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Early warnings from Warner

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

Source: High-Def Digest

Warner has announced some of the high profile titles forthcoming coming to Blu-ray (and DVD) over the course of the next year (covering the rest of 2008 and early 2009). These include, in Q2 2008, a Dirty Harry Ultimate Collection, a Batman Anthology in Q3, and, looking further ahead, Gone with the Wind, North by Northwest and The Wizard of Oz in 2009. You can certainly pencil me in for a copy of North by Northwest, which has been one of my most anticipated titles for high definition treatment since the possibility was initially raised at Warner’s Home Theater Forum chat in February 2007.

Obviously, don’t expect to see any of these titles on HD DVD, given that Warner is cutting its ties with the format at the end of May… although Batman Begins did see a (decidedly sub-par) HD DVD release back in 2006.

 
Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2008 at 2:34 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Web
 

Was Ratatouille robbed?

Oscar the Grouch Blu-ray

CNN has posted a very interesting article pertaining to Brad Bird and Pixar’s latest feature, Ratatouille, and its lack of a nomination in the Best Picture category at this year’s Academy Awards.

As you probably know by now, a new category, Best Animated Feature, made its début during the 2002 Academy Awards, essentially relegating animated fare as somehow separate from live action. In a sense, it’s not all that different from the fate that has befallen non-English language films with the Best Foreign Language Film category (introduced in 1947) or short subjects with the Best Short Film category. In a sense, there’s nothing to stop a film that corresponds to one of these categories (i.e. animated, foreign, short) from also being entered into the prestigious Best Picture category, but something of a glass ceiling is created. In effect, the impression given seems to be that, because these films have their “own” categories, they have their own sandboxes to play in and don’t need to intrude on the live action, English-language feature-length films.

I’m of two minds about this, personally. Unlike some, I personally don’t really think that the Oscars count for all that much at the end of the day; I do, however, take an interest in the way animation is treated by the Oscars, mainly because I suspect that it is, in some way, broadly representative of how the mainstream movie world (both the industry itself and filmgoers) views the art form. Animation is often regarded, whether consciously or not, as somehow inferior to live action, perhaps partly because it is so commonly associated with children’s entertainment. Therefore, part of me thinks that the Best Animated Feature is probably a good idea, because it allows films that would otherwise probably have been completely ignored the chance to share in some of the glory by having the chance to bag a golden man. (That said, it does have the unfortunate side effect of meaning that a set number of animated features have to be nominated every year, which leads to the likes of the 2005 awards, where the winning The Incredibles was ludicrously put up against Shark Tale and Shrek 2.) And hey, when all said and done, let’s not forget that Ratatouille is in the running for four other awards besides Best Animated Feature, among them Screenwriting (a bit bizarre for a film whose plot and dialogue evolved primarily on storyboards). It’s not as if it’s being completely left out in the cold.

But (and it’s a big “but”) my main problem with the Best Animated Feature category is that it essentially means that, in the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely that an animated film is going to be considered for the Best Picture category (Beauty and the Beast in 1991 being the only time this ever happened). Just as The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth were denied a Best Picture nod last year, the notion seems to be that animated (and foreign, and short) features are already covered elsewhere, so don’t have to detract from the attention being given to the “big boys”. In effect, “Best Picture” should really read “Best Live Action Feature-Length Picture Shot in English”,* which is a bit of a mouthful but probably a more accurate representation of the state of affairs.

* That’s not to say that animated or foreign-language films have never been or never will be nominated for Best Picture, but broadly speaking this tends to be the case. To date, only eight non-English language films and one animated film have been nominated in this category.

 
Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2008 at 2:27 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema
 

Writerspeak

The scriptwriter's most dangerous weapon

I’m not sure whether John Kricfalusi was the first person to coin the term “writerspeak”, but his was certainly the first web site on which I read the term. He offers an excellent post pertaining to the writing of dialogue for animation, although I suspect that many live action screenwriters could benefit from reading it as well. In a sense, most of what he says is common sense, but sometimes you need to see things written down to actually understand the logic behind them.

John defines writerspeak as this:

A lot of characters in modern cartoons are simply mouthpieces for the writers. They speak in the writer’s voice rather than the character’s voice, tell the jokes that the writer and his writer friends think are funny, but are totally out-of-character for the character who is actually saying them. This common writer’s flaw is known as “writerspeak”.

I’d like to go one step further. I think there are basically three different categories of bad dialogue writing that can be claimed to be writerspeak:

1. A character suddenly says something that completely contradicts their personality because a writer thought of a funny line of dialogue and wants to show everyone how clever he/she is… even if the character is normally supposed to be a complete dolt. See just about every prime-time sitcom, animated or otherwise. In some shows, such as Family Guy, none of the characters have defined personalities anyway, so whenever someone speaks, it sounds like they’re suffering from schizophrenia.

It works both ways, though. Sometimes, a writer will make a character appear more stupid than they normally are for the sake of a joke. Here’s an exchange from the Season 2 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, When She Was Bad:

Willow: I mean, why else would she be acting like such a B-I-T-C-H?

Giles: Willow, I think we’re a little too old to be spelling things out.

Xander: A bitka?

Not only is Xander’s contribution eye-rollingly unfunny, it demeans the character something rotten. He may not be the sharpest tool in the box at times, but are we seriously expected to believe that he can’t spell the word “bitch”? It’s an excruciatingly bad bit of dialogue, even by the already low standards of writerspeak, because the very joke that the character is sacrificed for doesn’t even work.

2. A character tells us how they’re feeling or what they’re doing, despite it being blatantly obvious what’s happening if you just open your eyes and look at the visuals. Again, the sitcoms, whether animated or live action, are particularly strong offenders. This often manifests itself in the over-explanation of jokes. To quote the recent Simpsons movie, we see Fat Tony and his thugs hauling a bag which obviously contains a body towards the newly walled-off lake:

Chief Wiggum: Uh sorry, sorry, no dumping in the lake.

Fat Tony: Fine, I will put my “yard trimmings” in a car compactor.

Fat Tony and his men now walk off with the body. See, that on its own is quite funny. It’s an amusing sight gag that relies half on the presence of the body (shown visually) and half on the stupidity of Chief Wiggum (conveyed through dialogue). However, not content to simply leave it at that, the writer (one of the dozen or so credited as having worked on the script) has to spell it out for us in case we didn’t get it:

Lou: Uh, Chief, I think there was a dead body in there.

A lot of writers struggle to think visually. They feel that, unless an idea is expressed in dialogue, it won’t register. That’s probably because they spend most of the day staring at text typed up on a screen or on paper. Furthermore, if you’ve ever read a script, you’ll know that it’s much easier to read dialogue than to read descriptive text. For a start, it takes up less space. For another thing, it tends to flow better. Long, descriptive passages of action or non-action can be extremely tedious both to write and to read - it stands to reason, because the written word is simply not suited to describing visuals in a coherent, efficient manner. Scripts aren’t like novels - you don’t have the luxury of spending pages and pages describing a situation in minute detail. (Given that animation is traditionally highly visual, is it any wonder that cartoons written on scripts rather than conceptualised on storyboards are loaded to the gills with writerspeak?)

3. A character tells another something they already know for the benefit of the audience. The Rock contains an absolute doozy:

Chief Justice: This is for the sake of national security.

Womack: No, it’s the sake of national security that got us here in the first place thirty-three years ago. I knew some day this would come back to bite us. Forget it. He does not exist!

Chief Justice: He does exist! We just chose to forget about him for thirty years. We locked him up and threw away the key.

Womack: Oh, and a lot of goddamn good it did us. He broke out of two maximum security prisons, and if he hits the streets…

Chief Justice: He’s not going to hit the streets, Jim! Thirty years ago he was a highly-trained SAS operative. He is my age now, for Christ’s sake. I have to get up three times a night to take a piss!

Womack: We can’t risk letting him out. He’s a professional escape artist.

Before you ask what’s wrong with this exchange, bear in mind that both characters were already privy to all this information before they opened their mouths. It’s only one step removed from those phone calls where you only see one side of the conversation so Character A repeats back everything Character B said. (“Why, I’d love to come to a party at your place at six o’clock tonight. What’s that? You want me to bring a bottle of wine? But of course I will!”) I’m not sure who penned this Shakespearian exchange (Weisberg/Cook? Mark Rosner? Jonathan Hensleigh? Quentin Tarantino? Aaron Sorkin? Clement/La Frenais? They, among many others, contributed to the script, many of them uncredited), but it’s absolutely magical, one of the finest examples of writerspeak and makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I’m not claiming to be some sort of dialogue writing expert. Writing convincing dialogue is hard - I know this from experience. But really, there’s no excuse for some of the travesties I’ve mentioned above… unless they were meant to be intentionally funny, which I somehow doubt.

 
Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2008 at 5:31 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Animation | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | TV | Web
 

The Criterion mind game

DVD

Today, I received my copy of Criterion’s recent re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. This new 2-disc edition, released in November 2007, replaces the old single-disc version from May 1998. As one of the first DVDs Criterion put out (both the original release and the new one are number 3 in the collection), it left rather a lot to be desired in the transfer department, taken from a composite source and filled with dot crawl.

I’m happy to report that the new transfer is a massive improvement, although it does suffer from an extremely irritating practice known as windowboxing, which Criterion have been applying to all their transfers for Academy ratio films for at least a couple of years. Essentially, the entire image is shrunk slightly and surrounded by a black border on all four edges. According to the booklet included inside the DVD case, this is done “to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors”. What they should have said is “to ensure that the maximum image is visible on improperly calibrated televisions”. Overscan is an issue with most television displays, cropping off as much as 10% of the signal image. However, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that those who are serious about film will do everything they can to minimise, if not eliminate, overscan, or buy a display that does not suffer from it in the first place (such as most projectors, as well as the majority of modern 1080p LCD or plasma displays).

A nice improvement, but what's with the black border? Click for full size image.

Above: A nice improvement, but what’s with the black border? Click for full size image.

Why, then, is Criterion, a company that caters specifically to cinephiles and prides itself on the highest possible quality standards (more on this later) effectively authoring discs, as one of my fellow netizens put it, “to look best on the worst equipment”? I can think of no other studio who routinely shrinks the image and therefore throws away valuable resolution. This is standard definition NTSC we’re talking about, with a resolution of 720x480. Every line of resolution should be valued, not thrown away in order to prevent a small amount of the image being cropped on Joe Sixpack and Mary-Jane Rottencrotch’s tube display. The windowboxing on this release is certainly not excessive, but it does mean that the image is approximately 12-13% smaller than it could have been, and as a result has 12-13% less detail than would overwise have been possible.

(Left: old version; Right: new version; click for full size images)
The Lady Vanishes (old) The Lady Vanishes (new)

The long and short of it is that I am of the opinion that Criterion’s reputation as being the absolute best of the best in the DVD field is largely a mind game propagated by a number of factors, ranging from their pioneering work in the LaserDisc days (it’s unlikely that you would have audio commentaries or be able to expect an original aspect ratio presentation of a film as the rule rather than the exception if not for them) to their extremely high standard of publicity and design. Their packaging is always eye-catching and, even if they occasionally confuse plainness with minimalism (The Rock is a cover that only Criterion could get away with!), broadly speaking the sort of artwork they put out is clever, tasteful and light years ahead of anything the mainstream studios (or indeed the indie studios, most of whom seem to delight in making their wares look as schlocky as possible, as if it’s some sort of badge of honour) are doing. Essentially, pick a Criterion DVD off the shelf and it looks like you’re really getting something special. The old adage is “never judge a book by its cover”, but all too many people do.

There’s also the niche factor: broadly speaking, I doubt that your average moviegoer will have heard of, let alone seen, the bulk of the films Criterion have released. Intriguingly, this often seems to lead to a sense of reverence: “They’ve put out a film in a foreign language with a title that’s hard to pronounce about nuns in S&M gear painting each other pink - they must be really dedicated!” I am of no doubt that the people at Criterion are absolutely devoted to their craft and truly love what they are doing. However, what I am trying to say it that I’m not convinced that their grand reputation is entirely justified. While their choice of films (barring the odd Armageddon), bonus materials and packaging are all very high-brow, their transfers are often not that much better, if indeed better at all, than the competition.

Surf to various review sites, and you’ll find that Criterion’s transfers are often held up as the benchmark to which all other companies should aspire. In reality, though, the majority of the Criterion transfers that I’ve seen are fairly average. The Rock and Naked Lunch are at the upper end of the spectrum and are truly great (if imperfect) pieces of work, but at the lower end you have the likes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which in terms of its lack of detail is one of the worst DVD transfers I’ve ever seen that wasn’t pulled off a VHS tape or LaserDisc master. Oddly enough, many people praised it as a welcome improvement on the earlier Universal DVD.

They are practically the same transfer, folks.

Don’t believe me? The pictures speak for themselves. The same master has clearly been used, the level of detail is almost exactly the same, and the only significant (and I use the word loosely) difference between the two is minutely looser framing on the Universal disc. Hardly the stunning improvement that most would have you believe, and, given that the Universal disc was rightly criticised by a number of people at its time of release all these “5/5” and “10/10” reviews for the Criterion version look mightily suspect.

All this is not part of some deliberate attempt on my part to pour scorn on Criterion or turn people away from their products. They deserve a great deal of praise for putting out films that no other company would touch (even if most of them aren’t to my tastes), their packaging is top notch, and I love the fact that they routinely include chunky booklets filled with reviews, analyses, interviews and artwork - something I’ve really come to appreciate since many of the majors have given up even including a chapter insert. However, I don’t think Criterion’s releases should be celebrated as the absolute best that the DVD format can look. Like just about every other company, they’ve put out a handful of great-looking titles, some absolute turds and a vast number that merely look quite good. “Quite good”, it must be said, is an awful lot better than what an awful lot of the independents are putting out, but, when you routinely charge $40 for a single film and lay claim to “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality”, “quite good” isn’t really enough.

 
Posted: Monday, February 04, 2008 at 9:59 PM | Comments: 16 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Technology | Web
 

DVD review: Halloween (remake)

DVD
Essentially a film of two halves, neither of which works on its own and which fail to gel together as a single cohesive whole, Zombie’s version of Halloween falls somewhere between a crass, ass-backwards attempt to shoehorn the more superficial elements of his style into an origin story, and a soulless, slavish copy of the original.

I review Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, presented here in its unrated form in a 2-disc set, and wonder how to get two hours of my life back.

 
Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008 at 6:38 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews
 

We are as gods… oh, wait, those halos aren’t meant to be there

HD DVD

As you can probably tell by the title of this post, the HD DVD release of Asterix and the Vikings isn’t perfect. It is, however, somewhat better than The Simpsons Movie, which is comparable in that it is one of only a very small number of digitally sourced, 2D animated titles released in high definition (the others I’ve seen being the very good-looking Les Triplettes of Belleville on HD DVD and the deeply underwhelming Paprika on Blu-ray).

The Simpsons movie was filtered, resulting in noticeable ringing around outlines, and so is Asterix, only less so. In many of the captures posted below, the ringing is difficult to miss, but it could have been a lot worse, and only results in a small reduction in the overall detail levels (I have some unfiltered 1920x1080 publicity stills to compare with the DVD captures). Compression is generally very good, despite the low bit rate, although, on a related note, there is some of the banding commonly associated with gradients in digitally-sourced animated features (see Shot 1), as well as a strange horizontal line artefact in a handful of shots (look closely at Asterix’s hair in Shot 11). I previously saw this on the Platinum Edition DVD of The Jungle Book, so I’m wondering if it’s another issue common to digitally sourced animation.

Unfortunately, both audio tracks (English and French) are out of sync, lagging slightly behind the video. It’s incredibly distracting, since, given the nature of animation timing, even knocking the sound out by three or four frames can be very noticeable.

Astérix et les Vikings
(M6 Vidéo, France, VC-1, 12.9 GB)

Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings Astérix et les Vikings

 
Posted: Saturday, February 02, 2008 at 10:22 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Hello, it’s me, I’m back from the sea

Well, not literally, because I wasn’t anywhere near the sea. But it is indeed me, and I am indeed back. As I mentioned previously, I was away at my gran’s funeral, which was held down in Warwick, meaning that we had to head down a day early and come back a day late. I’m not sure what I can really say about it (“I’d give this funeral a 6/10” doesn’t sound quite right), except that the cremation was set to a piece of music by Ennio Morricone, chosen by my aunt. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything daring like the opening title theme to Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which would have been an eye-opener indeed (although I do think Come un Madrigale could have worked), but rather a piece from one of his Hollywood projects, The Mission.

Anyway, over the last three days, I’ve spent about twenty hours sitting in the back of a car, so I’m understandably not feeling entirely loquacious at the moment. Just a quick note to say that the French HD DVD release of Asterix and the Vikings and the US Blu-ray release of Volver were waiting for me when I got back this evening, so I’ll be discussing them in due course. Hopefully tomorrow, but I’ve had very little sleep over the last couple of nights, due to a variety of factors, so I’ll be hitting the hay before too long. I need to be up at 6:30 for work anyway.

PS. Thanks for all the well-wishing, people. For those who asked, no, this was not exactly an unexpected death. My gran had Dementia and had been going south for a long time. She more or less spent the last month of her life unconscious, and I think most of us would have agreed that it was better for her to go now than to hang on in there without any real quality of life.

 
Posted: Friday, February 01, 2008 at 7:44 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | Dario Argento | General | Gialli | HD DVD | Music
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of January

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD
  • 28 Weeks Later (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Cat People (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Eastern Promises (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • Factory Girl (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Little Children (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Munich (R2 UK, DVD)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • The Plague Dogs (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Simpsons Movie (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Y Tu Mamá También (R2 UK, DVD)
     
 
Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:43 PM
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

What’s so bad about a little ADHD?

HD DVD

Perhaps I’ve been a bit hard on Michael Bay. Armageddon and Pearl Harbor may be awful excuses for films, and my brother doesn’t have a single kind word to say about Bad Boys 2, but everything else that I’ve seen from him has entertained me to some degree. The Rock is undoubtedly his best work, and Transformers, while far too long and filled with bad attempts at humour and tedious robot fights, is actually quite fun at times.

I’ve now seen the UK HD DVD release The Island, his solitary box office flop, and I have to say that I did like it, despite it being little more than a poorly disguised knock-off of Logan’s Run (hardly the best film to use as your source material in the first place). Like all of his films, it demonstrates the aesthetic sensibilities and world view of a teenager, but I’m going to buck the trend and say that I don’t think Bay is a completely incompetent filmmaker. True, he may overuse fast cutting and shakycam to an obnoxious degree, but he certainly knows how to shoot and stage a chase scene, which The Island has in abundance, and he seems to have a knack for getting nicely lit tight close-ups of the Beautiful People™ (and the not so beautiful). I can’t defend it as a great work of art or even anything particularly thought-provoking (although I’m sure you could make a case for it being Bay’s anti-stem cell research film if you put your mind to it - hey, he is a Bush supporter, after all), but I had fun, which, when all said and done, about all you can really ask from a summer blockbuster.

The HD DVD transfer (not doubt the same as what is to be found on the Blu-ray release), by the way, is pretty nice, albeit with some caveats. The look of the film is very similar to that of Transformers, but, unlike that particular HD DVD, someone was let loose with the filters of nastiness. There is a light sheen of edge enhancement at all times, particularly noticeable in wide shots and in Bay’s trademark “posing in front of the sun” money shots, not to mention some light compression artefacts in some of the more action-intensive shots - a by-product, I suspect, of capping the bit rate to ensure that it would fit on a single layer BD-25. Still, a good presentation all in all, with a solid audio mix. I’d consider picking up a copy if I found it in a sale somewhere.

The Island
(Warner, UK, VC-1, 20.6 GB)

The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island The Island

 
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 9:44 PM | Comments: 16 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

It’s called having standards

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

My respect for the majority of DVD production houses has just plummeted to a record low. Why? Well, my brother is currently involved in the production of an upcoming DVD release. Because it hasn’t officially been announced yet, I can’t tell you what the title is, but while the DVD is certainly not a cut-price endeavour by any means, it has not had the amount of money thrown at it that the majors (and even the more prominent independents) have access to.

Anyway, my brother’s main capacity in this operation (in addition to performing editing work on the exclusive director’s commentary, typing up the first ever English subtitle translation, designing the menus and a host of other tasks) is to handle the video transfer. He received the DigiBeta master tape and personally transferred it, and recently did his first pass on the DVD encode.

To say that the end result blows away every single commercially released DVD I have ever seen would be the understatement of the century.

A typical highly-lauded DVD transfer for a multi-billion dollar movie from a major distributor. Where's the detail?

Above: A typical highly-lauded DVD transfer for a multi-billion dollar movie from a major distributor. Where’s the detail?

I only wish I could show you direct screen captures at this time, because they really make a mockery of what pass for prestige releases from other studios. The level of detail is sublime (there are moments where, if you’d told me it was an HD DVD or Blu-ray release, I’d have believed you), the grain is accurately reproduced, and compression artefacts are basically a non-issue. It’s not even as if my brother had a brand new element to work with: on the contrary, the DigiBeta master he was sent was previously used by an other company who put out a release which, while not exactly awful by regular DVD standards, really left me scratching my head when I saw the quality of the master itself. A perfect example of how a company can take a decent master and then proceed to screw it up by applying a whole load of pointless “enhancement” algorithms.

So, what we will have here is a DVD for a low budget film that is more than 20 years old and was converted from DigiBeta to DVD-friendly MPEG-2 without anything being done to it beyond painting out a handful of cue marks and instances of print damage, and looks ten times better than what the big-shot studios are putting out for films that are only a few months old. For god’s sake, the damned trailer, taken from a dupe print that has presumably been lying around someone’s garage for the past two decades, shows more detail than any commercial DVD I’ve seen released in the last year.

Do you think this is fair?

 
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 5:16 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Proving that good taste is a rare commodity

What it means to be enlightened

Above: What it means to be enlightened

Demonstrating themselves once again to be a pillar of taste and decency, the notorious Westboro Baptist Church have made it known that they plan to picket the funeral of actor Heath Ledger, who, as I’m sure you know, died on January 22nd.

Apparently, the reason for this “protest” is that Ledger played a gay character in the film Brokeback Mountain, an action that, in the eyes of the criminally insane Fred Phelps and his small band of brainwashed followers, is about the worst thing anyone could ever do:

“You cannot live in defiance of God. He (Ledger) got on that big screen with a big, fat message: God is a liar and it’s OK to be gay,” said Shirley Phelps in a statement sent out by the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church.

The only thing that amazes me more than the complete and utter stupidity of these people is that Mrs. Phelps actually managed to get through that entire sentence without making a single reference to homosexuals eating excrement, an act which she appears to be convinced is an integral element of the gay “lifestyle”, and one which, according to her, all homosexuals practice (see the Louis Theroux documentary The Most Hated Family in America for more details). Ledger himself may not have been, to use the Westboro Baptist lingo, a “fag”, but he was, in their eyes, the next worst thing, a “fag enabler”, and therefore, as far as they are concerned, deserving of their own particular brand of special treatment (again, see the Louis Theroux documentary for an explanation of how this apparently works).

This is one of these instances where there is absolutely no point in attempting to pick apart what she says or trying to demonstrate why she’s wrong because (a) if you have even a shred of common sense, you’ll know she’s off her nut, and (b) everything that comes out of this woman’s mouth is so whacked-out that it actually defies conventional criticism. To dignify her arguments by attempting to refute them requires you to actually come down to her level, and I’m sorry, but I can’t stoop that low. I’ve got a bad back.

I really shouldn’t be so surprised - that the Phelps clan would leap on this bandwagon was as set in stone as the fact that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. What I wasn’t expecting, however (although perhaps that just shows my naivety), was the reaction from Fox News to Ledger’s death:

Fox News’ John Gibson on Jan. 22 opened his radio show with funeral music and mocked a signature line from “Brokeback,” saying, “Well, he found out how to quit you.” (When Gibson was contacted to explain his comments, he declined.)

Again, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I’m all too aware of Fox News’ world view and agenda, but even by their standards this is pretty incredible.

 
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 10:44 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | General | TV
 

Let the back-patting commence

Film

The Razzies may be where it’s at, but it seems that another awards ceremony has been set up in mockery of the Golden Raspberries! Calling itself the Oscars, the notion behind this two-bit stunt is to celebrate positive achievements in the film industry. What’s that all about?

Anyway, all joking aside, you can read the full list of nominees here. Once again, I haven’t seen too many of the titles listed (I tend to be a bit slow off the mark in that regard, due to my lack of visits to the cinema), but of the ones I have seen, I think Viggo Mortensen’s Best Actor nomination for Eastern Promises is more than deserved, and I’ll be rooting for Ratatouille in the Best Animated Film category. (Ratatouille is also up for two other awards, Music [Score] and Writing [Original Screenplay], but as I know next to nothing about the competition in these categories, I can’t really comment.) It’s nice, too, if slightly predictable, to see Michael Moore’s Sicko in the Documentary Feature category, although, given that it’s the only documentary released in the last year that I’ve seen, once again I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. I also note that the brilliant Sarah Polley is also up for her first ever Oscar nomination, albeit in the Writing (Adapted Screenplay) category, for her feature length directorial debut, Away From Her, rather than for her better known talent, her acting ability.

Once again, however, I find myself wincing the further down the page I go and the more entrants I read for the more minor categories, like Sound Design and Makeup. While I’m not about to claim that the sound effects in Transformers are unworthy of praise, or that the various guises in which Eddie Murphy appears in Norbit are cack-handedly executed, there’s something very wrong with the notion that the latter film can now legitimately be described as an “Academy Award nominee”. (At least the fact that it is also up for eight Razzies helps soothe that stinging wound - not that it would be the first time this happened by any stretch.) I’ve said this before, but I’m convinced that the “smaller” categories should have a different name compared to the more significant ones like Best Picture and Best Director. Mini-Oscar, maybe, or Oscar Jr? Anything to prevent people from thinking that bloody Norbit is worthy of some sort of recognition.

Oh, and another thing that irks me: The Bourne Ultimatum in the Best Editing category. For all that film’s strengths, I really don’t see its editing as one of them. The trend of ultra fast, confusing cutting is really not one that I’m particularly eager to see celebrated.

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 3:58 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Cinema
 

Lots of grain and gristled chins

HD DVD

I watched the HD DVD release of Running Scared last week. I can’t say I particularly warmed to the film it all, unfortunately. On paper, it sounds like an interesting premise (a minor gangster is charged with disposing of a gun used to kill an undercover cop, but the kid living next door to him steals it, uses it to shoot his abusive father and runs off, prompting the aforementioned gangster to head off on a madcap chase through the city to track the kid down and get rid of the gun), but, as is usually the case with me and gangster movies, it didn’t click at all. I found it all a bit boring, to be perfectly honest, with the occasional inspired idea (the climax, set at an ice rink, is pretty unique) not really doing enough to hold it all together. It’s a shame, because I really liked writer/director Wayne Kramer’s earlier film, The Cooler. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

At least fans of the film will not be disappointed with the HD transfer. EMS has given this movie a stellar presentation, accurately depicting the film’s heavily stylised, contrasty, grain-wrought appearance. Given the often jittery camerawork, and the fact that it is the moving grain particles that gives the film much of its detail, the static screenshots below might not completely do it justice, but take my word for it, this is a very, very nice transfer, and one that would probably have been in my personal Top 10 (or at least Top 15) transfers of 2007 if I’d seen it in time for it to qualify.

Running Scared
(EMS, Germany, VC-1, 20.9 GB)

Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared Running Scared

 
Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 1:53 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Not so import proof after all

HD DVD HD DVD

Remember the post I made last week where I said that Germany HD DVD publisher Senator Home Entertainment was going Blu-ray exclusive? Well, guess what: they’re not. That’s right, it was all a load of hooey.

Apparently, Cinefacts, who first reported the false story, got the “news” direct from the Blu-ray Disc Association (the BDA), but have now retracted the announcement. So, once again, the BDA have been caught lying. Well I never! Unfortunately, whoever said that cheaters never prosper clearly never bore witness to a format war.

This is hardly going to save HD DVD, but it does mean that we should be able to get region free HD releases of the likes of Death Proof and Planet Terror.

 
Posted: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 10:22 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD
 

Here come the Razzies

Film

Stop press! Hold everything! The nominations for the 28th Annual Razzie Awards have been revealed. The full list of nominees is at the official web site, but I can tell you already that this year is going to be one to remember. I Know Who Killed Me, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Norbit are leading the race, with nine, eight and eight nominations respectively. Eddie Murphy, meanwhile, has set a new achievement with an impressive five nominations in a single year (one of the downsides to playing several characters in the same film, it would seem - not to mention taking a screenwriting credit).

For fans of bad cinema, the Razzies are surely the most important awards ceremony of the year, far more so than the Oscars (pfff!), since they allow buffs to plan their DVD rentals and viewings for the year ahead. I mean, just looking through the full list, there are several films that have somehow passed me by.

 
Posted: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 9:48 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Web
 

The case for euthanising Tom Green

DVD

I will watch and review Norbit, a film I hoped never to see, if you watch and review Freddy Got Fingered, one of the only two films in the world that I actively hate. ‘Tedious, mean-spirited, nasty, unfunny, noxious, loathsome, fucking tragic waste of celluloid’? Oh, Michael, you have no idea…

- Baron Scarpia, December 8th, 2007

It took me long enough, but I eventually got there. I have now watched Freddy Got Fingered. Given the 83 minutes of sheer agony that I have just suffered through, fulfilling the second half of the bargain should, in comparison, be a doddle.

As we sat down to watch the film, my brother said to me: “You know, I bet you anything you like that there will be one joke that absolutely kills us buried somewhere in all this.” He was right. Just under twelve minutes into the film, we see an animation executive talking on his cellphone. Here is his dialogue:

Listen, you tell Hanna-Barbera to go fuck themselves, okay? I got twelve Korean teenagers in a tiger cage that can draw a fucking dog wearing a cape.

It’s one of those little “it’s funny because it’s true” moments that should put a smile on the face of anyone who knows the mentality of the average animation executive. Unfortunately, this means that there are still more than 72 minutes of pain to follow. Freddy Got Fingered has three things working in its favour:

1. It’s only 83 minutes long.
2. Of which 4½ are the closing credits.
3. I watched a PAL release, which is 4% faster than the NTSC versions. Had I found myself landed with an NTSC copy, it would have lasted 87 minutes. On balance, I consider myself to be extremely lucky.

Isn't this funny?

Isn’t this funny?

Unfortunately, from here on in, the positives will have to be restricted to the fact that the experience of sitting through this film did not actually prove to be fatal. Freddy Got Fingered stars Tom Green, not as Freddy (more about him later), but as Gord Brody, an aspiring cartoonist. Stop and think about this for a second. Tom Green. As a cartoonist. Broadly speaking, good cartoons require two things: they have to be funny, and they have to be drawn well. Tom Green is not, by any stretch of the imagination, funny. He isn’t funny when he’s performing someone else’s material. When he’s performing his own (he not only stars in, but also directed and co-wrote this film), he’s fucking tragic. His cartoons, which I suspect Green himself didn’t actually draw, are not particularly well drawn, but on balance are probably as good as or slightly better than 95% of the animated fare you’ll see when you turn on your television.

And here’s the problem: I’m not sure whether or not we’re supposed to take Gord’s aspirations seriously. Is he supposed to be a great cartoonist, or is the joke that he’s a hopeless one? The quality of his output certainly doesn’t give us any clues, since it’s not god-awful, but it’s not any good either. I’m not even sure whether or not we, the audience, are expected to like Gord, let alone his cartoons. On paper, he is as vile and loathsome an excuse for a human being as you could hope to find, but then again, given that he seems to be a stand-in for Green himself, one can only assume that either Green suffers from a serious case of self-hatred, or, more likely, he thinks he’s a comic genius and that masturbating a horse, slitting open a dead deer and wearing its skin Ed Gein-style, and spinning a baby round and round by its umbilical cord are the height of entertainment.

You're supposed to laugh because she's disabled.

You’re supposed to laugh because she’s disabled.

This film also stars Rip Torn as Gord’s vulgar father. When I first saw him, I thought for one awful minute that it was Jack Nicholson, but thankfully, not even he, who has recently starred in such classics as Anger Management, has delved that low yet. Eddie Kaye Thomas, who appeared in the American Pie comedies, plays Gord’s younger brother, Freddy. In an absolutely “hilarious” scene, Gord accuses his father of molesting Freddy, hence the film’s title. Freddy ends up in a home for abused children. Isn’t that funny? Better yet, Green’s wife at the time, Drew Barrymore, also shows up to embarrass herself in the minor role of a secretary at the animation studio. The fact that she divorced him less than a year after the film was released does a lot to redeem her in my eyes. Oh, and Marisa Coughlan, the only element of the film that even approaches pleasantness, plays Gord’s girlfriend-to-be, a wheelchair-bound lady who enjoys sucking his cock and having her legs whacked with a bamboo stick. That we are spared seeing her actually putting Tom Green’s penis in her mouth and performing fellatio on him can, I suspect, give us one reason to be thankful for the rating criteria of the Motion Picture Association of America and the fact that the mainstream studios generally won’t put out anything with an NC-17 certificate.

I’m not even going to attempt to critique the film’s plot (or lack thereof), cinematic technique (or lack thereof), performances (or lack thereof), or any of the other elements that one might expect to find in a movie. (I do, however, want to point out that, when I first head about this film, I assumed it was something that had been shot on a consumer grade camcorder or, at most, DV. Never in my life did I expect it to be shot on 35mm, which isn’t cheap and actually requires some degree of technical know-how to shoot on.) I simply want to conclude by saying that, until now, I have never given anything a rating of “0/10”. Previously, no matter how awful a film appeared to be, I always held off slapping it with a score that low because I was sure that there must be something in the world that was worse than it, and that I couldn’t make use of this score until I could be sure I had seen something approximating the worst film ever made. That long search is now over. While I can conceive of there being other films that are as bad as Freddy Got Fingered, the notion of there being anything more awful is beyond my reasoning. I have gazed into the abyss, and it gazed back at me. And it wanked an elephant off.

 
Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 4:12 PM | Comments: 21 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews
 

The Giallo Project #11: Death Walks at Midnight

DVD

Alternative titles: La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte; Director: Luciano Ercoli; Starring: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Peter Martell, Claudie Lange, Carlo Gentili, Luciano Rossi; Music: Gianni Ferrio; Italian theatrical release date: November 17th, 1972

Note: this review contains some spoilers.

Now comes the part where I get to revel in my own hypocrisy. Last time, I looked at Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and picked it apart for its narrative shortcomings and weak-willed heroine. This time, however, I’m going to talk about a film that I enjoy much better on the whole, although it’s not one I can really defend. Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, the producer-turned-director’s third and final giallo, suffers from some pretty significant problems, not least the leaden pacing in its second act, but, if a giallo is going to be kitschy rather than serious, it’s a lot closer to the sort of kitsch I personally enjoy than that which is to be found in Mrs. Wardh.

The plot centres around Valentina (Nieves Navarro), a glamorous model who agrees to take an experimental new hallucinogenic called HDS for a story her journalist friend Gio (Simón Andreu) is writing. While under the influence, Valentina sees (or thinks she sees) a woman being bludgeoned to death by a man wielding a spiked glove in the apartment facing hers. With virtually everyone, including Gio, her boyfriend Stefano (Peter Martell) and the requisite cigar-chewing inspector (Carlo Gentili) passing her vision off as nothing more than the result of a drug-induced stupor, Valentina sets out to do her own detective work, particularly when the same killer she saw begins menacing her…

This is one of these films that you have to take at face value and accept for what it is. It is not, by any means, great art, and looks decidedly out of place when positioned alongside the better genre offerings by Argento, Fulci, Bava, Dallamano, Lado and the like. Essentially, it’s just a light, gory, kitschy romp in which a beautiful woman is menaced by various unsavoury types, and as such it has a lot more in common with the Sergio Martino films that tend to leave me cold. For some reason, though, I really do enjoy Ercoli’s gialli, and this is by far my favourite. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the way in which the heroine is portrayed. Ercoli, it would seem, attempted to establish his wife/leading lady Navarro (credited here, as in many of her films, as Susan Scott) as a rival to Edwige Fenech, without much success (she only played the lead in three gialli: this, the earlier Death Walks on High Heels and Maurizio Pradeaux’s snorefest Death Carries a Cane). Part of this might be due to her arriving on the scene late: she was much older than Fenech when she made her first giallo, and, by the time Death Walks at Midnight, arguably her strongest outing, came along, 1972 was nearing its end and the giallo craze had entered its twilight. However, I suspect that another reason is her on-screen persona.

To put it bluntly, “victim” is really not in Navarro’s repertoire. She literally exudes sexuality, her self-assured “I’m gorgeous and I know it” pout a far cry from the sort of innocent damsels who tended to be the leading ladies in most gialli. Passivity seems to be an alien concept to her, and she controls virtually every scene in which she appears (and I can think of only a handful in which she is absent), continually giving as good as she gets and, unusually for a giallo heroine, absolutely refusing to give up. (It’s also kind of interesting that, although she is a model by profession, unlike Fenech in Mrs. Wardh, she never takes her clothes off and is, on the whole, much more modestly dressed. That’s not a criticism or a compliment, just an observation.) True, she gets slapped around a bit, but those who decide to take her on tend to get far worse from her in return, and, while the various men in her life all seem to treat her as a bit of a joke, you get the impression that she has the last laugh.

Death Walks at Midnight

Valentina is, ultimately, an example of an extremely rare breed in a giallo territory: a confident, self-sufficient woman who takes shit from no-one: Julie Wardh she is not. A complete and utter narcissist (a giant blow-up photograph of herself hangs over her bed), you get the impression that she is in love with no-one but herself, despite having a boyfriend who has his own key to her apartment, and something of a love-hate relationship with Gio, the specifics of which are never made clear (personally, I suspect they probably had a relationship in the past). There is also a strong dose of comedy both in Navarro’s performance and in her interactions with her co-stars, showing that she is not afraid to take the piss out of herself, flopping about on a bed with her arms flailing and wittering on about purple ice cream, red priests and murderers. While we might speculate that the injection of comedic elements implies that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the notion of a tough, independent woman, we tend to laugh with Valentina rather than at her. All the men she meets either treat her as an attention-seeking child or like crap (or both), but, ultimately, she’s right and they’re wrong: she did see a murder, and there was a man after her, trying to kill her. Most of the laughs come from her eye-rolling as Gio attempts to worm his way into her favour, or from the number of people she slaps, punches or knees in the balls.

Perhaps the strongest possible indication of the difference between Valentina and Julie Wardh comes in a scene in which Valentina and Gio are sitting in an outdoor restaurant. Only half-listening to what Gio is saying, Valentina allows her mind to wander and suddenly spots the killer standing in a crowd nearby, watching her. Realising he has been spotted, he turns tail and runs, while Valentina immediately gives chase, berating a reluctant Gio into tagging along. Julie would probably either have fainted or collapsed into George Hilton’s arms, begging him to take her back to the safety of his bachelor pad (no doubt for a bout of reassuring sex on the sofa), but giving up is the last thing on Valentina’s mind. Throughout the film, she is the driving force in getting to the bottom of the mystery, and all the amateur sleuthing is carried out by her. I’m not trying to suggest that this is anything approaching a feminist tract, but in comparison with Mrs. Wardh, it seems positively radical.

I think Valentina’s relationship with the world of men is perfectly summed up in the scene where, attempting to exit the asylum she has been visiting, she has to fend off a room full of crazed inmates, who crowd around her, pawing at her or acting up to get her attention. She seems ultimately to be the lone woman and voice of reason in a world dominated by mad or immature men, some of whom with to do harm to her (e.g. Stefano and the assassins who come after her), while others simply don’t realise they’re getting in her way and are too preoccupied by their own concerns to see her point of view (e.g. Gio, Inspector Seripa). Even random individuals seem to want to do her harm: a driver whom she flags down for a lift back into town ends up trying to rape her (and finds her foot connecting with his groin for his troubles). When we finally meet another female character - the pale, frightened Verushka (Claudie Lange), obviously a “kept woman” - the difference between her and Valentina is striking.

As I said at the beginning, I can’t make too many excuses for Death Walks at Midnight or claim it to be a lost masterpiece. It is, in places, a whole lot of fun, and has some very nicely-directed scenes (in particular, the opening hallucination and the rooftop fight which rounds things off), not to mention a great, charismatic heroine, but it really falls off the rails in the middle, giving way to a seemingly pointless subplot involving Stefano and two Japanese children who he is looking after (I’m assuming the point of this is to reveal some sort of latent longing for a conventional domestic life in Valentina, but it is buried before it has a chance to be explored). Still, for all its faults, it’s an agreeable, breezy giallo with a nice sense of self-deprecation and a lead who doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang out with Valentina than with Julie Wardh. Provided she didn’t start thumping me.

I’m not sure which film I’ll be looking at next time, but hopefully you won’t have to wait too long for it.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 3:31 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Reviews | The Giallo Project
 

The DVNR bandits strike again

HD DVD

The other day, I ordered a copy of the soon-to-be-OOP US HD DVD release of Pan’s Labyrinth from New Line. I did this fully aware of the controversy surrounding the noise reduction that had been applied to the transfer, sucking out much of the grain and fine detail. My reasoning behind this was that the UK release, which I reviewed late last year, also showed signs of noise reduction, so I figured that both would feature the same decent but flawed transfer, with the US release having the added benefits of lossless 7.1 audio, picture-in-picture and other additional extras.

Unfortunately, it looks as if I was wrong. Screen captures have surfaced at the AV Science Forum showing, in their full 1920x1080 resolution, the same frame from both releases (as well as the French HD DVD and EU H.264 broadcast versions), and to say that the US release makes the UK version look stellar would be an understatement. This is probably the worst example of grain-sucking I’ve seen on an HD release this side of Cat People or American Psycho, and while many people are predictably praising the US release for looking “smooth” and “clean” (words which always put the fear of Pazuzu in me when used in reference to material shot on film), the more informed among us are justifiably outraged.

Pan's Labyrinth

I’m now really sorry I ordered this release, and at this rate I won’t even be bothering to unwrap the cellophane. It also makes me slightly suspicious of the rave reviews that New Line’s other HD releases have been receiving, and I have a feeling I’ll need to pick up one or two of them to get to the truth of the matter. The problem is that none of the titles they’ve put out so far appeal to me, least of all Rush Hour 3.

 
Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 11:38 AM | Comments: 11 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Reviews | Technology
 

Import proof

HD DVD

Apparently, German distributor Senator Home Entertainment, currently an HD DVD distributor, will be following in Warner’s footsteps and dropping support for the format to concentrate exclusively on Blu-ray.

Among the various titles the format owned the rights to and planned to release on HD DVD were the two halves of Grindhouse, Planet Terror and Death Proof, the latter of which was even listed on Amazon.de and which I had pre-ordered. With it now unlikely to see the light of day, I’ve cancelled my order.

The sad part of this is that, so far, Senator’s Blu-ray releases have apparently been region coded, which means that, unless I supplement my Region A Playstation 3 with a Region B model, I probably won’t be able to play any eventual Blu-ray releases of these two films. Aren’t you just loving this new Blu future?

 
Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 10:27 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD
 

HD banditry

HD DVD

Although they have been floating cover art, vague specs and a “coming soon” release window for some time now, Universal have, until today, not unveiled many specifics about their upcoming HD DVD release of Ridley Scott’s latest film, American Gangster.

Today, however, they issued an official announcement, confirming its release date as February 19th, along with its full specs. This will be an HD DVD/DVD combo release, and, oddly enough, while the HD DVD side contains only the theatrical cut, the DVD side, via seamless branching, also throws in what is being described as an “Unrated Extended Cut”, clocking in at 19 minutes longer than its theatrical counterpart.

My first reaction upon reading this announcement was “No!!! You morons! What are you thinking releasing it like this?” The more that I think about it, though, the less this annoys me. Does anyone remember the last Ridley Scott film to be released as an “Unrated Extended Cut” (as opposed to a “Director’s Cut”)? It was Gladiator, and it opened with a visibly pissed off Scott, scarcely able to hide his contempt, telling us that the version we were about to release was categorically not his director’s cut. The fact that he and writer Steven Zaillian have provided an audio commentary for the theatrical version rather rather than the extended cut suggests to me that this is their preferred version. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that the extended version was just another Gladiator, with a few scenes that were rightly left on the cutting room floor spliced back in.

Bottom line, it would have been nice to have had both versions in HD, but I’m not losing sleep over this. Unlike some people, I’m not about to cancel my pre-order.

I am, however, disappointed to note that many of the extras from the DVD have been left off this release… although it may turn out that much of the missing material may be replicated in the picture-in-picture feature on the HD DVD.

 
Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:56 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 
 

 
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