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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button BD impressions
A couple of nights back, we watched the BD release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and I must confess that I found it a real disappointment, considering that I’ve enjoyed everything else David Fincher has signed his name to. This is his first true misfire, a bloated, overlong and fundamentally insincere fictional biopic based on a premise that simply can’t sustain itself for its duration. The film, which was stuck in development hell for years, is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eric “Forrest Gump” Roth’s script plods lethargically from scene to scene, failing to give us anything noteworthy beyond the central gimmick that the protagonist ages backwards. I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s short story, but I assume it must have played better in that form, because there’s nothing in the material to justify the film’s running time of almost three hours. At times, it seems more like a tech demo for digital de-ageing technology than anything else. It actually pains me to see a director of Fincher’s calibre wasting his time with a sluggish, maudlin biopic such as this. I know a lot of people felt that Panic Room was beneath him, but at least it was well-paced, engaging and, most importantly, entertaining. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will make you go “Wow, how did they do that?” a couple of times, but that’s about it.
The BD release is a joint venture from Paramount and Criterion, but from what I understand of the matter, Paramount was responsible for the lion’s share of the disc’s content, including the encode and all the extras. (Perusing the reactions to Criterion basically “whoring out” their “C” logo is actually more entertaining than watching the film.) Regardless of who was responsible for the transfer, though, they did a bang-up job. Barring a small number of 35mm-based inserts, Fincher shot the movie digitally, and while you can debate the relative merits of the technology’s aesthetics (personally I find it to be remarkably dead-looking, although this may be partly due to the sheer amount of CG manipulation), there’s no denying that the BD looks spectacular in a technical sense. Whereas Fincher’s previous film, Zodiac (also shot digitally), suffered from some slight edge enhancement in its BD/HD DVD incarnation, you won’t find any of that here - just a pin-sharp image that reproduces every single pore and wrinkle that hasn’t been airbrushed out as part of the de-ageing process. The one overt flaw that I noted in the image was some rather pronounced ringing during the sequence where Brad Bitt and Cate Blanchett cavort in the sea and on the beach (see Example 12). This could be a flaw of the original photography or it could be the result of some form of manipulation, but it distracts for less than a minute. A very solid effort all round. 9.5/10
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
studio: Criterion; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 44.2 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 38.18 Mbit/sec
Vicky Cristina Barcelona BD impressions
When the lights came up at the end of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (a review copy of which I received on Friday), I was very much left with the impression that not a lot had actually transpired in its 96-minute duration. The film is pleasant, but incredibly insubstantial. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work as a comedy, as it’s not particularly funny (“You tried to kill me… with a chair!” notwithstanding), nor as a drama, as there’s no real depth to the characterisation and Allen’s observations about relationships rarely get more complicated than “love’s a bitch”. Penélope Cruz undoubtedly steals the show and, in many respects, saves it from being completely pedestrian. The rest of the cast try valiantly, but something about this film feels amazingly indifferent in its writing and direction. And, let’s face it, when it comes to giving characters distinctive voices, Woody Allen is every bit as bad as Quentin Tarantino.
Optimum’s Region B-coded UK release looks rather pleasing on the whole. Ever the classicist, Allen opted to do his colour timing in the lab rather than processing the film digitally, and, while the image does look rich for the most part, any shots involving opticals do end up taking a hit as far as detail is concerned. Unfortunately, Woody is a little too fond of fades, which means that a fair number of shots are affected in this manner. The whole film has a deliberate orange-yellow glow, which is perhaps a little on the oppressive side but is undoubtedly down to artistic intent rather than any problem with the disc itself. 7/10
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
studio: Optimum; country: UK; region code: B; codec: VC-1;
file size: 18.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 28.03 Mbit/sec
Paris, je t’aime BD impressions
As a love letter to Paris with a romantic theme, Paris, je t’aime, consisting of eighteen short films about the French capital, is very much a mixed bag. Gathering together a variety of top-notch directors and actors from around the globe (ranging from the Coen brothers to Gus Van Sant to Sylvain Chomet and Bob Hoskins to Juliette Binoche to Maggie Gyllenhaal), it lurches from segment to segment with a decidedly uneven quality, transporting the audience from the very good to the spectacularly tedious in a matter of seconds. The most common failing of the weaker shorts is a tendency towards navel-gazing, a criticism often levelled against French cinema as a whole - although it’s worth pointing out that less than half of the filmmakers involved are actually French in origin. This is at its most tedious with the piece by Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu, and the one by Richard LaGravenese, both of which languish in the sort of middle-aged cod-philosophising that is almost guaranteed to have me reaching for the fast-forward button.
These scenes of tedium mingle with the obnoxious (Gurinder Chadha’s patronising celebration of the hijab), the bafflingly incompetent (Wes Craven’s poorly written and acted Oscar Wilde piece), and even the sheer what-the-fuckery of Christopher Doyle’s downright batty piece. At the other end of the spectrum, Sylvain Chomet’s Tour Eiffel features more imagination than any of the other shorts put together (and he actually makes it entertaining, something that most of the other directors seemed to forget to do), while Vincenzo Natali’s vampire flick is stylistically and tonally so removed from the rest that I can’t help but love it. Tom Tykwer creates a superb sense of rhythm with his Natalie Portman-starring piece, evoking much of the same feel as his earlier Run Lola Run, while Alexander Payne’s closing piece just about perfectly encapsulates the bitter-sweet “happy-sad” feeling it aims for.
It’s a nice idea, but it ultimately outstays its welcome. The running time could have been tightened up significantly by excising some of the weaker pieces, which would have gone a long way towards improving my overriding impression of the film. There’s some very good stuff in there, but a lot of self-indulgent piffle too, which muddies the waters and ultimately left me feeling rather frustrated. There’s a thread on IMDB where members are listing the shorts in order of preferences, so I thought I’d do one of my own:
- 14ème Arrondisement (Alexander Payne)
- Tour Eiffel (Sylvain Chomet)
- Quartier de la Madeleine (Vincenzo Natali)
- Faubourg Saint-Denis (Tom Tykwer)
- Tuilieres (Joel & Ethan Coen)
- Quartier des Enfants Rouges (Olivier Assayas)
- Parc Monceau (Anfonso Cuarón)
- Place des Victoires (Nobuhiro Suwa)
- Place des Fêtes (Oliver Schmitz)
- Loin du 16ème (Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas)
- Le Marais (Gus Van Sant)
- Bastille (Isabel Coixet)
- Montmartre (Bruno Podalydes)
- Porte de Choisy (Christopher Doyle)
- Père-Lachaise (Wes Craven)
- Quais de Seine (Gurinder Chadha)
- Quartier Latin (Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu)
- Pigalle (Richard LaGravenese)
For image quality, the BD is actually pretty nice, albeit hampered somewhat in the detail department by the application of unnecessary filtering. Grain density (moderately heavy) and detail levels (good to very good) remain largely the same across the board, with the notable exception of Wes Craven’s segment (Père-Lachaise), which looks unnaturally soft and underwhelming (see Example 15). Compression artefacts are a non-issue in spite of the use of a single-layer disc, and the image looks pleasingly film-like overall. 8/10
Paris, je t’aime
studio: First Look; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 20.9 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 24.85 Mbit/sec
By the way, a word of warning about subtitles on this disc: the film’s dialogue is a mixture of French in English, with the former being the predominant language. For subtitles, however, First Look have only provided an English SDH track, which subtitles everything and includes captions for music and sound effects. As a result, there’s no way of only having the French dialogue subtitled short of switching the subs on and off manually - which is an ineffective solution at best, given that some shorts (Alfonso Cuarón’s, for instance) jump between the two languages, sometimes mid-sentence.
Australia BD impressions
My review of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia will be going live at 6 PM tonight, so I won’t repeat myself here by going into depth about what I thought of the film. Therefore, I’ll just provide you with the short version: I thought it was great.
As far as this BD is concerned, the film looks very good from start to finish, although it doesn’t look quite as crisp as some titles I could mention. While far from unpleasant to look at, a very slight hint of softness lingers throughout, although I’ve no idea whether or not this was digitally induced. There is certainly nothing processed-looking about the image, barring a couple of shots that appear to have been artificially sharpened (for instance, shots of Nullah climbing on the water cooler at 00:04:25 and again at 00:30:12 appear to have been manipulated in this way and as a result suffer from some pronounced ringing), and the grain is nicely rendered throughout. In addition, despite the lengthy running time and fairly average bit rate, compression artefacts are never an issue. It may not reach the dizzy heights of the absolute best the Blu-ray format has to offer, but the image is very nice indeed and is unlikely to cause any significant complaints. 9.5/10
studio: 20th Century Fox; country: UK; region code: B; codec: AVC;
file size: 33 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 28.57 Mbit/sec
Waltz with Bashir BD impressions
When it comes to animation, I’m pretty much a snob and I make no apologies for it. I think it’s a marvellous medium and one with almost limitless untapped potential, which is why when I watch films like Waltz with Bashir, hamstrung by the constraints of live action, I always feel a bit let down. For those who don’t know, this film is about an Israeli soldier’s repressed memories of his involvement in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese by Christian militia. That soldier is the writer/director himself, Ari Folman, and the dramatised sections are intercut with actual interviews conducted by Folman of fellow soldiers recounting their own memories of the events. The bulk of the material, therefore, appears to have been live action originally, but everything was ultimately overlaid with Adobe Flash cut-outs (barring some horrific real life news footage at the very end). Although the technique appears to have been slightly different, it looks very similar to Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly in practice. I hated the look in that film and it’s just as grating here. My brother, I think, hit the nail on the head when he described it as “floaty toilet paper”, in that it has no real consistency or weight to it. It reeks of stylisation for stylisation’s sake and, while there are some undeniably arresting images on display, the overall effect is to distance the viewer from the reality of what is being portrayed on screen.
At least Waltz with Bashir is a somewhat better film than A Scanner Darkly, though in my opinion far from the masterpiece some have claimed. It strikes me as being rather too aware of itself as an “issue film” for its own good, leaving this viewer at least with the impression that he was being preached to, while the “animation” style is on the whole an eyesore. It also suffers from a degree of tunnel vision: very few of the on-screen events are set in context. You could argue that this is appropriate given the confusion and mindlessness of the carnage being depicted, but on several occasions I found myself somewhat lost and wishing I had a better idea of what was supposed to be happening.
By the way, Hillel Halkin, who fought in the war himself, has written an extremely interesting account of the events which is in part a response to Waltz with Bashir. I must confess to finding it infinitely more enlightening, and more eloquently expressed, than anything in Ari Folman’s film. I’ll say one thing, though: I admire Folman immensely for having the balls to paint such a damning portrait of his country of origin and its involvement in the horrific events that occurred in Lebanon in 1982. In doing so, it has predictably attracted accusations of anti-Semitism, which I must say I fail to understand… unless you’re of the belief that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, a notion that I find incalculably asinine.
Visually, Artificial Eye have done sterling work for this UK BD release. The image is crisp, and the veneer of artificial grain that was added by the filmmakers shines through with no apparent attempts to reduce or mask it. It’s a little too much for the encoder to handle, and a number of the shots below show artefacting. In motion, it’s rarely an issue, although you can occasionally spot blocking in shots with large washes of the same colour. The disc is a BD-25, and I wonder if switching to a BD-50 would have given better results, as it would have given the compressionist more room to play with. High contrast edges (in other words, the black outlines of the characters) show a slight amount of haloing, though I can only speculate as to the reason for this: Filtering? Edge enhancement? Downconversion from the higher resolution source? In any event, it’s rarely bothersome, but it and the slight compression issues to prevent this disc from attaining full marks. 9.5/10
Waltz with Bashir
studio: Artificial Eye; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 21.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 34.64 Mbit/sec
Let the Right One In BD impressions
It’s probably fair to say that the two main significant vampire films to be released in 2008 were Twilight, based on the inexplicably popular book by Stephenie Meyer, and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Of these, there can be little doubt that the latter is the superior movie. Whereas Twilight was basically an exercise in misogynist navel-gazing featuring pretty people standing around looking vapid, this Swedish effort, itself based on a successful novel, is an altogether more mature and intelligent exploration of the vampire myth - one which manages to avoid clichés for the most part and give a potentially silly subject gravity. It’s not a particularly “fun” movie to watch, due to a combination of its bland visual style (as repetitive in its own way as Twilight’s continually blue-tinged cinematography) and the fact that the subject matter is pretty dark with no real lightening of the mood, and ultimately caters to a completely different crowd from those who lapped up Twilight’s mushy romance. I do have some criticisms - for instance, I’m not sure the decision to set it in the 1980s ultimately lent anything to the proceedings, and I did feel that the pacing flagged a little in the first hour - but I’d rather watch this again a hundred times than view Twilight even once more.
Let the Right One In is an extremely drab-looking film, and this can lead to the image looking a bit underwhelming. It lacks depth, and the rather flat lighting doesn’t help matters. Wide shots lack definition, and ringing around high frequency edges, including the opening credits text, suggests that filtering took place at some stage in the chain. On the plus side, the grain looks decidedly natural. I did, however, note an instance of DVNR artefacts: at around the one-hour mark, when Oskar thumps one of his bullies, the stick he uses goes a bit Gorilla My Dreams (see Example 11). This is the only instance I could spot where anything like this happens, but that’s no guarnatee that it definitely doesn’t occur elsewhere. I can’t say this is a particularly striking presentation, although that’s at least partly attributable to the visual style. 7/10
Let the Right One In
studio: Magnolia; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 22 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 27.59 Mbit/sec
Final Destination BD impressions
On the back cover of Final Destination’s BD release, Roger Ebert describes the film as “smarter and more original than most Dead Teenager Movies”. Given the average quality of these films, that doesn’t exactly set the bar particularly high, but this one does, for the most part, hold up quite well a decade after it was originally released. This was before Final Destination 2 came along, basically admitting that the premise was absurd and running with it, which is both a good thing and a bad thing - good because a film that takes itself seriously makes it easier for the audience to do the same; bad because, in comparison with the ludicrous “accidents” and over the top gore of the sequel, this one seems pretty tame. The concept for these movies is, after all, inherently silly. Still, this one is pretty effective for the most part, and I attribute this to it willingness to play things largely straight at a time when most of the competition was trying to out-wink Scream.
On to the image quality of this release, and it’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that, unlike a number of New Line’s catalogue titles, this one hasn’t been completely slathered in Dark City-style DNR. The bad news is that it’s still a fairly underwhelming-looking image all round, as far as I can tell taken from the same master as the 2000 DVD release. The grain often looks unnatural and clumpy, and smears quite noticeably… although this does seem to vary on a shot by shot basis. Detail is fairly mediocre and shadow detail is weak, but the extent to which both of these problems can be blamed on the original photography is unclear. I didn’t really expect Final Destination to become my new demo disc of choice, and to be fair it’s not unwatachable, but it’s never anything more than passable. 6/10
studio: Warner/New Line; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 18.9 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 27.62 Mbit/sec
Poltergeist BD impressions
A couple of nights back, I watched Warner’s BD release of Poltergeist, which believe it or not was the first time I’d ever seen this horror classic right through (having previously caught the end of it on TV several years back). The debate will, I’m sure, continue to rage over whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg was the movie’s actual director, but whoever was responsible certainly did a bang-up job. The more obviously Spielbergian elements - a lot of the domestic “wackiness” early on - did grate on me somewhat, and I can’t help feeling that the ending (i.e. everything after the “exorcism” of the house) was tacked on at a later stage, but beyond that it’s a bona fide masterpiece of the genre.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the transfer. This is a really great-looking catalogue title that exceeded my expectations as far as image quality were concerned. It’s not so much that I had any reason to expect it to look bad (beyond the knowledge that an awful lot of Warner titles look decidedly mediocre), but I was relieved to discover that the grain had largely been left alone and that detail levels didn’t suffer beyond the usual aberrations one tends to find with anamorphic lenses. There are some places where I feel it could have been improved, particularly with regard to the compression, which often lets the side down on Warner’s BDs, but overall I’m extremely satisfied with the look of this disc. It certainly compares very favourably to 20th Century Fox’s work on The Omen, a title of similar vintage (give or take a few years), shot using the same cinematographic process and with a comparable overall look. 9/10
studio: Warner; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 18.5 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 23.23 Mbit/sec
Changeling BD impressions
Finally watched this film the other night. It’s fantastic. Go and watch it.
The film was shot with anamorphic lenses and has that slightly diffuse, hazy look that is often associated with this process - I don’t think any deliberate detail reduction has been done. However, a degraining pass appears to have been applied, probably at the digital intermediate stage. Grain seems unnaturally static and there are some mild DVNR artefacts - patterns and textures “dragging”, a bit of ghosting, and so on. In addition, there’s some incredibly nasty artefacting going on in the shadows early on (check Example 6 for a particularly noxious instance), not helped by the elevated blacks, but this is less of a problem later on. It’s not a spectacular-looking disc, but pretty damn good all the same, and would probably have netted a low “9” were it not for the artefacting. 8/10
studio: Universal; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 31.3 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 31.58 Mbit/sec
Mean Girls BD impressions
I was pleasantly surprised by the image quality of this release. I wasn’t expecting it to look like a million bucks, and it’s true, it’s not exactly eye-popping, but it’s pleasant to look at, with a decent level of detail and film grain that looks pretty natural. The movie was colour timed photochemically rather than with a DI, and optical shots do suffer somewhat from increased softness (see, for example, Example 8), but overall I’m very pleased with how this disc looks.
In addition, comparing it with the 2004 UK DVD, the colour palette here looks a good deal more natural here. I don’t want to claim to know for definite how it was supposed to look, but the DVD looks incredibly orange in retrospect and not particularly pleasant. By the way, purists should note that the film features a handful of subtitles for non-English dialogue, and rather than retaining the original burned-in typeface, they are reproduced here as generic player-generated subtitles. This was also true of the DVD, and I have to say that they look considerably less ugly here than they did on that earlier release. 8/10
studio: Paramount; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 28.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 42.65 Mbit/sec
Twilight BD impressions
Having already written perhaps more than was necessary about Twilight, let’s try to ignore the film itself and discuss the BD transfer. This is the UK release from E1 Entertainment, and I can’t be 100% whether or not it came from the same master as the more widely seen US release from Summit Entertainment, but I’m assuming it is, given how similar my captures look to those provided by Xylon at the AVS Forum. In any event, I haven’t got a single complaint to make about this UK release - it’s exactly the sort of image quality I hope for (and wish I could expect) whenever I pop a BD into my player. Detail is top notch, grain reproduction is stellar, and I couldn’t spot anything in the way of compression artefacts. If, three or four years back, you’d told me we’ve one day have images that look this good on a home video format, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. 10/10
studio: E1 Entertainment; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 29.6 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 34.88 Mbit/sec
Two Evil Eyes BD impressions
Rewatching the Dario Argento/George A. Romero collaboration Two Evil Eyes again tonight for the first time in a few years, I was struck by two things. First, Edgar Allan Poe had a tendency to repeat himself. Secondly, the Romero segment isn’t as plodding as I’d remembered. True, the Argento half is still the better by a considerable margin, but I’m slowly coming round to the notion that Romero’s The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar has been unfairly maligned. Actually, at the same time, I’d even be tempted to suggest that Argento’s The Black Cat has been slightly overrated by some. I’ll hopefully be putting together a full review before too long.
As far as the transfer goes, I’d suggest that this is one of those rare instances where the screenshots shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an entirely truthful representation of how the disc looks in motion. Quite a few of them look rather “smudgy”, but in actual fact during playback it looks extremely crisp and film-like. Of all the Argento films released in HD so far, this is by far the best-looking - although, as far as Romero is concerned, I’d edge towards Optimum’s Region B Night of the Living Dead looking slightly better. I was extremely satisfied with how this disc looked on the whole, with only the optical shots (which aren’t exactly numerous) showing reduced detail. 9/10
Two Evil Eyes
studio: Blue Underground; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 39 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 46.66 Mbit/sec
Mamma Mia! BD impressions
If you don’t like Mamma Mia!, you’re a miserable git. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Well, okay, I’m not pushing for a law to be passed forbidding any negative criticism of this deliriously-stupid-and-actually-a-bit-crap-but-still-outrageously-entertaining musical, but personally I had a great time, and I’m usually pretty cynical when it comes to stuff like this. For the record, I can’t say I have an opinion on Abba one way or the other, so listening to a bunch of Hollywood A-listers massacring their greatest hits was no skin off my nose. I will say this thing, however: listening to Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve witnessed so far this year. You have been warned.
On to the BD, and the look of the video can best be described as “inconsistent”. “Processed” is another adjective that springs to mind, as is “baked”, at least as far as the flesh tones are concerned. The film’s look is obviously deliberately stylised, and I suspect that all the flaws are the result of tinkering at the DI stage rather than any foulplay when the BD transfer was created. The look varies wildly on a shot by shot basis, with some looking quite natural indeed, with a nice amount of inherent film grain, and others looking scrubbed beyond the point of recognition. Our old friend the airbrush crops up on several occasions… well, basically every time Meryl Streep appears in close-up (look under her eyes - oh my!). Poor old Meryl is not the only victim, though - the youthful Amanda Seyfried gets the same treatment on occasions, and at times the whole screen appear to have been molested. It’s not exactly The Counterfeiters, is it? 7/10
studio: Universal; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: VC-1;
file size: 29.2 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 38.50 Mbit/sec
Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death BD impressions
First of all, be warned that this BD is a 1080i/50Hz affair, given that the film itself was made for British television, which, infuriatingly, uses that format as its standard. As such, those with Region A players are out of luck, so it’s at times like these that I’m glad I have a BD-compatible BD and can therefore output content at 50Hz.
With that technical hurdle out of the way, this is a terrific-looking disc. The film itself runs for less than half an hour, and was shot digitally in HD, so there would be something very wrong indeed if it looked less than stellar. There is a very small amount of ringing around certain high contrast edges, which might be indicative of slight filtering or could have been caused by something else. Either way, it’s an exceptionally minor concern and is the only black mark against this otherwise stunning transfer. 9.5/10
Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death
studio: 2 Entertain; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 6.34 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 30.98 Mbit/sec
Oh, and just for fun, here are some shots taken from my Windows Media Center recording of the standard definition broadcast from BBC1 on Christmas Day, upscaled to 1920x1080:
Quantum of Solace BD impressions
Now this is frustrating. A number of people, whose opinions I value highly, have praised Quantum of Solace, but I must confess that, as I watched it, I kept thinking “Am I missing something?” I should, I suspect, say up front that I’m not a James Bond fan. I’ve only seen a handful of the films, and Casino Royale is the only other one I own a copy of. I found that particular film to be a very impressive reboot of a series that, from what I could see, had become very formulaic and rooted in fantasy. It toned down the over-the-top set-pieces and brought characterisation to the forefront, giving Bond a distinctive personality, something he never really had for me in any of the other films I’d seen. I had high hopes for Quantum of Solace, but was ultimately very disappointed. The basic plot itself isn’t the problem. I rather like it, in fact, and the thematic elements, particularly the recurring motifs of betrayal and trust, could have made for some meaty material. For me, it comes down to a combination of the script, which is muddled and unfocused, and the direction, which is confusing at best and staggeringly inept at worst, especially in terms of the action sequences. Newcomer Marc Forster appears to hail from the “shakeycam” school of direction and the “blunt scissors” college of editing, and as a result the film has too much in common with the Bourne franchise for its own good. Scarcely a minute went by when I didn’t find myself wishing Martin Campbell and his editor, Stuart Baird, had stuck around after Casino Royale and handled this one too. Casino Royale was genuinely well-made and its stylistic restraint was greatly appreciated in an age where every action film director seems to think making things as incomprehensible as possible is the way to go. Some striking images aside (Bond and Camille wandering through the desert is a particular stand-out), this just looks and feels like a generic action movie.
Daniel Craig is good in the title role, but he doesn’t have anything like as much to work with here as he did in the previous film, beyond the vague notion of him being hell-bent on revenge. Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton, meanwhile, do their best, but they don’t fare well on the heels of Casino’s Eva Green, who to be fair is, alongside Emily Blunt, possibly the most charismatic actress of her generation. The performance I enjoyed the most was that of Giancarlo Giannini, whom I’ve enjoyed in everything from The Black Belly of the Tarantula to Hannibal, and who manages to give the character of Mathis some real humanity.
For a more favourable take on the film, by the way, Baron Scarpia is your man.
Casino Royale’s BD release was handled by Sony Pictures, and a superb job they did of it too: it got my coveted “10/10” rating on the Discerning Viewer’s Ranking List, and to this day is almost always the first disc we reach for when testing new hardware. With Quantum of Solace, the home video rights have shifted back to MGM, who through their distribution partner 20th Century Fox have put out a very good disc. Detail is very impressive when the camera stays still for more than a second, and the compression is superbly handled from beginning to end. I suspect that a minute amount of filtering may have been applied - either that or I’m seeing the results of downscaling from the 4K master. What I’m referring to is a small amount of ringing around high frequency edges: check the location type in Example 1 and the subtitles in Example 16 to see it at its most obvious (and even then it’s pretty subtle). It’s the only black mark I can possibly give to this otherwise stellar presentation. 9.5/10
By the way, check out the extremely obvious selective airbrushing that has sporadically been applied to Judi Dench’s forehead. Always good for a laugh, and even better for taking you out of the film with its distractingness. Don’t you just love it?
Quantum of Solace
studio: 20th Century Fox/MGM; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 27 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 36.43 Mbit/sec
Pinocchio BD impressions
Pinocchio is one of my all-time favourite Disney features. I’m not sure whether or not I’d call it the best, but it’s definitely in the running. I watched the new BD release tonight - it’s high definition debut - and am largely pretty pleased with how it looks. Like every Disney feature to get a new master since the Masterpiece Edition DVD of Alice in Wonderland in 2004, Pinocchio has essentially been completely scrubbed of grain, a process which, oddly enough, many enthusiasts don’t have a problem with, despite the resoundingly negative reactions whenever the same is done to live action titles like Patton or Dark City. I can understand why this is: given the comparative simplicity of even the lushest animation when compared to live action, the results of grain removal being applied to this medium is considerably less destructive than when applied to the complex textures of real people’s faces, fabric and so on. However, it’s safe to say that Pinocchio on BD looks nothing like how it originally did in cinemas, and I personally have severe problems with this. The image tends to look unnaturally static, with held shots in particularly taking on the feel of having been freeze-framed. Grain is aesthetically pleasing and is part of the character of these films, and in my opinion the sooner Disney realise this the better. There is one instance, where a bolt of lightning illuminates the screen, which briefly shows what the film could have looked like had its natural grain structure been left intact (see Example 11, which feels like a tantalising glimpse into something altogether more organic.)
Having accepted that the film now looks more like a product of 2009 than of 1940, we ultimately have a very nice presentation. It’s not as crisp-looking as the BD of Sleeping Beauty, and we can only speculate as to why this is. Less inherent detail to begin with? More grain being scrubbed out and taking detail away with it? Either way, it’s pleasing to look at provided you don’t mind the overly static appearance. Additionally, whereas Sleeping Beauty features some occasional nasty-looking digital screw-ups, I could detect nothing of the sort on Pinocchio. (Prior to viewing the disc for myself, I did see in some captures that had appeared online what looked like DVNR artefacts, but in actual fact these turned out simply to be the result of the underwater effect applied to the film’s third act; see Example 15.) There’s the occasional bit of weirdness where the colours are concerned, though: for example, during Stromboli’s puppet show, for a number of shots Pinocchio’s shirt inexplicably turns white instead of yellow, despite this not occurring on the previous DVD release (the 2003 UK special edition):
Otherwise, though, I tend to lean towards the feeling that the colours of this new master are more authentic than those of the previous release. I’m well aware that Disney now routinely refer to the original cels in order to determine the colour timing for their HD masters (a process that, as I previously outlined, is not as good an idea in practice as it is in theory), so I would suggest that there’s still a strong chance that the colours on this release are not a good match for those of the original theatrical exhibitions, but even so I would take these over the yellowy-looking 2003 DVD any day. I’m ultimately not disappointed by how the disc looks, although I maintain that, had Disney treated the film with more respect towards maintaining its integrity, it would have been considerably better. 8/10
studio: Buena Vista; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 22.2 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 36.31 Mbit/sec
Oh, and a big “thank you” to Chuck for pointing out that there is a missing vocal effect on both the 7.1 remix and the supposedly “original theatrical soundtrack” (restored mono): Jiminy Cricket’s “Right!” just before “Take the straight and narrow path/And if you start to slide” is completely absent. Additionally, when watching the disc tonight, my brother also immediately noticed that Jiminy’s line “Look out, Pinoke!” at the end of the song, as Pinocchio falls over, has also disappeared into the ether. Both these lines were present and correct on the previous DVD, and on the earlier Gold Collection release. Quite how this happened is a mystery to me, and, while these two omissions don’t ultimately ruin the experience, it’s a disappointing degree of sloppiness on what Disney quite rightly considers one of its flagship titles.
At the end of the day, I’m giving this disc my recommendation, but it definitely falls a couple of notches shy of perfection. Oh well, there’s always the 80th anniversary in ten years’ time…
Bolt BD impressions
Those with more than a passing interest in Disney will probably know that Bolt started off as American Dog, the brainchild of Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders. When Disney Feature Animation was shaken up with the arrival of John Lasseter as its new chief, many projects were scrapped entirely or heavily retooled, with Sanders and American Dog being unfortunate casualties of this regime change. The result is that the film that has now made it to our screens bears only a passing resemblance to what it once was, the extent to which the new version has been homogenised and defanged having been documented in a post I made last year. Furthermore, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the plot is a step-by-step retread of Lasseter’s own Toy Story, with the eponymous Bolt going through the same character arc as that film’s Buzz Lightyear. The end result is an enjoyable film, alternately funny and moving in the fairly typical Disney way, and if not quite a return to form then it is at least a significant step in the right direction. However, I fear it will be remembered less for what it is than for what it might have been.
At least there can be no doubt that Disney has struck a home run with the BD transfer. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (slightly opening up the framing from the theatrical 1.85:1), Bolt looks superb from start to finish, and I honestly can’t fault it in any way. As with Pixar’s recent films, the team behind the film have generally favoured a slightly diffuse look, which means that the image doesn’t necessarily scream “razor sharp” at every opportunity, but looks considerably more natural than it would had they gone for a crisper look à la Open Season or (shudder) Big Buck Bunny. The compression is effortlessly handled from start to finish, and there is not evidence of digital manipulation in the form of filtering, edge enhancement and the like. A poster child for what the Blu-ray format is capable of and a nice big stinky sock to shove into the mouths of those who still believe that animation doesn’t benefit from high definition. 10/10
studio: Buena Vista; country: USA; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 20.4 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 30.33 Mbit/sec
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage BD impressions
The giallo lives in HD! Long live the giallo!
Ahem. Tonight, we watched Blue Underground’s recent BD release of Dario Argento’s debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the first “true” giallo to appear in high definition (I’m not sure The Stendhal Syndrome truly counts). I’ve waxed lyrical about the film in the past, so I won’t bother discussing that aspect of the package here. Instead, I want to concentrate solely on the audio-visual elements, starting with the excellent transfer, which exceeded my expectations by a considerable margin.
Like so many of its ilk, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was shot using the Chromoscope process, a system not unlike Super35 in practice. Lenses have obviously progressed a long way since 1970, so you’d be wrong to expect something with the crispness of a modern Super35 production like, say, Casino Royale or The Descent. Once you get past the fact that a number of scenes have a natural softness to them, presumably reflecting the natural aberrations of the lenses used, you can enjoy this rich, film-like and ultimately extremely satisfying presentation of an excellent movie. The grain is lovingly rendered with a crispness that resolves detail down to the pixel level, allowing the softness that pervades at times to look natural and film-like rather than the mush you get when an image has been artificially softened. Compression is handled very well for the most part, with only a handful of noticeable artefacts, most of them in darker scenes, invading on occasions. My only real criticism as regards this release would be Blue Underground’s decision to insert English-language opening and closing credits, which turn out to be blurrier and slightly more processed-looking than the rest of the movie. Given that, barring a single insert during the opening credits, all the on-screen text appears in Italian (newspaper headlines, computer print-outs and the like), I don’t know why they didn’t just leave the whole thing in Italian and give it a sense of unity.
Which brings us to the slight matter of sound. Whatever Blue Underground got right with the transfer, they well and truly fumbled on the aural front. Gone are the original English and Italian mono tracks that were to be found on the DVD release. In their place are an array of remixes in a variety of formats, which simply serve to take up space and cancel each other out. In addition to a lossy Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 EX remix, we get three separate English tracks, all of them surround sound remixes: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Dolby TrueHD 7.1, and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. One of these English tracks would have been more than sufficient. The first two audio formats are both lossless and should therefore (in theory) sound identical. Furthermore, both feature “legacy” standard definition audio streams for those who don’t have the hardware to play these new lossless HD audio formats, rendering the Dolby 5.1 EX track pointless. Blue Underground also had the nerve to claim that the reason they left the original mono audio out was because there wasn’t enough room for it, what with all the disc space taken up by these remixes. This is crazy on two fronts. First of all, if they didn’t cram the disc full of redundant remixes, there would have been plenty room. Secondly, it’s all academic, because in any case there is enough room left on the disc for additional audio tracks: a mere 31.7 GB out of a total of 50 GB is actually used.
Ultimately, there is no excuse for this sorry state of affairs, and it means that, as much as Blue Underground might like it to be, this release cannot possibly be considered definitive. I sincerely hope someone there takes notice of the negative criticism they have attracted for this decision, both from myself and other viewers, because, by failing to include the original audio materials, they are doing a great disservice both to the films and to their customers. I’m well aware that a “flat” mono track won’t wow listeners in the same manner as a bells-and-whistles 7.1 remix, but personally I care a great deal about the preservation of films, and this is not possible to do if the original elements have been tampered with. For me, remixing is as offensive a process as colourisation, and only slightly less obnoxious than pan-and-scan.
Image: 9/10; Audio: 0/10
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
studio: Blue Underground; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 28.5 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 42.42 Mbit/sec
The Butterfly Effect BD impressions
Isn’t it funny how the ravages of time can completely change your opinion of something? The other night, we sat down to watch the Canadian BD release of The Butterfly Effect, a film that I rated rather highly when I originally saw it back in 2004. Five years on and, while I can’t say I hated it, I was struck by just how inferior it was to how I’d remembered it. I still maintain that the premise itself is a rather good one, but it’s clumsily handled by first-time directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who also wrote the script and were, apparently, given the chance to get the film made on the back of the success of Final Destination 2, which they wrote). Furthermore, the internal logic is filled with inconsistences and nonsequiturs: for instance, if, going by the logic of the Butterfly Effect of the film’s title, a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas, why does Evan (Ashton Kutcher - yeah, him) continually going back in time and altering fundamental aspects of his past appear to have no effect on the world beyond his immediate circle of friends and family? Most criminally, though, the performances are, across the board, pretty damn poor, with Ashton “if I frown really hard people might mistake me for a competent actor” Kutcher taking home the top honours in this field. Ultimately, we ended up being entertained by the film, but I suspect not for the reasons its makers intended.
Anyway, let’s talk about the transfer itself, because I assume the reason you’re reading this post in the first place is because you want to know how it looks. “Pretty good, for the most part,” would be my response. The Butterfly Effect is a fairly stylised film with a lot of digital manipulation and a variety of different looks for the various “realities” in which Evan finds himself. His frat brother incarnation, for example, exists in a world of eye-searingly oversaturated colours and some pretty heavy grain reduction. This is all, of course, completely intentional, even if it’s not particularly pleasant-looking. At the same time, however, some shots have been digitally processed for no apparent reason. For instance, take a look at Example 7, which takes place in the “original” reality - I don’t think there are words in the English language to describe what has been done to this shot. The upside is that, barring these instances, scenes that are meant to be grainy appear to have been left alone, the prison sequence being a case in point. A handful of scenes have also been over-sharpened (see, for instance, Example 6), and, after doing some research, I’ve come to the conclusion that these instances seem to correspond with scenes that were deleted from the theatrical edition but re-instered for the directors’ cut, which is the version presented on this BD. Some dicey compression also crops up occasionally, generally in the form of grain being affected by mild artefacting, with some more noticeable blocking in the shadows (there’s some particularly nasty blocking in the scene where Evan meets Kayleigh outside the diner where she works). Perhaps the film would have benefited from a BD-50? (Although there’s actually a lot of unused space on this BD-25.) 8/10
The Butterfly Effect
studio: Alliance Atlantis; country: Canada; region code: A; codec: AVC;
file size: 17.2 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 20.65 Mbit/sec
PS. Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I’m up to my neck in work for my PhD, and while I discovered the other day that I actually have a week longer to complete my chapter than I previously thought, I’m still having to dedicate nearly all my time to it.
Category Post Index
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button BD impressions
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona BD impressions
- Paris, je t'aime BD impressions
- Australia BD impressions
- Waltz with Bashir BD impressions
- Let the Right One In BD impressions
- Final Destination BD impressions
- Poltergeist BD impressions
- Changeling BD impressions
- Weeds: Season One BD impressions
- Mean Girls BD impressions
- Twilight BD impressions
- Two Evil Eyes BD impressions
- Mamma Mia! BD impressions
- Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death BD impressions
- Quantum of Solace BD impressions
- Pinocchio BD impressions
- Bolt BD impressions
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage BD impressions
- The Butterfly Effect BD impressions
- The Silence of the Lambs BD impressions
- Body of Lies Blu-ray impressions
- The Constant Gardener Blu-ray impressions
- Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist Blu-ray impressions
- 21 Grams Blu-ray impressions
- Hannibal Rising Blu-ray impressions
- Butterfly on a Wheel Blu-ray impressions
- Domino Blu-ray impressions
- Monster Blu-ray impressions
- Another bonzer Aussie BD
- Australia to the rescue
- Donkey Punch Blu-ray impressions
- Death Proof Blu-ray impressions
- Kung Fu Panda Blu-ray impressions
- Black Sheep Blu-ray impressions
- I am Legend Blu-ray impressions
- Planet Terror Blu-ray impressions (long post)
- The Messengers Blu-ray impressions
- Home Alone Blu-ray impressions
- L.A. Confidential Blu-ray impressions
- Fight Club Blu-ray impressions
- Chungking Express Blu-ray impressions
- La Femme Nikita Blu-ray impressions
- Shrooms Blu-ray impressions
- My Blueberry Nights Blu-ray impressions
- The Stendhal Syndrome Blu-ray impressions
- Wall-E Blu-ray impressions
- Hannibal Blu-ray impressions
- Léon Blu-ray impressions
- Chicken Run Blu-ray impressions
- The Omen (2006 remake) Blu-ray impressions
- The Final Conflict Blu-ray impressions
- Damien: Omen II Blu-ray impressions
- How the West Was Won: SmileBox vs. flat
- Warner accidentally releases really detailed BD
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Blu-ray impressions
- Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray impressions (long post)
- Carrie Blu-ray impressions
- Well, slap my face! The Omen looks great!
- It's Keira Knightley HD Screen Capture Day aboard the HMS Whimsy
- Film on Blu-ray in "looking like film" shocker
- I know kung fu, doop-dee-doo!
- The spirits without
- An ode to B-movies that looks oddly glossy
- The lavish detail before my eyes
- Christmas comes early
- DVNR city
- Machine built to perfection
- How to lose your credibility in 113 minutes
- JESUS CHRIST WHAT A HORRIBLE TRANSFER
- Grit, grime and zombies... oh my!
- These are the hands that ruined a movie
- "She's terrible!"
- Stair-stepping ahoy!
- My compass is pointing to DVNR
- Snow, sand, softness and sharpness
- The best pics in London
- Ringo Starr was in The Simpsons once...
- Turn that frown upside down
- Blu-ray brattiness
- Let's celebrate gun crime
- All the colours of the rainbow
- Universal vs. Sony Pictures: Round 2
- Dear Universal, this is what a catalogue release SHOULD look like
- Speaking of sex and death...
- Edith Piaf's waxy face
- What edge enhancement is and why not to use it
- Tight, emphatic close ups, framed under the hairline and above the chin
- A tortuous web
- Hair of the rat
- See every fleck of blood in living colour
- Satan created MPEG2
- James Bond, Sony's unofficial marketing agent