November 2006

 
 

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DVDs I bought or received in the month of November

  • Alias: The Complete Fifth Series (R2 UK, SD DVD)
  • Astérix et les Vikings (R2 France, SD DVD)
  • Cars (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • Home Alone: Family Fun Edition (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Lovers, Liars and Lunatics (R0 USA, SD DVD)
  • Peep Show: Series Three (R2 UK, SD DVD)
  • V for Vendetta (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Veronica Mars: The Complete Second Season (R1 USA, SD DVD)

Some interesting titles this month, including my first ever British HD DVD. Although, given that it’s actually just a US release relabelled, that probably doesn’t count for much.

 
Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 11:59 PM
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

Blu-ray penetrated

Blu-ray

Source: Gizmondo

Betcha all those studios that signed up with Blu-ray rather than HD DVD because of its “superior security measures” are a little worried now. And this just a few days after it was discovered that Playstation 3 games were being artificially bloated (i.e. filled with automatically generated garbage data to increase file sizes) to justify the adoption of Blu-ray as the system’s storage format, and to push the “real” data further towards the outer edges of discs in order to improve read times on this “consistent read speeds across the entire disc” (or not) format. I wonder who will be taking home a pink slip from Sony Towers this Christmas?

 
Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 9:04 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Games | HD DVD | Technology
 

Gradu-what?

Today was apparently my graduation. Of course, I didn’t go - I was at my undergraduate graduation, and once was more than enough for one lifetime. I read about it in the newspaper, though, where my name is printed along with those of seven others from my class… which is a little strange, given that there were at least 20 people in my class. At first I wondered if an inordinate number of people had failed, but, among the names omitted were several people that I can’t imagine failing. Therefore, my best guess would be that there has been some sort of a mix-up somewhere down the line. Which is not particularly nice if you’re the sort of person who likes to see their name in print.

 
Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 7:22 PM
Categories: General
 

Alternative Bond titles

Source: Dark Discussion

Well, it made me laugh at any rate. Actually, it made me guffaw. And spit up a little. I had the good fortune to see Bond’s Balls Get a Bloody Good Walloping quite recently, but I must confess that the majority of the others have so far passed me by. Bond Screws 8 Birds in This One, Lads sounds like a right cracker, though, as does All Black-skinned People are Drug Pushers, Pimps, Rapists and Corruptors of Civilised White Society… although I’m rather worried that the latter will now only be available under its politically-correct title of The Larger Majority of Black-skinned People are Drug Pushers, Pimps, Rapists and Corruptors of Civilised White Society. Ah well, that’s the nanny state mentality for you.

 
Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 2:32 PM
Categories: Cinema | General | Web
 

Giallo Fever!

He’s a new blog that all you giallo obsessives will want to add to your bookmarks folder: Giallo Fever is run by Keith Brown, the webmaster of the excellent Kinocite and author of the dissertation Genre, Author and Excess: Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria. The blog has been live for less than a fortnight, but already it contains a number of fascinating posts and observations on giallo cinema. The main focus is on Argento’s films, which is absolutely fine as they are, in my opinion, the most fruitful from an analytical perspective. If you have any interest in these films, be sure to check this great site out!

 
Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 2:08 PM
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Web
 

Oops, I did it again - Profondo Rosso commentary

Profondo Rosso

Well, it’s finally done: all 126 minutes of Profondo Rosso (or thereabouts - there are a handful of brief blank spots) have now been commented on, and the files are ready to be downloaded. It took a little longer to get another commentary up and running than I would have liked (over a year, to be precise), but I’m very happy with this one, and think it’s much better than its predecessor. On this track, I talk about everything from Jung to Michelangelo Antonioni to being scalded by espresso machines!

Once again, the commentary is split into two halves, to make it easier for people who want to burn audio CDs and not have to wrangle with chopping it in two to fit the 80-minute time limit themselves. Each half is accompanied by a “beep” sound to allow you to synchronise the track with the film. For Part 1, synchronise the beep with the first credit appearing on the screen; for Part 2, synchronise it with the first shot inside the police station (01:11:20 on the Anchor Bay DVD).

I would recommend running the film at a low level of volume in the background when you listen to this commentary.

  • NTSC version
    (use this version if you have the US Anchor Bay or Italian Medusa Film release)
    Part One (24.2 MB, MP3 format)
    Part Two (18.7 MB, MP3 format)

  • PAL version
    (use this version if you have the UK Platinum Media release)
    Part One (23.2 MB, MP3 format)
    Part Two (17.9 MB, MP3 format)

If you don’t have one of the three versions listed above, you may have to try pot luck. Broadly speaking, if the running time of your copy is around 126 minutes, use the NTSC version; if it’s closer to 122 minutes, go for PAL. Also, bear in mind that this commentary was intended to be listened to in conjunction with the full-length uncut version of the film rather than the shorter English export version.

Hopefully you’ll find something in this to enjoy, even if I don’t happen to come up with any wildly original interpretations or observations. I was inspired by a number of sources, including my own dissertation, from which I re-use a couple of passages (which, if you’ve read it, you’ll probably be able to spot). This one is filled with a lot less “ums” and “ers” than my Suspiria’s commentary, too, so it should be less of a headache to listen to.

Let me know what you think of it!

Warning: this track contains spoilers for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Strip Nude For Your Killer! If you’ve not seen the former, you may wish to do so before listening to this track. If you’ve not seen the latter… well… don’t bother.

 
Posted: Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 4:49 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | General | Gialli
 

Sorry America, we got your Potters!

HD DVD

Forgive me this moment of plagiarism, but I still think it’s one of the funniest thread titles I’ve seen relating to this subject. As I laid out in an earlier post, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, still lacking an official date for its US released, came out on HD DVD in the UK on November 20th, and word quickly spread that, barring the inclusion on the cover of BBFC logos and the usual UK additionata (to borrow a phrase from Garth Marenghi), such as a quote from the Daily Mirror, this was actually just the as yet unannounced US release rebadged. Well, curiosity got the better of me and, despite only having a lukewarm reaction to the first two Potter films, I ended up ordering a copy from Play.com.

It arrived today, and the rumours are true: when you pop the disc in, you’re greeted with an FBI warning screen, followed by the Warner logo and the same annoying and bombastic Warner HD DVD trailer that they’ve included on every single one of their releases so far, then an MPAA PG-13 logo, followed by the film itself. If the studios continue to follow this model of simply repackaging (and re-labelling) the US discs, this strikes me as being a good thing, for two reasons. First: it cuts down on costs, meaning that a single master can be prepared for both North America and the UK (and any other English-speaking territories, as well as other locations like France and Spain, provided the extras are comprehensively subtitles, given that these discs tend to include French and Spanish dubs). Second: it should help bury the horrible legacy of PAL speed-up in films and dodgy NTSC to PAL standards converted extras. At the moment, Potter is a rare beast indeed: a 24 fps film with 30 fps NTSC extras that you can pick up off a UK store shelf. Hopefully this trend will continue.

Anyway, enough of that - how’s the disc? Superb, is the answer. In fact, it comes very close to toppling Serenity from its “best HD DVD transfer” throne. It’s amazing that Warner can put out an edge enhanced, slightly filtered and noise reduced release like V for Vendetta one week, and then release something that, to my eyes, looks almost completely untampered the next. This is an amazing looking transfer, with excellent detail and a rich, smooth, film-like look, and the fact that there are no real problems with compression is a phenomenal achievement given the number of difficult moments in this film - crowd scenes, underwater chases, firework displays, not to mention dodgy CGI fire-breathing dragons. This is very much a 10 out of 10 affair, with my only concern being some prominent edge enhancement in a couple of background shots in an early scene, which is so much heavier than anything else in the film (or indeed the shots in question) that I’m pretty sure it was a result of some effects work rather than the encoding.

As for the film, I enjoyed it more than the first two Potters, although it is to my mind still heavily flawed, not to mention far too long. As has been something of a trend recently, it’s also fairly clear that, rather than being a stand-alone film, it’s merely a single part in a much larger story. This wouldn’t have been a massive problem were it not for the fact that the film ends on a “to be continued” note in all but name: in the final half-hour, a hideous villain and arch-enemy of Harry’s escapes from his prison and comes after him, but nothing is done about this and, as is usually the case, the film ends with the school year ending and the characters heading their separate ways. Harry might have said, “Gee willickers! There’s a terrible villain who wants to kill me on the loose, but we’ll deal with him next term.” I did, however, appreciate the somewhat darker tone when compared to the first two films (I still need to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film), and the child actors seem to be improving as they grow older.

DVD

Oh yeah, and I also finally received my long-awaited copy of Amber Benson’s new film, Lovers, Liars and Lunatics, which she wrote, produced, edited, directed and starred in. The disc was posted to me by Ms Benson herself, judging by the fact that the signature on the customs declaration matches the signature on the front cover (she signed the first 500 copies). Full thoughts and impressions will follow as soon as I’ve had a chance to watch it, but, having taken a glance at a couple of minutes, I should probably warn you that the transfer is interlaced and non-anamorphic (although, unlike Amber’s previous film, Chance, it’s shot on 35mm film rather than video).

Update, December 19, 2006 05:54 PM: Fixed dead link.

 
Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 6:30 PM
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Reviews | Technology
 

One More Drifter in the Snow - yep, that’s pretty much it

CD

I received my copy of Aimee Mann’s latest album, the Christmas-themed One More Drifter in the Snow, yesterday.

It actually took me three separate sessions to get through this rather slight 10-track CD, and, while I’d love to say that this was because I enjoyed it so much that I had to listen to every song a zillion times, that would be a big fat porky. As it happens, this is a distinctly unimpressive affair, and, as far as I’m concerned, easily the worst release Aimee Mann has ever put out.

As I said before, I’m not particularly enthralled by the concept of “Christmas albums”, because, generally speaking, all you get are a bunch of tired songs everyone’s heard a million times before that no-one in their right mind would want to listen to outside of the festive period. I had similar reservations about Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas album, Wintersong, but she, to her credit, was at least able to take some well-known songs and put a new spin on them by filtering them through her own distinctive style. Aimee Mann has no such luck: the songs sound flat and uninspired, and her reedy voice just doesn’t suit the material. (Don’t even get me started on her rendition of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.)

I’m sad to say this, because she’s one of my favourite musicians, but this is very much the bottom of the barrel. There’s not a single track that makes this CD a worthwhile purchase, and I’m rather sorry I spent money on it. The whole endeavour smells suspiciously like “side project”, though, so with any luck she’ll be putting out something better before too long. Myself, I’m going to go back and listen to her best album, Bachelor No. 2.

Update, December 19, 2006 05:57 PM: Fixed dead links.

 
Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 11:22 AM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Music
 

New DVD image comparison

DVD DVD

See just how bad the previous release of Home Alone was in my latest DVD Image Comparison!

 
Posted: Monday, November 27, 2006 at 10:55 PM
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

This is my house - I have to defend it!

DVD

My copy of the recently released R1 US special edition (sorry, “Family Fun Edition”) of Home Alone arrived this morning. If you’ve been reading this site for an extended period of time, then you’ve probably read at least one of my rants about the appalling picture quality of the previous bare-bones release of the film. Home Alone is probably my all-time favourite Christmas movie, and I’m not ashamed to say that. Growing up, it was always a huge part of the festive season for me, and, despite knowing every single line by heart, it never gets old. As you can probably imagine, I was absolutely elated to hear that Fox were finally bringing this classic out of the vault and giving it the full-on special edition treatment.

You know how these posts of mine usually go, don’t you? Bla bla bla, I was so looking forward to this, bla bla bla. What usually comes next is the “What a phenomenal disappointment” rant… so here it comes.

Just kidding. I’m actually very pleased with this DVD. It’s not perfect, by any means: a considerable amount of temporal noise reduction has been applied to the image, and, like most of the Fox DVDs I own, it looks rather soft (some of which may be a result of the original photography, but at least some of which is the result of digital tomfoolery). Still, when all said and done, it could have looked considerably worse, and I don’t need to tell you that it’s a vast improvement on the yellowy, smeary, artefact-ridden disaster that was its predecessor.

The extras are all of a high standard, and, unusually, myself and Lyris, who generally doesn’t rate extras particularly highly, actually made our way through the entire contents of the disc without getting bored. Writer John Hughes, who supposedly banged out the script over the course of a weekend, is nowhere to be found, but director Chris Columbus, actors Macaulay Culkin and Daniel Stern, and a variety of crew members, are all over the bonus features, which include a neat little retrospective documentary as well as some archive materials from the time of the film’s original production and release. Also included are a variety of deleted scenes, many of which are a hoot, and the contents of which actually made it into the novelisation I read when I was about eight years old. Finally, there’s a great commentary with Columbus and Culkin, who gently take the piss out of the film and themselves, and provide a great deal of informative and fun anecdotes about the production.

I’m very surprised to find myself saying this, but this is actually one of the best DVD releases I’ve come across this year. Okay, so it’s not exactly a multi-disc epic with seamless branching and a DTS-ES audio track, but it does exactly what it says on the tin and provides you with just about everything you could want for this film. With this, the special edition of The Omen and the extended cut of Kingdom of Heaven, Fox have certainly been releasing some decent packages recently. Let’s hope we can eventually convince them to jump aboard the HD DVD wagon!

 
Posted: Monday, November 27, 2006 at 6:58 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Veronica Mars, take two

DVD

Following on from my previous post, I ploughed through the remainder of Season 2 of Veronica Mars last night and this morning. And my opinions are largely unchanged: the same strengths and weaknesses that I outlined last night remained till the end. A more detailed explanation is in order, however.

The show is set in the (imaginary) small town of Neptune, home of dodgy millionaires and their snotty children, as well as the less well-off. The show looks at this “class divide” from the perspective of Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), a teenager who used to be in with the popular crowd until a series of unfortunate happenings resulted in her being ostracised by her so-called friends. She and her parents ended up becoming virtual social pariahs after her sheriff father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), put the blame for the murder of Veronica’s best friend, Lily (Amanda Seyfried), on her father… sorry, all these relationships are really complicated. Mrs. Mars ran off, Keith lost his job and ended up making a living as a private investigator, and Veronica, no longer on the in-crowd, helped him out.

That was Season 1. As Season 2 begins, the previous year’s various cases have been wrapped up. Lily’s killer (I’m not saying who, for those who haven’t seen Season 1) is behind bars, and Veronica has managed to regain much of her cred with the in-crowd. Tensions between the haves and the have-nots are at an all-time high, though, and Veronica finds herself stuck right in the middle. She soon has other problems to contend with, though, including a bus full of children from her school hurtling off a cliff for seemingly no reason… a bus that she should have been on. Did someone want her dead, and did it have anything to do with the events of the previous year?

I’ll give creator Rob Thomas and his writers credit for one thing: they know how to capture the audience’s interest. Whatever flaws the show might have, it has a very addictive quality. There are always unanswered questions, meaning that there’s always something to entice you to go straight to the next episode as soon as the current one finishes. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, upon which this show was clearly quite heavily modelled, it follows a conventional structure of most episodes having their own self-contained cases, with a couple of larger mysteries being played out over the course of the season’s 22 episodes. The “cases of the week” vary in terms of quality, but most of them do a commendable job of trying to do something unexpected… although not always successfully. The main case, meanwhile, has a decent line-up of potential suspects, including both new and old characters. The complex relationships between the various characters, meanwhile, provide ample scope for secrets, lies and intrigue, even if the soap opera elements to tend to become a little unbelievable in their complexity.

What doesn’t work, though, is that I really struggle to relate to the characters, understand what they see in each other, or even like the majority of them in the slightest. Veronica begins the season in the arms of the obnoxious Logan (Jason Dohring), before promptly ditching him for her previous boyfriend, Logan’s best friend Duncan (Teddy Dunn). By the end of the season, she’s back with Logan again. (See what I meant about the ridiculousness of the soap elements?) Logan is the sort of creep that you’d actually cross the street to avoid, making Veronica’s attraction to him decidedly implausible, while Veronica spends most of her waking hours being so sarcastic to everyone she comes into contact with that it’s a wonder she has any friends at all. Of all the regular characters, the most likeable is Keith Mars, with Colantoni’s performance being by far the best on the show.

There are also some rather irritating continuity issues, with character developments and plot threads being introduced in one episode, only to promptly be forgotten for extended periods. Early in the season, for example, Veronica’s friend Wallace’s (Percy Daggs) estranged father shows up, and various events lead to father and son eloping together. Wallace is out of the picture for several episodes, before promptly returning, and the business with his father, and his disappearance, never being dealt with. In Buffy, or other US shows I enjoy like Alias, you generally get the sense that everything that happens to the characters is working towards some sort of master plan, or at least that they are adding to their life experience and allowing them to develop, even if only in minute ways. With Veronica Mars, that sort of long-term planning doesn’t seem to exist, at least not to the same extent.

Broadly speaking, though, I can understand why this show has so many ardent followers, and I certainly enjoyed watching both seasons (I’ll probably pick up Season 3 when it comes out on DVD, but it doesn’t appear to air in the UK and I’m not obsessive enough to be motivated to download the episodes as they air in the US). It features the same cheery, irreverent take on film noir that Buffy did with horror, and as such, I can see it appealing to the same crowd. The second season even features appearances by Alyson Hannigan and Joss Whedon himself, while Charisma Carpenter is featured on a more extended basis.

Update, December 19, 2006 05:57 PM: Fixed dead link.

 
Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2006 at 7:16 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | DVD | Reviews | TV
 

DVD telly fun

DVD

My copy of the R2 UK DVD of the fifth and final season of Alias arrived today. Given the excellent image quality of its predecessors, I’m expecting big things in the technical department, although I am a little wary as to the quality of the episodes themselves, given that (a) Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy had to be written around, also resulting in a shorter season of only 17 episodes rather than the usual 22, and (b) Season 4 was a huge disappointment, barring the enjoyable but ludicrous two-part finale.

In any event, I won’t be watching it until I’ve finished Season 2 of Veronica Mars. I’m about two-thirds of the way through that now, and my verdict, so far, is that, if you’ve already seen Season 1, it’s very much more of the same, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the plus side, the various mysteries are generally well-plotted, and the longer arcs that snake their way through the entire season are enough to keep you tuning in - this is definitely a show that’s very “moreish”. On the negative side, I still find myself getting irritated by the fact that major plot developments and characters are introduced, only to be unceremoniously dumped and not picked up again till later. (In one episode at around the middle of the season, for example, Veronica and her father have a major falling-out, ending with her saying he won’t ever be able to trust her again. Next week, they’re bestest buds again.) I also tend to find that the vast majority of the characters are vaguely unpleasant at best, and downright despicable at worst, while the least offensive character, Mac, is hardly ever around.

Still, I shall persevere, and I’m certainly not finding the experience of watching it unpleasant. On the contrary, I always find myself eager to find out what happens next, and end up watching “just one more” episode. Hopefully I’ll be able to deliver my final verdict on the season in the next week or so.

 
Posted: Saturday, November 25, 2006 at 10:08 PM
Categories: DVD | TV | Technology
 

La Dolce Morte: a brief review

La Dolce Morte

Above: La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film

I finished reading Mikel Koven’s La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo last night, and thought I’d say a few words about it.

First of all, as I mentioned before, this is an excellent study, and nothing else like it exists. Academics, for the most part, tend to shun gialli anyway, assuming them to be unworthy of serious study, but, even when one looks at things from a less scholarly perspective, there is a real dearth of available books focusing on this genre, with perhaps the only English language title dedicated to the giallo being Adrian Luther Smith’s Blood and Black Lace, a guide that is exhaustive in its breadth but, for that very reason, lacks depth.

Generally, it seems that most scholars ignore gialli because they don’t consider them to be “good” cinema, lacking the sophistication and “art” of the more highly regarded Italian films by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Even those who do study giallo films tend to be dismissive of the bulk of the genre, focusing on the films of Dario Argento or Mario Bava at the expense of all others. Maitland McDonagh, for example, who was the first scholar to seriously study Argento, in her book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds claimed that the “outlandish titles” of the non-Argento gialli are “the only interesting things about them”, effectively rejecting an entire genre, barring the output of one of its most prominent directors.

Koven’s argument is that such scholars are looking at these films in the wrong way. He points out that they were originally intended to be played to a working class, non-critical audience who had little interest in sophistication and intelligent plotting, preferring instead to be entertained by a parade of sex and violence. Viewing these films instead in terms of “vernacular cinema”, he therefore argues, removes the need to justify these films as being “artistic” (which, he claims, most are not), instead looking at them from the same perspective as their original intended audience. He builds a very convincing case for this over the course of ten chapters, establishing first the nature of the giallo and of its audience, before going on to dissect specific traits of these films - e.g. the role of the detective, attitudes towards modernity, the influence of the giallo on North American slashers. In doing so, he refers to a commendable number of titles, although there is, as usually tends to be the case, something of an over-reliance on Argento’s films.

Koven’s approach is, therefore, a perfectly valid one. The only problem is that I don’t agree with it, and at times I found his continued refusal to view these films in anything other than vernacular terms to be something of a stumbling block. In a sense, I completely understand why he did this - anyone putting together a case study, no matter how broad the scope, must set certain parameters or run the risk of waffling - but it should be remembered that this book really only shows one side of the coin. Koven is, I’m sure, absolutely right when he argues that, say, The Case of the Bloody Iris (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972) was only ever intended to be watched as trashy entertainment, and that applying the sort of analytical methods that academics also apply to the films of Fellini and Antonioni is ultimately a poor fit. At the same time, though, to pass off the entire giallo genre as being “only” vernacular cinema is, in my opinion, unwise. I’ve already written at length about the films of Argento and a few select others that I believe can be analysed, at least partially, as art cinema.

To tar the entire genre with the same brush is therefore, in my opinion, problematic. There are certain traits that constitute a “typical” giallo (e.g. lots of sex and violence, screaming women and gallant male rogues saving the day), but what applies to The Case of the Bloody Iris doesn’t necessarily apply to Profondo Rosso (Argento, 1975). In looking at these films from a completely vernacular perspective, you run the risk of doing exactly what Koven accuses those who try to fit them into an art cinema context of doing. Yes, plenty of academics look down their noses at these films because they don’t fit the framework of a Fellini, but, if you try to put them in their own little box and claim that we shouldn’t even try to analyse them as art films, then you’re essentially just playing into the hands of the snobs, becoming apologetic for their very existence. (It’s a bit like what Stephen Thrower said in Beyond Cinema: The Films of Lucio Fulci: his argument was that talking about “justified” and “unjustified” violence was ludicrous, because, if a horror fan tries to defend his favourite gore scene in such terms, he is merely playing into the hands of the censors and automatically on the defensive.) By removing the need to justify them as “artistic”, on some level you prevent them, and their study, from being considered respectable at all.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I liked this book very much. It was an enjoyable read with a coherent argument maintained throughout, and I would like to think that it will pave the way for studies of the giallo from a variety of different perspectives. Ultimately, though, it only represents a single viewpoint, and one that, whatever the author’s intentions, seems a little one-sided in its focus.

Update, December 19, 2006 05:58 PM: Fixed dead link.

 
Posted: Saturday, November 25, 2006 at 1:05 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Books | Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Reviews
 

Casino Royale: confessions of a layman

I’ll say it upfront: I’m not what you’d call a Bond fan. Oh, I’ve seen a fair share of the films, and have enjoyed a number of them to some degree, but I’m by no means a completist, and can’t recall ever seeing one that I’ve absolutely loved. Even the strongest, most strait-laced ones, which, for me, have been the two Timothy Dalton ventures, had their moments of high camp that were at best annoying and at worst verged on bringing the whole thing crashing down. As such, my review of Casino Royale should be taken very much as an outsider’s point of view. What I liked and disliked about it won’t necessarily be the same things that a hardcore Bond fan will like and dislike.

The short version: this is a very good film. Actually, it’s close to being an excellent film, with only a handful of problems preventing it from being a top-tier effort. I’ll get on to these in due course, but first, I must say that I really liked this “reboot”. In the past, Bond films seem to have gone lurched back and forth between serious to camp, with a Licence to Kill being followed by a Moonraker (well, that’s chronologically incorrect, but it serves the purpose of illustrating the series’ two extremes). As you can probably gather, I prefer the former, and found Timothy Dalton’s hard-edged, merciless portrayal of 007 to be far superior to Roger Moore’s nudge-nudge wink-wink camp antics. Even Dalton had his flaws, though, for me, stemming mainly from the fact that, when the scripts called for him to be more light-hearted, he seemed hopelessly out of his depth.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale is no Roger Moore romp. It’s the first Bond film I’ve seen that is completely straight-faced. That’s not to say that there isn’t humour in it, but the humour is subtler, derived not from Bond foiling the terrorists and parachuting down to Felix Leiter’s wedding all in one swish movement (a particularly cringe-inducing moment in the otherwise commendable Licence to Kill), but rather from various dry retorts that, while self-conscious, ultimately serve the characters rather than playing to the gallery. (Bond’s response when asked whether he wants his Martini shaken or stirred put a smile on my face.)

The change in tone is partially due to the script, but also in no small part to the casting of Daniel Craig as Bond. Back when various actors were being touted as successors to the bland Pierce Brosnan (not a fan, sorry), I immediately latched on to him as my preferred choice (although the alternatives, ranging from Hugh Jackman to Orlando Bloom, meant that there really wasn’t much of a contest as far as I was concerned), and was most pleased when he got the part. People, however, were criticising the choice before they even saw a frame of footage: “Craig’s too ugly, he’s not sophisticated, he’s… he’s… he’s blond!” To that I say “Phooey!” Craig is certainly nothing like any of his predecessors, but, in my opinion, he comes the closest of all to making Bond seem human. Timothy Dalton was tough, sure, but I always saw him as more an attitude than a real person. Craig, in contrast, doesn’t really have the sophistication of some of his predecessors, but this “blunt instrument”, as M (Judi Dench - whose retention, despite this reboot, didn’t bother me anything like as much as I thought it would) puts it, lives and breathes in a way that the others, for me, didn’t. (That said, bear in mind that I’ve yet to see George Lazenby’s turn in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by a number to be Bond’s most human turn.)

Casino Royale

In part, that’s due to the way the writers build up his relationship with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, a fantastic actress and a Bond girl who, unusually, seems to have been cast for her acting abilities as much as her looks). Theirs is a relationship that begins as a series of thinly-veiled sniping matches, but which eventually becomes one of mutual dependence, as both find that the job they have to do is no walk in the park. The scene in which Bond comforts a tearful Vesper, who has just seen two men killed in front of her, packs more emotional punch than any other scene that I’ve seen in the series. You get the feeling that Bond genuinely cares about this woman and that, had things been different, their relationship would have gone further. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) Oh, and it also helps that Green is convincing as an intelligent secret service agent - Denise Richards she ain’t.

But what of the setting? A casino hall didn’t sound to me like the most exciting location in which to set a 140-minute film, not least because I know nothing about cards. Well, the truth is that it doesn’t matter. I still know nothing about the game that was being played, despite Bond’s handy explanation of it to Vesper, but in reality it’s not necessary to understand the details in order to become engrossed. The casino, while the backdrop of a significant portion of the film, is really just that - a backdrop - with more interesting events being played out against it. Lest anyone be under any misconceptions, it’s also worth pointing out that the entire film is not set there: Bond doesn’t reach the casino until over an hour into the film.

Casino Royale

Oh yes, and it’s bloody. This film is vicious - far more so than Licence to Kill. The Bond of this film gets beaten and bloodied, and he gives as good as he gets: I can see where the notion that Craig is a thuggish Bond comes from, for he really is absolutely ruthless in the various action scenes, thrashing his opponents within an inch of their lives and, on several occasions, killing in cold blood. Nothing quite lives up to the sheer brutality of the opening bathroom beating (although the torture sequence comes close), but the approach to violence throughout the entire film is more visceral and realistic than anything we’ve seen before. This time, we actually believe that Bond stands a chance of failing - he’s pitted against people who are more than a match for him. As befits this grittier Bond, the film was shot in the inherently grainier Super35, compared to the smooth Anamorphic Panavision of its immediate predecessors.

Having tossed around so many superlatives, I now feel inclined to point out the areas in which the film is more problematic. I essentially have three main complaints:

1. The product placement. This film, which features gratuitous advertisements for everything from Sony Ericsson phones to Blu-ray discs, leaves you in doubt that Bond is now property of Columbia Pictures.

2. The title sequence. The song is forgettable, but the execution of the graphics themselves is cringe-inducing. The concept - a “cards” motif that also showcases the new Bond - is pretty decent, but someone decided to apply a cheap, quasi-animated “cel-shaded” effect to it, which looks like something out of a video game.

3. The pacing. I didn’t mind the length, surprisingly enough, but I do agree with criticisms that the final act is rather anticlimactic. My understanding is that Ian Fleming’s original novel was more or less the second act, and that the bulk of the first and third acts were fabricated for the film. It’s a difficult situation - I’m not sure how I would have done things differently had I been writing it - but, despite an explosive climax in Venice, it feels a bit like an over-long afterthought after

Highlight below to reveal spoiler text:
the main villain has been disposed of.

Casino Royale

All in all, though, I had a blast. This one, for me, more than lived up to the hype, and I can’t remember ever becoming so engaged by a Bond film before. After 20 films playing to largely the same formula, I’m glad they shook things up with a leaner, meaner interpretation, and that, for once, the public seems to have accepted it. 9/10.

 
Posted: Friday, November 24, 2006 at 4:42 PM | Comments: 10 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Books | Cinema | Reviews
 

New DVD image comparison

DVD DVD DVD

Sorry for the lack of updates over the past couple of days. I’ve been a little busy, mainly with working on my Profondo Rosso commentary (nearly an hour’s worth of material in the can now!), as well as seeing my GP about my urination problem (I’m now on pills which are giving me an extremely dry throat, requiring me to drink a great deal, so, as you can probably imagine, it’s something of a vicious circle).

Anyway, I have a new DVD image comparison for you today. A while back, my good friend Lee sent me a copy of the German Limited Edition release of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (my review of which earned this site its first ever heckler). As a result, I’ve compared it with the two US releases I own - the 2001 Special Edition and the 2005 Unslashed Collectors’ Edition - both from VCI.

Take a look at the full comparison to learn the outcome of this investigation.

Update, December 19, 2006 05:59 PM: Fixed dead link.

 
Posted: Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 11:26 AM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Gialli | Technology | Web
 

V for Vendetta

HD DVD

My HD DVD of V for Vendetta finally arrived today from Amazon.com. Incidentally, I’m glad I decided to order my copy from them - my regular supplier, DVD Pacific, seem to have only just got copies in stock, and, in any event, Amazon’s shipping times and, for HD DVDs, prices, seem to be pretty much the same as DVD Pacific’s anyway.

Anyway, the disc. This is a very good but not outstanding presentation. I’d put it in the same category as the likes of Constantine and Million Dollar Baby: essentially, a smooth, rich presentation with a pleasing amount of detail and no visible compression artefacts, but not an out of this world eye-popper like Serenity (to date, still the most incredible home video presentation I’ve ever seen of a film) or Unleashed. Some edge enhancement is visible, and the image doesn’t have the crispness of some of the more stellar titles, but it is all in all a very nice-looking transfer.

As for extras, we get an exclusive In-Movie Experience, which I’ve briefly sampled and found to be somewhat better than those found on the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Also, all of the extras from the 2-disc special edition DVD have been ported over. And yes, that includes the Natalie Portman SNL short so tragically absent from the UK DVD releases.

Expect a full review at DVD Times by the end of the week.

Oh, and it seems that, despite HD DVD players not yet being available in the UK, Play.com are already shipping copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a title which is not yet available in the US. The word on the street is that this is actually a US disc, right down to the FBI warning and MPAA ratings screen at the start of the disc. If nothing else, this bodes well for future UK HD DVD releases, at least from Warner.

 
Posted: Monday, November 20, 2006 at 8:58 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Reviews | TV | Technology | Web
 

HD5 - great audio quality, but the usual Sony niggles

My Sony NW-HD5 MP3 player… sorry, “Network Walkman”… arrived this morning. Getting it all set up with my music copied over in something approaching a sensible order and audio settings I was happy with took a little longer than I had anticipated, and that, as usual, is due to the all-too-familiar inconsistencies and silly flaws in Sony’s software design.

Sony NW-HD5 (left) vs. Creative Zen Micro (left)

Sony NW-HD5 (left) vs. Creative Zen Micro (left)

Above, you can see the new player alongside my previous model, the Creative Zen Micro. I don’t know about you, but it seems pretty clear to me that the Zen is the more attractive of the two. In terms of shape, screen and button layout, it’s more aesthetically pleasing than the HD5, which has a rather thrown-together appearance, not to mention one of the strangest button layouts I’ve ever come across. What matters, though, is the performance, and it’s in that area that the HD5 excels. Not only does it have actual buttons as opposed to the infuriating touchpad system used by the Zen (and most other MP3 players), its audio output (once the whole thing is properly configured) is noticeably superior.

First things first: this is a European model, and, like all European portable audio devices, has had its volume artificially limited in order to make it comply with EU regulations. For your average rock-oriented CD, which will probably be mixed at an inexplicably high level, this isn’t too much of a problem, but, when you start getting into the domain of film scores, many of which are, for lengthy stretches, fairly low in volume due to the movies’ own requirements of making dialogue audible, you end up with problems. Some scores - such as Treasure Planet (James Newton Howard) and Braveheart (James Horner) - are, in places, so quiet that, even at the maximum volume, you wouldn’t be able to hear anything if you had the misfortune of being on a crowded bus when trying to listen to them. Luckily, a fairly straightforward guide is available for getting into the device’s service menu and disabling this annoying limitation. With this nifty little trick carried out, the maximum volume should be loud enough for even the quietest tracks (and loud enough to deafen you, at least temporarily, if you make the mistake of leaving the volume at its highest setting when you play something from the latest screaming metal band).

Another alteration that I highly recommend making is to go into the sound options menu and create a new custom setting, with the bass and treble settings both boosted to +3. Lyris did this for me, and the difference it makes to the clarity and depth of the output is quite palpable. In fact, it makes it sound virtually indistinguishable from the headphone output of my dedicated sound card - most impressive for a small, portable music player.

SonicStage: pretty, but stupid

SonicStage: pretty, but stupid

With the audio options properly configured, it’s now time to copy your music library from your PC over to the machine. This is where the problems start to emerge, owing to the inanity of Sony’s proprietary SonicStage software (the only way of transferring music to one of their MP3 players). SonicStage is like a stereotypical blonde bimbo: pretty, but stupid. It all looks very nice, and it has a major advantage over Creative’s MediaSource Organizer, in that it is integrated with the Gracenote music database, meaning that it can automatically search for details on any CD, including track titles. So far, it failed to find data for only one of my CDs, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Bruno Nicolai). However, when you actually try to do anything with it, it starts behaving like an idiot. For example: because SonicStage is designed to work with a whole range of devices, it is possible to encode audio files that won’t be compatible with your own player. In my case, the HD5 can’t handle 160 Kbps ATRAC files. Rather than ask me what to do with these problematic files, however, the program, by default, re-encodes them to a decidedly unpleasant-sounding 64 Kbps. This can easily be fixed if you go into the options menu and change the default behaviour (in my case, to automatically upconvert to 192 Kbps; you can also make it ask you what to do each time), but it’s not exactly obvious.

Ditto when it comes to transferring an audio file that is already present on the player (as I had to do with a whole bunch of tracks that it had overcompressed). Virtually any other program, when you try to copy a file to a location where a file with the same name already exists, will ask you what you want to do. Some common choices would be: overwrite, create duplicate, or cancel. SonicStage does nothing, and I mean that literally. It doesn’t give you an error message or ask you what you want to do: it simply sits there. In order to put a new copy of a track on the player, you actually have to delete it from the player first (and, every time you delete a track, it will ask you, twice, if you’re sure you want to do this).

Bottom line: it’s good, but it’s stupid. You get superior sound quality, a decent capacity, and nice buttons, but you also have to put up with it don’t what it wants rather than what you want. Given Sony’s résumé, this is hardly surprising, but some of the niggles present in both the HD5 and SonicStage are jaw-droppingly daft even by their already low standards. You’re unlikely to find a better-sounding MP3 player on the market, but be prepared for some tough love if you decide you want to adopt one.

 
Posted: Monday, November 20, 2006 at 4:01 PM | Comments: 14 (view)
Categories: Music | Technology
 

Torn Curtain: North by North Leipzig

After the disappointment of Topaz, I was dreading this, a film seemingly even more reviled than that particular misadventure. As luck would have it, though, Torn Curtain is in a completely different league. The reviews may have been a bit muted, but I thoroughly enjoyed what is essentially a European North by Northwest, featuring a double agent, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who, along with his girlfriend Sarah (Julie Andrews), finds himself on the run from the East German authorities from whom he has been tasked to procure vital information about an anti-missile defence system.

Torn Curtain

I’ll begin by stating what doesn’t work with this film. Yes, it’s true that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are incredibly miscast (especially the former, who is never convincing as a brilliant nuclear scientist). Hitchcock made it known to them in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to be making the film, and the hostility on the set permeates throughout their performances. It’s also true that, like Topaz, Torn Curtain features another disappointing score (Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann had a massive falling-out during the scoring process, with the two never working together again, with the replacement score by John Addison coming across as bland and, again, too light-hearted). Furthermore, there’s very little new on offer here, with the script (originally penned by Brian Moore but redone by ghost-writers after Hitchcock threw most of his work out) cobbling together various ideas from other films in Hitchcock’s career, ranging from the “two lovers on the run” theme of The 39 Steps to the “spy manipulates girlfriend for the greater good” motif of Notorious.

Torn Curtain

Are these problems? Absolutely, but they don’t stop Torn Curtain from being an immensely enjoyable film. Newman actually makes a reasonably effective hero provided he’s not trying to pass himself off as a scientist, and, while the plot is nothing new, it didn’t bore me for a minute. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I was riveted throughout, and, in the run-up towards the climax, it all becomes incredibly tense and exciting. It may play like something of a greatest hits package, in much the same vein as Argento’s Non Ho Sonno, but by and large Hitchcock is reusing material that was successful for a reason, and continues to work the second time round. It also has Lila Kedrova (who I knew for her role in Massimo Dallamano’s The Cursed Medallion) hamming it up something rotten, which is definitely a good thing. The most acclaimed moment, however, and rightly so, is a sequence in which Armstrong and a peasant woman find themselves forced to murder Armstrong’s “minder”, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling). Memorable for showing just how difficult it is to kill a man (stabbing him and bludgeoning him with a shovel don’t work, so they eventually have to push his head inside an oven and gas him), it shows that, even if he wasn’t having the time of his life making this lower-tier effort, Hitchcock was still able to rise to the occasion and deliver something truly imaginative.

8/10.

 
Posted: Monday, November 20, 2006 at 11:10 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews
 

Topaz: Hitchcock fumbles

Sometimes, even the great ones misfire: this would be Hitchcock’s turn. There are essentially three problems with Topaz: the casting, the script, and the length of the damn thing. The plot revolves around André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), a French spy who is roped in by the Americans to identify the members of Topaz, a group of top French government officials working for the Soviets. Or, at least, that’s the plot as it seems to boil down. In reality, the film is two hours and twenty minutes of meandering, plodding flimflam that gradually makes its way towards a thoroughly anticlimactic conclusion.

Topaz

It starts out well enough, with a tense and reasonably effective defection by a top KGB official and his family, while on holiday in Denmark. Had the entire film been like this, I would have been rapt. Sadly, this soon gives way to a whole lot of uninvolving nonsense as the bland Stafford travels first to Harlem, then to Havana, and then finally to Paris. The actor is miscast, and the character is uninteresting. Indeed, the most engaging aspect of the material in Havana is that his lover, resistance leader Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor), looks quite a lot like giallo scream queen Edwige Fenech. Maurice Jarre’s score, meanwhile, is somewhat forgettable and, even worse, at times highly inappropriate - witness, for example, a late scene in which, believing that his son-in-law has fallen to his death, Devereaux and his daughter Michèle (Claude Jade) rush down the stars to music that wouldn’t seem out of place in a madcap comedy.

Topaz

Still, at the end of the day, it’s Hitchcock, and as such, even in its worst moments it’s technically solid. It also has its brief moments of genius - the aforementioned introductory scenes in Denmark are gripping, as is a lengthy sequence in which Devereaux’s associate, Philippe Dubois (an underused Roscoe Lee Browne), distracts Cuban leader Rico Parra (John Vernon) while his secretary makes off with a suitcase. The death of Juanita is also masterfully handled, with, as Mike Sutton points out in his review, her dress spreading out like the petals of a flower as she sinks to the ground. Even at his weakest, Hitchcock always manages to inject a moment or two of delight into his films. Topaz has its fair share, but, for the most part, it’s simply too plodding, too overwrought, too downright inconsequential for it to sit in the same company as classics like The Birds and North by Northwest, or even later gems like Frenzy.

5/10 - for completists only.

 
Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006 at 8:38 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews
 

Alan Jones on The Third Mother

Source: Dark Dreams

Straight from the Turin set of Dario Argento’s concluding chapter in the Three Mothers trilogy, all-round Argento expert Alan Jones has provided a detailed report of what’s going on. It’s considerably less spoiler-intensive than his usual reports (Argento specifically asked him not to give too much away, because he wants audiences to be surprised), but a vast amount of new information has been conveyed, and I’ve decided to summarise what I consider to be the most important developments here.

  • The title is definitely La Terza Madre/The Third Mother. “Mother of Tears” was the title Myriad Pictures wanted to use, but they are no longer involved with the project. Medusa is now funding the entire project themselves, having gone all-out due to fan anticipation.
  • A lot of the information provided in Jones’ May 2006 script review is no longer accurate, as, in typical Argento fashion, the script has been in a constant state of flux and major changes have been made to scenes right before being shot. This includes the ending, which will be completely different from what was originally conceived.
  • Shooting is expected to be completed in mid-December.
  • The colour scheme, unlike the previous two films, will begin cold and muted, and gradually become richer and redder as the film progresses.
  • Confirmed cast and characters: Asia Argento (Sarah Mandy), Adam James (Michael Pierce), Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni (Giselle), Udo Kier (Padre Johannes), Daria Nicolodi (Elisa - presumably Elise Stallone Van Alder, Sarah’s mother who appears to her as a ghost), Cristian Solimeno (Detective Enzo Marchi), Franco Leo (Monsignor Brusca), Tommaso Banfi (Padre Miseli), Valeria Cavalli (Marta), Silvia Rubino (Elga), Moran Atias (Mater Lachrymarum).
  • Argento intends to have the film finished in time for the Cannes Film Festival 2007, and the UK premiere is expected to be at FrightFest 2007 later in the year.

A lot of exciting information to be sure. Exclusive set photos are expected to go online soon, and I’ll link to them when they become available.

Update, November 18, 2006 04:43 PM: Pictures are now available. I’ve changed the link to go to the dedicated page for the report at Dark Dreams, which contains the photos and should be more permanent than the forum post. To see the discussion, follow this link.

 
Posted: Saturday, November 18, 2006 at 11:37 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento
 
 

 
 
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