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I can’t see a goddamn thing, Jim!

HD DVD

The Kingdom on HD DVD is an example of what I would call the second tier of Universal’s HD output. At the very top, you have titles like The Bourne Ultimatum and King Kong: recent releases which, barring any instances of compression artefacts, are as perfect as HD gets. There’s no sign of filtering, edge enhancement, noise reduction or any other unwanted tampering. Then you get titles like Mr. Bean’s Holiday and Eastern Promises, which still look very good, and appear to have come from excellent sources, but which introduce a layer of digital manipulation, usually a light sheen of filtering.

In the case of The Kingdom, there is clear evidence of ringing, particularly visible in the first shot. This is the thin, sharp, high frequency type usually associated with straight edge enhancement rather than the thicker, blurrier sort you get with filtering, so my theory is that someone sharpened this transfer. The fact that the credits text is also affected shows that this took place at the very end of or after the DI process: in other words, the editor wasn’t simply being fed a bunch of pre-sharpened footage. (Sometimes you’ll get transfers where the film-based material has been tampered with but the credits themselves are problem-free.) Theoretically speaking, therefore, it should be possible, one day, to go back to the source and get a “clean” master.

Trying the get clear screen captures of this disc was tough given the nature of the camerawork. The film was produced by Michael Mann, and the director, Peter Berg, seems to have attempted to replicate his, ahem, style by constantly shaking the camera around like a stoned monkey. The result is that the whole film is essentially one long jittery zip pan, so I found myself limited to the more serene, static moments, which are few and far between. Broadly speaking, it looks better in motion, although it does tend to make you feel seasick. Did I mention I hate this look?

The Kingdom
(Universal, UK, VC-1, 18.6 GB)

The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom

 
Posted: Friday, June 13, 2008 at 3:18 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

HD Image Quality Rankings updated

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

I’ve performed some updates on the HD Image Quality Rankings page, moving several 8/10-rated titles down into the 7/10 bracket. Among these are several of the more noticeably filtered Warner titles, along with such disappointments as The Simpsons Movie and Sony’s somewhat unjustly lauded re-release of The Fifth Element. Two titles have also been pulled out of the prestigious 10/10 category and moved into the still highly impressive 9.5/10: Silent Hill, for having slightly elevated blacks (which can be corrected using the brightness control on your display, which you shouldn’t really have to do), and King Kong, for some minor compression artefacts.

It’s something of an indication of how good the best high definition transfers look that I am actually currently in a position of having to demote less impressive transfers. I consider this to be very good progress, given that, for the most part, even the best-looking standard definition DVDs were still heavily flawed.

 
Posted: Friday, June 13, 2008 at 12:48 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Get ‘em while they’re still lukewarm

HD DVD HD DVD HD DVD

I know I said I wouldn’t buy any more, but with the silly prices HD DVDs are going for in various stores, I thought it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to pick up some mega-cheap titles. HMV.co.uk is currently selling off a whole bunch of titles for as little as £4.99 each, a steal when you consider the AV quality of some of them. I snagged King Kong, The Kingdom and Stardust, all of which popped through my letterbox this morning.

I watched The Kingdom this evening. An eye-pleasing transfer from Universal - not one of their best, but, when you consider how dreadful some of their releases look, particularly their catalogue titles, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Actually, barring a small amount of ringing, it actually looks very nice, with a very pleasing amount of detail and commendably little artefacting, despite the amount of fast cutting and shakycam on display. I also found it a rather interesting film too, at least until it decided to abandon its loftier aims and turn into an old fashioned Men & Guns™ car chase/shoot-out extravaganza. That, and the constantly jittering camera made me feel fairly seasick.

 
Posted: Monday, June 09, 2008 at 9:43 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Stair-stepping ahoy!

Blu-ray

On Wednesday, I finally got round to watching The Orphanage on Blu-ray. I knew next to nothing about the film beforehand, so was very pleased to discover an excellent piece of work, definitely one of the best horror films I’ve seen recently and every bit as good as, if not better than, the other recent film to bear Guillermo Del Toro’s name, Pan’s Labyrinth (although he mere produced The Orphanage, which was in fact directed by a fellow called J.A. Bayona). I highly recommend checking out this film if you haven’t seen it yet - an imaginative and highly effective take on the “spooky old house” and “creepy child” sub-genres.

The Blu-ray release, unfortunately, is marred by the fact that it appears to have been taken from a source with a horizontal resolution of less than 1920 pixels. A certain blockiness is evident throughout in diagonal edges, which take on a stair-stepped quality: look, for example, at Fernando Cayo’s nose in Shot 7 and Mabel Rivera’s cheek in Example 9. Basically, it’s like a less extreme version of the effect visible in Warner’s early so-called “1080i upconverted” transfers. It’s not dreadful, and it’s somewhat ironic that the end result actually looks somewhat better than the full 1920x1080 The Golden Compass in all its noise reduced glory, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. New Line’s HD output, so far, has been pretty problematic to say the least, and it’s a shame (but not entirely surprising) that reviewers haven’t been picking up on these faults.

The Orphanage
(New Line, USA, VC-1, 26.1 GB)

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Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008 at 10:55 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

My compass is pointing to DVNR

Blu-ray

New Line were caught red-handed applying grain-reduction techniques to their Blu-ray and HD DVD version of Pan’s Labyrinth, and ever since, the more observant of us have been keeping close tabs on their treatment of films in high definition. The good news is that The Orphanage, about which I shall be posting later today, managed to escape from their clutches unmolested, but The Golden Compass has not been so lucky. Posters at the AV Science Forum were quick to pick up on a waxy appearing affecting several shots, along with the pictures to prove it. None of this was conclusive, though, particularly given that some of the shots posted looked absolutely fine, so I decided to get hold of a copy of the disc to judge for myself.

My copy arrived the previous Saturday, and, having now gone through it with a fine toothcomb, my overriding impression is that two things are going on here. First of all, certain actors, particularly Nicole Kidman, have been fleeced with the same technology that assaulted Johnny Depp’s cheeks and nose in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Milla Jovovich’s face in Resident Evil: Extinction. As unpleasant as the results are, this is ultimately an artistic choice employed by the director and as such is not something for which we can blame the technicians who encoded the disc.

Secondly, however, a fairly heavy grain reduction pass appears to have been applied to the entire film. I have no idea whether this was done to the original DI master, or specifically for the Blu-ray release, but either way the results are somewhat less than pleasant. This is something that can’t really be conveyed with static screenshots, but the grain has stopped being moving detail and has instead become something more akin to a static pattern imposed upon the image. The process also appears to suck fine detail from objects such as walls, fabric and the actors’ skin, resulting in an image that, much of the time, looks pretty synthetic and unappealing. It appears to be present throughout, but the fact that its severity seems to vary on a shot by shot basis (compare Daniel Craig’s face in Shots 4 and 5) suggests to me that this was done on a per-scene basis at the DI stage.

This is not a bad-looking disc, per se, but it’s also pretty far removed from what film looks like. Perhaps this was what writer/director Chris Weitz intended for his movie, but, if so, his is not a taste that I share.

The Golden Compass
(New Line, USA, VC-1, 24.1 GB)

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Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008 at 5:00 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Omenisms

Blu-ray

One of the more annoying aspects of any new home entertainment format is that the studios have an unfortunate habit of releasing their less than stellar titles before their classics. Such was the case with 20th Century Fox, who rather bafflingly chose the 2006 remake of The Omen, a execrable little film about which I have already written in some detail, as one of their Blu-ray launch titles. At the time, I was a little peeved, to say the least, that this woeful excuse for filmmaking had been given the 1080p treatment while the original, in my opinion a horror classic, continued to languish in the standard definition pit.

Luckily, Fox have seen the error of their ways and have just announced an Omenistic extravaganza for this September. In addition to a standalone Blu-ray release of the original (and best) The Omen, they will also be putting out a box set containing the horrid remake and the less than stunning sequels, Damien: Omen II and The Final Conflict (the hilariously dreadful third sequel, the TV-originated Omen IV: The Awakening, is, perhaps mercifully, nowhere to be found).

Provided Fox doesn’t cancel or postpone this release, as they have a habit of doing, this should be one of my key purchases this year. I make no bones about the fact that I think The Omen is a magnificent film, easily my favourite of the “Big Three” US horror films of the late 60s and 70s (although I concede that The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are technically “better” films). I doubt I shall be bothering with the box set - an RRP of $129.98 is a bit steep for one classic, one turd and two hack jobs of limited value - but the stand-alone release should go down a treat this Halloween.

 
Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008 at 7:18 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | TV
 

How to make a DVD on the cheap

DVD DVD

My copies of the new Anchor Bay US releases of Tenebre and Phenomena arrived this morning. Unfortunately, as you will know if you’ve been following discussions of these new editions, you’ll already know that both are less than stellar.

If you were expecting gorgeous new high definition-sourced transfers, you can think again: to my eyes, both appear to be “fake” 16x9 upconverts of the old non-anamorphic masters. The new Phenomena appears to suffer from some overzealous noise reduction, which causes smearing. This is particularly noticeable during the second shot in Chapter 2, where, if you look at the grass at the bottom left hand side of the frame, you can clearly see it smudging and smearing as the camera sways slightly. And, given that they are derived from the same masters that were used for the previous releases, both are still missing material - a few seconds in the case of Tenebre, around six minutes in the case of Phenomena.

Audio (and lack of subtitle) options are identical to the previous releases. In other words, this means that the original mono (for Tenebre) and stereo (for Phenomena) mixes are nowhere to be found. Both discs include 2.0 Dolby Surround tracks, but these are both down-conversions from the 5.1 remixes created by Chase Digital.

The bottom line is that, from an AV standpoint, I really don’t see there being much point in picking up these new DVDs provided you already own either the old AB disc or another version. These are by no means awful discs, but the sad fact, for AB, is that, since they released their original DVDs of these films, other companies have come along and done considerably better, so to recycle these old masters in 2008 really is a bit much. The new featurettes that have been provided for both films are very good, and I really enjoyed hearing from the various participants (including finally putting a face to a name with the first on-screen appearance I’ve seen of Franco Ferrini on the Phenomena featurette), but it’s really a question of whether these two short documentaries justify the price of the new discs.

Regarding the issue of the ongoing debate about which version is the best, there is no doubt in my mind that the best all-round version of Tenebre is the Dutch release from A-Film, entitled Shadows. While this release is bare-bones, and it’s true that it does suffer from some colour timing issues in its second half, they are considerably less severe than on the Japanese DVD (which is admittedly the sharpest-looking of the bunch). It is also completely uncut (as is the Japanese release) and features by far the cleanest English audio track I’ve ever heard for the film, especially in comparison to the one used by AB, which sounds pretty noisy and scratchy.

Things get a bit trickier for Phenomena. The best-looking release, by far, is the Japanese one, and it is also the full-length integral version, but unfortunately, presumably as a result of using a longer cut of the film which sometimes includes shots which differ in length from the English version by a frame here and a frame there, several dialogue scenes are rendered in Italian only on the English audio track. If you’re prepared to do a bit of piecing together in a video editing program, you can put together a satisfying version, but if you intend to play it straight from the disc and watch it in English, you’ll have to be prepared for some key narrative scenes being in Italian, despite English audio existing for them.

I’ve posted some screen captures comparing these new releases to various other versions that are available at Dark Discussion.

 
Posted: Monday, June 02, 2008 at 10:19 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Gialli | Technology | Web
 

Snow, sand, softness and sharpness

Blu-ray

The look of this BD is best described as “inconsistent”. Some shots look extremely good and indeed rank up there with the best of high definition, but on other occasions things tend to look a bit soft and filtered. This is particularly evident during the earlier scenes which take place against the snowy backdrop of 12th century France. In some instances (such as Example 2), I wonder if the image was pre-filtered to prevent the dense snow from choking the life out of the MPEG-2 encoder. Having said that, this is certainly one of the best MPEG-2 encodes I’ve seen, perhaps beaten only by Sony’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut
(20th Century Fox, USA, MPEG-2)

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Posted: Monday, June 02, 2008 at 6:51 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

The best pics in London

Now that's what I call fancy packaging

Above: Now that’s what I call fancy packaging

On Wednesday, while on my lunch break, I spied in the local Borders the UK Blu-ray release of Tim Burton’s latest extravaganza, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, complete with a rather fetching tin case. Back when Paramount originally announced this for release on HD DVD in the US, it was one of my most anticipated purchases, so you can imagine my disappointment when the HD DVD was cancelled and the film then failed to materialise on Paramount’s Blu-ray slate, despite (as far as I can gather) all of their other cancelled HD DVDs making the jump to Blu-ray. Luckily, Warner, who own the rights in the UK, have come to our rescue with an extremely nice release indeed, one that more than does the film justice and ranks among the best the studio has ever released for either format. The one failing, as seems often to be the case with the bit rate misers at Warner, is that some visible compression artefacts do creep in at times, one of the most offensive examples of which is visible in the first screen capture.

When you look at these pictures, you may notice what looks like smearing in the fine details of Johnny Depp’s face. Unfortunately, this is the result of the process that seems to be being used more and more frequently on big budget films - an automated spot/wrinkle remover which I’m sure is very flattering for the actors but has the unfortunate side effect of making them look like porcelain dolls. It was inconsistently applied in Resident Evil: Extinction, making Milla Jovovich look at times as if she was made of plastic, and it appears to run rampant in The Golden Compass (the details of which I shall go into in a future post). For Sweeney Todd, however, oddly enough it appears that only Depp’s cheeks and the bridge of his nose are affected, and it only seems to have been applied to close-ups. It’s not a failing of the transfer, but it does provide an example of how really good high definition transfers make this sort of tomfoolery easier to spot. Ironic, really, when you consider that it was probably applied in the first place because someone got ants in their pants about “imperfections” on actors’ faces being more visible in HD.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Warner, UK, VC-1, 27.1 GB)

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Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008 at 5:09 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of May

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD
  • 30 Days of Night (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Enchanted (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • The Golden Compass (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Mrs. Doubtfire (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • The Orphanage (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
  • Waking the Dead: Series 6 (R2 UK, DVD)

Definitely a very Blu month for me, which I have no complaints about whatsoever. I was going to post a bit about the various titles listed above, but for some reason I only managed to get an hour and a half of sleep last night, and as a result I’m absolutely knackered. Therefore, I’m off to get some serious shut-eye now, if I can. Laters.

 
Posted: Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 10:52 PM
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | TV | Waking the Dead
 

30 gigabytes of joy

Blu-ray

30 Days of Night is one of four Blu-ray releases I received or otherwise picked up over the course of the week, which I shall be rolling out gradually with the added bonus of a series of delectable images. This is a film with a quite understated visual style - muted colour palette, murky lighting and a fair amount of grain. It also looks very nice indeed in high definition, albeit not always in the way that you would associate with so-called “demo material”. Another solid release from Sony.

30 Days of Night
(Sony Pictures, USA, AVC, 30.7 GB)

30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 11:09 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Swoon

Blue Underground Blu-ray releases

Three months after announcing their intentions to break into the Blu-ray market, Blue Underground have provided a tantalising glimpse at some of the titles we can expect to see from them. While no release dates have been announced, these titles alone should be enough to whet the appetite of any serious cult cinema fans:

- The Final Countdown
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
- The Stendhal Syndrome
- Maniac
- Vigilante
- Fire and Ice

The brief preview trailer, available on their site, also shows material from Two Evil Eyes, Dead and Buried and Uncle Sam. We’re being promised 50 GB dual layer discs, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, plenty of extras and (contain yourselves) D-Box Motion Code support.

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 3:58 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Technology
 

Ringo Starr was in The Simpsons once…

Blu-ray

Now that I have a Blu-ray drive in my main computer, I’ve been taking the opportunity to look through some of the discs I haven’t provided screen captures for yet. The Simpsons Movie is a title that immediately leapt out at me as a prime candidate for the PrintScreen button, mainly because it’s one of those discs that many reviewers have praised to the heavens, describing it as “perfect” and “flawless”, and other such hyperbolic nonsense. In actual fact, Fox’s encode of The Simpsons Movie features quite a lot of unsightly ringing, as a result of having been filtered.

(Lyris and myself, by the way, have all sorts of wacky names for the various artefacts that plague digital video. Ringo Starr, as you can probably imagine, refers to ringing. Stick around and you may get to meet Dusty Springfield, Billy Brickwall, Waxy O’Connor, and our old favourite, Mega Bloks.)

Why would anyone filter high definition content in the first place, especially material as basic-looking as Homer Simpson and his bland family? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it looks suspiciously like a technician left his or her software at the default settings and popped out for a leak, leaving the encoding software (or hardware) to wreak havoc. It’s not just that there’s ringing: for some reason, several shots show a bunch of errant hues showing up in the ringing, especially visible when you zoom in (Shot 3 is particularly affected by this).

The Simpsons Movie
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC)

The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 2:51 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

The power of Allah compels you!

Seytan

Well, yesterday was rather interesting. After conversing with him online for several years, I was finally able to put a face to a name as I met Baron Scarpia in person for the first time. And what better way to celebrate such a meeting than with a dreadful movie? Yes, after lunch, we boarded the HMS Whimsy to watch a title from the Baron’s own private collection. The film in question was Seytan, a 1974 Turkish production directed by a fellow named Metin Erksan, which bears more than a passing resemblance to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

Something of a background primer is required on Turkish cinema before we can progress any further. Although responsible for a number of critically lauded films (none of which I could name at present, as my knowledge of the country’s output is fairly limited), I suspect that most cult film fanatics will be more familiar with the industry’s habit of ripping off Hollywood productions with its own distinctive takes on the likes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars and even Superman.

Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression, we are not talking “loosely inspired” here. We are talking shot-for-shot remakes, the only significant differences being the minuscule budgets, dreadful production values and complete lack of talent on either side of the camera. Yes, those are the “only” significant differences. Oh, and they all appear to take place in Turkey.

Anyway, Seytan (pronounced “SHAY-tan”, by the way) introduces us to 12-year-old Gül and her mother, Uma Thurman (I’m calling her this because the actress playing her looks like a significantly less talented version of her, and because the character’s name is not provided by IMDB). Gül is a precocious child who has an invisible friend called Captain Lersen (eh?). She also has other, slightly more disturbing tendencies, such as an ability to urinate dark green liquid on cue, spew what looks like orange paint from her mouth, bitch-slap members of the medical profession and rotate her head 180 degrees. Rejecting the rational in favour of the supernatural, Uma calls in the appropriately named Tugrul Bilge, author of a book on demons. I’ll be calling him Alan Partridge, though, because the actor playing him vaguely resembles Steve Coogan. (Besides, the image of Alan Partridge performing an exorcism is in itself deeply amusing.) In turn, Alan Partridge concludes that the only viable solution is to perform an exorcism on poor possessed Gül. Enter an exorcist, whose name I once again can’t remember (IMDB is no help here), and the most sinister-looking moustachioed policeman you’ll ever see on screen, who has a habit of blowing cigarette smoke directly in people’s faces when they are talking to him. I have christened him Inspector Clouzot. Oh, and is that Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that keeps drowning out the dialogue?

No, really, this actually does happen.

Above: No, really, this actually does happen.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since some time prior to the end of 1973, all of this might sound vaguely familiar. Remakes such as the recent versions of Halloween (well, the second half at least) and The Omen have been justly criticised for been slavish copies of the original films, but, until you’ve seen what the Turks got up to in the 70s and 80s, you really have no idea what outright plagiarism looks like. To clarify, The Exorcist is less of a sacred cow for me than say, Suspiria or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I appreciate its importance in cinema history and would argue that no other horror film produced by a major studio achieves anything quite like it. Still, it’s hard to be annoyed at Metin Erksan and his cronies for what they have done here because, unlike, say, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there is no danger of this remake overshadowing the original (seriously, the number of people that don’t realise Marcus Nispel’s 2003 hack job is an update of an earlier film of the same name is quite disturbing). Seytan is so hilariously awful on every level that hating it is not an option: you either get it or you don’t.

Luckily, I got it. Seytan is such a mess in every imaginable way that it makes Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace look like the highly polished work of a cinematic genius. Before anyone asks, yes, I am aware that Darkplace was a spoof. Seytan, however, is not, as hard as that may be to believe at times, particularly when Gül’s bed is bouncing about like a bouncy castle and Uma Thurman thinks that the best way to stop it is to get on the bed and join in. More gales of laughter greet every single instance of Tubular Bells starting up and then stopping as abruptly as it began when the sound technician yanks the needle off his record. Come to think of it, this piece of music is repeated so many times that I’m genuinely amazed that, when Erksan tries (and fails) to recreate the iconic image of Father Merrin arriving at the house, surrounded by fog, Mike Oldfield is nowhere to be heard.

(Mr. Erksan, by the way, is nothing if not a varied director. While most filmmakers would be content to simply zoom in or out, Erksan zooms both in and out, often multiple times within the confines of a single shot. And bear in mind that every scene in the film features at least one zoom. Lucio Fulci and Jess Franco would be red-cheeked with embarrassment.)

And I haven’t even mentioned the climactic exorcism yet, which goes on for an absolutely absurd length of time and concludes, after Alan Partridge and his exorcist friend have yelled “Allah’s grace be upon you!” more times than I care to remember, with poor old Mr. Partridge fulfilling his fate (and ensuring that Seytan doesn’t diverge too far from The Exorcist’s plot) by leaping out of the window and rolling down the longest flight of steps in Turkey. Actually, I’m fairly sure that this scene is performed by the actor himself rather than a stuntman, so it’s actually quite impressive that he was still alive at the end of it all.

I really can’t thank the Baron enough for giving me the opportunity to experience Seytan. It’s actually somewhat embarrassing to admit that this was my introduction to Turkish cinema, so I suspect I should really follow up the experience by watching one of the country’s better films. It’s a bit like making Giallo a Venezia your first port of call when embarking on a voyage through Italian cinema, only several stages worse.

 
Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 2:28 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | General | Gialli | Reviews
 

Popcorn strictly optional

Whimsy Cinemas

Whimsy Cinemas™ is finally ready to open its doors! Yesterday evening, Lyris assembled his projection screen and attached it to the wall, ready for its first gala presentation. What will it be? Inside Man on HD DVD was the first title to be screened on our previous movie-watching solution, the crazy bed sheet of multiple creases, so it only makes sense that we follow it up with something that boasts equally stellar image quality. So far, we’ve taken a brief look at the Blu-ray releases of Ratatouille, Resident Evil: Extinction and Across the Universe, all of which looked suitably incredible, not to mention the most recent pass of La Femme Publique, which looked better than a standard definition DVD has any right to.

Finally, we have something that vaguely resembles being at the movies, only without the spotty-faced youths heckling (if any heckling’s to be done, we’ll do it, thank you very much) the movie and playing with their mobile phones. Sometimes, we even get the films before they’re released theatrically in this country, and in any event, in many cases, the Blu-ray discs we’re watching look somewhat better than the prints being trotted round the local cinemas.

 
Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 1:08 AM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | General | HD DVD
 

Blu-ray review: Juno

Blu-ray
For Juno, Fox have provided stellar audio-visual quality that ranks among the best they have produced for the Blu-ray format. While the bonus content is a little on the lightweight side, and the extra Digital Copy disc serves no discernible purpose, those who enjoyed the film can rest assured that they are getting a presentation of the highest standard and should have no qualms about picking up a copy.

For shizz! I cast my peepers over Juno, that wizard little sleeper hit about getting knocked up, given a totally boss Blu-ray release by 20th Century Fox. Okay, I’ll stop now.

Review at DVD Times.

 
Posted: Monday, May 12, 2008 at 10:45 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews
 

I don’t like World of Warcraft (or: how I learned to stop worrying and love Guild Wars)

Games

I’ve written about Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft in the past. Going from the initial “This is okay” to “Hopefully it gets better than this” phases, through the dreaded “This is actually pretty boring” period before finally reaching my “No way is this worth $15 a month” epiphany, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one game I simply don’t “get”. It epitomises the “donkey/carrot/stick” school of game design (to quote Ray Milland’s character in Dial M for Murder): effectively, the designers have created a game where the constant promise of eventual reward (the carrot) encourages the player to keep moving forward, while the threat of falling behind or not getting your value for money (the stick) dissuades him or her from staying put.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with this framework, provided the journey itself is actually fun. If exploring the world, hacking up monsters and collecting loot is a pleasurable activity in its own right, as it is in, say, Blizzard’s earlier Diablo, then the continual performance of bigger and better locations, monsters and loot is no bad thing. When this becomes a problem is when the fundamental game mechanics prevent me from getting any enjoyment out of this process, as is the case for World of Warcraft. The other day, nearly two years after I last played the game, I had a sudden urge to give it another whirl. Therefore, I left it on overnight, downloading around 2 GB worth of patches and content updates, whipped out my credit card, laid down $15, logged myself in and sat down to re-enter the world of Azeroth.

World of Warcraft

First problem: I never did succeed in taking a character beyond Level 19, and, given that the game is now nearly four years old, this understandably set me pretty far behind the curve. In a world where 70 is the current maximum character level, starting out at such a low level feels a bit like being placed in the remedial class. Oh well, I thought, might as well take the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with how the game plays. So off I went to hack up some gnolls for Harry Hardwick and gather a few crimson bandanas for Melissa Silkloins or whatever their names are.

Second problem: none of this is actually any fun. After persevering for a couple of hours, I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d once again wasted my money. Now, at the current exchange rate, blowing $15 isn’t the end of the world, but any transaction where the goods delivered are sub-par is annoying. It’s particularly annoying when, as is the case with World of Warcraft, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the problem is with me rather than the game. Maybe I just don’t “get it”. After all, the game boasts a record of 10 million subscribers (that’s a whopping 62% of the MMORPG market share), and I find it hard to believe that they’re all just complete morons staring slack-jawed at the screen and dumbly clicking the mouse in the hope that they finally get to chomp on that delicious-looking carrot. On the contrary, from what I can gather, the game takes some degree of skill to master. There’s also the fact that, in piddling around the smaller scale early areas and levels, I’m missing out on the high end epic battles and quests that are supposedly the game’s main draw.

But the problem is that I have absolutely no desire to persevere with the early stuff so as to eventually reach the better material that supposedly comes later. The gameplay mechanics strike me as fundamentally crap, with slow, clunky combat that feels like an unsatisfying trade-off between turn-based and real-time, chunky, unappealing graphics, and seemingly endless hours of trawling on foot from location to location (for a fee, you can purchase a ride from one major city to another using flying mounts, and, once you hit Level 40, you can purchase a horse of your own). This is, in my opinion, definitely the weakest game in the Warcraft franchise, and I struggle to name any other Blizzard game that I’ve enjoyed less. Honestly, I’d rather play Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing again than this.

Guild Wars

Luckily, there’s a solution. It’s called Guild Wars, and it’s like World of Warcraft, only fun. Straight off the bat, this game, which was designed by several ex-Blizzard staffers, seems to tick all the right boxes. First of all, it’s free to play, meaning that you pay a one-off fee to pick up a boxed copy of the game, and then you can play it for as long as you like at no extra charge. As with World of Warcraft, they don’t delete your characters due to account inactivity, either, so you can abandon it for months or years at a time and then hop back in where you left off. Secondly, and fairly fundamentally, it’s actually fun to play. Right from the word go, everything about it is more polished, more fluid, more appealing and just generally slicker than World of Warcraft. The combat is fast-paced and satisfying, and any location that you’ve previously visited is just a couple of mouse clicks away, thanks to the fact that you can instantaneously jump to cities and outposts from the world map instead of having to walk, fly or ride to them. Crucially, the “donkey/carrot/stick” problem is nowhere to be found. You can actually max out your character fairly quickly (Level 20 is the highest you can get), which means that, once you’re there, the “Just another half-hour and I can hit the next level” incentive is no longer present, so the missions have to be enjoyable in their own right. To Guild Wars’ credit, they are, and it doesn’t matter that you can hit Level 20 before you’re even a quarter of the way through the game. The experience of playing the game itself is enjoyable enough without character building even coming into play.

Guild Wars also makes use of the concept of instancing, meaning that, while towns are communal, whenever you enter a combat area, a separate copy of the location is created for you and your party, meaning that you don’t have to worry about someone coming along and stealing your loot or kills. Perhaps this detracts to some extent from the social aspect of games like this, but all that sort of thing is still possible in the town areas: it just means that you have to assemble your team before venturing out into the wilderness. Also, for social pariahs such as myself, the fact that you can hire computer-controlled henchmen to help you take on your opponents, rather than having to hope you can find another player or two whose goals match your own, is a big plus in its favour.

I’m currently playing the original Guild Wars “Prophecies” campaign and am having a blast inching my way towards completing it. Beyond that, I still have the “Factions” and “Nightfall” campaigns to finish (three separate Guild Wars campaigns were released, all of which can be purchased separately and work as stand-alone games, but which interlock to create a much larger world). There’s also the Eye of the North expansion set, which requires a copy of one of the three original campaigns and will supposedly help ease the transition into Guild Wars 2, which is apparently going to have its public beta later this year. Warcraft schmorcraft - you can take your monthly fee and stick it in a very private place.

 
Posted: Monday, May 12, 2008 at 3:30 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | Technology
 

Paramount, Criterion go Blu

Blu-ray

I’m sure everyone else has already reported on this by now, but Paramount have, not particularly unexpectedly, relaunched their support for Blu-ray with the announcement that Face/Off, Next and Bee Movie will be coming to the format on May 20th, followed by Cloverfield and There Will Be Blood on June 3rd. No word yet on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which was initially announced for HD DVD at around the same time as There Will Be Blood, but disappeared along with that and several other titles when Toshiba turned off the ailing format’s life support machine. Presumably it will materialise before too long - I hope so, because, out of all of these, it’s the one I’m most interested in seeing.

Paramount also plans to re-issue its entire back catalogue of Blu-ray titles, starting with eight titles on May 20th.

The real news, however, is that, after spending a considerable amount of time umming and erring from the sidelines, the mighty Criterion has finally announced its intention to get with the winning team and begin releasing in high definition. Announced via their most recent email newsletter, Criterion states that it will begin rolling titles out in October, with each released priced the same as its standard definition counterpart and porting over all the bonus content from the legacy release. Currently announced titles include:

- The Third Man
- Bottle Rocket
- Chungking Express
- The Man Who Fell to Earth
- The Last Emperor
- El Norte
- The 400 Blows
- Gimme Shelter
- The Complete Monterey Pop
- Contempt
- Walkabout
- For All Mankind
- The Wages of Fear

Now, here’s hoping they have the sense to do away with their nonsensical pictureboxing practice for their Blu-ray titles.

 
Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2008 at 6:54 PM
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

The day approaches…

It’s time for me to go into shameless promotional mode, but for good reason. After months of secrecy, I’m finally able to tell you something about the DVD project Lyris is working on. This is the first public announcement of this release anywhere, so consider yourselves lucky indeed.

La Femme Publique

Later this year, new DVD label Mondo Vision will be releasing its debut title, the first ever English-friendly release of Andrzej Zulawski’s La Femme Publique (“The Public Woman”), initially released in 1984 and starring Valérie Kaprisky, Francis Huster and Lambert Wilson. The name of Zulawski may be familiar to some of the Dario Argento fans visiting the site, since Argento has identified his 1981 film Possession as one of his favourites and a key influence on Tenebre.

This upcoming US DVD release is special for a couple of reasons. First of all, the film has never been released on any format in an English-speaking territory. As such, Mondo Vision’s DVD will feature the first ever English subtitle translation of the film. Secondly, I’ve had the opportunity to see the transfer for this film at various stages of its encoding, and I can honestly state that the final encode, completed a few days ago, is one of the best I have ever seen in standard definition. To say that this blows away what most of the other independent and also major studios are routinely putting out would be a gross understatement. Don’t take my word for it, though: feast your eyes on the images below (click the smaller thumbnails to view them at their full size).

La Femme Publique

La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique La Femme Publique

Not filtered, not edge enhanced, not noise reduced, not tampered with in any way.

Specifications for this release include:

- Digitally restored transfer mastered in high definition progressive video (1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, dual layer)
- French Dolby Digital 2.0 dual mono audio
- First ever English-language subtitle translation (optional)
- Feature length audio commentary with Andrzej Zulawksi and Daniel Bird (recorded specially for this release)
- Exclusive new interview with Andrzej Zulawski (recorded specially for this release)
- 1984 theatrical trailer
- Image gallery
- DVD-ROM content (original screenplay and high resolution images)

In addition to the standard single-disc release, a limited edition will also be released featuring a bonus CD containing the film’s original score, as well as a special commemorative booklet.

Two more Zulawski titles, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975, starring Romy Schneider, Fabio Testi and Klaus Kinski) and L’amour braque (1985, starring Sophie Marceau and Francis Huster), will also be released this year.

https://andrzej-zulawski.com/AZF/index.php

 
Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2008 at 6:49 PM | Comments: 21 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Mondo Vision | Technology
 

The pain, the pain!

DVD

This morning, I was looking through some of the DVDs I haven’t blown the dust off in a while, and I came across the Region 1 Deluxe Edition of Luc Besson’s Léon, a favourite of mine. This is a film that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been adequately represented on DVD, with every release falling way short of decency standards. Every release I’ve seen for myself, or have seen screen captures of, has suffered from a crippling lack of detail, not to mention massive amounts of ringing and mosquito noise. The overall look is that of an ancient master that has been trotted out again and again over the years, which makes the Superbit logo and claim that it has been “mastered in high definition” on the back of the Deluxe case completely absurd.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the utter horror of just how bad this transfer, from a major studio who have done some absolutely stellar work, looks:

Léon DVD - 1920x1080 blow-up

Now, bear in mind that this has been blown up to 1920x1080 resolution, but I wanted to do this to give you an example of just how bad the ringing is, and to approximate how this might look on a large display. Even at its default resolution (see here) it looks pretty outrageous, more like what you might expect from a crummy DivX bootleg downloaded from one of the dubious sites that offer such material.

“Deluxe” my left wallnut! This film is crying out for a re-release - a proper one, not just the same old master hauled out and run through the blender again.

 
Posted: Monday, May 05, 2008 at 1:07 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Technology
 
 

 
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