August 2008

 
 

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DVDs I bought or received in the month of August

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • Afterlife: The Complete Series 1 & 2 (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Counterfeiters (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Doomsday (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Spooks: Code 9 (R2 UK, DVD) [review copy]
     
 
Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 11:57 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | TV
 

DVNR city

Blu-ray

As “a pretentious arse […] with no sense of humour” (it’s fascinating the sort of things you can happen to find written about yourself on the Internet), it’s sometimes difficult for me to tell whether something is meant to be a joke, so here’s my question: is New Line’s treatment of Dark City intentionally funny? That’s certainly how it feels to me, and I certainly can’t imagine any semi-competent technician actually thinking this looked good, but oh well. Take a look at the waxworks on display and judge for yourselves.

Then have a look at how one of director Alex Proyas’ other films, the vastly inferior I, Robot, looks on Blu-ray, and weep.

Dark City: Director’s Cut
(New Line, USA, VC-1, 20.3 GB)

Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City Dark City

 
Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 5:27 PM | Comments: 22 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology | Web
 

Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 5 and 6: Fugue States

DVD

Written by Ed Whitmore; Directed by Ben Bolt

I have one significant complaint about this episode, and that’s the suspension of disbelief required in order to accept the massive coincidence involving one character and the revelations regarding his/her relationship with another. Otherwise, this is cracking story, one of the very best of the series, which sees the team investigating the disappearance of a twin brother and sister during the Notting Hill carnival of 1990. The case is reopened when a DNA check on a young homeless man injured when he steps in front of a car reveals him to be the boy, Jason (Joe Armstrong), but a bout of amnesia (real or faked?) prevents him from revealing where he has been for nearly 15 years… or the whereabouts his sister, Cindy. In digging into the circumstances surrounding Jason’s disappearance, the team uncovers a history of child abuse and dodgy dealings involving crooked goings-on with social services and an abduction conspiracy.

Any episode involving a missing child runs the risk of becoming repetitive given Boyd’s own experiences in this area, and yes, it’s true that he clearly sees Jason as something of a surrogate for his own missing son, becoming uncharacteristically protective of him (even turning down an opportunity to uncover further evidence as to where he has been because he is afraid it will traumatise him). However, the main personal thrust of this episode, unusually, falls on Mel’s shoulders, following the revelation that she was in fact born Mary Price and, at a young age, was forcibly removed from her mother (deemed mentally unfit to care for her) and placed with foster parents. (This in turn results in a noticeable continuity gaffe in the sixth series when the issue of Mel’s ancestry is raised, but I’ll cover that at a later date.)

I’ve said this previously, but I’ll repeat it here: I think Claire Goose is seriously underappreciated as an actor. Far from simply being a pretty face, she gives the characters she plays a degree of authenticity beyond what is on the page. When she was in Casualty, she gave what is in my opinion the best performance any actor has ever delivered in that show, in the episode Love Me Tender, and she does much the same here, imbuing the character with enough depth that, when she flies off the handle and acts impulsively, you don’t simply think she’s being self-centred and projecting her own personal situation on to the ongoing investigation. Here, she commits a horrific act that is purely the result of her heightened emotional state, resulting in her jumping to the wrong conclusion as to a suspect’s intentions, but she somehow retains our sympathy throughout.

Elsewhere, we get the usual witty banter between the team. I previously said Ed Whitmore’s scripts tended to be drier than, say, Stephen Davis’, but I should probably now take that back, as there are some absolute corkers in this episodes’ dialogue, some of them rather clever. It’s also, for once, reasonably coherent throughout, although I did find myself having to pause a couple of times to work out exactly what was going on in my head. Massive coincidence aside, it’s all pretty logical too. A solid entry and the point at which this season, after a slightly rocky start with In Sight of the Lord, finds its feet before going to enjoy a continuous run of high quality episodes until its end.

 
Posted: Friday, August 29, 2008 at 10:37 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Another day in bland collect-‘em-up world

Space Siege

With the release of Diablo III still a long way off, many gamers are doing their best to find the Next Big Thing in the action RPG world to keep them entertained in the interim. A lot of people thought that might be Hellgate: London, designed by the creators of the first two Diablo games, but that turned out to be a disappointment for many. Others have looked to Titan Quest (which I can’t say impressed me a great deal), which offered similar gameplay mechanics, this time in a world inspired by Greek Mythology.

Recently, a little game called Space Siege, developed by Gas Powered Games, came out for the PC. This is a game that sounds like great fun on paper: a slick, down-and-dirty ARPG pitting a solitary hero against hordes of aliens - a sort of heavily streamlined Diablo set in space. Its creative director - Gas Powered Games’ CEO, Chris Taylor - also has an interesting pedigree, having masterminded a number of successful games, including Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege and, most recently, Supreme Commander. Barring the latter, which I haven’t played, his games have never done a great deal for me, with Total Annihilation’s revolutionary use of terrain elevation and real-time 3D models (a rarity at the time in real-time strategy games) seeming to distract people from the overall blandness and homogeneity of the games design, and Dungeon Siege playing like a third-rate, dumbed-down version of Diablo with a few interesting tweaks in the form of party support and a dynamic character development system which automatically adjusted to the player’s style of gameplay instead of going down the usual rigid class-based route. Still, despite not being particularly impressed by any of these games, I was more than willing to give Space Siege a go. After all, Diablo in space? Sounds like fun.

Space Siege

Then the reviews started coming in, basically summing up the game as bland, easy, dumbed-down beyond belief and completely, utterly generic. Undeterred, I downloaded the demo and had a go myself. Fifteen minutes later, having completed it, I promptly uninstalled it from my hard drive.

It’s interesting, because one of the main criticisms levelled against Hellgate: London was that its developers were guilty of overreaching, setting their goals too high and over-hyping what was otherwise a pretty unremarkable game (which has always slightly confused me - were people expecting them to trumpet their game as “a middling game that doesn’t aim too high” or something similar?). Space Siege’s problem is the exact opposite: it’s essentially a freeware casual game with lavish production values and an A-list price tag. Everything about it has been pared back to the barest minimum, resulting in a game that can’t be accused of aiming too high because it doesn’t seem to aim at all. There are no character classes, just a single generic hero with the mega-bland name of Seth Walker who gets access to a range of around ten guns over the course of the game. There are no stats or experience: instead, you level up at pre-determined moments and occasionally find a new weapon to replace your current one (you can’t keep both). Effectively, the experience, loot and currency have all been homogenised into a single system of mechanical parts which are periodically dropped by fallen enemies, and in turn can be used at various stations to buy health, grenades etc. or upgrade your weapons and armour. It’s all very flat and unimaginative, and the lack of a meaningful stats systems means that it’s unclear what an upgrade of “+4 to armour” actually means in practice. It doesn’t help that all of this is visualised in the form of graphics that are technically proficient but completely and utterly unimaginative, making Hellgate: London’s oft-criticised monotonous environments look positively varied. In a sense, I suppose it looks the same as it plays, which is to some degree appropriate.

Space Siege

The one relatively original idea in the entire game is its system of cybernetics upgrades, in which Seth can choose to replace various body parts (e.g. eyes, arms, legs) with various robotic equivalents, which improve his abilities but in turn reduce his “humanity” rating. I’m told that the absolute ultimate is a cybernetic brain, but that in practice even this barely changes the gameplay one iota, beyond slightly altering other characters’ reactions to him and resulting in a slightly different ending. As the inimitable Jeff Green (one of my favourite gaming journalists) said in his review at 1UP:

I went full robot, taking the ultimate final step: a cybernetic brain, which — all told — reduced my humanity to 5 percent. Fully expecting a dramatic or even traumatic change in my character (would I still be speaking the same heroic-yet-wooden dialogue?), I discovered that the game barely acknowledges it. In the final cut-scene, I saved the world…and apparently lived happily ever after as a robot.

If a bland, derivative, completely unimaginative and over-simplified point and click action game pitting a witless hero against hordes of witless space mutants sounds to you like a good use of your $50 and a fine way of passing the time before Diablo III’s release, knock yourselves out. Myself, I think I’ll just play Diablo II some more.

 
Posted: Thursday, August 28, 2008 at 4:54 PM
Categories: Games | Reviews | Technology | Web
 

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

HD DVD

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

Transformers
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 25 GB)

Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers Transformers

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

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

HD DVD

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

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

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

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 10:01 PM
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Things can get a little hazy in the Bayou

HD DVD

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

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

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

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

Universal mangles some more

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD

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

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

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

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

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

Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 3 and 4: False Flag

DVD

Written by Stephen Davis; Directed by Suri Krishnamma

This was Stephen Davis’ final episode of Waking the Dead, and it’s a good one, not least because it features the top brass finally doing what she should have done for ages now: commission a psychological report on Boyd. This is part of a rather interesting storyline which involves plans on the part of the Assistant Commissioner to either dismantle the Cold Case Squad or at the very least bring it under her direct jurisdiction. The catalyst for this is a breach of protocol in which Boyd admits to having entered a property without the appropriate warrant. As a result, the rest of the team feels that he has jeopardised their jobs. As later becomes clear, however, the culprit was in fact not Boyd but Spence: Boyd took the rap because he didn’t want Spence’s prospects of promotion to be affected. It’s little moments like these that help make the characters more multi-faceted, something that is particularly important given Boyd’s ever-increasing instability.

Like one of the writer’s previous episodes, Special Relationships, this one ventures into political conspiracy territory, beginning with the discovery of a man’s body in a car, a bullet through his head and an unexploded bomb strapped underneath. The body is identified as that of Gerald Doyle (Dan Morgan), a young man with decidedly pro-Republican views on the conflict in Northern Ireland, and his death is dated to the late 1970s, roughly coinciding with the assassination of Duncan Sanderson (Christopher Strauli), a prominent Conservative MP whose attitude towards Republicanism was nothing if not hard-line. Sanderson was killed by a bomb strapped under his car, and the similarity of the modus operandi between the two murders leads Boyd and the team to suspect a connection. Working on the hypothesis that Doyle was part of a Republican splinter group, they begin to uncover disturbing evidence suggesting that he and several other like-minded individuals were in fact assassinated at the behest of the British government.

As I’ve said before on numerous occasions, Waking the Dead is nothing if not a confusing programme, and, whenever they tackle high level conspiracies, things have a tendency to get really confusing. This is certainly the case here, and once again I found myself beginning to wonder if I’d lost my marbles during the final half-hour, but along the way there is some choice interaction between the team to keep the viewer engaged. Particularly choice are Grace’s attempts to build a profile of the uncooperative Boyd, not to mention a particularly delicious opportunity to watch the man squirm in which Frankie assures him she can defuse an unexploded bomb, before proceeding to ask him which colour of wire he thinks she should cut first. It all gets a tad muddled towards the end, and the denouement for the individual behind the killings is less than satisfactory, but it’s once again a strong episode and a nice swansong for a writer whose standard of episodes has been consistently high.

Holby connections: Peter De Jersey, who plays Dr. Chris Reed in this episode, appeared in Holby City as charge nurse Steve Waring between Series 3 and 5.

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 5:35 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

More thoughts on Red Alert 3

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

I’ve played quite a few more matches of the Red Alert 3 beta since my last post on the subject, and am slowly but surely forming an overall understanding of the game. I’m also getting a bit better at it too, winning a handful of games while playing as the Allies, who are not as underpowered as I first thought.

Above all, what impresses me about this game is that EA seem to finally be intent on moving the Command & Conquer franchise away from the old “mass a load of units and steamroll your opponent with superior numbers” mentality that has, to an extent, characterised the past games. Watching some of the replays and shoutcasts over at Red3.org, it has become pretty clear to me that, in this game, there is an increased focus on hard (as opposed to soft) counters. In other words, each unit in the game has a direct counter that can completely obliterate it, which can then, in turn, be obliterated by another unit, and so on and so forth. This is in stark contrast to many of the older games in the series, where this rock-paper-scissors dynamic was a lot less pronounced. The result, I think, is that the game is more rewarding to play, particularly if you take the time to learn the various counters, because you’re forced to actually think about which units you’re building, and adapt your strategy depending on what your opponent is doing. There’s something very satisfying about spotting an enemy player making for your base with a gaggle of heavy-duty Airships (huge flying balloons which can decimate your base by carpet-bombing them), and then quickly training a handful of anti-air Apollo Fighters to take them out before they even reach you (Airships can’t attack other air units).

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

What I have been noticing, however, is a tendency towards games developing into a stalemate in which the two theatres of land and sea end up being controlled by different sides, with neither able to make a sizeable dent in the other. This is, in part, due to the fact that, if one player rules the seas, it’s virtually impossible for the other to venture into them without being hammered. Land units can’t really do anything against sea units, unless the sea units venture too close to the shore, while the Soviets’ impressive naval-based anti-air capabilities tend to make it difficult to bomb them from the skies (not impossible, but difficult). Add to this the fact that resources in Red Alert 3 are finite, and you can often end up in situations where neither side is able to build new forces, meaning that it’s essentially a case of one side waiting for the other to get fed up and go on a suicide mission, or quit in frustration. Of course, this is an problem inherent in virtually any RTS, but one that I suspect could be smoothed out with a bit more balancing in terms of the land/sea/air spread between the various factions.

Then again, I’m still learning the ropes, so it could be that something obvious is eluding me. Given that every unit in the game has a secondary function, the applicability of which is often somewhat vague, requiring to be used in tandem with the abilities of one or more other units, there’s rather a lot to get your head around. What I am fairly sure of, though, is that Red Alert 3 is shaping up to be a great RTS, and one that I’m definitely looking forward to picking up when it’s released.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 at 3:13 PM
Categories: Games
 

Machine built to perfection

Blu-ray

By brother picked up the US Blu-ray release of Alex (Dark City) Proyas’ I, Robot today, and I have to say I’m extremely impressed by the image quality: this is definitely the best disc I’ve seen from 20th Century Fox so far. Pin-sharp, naturally grainy and without a trace of artificial sharpening.

Now, obviously, we’re talking about two films produced in different time periods, with different technical specifications (Telecine-sourced for Dark City, digital intermediate for I, Robot), but this is much closer to how Dark City should have looked than the version released recently by New Line, mangled by their noise reduction machine of waxy faces.

I, Robot
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 26.4 GB)

I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot

 
Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 11:18 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

What am I, a punching bag?

Writings

Permit me a moment to vent a little. As some of you will know, I work Wednesdays and Saturdays in a library. Broadly speaking, this is a reasonably pleasant job. It’s not usually too taxing mentally, the work is varied enough to prevent me from becoming bored, and the staff are pleasant. 99.9% of the public are pleasant too, and even if not every single person coming through the door is smiles and sunbeams, they are a least civil to myself, my co-workers and each other.

Unfortunately, the other 0.1% are the subject of this post. It’s extremely rare that we find ourselves faced with anyone who is genuinely difficult. Some members of the public can be a little petulant about things, but broadly speaking can be reasoned with. Very occasionally, however, we end up faced with someone who seems to have made it their mission in life to be as downright objectionable as is humanly possible.

First, however, a little scene-setting. One of the biggest draws of our library is its free Internet access. If you own a library card, you are entitled to up to two hours’ free access per day, in one-hour blocks. Internet access begins at 10 AM (when the building is opened to the public) and ends at 4:45 PM (the building closes at 5 PM). Because this service is so popular, these rules are strictly applied. In fact, we have no control over the computers beyond 4:45 PM: when the time limit is reached, they automatically log off and are inaccessible until the next morning. In order to access the Internet, visitors are encouraged to queue at the computer desk, which is always manned by one person. This tends to be the busiest part of the library, because whoever is sitting at the desk also has to answer the phone, administer the faxing service, help people get to grips with the unnecessarily confusing photocopier and take general inquiries, because the desk is situated in such a location relative to the entrance that it is generally the first thing anyone coming into the building sees. As an added bonus, the line of sight between the computer desk and the main issue desk is blocked by bookshelves. Long story short, someone could pull a knife on you and your colleagues wouldn’t know a thing about it. Mercifully, this has never happened, to the best of my knowledge, but I’m just saying.

Anyway, enter today, at approximately quarter past three, an individual in his mid-20s with a threatening demeanour and an imposing figure. For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to him Crazy Hakim (truth be told, I can’t remember his real name). Anyway, Crazy Hakim approached the desk and demanded two hours of Internet access, claiming that he had to fill out a very important application form. I politely explained to him that the library’s policy was to only give visitors one hour of access at a time, and, in any event, he wouldn’t get two hours anyway, given that the computers would go off at 4:45 PM. This did not amuse Crazy Hakim at all, who announced that it was his legal right to be given two hours. I told him that, once his hour was up, he was welcome to join the queue again and request additional time, which only succeeded in infuriating him further. He then handed me his library card and demanded that I tell him what was “written about him” on his account. (Staff can attach comments to accounts, usually to mention that someone is a particularly difficult customer, has outstanding late fees to pay, etc.) I explained to him that such material was confidential and that I was under no obligation to show him it. Cue a lot of sighing, pouting and questions regarding why library staff are so difficult. (If it helps to add further colour to the picture, imagine this hulking great brute speaking with a slight but clearly identifiable lisp.)

Anyway, Crazy Hakim went off to use a computer, much to my considerable relief. He was soon back, however, ordering me to procure him a different pair of headphones (the ones attached to the computer didn’t meet his standards), and then again to demand additional time. At this point I was, to my undying gratitude, relieved by one of my colleagues, who took over at the desk while I went for a 20 minute break. Before leaving, I quietly warned her about Crazy Hakim and his aggression. She said she would keep an eye on him.

A recreation of the event

Above: A recreation of the event

20 minutes later, I returned, and was promptly taken aside by my colleague, who warned me that, while I’d been away, Crazy Hakim had been kicking up a stink, complaining about my attitude and accusing me of ratting him out. Quite what I was supposed to have ratted him out for doing wasn’t clear, but later it emerged that my colleague had caught him downloading music from some dodgy web site or other, which is, unsurprisingly, a strict no-no. Crazy Hakim was convinced that I had tipped my colleague off as to this before I left. Anyway, the rest of the shift progressed without much in the way of further incident. I remained at the main issue desk, making sure to avoid crossing paths with Crazy Hakim.

Then, at 4:45, everything kicked off again. The computers went off and Crazy Hakim was raging, bellowing that, because the library didn’t close ‘til 5:00, he should be able to continue using the computer ‘til then. Anyway, after ranting and raving at my colleague for god knows how long, he eventually came after me and, this time, accused me of spying on him, victimising him and spreading malicious lies about what he was doing on the Internet. I politely informed him that I had done no such thing, at which point he told me that, as a member of the public, he had a right to expect a level of courtesy from the staff, before turning on his heel and storming off.

This is where things turned nasty. I don’t know how I come across on this site, but in real life I’m a pretty mild-mannered individual. I tend to get a little frustrated by people at times, but I’m pretty good at retaining a degree of self-control. On this occasion, however, I was fed up. I’d had a long and rather frustrating day, and wasn’t about to be talked to like this by some fat twat who clearly thought the world owed him a living.

“Excuse me!” I called after him.

“I don’t have the time!” he replied, waving his hand in the air without stopping.

“Fine, whatever,” I said, heading off in the opposite direction.

“What did you say?” he bellowed. “You fucking prick!”

This time I chose to ignore him, heading off to the issue desk, where I thought I might be safe. Not so. A few moments later, he came after me again, and, despite supposedly not having “the time”, proceeded to lay into me yet again, accusing me all manner of indiscretions, unacceptable rudeness, and so on. All this time, I hasten to add, he was leaning towards me, clenching his fists and generally behaving in quite a threatening manner. In retrospect, I suppose I should have been concerned for my safety, given that the building was, by this stage, almost empty and none of my co-workers were in the immediate vicinity. However, rather uncharacteristically for me, all I could feel at this stage was fury. I actually came very close to giving this obnoxious cunt a piece of my mind, but once again I was cut off by Mr. “I don’t have the time”, who, satisfied that he had had the last word, told me, using rather colourful phraseology, that I should fear for my physical well-being, and then finally left the building.

Needless to say, this is not the sort of dealing I expect to have with members of the public. Thankfully, such instances are rare. In the nearly 13 months that I’ve worked at the library, I can count the number of similar encounters on one hand. For some reason, though, the combination of this individual’s arrogance, threatening behaviour and downright unpleasantness tipped me over the edge. I genuinely regret not giving him a piece of my mind, although I’m sorry to say I’m the sort of person who always comes up with the smart comebacks about half an hour too late.

So, does anyone else with experience dealing with unruly customers have any stories they would like to share? Group therapy can be a wonderful thing.

 
Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 9:35 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: General | Web
 

How to lose your credibility in 113 minutes

Blu-ray

Today, after waiting what seemed like an age, my copy of the US Blu-ray release of Doomsday, Neil Marshall’s newest film, reached me.

Unfortunately, after a promising start, this film proceeds to completely ransack any sense of self-dignity. It’s essentially a string of pastiches of different genres, and as a result has no credibility or identity of its own, jumping from futuristic sci-fi to post-apocalyptic urban warfare to Lord of the Rings-esque medieval romp to Gladiator-inspired arena games to Mad Max-style car chase, all leading up to a confrontation between our heroine and the impossibly throaty-voiced David O’Hara wearing an outfit that left me fighting the urge to start singing “We are the Men in Black…”

I suppose it held my attention throughout, so at least I wasn’t bored, but I couldn’t take any of it seriously, and the impression I’m left with is that someone handed Neil Marshall a cheque for a rather large sum of money and told him to do whatever he wanted. Which is sort of admirable, I suppose, and I do to some extent admire his “fuck it” mentality, throwing in whatever he felt like. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t take it remotely seriously and was left with the impression that I was watching a movie written by a teenage boy with no concept of how to maintain a consistent tone or even string together a semi-coherent plot. By far the best thing about it was Rhona Mitra, who manages to retain a level of credibility even when everything around her is going to pot. Overall, though, Marshall really dropped the ball with this one, and is making the masterful The Descent look more and more like a fluke by the minute.

It also doesn’t help that, a few days earlier, I’d watched another “post-apocalyptic” Britain film, the infinitely superior 28 Weeks Later

…actually, you know what? Read Lyris’ review. It’s much funnier than mine.

As if to rub it in, the transfer, one of Universal’s first Blu-ray releases, is a sterling effort, looking natural and generally flawless, with no visible compression artefacts or any signs of digital tampering. Oh yeah, and the building visible in the final shot is my place of work, which is sort of neat, I guess. Too bad it wasn’t in a better movie.

Doomsday
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 21.9 GB)

Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday

 
Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008 at 9:30 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta initial impressions

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

As I’ve stated before, I’ve not always been a fan of the Command & Conquer series of real-time strategy games. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the RTS landscape was dominated by two key players, Westwood Studios and Blizzard Entertainment, with Westwood’s Command & Conquer games pitted against Blizzard’s Warcraft (and later Starcraft). While I know that many gamers were able to enjoy both, the majority seem to have come down firmly on one side or the other, and I was a staunch loyalist of the Blizzard camp. For me, their games were always more intuitive, tactile and polished, offering an overall more pleasant experience. In contrast, I tended to find Westwood’s games more finicky, frequently suffering from mushy, indistinct graphics, control issues and a general lack of a meaningful connection (a typical Command & Conquer game tended to consist of cranking out as large an attack force as possible and rushing the enemy en masse, whereas Blizzard’s games tended to stress quality over quantity, forcing the player to make strategic decisions about which units to build).

Times, however, have changed. Westwood Studios is no more, and the last RTS Blizzard put out was Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2002 (with an expansion set in 2003). The publisher of the Command & Conquer games, Electronic Arts, established their own studio, EALA, to continue development of the franchise, beginning with the rather poorly-received 2003 spin-off Command & Conquer: Generals. In the meantime, while Blizzard arguably continued to dominate the RTS market, particularly as far as E-sports are concerned, several other franchises emerged to compete, muddying the waters somewhat and meaning that the old C&C/-craft binary no longer existed.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

In 2007, the Command & Conquer series was resurrected with Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which, coincidentally or not, was the first one I genuinely enjoyed. I picked up a copy of the game in April, and then snagged the Kane’s Wrath expansion set in July. Since then, both have remained on my hard disk and have been played rather obsessively. I’m not sure precisely what EALA did, but they managed to turn my thoughts on the franchise around completely, allowing me to enjoy their game in a way that I never could with Westwood’s efforts. (This turnaround, incidentally, mirrors my experiences with the Tomb Raider franchise, which I believe improved exponentially when Crystal Dynamics took over from Core Design.)

Kane’s Wrath came with a free key to enter the beta test of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the third instalment in the spin-off Red Alert franchise. (While the vanilla Command & Conquer series takes place in the future, the Red Alert games operate in an alternate reality Cold War scenario in which Hitler never came to power and the Soviet Union emerged as the dominant adversary to the Allies in Europe.) My account was activated this morning, and I’ve spent most of the day getting the hang of it. (Normally I’d be at work, but we’re all on strike today over a pay dispute.) The beta supports only online play, without any means of learning the ropes before jumping on to the Internet and invariably taking a savage beating from more experienced players. Four maps are provided, as well as all three playable factions: the Allies, the Soviets and the new Empire of the Rising Sun (i.e. Japan).

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Whereas vanilla Command & Conquer has always offered a semi-realistic take on the world, the style of Red Alert is altogether more exaggerated, with units that range from your traditional infantry to armoured bears who can be shot out of cannons and parachuted into the enemy base. Much like the franchise’s famous FMVs, all of this is done in a firmly tongue-in-cheek manner, resulting in a rather silly but nonetheless engaging experience. Visually, the colour palette is a good deal more saturated than that of Tiberium Wars, and accordingly the unit and building designs are more exaggerated, looking chunkier and more toy-like. Lower-grade units such as infantry are still a bit too small on the screen, making it difficult to distinguish between, say, a Peacekeeper and a Javelin Soldier (a long-running complaint I have with these games), but otherwise the design is bold, striking and richly saturated.

Otherwise, the mechanics are largely the same as those of Tiberium Wars. The unit names and designs may be different, but the basic principles are more or less unchanged. The biggest monkey wrench comes in the form of the added emphasis on naval combat. Many buildings and a few units as well can be placed on both land and sea, which gives the gameplay an added dimension. I still haven’t quite got the hang of it (naval combat was always my weakest point in RTSes like Warcraft II and Age of Empires), but it seems fun and adds a degree of variety to the tactics that are available to you.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Right now, certain aspects of the gameplay do feel rather unwieldy, although there’s nothing here that can’t be changed with a bit of balancing and polishing. The controls seem a tad unresponsive, a combination (I suspect) of lag on the beta server and the fact that, like Tiberium Wars, the frame rate has a forced cap of 30 fps (words cannot express how much this irritates me, especially in a fast-paced game like this). Likewise, the interface looks and feels somewhat clunky, which is odd given that it’s virtually identical to the one used in the previous Command & Conquer games. That aspect of the art could, I suspect, do with a bit of a polish to make things feel a bit more finished. Also, it may just have been my experience, but currently the Allies feel somewhat underpowered in comparison to the two other races. So far, the only game I’ve won while playing as them was against a complete beginner who hadn’t even managed to build any troops before I steamrolled his/her base, whereas I had considerably more successes while playing as the Soviet Union. I haven’t tested the Empire of the Rising Sun to any great extent yet, although their heavy emphasis on mechanical, “Transformers”-like units it’s really to my personal tastes. Oh, and I’ve experienced a fair number of crashes and connection failures, but that’s par for the course with unfinished software.

Overall, what I’ve seen looks fairly promising. Tiberium Wars definitely has a slicker, more polished feel, and it’s unclear whether this discrepancy is down to the fact that Red Alert 3 is still in beta, but I’d hazard a guess that, with just over two months to go before release, there won’t be any major changes made to the core mechanics between now and then. On balance, therefore, while the saturated, exaggerated world of Red Alert 3 appeals more to my tastes than the more realistic, sci-fi-oriented Tiberium Wars, I could see myself sticking with the latter in the long run.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 5:57 PM
Categories: Games | Technology
 

Ham and cheese

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

This morning, I received my invite for the ongoing online beta test for Electronic Arts’ Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. I’ve played a few matches so far (and received a royal whupping from my opponents on almost every occasion), and will be posting my impressions later, but for now I thought I’d share with you the deliciously dreadful trailer unveiling some of the “talent” that will be appearing in the game’s live action full motion video (FMV) sequences.

From hopelessly inexperienced no-names to reasonably familiar veterans signing on to embarrass themselves, the FMV sequences for the Command & Conquer franchise are always a laugh riot. It seems to be tradition that they be as unconvincing and over the top as possible, peppered with dreadful dialogue, extreme overacting and some of the worst production values this side of a television show commissioned for BBC3. With Red Alert 3, it really looks as if EA have outdone themselves, peppering their cast with a diverse array of talents and no-talents, including everyone from Tim Curry (doink hees best Rrrrrrussian accent, comrade) to Jenny McCarthy to some blonde woman out of Channel 4’s rubbish weekday soap opera, Hollyoaks (or, as the press release more grandly describes it, “the UK’s Hollyoaks”).

You can download the high definition QuickTime trailer from the official site, or, if that’s too much effort, just feast your eyes at some of these choice screen captures and try to keep a straight face. It’s much funnier in motion and with sound, though - if you can believe that.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 3:59 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Games | TV | Web
 

What have I been up to?

Writings

It’s been nearly two months since I said anything at all about my PhD, and even longer since I actually said anything concrete about what stage I’m at, so I thought I’d give you a brief status report. I’ve spent the last three weeks frantically pulling together my literature review chapter, and I completed the first complete draft yesterday evening - all 8,900 words of it. To put that into perspective, that’s more or less half the length of my entire MLitt thesis from 2006.

In many respects, it still feels as if I’m feeling around in the dark, but an actual direction is beginning to emerge, and I feel a lot clearer now about my aims than I did six months ago. I attribute a lot of that to my supervisor, who has been very good when it has come to pushing me forward and impressing upon me the constant need to remember the bigger picture - i.e. what I’m hoping to achieve with this thesis. When you’re working on a project of any length, especially one that will, in all likelihood take me a further four years to complete, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and lose track of my goals.

This is why, although I initially found it strange, I’ve slowly come to the realisation that writing the literature review before anything else was indeed a good move. At first, I found the suggestion that I should do this rather baffling: after all, I’m going to keep on reading new sources almost until the very end of this project, so how could I possibly put together a comprehensive review of the literature at this early stage? The answer is that the literature review, at this point, is not meant to be all-encompassing. Instead, the aim is to identify and present the key arguments, developing a skeleton for the chapter to which I will, as I progress, be able to add more meat. By doing this, I should hopefully be able to have the most important debates, not to mention my aims, in my mind at all times as I write the rest of the thesis.

So far, I would appear to be on track for my intended goal of delivering a second draft of the literature review before the end of September. I don’t doubt that I will have some substantial revisions to make to the chapter following my meeting with my supervisor tomorrow, but it feels like I’ve made a substantial amount of progress in the last few weeks. I’ve still got a mountain to climb, but I’ve made it over the first foothill.

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 2:17 PM
Categories: PhD
 

Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 1 and 2: In Sight of the Lord

DVD

Written by Tony McHale; Directed by Andy Hay

Shortly after Waking the Dead’s third series had completed its initial run, it won an Emmy (oddly enough, for what I consider the weakest episode of that series, Multistorey). The result was that, for the fourth series, it received an extended run of twelve episodes, up from the usual eight. The same producer, Richard Burrell, remained on board, and he succeeded in securing the same key writers who had been responsible for the show’s growth.

Oddly enough, though, Series 4 starts with a storyline penned by an outsider. Tony McHale is the creator and current executive producer/lead writer of Holby City; he also wrote and directed several episodes of Casualty between Series 9 and 14. His scripts, particularly of late, have had something of an unhealthy obsession with religion, Christianity to be precise. In fact, it seems to be his goal to get as many storylines revolving around religion as possible in the show under his guidance. This episode of Waking the Dead is no exception, offering up a whole lot of cryptic biblical references in a storyline which involves a serial killer hammering nine inch nails into the skulls of various men who were formerly soldiers in a Second World War army battalion.

This two-parter is unusual in that whereas normally Waking the Dead’s storylines start off reasonably logical and then throw you for a loop in the final half-hour, it’s actually the other way round this time. That’s not to say that the episode is particularly difficult to follow, but, for the first hour and a half, the writing is rather choppy, lurching from one plot development to another without a clear sense of logical progression. Boyd and the team make several rather odd leaps in logic, and while the majority of them don’t end up playing out (such as Boyd’s seemingly out-of-the-blue suggestion that the victims could have been Communists and were therefore assassinated for their political beliefs), I get the sense that McHale knew where he wanted to end up but had a bit of trouble actually getting there.

Actually, of all the Waking the Dead storylines, this is probably actually the most giallo-like of the lot, not only in terms of the killer’s motivation but also his attire: he wears a black coat, black fedora and black gloves, and at one point even employs the sort of harsh whisper that many a giallo killer has been known to employ in order to disguise his voice. The director, Andy Hay, has clearly watched some Argento in his time.

Elsewhere, it’s business as usual. Boyd has sprouted a rather alarming amount of facial hair, which in turn seems to have done nothing for his temper (“I don’t give a shit about your rights!” he bellows at one suspect who has asked for his lawyer to be present). Meanwhile, see if you can spot how often Frankie is conveniently positioned behind a table or another character: the actress, Holly Aird, was pregnant at the time, and, as the series progressed, the production team had to resort to greater and greater lengths to conceal her ballooning stomach.

 
Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 11:13 AM
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

JESUS CHRIST WHAT A HORRIBLE TRANSFER

Blu-ray

After the Escape from New York Blu-ray scandal broke, I knew I just had to see the disc for myself. Of course, the screen captures were pretty damning in their own right, but there’s something about seeing it in motion that makes it all the more “real”. Thank goodness for LoveFilm, who dispatched it to me yesterday. It was waiting for me today when I got home from work, and my goodness, it is, if possible, even worse than I expected.

Quoth Lyris:

As someone who’s authored and encoded DVDs, it is my opinion that the source looks like a processed standard-def studio tape (and not a very appealing one, either): that is, marginally better than DVD, but way below 1080p standard. The film grain structure (or what’s left of it) is thick and clumpy, it looks undoubtedly SD.

If Optimum are reading this, I urge them to look into it. Did the master tape come from France? Could there possibly have been a language barrier issue? For example, if Optimum requested an HDCAM SR tape of “Escape from New York”, the facility could have made them one, using a Digital Betacam tape as a source. Optimum receive the HDCAM SR tape and make a disc out of it, completely unaware of the original source material.

Escape from New york
(Optimum UK, AVC, 18.8 GB)

Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York

 
Posted: Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 9:56 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 7 and 8: Final Cut

DVD

Written by Stephen Davis; Directed by Betsan Morris Evans

It’s always struck be that, apart from Boyd, the only character in Waking the Dead whose past we know anything about is Spence. He would end up being the main focus of the Series 5 finale, and here, two years earlier, his childhood comes back to haunt him in a rather convoluted storyline that also ropes in his mother and missing father. That’s about as personal as things ever get in this show, and it’s somewhat odd, given that I’ve always felt that Spence was the least interesting of the original line-up of characters (now, once the insufferable Eve arrives for Series 6, that’s another matter entirely…). I’m not convinced that the revelations of this episode do anything for the character of Spence, given that they are never referenced again and really don’t succeed in making him any more interesting, but at least his role is something more than functional in this episode.

Anyway, what follows is an extremely convoluted plot, even by Waking the Dead’s standards, which somehow ties together the Mafia, drug smuggling, an extremely violent movie, bizarre burial rituals in a black community, numerous dead bodies concealed in a derelict building, and Ken Russell as a foul-mouthed, booze-soaked director with an overinflated opinion of his own abilities (haha). I’ve seen this one three times now and I’m still not entirely convinced I’ve worked it all out, but at least I’m not completely scratching my head in confusion as I was with Walking on Water earlier in the series. As with that episode, the first part is better than the second, and I suspect that has a lot to do with the face that most of the confusion emerges in the final 30 minutes, but, that said, it’s a strong episode overall and an effective end to a series that has, barring the rather forgettable season premiere, turned out to be better than I remembered. Oh, and, to the best of my knowledge, it’s also the only episode to include a character using the word “fuck”. You rebels!

Holby connections: Camelia Baptiste is played by Sharon D. Clarke, who currently appears in Holby City as consultant Lola Griffin.

 
Posted: Friday, August 15, 2008 at 9:28 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Grit, grime and zombies… oh my!

Blu-ray

Copied and pasted from the previous post

In terms of presentation, 20th Century Fox’s transfer is very good, seemingly representing the varied source formats (35mm, 16mm, high definition video) accurately. There may have been a small amount of noise reduction, but nothing too severe. A few of the HDV-based shots exhibit some noticeable haloing, but I’m assuming that this was inherent to the source format rather than something intentionally applied for the BD release. Either way, only a handful of shots are affected. The rest looks excellent.

28 Weeks Later
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 29.6 GB)

28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later

 
Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 11:47 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 
 

 
 
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