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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Best wishes of the holiday season to all Land of Whimsy visitors. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white! I’m afraid I’ve been pretty busy this December (I even drew the short straw and ended up working the Christmas Eve shift at the library) and haven’t had time to draw one of my crappy pictures this year, so I thought I’d post a picture of our Christmas tree to warm the cockles of your heart. And yes, that is a hulking great CRT television. My dad bought it close to a decade ago, and it was his pride and joy. It’s now covered with discolouration splotches and hasn’t been turned on in so long that I’ll be amazed if it still works at all.

By the way, there has been an interesting development in my quest to get to the bottom of the Profondo Rosso situation. I’m continuing to investigate the issue and hope to be able to report back on it in a couple of days, but let’s just say that an absolutely gorgeous high definition master appears to exist…

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 24, 2008 at 10:30 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | General | Gialli | Technology
 

L.A. Confidential Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Not exactly an awe-inspiring image, but I’ve seen considerably worse. It’s a Warner title, and as such I have my suspicions that it has been subjected to the studio’s usual injection of mediocrity. Certainly, it has the look of having been slightly grain reduced, and I suspect that the highest frequency details have been filtered out as well. The picture is fairly flat-looking and never really comes to life, so to speak, while even in the closest of close-ups, there is a degree of softness that I suspect wasn’t part of the way it was shot. Overall, it’s basically what I’d term a reasonably nice-looking catalogue title, and, on the plus side, I can’t spot anything in the way of deliberate edge enhancement, but it’s fair to say I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by this disc. 7/10

L.A. Confidential
studio: Warner; country: USA; region code: ABC;
codec: VC-1; file size: 31.6 GB; average bit rate: 32.9 Mbit/sec

L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential L.A. Confidential

 
Posted: Monday, December 22, 2008 at 12:35 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | 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
 

Fight Club Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

I watched German Blu-ray Disc release of David Fincher’s Fight Club from Kinowelt last night. Prior to picking up a copy, I’d heard some negative reports about the disc’s image quality, including a review at Amazon.de which claimed it to be nothing more than a standard definition upconvert. I’m glad I researched the matter more thoroughly, because otherwise I would have steered clear of what is actually a rather good release. That’s not to say that it’s a flawless presentation by any means: a comparison at the AV Science Forum shows a very slight overall reduction in overall detail levels compared with the US DTheater tape from 20th Century Fox, while a couple of segments of the film, one near the beginning and one near the end, do demonstrate an overall blurrier look with less defined grain than the rest of the transfer, suggesting that perhaps these moments were taken from a different source (see capture 15 for an example of this).

Otherwise, this is a pretty impressive film-like presentation, one of only a small number of film-sourced (rather than DI-sourced) titles that I’ve seen in HD that haven’t been overzealously processed. Grain is moderate and very natural, and detail is pretty good too. It’s not razor-sharp, but I don’t think it was ever going to be. It’s definitely worth picking up if you can play Region B titles. I know some people have expressed dissatisfaction with it, saying a new master is needed etc., but I’m not convinced it could be made to look significantly better than it does now. I certainly don’t expect Fox’s eventual US release to improve on it in any meaningful way - and hey, it could even look worse, particularly if they decide to go to down on the degraining side of things. Once New Line get around to releasing Fincher’s Se7en, I would be overjoyed if it looks anything like this… but knowing New Line, they’ll probably pull a Dark City on it.

It also comes in a nice tin case, and has a tremendous DTS-HD High Resolution 7.1 mix (2046 Kbps, 48 kHz, 24-bit), suffering from none of the dialogue bleed and other problems which plagued the 7.1 audio on the previous BD I picked up from Kinowelt, Léon.

Fight Club
studio: Kinowelt; country: Germany; region code: B;
codec: VC-1; file size: 33.2 GB; average bit rate: 34.18 Mbit/sec

Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 4:17 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology | Web
 

Prince of Persia (2008) initial impressions

Prince of Persia

I picked up a copy of Prince of Persia for PC yesterday - the 2008 reboot, that is, not the original 1989 platformer of the same name. (Incidentally, I’m not what you’d call a fan of this trend of relaunching long-running game series and giving the new edition exactly the same title as the original. It just seems unnecessarily confusing and means you always have to clarify which one you’re referring to. Anyway, I digress.) My primary motivation in getting a hold of this game was its very pretty cel-shaded graphics, which, in terms of colours and overall stylisation, are not unlike those found in Eternal Sonata for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. That said, I don’t think anything else quite like it exists on the PC, so for me it’s pretty unique.

Prince of Persia (2008)

As has been the case with all the Prince of Persia games since Prince of Persia 3D in 1999, the gameplay borrows heavily from the Tomb Raider series, played from a third-person perspective and with an emphasis on climbing, acrobatics and puzzle-solving, albeit with an Arabian Nights twist. This time round, the central character of the Prince has been redone from the ground up, and, as is perhaps fitting for a game released in 2008, he’s a wise-ass punk who most sane people would dearly love to kick in the teeth. It could be worse, though: compared to what’s happened to Sonic the Hedgehog of late (a character who arguably always had an unhealthy amount of ‘tude, but which seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the last few years), he’s fairly bearable. And at least, this time, he’s teamed up with a female companion, Elika, who isn’t just a damsel in distress. Rather than simply being a sidekick, she holds her own and actually turns out to be pretty useful.

Prince of Persia (2008)

By “turns out to be pretty useful”, I should perhaps have said “makes the game incredibly easy”. There’s a lot of hand-holding in this instalment: Elika not only shows you exactly which path you have to take through each area (if you ask her), she also helps you fight and prevents you from ever dying by swooping down and pulling you to safety if you happen to mistime a jump. Given that the previous reboot of the franchise, The Sands of Time, was a little too obtuse for my tastes, I’m actually quite happy to have Elika along for the ride, but so far, the game certainly hasn’t offered anything approaching a challenge and, if the reviews are to be believed, this stays the same right up to the end. I’m not sure I’d call this a “casual game” in the most obnoxious sense of the word - in other words, something extremely simplistic designed for every man and his grandmother to play without any attempt to cater to core gamers - but if you’re looking for something that taxes the old grey matter, I suspect this isn’t it. Good thing it looks and sounds absolutely beautiful, so much so that it’s possible for me to overlook the relative lack of substance… kind of like My Blueberry Nights, really.

Oh, and it is indeed 100% DRM-free. There isn’t even a CD key, nor does the game check that the disc is in the drive before playing. This seems to be a change of policy for publisher UbiSoft, and I for one applaud them for not assuming that their customers are all potential pirates. I just hope it’s an intentional decision and not simply an oversight.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 7:51 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DRM | Games | Technology
 

Chungking Express Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

A bulging chest of swag was hauled aboard the HMS Whimsy today, including separate packages from the far lands of Germany and the United States of America. The former contained Blu-ray Disc releases of Fight Club and The Constant Gardener (both locked to Region B, I’m sorry to report), while the latter contained my first ever Criterion BD, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express.

I watched this tonight and, sacreligious as it will no doubt sound, I’m afraid it did very little for me. This is not a case where I can point to individual elements and say “this didn’t work” or “that didn’t sit well with me”: I can’t really criticise the film at all, and yet it just left me completely cold. It was as if there was some sort of barrier between myself and the film that prevented me from connecting with it. It just came and went and, to borrow a saying from my brother, “I don’t regret watching it but I don’t care if I never see it again.” I suppose some films are just like that: you can’t please anyone, and you’d be foolish to try, but (and here I’m only tightening the noose around my neck) I enjoyed My Blueberry Nights considerably more. Given my apparently-notorious dislike of most anime (while I love a lot of Western animation), perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

As far as the BD itself is concerned, I strongly doubt that this is going to be a demo title for anyone’s collection. As with my reaction to the film itself, I can’t pinpoint anything “wrong” with it per se, but, I suspect due to the limitations inherent in the source material, it basically looks completely natural without ever being overly impressive. I don’t doubt that it’s a completely faithful reproduction of the materials, but in that case the source materials can’t have been particularly amazing to begin with. It’s therefore extremely difficult to know how to rate a title like this. Taking into account faithfulness to the original materials, it’s probably a “10”, but, ignoring such concerns and concentrating on pure aesthetics, it would be considerably lower.

Sorry if this post comes across as overly negative. I have a huge amount of respect for Criterion’s dilligent efforts to retain a filmic look in the home video environment, but something we have to bear in mind is that a lot of the films in their catalogue, due to their very nature, simply aren’t going to have the “wow” factor in HD. That’s something to bear in mind when evaluating the quality of their discs. That said, it never ceases to amaze me how willing reviewers are to give Criterion the benefit of the doubt. I’ve yet to read a review of this disc that gives the image quality anything less than a glowing appraisal, and yet I feel pretty certain that, if the likes of Universal were to put out exactly the same disc, many would be calling it a sloppy effort and demanding that a new master be struck (ignoring the fact that a new master was created this year).

PS. If I hear the song California Dreamin’ one more time, I may inflict physical violence on the first person I find.

Chungking Express
studio: Criterion; country: USA; region code: A;
codec: AVC; file size: 29.2 GB; average bit rate: 40.66 Mbit/sec

Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express Chungking Express

 
Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 11:32 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

La Femme Nikita Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

La Femme Nikita, or Nikita to give it its correct title, is a film that I’ve owned on DVD for over a year now. I always intended to sit down and watch it, but, given how atrocious the DVD’s transfer was, I always seemed to come up with an excuse to watch something else instead. Luckily, Sony have now released the film on Blu-ray Disc, meaning that we can now finally throw away our blurry, aliased old standard definition discs. It’s altogether better-looking than Kinowelt’s recent BD of Léon, with a far more natural grain structure, superior detail and considerably less in the way of blown-out contrast. Some of the whites do look a little on the “hot” side, but a comparison with my old DVD revealed that they looked just the same there as well, so I don’t believe any boosting has been carried out - well, no additional boosting, at any rate. In any event, the master is new, judging by the presence of the 2007 Gaumont logo at the start.

By any standards, this is a very good-looking disc. However, when you consider that the source material is nearly 20 years old and the film is slightly more obscure than a lot of the titles being put out on BD, the end results look even more impressive. I was going to say “If you want a catalogue title done right, take it to Sony,” but then I saw Erik’s screen captures of Joan of Arc: The Messenger, another Besson film also released by Sony on the same day, and decided I’d just be embarrassing myself if I said that.

On a semi-related note, can I ask Sony to please stop positioning their subtitles over the letterboxing on their 2.39:1 discs instead of placing them within the frame? This sort of thing basically makes foreign language films unwatchable for those with 2.39:1 displays, and is extremely irritating for the rest of us because it means our eyes are automatically drawn to the black at the bottom of the screen rather than the picture itself.

La Femme Nikita
studio: Sony Pictures; country: USA; region code: ABC;
codec: AVC; file size: 26.4 GB; average bit rate: 32.33 Mbit/sec

La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita La Femme Nikita

 
Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 4:20 PM | Comments: 10 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

“Where are you, you little creep?”

Blu-ray

Yesterday, I was greeted by the arrival of one of my most anticipated Blu-ray Disc releases of the season (don’t laugh): Home Alone. Watching this film is a Christmas tradition aboard the HMS Whimsy, and last night, we dimmed the lights and got to enjoy this holiday classic all over again, for the first time in high definition.

I’d like to be able to post screen captures, as I normally do when discussing the image quality of a BD, but unfortunately, Home Alone, like a number of other recent 20th Century Fox releases, comes with an insidious new version of their pointless BD+ content protection system which the usual suspects have yet to break. I’m assured that they’re working hard on it, though, so hopefully it’ll only be a matter of time before normal business is resumed.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to dazzle you with words rather than pictures. As per usual, we have a 1080P AVC encode on a dual-layer BD50, in the proper aspect ratio of 1.85:1. A less than convincing 5.1 remix (lossless DTS-HD Master Audio) is provided, along with the original matrixed 2.0 surround mix as a lossy Dolby 2.0 track. Transfer-wise, the same master used for last year’s DVD re-release was presumably the source again here, judging by the similarities in overall colour balance, plus the fact that I can’t see yet another a new master being created so soon. Unfortunately, the BD has been degrained noticeably more than the DVD, making the image look a bit synthetic. It’s not up to Patton or Dark City levels of badness, but it doesn’t look very film-like. This is not what you’d call a crisp-looking film, but I suspect that this is largely representative of the original materials rather than any monkeying around with the master. In any event, the presentation is reasonably satisfying overall, but it’s likely to disappoint both purists who crave faithfulness to the source and “it has to be threeee-deeeeeeee!” kiddies like the Blu-ray.com crowd.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 09, 2008 at 3:47 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Doing the right thing

DRM

I was informed today (thanks, Avanze) that the latest patch for Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 adds an option to deactivate your install of the game, freeing up the activation to allow you to install it on another system. In case you weren’t already aware of the scandal surrounding the game’s draconian DRM implementation, to briefly explain: you can activate the game on up to five different systems, connecting to EA’s server in order to authenticate your copy every time you do so. Until the most recent patch, this then meant that, once you’d used up your five shots, you’d have to call EA’s pay-by-the-minute help line and plead to be allowed to install the game again (a process that, as you can no doubt imagine, appears to be considerably less than straightforward).

I’m not going to call this new solution perfect, because it doesn’t explain what you do in the event of a system crash (presumably you can’t de-authorise an installation if your hard drive has been wiped), and it also adds the hassle of having to remember to de-authorise your copy before formatting your hard drive or upgrading your system. Additionally, I’m still not happy at all about having to “talk” directly to EA’s servers in order to activate my copy. What happens if, ten years from now, I decide I want to install the game again and I find out that they’ve taken the activation servers offline? However, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, so much so that I’m now considering picking up a copy of the game - something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. Watch this space.

In the meantime, I’m also very excited to check out the latest revamp of the venerable Prince of Persia series, unnecessarily confusingly named Prince of Persia. A post by “UbiRazz”, a representative of the game’s publisher, UbiSoft, contains the assertion that this title will ship without any DRM - which is somewhat surprising as it is out of line with the company’s current policy regarding copy protection on their PC releases. Still, the game looks so damn cool that I’ve decided to take the representative at his/her word and pick up a copy.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2008 at 6:32 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

A picture’s worth a thousand words, part deux

Web

I recently discovered another web site with a library of direct Blu-ray disc captures, Cinema Squid. The layout is a little unwieldy in that there’s no dedicated index of titles that have been capped, but if you dig around you can find some fine work on offer. I was genuinely surprised to discover that, for example, The Other Boleyn Girl looked so perfect, and that Kung Fu Panda had been thrashed with the low-pass filter.

 
Posted: Saturday, December 06, 2008 at 3:16 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology | Web
 

Shrooms Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Thanks to John for giving me an opportunity to view this disc… I think. No, it’s not particularly good - an Irish twist on the typical “moronic stoner kids get lost in the woods and are set upon by crazy killers” slasher movie formula, with the most blatantly obvious twist ending you’ve ever seen - but at least it provided me with some laughs, albeit of the unintentional variety.

On to the transfer: we have here an encode with an extremely small file size, particularly by Sony’s standards. To be honest, compression artefacts are less of an issue than I expected, but there is definitely some blocking going on in he background at times. There’s also some posterisation going on, with darker scenes suffering from compromised shadow detail. Lyris suggested that it might be that the filmmakers underexposed their material and then tried to compensate by boosting it digitally. That said, the overall detail levels are very good, despite a small amount of ringing resulting from a mild low pass filter (check the letterbox bars).

I was surprised by the lack of lossless audio - only a 640 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a 224 Kbps 2.0 downmix are provided.

Shrooms
studio: Sony Pictures; country: UK; region code: ABC;
codec: AVC; file size: 10.9 GB; average bit rate: 17.98 Mbit/sec

Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms Shrooms

 
Posted: Saturday, December 06, 2008 at 11:12 AM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

A picture’s worth a thousand words

Web

I want to take a moment to showcase a web site run by one of Land of Whimsy’s regular readers, Bjørn Erik Hundland. Specialising in direct screen captures of Blu-ray discs releases, it proves the old adage that a picture really is worth a thousand words. While it’s not always possible to tell exactly how a disc will look in motion based upon static screenshots (The Stendhal Syndrome being a prime example of how still frames can be misleading), I tend to find them infinitely more useful than the average wordy article written for one of the “professional” review sites. Immediately, you can get a good idea of the transfer’s overall detail levels and, on a calibrated monitor, the colour, contrast and brightness levels. Often, you can also pick out degraining, filtering, edge enhancement and other unpleasantries.

What I particularly like about Erik’s site is that he’s showcasing titles that are a little off the beaten track - ones which generally don’t get much attention on other sites providing similar services. This is particularly true of titles coming out of Hong Kong and the Scandinavian countries, where, by the looks of it, some very nice work is being produced. So, if you like the HD screen captures I provide on my site, be sure to bookmark Erik’s, which provides a similar service to mine, albeit covering a slightly different range of material.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 02, 2008 at 9:24 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Technology | Web
 

My Blueberry Nights Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

My Blueberry Nights is my second Wong Kar Wai film. My first was 2046, which I found pretty but vapid, and this 2007 effort, starring chanteuse Norah Jones, is similar, in that it’s once again pretty, albeit more so, and vapid, albeit more so. However, any film that has visuals so mesmerising that I can completely ignore a rather limp plot and uneven performances has my immediate respect: admittedly, I caught myself clock-watching by the time the Natalie Portman scenes near the end of the film were drawing to a close, but for a good 90% of the film’s duration I was held rapt by how incredibly beautiful every single shot was. This may be the the nicest-looking film I’ve seen since Amélie. Presumably the effect is diminished somewhat when viewed on a television, but I was lucky enough to be able to view it on a 123” display. The UK Blu-ray disc, from Optimum, is coded for Region B only, but thanks to the magic of the home theatre PC and its solutions to such errors, the studios can no longer deter me from giving them money. Strangely enough, I don’t think they’re going to thank me for lining their coffers.

Ahem, the disc… I’m going to make an assumption here and say that the film was heavily degrained at the DI stage. The result of this is that shots where the camera is in motion take on a very oily appearance, with the grain seeming almost like running liquid. Thankfully, the camera remains static throughout most of the film, and when it does move it tends to do so slowly, meaning that the problem is not as pronounced as it could have been. Detail is generally excellent, although it does vary and certain wide shots tend to become a little on the waxy side - again, I suspect, because of the degraining. Compression is very good on this single-layer AVC encode, and there isn’t so much as a hint of edge enhancement or detail reduction (beyond the side effects of the degraining). A shame, then, that someone forgot to set the black level properly, meaning that there is no “pure” black in the film, just dark grey. Look at the opening logos and you’ll see that the letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the screen are noticeable darker than what is meant to be the logos’ black background.

My Blueberry Nights
(Optimum, UK, AVC, 21.4 GB)

My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights My Blueberry Nights

And yes, I’m aware that I need to see In the Mood for Love. I suspect I’ll hold out for a Blu-ray release of it, and I’ll certainly be picking up Chungking Express when Criterion releases it on BD later this month.

 
Posted: Monday, December 01, 2008 at 11:25 AM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

DVD image comparison: La Femme Publique

Technology

It’s been some time since I last did a DVD image comparison, but I’m hoping to get the practice up and running again, particularly where standard definition to high definition comparisons are concerned. Tonight’s little doozy is La Femme Publique, pitting Mondo Vision’s recently released Limited Premium Edition against three earlier versions. Who will triumph? (Hint: it’s not the one that’s a PAL to NTSC video standards conversion.)

Read and weep!

 
Posted: Monday, November 24, 2008 at 9:48 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Mondo Vision | 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
 

Site update

Web

After a great deal of stalling, I’ve finally made a start in converting the Writings section of this site over to the new Land of Whimsy layout. The final remaining errant part of the site, it has retained the old Whiggles.com version 9 look for months now, mainly due to the mammoth undertaking that is converting each and every one of its many pages over to completely new code. I’m still looking into ways of automating certain pages via Movable Type, but for the time being I’ve decided to make a start on the pages that are likely to need to be updated manually - i.e. those that use a custom design. I’ve started with the HD Image Quality Rankings page, which is continually being added to anyway and which is one of the most frequently-accessed parts of this site. I’ve also taken the opportunity to add a new “region” column to the table, as well as making it a little easier to read by padding it and adding borders.

Other pages will follow as I get round to them, but I’m not promising a definite ETA for its completion at this stage.

 
Posted: Monday, November 24, 2008 at 2:04 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

The Stendhal Syndrome Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

I’m off work today with a stomach bug of some sort, and have been doing my best to distract myself from the stabbing pains and waves of nausea by putting my copy of the recent Blu-ray release of The Stendhal Syndrome, from Blue Underground, through its paces. Overall, we have what I consider to be a strong but problematic presentation, although to what extent these problems were avoidable is open to debate.

The first thing that struck me about it was how grainy it is. The grain is extremely pronounced and harsh, more so than The Counterfeiters, previously the grainiest film I owned in high definition. The intensity and appearance of the grain is such that Lyris immediately suggested that it had been artificially sharpened at some stage in the chain, and, after giving the matter due consideration, I agree. Judging by its appearance, the source material (a 35mm interpositive) was pretty heavy in the grain department to begin with, but, if our theory is correct, this has been unnecessarily accentuated digitally. It’s not awful by any means, and it looks considerably better in motion than in still frame form, but it does look a little on the harsh side and not very naturalistic. It also causes problems for the encoder, which simply can’t cope with this level of grain, meaning that virtually every shot in the film is crawling with tiny compression artefacts. Again, they aren’t overly apparent in motion, but are quite noticeable in still frame form.

I’m therefore happy to report that, other than these issues, I have no complaints about the image quality. Presumably, the same master that was used for last year’s standard definition release was used for the BD, and as a result it is far closer in terms of colour palette and contrast to that release than to the earlier Region 2 Italian DVD from Medusa, which, in comparison, looks decidedly washed out. Detail levels are pretty decent, although the heavy grain means that it never has the crisp clarity that so many crave for their HD presentations. Given that every single Blue Underground standard definition DVD I ever saw was over-zealously filtered, I’m extremely pleased that this odious practice doesn’t appear to have followed them into the HD domain.

Audio-wise, things get rather baffling. In addition to the same 448 Kbps English and Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 EX tracks that were present on the DVD release, we also have two 7.1 tracks, both lossless: DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Frankly, I don’t understand the logic behind this, as the presence of one automatically makes the other pointless. I find this particularly confusing given that Blue Underground is a low budget independent label; I’d have thought they would have better things to spend their money on than licence fees for multiple audio formats. Personally, I wouldn’t have objected if one was English and the other Italian, but as both feature the inferior English dub, I can’t imagine either getting much of a workout on my speakers. English subtitles are also included, and they are, as far as I can tell, dubtitles rather than captions for the Italian audio.

One final note on the audio: the stereo mixes that accompanied the film on both the Blue Underground and Medusa DVD releases are missing in action. Now, I know that there is some debate as to whether the film was original mixed in stereo or surround, but this, coupled with a similar absence on Blue Underground’s BD of The Final Countdown (released theatrically in stereo), does give me some cause for concern. Are Blue Underground doing a Warner and neglecting to present these films with their original audio intact in HD? If so, Bill Lustig should know better, given the flack he received for his bungled remixes of (among others) Suspiria. Let’s put it this way: if The Bird with the Crystal Plumage arrives on Blu-ray in February sans its original mono English and Italian tracks, I will be sorely disappointed. My advice, in the unlikely off-chance that anyone is listening: ditch the redundant 7.1 remixes and include the original mix as a matter of priority. By all means include one lossless remix, but any more than that is overkill, particularly if it impacts on the film’s original audio.

The Stendhal Syndrome
(Blue Underground, USA, AVC, 35.1 GB)

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Posted: Saturday, November 22, 2008 at 4:38 PM | Comments: 17 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Gialli | Technology
 

Wall-E Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

On Tuesday, my brother received his copy of the US Blu-ray release of Wall-E (the 2-disc edition, naturally, not the pointless 3-disc version with a useless Digital Copy to inflate the price tag). Almost immediately, he had to leave for London to receive Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) training, so I took the opportunity to nab the disc from his shelf and give it a quick run-through.

I should point out that, until I’ve watched the film on the big screen, which we should hopefully be doing over the weekend, I won’t be assigning the transfer an overall rating, but I was very impressed by what I saw and would, at this early stage, call myself 99% satisfied. As with the BD of Pixar’s Ratatouille before it, the look of Wall-E is smooth rather than pin sharp. I take this to be an intentional cinematographic choice; certainly, it allows the film to avoid the sterile look that plagues most CGI films. As such, while it doesn’t have the razor sharp look of, say, Open Season, it’s by far the more aesthetically pleasing of the two. There is, however, one mild caveat: compression. Don’t get me wrong, it’s almost completely flawless, but as soon as I saw the surprisingly low bit rate of 21.1 GB (on the disc, a total of 28.6 out of a possible total of 50 GB is occupied by data), I did begin to be rather concerned. This is by no means a compression nightmare, but eagle-eyed viewers may be able to spot some occasional artefacts affecting a handful of scenes combining fast motion with high amounts of detail. Take a look at Example 12 for an idea of what to (occasionally) expect.

Overall, it’s a highly impressive transfer, but Ratatouille remains Disney’s best-looking BD. I just hope the film is still as magical as I remember it being.

Wall-E
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 21.1 GB)

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Posted: Friday, November 21, 2008 at 7:49 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

A rumble in the jungle

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Eidos Interactive have released a demo for the PC version of Tomb Raider: Underworld, the latest instalment in the long-running adventure franchise, due out tomorrow in North America and on November 21st throughout Europe. (Actually, the demo has been available since October 31st, but I only discovered it today.)

Anyway, the demo contains what I suspect is the first level of the full game, and, based on the 20-25 minutes it took me to complete it, Eidos have another winner on their hands, once against proving that they made the right decision in yanking development duties away from Core Design and handing them over to Crystal Dynamics. The most impressive feat, in my eyes, is that for once all the promised improvements seem to have been delivered. In the past, when Core had the development rights, the creative team would continually crow about how whichever instalment was currently in development would be “back to the drawing board”, “redone from scratch” and so on, but in the end they’d simply serve up last year’s game with a few half-hearted tweaks implemented, much like a reheated carry-out and considerably less tasty. With Tomb Raider: Legend, however, Crystal Dynamics started from scratch, putting together a compelling reboot of the series that succeeded in washing away the stench of the later Core years. With Tomb Raider: Anniversary, they came through again, building on the solid foundation of the original 1996 Tomb Raider to provide an updated, slicker and more challenging iteration of the game. Judging by the Underworld demo, this successful streak looks set to continue.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

The big focus this time round appears to be on two things: realism and player choice. While I tend to feel that making games as hyper-realistic as possible is overrated and an exercise in futility, I can’t deny that it’s appropriate to the Tomb Raider series, which has always been about the player infiltrating intricately detailed environments and relying on his or her powers of observation to solve complex puzzles. In that respect, a more realistic world helps make the experience more immersive, and I have to say that the new Lara Croft, motion captured from Olympic gymnast Heidi Moneymaker, is nothing like as clunky as I initially feared. Motion capture, particularly in computer games, where responsive controls and accurate movement are paramount, often strikes me as bland and detrimental to playability, but I have no complaints here. Ultimately, I suspect I’ll always prefer the more stylised nature of the key-frame animation used on the likes of the Guild Wars and Warcraft franchises (which I know have next to nothing in common, gameplay-wise, with Tomb Raider, but still…), but I can appreciate a nicely-done exercise in realism when I see one. Oh, and she’s still voiced by the delectable Keeley Hawes.

The other big thing, player choice, is realised in the fact that the game world is now a lot more open-ended, meaning that there is often more than one route to the end of a level, or more than one way to complete a given puzzle. This goes hand in hand with the increased degree of realism, because the more organic visuals mean that it’s no longer quite so obvious that you have to jump from block A to block B in order to progress. The developers seem to want to hammer this home right from the word go, starting you aboard a yacht in the middle of the water and leaving the you to decide in which direction to head. (Actually, at this early stage it’s fairly obvious that you need to head for the nearest stretch of dry land, but it’s a world away from plonking you at one end of a corridor and asking you to run to the other end of it.) Incidentally, I’m extremely impressed that, despite the massive increase in the quality of the graphics over Legend (which now looks decidedly quaint), the performance actually appears to have improved rather than worsened.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

It’s hard to gauge the overall quality of the game based on this brief demo, but what I’ve seen has certainly whet my appetite for more. This is definitely a title I’ll be adding to my list for Father Christmas. Oh, and as a plus, it doesn’t appear to have been infected with any objectionable DRM schemes: from what I can gather, it does use SecuROM, but, like Legend and Anniversary before it, only to check that an original disc rather than a copy is in the drive. In other words, no limited installations or mandatory online activations farrago. I don’t know about you, but personally I can live with having to put the disc in the drive when I play the game.

 
Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008 at 4:46 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | DRM | Games | Technology | Web
 

Well, at least I didn’t have to buy an iPod

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack

Earlier this month, I wrote an article on game music, listing my ten favourite pieces. One of these was the backing music to the introductory cinematic for the latest expansion set to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft juggernaut, Wrath of the Lich King. The game itself was released in both vanilla and Collector’s Edition variants on November 13th, the latter containing a soundtrack CD showcasing 21 tracks from the game, composed by Russell Brower, Derek Duke and long-time Blizzard composer Glenn Stafford, who seems to have made a return to the game universe that gave him his big break after a brief venture with Sony writing music for the rival Everquest franchise. When I wrote the aforementioned article, I lamented the fact that there was no way to listen to the cinematic’s music without voice-over narration and sound effects in the way. It seems my pleas were heard, as Track 3 of the CD is that very piece of music in isolated form.

Given my thoughts on World of Warcraft, buying this release (and the earlier The Burning Crusade expansion, which is also required in order to play), in either its standard or Collector’s Edition guise, was out of the question. However, in a gesture that seems almost like tossing a bone to people like me who don’t like the game but love the music, Blizzard have released the soundtrack to download via their iTunes store for the price of $9.99 (or £7.99 if you’re in the UK). It does mean installing iTunes, a program I’ve never been particularly crazy about, but on the plus side it comes in Apple’s iTunes Plus format, which offers AAC encodes of the tracks at a reasonable bit rate of 256 Kbps and is completely DRM-free, meaning that you can easily re-encode them to a format of your choice and use them in your preferred music player. Okay, so the quality won’t be as good as proper uncompressed RedBook audio, but given the cost of the Collector’s Edition, and the speed with which copies of it have been snatched up, it’s a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to get what is, in my opinion, the more desirable component of that release - the music.

 
Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 9:41 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Music | Technology | Web
 
 

 
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