September 2008


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DVDs I bought or received in the month of September

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • Blow (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • La Femme Publique (R0 USA, DVD) [sample copy]
  • Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
  • The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Kill Bill Volume 1 (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Kill Bill Volume 2 (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Mean Girls (R2 UK, DVD) [gift]
  • Mother of Tears (RB France, Blu-ray)
  • Tekkonkinkreet (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (RA USA, Blu-ray)

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days. I’ve been really busy with PhD work. Hopefully things will quieten down a bit by the middle of next week.

Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 10:03 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Mondo Vision | PhD

Mother of Tears Blu-ray impressions


Mother of Tears recently became the first Dario Argento film to get a high definition release (well, discounting his Masters of Horror episode Jenifer, put out by Anchor Bay last year), having been released on Blu-ray by French label Seven Sept. I ordered a copy, and it arrived today. Unfortunately, as I suspected would be the case, it’s coded for Region B only, which is less than thrilling for Region A people such as myself. It also insists on enabling French subtitles whenever you select the English audio track, but neglects to provide you with a means of turning them off again (this “feature” afflicts a number of French DVDs and BDs). Luckily, those of us in PC-land who are armed with a copy of AnyDVD HD can easily correct both of these errors.

The disc is a single layer BD-25, and the film has been treated to a VC-1 encode. Unfortunately, while there are some nice things about the transfer, there are also a number of problems. Chiefly, the image appears to have been quite heavily noise reduced, resulting in waxy facial features and textures, with some edge enhancement added on top to give it that unnatural, digital look. It’s not a dreadful transfer by any means, and it’s a noticeable step up from Optimum’s DVD, but, as I always say, saying a high definition release looks better than a DVD is about the most back-handed compliment you can pay it. Screen captures are, as usual, below.

Mother of Tears
(Seven Sept, France, VC-1, 16.7 GB)

Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears Mother of Tears

Posted: Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:35 PM | Comments: 10 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Technology

How to treat your customers with respect

The Witcher

A big round of applause to Polish developer/publisher CDProjekt for actually giving their customers the respect they deserve. While Electronic Arts continue to shaft consumers with draconian digital rights management, CDProjekt have not only gone on record encouraging the rest of the PC games industry to abandon DRM altogether, they have also seen fit to reward people who bought their RPG The Witcher by providing a massive revision of the game completely free of charge.

The new version of the game, labelled the Enhanced Edition, is a direct response to community and critical feedback and contains a massive number of bug fixes, improved dialogue and animation, interface modifications and a host of other tweaks. The version on store shelves, which, as far as I can tell, will completely replace the original version once supplies are exhausted, also comes with a bunch of additional goodies including a soundtrack CD, a strategy guide book, a map and a “making of” DVD, but, for those who already own the game and don’t want to buy another copy, most of this is available to download for free.

I applaud CDProjekt, I really do. I don’t consider The Witcher a masterpiece, but the news that this new edition had been released was enough to prompt me to crack open the DVD case again and give the new and improved version of the game a whirl, and I’m definitely well on the way to sinking in several more hours of play-time. I also think that, if more companies took this attitude instead of looking to screw their fans at every opportunity (EA, I’m looking at you again), we would see far less piracy. Case in point: the DRM restrictions placed on Spore were intended to reduce the number of people playing pirated copies, but an unauthorised DRM-free version of the program was available on the major P2P networks before the boxed copy was released, and the irony is that those who download a bootleg for free will have a far more hassle-free experience than those who actually fork out for a retail copy.

Or, to use another example, Mass Effect. Like a growing number of EA-published games, the PC version features SecuROM DRM. I tried out the Xbox 360 version last night, and could really see myself getting into it. Unfortunately, I’m a died-in-the-wool PC gamer at heart and, try as I might, I simply can’t get used to controlling the game with a gamepad (I believe that the ideal control system in most cases, but particularly for first- and third-person action games, is a keyboard/mouse combo), so ideally I’d like to pick up the PC version. However, thanks to SecuROM, I won’t be doing this, so EA can consider themselves to have lost a sale to me because of their automatic assumption that anyone interested in playing their games is a filthy rotten pirate. Sucks for both of us.

Update, September 26th, 2008 05:40 PM: I’ve just discovered that another EA title and one of my most anticipated purchases of the year, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, will also feature the same DRM implementation and sneaky rootkit shenanigans as Spore and Mass Effect. In their immense magnanimity, however, EA have decreed that customers will be allowed to install the game not three times but a whopping five. How generous of them! I’m sure I’ll eventually come across some means of playing it, but I certainly won’t be installing a retail copy on my machine.

Posted: Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:04 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

I have a new toy

Ain't she a beaut?

Above: Ain’t she a beaut?

Today, I found myself in possession of an Xbox 360 Arcade System. If you’ve been reading my brother’s blog, you’ll know that his Xbox 360 recently died a tragic death. It came back the other day after being repaired after Microsoft refused to service it (apparently it didn’t have enough red rings or something), sounding like a vacuum cleaner thanks to its new cooling system, which we both agreed wasn’t ideal for watching movies: until it pegged it, it doubled as both a games console and our HD DVD player.

With prices of standalone HD DVD players having gone through the roof after being discontinued, I decided that the only semi-cost-effective solution to having a way of playing my 60+ HD DVD titles was to pick up a 360 myself. I ended up getting a reasonable deal on the Arcade package, which gives you five free mini-games, plus a retail game of your choice (I went with Mass Effect, which I haven’t checked out yet), and it arrived today. The timing was, though I say it myself, impeccable, as Lyris’ 360 died yet another death within two hours of the new system’s arrival.

The irony of the situation is that I’ve never bought a single console game in my life, and yet I now own both of the current generation of games consoles. (I hear there’s a little thing called the Wii as well, but last time I checked there wasn’t very much software available for it that actually qualified as what I would call “games”.)

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 11:27 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Games | HD DVD | Technology

It’s Keira Knightley HD Screen Capture Day aboard the HMS Whimsy


…well, not really, she just happens to appear in both the films I’ve put under the magnifying glass. First up is King Arthur, a rather mediocre cash-in on the whole medieval war epic craze by Jerry Bruckheimer and friends, which arrives on Blu-ray with rather odd transfer that virtually defines the word “inconsistent”. Its “look” seems to change on a virtually shot by shot basis, going from noticeably edge enhanced and undetailed to completely natural-looking and razor sharp, and from virtually grain-free to extremely rough and grainy. Sometimes the grain is extremely clumpy, other times it looks very natural. This often happens multiple times within the same scene, and I’m at a loss to explain it.

The bottom line is I just don’t know what to say about this disc. Sometimes it looks stunning, other times it looks quite disappointing, and everywhere in between.

King Arthur
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 32.1 GB)

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Up next is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, an even worse film but one with a considerably more consistent transfer. Actually, this one is pretty close to perfect. Some very mild compression artefacts are visible at times, but broadly speaking only if you’re scrutinising for them. The only other flaw in this transfer is a very odd moment in the final third of the film, just before the sword-fight which takes place on a water wheel, where, for a single shot only, the entire image suddenly seems to drop to a lower resolution with lots of visible jaggies. Actually, it looks a lot like the Weinstein Company’s train-wreck of a BD for 1408. This shot lasts for less than a second and is easy to miss, but I spotted it the first time I watched the film and thought “What the hell?” It’s really the only negative thing I can say about this otherwise stellar disc, and it lasts for a fraction of a per cent of the running time. The rest of the time, it looks like this:

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 32.1 GB)

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Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 10:14 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Film on Blu-ray in “looking like film” shocker


On Saturday, I received my copy of The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration on Blu-ray, containing all three films in the series, the transfers for the first two being derived from new restorations carried out by Robert A. Harris, arguably the best man in the field of film restoration. The Godfather Part III, intriguingly enough, is the best-looking of the bunch on Blu-ray, although to what degree this is due to the state of the elements, the way these elements were manipulated, or Coppola’s original aesthetic choices, is unclear.

What is clear is that this disc constitutes the new gold standard to which all film-sourced transfers in high definition should aspire. I was floored by how good this disc looks. As a broad rule, I’ve tended to find that the best-looking titles released in high definition are invariably those sourced from a digital intermediate rather than film elements, with film-sourced materials generally either being treated poorly (see many of Universal’s back catalogue titles) or simply having less available “resolution” to begin with due to the inherent shortcomings of a process which results in reduced quality with each subsequent generation. The Godfather Part III, however, is up there with the best of the DI-sourced transfers. I can see no evidence of any sort of tampering - the grain is wonderfully reproduced, the detail is excellent, and (a rarity, I’ve found, in film-sourced transfers) there is no artificial edge enhancement or ringing to be found. This would be a definite 10/10 were it not for the fact that the compression seems slightly dicey at times - strange, given that the bit rate is approaching 40 Mbit/sec more or less throughout.

Still, a phenomenal achievement throughout and one that has raised the bar as far as transfers for catalogue titles are concerned.

The Godfather Part III
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 44.3 GB)

The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III

There’s an excellent article on the restoration process at the American Society of Cinematographers web site.

Posted: Monday, September 22, 2008 at 3:32 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology

Site update


It occurred to me today that, with all the Ren & Stimpy screen captures I’d been posting lately, my main news page had been getting pretty cluttered. More crucially, I’d imagine it was starting to take a long, long time to load all these images for people with slower connections. With that in mind, I’ve decided to make use of Movable Type’s “MTEntryMore” tag for posts with excessive numbers of images. Basically, what this means is that, in order to view the full post, you’ll have to follow the link to the individual entry page (e.g. this one for Ren Needs Help and Ren Seeks Help): on the index, category and monthly archive pages, you’ll just see the first few paragraphs of text followed by a clickable link to the individual entry. I appreciate that this might be a bit of a pain for visitors with faster connections, but it should lighten the load for those whose Internet connections aren’t up to the task of quickly crunching through over 400 jpegs.

I’ve edited all the Ren & Stimpy posts to take this new feature into account, and will be applying it to any future posts that I feel warrant it.

[Continue reading "Site update"...]

Posted: Monday, September 22, 2008 at 1:27 PM
Categories: Animation | TV | Technology | Web

Site update


The Other section of the site has now been migrated over to the new layout. The entire section is now powered by Movable Type, and as an unavoidable result the URLs for the various sections have changed, but things should be considerably easier for me to keep in order from now on.

Next up for the design update will be the Writings section - a considerably more daunting task. The Other section was just three individual pages, whereas a number of sub-sections and individual articles are to be found in the Writings section. I’m hoping Movable Type will provide me with the flexibility I need in order to pull this off effectively, but it’s going to take some planning and I don’t want to rush into this, just in case I screw something up in the coding.

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 5:52 PM
Categories: Web

If at first you don’t succeed

Ren Needs Help Ren Seeks Help

During the first couple of seasons of Ren & Stimpy, a number of episode ideas were either rejected by Nickelodeon’s story editors or simply put to one side as they didn’t work and/or their wasn’t enough time to do them. Towards the end of the Games run, however, the extremely punishing schedule of the final season necessitated a lot of what are best termed “cheater” cartoons (i.e. cartoons that could be churned out fast to meet the schedule). During the second season, Bob Camp directed a handful of “cheaters”, freeing up John Kricfalusi to direct the more ambitious ones. These generally placed Ren and Stimpy in generic situations - e.g. in the army, at a wrestling match, at the zoo - and were less concerned which characterisation than simply stringing together some funny gags to make an entertaining 11-minute short. By 1994/1995, however, it had become a case of simply digging up a story - any story - and turning it into an episode in order to fulfil the order for which the crew had been contracted. As a result, they ended up using a number of storylines that Nickelodeon had originally rejected.

One of these was Ren Needs Help, a John K./Richard Pursel concept in which Ren, after doing something unspeakably horrible to Stimpy, realises just how insane he is and decides to get psychiatric help. The Games interpretation, which credits Jim Gomez and Bob Camp as the writers, follows the basic premise of Ren seeing a therapist, but omits Ren’s feeling of guilt, instead portraying him as being forcibly institutionalised, in what seems to be a botched take-off of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The screen captures below are taken from the final scene of Ren Needs Help, in which Ren finally goes completely insane and ends up being lobotomised. There’s a gag at the end about him being dressed up to look like the president and sent to the moon to make a speech, which I’m assuming is some sort of in-joke that didn’t come across in the finished cartoon. (A lot of the Games episodes are like that.)

[Continue reading "If at first you don’t succeed"...]

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2008 at 4:58 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | TV

I know kung fu, doop-dee-doo!


My copy of the Blu-ray release of Kill Bill Volume 1 arrived yesterday while I was at work. We watched it in the evening to put my brother’s beefy new sound system through its paces: finally, uncompressed PCM 5.1 support aboard the HMS Whimsy! It was my first time watching the film in a while, and I have to admit that, although I still got a lot of enjoyment out of it, it went ever so slightly down in my estimation. While more or less everything in the House of Blue Leaves and beyond is top quality entertainment, I must confess to finding quite a lot of the stuff along the way plodding and overly focused on banal dialogue. In that regard, it has something in common with Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film, Death Proof, which had a great final half-hour but meandered along for its first 80 minutes obsessing over trite conversations that I’m sure sounded very cool and absolutely fascinating to Tarantino but left me clock-watching. Kill Bill is a significantly better film overall, but it definitely suffers from similar flaws.

Seeing the US cut of the film after being used to the Japanese cut for so long was a bit of a shock to the system. In particular, I felt that the switch to black and white during the showdown with the Crazy 88 didn’t really work, and ended up making it overly difficult to see what was going on (which, from a censorial standpoint, was presumably the aim all along). I also missed all the little moments of blood-letting that had been snipped away here and there: I’m not what you’d call a gore-hound, in the sense that generally speaking a movie has to be more than deliriously violent to keep me entertained, but remembering what was present in the Japanese really made me miss it. I hope Universal gets round to releasing this film in HD in Japan - or, better yet, the Weinstein Company finally puts out The Whole Bloody Affair, which they and Tarantino have been promising for god knows how long.

Image quality-wise, Volume 1, as I expected, looks more or less exactly like Volume 2 - which is to say very good, but sadly not perfect. Once again, temporal noise reduction is evident throughout, reducing the grain and giving the image a somewhat digital look. I also spotted a handful of instances of the NR causing artefacts, mostly in the anime sequence, where some of the black outlines of the animation ended up being ghosted from one frame to the next. Most of it is fairly minor, but it does baffle me that this was done in the first place. After all, the animation was created entirely in the digital domain, with the grain that is present in the final composite having been added artificially. Since the technical crew had complete control over the grain in this segment to begin with, why add it and then reduce it? Unless, that is, the NR was added specifically for the Blu-ray release (or the master from which it was derived) after all rather than at the DI stage. Ah well, at least detail is, for the most part spot on, and, NR aside, there is no other obvious digital interference, barring a smattering of what looks to me like edge enhancement in certain shots in the snow garden outside the House of Blue Leaves.

Oh, and can I just say that the PCM 5.1 track kicks major derriere? I haven’t compared the compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 track yet, so I’ve no idea how big a difference the uncompressed PCM format makes, but it certainly gave me a new appreciation of the importance of having a decent home audio system.

Kill Bill Volume 1
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 29.3 GB)

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Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 10:50 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Non-consensual happiness and triple buttock syndrome


Stimpy’s Invention was the final episode of the first season of Ren & Stimpy in 1991. Apparently, John Kricfalusi had to beg the Nickelodeon executives to let him make it (they hated the premise), and then held it back for an insane amount of time, forcing his artists redraw everything multiple times in order to make sure it was perfect. This resulted in what I believe is a strong contender for the single greatest piece of animation ever created for television. It’s a work of demented genius, with the most outlandish posing you’ll ever see in a cartoon and one of the most moronically catchy musical numbers ever written, “Happy Happy Joy Joy” (even if you’ve never seen an episode of Ren & Stimpy, you’ve probably heard this catchphrase in some context).

It also features a deceptively simple but surprisingly edgy story. Basically, Stimpy is upset by the fact that Ren is always angry and decides to resolve the situation by creating a helmet for Ren to wear that will force him to be happy. It works a treat, but at the expense of Ren’s free weill. Stinky Whizzleteats (named after the singer of the episode’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song) wrote a magnificent post about this episode on SpumBoard that I think describes the episode so perfectly that, rather trying to match it with my own words, I’ve simply quoted:

Stimpy’s Invention is not only my favorite R&S episode, but it might just be the greatest animated cartoon ever made. What this episode does, much to the contrary of the discussion above is something that only the rarest of popular artworks have achieved it breaks down the barrier between writing and images. Throuhgout the entire episode, dialogue, visuals and music trade roles, never merely explaining one another. “Don’t move - I’ll go get the stay-put hat and raincoat!” That’s a visual idea, in words. Stimpy explains how his Happy Helmet works, but it’s unintended consequences are purely visual. “I told you I’d shoot, but you didn’t believe me!” Stinky Whizzleteats (the character, not me) accidentally lets slip a past event which is probably related in someway to his need to be incessantly happy and inforce the same in others. He probably had his mind controlled, and so did every single one of us in the audience. At the exact moment that we hear this, Ren is preparing to remove the helmet by force. the visual aid illiustrates not how the shooting incident happened, but why Ren ought to disassociate himself from the process of dehumanization with which Stinky’s song is complicit. It’s a complex approach to matching words with imagery, but it doesn’t break from conventional storytelling.

John K. has said that this episode “doesn’t have an ending.” I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about - it has the most compelling ending of any cartoon ever made. Ren is angry again, meaning that he is no longer being forced to be happy. Therefore, he is happy? All of us get angry sometimes, but aren’t we lucky to live in a society where that’s allowed? where we can voice our dissatisfaction with authority and mobilize to change it? But wait - let’s not forget the most important part: Stimpy never understood Ren’s problem. His simple inability to get it and leave Ren alone drove him to create the happy helmet. The helmet was evil, but Stimpy made it out of the goodness of his heart. But wait - isn’t Stimpy just a little bit sadistic? Maybe he is, Look how much he enjoys manipulating Ren! Maybe we all are….

This has been called a complex cartoon before. Those of us capable of such an understatement must shave their moustaches with a guillotine.

Apologies to Stinky for pilfering his post, but if he would rather I took it down, I will.

Anyway, here are a selection of shots from the crucial scene in which Stimpy installs the Happy Helmet and forcibly alters Ren’s personality. I challenge you to find poses this insane anywhere else.

[Continue reading "Non-consensual happiness and triple buttock syndrome"...]

Posted: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 3:51 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | TV

The knack to making disgusting things look appealing


Here’s another comparison between John K. and post-John K. Ren & Stimpy. The differences this time are slightly less pronounced than in the previous one, partly because neither cartoon is reaching for the psychotic extremes found in Sven Höek and Hermit Ren and therefore the character poses are less outlandish. Still, although more subtle, I think it’s clear that a definite shift has taken place. Both cartoons illustrate a similar scenario - Ren’s growing irritation at the sounds of Stimpy’s bedtime grooming habits - but one is executed with considerable flair and appeal, whereas the other seems to revel in being as gross as possible simply for the sake of grossness. A lot of people think Ren & Stimpy was just about being as disgusting as possible, but in my opinion part of what made the earlier episodes so successful was that they were able to combine the revoltingness of bodily functions and, at times, pain, with a certain type of appeal unique to cartoons. The first cartoon has this in abundance. The second… well, I’ll let you see for yourselves.

Here’s 1992’s Ren’s Toothache, directed by John Kricfalusi:

[Continue reading "The knack to making disgusting things look appealing"...]

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2008 at 8:40 PM
Categories: Animation | TV

The devolution of Ren & Stimpy


The Ren & Stimpy Show is one of my favourite television series of all time, if not my absolute favourite (if it’s not, though, I can’t think of anything else I would put in its place). For me, no animated series produced for television was ever as good or better than Ren & Stimpy at its best. For a brief period in the early 90s, it seemed that the classical principles of animation - funny drawings, beautiful paintings, cartoonists rather than scriptwriters in the driving seat, etc. - were going to make a comeback thanks to this show, and I suppose in a way they did for a short while, with the likes of Dexter’s Laboratory and Cow & Chicken on Cartoon Network, and to some extent Rocko’s Modern Life and SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon.

The funny thing, though, is that, although Ren & Stimpy ran from 1991 to 1995, the Ren & Stimpy that I love only lasted for a couple of years. As is now fairly commonly known, control of the show was unceremoniously yanked from the hands of its creator, John Kricfalusi, after less than two years. The reasons for this have been debated and called into question on multiple occasions, and I won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say, though, the quality of the series steadily plummeted without the guiding influence of its creator, with the result that, in the words of Dan Persons:

In two years, Nick[elodeon] has succeeded in taking a show that many expected to become heir to the Looney Tunes mantle, and turned it into a repetitive mess.

Below is a series of screen captures from the climactic scene of Sven Höek, one of the best episodes of Ren & Stimpy ever created and one of the last that Kricfalusi had full control over. (Some post production work was created after he was shown the door, but I’d estimate that a good 95% of the finished piece was supervised by him.) While it’s hard to get a feel of the genius timing, animation, voice acting and dialogue just from these pictures, hopefully they convey the sheer intensity and artistic skill that went into the staging and posing of this great cartoon.

[Continue reading "The devolution of Ren & Stimpy"...]

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2008 at 6:48 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Animation | TV

Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 9 and 10: The Hardest Word


Written by Doug Milburn; Directed by Philippa Langdale

The naked body of a man is discovered tied face down to a bed with the word “sorry” carved into his back, following a sex act. This looks like a case for the Murder Investigation Team, but Boyd, who has been investigating a murder with the exact same characteristics, succeeds in getting himself and his team involved in the inquiry, and they soon find themselves forced to work with the crude and abrasive Detective Superintendent Andy Bulmer (Phil Daniels) and his heavy-handed mob. Boyd, however, can’t seem to keep his eyes off psychological profiler Dr. Greta Simpson (Emma Fielding), drafted in to help with the inquiry. At Grace and Greta’s urging, the team begins to consider that the killer is more than likely someone who was abused him/herself at some point in the past and is now gaining sexual gratification by acting out his/her murderous fantasies.

As I rewatch these episodes, I’m coming to the conclusion that something I’d previously forgotten about Series 4 is how witty it is. Waking the Dead has always had a streak of dark humour about it, but it really comes to the fore in this series. In retrospect, I have a feeling that this may have been intended to make the tragedy that occurs in the final episode all the more horrifying. Anyway, much of the humour here comes from Boyd’s obvious infatuation with Greta, and Grace’s simmering jealousy. Many long-running series seem to end up featuring undercurrents of Platonic affection between certain characters, and Boyd and Grace are the obvious candidates in Waking the Dead. It’s considerably more pronounced here than in the later series, but the two characters often resemble an old married couple with their continual spats and reconciliation, and the combination of mutual respect for and irritation with each other.

When I wrote my original review of Series 4 for DVD Times, I described this two-parter as “the only case in the entire collection that comes even close to striking a bum note”, criticising its ending for being abrupt and not particularly satisfying. I was originally similarly critical of Series 2’s Thin Air but now consider it one of the best episodes of the entire series, and something similar appears to have happened with The Hardest Word. The conclusion is still far from satisfying, and the actual specifics of the killer’s relationship with his/her victims is a little hard to swallow once revealed, but in a sense I don’t think the ending was ever intended to be the sort that wraps everything up neatly. Throughout the episode, after all, the old “nature versus nurture” argument is continually brought up, coming down firmly on the “nurture” side. We are continually shown that abuse is a vicious cycle, with victims often becoming abusers themselves. As such, there’s no real end to it, and I get the impression that the somewhat ambiguous ending, which still leaves us unclear as to just how complicit one character was in the murders, is meant to reflect that.

Highlight below to reveal spoiler text:

Basically, the killer is Greta’s father (Julian Glover), who abused her as a child. As a result of the ordeal she suffered, Greta is compelled to recreate the specifics of this abuse in her sexual behaviour, and as a result plays out sadomasochistic scenarios with older men. Her father, however, in some warped way attempting to atone for his abusive behaviour, has been following her around and has actually been carrying out the actual murders. It’s not made clear whether or not Greta was aware who was doing this, but the fact that she never said a word about the fact that both of the victims under investigation were former sexual partners of hers is a little hard to swallow… as is the fact that Boyd basically sends her home with a pat on the back after all of this has been revealed.

Interestingly, barring the pilot, the second episode of this two-parter is the only episode not to conclude with the familiar Waking the Dead theme tune over the credits. Odd, that.

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2008 at 12:50 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead

Beware of neo-Nazi teenagers and speeding paramedics

Casualty Series 23 cast

It really doesn’t seem that long ago that I delivered a fairly damning prognosis of Casualty’s 22nd series, and yet here we are once again, with Series 23 kicking off with a two-parter spread over the previous two nights (Saturday and Sunday). As ever, I made a point of not getting my hopes up too high, but, as with last year’s season premiere, I found myself enjoying the two episodes much more than I’d expected, and am now having to make a concerted effort to temper my anticipation for the rest of the series in case I end up being let down again.

The premise this time was a rather imaginative one, charting the events unfolding around a camera crew shooting a documentary about the hospital and its staff. Ably written by Mark Catley, who handled most of the best episodes in the previous series, and skilfully directed by Keith Boak (despite his over-reliance on the dreaded shakycam), the framing device of the crew interviewing the various regulars was put to great effect, frequently cutting away from the main action to provide an insight into their thoughts on the trials, tribulations and internal politics of the job. The main plot, meanwhile, followed the documentary team as they accompanied one of the ambulance crews out to the troubled Farmead estate, where they ended up trapped in a burning building after Sammy, a delightful teenage girl (choice dialogue: “Your breath stinks… is it coffee or are you sure you’ve not just been drinking shit?”) with neo-Nazi sympathies and a perpetual scowl on her face, set off some fireworks. Their last-minute escape from the inferno, however, was very much a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire”, as the ambulance in which the camera crew were riding then ploughed into the aforementioned brat, the effect achieved using a dummy so obvious that it gave the killer’s death in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling a run for its money:

Fulci eat your heart out Fulci eat your heart out Fulci eat your heart out Fulci eat your heart out Fulci eat your heart out Fulci eat your heart out

Dodgy effect aside, it worked, and it also provided a segue into the second episode, where the local community, incensed that the emergency services had put one of their own into Intensive Care, began a full scale riot. Personally, I did have some trouble believing that seemingly the entire estate would erupt into anarchy simply because one girl, who we were initially shown to be an outcast who was hated by her peers and neglected by her family, was injured. I didn’t really buy it and thought it was a tad contrived. Still, what I appreciated about it was the way it conveyed the meaninglessness of the violence, how everyone was getting worked up about something that had happened to someone most of them probably didn’t even know. This was done, to some extent, in the Series 13 episode Trapped, which showed what happens when the police fail to enforce order and mob rule takes over. I also felt that the rioting scenes were somewhat reminiscent of Series 7’s Boiling Point in their depiction of complete and utter carnage with the emergency services trying to help people and finding themselves caught in the crossfire.

Casualty Series 23

I still ultimately think that Boiling Point is the better episode (hey, it’s my third favourite of all time), but the cast and crew really managed to pull off a similar atmosphere effectively here, and I’m impressed that they were able to make it seem this intense and gripping. There is a point in the second part when a group of the show’s regulars venture into the midst of the carnage to look for one of their colleagues, Clinical Nurse Manager Tess (Suzanne Packer), who lies skewered like kebab on a stretch of waste ground (the result of a somewhat contrived series of events), and are set upon by an angry mob headed by Sammy’s brother. Normally, Casualty tends to be rather predictable, but on this occasion the encounter between the staff and the thugs was so tense that I actually found myself feeling concerned for their safety. (The last time I genuinely felt that connected to the characters was in the excellent two-parter written by Barbara Machin for Christmas 2006, when Josh (Ian Bleasdale) was stabbed and I actually didn’t know whether he’d live or die.)

Casualty Series 23

Something else I really appreciated about these two episodes was the feeling of teem spirit that seemed to permeate throughout them. Although the raging fire in the block of flats in Part 1 and the rioting scenes in Part 2 provided a lot of adrenaline-packed action, my favourite moments were the interactions between the regulars. A major problem I’ve had with Casualty of late is how fragmented it has become. Whereas, in the old days, the team felt like an extended family who all got along despite their differences, in recent years I’ve felt that everyone was splitting off into their little groups and not really interacting with each other. Add to that the endless bickering, oneupmanship games and “who’s having sex with who” storylines, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching an endless playground squabble. Here, just about everyone seemed to actually pull together and function as a single professional unit. I’ve never really liked Tess as a character so I can’t say I really cared whether she lived or died (I find her a flat, uninteresting cipher whose only purpose is to bark orders), but, when she was wheeled into Accident & Emergency, I really did feel the team’s concern for her. Unfortunately, I still got the feeling that certain characters were being forced out on to the periphery and weren’t really interacting with the others, a problem that also affected the previous series, but it’s early days yet, and given how much action was crammed into the space of two hours, I’m not surprised some characters were, to a degree, left by the wayside.

Casualty Series 23

Overall, Series 23 has got off to a strong start with a really good pair of episodes, and once again I find myself crossing my fingers (without a great deal of hope, it must be said) that they aren’t just a flash in the pan. Last year’s My First Day and Charlie’s Anniversary are still the better pair of episodes overall, but this year’s two-parter was a lot better than I was expecting and I’m once again finding myself looking forward to next week’s episode. It does seem to prove that Series 22’s opening episodes weren’t just a flash in the pan and that the current cast and crew can continue to deliver the goods if all the stars are properly aligned.

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2008 at 12:20 PM
Categories: Cinema | Gialli | Reviews | TV

The spirits without


I picked up a couple of Blu-ray discs yesterday in a sale at Zammo that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have bought were it not for the fact that they were on sale in a “2 for £20” deal. (Anyway, I was in a buoyant mood because I’d just received a large sum of money that had been incorrectly taken off me in taxes over the past twelve months of so, and felt like treating myself.)

One was Tekkonkinkreet, which caught my eye a while ago because it’s one of those rare anime productions that I actually think has a semi-interesting visual style. The other, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, is a film that I’m not a massive fan of - in fact, the only reason I tolerate its soulless, stilted, so-called “realistic” visual style is the knowledge that the various imitators it spawned (e.g. Robert Zemeckis’ butt-ugly The Polar Express and Beowulf) are a whole lot worse. Still, I kept hearing about how good the BD transfer supposedly was, so eventually I got fed up waiting for it to become available for rental and decided to plonk down the cash for it.

Anyway, I took a look at it tonight, and yes, it’s a very good transfer. Not perfect, but still really impressive. My purchase of the standard definition DVD release, back in 2001, actually marked something of a special event for me because it was the point at which I started becoming aware just how many DVD reviewers were full of the proverbial. Put simply, the glowing 10/10, A++ and 100% ratings for image quality didn’t match my own impression of it being overly filtered and riddled with compression artefacts. But I digress. The Blu-ray release is about as far as you can get from the DVD as you can get, although a small amount of filtering has been applied and is present throughout: check the light ringing around the text in the final capture below. It’s fairly minor, but it means that the disc does just fall shy of perfection. I wonder why they thought it was necessary to do this.

Oh, and, as a side note, I do like that, despite the film never having touched celluloid, someone was thoughtful enough to actually try to make it look like film by adding a sheen of grain to it. The illusion is actually quite effective and goes some way towards making the motion captured CGI visuals look slightly less clunky and fake than they otherwise would have.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
(Sony Pictures, UK, AVC, 25.2 GB)

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Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 9:52 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Technology

An ode to B-movies that looks oddly glossy


Last week, I ordered the recent US Blu-ray releases of both volumes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I’m sure I said at some point that I wouldn’t buy Volume 1 in high definition unless it was the longer, gorier Japanese cut (which most people know as the version which includes the House of Blue Leaves fight scene in full colour, but which in fact also features increased bloodshed and some additional tweaks here and there), but that doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon at the moment. Anyway, the image quality of my Japanese DVD of Volume 1 is so god-awful I decided “to hell with it” and ordered the cut American BD.

Due to a delay in dispatching, Volume 1 hasn’t arrived yet, but Volume 2 turned up yesterday while I was at work, and I took a look at it last night. The bottom line is that this is a good transfer and one that I suspect is an accurate representation of the master. I say this because I seem to recall that, at the time of the films’ release, Tarantino stated that he wasn’t entirely happy with the look of the DIs (digital intermediates) prepared for them, feeling that they were too clean and failed to successfully recreate the gritty texture of the films he was aping. (I’m afraid I haven’t been able to dig up a source for this - sorry.) I have a feeling that the cleanness he complained about was in fact the level of temporal noise reduction that has been applied to the material. It’s not the horrible waxy kind you see in the likes of the Dark City BD, and as such doesn’t really show up to a great extent in the captures posted below, but it is noticeable when in motion, giving the image a slightly synthetic look, with textures and facial details tending to drag a bit. The closest equivalent I can think of is Flightplan, also from Buena Vista and also with the NR applied at the DI stage (a fact confirmed independently on IMDB and by my brother, who noticed the artefacts when he saw the film at the cinema).

What’s particularly interesting is that, on certain occasions, particularly the extended Pai Mei section, the NR is either turned off completely or at least lowered to an acceptable level, which I take as further evidence pointing to this having been done at the DI stage rather than some inept technician simply flicking a switch when the Blu-ray transfer was being encoded. (At the risk of sounding like a jerk, most people in the encoding business don’t seem to want to invest the effort required to approach things on a scene-by-scene basis, unless their name happens to be David Mackenzie and they work on DVDs of Andrzej Zulawski films.) The result is that the Pai Mei sequence is the best-looking part of the film, despite the fact that I get the feeling Tarantino shot it with an eye to it looking like the roughest, lowest budget segment.

So, overall what we have is a reasonably pleasing-looking disc that has a slightly synthetic feel to it but is, ultimately, a massive upgrade on the rather mediocre-looking standard definition release. For the most part, all 1080 lines of resolution are being put to use and many scenes feature a per-pixel level of detail. It’s too bad about the NR, but, if my suspicions are correct, then nothing much can be done about that short of going back to the original camera elements and redoing all the post production work.

Kill Bill Volume 2
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 35.8 GB)

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Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 4:06 PM | Comments: 12 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Mondo Vision | Technology

Top-rate film gets third-rate treatment

Amélie Blu-ray

Much to my surprise, I discovered yesterday that one of my favourite films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, had, without my knowledge, received a Blu-ray release, courtesy of Canadian label TVA Films.

I was all set to pick up a copy… until, that is, I read the review at Not only does it not feature English subtitles (not unreasonable, given that it is a French film and TVA Films services the predominantly French-speaking Québec community), it also features a 1080i transfer, with a very mushy, low detail appearance, which can be seen from the screen captures posted along with the review. (You need to register with to see them at their full 1920x1080 resolution.)

So, while I would love to own this film in high definition, and while I don’t doubt that it constitutes a noticeable upgrade over the standard definition DVD releases, I’m going to exercise considerable restraint and bide my time until another studio comes along and does it justice.

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 3:03 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Technology | Web

The depths of insanity


I got home from work yesterday to discover a veritable storm brewing over at the AV Science Forum. The topic was The Descent, one of my favourite horror films of the last few years and also one of my favourite Blu-ray releases. The controversy surrounded what can only be described as the most baffling anomaly I have seen regarding the format so far: apparently, there are two separate encodes being sold, one AVC and the other MPEG-2.

Yes, I wasn’t prepared to believe it either at first. Why on earth would Lions Gate go to the trouble of pressing two completely different discs of the same film? We’re still no closer to finding the answer to this perplexing conundrum, but what we do know is that, thanks to the in-depth investigations of AVS poster msgohan, there is absolutely no doubt that two different versions are doing the rounds. Does this ultimately make any difference to the end user? Well, take a look at the captures below and judge for yourself. They show the same frame on each of the two different discs.

The Descent: AVC encode The Descent: MPEG-2 encode

Now you can understand why people who were sold the MPEG-2 version are rightly aggrieved and demanding to know what on earth is going on. I own the AVC version and I too am not a happy bunny. After all, last Halloween I reviewed the AVC version and gave it a 10/10 for image quality, a rating I still stand by. However, the fact that there is no actual discernible way of knowing which version of the disc you are picking up when you purchase it complicates the review somewhat. My 10/10 rating, after all, most assuredly does not stand for the MPEG-2 encode, which not only features more noticeable compression artefacts, but has also been pre-filtered to remove grain and fine detail. Now I’m in the unfortunate position of having written a review that may or may not actually be valid on a case by case basis.

As msgohan quite rightly puts it:

Not at all what I expected. So much for a nice, fair codec comparison. The Descent has been Warner’d! What numbnuts at Lionsgate thought this was a good idea?

You can see a whole series of captures, saved as lossless .png images, comparing the same frames from both versions, here.

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 11:26 AM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews | Technology | Web

The first person who says it looks grainy gets a good hard slap


Way back last December, back when the ill-fated HD DVD format was still just hanging in there, I was pretty psyched when German distributor Senator Home Entertainment announced high definition releases of Planet Terror and Death Proof, the two instalments of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the B-movies of yesteryear. With US rights holders The Weinstein Company having disappeared off the face of the HD map, it looked as if Senator were our best chance of seeing these films in full 1080p glory.

Then Bob and Harvey struck. Apparently the Weinsteins didn’t like the idea of these films appearing in HD in Europe before they had been given such a release stateside, so the release date was pushed back and back and back again. Then, of course, the HD DVD ship capsized, with Blu-ray editions remaining on the schedule; however, with the likelihood of them being coded for Region B only, they obviously wouldn’t be of much use to Region A people like myself. Anyway, to this day they still haven’t come out.


Thankfully, The Weinstein Company has finally got off its fat ass and announced US Blu-ray releases of both films. As High-Def Digest reports, they will be released separately on December 16th. No specs have been revealed yet, but I would imagine that they will mirror the currently available standard definition DVDs in terms of content - in other words, they’ll be the longer extended cuts, and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror will be in its home video aspect ratio of 1.78:1 instead of its theatrical 2.39:1 (when paired up with Death Proof, it was reformatted to match the ratio of its stablemate). Currently, the Japanese 6-disc release from BroadMedia is the only way to see both films as they were shown in cinemas, and by the looks of it the picture quality on the theatrical version isn’t too hot.

I’m rather looking forward to seeing these films again. I rented the DVD versions of both earlier this year (these days, I’m rather reluctant to buy standard definition copies of major studio films that stand a good chance of an HD release), and liked Planet Terror considerably better than Death Proof, which was Tarantino at his most annoyingly self-indulgent, with only the killer final half-hour redeeming it. I’m definitely interested to see how the intentionally grubby, scratched-up look translates to 1080p, having only seen them in SD so far.

Posted: Friday, September 12, 2008 at 7:57 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology



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