October 2008


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DVDs I bought or received in the month of October

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • Carrie (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Chicken Run (R0 France, Blu-ray)
  • Disturbia (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • The Fourth Protocol (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Frighteners (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • How the West Was Won (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • In the Folds of the Flesh (R0 USA, DVD)
  • L.A. Confidental (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Léon: The Professional (RB Germany, Blu-ray)
  • Lewis: Series Two (R2 UK, DVD)
  • A Mighty Heart (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • Monster (R0 Germany, Blu-ray)
  • The Omen Collection (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Sleeping Beauty (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Trial & Retribution: The Third Collection (R2 UK, DVD)

Oh god… that sound is my bank balance groaning. It’s been a long, long time since I bought this many titles in a single month - chalk it up to timing more than anything. I shall have to take care to ration myself strictly for the next little while.

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 10:42 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Gialli | HD DVD

Chicken Run Blu-ray impressions


Who knew that Aardman Animation’s Chicken Run had been released on Blu-ray? Not me, at least until the other day, when I accidentally stumbled across it on Amazon’s French web site. Taking a gamble, I placed an order for it. It arrived on Tuesday, and I’m happy to report that not only is it region-free (and without the hindrance of forced subtitles), it’s also a rather nice-looking disc. It doesn’t look amazing, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to how I would have liked The Nightmare Before Christmas to look than the version Disney ultimately ended up putting out. While some grain reduction have been performed, it’s of the temporal rather than spatial variety, meaning that it hasn’t led to the image being eroded or rendered waxy or watercolour-like. Unfortunately, some artefacts are present (look what happens to the axe in Example 13, below), but it’s a far more agreeable looking image overall. (The comparisons are valid, I think, given that both use stop motion animation, and both were shot on 35mm film, unlike, say, the digital Corpse Bride.)

Chicken Run
(Pathé/Studio Canal, France, VC-1, 15.8 GB)

Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 7:28 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Halloween Blu-ray review: The Omen (2006 remake)

Well, here we are once again, concluding yet another review of yet another box set of films in the Omen franchise. (I think it’s safe to call it a “franchise” rather than a series now, given that, with the 2006 remake, any remaining hints of artistic merit have been well and truly exterminated.) The big question, I suppose, is whether or not this four-disc Blu-ray collection is worth it. My answer, as usual, is going to have to be “no”: the original 1976 film is available separately for considerably less money than the four-movie set, and it’s really the only one worth bothering with, so my advice would be to save your cash and just pick up the first one.

That said, for those who are determined to be subjected to the full Omen experience (or as full as possible without the hilariously awful 1991 TV movie), this box set constitutes an admittedly expensive but nonetheless satisfying package. The first film has received by far the most lavish treatment, and rightly so, but the audio-visual quality of the subsequent entries in the series is nothing to be sniffed at either. The Omen Collection is not exactly The Godfather Collection of horror movie franchises in high definition, but in terms of image quality and the actual running time of the bonus content, it’s comparable. All told, Fox have provided a far more generous package here than anyone had any reason to expect, and, whatever you might think of the films, at least they are to be commended for not doing this project on the cheap.

I conclude my trawl through the Omen series of films with a review of the Region A Blu-ray release of the dire 2006 remake, available both separately or in The Omen Collection. The review also concludes with some general thoughts on this four-disc box set.

Review at DVD Times.

That concludes this year’s Halloween fun. Sorry I didn’t get round do reviewing an extra film, but the time just wasn’t there. Every year, I convince myself I’ll start working on the reviews earlier, but I always end up leaving them to the last minute.

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 6:45 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews

Halloween Blu-ray review: The Final Conflict

As the conclusion to a trilogy, The Final Conflict is not even remotely satisfying. However, as I’ve said before, I prefer to look on the original Omen as a standalone film and the subsequent instalments as curious but unnecessary aberrations. As such, there’s not really a great deal to recommend here, barring the impressive performance by Sam Neill and the knowledge that, limp as it is, it is at least considerably better than the 2006 remake of The Omen and a slight - very slight - improvement on Damien: Omen II.

In which God’s followers reveal themselves to be so hopelessly inept as would-be assassins that Jesus Christ himself has to come down from the heavens to defeat Damien Thorn.

Review at DVD Times.

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 12:03 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews

Halloween Blu-ray review: Damien: Omen II

Damien: Omen II is not a very good film, and as such it’s little wonder that the Blu-ray package assembled for it is a pale shadow of that of the original Omen. Still, it’s a perfectly adequate disc and one that, once again, proves to constitute a substantial upgrade over its DVD counterpart. Whether or not that makes the film itself any better is, of course, open to debate…

As part of DVD Times’ Halloween coverage, I’ve reviewed 20th Century Fox’s recent Region A Blu-ray release of Damien: Omen II, considered by some the least awful of the various cash-ins on the original Omen.

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 10:28 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews

Yo ho, yo ho…


I’m reliably informed that SecuROM-free copies of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 are, as of yesterday evening, widely available to download from torrent sites. Obviously, I’m not going to provide you with links to them (because that would be highly unethical, unlike EA’s treatment of its customers, haw haw haw), but I can’t imagine you’ll find them particularly hard to locate if you feel so inclined. I did, however, drop by one of the more notorious sites to check out some of the comments, and it’s quite amusing (and strangely heart-warming) to see all the first-time pirates asking how torrents work, how to burn disc images and mount virtual drives, and so on. If nothing else, one has to congratulate EA for encouraging so many people to develop this new interest.

So, the breaking of EA’s heavy-handed DRM mechanism occurred within about a day of the game’s release. Not as impressive as Spore, which was actually available to download sans SecuROM before its official release date, but not too shabby at all. So, apparently this sort of DRM is necessary in order to combat piracy, eh? Please forgive me for laughing uncontrollably from the sidelines as EA’s drones once again trip over their own tongues as they try desperately to convince their customers that, really, they’re getting a good deal out of this.

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

Update, October 30th, 2008 11:20 PM: If, like me, all this DRM stuff is getting you down, this might help lighten your mood.

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 11:54 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

The Omen (2006 remake) Blu-ray impressions


And I’m finally done with all four films in the box set. The reviews of Damien: Omen II, The Final Conflict and the 2006 remake of The Omen are now scheduled to go live at various points throughout October 31st. (If there’s time, I may actually try to get another horror review done as well.) My thoughts on the transfer of the 2006 remake, along with screen captures, are below.

The remake of The Omen was actually one of the first Blu-ray discs to be released by 20th Century Fox, back in November 2006. As such, it mirrors most of its counterparts from that period in that it features an MPEG-2 encode on a single layer BD-25 disc. The transfer, in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, it pretty good for the most part, with a good if not stunning level of detail and no obvious problems with the deliberately muted colour palette. Unfortunately, the aged codec and the low bit rate afforded by the single layer disc, combined with the moderate amount of grain that is present throughout, means that minor but noticeable artefacting is a fairly common occurrence. On the plus side, I can see no sign of filtering or artificial grain reduction, meaning that, artefacts aside, the overall look is pleasingly film-like. Don’t be put off by the blurry-looking 20th Century Fox logo at the start - immediately afterwards, the quality improves considerably.

The Omen (2006 remake)
(20th Century Fox, USA, MPEG-2, 18.9 GB)

The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake)

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 8:47 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Technology

The Final Conflict Blu-ray impressions


Once again working through my Halloween reviews for the various films in The Omen Collection, I’ve done a few screen captures for The Final Conflict. My thoughts on the transfer, copied and pasted from the upcoming review, are below:

After the slight blip that was the transfer for Damien: Omen II, image quality picks up substantially for The Final Conflict, bringing it almost to the same level as that of the original film. In fact, as far as overall detail levels are concerned, number three may actually be the strongest of the lot, albeit probably thanks to differences in the photography and the improvements that were made to Panavision lenses in years between the films being shot. Once again, the image looks very film-like, with only some minor noise reduction causing any problems for the bulk of its duration. Unfortunately, the final confrontation in the ruined church grounds lets the side down, with some over-zealous NR resulting in very waxy textures and an overly synthetic look which is at odds with the rest of the film.* Still, a very impressive transfer overall for a not exactly treasured catalogue title.

* This corresponds with the final screen capture, below.

The Final Conflict
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 31.8 GB)

The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 8:39 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Technology

An email I sent to EA today

Dear Electronic Arts Inc.,

Today, the latest game in your Command & Conquer franchise, Red Alert 3, and, until a few weeks ago, I was greatly looking forward to purchasing a copy. I participated in the open beta earlier this year, and what I saw of it indicated that you had a winner on your hands.

Unfortunately, I am writing to you today to inform you that I have decided not to purchase your game, the reason being that I have discovered that it is infected with a particularly obnoxious form of SecuROM content protection, which limits the user to installing the game a mere five times before having to either purchase a new copy or contact EA customer support via a pay-by-the-minute help line to ask for my activations to be extended (a right which, I am informed, EA will only grant at its own discretion).

To me, this situation is completely unacceptable. I am a PC gamer and have been for nearly two decades, and I am used to transporting my games from operating system to operating system, and from computer to computer, safe in the knowledge that, no matter how old the game is and no matter how many times I have installed it in the past, I will be able to do so again with a minimum of hassle. As a counterpoint, your greatest rival in the real-time strategy domain, Blizzard Entertainment, has explicitly stated that it will not be using SecuROM or any equivalent limited activations enforcement (https://blog.wired.com/games/2008/10/qa-blizzards-ex.html). Consider this, therefore, a sale lost of Red Alert 3 and a sale gained for Starcraft II. In point of fact, I am actually playing the original ten-year-old Starcraft at this very moment, a feat made possible by the fact that the complete lack of DRM has allowed me to install the game on at least half a dozen different computers and close to two dozen different installations of Windows over the years. More than a decade after its original release, Starcraft is still played daily by tens of thousands of gamers. Ask yourselves if Red Alert 3 and its draconian DRM can look forward to a similarly rosy future.

Obviously, I understand your need to protect your revenue, and I understand that your shareholders are probably paranoid about piracy, but when you are paying more attention to those that have pirated your software then those that have actually paid for it, I can only conclude that your sense of priority has become decidedly skewed. Your recent release of Spore attracted a considerable amount of negative press for its limited activations (https://www.amazon.com/review/product/B000FKBCX4/ref=cm_cr_pr_helpful?_encoding=UTF8&showViewpoints=0), and yet a DRM-free version of the game was available to download from torrent sites before it was even released on store shelves, proving beyond any doubt that such measures do not prevent piracy. If anything, they encourage it, given the number of Internet posters who have stated an intention to obtain the game illegally, citing the limited activations as their main reason for doing so. Spore was recently labelled the most pirated game ever (https://www.forbes.com/2008/09/12/spore-drm-piracy-tech-security-cx_ag_mji_0912spore.html). Congratulations on achieving this impressive record.

I have $50 sitting next to me on my desk. It’s yours if you want it. However, I can’t, in good conscience, hand it over until you remove the crippling and morally repugnant DRM with which you have infused your software.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Mackenzie
(A former customer)

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

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 10:15 AM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Web

Anything goes

Spooks Season 7

The seventh season of Spooks began airing last night on BBC1 (the second episode is on tonight), and it started with a bang. Literally.

** Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for the first episode follow. **

One thing that continues to impress me about Spooks is the climate that has been created in which literally no member of the cast is safe. Anyone can die at any point, and I don’t mean that in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer sense where anyone can die provided they aren’t in the opening titles or the significant other of someone in the opening titles (unless their name happens to be Tara Maclay, that is): literally anyone can cop it at any given point. During the year-long break between Season 6 ending and Season 7 starting, the big question mark was over the head of Jo Portman, who, at the end of the final episode of Season 6, looked very dead indeed. To the credit of all those involved, a remarkably good job was done of avoiding giving away whether or not Jo survived, including omitting any mention of the actress playing her, Miranda Raison, from the press materials, trailers and even the opening title sequence. But survive she did, and I for one was genuinely surprised (pleasantly, I might add) to see her back.

The old and the new.

Above: The old and the new.

Of course, there is an old saying that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and, while Jo may still be in one piece, the same cannot be said for Adam Carter, who was literally blown to smithereens at the end of the first episode. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire a show that has the balls to do away with its lead character in the first episode of a new series. I knew the actor playing Adam, Rupert Penry-Jones, was leaving at some point in this series, and it became clear from the start of the episode, when they parachuted Richard Armitage in (much in the same way that Penry-Jones was parachuted in at the start of Season 3, I might add), that he was being lined up to take over as the young male lead (the true lead will always, in my opinion, be the wonderful Peter Firth, the only actor to have appeared in every episode of every series), but I didn’t expect Adam to leave so soon, or in such a way. I figured he’d get in at least another couple of episodes before bowing out, and, given that the writers had already killed off his wife (in Season 4), I didn’t for one minute expect him to do the same with him.

Elsewhere, this did feel like Spooks getting back to basics after a dodgy past couple of series. The references to ye olden days (Armitage’s character at one point asks after Tom Quinn, the show’s original lead) were a nice touch, and, by the looks of it, it appears that the new season will be dipping into Cold War nostalgia, setting up the Russians as the main bad guys. There was even some location shooting in Moscow, which was rather interesting and made for a pleasant change of pace. Of course, I could end up being completely wrong - perhaps Season 7 will turn out to be as big a disappointment as the last couple of years - but, at the moment, things are looking decidedly promising. I’m sure his legion of adoring fans will string me up for this, but I’ve a feeling the removal of Adam Carter may end up providing the show with the shake-up it needed. Now if they can just get rid of Hermione Norris (and bring back Nicola Walker), I’ll be positively elated.

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 9:32 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | TV

Damien: Omen II Blu-ray impressions


Having already reviewed the Blu-ray release of Richard Donner’s original classic, The Omen, I’m currently working on reviews of the two sequels and John Moore’s 2006 remake for DVD Times’ Halloween reviews special. I can’t promise to get through them all in time for the 31st, but I’ll do my damnedest, and this afternoon I put together my review of the first sequel, Damien: Omen II. I took the opportunity to do some screen captures for this site, and my thoughts on the transfer, copied and pasted from the review, are below:

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Damien: Omen II looks significantly weaker on Blu-ray than the other two films in the trilogy. Like them, it features a 1080p, AVC encode on a dual layer BD50 disc, but detail is substantially lower. This is most pronounced in the opening sequence in the Middle East, where the image looks decidedly diffuse and almost defocused. After that, things do improve quite noticeably, but it never manages to attain the crispness of the other instalments. On the plus side, there is once again little in the way of digital manipulation, meaning that, even though the level of detail is less than stellar, it always looks like film rather than digital video. A handful of shots do suffer from an excessive amount of noise reduction, but they come and go virtually in the blink of an eye, and the rest of the film appears to be unaffected. (See 00:12:30,* 01:17:50 and 01:33:00 for the worst offenders.)

* This corresponds with the second screen capture, below.

Damien: Omen II
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 31.1 GB)

Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2008 at 9:39 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Technology | Web

How the West Was Won: SmileBox vs. flat


As an addendum to my earlier post on Warner’s magnificent Blu-ray release of How the West Was Won, I have, by popular demand, included a few screen captures comparing the SmileBox version with the standard “flat” formatted edition. Superficially, the SmileBox version appears to demonstrate an increased level of sharpness, but in reality I suspect that this comes from an added amount of edge enhancement, and that there is no actual gain in real world detail. There is a small amount of haloing in some shots on both versions, but, in the case of the flat version, I’m not convinced that this was added digitally but rather is an optical or lens effect (don’t quote me on that, though - I could be mistaken). Either way, the ringing is accentuated in the SmileBox version - check out the edges of hat brims in particular, not to mention the curves at the top and bottom of the screen in the SmileBox version.

Ultimately, I definitely favour the flat version, but others may disagree, arguing that the SmileBox version is a more faithful approximation of the film’s original theatrical exhibition.

Example 1
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 2
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 3
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 4
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 5
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 9:53 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

All aboard the common sense bus

Flaming Mo

Attention persons of religion who insist on shoving your “faith” down our throats: this is how sick we are of your shit. Recently, an initiative was launched to place adverts on the sides of buses in London proclaiming “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Of course, such a venture would require money - something to the tune of £11,000, to be precise. A donation page was established at JustGiving, the aim being to secure £5,500 from the general public, with The God Delusion author Richard Dawkins promising to match that out of his own pocket, bringing the total to the £11,000 target.

Within eighteen hours, more than £30,000 had been donated.

I take this as ample evidence that there is a silent but sizeable group of people in Britain that is fed up seeing religion getting an easy ride and of “faith” being seen as something that is automatically deserving of respect in and of itself. I do, of course, have no problem with people believing in whatever they wish - be it Kung-Fu Jesus, Flaming Mo(hammed) or dancing unicorns - but, as I’ve said in the past, I’m all too aware that there is a sizeable discrepancy between representations of religious and irreligious ideas in the public sphere. When I walk down Buchanan Street on a Saturday during my lunch break, I see ample evidence of the religious movement, be it banners proclaiming Jesus to be the only way (the only way of what?), the church at the corner, or that doddering old man who stands at the traffic lights every week without fail, spewing toxic hatred out of his overpowered amp. Unfortunately, all too often these displays of unpleasant nonsense go unchallenged, the notion being (I suspect) that it’s far easier to get on your soapbox and claim that something exists than to claim it doesn’t.

As of writing, nearly £90,000 has been raised. Result: the campaign has now been extended to cover the whole of the UK and will now be featured inside buses, on trains, billboards, etc. They say that he who shouts loudest gets the most attention; well, maybe it’s time we atheists started doing a bit of hollering of our own.

Donate now! Hey, if we hit £100,000, maybe we’ll get a common sense blimp or something.

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 8:36 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: General | Web

Warner accidentally releases really detailed BD


I often think that Warner tend to release the most underwhelming high definition discs of the lot. While Universal have put out some almighty cock-ups, they have also released some excellent-looking titles, particularly where there newer films are concerned. In contrast, a lot of Warner’s material just tends to look above average, with virtually every title being afflicted by some degree of filtering, robbing the image of detail. (I actually laughed out loud when someone described Lions Gate’s filtered MPEG-2 re-release of The Descent as having been “Warner’d”.) Recently, however, I began to hear very good things about Warner’s Blu-ray release of How the West Was Won, and decided I had to see for myself.

My copy arrived yesterday, and golly, yes, this is an amazing-looking disc. In actual fact, I can’t think of a single other disc that demonstrates this level of detail. As is widely known, How the West Was Won was shot in Cinerama, employing three separate cameras filming in synchronisation, with the three resulting 35mm negatives being projected side by side. The result is a phenomenal level of detail which goes well beyond what the 1920x1080 resolution of full HD is capable of. This release contains two separate versions of the film, the first a standard “flat” presentation in a 2.89:1 aspect ratio, and the second a “SmileBox” version emulating the curved “wraparound theatrical experience”. The latter is obviously only an emulation of the original experience, given that none of us have curved televisions or projection screens (if I’m mistaken, let me know!), so I ultimately found myself favouring the “flat” presentation, but it’s nice of Warner to have provided both versions, allowing the viewer to decide how they want to experience the film.

Screen captures are included below. Marvel at the sheer level of sumptuous detail on display in them.

How the West Was Won
(Warner, USA, VC-1, 35.5 GB)

How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 4:22 PM | Comments: 11 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Dead format + cheap-ass discs = a fun night at the movies


Ever since the demise of HD DVD, the price of standalone players as sky-rocketed, while, at the same time, the exact opposite has happened to the media they play. Over at HMV’s UK web site, a number of HD DVD titles, some of them very good, are being pawned off for silly amounts of money, starting at £2.99 per title. Always on the look-out for a bargain, I picked up Disturbia, an extremely derivative but actually rather enjoyable rip-off of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring that annoying kid with the stupid name from Transformers and the new Indiana Jones film. I also grabbed A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie in blackface FTW!!!) and The Frighteners (a sort of half-way point between Peter Jackson’s earlier adventures with over the top exploitation romps and his later obsession with poorly edited, overly long CGI reels).

Disturbia features a rather good transfer taken from a decent master, albeit one that has been excessively grain reduced. The grain can’t have been that heavy to begin with, as facial features are, for the most part, still there, but it does mean that the image has a somewhat synthetic appearance, particularly in the opening sequence in which LaBeouf and his pops mash some fish and then, in a curious Karmic twist, get mashed themselves while on the road. Still, not bad at all for under three quid.

(Paramount, UK, AVC, 19 GB)

Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia

Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 3:14 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology

Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 5 and 6: Subterraneans


Written by Ed Whitmore; Directed by Michael Offer

“We’ve all had days like that, haven’t we? You make one small mistake, and because of that you make a bigger one. You leave your wallet by the bed. Then you go up to get it. You trip over the rug, you break your leg. Next thing you know, you’re in hospital with a fatal infection. Just because you forgot your wallet.” - Dr. Nick Henderson

After a slightly rocky start, Series 5 finally hits its stride with a solid if not entirely remarkable case which doesn’t have to worry about introducing any new characters or airing the dirty laundry of those that are already established. The story here is that of Michael Sharman (Alexis Conran), a millionaire businessman who simply vanished a year ago. By chance, his body is found locked in the cellar of an old munitions factory, the evidence suggesting that he had been kept alive by his captor for several months, despite no ransom having ever been demanded. A chain of events leads the team to Sharman’s former neighbour, Nick Henderson (Toby Stephens), a celebrated scientist leading a bizarre double life.

Fairly early on in the game, it becomes abundantly clear that Henderson is as guilty as they come, partly because of the evidence against him and partly because we, the audience, are granted intimate access to his daily activities, which include lying to his wife (Nicola Stephenson) about both his whereabouts and his employment status, holing up in a small shed on an allotment overlooking the site of Sharman’s imprisonment, desperately dashing around searching for an alibi for the day of Sharman’s disappearance, and, when the net closes in, going on the run with his wife after hoodwinking her with a sob story about him having discovered an outbreak of SARS in the UK which the government and the police are conspiring to hush up by doing him in. It all borders on farcical, and, particularly in the second part, the increasing absurdity of Henderson’s claims does detract somewhat from what should have been a tense situation (there is a continual undercurrent which suggests that he may end up doing to his wife what he did to Sharman and at least one other victim), but it’s all quite entertaining, and given that it’s sandwiched between two considerably darker episodes, it makes for a welcome change of pace. Not that that flashbacks to Sharman slowly rotting away and going mad in his prison aren’t brutal, however. In fact, the sheer banality of Henderson’s reason for killing him makes the deeply calculated nature of his incarceration all the more shocking.

Ultimately, Subterraneans isn’t a hugely noteworthy or memorable episode, but it works, and the slightly different nature of the case’s progression (i.e. knowing the identity of the villain from a fairly early stage) succeeds in shaking up the formula a little.

Holby connections: Michael Offer has directed several episodes of Holby City over the years, while Kelly Harrison (Tina) played ambulance technician Nikki Marshall in Casualty between Series 16 and 18. Finally, Nicola Stephenson (Julia Henderson) played nurse Julie Fitzjohn in Holby City for its first three series.

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008 at 2:15 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead

Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 3 and 4: Black Run


Written by Raymond Khoury; Directed by Ben Bolt

Back when Waking the Dead’s fifth series was first beginning to air, in September 2005, Sue Johnston gave an interview with the Radio Times in which she said that the nice thing about the new series was that it focused exclusively on the characters of Boyd, Grace and Spence. At the time, I thought this was a rather unkind dig at her other co-stars, but, in retrospect, I see what she was getting at: while three of the two-parters in Series 5 are what I would term conventional Waking the Dead cases, with the team solving them in their capacity as detached (personally if not emotionally) professionals, each of the other three focuses on a past case of one of the three remaining members of the original team. Black Run is Boyd’s turn to have his dirty laundry aired, and oddly enough it turns to be the weakest of the three.

The story: former police officer Eddy Vine (David Hayman), rotting in prison with terminal cancer, convicted of murdering his partner, Tom Palliser. Pending an appeal for his early release on grounds of ill health, Vine summons Boyd, the man who succeeded in securing his conviction a decade ago, to offer him forgiveness. Vine’s manner, however, is enough to plant a shred of doubt in Boyd’s mind, leading to him unofficially launching a re-examination of the evidence and witness testimony. Gradually, the rest of the team begin to suspect that Boyd may have coached some of the witnesses, causing them to question just for whom Boyd has re-opened the case. The worst is yet to come, however, when Boyd is suspended after putting a biker in a coma after seemingly being drunk at the wheel while in the company of Palliser’s widow, Sheryl (Diane Parish)…

Actually, this is a rather interesting episode for one very specific reason: the part of Eddie Vine is played by David Hayman, best known as DCSI Mike Walker in rival series Trial & Retribution. Seeing him going head to head with Trevor Eve is like some sort of weird crossing over of two different worlds - think The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons, only less crappy. Their scenes together don’t really have the sort of intensity I was expecting, in part because Hayman is putting on a less than convincing Cockney accent, with his regular Glasgow dialect occasionally slipping through the net, but it’s also because there’s something rather contrived about it all. The basic idea is that Boyd is set up for a massive fall by the vindictive Vine, with him pulling the strings from inside prison. Simply put, there aren’t enough scenes between the two characters, and the identities of the individuals that he manages to manipulate into screwing Boyd over are a little on the far-fetched side. Trevor Eve certainly acquits himself with applomb, as always, but, because the show’s producers would never allow him to commit a cock-up on as grand a scale as the one he is accused of here, the outcome is never in any doubt: Vine must be guilty, and Boyd must have been justified in coaching his witnesses to ensure that he went down. Vine is ultimately revealed to be a deeply unpleasant individual, corrupt to the core, but the programme ultimately ends up sending out the rather less than savoury message that it’s okay for the police to bend the rules to ensure a conviction provided they’re convinced their suspect is guilty. It’s actually not entirely surprising that the script comes from Raymond Khoury, best known for his affiliation with Spooks, a programme which frequently revels in glorifying this “bending of the rules” by authorities who seem to be allowed to operate above the law. The series of events in which Boyd becomes embroiled also greatly demeans the character, turning into a screaming, slavering idiot who by rights should have had his status permanently revoked. This is arguably the character at his absolute worst, and comparing this episode with something from, say, Series 1, provides a clear indicator as to just how much he has (d)evolved since the show’s beginning.

The other point of interest is that this storyline introduces Mel’s permanent replacement, Stella Goodman (Félicité Du Jeu). Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to warm to this character, primarily because she seems so contrived. Without giving too much away, she is brought into Series 5 to serve a very specific purpose, but once that purpose has been served, the writers of Series 6 and beyond allow her to remain, but end up taking significant liberties with her characterisation once her original raison d’être is gone. Du Jeu tries hard, but she’s always in the shadow of the rest of the cast, who are more experienced and have the benefit of better-developed characters. Stella’s input in this episode is fairly minimal, so she is less irritating here than she would later become, but she still makes me wish they had just kept Georgia Mackenzie on instead.

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008 at 1:45 PM
Categories: Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Blu-ray impressions


Yesterday, my brother received his copy of the Blu-ray release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which provided our nocturnal viewing entertainment. This was my second time seeing the film and my brother’s first, but I think our impressions were largely the same: it’s entertaining, and its heart is in the right place, but you can’t compare it to Raiders of the Lost Ark, probably my favourite action-adventure movie of all time. I’m not even sure you can put it in the same league as the first two sequels… although, that said, there is nothing as irritating in Crystal Skull as Kate fucking Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Instead, we get a somewhat underused Karen Allen, but you know what? Kudos to Steven Spielberg and co for bringing her back as a romantic interest for Harrison Ford rather than going down the more predictable route of pairing Shia LaBeouf up with a younger woman. It’s pretty unusual to see a romantic pairing between characters close to the age of drawing their pension in a Hollywood blockbuster, and dare I say it a tad more convincing than the alternatives.

It’s reassuring to see that Ford has still got what it takes to portray an albeit slightly slower, more gristled Indy, still able to hold his own in the action set-pieces. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Spielberg and Lucas, whose direction and script are the areas in which the film feels the most stale. There’s a “going through the motions” feel to a lot of the material, and I suspect that, ultimately, neither of these men is the same person they were when they made the original trilogy. Meanwhile, the over-reliance on CGI, CGI-generated UFOs and, worst of all, CGI-generated comic relief animals, feels out of place in an Indiana Jones film. (Although I’ll grant you that the UFOs portrayed in the film are no more absurd than the notion of a cup granting eternal life, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Still, I can’t say it bored me for a second, and when the lights came up I certainly felt suitably entertained.

Transfer-wise, Paramount’s BD is very nice indeed. I’m not sure I’d put it in the upper echelon of HD presentations, as it’s not the most detailed image I’ve seen, and I’m pretty sure at least some grain reduction was done somewhere in the chain (it’s odd that Spielberg apparently fought tooth and nail with Lucas to shoot this on film rather than digitally, because a lot of the time it’s all but grainless), but there’s nothing overly destructive to glimpse. Given the technological changes that have taken place in the last couple of decades (CGI and the use of digital intermediates, to name but two), it’s unsurprising that Crystal Skull is, visually speaking, the odd one out in the series, but, regardless of Spielberg’s cinematographic choices, the film looks great on Blu-ray and is another sterling effort from Paramount.

Oddly enough, though, I can’t really say the same about the audio. We both felt that there was something lacking, and I think Dan Ramer’s review at DVD File sums it up best:

The lossless TrueHD 5.1 is quite nice, but surprisingly unimpressive. All the right elements are there. […] And yet, I came away with the distinct impression that the dynamic range is a tad lacking. I had to pump up the gain by 6 dB to attain dialog loudness parity with other BDs. And even with the gain turned up that high, the sound effects didn’t have that visceral bite that satisfies. This is a wholly adequate track, but I expected a demo-quality experience.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 34.1 GB)

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Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 11:48 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews | Technology

How well do you know the world?


How geographically knowledgeable are you? Do you know your Tuvalu from your Vanuatu, or are you one of those people for whom the only place called Georgia is one of the 50 United States of America? Sporcle.com has a great little game in which you have 15 minutes to name the 195 countries of the world. Regrettably, I managed a rather pitiful 116, showing that my knowledge of Central America, parts of Africa, and the South Pacific islands is shockingly bad. (I also managed to overlook a bunches of places whose names I know as well as my own, such as Croatia, Thailand, Vietnam and Egypt. There’s always at least one that you know you know but can’t immediately call to mind.)

Take the quiz and see just how much (or how little) you know about the planet you inhabit!

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 7:13 PM
Categories: General | Web

Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray impressions (long post)


On Tuesday, I received my copy of Sleeping Beauty, the first of Disney’s animated classics to make it to Blu-ray. A 2-disc set (plus an utterly pointless “bonus DVD” version glued to the front cover), this Platinum Edition was quite clearly an extremely cost- and labour-intensive undertaking, and you can read more about the process in a very interesting interview with Theo Gluck, Director of Library Restoration and Preservation for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, as well as an interview with the considerably less informed Sara Duran-Singer, Senior Vice-President of Post Production at Disney.

Of course, what I’m sure everyone wants to know is how the end product looks. I’ll make this simple right off the bat: if you want a general, non-critical response, go and read any of the multitude of reviews written on various web sites that give it ratings of 100% or 10/10 and call it the best thing since sliced bread. For a slightly more in-depth analysis, read on.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: this is not the Sleeping Beauty that was released in cinemas in 1959. What I mean by that is that it is subject to the same degree of clean-up and revisionism that Disney has applied to the home video releases of its more prestigious animated titles since the Masterpiece Edition DVD of Alice in Wonderland in 2004 (I’m discounting red-headed stepchildren like The Aristocats and The Fox and the Hound, which were subjected to considerably less rigorous treatment). In other words, any trace of film grain has been scrubbed away, the colours have been altered (quite substantially, in some instances), and it essentially now looks like a film that was made in 2008 rather than 1959. Oddly enough, when something similar was done to Patton for 20th Century Fox’s recent Blu-ray release of that title, cinephiles the world over were up in arms. When Disney does it to their animated films, however, there is a curious lack of uproar. Perhaps it’s because, as an animated film, certain narrow-minded individuals don’t believe it to be worthy of “serious” attention? I doubt that this is the case, however - a brief glance at any number of film-related forums will reveal dozens of people who clearly love the film dearly and are over the moon about this new Blu-ray release.

That’s absolutely fine. I’m glad that people are enjoying this new disc, and have absolutely no problem with that. My concern is with the technicians at Disney, whose house practice of scrubbing the grain from their films goes completely against what I’m looking for when I pop a disc into my player. If a film never had grain to start with, then fine - I’m not expecting something like Ratatouille or Beauty and the Beast, both created entirely in the digital domain, to be sourced from prints (although, sometimes, I do think it would be nice). In the case of a film from the 50s, though, seeing something that has been processed to the extent that it no longer looks like it ever touched film is more than a little off-putting.

That said, for what it is, Sleeping Beauty looks very good indeed. Excellent at times, in fact. There is an extremely impressive amount of detail in the backgrounds, for example in shots 4, 8 and 9 below. The encoding is, for the most part, extremely good (barring a few isolated instances of artefacting). The expanded 2.55:1 aspect ratio (versus the 2.35:1 ratio of previous releases), greatly improves the image composition and reveals all sorts of details at the sides of the frame that were clearly intended to be seen. Unfortunately, barring the overly clean look, you also have to contend with the tell-tale side effects of such heavy noise reduction, mostly in the form of mangled outlines: take a look at the spears in shot 2, or the owl’s eyes in shot 7. For a particularly destructive example, gawp at the mess that is shot 5 - by far the worst-looking few seconds on the disc and something that is, mercifully, the exception rather than the rule.

There is a final point that I would like to make: the issue of the colours. As with the Platinum Edition DVD of Peter Pan, there has been some amount of debate as to the colour timing of this release. A comparison with previous releases of the film (such as the one performed by Chuck Pennington at the Golden Age Cartoons Forum) reveals major differences, and often not for the better. Look at the various different versions of the shot of Aurora and the three fairies (the first one in Chuck’s comparison): the 2008 DVD release, which is derived from the same master as the Blu-ray version, looks noticeably “off”, particularly in terms of Fauna (the green fairy)’s outfit. Put simply, the colours clash and don’t “read” properly. Contrast this with the previous releases, all of which look more natural. For an even more egregious example, take a look at shot 5, previously discussed above: there is far too much similarity in the different shades of blue in Merryweather’s costume for the image to read properly as a whole. Compare this with the 2003 DVD release, where there was proper delineation between the different shades of blue, making the image much easier to look at rather than a mish-mash of clashing hues.

Now, Disney staff have been quick to point out in interviews that the original animation cels and backgrounds were used as a reference during the colour timing. However, I rather fear that they have missed the point here: essentially, they are neglecting the fact that the artists specifically chose colours with an eye towards how they would ultimately look when printed to film, which is obviously not going to be the same as how they look on paper or an animation cel. Warner did exactly the same with their Looney Tunes DVDs, with equally problematic results. A couple of comments on the subject can be read at Cartoon Brew. Says Eric, in the context of the Looney Tunes DVDs:

Maurice Noble [stylist and co-director on many of the Looney Tunes cartoons] once explained to me how he would over saturate the colors in a character or a scene to compensate for the inferiority of the film. Once on film, the color would be toned down to about what he intended. This is where you could run into a problem during restoration.

This is followed by a post by Jeff Kurtti, a film historian and authority on all things Disney. What he says is particularly pertinent to Disney’s art practices:

The true reference point for restoration is a primary color film positive source, not the original animation art.

Studios such as Disney did extensive color testing on cel set-ups to determine how paints, backgrounds, and exposures would affect the final film image, many of the animation art colors are purposely distorted in order to “read” correctly on film. (There is a selection of camera tests like this on the “Snow White” laser disc and Platinum DVD.)

Alice (of Wonderland fame) on cels, for instance, has decidedly green blond hair, in order to “read” on film as golden yellow.

(Emphasis mine.)

Ultimately, my overall impression of this transfer is that, flaws aside, it is a very good one. It could have been a great one. However, thanks to Disney’s revisionism practices, it falls shy of perfection, meaning that, as good as it is, there are a number of moments that will take observant viewers out of the film itself, which I’m sure we will all agree is never a good thing. Overall, I’d say that the massive improvement in detail makes this a more than worthwhile upgrade over the previous standard definition releases, but it’s frustrating thanks to the number of things that have gone wrong along the way. Take a look at the captures below and judge for yourselves.

Sleeping Beauty
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 17 GB)

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NB: thanks to Lyris for providing some of the screen captures.

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 2:20 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology



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