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DVDs I bought or received in the month of May
- 30 Days of Night (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- Enchanted (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- The Golden Compass (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- Mrs. Doubtfire (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- The Orphanage (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
- Waking the Dead: Series 6 (R2 UK, DVD)
Definitely a very Blu month for me, which I have no complaints about whatsoever. I was going to post a bit about the various titles listed above, but for some reason I only managed to get an hour and a half of sleep last night, and as a result I’m absolutely knackered. Therefore, I’m off to get some serious shut-eye now, if I can. Laters.
Three months after announcing their intentions to break into the Blu-ray market, Blue Underground have provided a tantalising glimpse at some of the titles we can expect to see from them. While no release dates have been announced, these titles alone should be enough to whet the appetite of any serious cult cinema fans:
- The Final Countdown
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
- The Stendhal Syndrome
- Fire and Ice
The brief preview trailer, available on their site, also shows material from Two Evil Eyes, Dead and Buried and Uncle Sam. We’re being promised 50 GB dual layer discs, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, plenty of extras and (contain yourselves) D-Box Motion Code support.
Ringo Starr was in The Simpsons once…
Now that I have a Blu-ray drive in my main computer, I’ve been taking the opportunity to look through some of the discs I haven’t provided screen captures for yet. The Simpsons Movie is a title that immediately leapt out at me as a prime candidate for the PrintScreen button, mainly because it’s one of those discs that many reviewers have praised to the heavens, describing it as “perfect” and “flawless”, and other such hyperbolic nonsense. In actual fact, Fox’s encode of The Simpsons Movie features quite a lot of unsightly ringing, as a result of having been filtered.
(Lyris and myself, by the way, have all sorts of wacky names for the various artefacts that plague digital video. Ringo Starr, as you can probably imagine, refers to ringing. Stick around and you may get to meet Dusty Springfield, Billy Brickwall, Waxy O’Connor, and our old favourite, Mega Bloks.)
Why would anyone filter high definition content in the first place, especially material as basic-looking as Homer Simpson and his bland family? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it looks suspiciously like a technician left his or her software at the default settings and popped out for a leak, leaving the encoding software (or hardware) to wreak havoc. It’s not just that there’s ringing: for some reason, several shots show a bunch of errant hues showing up in the ringing, especially visible when you zoom in (Shot 3 is particularly affected by this).
The Simpsons Movie
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC)
Above: Upgrade 2008
This is my first post from my new and improved computer. I ended up picking up the components I previously discussed a little earlier than I had originally expected, which means that I’ve effectively treated myself to an early birthday present (my birthday is at the beginning of July, and my parents have said they’ll give me some money towards this venture). The bits and pieces arrived yesterday, and setting them up went surprisingly smoothly, particularly considering that, in the past, I’ve always relied on more tech-savvy parents and siblings to assist me when putting together a computer. I’d estimate that building it from the ground up took a little under two hours, at which point I was free to put my feet up and watch as various installers grumbled and ground.
Given that I ported my old hard drives over to the new machine, I was rather hoping I could get away without reinstalling Windows, but this, alas, was not an option. Windows XP actually started up, which surprised me no end as Vista failed to boot as all, but it was in a more or less unusable state as every single component had been changed and the poor thing simply didn’t know what to make of all this new hardware. (The fact that I had no USB functionality was a pretty major problem as it meant I was without keyboard or mouse, hardly the best position in which to find yourself, as I’m sure you’ll agree.)
I’m running Vista currently, and my plan is to stick with it unless I come across any significant problems. As a backup plan, I installed XP on a secondary partition, but my plan is to leave it alone unless I absolutely have to use it. I’d much rather have a single operating system, and Vista’s DirectX 10 compliance provides a fairly significant incentive for gamers to use it. (Of course, you’ll have to wait ‘til I’ve had a chance to install a DirectX 10 game like Hellgate: London before I can actually provide some thoughts on it.)
No doubt I’ll run into the usual teething problems associated with a complete system overhaul (I’m still ironing out the kinks with my new sound card, for instance), but so far, I have to say that things have been a lot more painless than I had any reason to expect.
Thoughts on Kiss of Death
Last night saw the screening, on BBC1, of Barbara Machin’s latest venture, a 90-minute crime drama entitled Kiss of Death. It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to say that I think Machin is one of the best writers working in television at the moment. She wrote my all-time favourite episode of Casualty, Perfect Blue (as well as two other episodes in my personal top ten - an impressive feat, given that she’s not exactly prolific), and created Waking the Dead, for which I am forever grateful to her. She also wrote the only episode of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman worth a damn, and has continued to demonstrate a refusal to be governed by the constraints normally imposed on the genres with which she works. Two Christmases ago, she turned Casualty on its head by adopting a Rashômon-like structure to tell a gritty medical thriller story, and Kiss of Death applies much the same format to the police procedural.
On paper, Kiss of Death is not all that different from Waking the Dead. Most of the same personalities are present and correct: we have the haunted senior police officer, the slightly oddball forensic scientist, the over-eager junior female detective who worked hard to get out of uniform, and so on and so forth. The programme’s uniqueness came not from its characters or the situation in which they found themselves but from the fragmented manner in which the story was told. Whereas the Casualty episode Killing Me Softly used the unprecedented (at least in Casualty) but fairly straightforward concept of showing the events of a day consecutively from the perspective of three different characters (each shift being indicated by flashing the character’s name up on the screen), Kiss of Death ups the number of available points of view to at least nine characters and continually jumps back and forth between them, also going both forwards and backwards in time. That I managed to keep up with what was going on is, I think, a testament to Machin’s writing and the directing of her old colleague, Casualty co-creator Paul Unwin, but I can imagine many viewers finding this very frustrating. Credit where credit’s due, therefore, to the often lowest-common-denominator BBC for commissioning and airing in a prime time-slot (9 PM on a weekday night) something that actually set out to challenge its audience’s expectations and intelligence. It’s just too bad it had the misfortune of airing directly after a highly sensationalised and tabloidish Panorama investigation into child molesters who use the Internet to prey on their victims.
Last night’s screening was billed as a one-off drama, much in the same manner as Waking the Dead when its two-part pilot episode aired back in 2000. It eventually returned for a full series in 2001, after certain stylistic elements and character backgrounds had been retooled, and I’d like to think that, in much the same manner, Kiss of Death has its own series to look forward to. However, I very much doubt that it could continue as anything but a one-off in its present form, given the extent to which the events depicted relied on the personal involvement of its protagonists. In what is becoming increasingly typical of television dramas, most of the main characters had a Dark Past, many of them interconnected. Our main detective, Kay Rousseau (played rather well by former CSI star Louise Lombard, this time sporting her native English accent with only an occasional Transatlantic vowel sound), had only recently returned to work after being convicted and later acquitted of the death of her baby, and it was implied that her being let off the hook was due mainly to work done behind the scenes by her ex-husband Miles (Ace Bhatti), who ensured that the “right people” worked on her case. Kay also had a History (with a capital “H”) with both her profiler, Clive (Shaun Parkes) and her forensic scientist, George (Lyndsey Marshal), the latter having helped put together the case against Kay during the investigation into her child’s death. George, it is also revealed, has or had a serious drink problem, and an action on her part in a previous case may or may not be connected to the murder that the team is presently investigating. Finally, Kay’s second-in-command, Costello, is played by Danny Dyer, which is enough of a defect in itself without giving the character any additional problems.
That probably all sounds a bit contrived, and, in a sense, I suppose it was. The structure was such that I didn’t really get to care a great deal for any of the main characters, apart from George, who I’ve come to the conclusion is my favourite, mainly thanks to her uncharacteristically enthusiastic reaction to the blood and guts that her job brings her into contact with. Seriously, the look on her face as she examines the contents of a murder victim’s bowel (see the image below) would put many a gore movie fan to shame. The rest of the characters, however, seemed a bit too distant or flawed to really care about them, and I suspect that a lot of this was a result of the unconventional narrative structure that had been adopted. With the episodes of Casualty in which Machin first began to experiment with this method of storytelling, this was considerably less of a problem, given that the audience had already established a relationship with the characters that she was using to tell her story, in the case of the likes of Josh and Charlie going back 15-20 years. Here, however, I found myself thrust into an extremely disorientating world populated by characters that I was getting to know only via brief snippets of information delivered in non-chronological order.
This probably sounds like I’m coming down rather hard on Kiss of Death, which is not the case at all. On the contrary, I really enjoyed it… if “enjoyed” is the right word, given the bleak tone and often gruesome imagery on display. The programme worked as an experiment first and a piece of storytelling second, and it required me to invest effort in it to get the most out of it, but I suspect that’s no bad thing. On the whole, I feel that the Casualty two-parter I’ve already mentioned was more satisfying as a piece of drama, mainly because I didn’t feel there that the structure was hampering my ability to connect with the characters, but Kiss of Death was a gripping, challenging piece of television and a more than welcome antidote to an often formulaic and predictable schedule.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 14: Wolves at the Gate, Part Three
Written by Drew Goddard; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty
Well, Renée is now dead, bloodily speared through the heart with the mystical scythe by a grinning vampire in what I’m sure was meant to be a deeply shocking and heartbreaking moment, but which just leaves me rolling my eyes and thinking “Jesus, get a new favourite plot contrivance, Joss.” Sudden Unexpected Deaths are all very well when used in moderation and for meaningful purposes, but when you roll out the exact same thing again and again, then please forgive me for not being entirely enthused by it. Jenny Calendar worked, Joyce worked, I’ll even concede that Doyle worked to some extent, but now we’ve had (off the top of my head) Tara, Jonathan, Cordelia, Fred, Wesley, Christian Kane, Shepherd Book, Wash, Random Japanese Slayer… Really, when you add up all the Sudden Unexpected Deaths that have been thrown at us by Buffy, Angel and Firefly/Serenity combined, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was nothing more than a big joke.
Maybe it is. Maybe Joss Whedon is sitting at his desk cackling as his unquestioning fans slavishly lap up each tall steaming glass of liquid fertiliser he serves them and then ask for more. However, if so, I’m sorry to say I don’t share his sense of humour. Oddly enough, what I find particularly obnoxious about the whole affair is that I had no reason to care about Renée in the first place. She was never characterised in anything but the broadest sense, and her entire function, it is now clear, was simply to dump yet more heartache on Xander. Are we at all surprised that the pair shared a kiss not six pages before she was skewered? Then again, given how Whedon and Goddard have treated the Xander character so far in this arc (see his “relationship” with Dracula), perhaps they’ll expect us to see his bereavement as highly amusing. After all, this issue began with Buffy cutting down the body of Random Japanese Slayer, which the vampires had strung up over the streets of Tokyo for all to see, and yet, four pages later, had Dracula hilariously asking if anyone was going to finish eating the corpse.
I haven’t yet mentioned Buffy treating Dracula as a mere annoyance (rather than as the mortal enemy that he is) or the sight of giant Dawn stomping through Tokyo à la Godzilla, but in all honesty I don’t see the point. This comic is a train wreck even by the already extremely low standards set by Seasons 6 and 7 of the television series. I’m sorry to say that I have less and less hope for Whedon’s new TV project, Dollhouse, with every page I read of this travesty. It astounds me that the person who once gave us excellent television like Hush, Restless and The Body has fallen so far from grace, but quite frankly, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to bring myself to care.
My next Buffy comic review will be my final one. My subscription stops after Episode 15, and I most assuredly won’t be renewing it. So, you can all breathe a collective sigh of relief.
The power of Allah compels you!
Well, yesterday was rather interesting. After conversing with him online for several years, I was finally able to put a face to a name as I met Baron Scarpia in person for the first time. And what better way to celebrate such a meeting than with a dreadful movie? Yes, after lunch, we boarded the HMS Whimsy to watch a title from the Baron’s own private collection. The film in question was Seytan, a 1974 Turkish production directed by a fellow named Metin Erksan, which bears more than a passing resemblance to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Something of a background primer is required on Turkish cinema before we can progress any further. Although responsible for a number of critically lauded films (none of which I could name at present, as my knowledge of the country’s output is fairly limited), I suspect that most cult film fanatics will be more familiar with the industry’s habit of ripping off Hollywood productions with its own distinctive takes on the likes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars and even Superman.
Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression, we are not talking “loosely inspired” here. We are talking shot-for-shot remakes, the only significant differences being the minuscule budgets, dreadful production values and complete lack of talent on either side of the camera. Yes, those are the “only” significant differences. Oh, and they all appear to take place in Turkey.
Anyway, Seytan (pronounced “SHAY-tan”, by the way) introduces us to 12-year-old Gül and her mother, Uma Thurman (I’m calling her this because the actress playing her looks like a significantly less talented version of her, and because the character’s name is not provided by IMDB). Gül is a precocious child who has an invisible friend called Captain Lersen (eh?). She also has other, slightly more disturbing tendencies, such as an ability to urinate dark green liquid on cue, spew what looks like orange paint from her mouth, bitch-slap members of the medical profession and rotate her head 180 degrees. Rejecting the rational in favour of the supernatural, Uma calls in the appropriately named Tugrul Bilge, author of a book on demons. I’ll be calling him Alan Partridge, though, because the actor playing him vaguely resembles Steve Coogan. (Besides, the image of Alan Partridge performing an exorcism is in itself deeply amusing.) In turn, Alan Partridge concludes that the only viable solution is to perform an exorcism on poor possessed Gül. Enter an exorcist, whose name I once again can’t remember (IMDB is no help here), and the most sinister-looking moustachioed policeman you’ll ever see on screen, who has a habit of blowing cigarette smoke directly in people’s faces when they are talking to him. I have christened him Inspector Clouzot. Oh, and is that Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that keeps drowning out the dialogue?
Above: No, really, this actually does happen.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since some time prior to the end of 1973, all of this might sound vaguely familiar. Remakes such as the recent versions of Halloween (well, the second half at least) and The Omen have been justly criticised for been slavish copies of the original films, but, until you’ve seen what the Turks got up to in the 70s and 80s, you really have no idea what outright plagiarism looks like. To clarify, The Exorcist is less of a sacred cow for me than say, Suspiria or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I appreciate its importance in cinema history and would argue that no other horror film produced by a major studio achieves anything quite like it. Still, it’s hard to be annoyed at Metin Erksan and his cronies for what they have done here because, unlike, say, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there is no danger of this remake overshadowing the original (seriously, the number of people that don’t realise Marcus Nispel’s 2003 hack job is an update of an earlier film of the same name is quite disturbing). Seytan is so hilariously awful on every level that hating it is not an option: you either get it or you don’t.
Luckily, I got it. Seytan is such a mess in every imaginable way that it makes Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace look like the highly polished work of a cinematic genius. Before anyone asks, yes, I am aware that Darkplace was a spoof. Seytan, however, is not, as hard as that may be to believe at times, particularly when Gül’s bed is bouncing about like a bouncy castle and Uma Thurman thinks that the best way to stop it is to get on the bed and join in. More gales of laughter greet every single instance of Tubular Bells starting up and then stopping as abruptly as it began when the sound technician yanks the needle off his record. Come to think of it, this piece of music is repeated so many times that I’m genuinely amazed that, when Erksan tries (and fails) to recreate the iconic image of Father Merrin arriving at the house, surrounded by fog, Mike Oldfield is nowhere to be heard.
(Mr. Erksan, by the way, is nothing if not a varied director. While most filmmakers would be content to simply zoom in or out, Erksan zooms both in and out, often multiple times within the confines of a single shot. And bear in mind that every scene in the film features at least one zoom. Lucio Fulci and Jess Franco would be red-cheeked with embarrassment.)
And I haven’t even mentioned the climactic exorcism yet, which goes on for an absolutely absurd length of time and concludes, after Alan Partridge and his exorcist friend have yelled “Allah’s grace be upon you!” more times than I care to remember, with poor old Mr. Partridge fulfilling his fate (and ensuring that Seytan doesn’t diverge too far from The Exorcist’s plot) by leaping out of the window and rolling down the longest flight of steps in Turkey. Actually, I’m fairly sure that this scene is performed by the actor himself rather than a stuntman, so it’s actually quite impressive that he was still alive at the end of it all.
I really can’t thank the Baron enough for giving me the opportunity to experience Seytan. It’s actually somewhat embarrassing to admit that this was my introduction to Turkish cinema, so I suspect I should really follow up the experience by watching one of the country’s better films. It’s a bit like making Giallo a Venezia your first port of call when embarking on a voyage through Italian cinema, only several stages worse.
My copy of the DVD release of the sixth series of Waking the Dead arrived on Tuesday, coincidentally on the same day that the twelfth and final episode of seventh series aired on BBC1. Series 6 stands out to me as by far the weakest of the bunch, for a number of reasons, but it’s been over a year since I last saw it and I’m genuinely curious to see if it plays better on a second viewing. The thing about Waking the Dead is that the plots are often so convoluted that they require two or three viewings to work out what’s actually going on and simply enjoy the drama on its own merits.
In any event, Series 7, on the whole, constituted a definite step up from Series 6. It shared the same core cast of characters, the same producer, Colin Wratten, and the same head writer, Declan Croghan, but this time round, all but one of the six two-part storylines was at least worth a watch, even if the overall standard varied wildly from episode to episode. The stand-out, this time round, was Skin, a storyline involving a group of neo-Nazis connected with the murder of a gay Jewish man. The twist, which I’ll spoil here given that the episode in question has now aired, was that their victim had in fact infiltrated their group by posing as a skinhead himself, and has succeeded in infecting all of them with the AIDS virus by mixing his own blood into the pigment he then used to give them tattoos. It was a unique concept, and exceedingly well-told too, and I’m quite pleased with myself for managing to work out what was going on a good five minutes before it was revealed in the programme itself, which I think speaks well for its refusal to cheat the audience by throwing in a massive twist out of left field.
Unfortunately, Skin, and the first part of the final storyline, Pietà, were the only ones that I felt were up to the standards of the earlier series. It doesn’t speak well of the second two-parter that I actually had to look up LocateTV to remind myself what it had been about. On the other hand, the fifth storyline, Wounds, sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons. Gimmicky in the extreme and confusing for its own sake, it was more along the lines of the previous series with its pseudo-mysticism, muddy structure and overuse of flashbacks. I also continue to be less than impressed by forensic pathologist Eve (Tara Fitzgerald), who joined the team last year and has so far been a less than riveting replacement for Holly Aird and Esther Hall. Part of the problem stems from the fact that she never seems to alter her facial expression or manner of delivery, to the extent that, when she actually gives a slight half-smile in the final episode, it’s something of a shock to discover that her mouth can actually make that shape.
In my review of Series 5, I criticised the increasingly exaggerated and unrealistic behaviour of the central character, Detective Superintendent Boyd (Trevor Eve), who would repeatedly bully his colleagues and extract confessions from suspects under duress. This behaviour escalated throughout the previous series to the extent that it became a running joke, so it was something of a relief that Series 7 went in the opposite direction, giving us an older, quieter, wearier Boyd than the one we’re used to seeing. The writers certainly reined in the character’s temper tantrums in this series, and likewise, Trevor Eve toned down his scenery-chewing in favour of brooding and scowling. He also, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t assault anyone this year, preferring instead to leave the strong-arming to his sergeant, Stella (Félicité Du Jeu).
This uncharacteristic calmness seems particularly strange when you consider that this was the very series in which Boyd might have been considered justified in flying off the handle, in that a storyline that has been lurking on the sidelines since the very beginning of the show, the disappearance of his son, was finally resolved. At the beginning of this series, his son, Luke (who I’m fairly sure was actually named Joe in Series 1), re-appeared, a homeless drug addict who Boyd spent the rest of the series intermittently running away from and trying to help. In some respects, I thought this storyline was quite effective, providing a reason for Boyd’s bizarre behaviour and also helping to tie what would have been six disparate storylines together, but at the same time I feel that it breaks the programme’s crucual tenet of never allowing us to see anything of the main characters’ personal lives.
The Luke storyline also created a far bigger problem for the rest of the series, because the writers seemed to insist on drawing parallels between Boyd’s relationship with his son and most of the cases the team were investigating. This led to a sense of repetition, not least with the continual emphasis on missing children and fathers’ dysfunctional relationships with their sons. It also meant that four of the six storylines involved a suspect, victim or witness who either was or was suggested to be gay: it is implied, at the end of the second storyline, that Luke is gay, or possibly working as a rent-boy to feed his drugs habit (the specifics of what we see are infuriatingly unclear), and, reading between the lines, I wonder to what extent we are meant to suspect that this in some way led to his estrangement from his father. The thing is, though, that Boyd may have been shown to be many things, but homophobic has never been one of them; actually, his views towards most aspects of humanity have always been characterised as fairly liberal. In the end, I don’t know what to think.
On the whole, though, what we got was an improvement on the previous year’s clumsy, wishy-washy series. I wouldn’t characterise any of it as essential viewing, except perhaps the Skin two-parter, but it proved to be an engaging enough distraction on Monday and Tuesday evenings for six weeks, and only two of the twelve hours I devoted to it (the Wounds two-parter) are ones that I consider to have been wasted.
Creator Barbara Machin’s newest project, another crime series under the title of Kiss of Death, airs next Monday, by the way. It’s being billed as a one-off 90-minute drama, although Waking the Dead started out very much in the same way, airing its two-part pilot episode in 2000 before returning for a full series in 2001. The advance buzz suggests that Machin is continuing her interest in non-linear storytelling, using an approach similar to that of the Casualty episodes she wrote for Christmas 2006.
We interrupt this programme for a special report
Sorry about the lack of updates lately. I’m currently knee-deep in putting together a paper for the departmental Postgraduate Symposium, which takes place over Monday and Tuesday next week. My presentation is on Monday afternoon, and, while I’m nearing the home stretch as far as my paper is concerned, I want to take the time to make it as good as possible, so I’ve been spending pretty much all the time I have available on it.
Still, I’ve also taken the time to hammer out some plans for my new computer. Having weighed up the possibilities, I think I’m going to go with the following:
Case and PSU: Antec Sonata III Piano Black Quiet Mid Tower Case - With 500W EarthWatts PSU
Motherboard: ASUS P5K-E/WIFI-AP AiLifestyle Series P35 Socket 775 Socket eSATA 8 channel Audio ATX
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3GHz (1333MHz) Socket 775 6MB L2 Cache OEM
CPU cooler: Scythe Mine Rev-B
RAM: Corsair 4GB Kit (2x2GB) DDR2 800MHz/PC2-6400 XMS2 Memory Non-ECC Unbuffered
Video card: Gecube HD 3870 512MB GDDR3 OC edition Dual DVI TV Out PCI-E
Sound card: Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1
I already have my optical drive (an LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray/HD DVD combo) ready and waiting. Plus, I’ll retain my current monitor, audio system, keyboard, mouse and hard drives.
I feel pretty comfortable with the motherboard and RAM, since my brother bought exactly the same models for his machine and both are serving him very well. Plus, I’m an ASUS loyalist through and through and have bought motherboards from them (barring my current Shuttle) since 2002. I decided to go with a fast dual-core CPU rather than spending more money on a quad-core with a lower clock speed. I’m well aware of the benefits of a quad-core system when it comes to video encoding and other CPU-crunching activities, but, when it comes to gaming performance, which will probably be my primary concern, I suspect I’m better off squeezing as many megahertz as possible out of a dual-core system, given how few games take advantage of more than two cores.
Any thoughts on this system? Any suggestions?
Popcorn strictly optional
Whimsy Cinemas™ is finally ready to open its doors! Yesterday evening, Lyris assembled his projection screen and attached it to the wall, ready for its first gala presentation. What will it be? Inside Man on HD DVD was the first title to be screened on our previous movie-watching solution, the crazy bed sheet of multiple creases, so it only makes sense that we follow it up with something that boasts equally stellar image quality. So far, we’ve taken a brief look at the Blu-ray releases of Ratatouille, Resident Evil: Extinction and Across the Universe, all of which looked suitably incredible, not to mention the most recent pass of La Femme Publique, which looked better than a standard definition DVD has any right to.
Finally, we have something that vaguely resembles being at the movies, only without the spotty-faced youths heckling (if any heckling’s to be done, we’ll do it, thank you very much) the movie and playing with their mobile phones. Sometimes, we even get the films before they’re released theatrically in this country, and in any event, in many cases, the Blu-ray discs we’re watching look somewhat better than the prints being trotted round the local cinemas.
Blu-ray review: Juno
For Juno, Fox have provided stellar audio-visual quality that ranks among the best they have produced for the Blu-ray format. While the bonus content is a little on the lightweight side, and the extra Digital Copy disc serves no discernible purpose, those who enjoyed the film can rest assured that they are getting a presentation of the highest standard and should have no qualms about picking up a copy.
For shizz! I cast my peepers over Juno, that wizard little sleeper hit about getting knocked up, given a totally boss Blu-ray release by 20th Century Fox. Okay, I’ll stop now.
Review at DVD Times.
I don’t like World of Warcraft (or: how I learned to stop worrying and love Guild Wars)
I’ve written about Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft in the past. Going from the initial “This is okay” to “Hopefully it gets better than this” phases, through the dreaded “This is actually pretty boring” period before finally reaching my “No way is this worth $15 a month” epiphany, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one game I simply don’t “get”. It epitomises the “donkey/carrot/stick” school of game design (to quote Ray Milland’s character in Dial M for Murder): effectively, the designers have created a game where the constant promise of eventual reward (the carrot) encourages the player to keep moving forward, while the threat of falling behind or not getting your value for money (the stick) dissuades him or her from staying put.
Now, I have absolutely no problem with this framework, provided the journey itself is actually fun. If exploring the world, hacking up monsters and collecting loot is a pleasurable activity in its own right, as it is in, say, Blizzard’s earlier Diablo, then the continual performance of bigger and better locations, monsters and loot is no bad thing. When this becomes a problem is when the fundamental game mechanics prevent me from getting any enjoyment out of this process, as is the case for World of Warcraft. The other day, nearly two years after I last played the game, I had a sudden urge to give it another whirl. Therefore, I left it on overnight, downloading around 2 GB worth of patches and content updates, whipped out my credit card, laid down $15, logged myself in and sat down to re-enter the world of Azeroth.
First problem: I never did succeed in taking a character beyond Level 19, and, given that the game is now nearly four years old, this understandably set me pretty far behind the curve. In a world where 70 is the current maximum character level, starting out at such a low level feels a bit like being placed in the remedial class. Oh well, I thought, might as well take the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with how the game plays. So off I went to hack up some gnolls for Harry Hardwick and gather a few crimson bandanas for Melissa Silkloins or whatever their names are.
Second problem: none of this is actually any fun. After persevering for a couple of hours, I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d once again wasted my money. Now, at the current exchange rate, blowing $15 isn’t the end of the world, but any transaction where the goods delivered are sub-par is annoying. It’s particularly annoying when, as is the case with World of Warcraft, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the problem is with me rather than the game. Maybe I just don’t “get it”. After all, the game boasts a record of 10 million subscribers (that’s a whopping 62% of the MMORPG market share), and I find it hard to believe that they’re all just complete morons staring slack-jawed at the screen and dumbly clicking the mouse in the hope that they finally get to chomp on that delicious-looking carrot. On the contrary, from what I can gather, the game takes some degree of skill to master. There’s also the fact that, in piddling around the smaller scale early areas and levels, I’m missing out on the high end epic battles and quests that are supposedly the game’s main draw.
But the problem is that I have absolutely no desire to persevere with the early stuff so as to eventually reach the better material that supposedly comes later. The gameplay mechanics strike me as fundamentally crap, with slow, clunky combat that feels like an unsatisfying trade-off between turn-based and real-time, chunky, unappealing graphics, and seemingly endless hours of trawling on foot from location to location (for a fee, you can purchase a ride from one major city to another using flying mounts, and, once you hit Level 40, you can purchase a horse of your own). This is, in my opinion, definitely the weakest game in the Warcraft franchise, and I struggle to name any other Blizzard game that I’ve enjoyed less. Honestly, I’d rather play Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing again than this.
Luckily, there’s a solution. It’s called Guild Wars, and it’s like World of Warcraft, only fun. Straight off the bat, this game, which was designed by several ex-Blizzard staffers, seems to tick all the right boxes. First of all, it’s free to play, meaning that you pay a one-off fee to pick up a boxed copy of the game, and then you can play it for as long as you like at no extra charge. As with World of Warcraft, they don’t delete your characters due to account inactivity, either, so you can abandon it for months or years at a time and then hop back in where you left off. Secondly, and fairly fundamentally, it’s actually fun to play. Right from the word go, everything about it is more polished, more fluid, more appealing and just generally slicker than World of Warcraft. The combat is fast-paced and satisfying, and any location that you’ve previously visited is just a couple of mouse clicks away, thanks to the fact that you can instantaneously jump to cities and outposts from the world map instead of having to walk, fly or ride to them. Crucially, the “donkey/carrot/stick” problem is nowhere to be found. You can actually max out your character fairly quickly (Level 20 is the highest you can get), which means that, once you’re there, the “Just another half-hour and I can hit the next level” incentive is no longer present, so the missions have to be enjoyable in their own right. To Guild Wars’ credit, they are, and it doesn’t matter that you can hit Level 20 before you’re even a quarter of the way through the game. The experience of playing the game itself is enjoyable enough without character building even coming into play.
Guild Wars also makes use of the concept of instancing, meaning that, while towns are communal, whenever you enter a combat area, a separate copy of the location is created for you and your party, meaning that you don’t have to worry about someone coming along and stealing your loot or kills. Perhaps this detracts to some extent from the social aspect of games like this, but all that sort of thing is still possible in the town areas: it just means that you have to assemble your team before venturing out into the wilderness. Also, for social pariahs such as myself, the fact that you can hire computer-controlled henchmen to help you take on your opponents, rather than having to hope you can find another player or two whose goals match your own, is a big plus in its favour.
I’m currently playing the original Guild Wars “Prophecies” campaign and am having a blast inching my way towards completing it. Beyond that, I still have the “Factions” and “Nightfall” campaigns to finish (three separate Guild Wars campaigns were released, all of which can be purchased separately and work as stand-alone games, but which interlock to create a much larger world). There’s also the Eye of the North expansion set, which requires a copy of one of the three original campaigns and will supposedly help ease the transition into Guild Wars 2, which is apparently going to have its public beta later this year. Warcraft schmorcraft - you can take your monthly fee and stick it in a very private place.
Actually, it really is that bad
The illustrious Baron Scarpia has braved a fate worse than death and submitted himself to reading all thirteen of my Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 comics. It was actually the Baron who first drew my attention to the world of rubbish Buffy comics in a post he made back in 2006, and, while I’m sure I’d have sought the Season 8 comics out regardless, I suspect that his, erm, appraisal of the comics available on the BBC web site probably served as something of a warning of just how bad things could get in comicdom. Therefore, I suppose I have him to thank for my experience with Season 8 not being as traumatic as it could have been. You see, my expectations had already been tempered somewhat by what I knew about the previous comics in this franchise, to the extent that I wasn’t particularly surprised by the poor quality of this official continuation. Still, I think my appreciation for the comics would have improved immensely had they included this delightful line from a piece of Buffy fan fiction, quoted by the Baron in his 2006 post:
The demon jumped into the air and landed in front of Buffy. “I know you Slayer. You cannot stop me. I shall defeat you then I shall fuck you to death.”
Is that poetry or is it poetry? Proof, perhaps, that Willow asking Satsu what Buffy is like in the sack (in Episode 13) is actually not the single most absurd conversation that could have been written.
Anyway, there’s a point to this post other than simply hawking a friend’s review (not that I wouldn’t have done that anyway - go and read it, it’s insightful and quite amusing). I want to take the time to reply to some of the issues raised in a comment left on of my own reviews of these comics. Basically, the visitor, Marc, felt that, in comparison with my reviews of other series and films, my Buffy reviews were a bit like something you might find in a “tawdry fan blog”, featuring over-analysis and without sufficient context given for those who are not followers of the show to understand what I was writing about.
I disagree with the first point, in that I don’t think my coverage of this series has been any more (over-)analytical than the other reviews I do. And if it is… well, let’s not forget that Buffy is a series that has gone out of its way to be very self-aware and referential towards pop culture. It’s the sort of thing that practically demands that you address it in an analytical way rather than just saying “I liked this, I didn’t like that”.
The other point, however - the lack of background explanation - is a perfectly valid one, however, and is a shortcoming of the Buffy project that I’ve become aware of over the course of re-reading some of the episode reviews recently. It’s quite true that there is a lack of context: if you don’t watch Buffy, most of the time you’ll have no idea what I’m talking abut in terms of characters, events or the mythology in general. In that respect, these reviews are very difficult, not to mention weaker, than the reviews I normally write. In my defence, when I began the Buffy project I wasn’t really writing the reviews for anything other than my own benefit. By the time I realised that this was a problem, however, it was too late to modify the tone of these capsules without going back to the beginning and starting over, something that I don’t feel particularly compelled to do, since it would necessitate yet another trip down memory lane, dredging up all the painful memories that come with it.
Tell you what - one of these days, I’ll sit down and write a summary-style review of each season, written with the assumption that the reader has no prior knowledge of the series in question.
Get your tools ready
The upgrade bug has bitten me again. Partially inspired by how cheaply Lyris was able to assemble his fancy new quad core system, I’ve begun to look into the possibility of once again purchasing a full-size system to replace my small form factor Shuttle PC.
Primarily, this is because I would like to purchase additional RAM and a DirectX 10-compliant video card, the better to enjoy some of the latest games. Unfortunately, my Shuttle only has room for two sticks of RAM and a single slot video card, and most of ATI’s more powerful DirectX 10 cards have whopping great fans on them that require more space than a single PCIe slot affords. On top of that, a more powerful video card would also almost certainly necessitate a heavier-duty power supply, one packing considerably more oomph than the paltry 250 watt affair that came with my Shuttle.
Finally, a superb bargain was recently pointed out to me: an LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray/HD DVD combo drive for a very reasonable £77.54, complete with the Blu-ray/HD DVD version of PowerDVD. Knowing that such a bargain wouldn’t be around for long, I snapped one up despite the fact that, as a SATA device, I wouldn’t be able to use is in my Shuttle system, which only has two SATA ports, both of which are being used by hard drives. It arrived today, and will have to sit on my shelf until I get my new system. Well, actually, I tell a lie. It’s currently sitting inside Lyris’ computer, so at least it’s being put to use for the time being.
As for the other components, I’m going to pick up an Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card (see my earlier post on the sound card issue for more information) and the best trade-off I can find between performance and price in terms of ATI’s current generation of video cards. My brother seems to be pretty happy with his ASUS P5K-E motherboard, so I suspect I’ll pick up one of those too. That only leaves memory (probably 4 GB, despite 32-bit operating systems only managing to access around 3.3 GB total), a processor (I’m still unsure as to whether to get a quad-core system, or simply go for the fastest dual-core I can get my hands on), a case and a power supply (I’ll probably end up getting the latter two together). If I play my cards right, this shouldn’t bankrupt me completely.
XP SP3 released; “trounces” Vista in speed tests
Hot on the heels of announcing that Windows XP will no longer be sold as of June 30th this year, Microsoft has clarified that it will in fact continue to provide free support (including security fixes) for the product until early April 2014 - a relief, I’m sure, for users who have no plans to switch to Vista in the near future. Myself, I have no major complaints about Vista beyond a handful of sound and game-related problems that I hope will be solved once I get my hands on a newer sound card, but I can certainly understand people’s reluctance to leave XP behind. XP is, after all, a mature, stable operating system whose long-standing problems are widely known about and can be solved fairly straightforwardly, if they have not been fixed completely via the various hotfixes and service packs that have been made available. To borrow a (fallacious) axiom from Apple, “it just works”. Seriously, today I was trying to remember the last time my system crashed while running XP, and I came to the conclusion that, in the twelve months that I’ve had this machine, the answer is “never”.
Anyway, the point of this little preamble is that Microsoft recently released its third Service Pack for XP. While it contained little new content, it did cobble a good two and a half years’ worth of updates together into a single download, which is definitely a plus. Considerably more surprising, then is the claim that an installation of XP with Service Pack 3 performs 10% better than the same machine running Vista with Service Pack 1. Myself, I’ve been running SP3 for a little under 48 hours and can’t claim to have noticed any significant speed boosts, but in any event I had no complaints about XP’s performance anyway. Vista does have some very nice prefetching technology which, over time, significantly reduces the startup time of programs and the loading of files, but I have to be honest and say that my gut reaction is to say that XP is faster than Vista in terms of overall usability. Of course, as the article in question rightly points out, basing your benchmarks on Microsoft Office performance is not exactly all-encompassing, but the part of me that finds using XP to be a slightly smoother experience than using Vista is nodding its head in agreement.
Paramount, Criterion go Blu
I’m sure everyone else has already reported on this by now, but Paramount have, not particularly unexpectedly, relaunched their support for Blu-ray with the announcement that Face/Off, Next and Bee Movie will be coming to the format on May 20th, followed by Cloverfield and There Will Be Blood on June 3rd. No word yet on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which was initially announced for HD DVD at around the same time as There Will Be Blood, but disappeared along with that and several other titles when Toshiba turned off the ailing format’s life support machine. Presumably it will materialise before too long - I hope so, because, out of all of these, it’s the one I’m most interested in seeing.
Paramount also plans to re-issue its entire back catalogue of Blu-ray titles, starting with eight titles on May 20th.
The real news, however, is that, after spending a considerable amount of time umming and erring from the sidelines, the mighty Criterion has finally announced its intention to get with the winning team and begin releasing in high definition. Announced via their most recent email newsletter, Criterion states that it will begin rolling titles out in October, with each released priced the same as its standard definition counterpart and porting over all the bonus content from the legacy release. Currently announced titles include:
- The Third Man
- Bottle Rocket
- Chungking Express
- The Man Who Fell to Earth
- The Last Emperor
- El Norte
- The 400 Blows
- Gimme Shelter
- The Complete Monterey Pop
- For All Mankind
- The Wages of Fear
Now, here’s hoping they have the sense to do away with their nonsensical pictureboxing practice for their Blu-ray titles.
The day approaches…
It’s time for me to go into shameless promotional mode, but for good reason. After months of secrecy, I’m finally able to tell you something about the DVD project Lyris is working on. This is the first public announcement of this release anywhere, so consider yourselves lucky indeed.
Later this year, new DVD label Mondo Vision will be releasing its debut title, the first ever English-friendly release of Andrzej Zulawski’s La Femme Publique (“The Public Woman”), initially released in 1984 and starring Valérie Kaprisky, Francis Huster and Lambert Wilson. The name of Zulawski may be familiar to some of the Dario Argento fans visiting the site, since Argento has identified his 1981 film Possession as one of his favourites and a key influence on Tenebre.
This upcoming US DVD release is special for a couple of reasons. First of all, the film has never been released on any format in an English-speaking territory. As such, Mondo Vision’s DVD will feature the first ever English subtitle translation of the film. Secondly, I’ve had the opportunity to see the transfer for this film at various stages of its encoding, and I can honestly state that the final encode, completed a few days ago, is one of the best I have ever seen in standard definition. To say that this blows away what most of the other independent and also major studios are routinely putting out would be a gross understatement. Don’t take my word for it, though: feast your eyes on the images below (click the smaller thumbnails to view them at their full size).
Not filtered, not edge enhanced, not noise reduced, not tampered with in any way.
Specifications for this release include:
- Digitally restored transfer mastered in high definition progressive video (1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, dual layer)
- French Dolby Digital 2.0 dual mono audio
- First ever English-language subtitle translation (optional)
- Feature length audio commentary with Andrzej Zulawksi and Daniel Bird (recorded specially for this release)
- Exclusive new interview with Andrzej Zulawski (recorded specially for this release)
- 1984 theatrical trailer
- Image gallery
- DVD-ROM content (original screenplay and high resolution images)
In addition to the standard single-disc release, a limited edition will also be released featuring a bonus CD containing the film’s original score, as well as a special commemorative booklet.
Two more Zulawski titles, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975, starring Romy Schneider, Fabio Testi and Klaus Kinski) and L’amour braque (1985, starring Sophie Marceau and Francis Huster), will also be released this year.
The pain, the pain!
This morning, I was looking through some of the DVDs I haven’t blown the dust off in a while, and I came across the Region 1 Deluxe Edition of Luc Besson’s Léon, a favourite of mine. This is a film that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been adequately represented on DVD, with every release falling way short of decency standards. Every release I’ve seen for myself, or have seen screen captures of, has suffered from a crippling lack of detail, not to mention massive amounts of ringing and mosquito noise. The overall look is that of an ancient master that has been trotted out again and again over the years, which makes the Superbit logo and claim that it has been “mastered in high definition” on the back of the Deluxe case completely absurd.
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the utter horror of just how bad this transfer, from a major studio who have done some absolutely stellar work, looks:
Now, bear in mind that this has been blown up to 1920x1080 resolution, but I wanted to do this to give you an example of just how bad the ringing is, and to approximate how this might look on a large display. Even at its default resolution (see here) it looks pretty outrageous, more like what you might expect from a crummy DivX bootleg downloaded from one of the dubious sites that offer such material.
“Deluxe” my left wallnut! This film is crying out for a re-release - a proper one, not just the same old master hauled out and run through the blender again.
There’s no place like… haven’t I been here before?
This is beginning to feel a lot like musical chairs. Yes, I’m back in Windows XP again. This time the problems that led to me beating a hasty treat from Vista weren’t video playback-related, but problems of another sort. On this occasion, dipping my toes into the world of gaming in Vista proved quite perilous, with most of the problems stemming from audio.
As with video playback, audio has been quite significantly rewritten for Vista. In previous versions of Windows, a software layer known (somewhat confusingly) as the Hardware Abstraction Layer was used for DirectSound and DirectSound3D, essentially allowing software to talk directly to the sound card through the Windows kernel (the operating system’s core). Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Microsoft decided to do away with this in Vista, completely removing the DirectSound3D HAL, meaning that games which use DirectSound3D for their advanced audio effects are, in Vista, unceremoniously stripped of their razzmatazz, with their sound rendered as plain old 2-channel non-accelerated mush. (You can read more about this at Datalk.com.)
A problem, I’m sure you’ll agree, particularly given that a considerable number of games, including some released recently, use DirectSound3D. Games which use the OpenAL format are safe (in theory - more on that in a minute), but they are still few and far between. Luckily, Creative Labs, who made my sound card and own a sizeable chunk of the PC audio market, came up with a solution: a program called Alchemy, which purports to convert DirectSound3D-based games into OpenAL, thereby restoring hardware audio acceleration and multi-channel effects. This only works on their own sound cards, so if you don’t own a Creative card, you’re out of luck. Oh, and unless you own one of their recent X-Fi cards, you have to fork over $10 for the privilege of getting the advanced audio effects you already paid for. Still, credit to Creative for actually doing something about this wholly unacceptable issue. The list of games officially supported by Alchemy is still quite small, but theoretically any game using DirectSound3D can be made to work, some with a bit of tweaking.
All well and good, but where does that leave the OpenAL-based Hellgate: London, a game which I play quite extensively and am used to enjoying in all its 5.1 surround sound glory, but am suddenly reduced to hearing in stereo only despite there being no earthly reason for this? Playing with Hellgate’s own options menu doesn’t work, and neither does Alchemy (unsurprising, since Hellgate doesn’t use DirectSound3D). When I asked about this problem in the game’s technical support forum, the representative who replied was unable to suggest anything other than updating my sound drivers (already done that) or turning down the hardware audio acceleration in the DirectX Diagnostic Tool utility, an option that isn’t actually available in the Vista version of that programme.
To be fair, my sound card is ancient by computing standards. I bought it in 2002, and the last driver update for it was released over a year ago. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hellgate has problems with it… I just don’t understand why these problems weren’t present in Windows XP. Oh well - I’ll no doubt be picking up a new sound eventually anyway. I currently have my eyes set on Auzen’s X-Fi Prelude 7.1, which is based on Creative’s X-Fi chipset and adds a bunch of additional features, among them real-time Dolby Digital (and, once the requisite patch is released, DTS) encoding.
In the meantime, however, another gaming problem reared its ugly head: I experienced three sequential system crashes while playing Command & Conquer 3. For no apparent reason, after about 15-20 minutes, the display would be lost and the machine would stop responding to my commands, requiring a complete reboot. I’ve clocked in a good 40 hours of this game in XP, and have never seen it crash once, yet, on my first attempt to play it in Vista, it went completely belly-up.
I’m afraid that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I came scarpering off back to XP, where I’ll stay until I can solve these problems. I’m sure they can be fixed - after all, I eventually got to the bottom of my video playback issues - but for now, I’m going to stick with what I know rather than waste countless hours trying to make Vista behave itself.
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