Blu-ray

It’s probably fair to say that the two main significant vampire films to be released in 2008 were Twilight, based on the inexplicably popular book by Stephenie Meyer, and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Of these, there can be little doubt that the latter is the superior movie. Whereas Twilight was basically an exercise in misogynist navel-gazing featuring pretty people standing around looking vapid, this Swedish effort, itself based on a successful novel, is an altogether more mature and intelligent exploration of the vampire myth - one which manages to avoid clichés for the most part and give a potentially silly subject gravity. It’s not a particularly “fun” movie to watch, due to a combination of its bland visual style (as repetitive in its own way as Twilight’s continually blue-tinged cinematography) and the fact that the subject matter is pretty dark with no real lightening of the mood, and ultimately caters to a completely different crowd from those who lapped up Twilight’s mushy romance. I do have some criticisms - for instance, I’m not sure the decision to set it in the 1980s ultimately lent anything to the proceedings, and I did feel that the pacing flagged a little in the first hour - but I’d rather watch this again a hundred times than view Twilight even once more.

Let the Right One In is an extremely drab-looking film, and this can lead to the image looking a bit underwhelming. It lacks depth, and the rather flat lighting doesn’t help matters. Wide shots lack definition, and ringing around high frequency edges, including the opening credits text, suggests that filtering took place at some stage in the chain. On the plus side, the grain looks decidedly natural. I did, however, note an instance of DVNR artefacts: at around the one-hour mark, when Oskar thumps one of his bullies, the stick he uses goes a bit Gorilla My Dreams (see Example 11). This is the only instance I could spot where anything like this happens, but that’s no guarnatee that it definitely doesn’t occur elsewhere. I can’t say this is a particularly striking presentation, although that’s at least partly attributable to the visual style. 7/10

Let the Right One In
studio: Magnolia; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 22 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 27.59 Mbit/sec

Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In Let the Right One In

 
Posted: Friday, May 01, 2009 at 12:27 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Bits and bobs

Technology

Apologies once again for the sporadic nature of the updates to this site. I’ve been a little pre-occupied wrangling with my computer. No major calamities, but I’ve been fairly busy with it of late. I decided to reinstall Windows over the weekend and made the leap to the 64-bit version of Vista so I could access all four gigabytes of my RAM (32-bit versions can only access up to 3.5 GB). So far I can’t say I’ve noticed the system running either faster or slower in comparison with my previous 32-bit install, but I certainly haven’t run into any problems as a result of this change.

 
Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 10:08 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

Just arrived…

Blu-ray

Australia (BD, 20th Century Fox, Region B, UK) - review copy

And what a complete bugger it was to get it working on my computer, thanks to Fox’s inclusion of the latest strain of the malodorous BD+ scumware. Luckily, our boys at SlySoft were even quicker off the mark than usual and released an update for their wondrous AnyDVD HD software. Even so, I couldn’t get the disc to play at all in the latest version of Cyberlink’s PowerDVD, PowerDVD 9, and had to revert back to the previous version in order to get anything other than a black screen.

 
Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 10:00 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Final Destination BD impressions

Blu-ray

On the back cover of Final Destination’s BD release, Roger Ebert describes the film as “smarter and more original than most Dead Teenager Movies”. Given the average quality of these films, that doesn’t exactly set the bar particularly high, but this one does, for the most part, hold up quite well a decade after it was originally released. This was before Final Destination 2 came along, basically admitting that the premise was absurd and running with it, which is both a good thing and a bad thing - good because a film that takes itself seriously makes it easier for the audience to do the same; bad because, in comparison with the ludicrous “accidents” and over the top gore of the sequel, this one seems pretty tame. The concept for these movies is, after all, inherently silly. Still, this one is pretty effective for the most part, and I attribute this to it willingness to play things largely straight at a time when most of the competition was trying to out-wink Scream.

On to the image quality of this release, and it’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that, unlike a number of New Line’s catalogue titles, this one hasn’t been completely slathered in Dark City-style DNR. The bad news is that it’s still a fairly underwhelming-looking image all round, as far as I can tell taken from the same master as the 2000 DVD release. The grain often looks unnatural and clumpy, and smears quite noticeably… although this does seem to vary on a shot by shot basis. Detail is fairly mediocre and shadow detail is weak, but the extent to which both of these problems can be blamed on the original photography is unclear. I didn’t really expect Final Destination to become my new demo disc of choice, and to be fair it’s not unwatachable, but it’s never anything more than passable. 6/10

Final Destination
studio: Warner/New Line; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 18.9 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 27.62 Mbit/sec

Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination Final Destination

 
Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 5:59 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Poltergeist BD impressions

Blu-ray

A couple of nights back, I watched Warner’s BD release of Poltergeist, which believe it or not was the first time I’d ever seen this horror classic right through (having previously caught the end of it on TV several years back). The debate will, I’m sure, continue to rage over whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg was the movie’s actual director, but whoever was responsible certainly did a bang-up job. The more obviously Spielbergian elements - a lot of the domestic “wackiness” early on - did grate on me somewhat, and I can’t help feeling that the ending (i.e. everything after the “exorcism” of the house) was tacked on at a later stage, but beyond that it’s a bona fide masterpiece of the genre.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the transfer. This is a really great-looking catalogue title that exceeded my expectations as far as image quality were concerned. It’s not so much that I had any reason to expect it to look bad (beyond the knowledge that an awful lot of Warner titles look decidedly mediocre), but I was relieved to discover that the grain had largely been left alone and that detail levels didn’t suffer beyond the usual aberrations one tends to find with anamorphic lenses. There are some places where I feel it could have been improved, particularly with regard to the compression, which often lets the side down on Warner’s BDs, but overall I’m extremely satisfied with the look of this disc. It certainly compares very favourably to 20th Century Fox’s work on The Omen, a title of similar vintage (give or take a few years), shot using the same cinematographic process and with a comparable overall look. 9/10

Poltergeist
studio: Warner; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 18.5 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 23.23 Mbit/sec

Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist Poltergeist

 
Posted: Friday, April 24, 2009 at 7:11 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Changeling BD impressions

Blu-ray

Finally watched this film the other night. It’s fantastic. Go and watch it.

The film was shot with anamorphic lenses and has that slightly diffuse, hazy look that is often associated with this process - I don’t think any deliberate detail reduction has been done. However, a degraining pass appears to have been applied, probably at the digital intermediate stage. Grain seems unnaturally static and there are some mild DVNR artefacts - patterns and textures “dragging”, a bit of ghosting, and so on. In addition, there’s some incredibly nasty artefacting going on in the shadows early on (check Example 6 for a particularly noxious instance), not helped by the elevated blacks, but this is less of a problem later on. It’s not a spectacular-looking disc, but pretty damn good all the same, and would probably have netted a low “9” were it not for the artefacting. 8/10

Changeling
studio: Universal; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 31.3 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 31.58 Mbit/sec

Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling Changeling

 
Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 9:46 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Weeds: Season One BD impressions

Blu-ray

This was definitely $13 well spent: I knew next to nothing about Weeds before I picked it up as an impulse buy, other than that it was a comedy series about a woman dealing marijuana in an upmarket Californian suburb. I was slightly surprised by just how witty it is, often in an extremely twisted, blackly comic way that I tend not to associate with US television.

Unfortunately, the presentation leaves a little to be desired. All ten half-hour episodes were crammed on to a single BD-50, and there’s a hell of a lot of artefacting on display. It’s unclear how much of this is down to the encoding and how much is down to the source: Weeds was shot on high definition video and a lot of the mush afflicting the screen looks like the sort of noise you typically get with such material. Blacks seem elevated, and detail varies from shot to shot and scene to scene. The look is inconsistent, but overall is not particularly pleasant. 5/10

Weeds: Season One
studio: Lions Gate; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: MPEG-2;
file size: 42.9 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 21.67 Mbit/sec

Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One Weeds: Season One

 
Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 8:46 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | TV | Technology
 
 

 
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