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The Year in Review

2006 - the year of HD

Note: I’m not going to cover worldwide hot topics like the execution of Saddam Hussein or the continued botch-job that is the situation in Iraq. This is simply a set of personal musings about my own experiences this year.

HD DVD

On a technological front, by far the biggest development on the HMS Whimsy this year was the arrival of an HD DVD player - a late change from our original intention to pick up a Blu-ray player. Originally, I had expected to perhaps have half a dozen titles in high definition by the end of the year, but have in fact ended up with 21 (plus another two that Lyris bought). Certainly a number of these are films that I probably wouldn’t have bought had their been a better selection available, but still, if you’d told me that, a mere six months after its launch, the format would included crystal-clear copies of Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood, not to mention more obscure cult titles like An American Werewolf in London and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I wouldn’t have believed you. All in all, HD DVD got off to a great start in 2006, with I only hope will continue to be bettered in 2007.

Including both standard definition and high definition, I bought or received for review a total of 107 DVDs. I wrote 66 reviews for DVD Times (two down from last year’s record of 68), and went to the cinema a whopping two times. I watched 216 films (including those watched more than once), 99 of which I had never seen before. These tended to be of the more obscure variety, although I did see a number of “major” (both in the sense of being “important” and of being blockbusters that just about everyone ended up seeing) titles that had, for one reason or another, passed me by until last year, including Trains, Planes & Automobiles, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Blade Runner, Tout Va Bien, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Collateral, Corpse Bride, The Piano Teacher, Theatre of Blood, A History of Violence, V for Vendetta, 5x2, Bitter Moon, Walkabout, Fritz the Cat, Vertigo, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Descent, The Constant Gardener, Serenity, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, Duck Soup, Strictly Ballroom, The Fifth Element, Ghost World, Cars, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Being John Malkovich, Black Sunday, The Omen (remake), Witchfinder General, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Casino Royale, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Miami Vice, Basic Instinct and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Quite clearly, this list features some real gems and some absolute garbage, including gems that I thought would be garbage and garbage that I thought would be gems.

DVD

In terms of television, meanwhile, I watched the first two seasons of Veronica Mars and the final season of Alias. I also went through the entire seven-season run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its steadily diminishing returns post-Season 5 gradually driving me towards the brink of suicide (I exaggerate). The long-running medical drama Casualty also celebrated its 20th anniversary, with the launch of the first three series on DVD - it’s anyone’s guess how long they will continue this, given that each series becomes progressively longer, until they eventually run for more or less the entire year. Speaking of Casualty, that particular show shocked me in delivering perhaps the best two hours of television I’d seen all year, with the much-heralded return of former writer (and Waking the Dead creator) Barbara Machin for a one-off guest writing gig. Much to my delight, the magnificent Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was finally released on DVD, although the same team’s follow-up, the satirical chat-show Man to Man with Dean Learner, turned out to be a huge disappointment. The fifth season of Spooks also aired, and, while it was suitably engaging, it sacrificed some of the subtlety of previous years in favour of increasingly unbelievable conspiracies and hostile takeovers. Oh, and on the TV/film front, Channel 4’s dedicated film channel, FilmFour, became free in July, providing the UK with its first free-to-air channel dedicated to movies.

After over a year’s worth of procrastination, I finally recorded a new fan commentary, this time for Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso. Once again, feedback for this seems to have been largely positive, although it’s anyone’s guess what I’ll think of it myself when I finally brave listening to it again.

The Third Mother, the long-awaited conclusion to Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (started with Suspiria and Inferno in 1977 and 1980 respectively), finally went into production, wrapping at some point in late November/early December, with a projected May 2007 release date. Argento also helmed another episode in the American Masters of Horror television series: Pelts turned out to be less shameful than 2005’s Jenifer, but a far cry from his home-grown exploits nonetheless. Meanwhile, the much-feared Hollywood remake of Suspiria was finally axed.

After much talk of the two companies going their separate ways, Disney bought Pixar and instated John Lasseter as the joint president of feature animation for both studios. Shortly before the end of the year, it was announced that, following the release of Meet the Robinsons, Disney would be abandoning CG animation entirely and returning to the hand-drawn realm in which it made its name.

DVD

Once more in the animated world, John Kricfalusi, the creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the industry’s last great hope, started up an excellent blog in February. July also saw the release on DVD of Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes, containing six new installments featuring everyone’s favourite dog and cat duo, three of which had never even aired on TV. Sadly, there seems to be no indication that sales of the DVD have persuaded Paramount to order more episodes.

I got into computer games this year to a far greater extent than I had for some time, picking up Guild Wars: Factions, Guild Wars: Nightfall, The Movies: Stunts and Effects, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend, as well as replaying Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Icewind Dale II, Starcraft: Brood War and Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Lyris also picked up the new Nintendo Wii console in November, resulting in much enjoyment as all on sundry made asses of themselves waving its newfangled controller about. Oh, and Blizzard Entertainment “postponed indefinitely” (read “cancelled”) its troubled console action game Starcraft: Ghost, much to the disappointment of the three or four people that still cared about it.

ASUS EN7600GT/HTDI/256M

I also bought rather more technological gadgets than is normal for me: I picked up a digital camera in February, and a swish new widescreen LCD monitor in June. I also replaced my Creative Zen Micro MP3 player with a Sony NW-HD5 in November, and made the mistake of buying an nVidia-based video card for my computer in December (the replacement ATI model will hopefully arrive soon after business returns to normal after the New Year holiday).

In September, I finally finished my MLitt, handed in my dissertation, and, much to my shock, was awared a Distinction. Unable to find a job, I went on unemployment benefit - what fun.

Oh, and on the web site front, September saw a new site design and a return to Movable Type as a publishing platform after slightly over a year with Blogger. In November, meanwhile, I finally got sick of my useless host, Fuitadnet, constantly screwing up and making life difficult, and moved to Donym, where the rent is cheaper and everything runs much more smoothly to boot.

 
Posted: Monday, January 01, 2007 at 3:22 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Games | General | Gialli | HD DVD | Music | Reviews | TV | Technology | Web
 

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

With the release of Tomb Raider back in 1996, Core Design struck gold and gave the gaming industry its first true action heroine, Lara Croft - even if her gender and ample bosom arguably contributed far more to its success than any actual merit of the gameplay itself. Following the remarkable success of the first game, Core followed up with a sequel every year, with the law of diminishing returns ensuring that each subsequent instalment was inferior to its predecessors, until, following a three-year break after the half-hearted Tomb Raider: Chronicles, the Derby-based studio released the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, a supposed drastic reimagining that, in reality, shambled on to the scene as an unfinished, buggy mess. The Angel of Darkness was so bad that publisher Eidos Interactive yanked development duties away from Core (an embarrassing situation, beyond any doubt) and handed them over to Crystal Dynamics, the US-based developer of the Legacy of Kain franchise. Tomb Raider: Legend, their first effort featuring the buxom adventurer, was eventually released in Spring 2006, three years after Core’s final offering. The result: the best Tomb Raider game in years and arguably the first truly great instalment in the franchise.

Crystal Dynamics have wisely struck a balance between reinventing the game from the ground up and leaving enough of the original format to make it instantly familiar to those that have played its predecessors. One of the biggest criticisms of the various sequels was that they made the “Tomb” in Tomb Raider something of a joke, with Lara travelling to seemingly every location except actual tombs. Crystal Dynamics have rectified this, and, while there are certainly some diverse locations on display, including a trip to the skyscrapers of Tokyo at night, the bulk of the game takes place in various underground caverns and mausoleums. Including the fairly brief final boss fight, there are a total of eight different locations, most of them fairly sprawling although never daunting in their scale, with an estimated total of 10-15 hours of gameplay (according to the timer, I finished it in 9 hours and 36 minutes).

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

It’s all over rather quickly, therefore, and I certainly found myself wishing it had gone on for a little longer, although various hidden goodies, which can be picked up to unlock bonus costumes and weapon upgrades, as well as a time trial option, do encourage you to replay the game. At the same time, Legend seems far less impenetrable than, say, Tomb Raider III, which eventually turned into giant sprawling level after giant sprawling level of tedium. It also helps that Legend’s gameplay feels far more concentrated than many of its predecessors, with a focus on puzzles that can be completed using items already at your disposal rather than having to trek across huge levels to find an obscure button that will open a random door. Indeed, very few puzzles even require you to leave the room in which they are located, meaning that accomplishing your immediate objective is always within your grasp, thereby encouraging you to keep playing rather than simply giving up. The puzzles are also very logical, and indeed many even seem a little too straightforward, given that Lara or her various associates will often offer handy hints as to what needs to be done.

Crystal Dynamics have also reined in the frustration factor inherent in the constant deaths and restarts incurred during the previous games - a combination of their cumbersome controls and the games’ demandingly exact grid-based movement system. Previously, even a simple jump from one block to another would be fraught with danger, as, chances were that you would line Lara up slightly wrong and end up missing your target. Legend is far more forgiving, in the sense that, provided you aim in the general vicinity of where you intend to go, chances are that Lara will automatically adjust her trajectory mid-jump and land where you want her. On the PC version, accuracy is also much-aided by finally allowing players to use the traditional mouse-and-keyboard combination favoured by every action game for years (this function was also present in The Angel of Darkness, although it did little to improve playability due to that game’s clunky movement). As a result, Legend is infinitely smoother and more natural to control than any of its predecessors, meaning that gamers can actually play the game instead of wrangling with its basic mechanics.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

A considerable amount of effort has also been invested in the story, which is of a more personal nature, given that it involves the fate of Lara’s dead parents (the storyline has been modified somewhat since the first game to tie in better with the two film adaptations, although there are still some key differences between these two strands of the franchise) and a group of fellow explorers, many of whom came to a sticky end during a grave-digging jaunt in Paraíso. The various in-game cut-scenes are highly effective, with Lara ably voiced by actress Keeley Hawes (who played Zoe in the first three seasons of Spooks). Her banter with her various assistants, who keep in contact with her via a headset, is often quite funny, although there are a few clunkers, and, on occasions in which a particularly tricky puzzle requires multiple attempts (which are, admittedly, laudably few in number), the continued repetition of the same zingers becomes a little tiresome. Graphically, the game is also very impressive, with only a handful of blocky textures, which the art direction and level design do an admirable job of concealing the fact that the game is ultimately still based around jumping from one square block of ground to the next.

Where the gameplay is a little less impressive is in terms of its combat. It all feels a bit perfunctory, with very little possible variation beyond simply jumping about and pumping enemies with lead before they can finish you off. At Medium difficulty, the game is fairly generous in terms of doling out ammo and health packs (you can carry up to three at a time), while guns are limited to only a few variations (in addition to the now-standard pistols, you can carry only one other weapon at a time). It is possible to jump on top of human enemies to knock them down, which causes the game to enter into slow motion, allowing you to more precisely execute them, although the occasions on which this can be done (and indeed when this is actually worthwhile) are relatively few. The various bosses, meanwhile, which conclude most of the levels, can initially seem a little daunting, but are generally fairly straightforward once you work out the central puzzle, with very few of them requiring much in the way of dodging and acrobatics. A handful of motorcycle chases also tend to be a little frustrating, given that their controls are much more clunky than the game proper (the mouse, annoyingly, can’t be used for steering).

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

Tomb Raider: Legend is ultimately a highly enjoyable game. It may not be particularly lengthy or taxing, but it is a beautifully-presented adventure with slick controls, an engaging plot and some fun puzzles. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it certainly salvages an aging franchise, breathing life into a series that I had otherwise given up on.

8/10.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 11:15 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | Reviews | Technology
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of December

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • An American Werewolf in London (R0 USA, HD DVD/SD DVD combo)
  • Basic Instinct (R0 France, HD DVD)
  • Casablanca (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • The Double Life of Véronique: The Criterion Collection (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Four (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Miami Vice (R0 USA, HD DVD/SD DVD combo)
  • Operation Crossbow (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • The Quiller Memorandum (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Serenity (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Ultimate Edition (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Wolf Creek (R0 USA, HD DVD)

This month, the number of HD DVDs I picked up exceeded the number of standard definition DVDs for the first time: long may this trend continue.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 2:32 PM
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

Kisses, bangs, tombs and Blu-ray - oh my!

We took a little family outing today, and went to Braehead Shopping and Leisure Centre, where all the cool people buy their groceries. In the after-Christmas sales (or not), I picked up Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend (what a mouthful) for PC. I’d downloaded the demo on a whim and played it the night before, and found it to be surprisingly good, especially in comparison with its tedious predecessors. It seems that the move from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics salvaged the crumbling franchise and resulted in what it possibly the first truly good Tomb Raider game: even the much-lauded original struck me as rather anaemic, thanks mainly to the awful controls - Legend solves this by switching to a much appreciated mouse-and-keyboard combo. I’ll probably do a full review once I’ve worked my way through the whole thing.

HD DVD

I also picked up Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on HD DVD. I’d been toying with getting the US release, which is an HD DVD/DVD combo, for some time, but, when I saw that the UK version was just a straight HD DVD, I decided to get it instead. I’m glad I did: this is probably the funniest film I’ve seen all day, and quite possibly my favourite HD DVD release so far. It’s a little too smugly self-referential at times, especially in terms of the narration, but the rest of it had me guffawing uncontrollably. I don’t think I actually understood the plot at all, but who cares when you’ve got Robert Downey Jr. losing his finger and having it swallowed by a dog, Val Kilmer playing a gay private detective called (what else?) Gay Perry, and Michelle Monaghan running down a Los Angeles highway in the middle of the night wearing a skimpy Santa outfit? I understand that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office, partly due to an ineffective advertising campaign that seriously misrepresented it, but don’t let that put you off: this borderline satire of film noir is highly entertaining stuff and one of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve seen in ages.

After that, we headed over to Costco, where Lyris wanted to look into a 1080p television that he will, we hope, soon be picking up. It was there that I had my first up close and personal experience with Blu-ray. And do you know? It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting…

It was worse!

I came across Lyris watching something on a moderately-sized HDTV. I glanced at the screen and saw what looked to me like a heavily edge enhanced but rather crisp DVD. “What’s this?” I began to ask, but, even as the words left my mouth, I began to wonder if something foul was afoot. “That’s not… is that… Blu-ray?” I spluttered. It was. The title in question was S.W.A.T., described by High-Def Digest as “a very nice-looking disc from Sony, and definitely one of the better they’ve put out on the format thus far”. If this ranks among the studio’s best, I’d hate to see their worst. The image was definitely sharper than standard definition DVD, and yet I wouldn’t actually describe it as better. Sharper, yes: the edge enhancement was pretty invasive, and the image overall looked incredibly harsh rather than particularly detailed. But that paled in comparison to the appalling compression. “MPEG2 is perfectly viable for high definition” my left buttock. The film grain was rendered as grubby noise rather than actual grain, and, whenever the camera moved, macro-blocking was in abundance. Worse still, any part of the screen that might be described as remotely saturated was alive with smearing artefacts. Admittedly, an improperly set-up television in a warehouse is far from an ideal setting for evaluating a disc, but I highly doubt that all the calibration in the world would save the mess that assaulted my eyes today. I’ve never felt more glad we went with HD DVD instead.

 
Posted: Friday, December 29, 2006 at 10:07 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Games | General | HD DVD | Technology
 

Jingle bells

DVD DVD

In case you didn’t notice, yesterday was Christmas. As luck would have it, the various presents I had ordered all showed up on Saturday, contrary to all expectation (Saturday being the last day for the postal service until the 27th), and I got one or two surprises in addition to those. Thanks must go especially to Lee for sending me a copy of Burton on Burton, which, as you can probably guess, is a book on director Tim Burton and his bizarre gothic fantasies. I’m sure I’ll enjoy getting stuck into it when I next have a spare moment.

Otherwise, there were no huge surprises. I got The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - The Complete Recordings (what a mouthful!) on CD but haven’t had a chance to listen to anything but the first couple of tracks. And, in terms of DVDs, my collection now includes Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4, The Double Life of Véronique (Criterion), The Quiller Memorandum and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Ultimate Edition). I’ve not had the time to watch any of them, but I gave most of them a brief glance, and have collected my thoughts below.

DVD DVD

  • The Double Life of Véronique: This release looks slightly better than the French MK2 release (repackaged in the UK under the Artificial Eye label), but it’s a close call. There is less noise reduction and the compression is better handled, giving the image a more eye-pleasing, filmlike appearance. However, I am once again annoyed that Criterion, who are (wrongly, in my opinion) frequently held up to be the pinnacle of DVD production companies, have chosen to assault the image with edge enhancement and brick-wall filtering. Especially following the advent of HD DVD, I am acutely aware that the vast majority of DVDs simply aren’t of an acceptable level of quality.

  • The Quiller Memorandum: Probably the worst transfer I’ve seen all year. This DVD was released only a month ago, and yet it looks almost like a LaserDisc master. The image is flat, detail is non-existent, and I once again find myself wondering how Fox, like Criterion, can garner so much praise for such feeble efforts.

  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: This restoration, undertaken by Synapse’s Don Mar Jr., has been praised to the high heavens on the Internet, and with good reason: the film has undoubtedly never looked better on a home video format, and the material May had to work with can’t have been in particularly good condition. All the more reason, then, for my to be annoyed by Dark Sky’s DVD, which is ineptly encoded, resulting in some of the most blatant macro-blocking I’ve seen in a long time. At times, the screen is such an array of compression blocks that it resembles a UK Freeview TV broadcast (which anyone who has witnessed this ingenious but flawed “digital TV through an antenna” solution will agree is capable of looking very bad indeed).

That’s all for now. Thoughts on the Looney Tunes discs will follow eventually.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2006 at 4:54 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | General | HD DVD | Music | Technology
 

Here’s someone else who doesn’t pay import duty

HD DVD

The HD DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood arrived from Deep Discount DVD yesterday, and I’m pleased to report that Warner have delivered another stellar disc. It’s becoming quite apparent that, at Warner, there are two processes through which a title can go. The first, which has given us discs like Constantine, Million Dollar Baby and V for Vendetta, delivers a noise reduced, slightly edge enhanced transfer. These are good-looking discs, but not up to the standards I demand. The second, which has given us discs like Corpse Bride, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and now, seemingly, The Adventures of Robin Hood, results in an image that seems to be more or less completely untampered: sharp as a tack, appropriately grainy (or not, as is the case with the all-digital Corpse Bride), and no edge enhancement in sight. A couple of scenes in Robin Hood show some slight ringing, and I’m currently investigating to determine whether this is caused by edge enhancement applied to the transfer, or something else endemic to the source materials (optical process shots, for example, often result in what nowadays we would refer to as edge enhancement).

As for the film, I found it to be a hoot: gloriously colourful, outrageously camp and filled with swashbuckling adventure and melodrama. Not the sort of thing I usually go in for, but I was suitably entertained and found it to be an enjoyable enough way to kill an hour and a half. The high definition Looney Tunes cartoons look gorgeous too, although something is up with the sound on both of them, with a lot of crackling that sounds decidedly digital in nature during the high frequencies. I’ve tried two different sets of speakers, so it’s not my sound system, and I can therefore only assume that this is a mastering fault.

On the not so positive side, only one of my four Christmas DVDs has arrived (Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4), which means that, if they don’t show up by tomorrow (I’m not confident), they’ll be too late.

 
Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006 at 10:37 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

HD DVD review: Miami Vice

HD DVD
Miami Vice is ultimately close to two and a half hours of posturing, insincere characterisation and abrasive style, none of which would suggest, barring the appearance of his name during the opening credits, that a filmmaker of Michael Mann’s calibre was behind it. To describe it as a failed experiment would be charitable: a mess is a more accurate description.

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx don their designer shades and head out to the beach as I review Universal’s recent HD DVD/DVD combo release of Miami Vice.

 
Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2006 at 2:41 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Reviews
 

Buena Vista quietly switches to VC1

Source: High-Def Digest

Due in stores today, Disney’s latest wave of Blu-ray titles features the studio’s first VC-1-encoded title, the Jodie Foster thriller ‘Flightplan.’

Interesting, interesting. Could we be in line for an HD DVD announcement at some point in the new year?

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 6:53 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Le DVNR et la compression

HD DVD

My copy of Studio Canal’s recently released HD DVD of Basic Instinct arrived from Amazon.fr this morning.

Unfortunately, the transfer, while clearly in a different league compared to standard definition, is artefact-ridden in a way that I’ve never seen on an HD DVD until now. Daylight scenes generally look fine, but those taking place at night or in subdued interior lighting conditions (which accounts for a considerable portion of the film’s duration) look smeared and defocused. Grain patterns stick to the walls and actors’ faces during panning shots, making it pretty clear that some intensive DVNR has been applied. And why? The film isn’t even 15 years old, and the compressionists have 30 GB of data to play with (and no extras, barring a trailer for other Studio Canal titles and some test patterns). I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that this is the least impressive HD DVD I’ve seen so far (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and An American Werewolf in London are contending for that crown), but it’s definitely underwhelming and not the sort of thing I’d show to someone to sell them on the delights of high definition.

I just hope this isn’t indicative of what we can expect from Studio Canal as a whole. Certainly their trailer reel, which showcases everything from The Elephant Man to Rambo to Ran, looks rather mixed in terms of quality, with some material looking absolutely excellent (the grain in Rambo looks phenomenal, and their version of Million Dollar Baby looks more impressive than Warner’s), but some not so impressive (Ran is marred by giant edge enhancement halos).

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 1:12 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Here’s looking at you, HD DVD

HD DVD

My HD DVD of Casablanca arrived from Deep Discount DVD this morning (The Adventures of Robin Hood was dispatched a few hours later than it, so presumably it will come tomorrow).

I’m very impressed with the work Warner has done on the transfer, and would place it at around a low 9/10 on my scale. First of all, this disc should put paid to the foolish notion that there’s no point in buying “old films” in high definition. The higher resolution results in as much of an improvement to the overall level of detail as any modern film I’ve seen, and by and large the digital tampering is kept to a minimum. There are a few niggles, however. The first is some occasional edge enhancement and filtering of the grain, suggesting that this disc was encoded (or the master created - it’s unclear at which stage in the chain the faults are being introduced) by whoever was in charge of Constantine and V for Vendetta rather than whoever did Corpse Bride and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Lyris also noticed some evidence of DVNR, particularly during the airport climax in a shot where Humphrey Bogart turns his head rapidly, resulting in the grain and the details of his face “dragging”.

By and large, though, this is a great-looking HD DVD. If Warner manages to top this with The Adventures of Robin Hood I will be very impressed.

 
Posted: Monday, December 18, 2006 at 5:38 PM
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

DVD image comparison: An American Werewolf in London

HD DVD

It’s that time of the month again: I’ve done a brand new DVD Image Comparison, this time focusing on John Landis’ horror classic An American Werewolf in London. Entering the ring tonight are the DVD side of the recently-released US HD DVD/DVD combo (which seems to be identical to the standalone R1 DVD), and the R2 UK Twenty-first Anniversary Special Edition (how’s that for a mouthful?).

Who will be victorious? Click and all will be revealed.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2006 at 11:23 PM
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Kerbang! Boom! Crash!

DVD

My copy of Operation Crossbow (R1 USA) arrived from DVD Pacific this morning. As I mentioned back in August, back in May 2006 Warner gave fans the chance to vote for which catalogue titles they would like to see released. The only title in the list that appealed to me was Operation Crossbow, a World War 2 spy/action movie that I’d loved ever since I happened to catch it on TV back in the early 1990s, so naturally it was the title I voted for. Apparently I’m not alone in my love of this film, for it was one of the five titles announced for a December 2006 released (another five will be released in January).

I’ve seen the film several times before, but never in its original 2.35:1 ratio. Uncropped, you really come to appreciate the scale of the piece, especially the cavernous underground set in which most of the film’s second half takes place. Warner’s transfer is also very nice: it’s certainly not a Casablanca or Citizen Kane style of restoration, but that suits me absolutely fine, because it looks just as I would expect a film from 1965 to look, with grain, white flecks and the occasional visible splice. I was a little concerned, initially, by the fact that the only English track on the disc is a 5.1 affair, but it turns out that the 70mm prints of the film were accompanied by a 6-track recording, on which I presume the DVD’s track was based.

But what of the film itself? How does it stack up after all these years? Very well, for the most part. It certainly runs hot and cold, thanks to a rather uneven pace and an inability to keep the focus on the spies/saboteurs once they enter the underground rocket lab (it keeps jumping back to London, where the goings-on are considerably less interesting). Sophia Loren, who gets top billing, is also wasted in a role that turns out to be not much more than a glorified cameo. Otherwise, though, this is a great mindless romp that keeps me engaged despite the two-hour running time. It’s no Where Eagles Dare, that’s for sure, but it is the sort of movie you can pull out every few years and still find as entertaining as it was the first time you saw it.

 
Posted: Saturday, December 16, 2006 at 5:16 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Technology
 

DVD review: My Summer of Love

DVD
Universal have not exactly rolled out the red carpet for My Summer of Love, which would be forgivable were it not for the fact that more materials than are on offer here clearly existed. As a UK film by a UK-based director, the lack of a commentary on this release when one exists for the US version is surprising and also rather unfair, while the absence of a 5.1 track makes this package feel like a rather second-rate effort.

Much to my chagrin, I recently discovered that, when I converted my entire site over to the new version 9 layout, I forgot to do anything about the various DVD reviews hosted on the site. I’ve now finished converting them, meaning that the site is now finally complete (for real this time), and I decided to throw in a special holiday bonus: a review that had been lying around, partially complete for several months: My Summer of Love (R2 UK). Check out the full review, but watch out, lads - it has lezzies in it! LOL!!!11~

 
Posted: Saturday, December 16, 2006 at 12:19 PM
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Web
 

2007: year of the pervert

DVD

Source: DVD Maniacs

Severin Films have unveiled the specifications, cover art and release date for their upcoming DVD of Lucio Fulci’s long-lost giallo, One on Top of the Other… although they have elected, presumably for marketing reasons, to go for the seedier alternate title of Perversion Story.

Released on February 27 2007, this will be a 2-disc set, with the first disc (a DVD5) featuring nothing more than the trailer and a Fulci bio. The second, however, will be a “rare bonus CD featuring music by Riz Ortolani” - although it’s unclear whether this will be the actual score to the film or simply a compilation of various pieces by Ortolani, akin to the Stelvio Cipriani compilation NoShame Films provided in their Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set earlier this year.

Oh, and the DVD will come with both English and Italian audio (and English subtitles) - a very nice move by NoShame that I wish some of their competitors (*cough* Anchor Bay *cough* Blue Underground) would also adopt.

 
Posted: Friday, December 15, 2006 at 12:12 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Gialli | Music
 

Mann oh mann

HD DVD

This morning, I received a review copy of the HD DVD/SD DVD combo of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice courtesy of DVD Pacific. I’ve never seen the 80s TV series on which the film is based, so I really didn’t know what to expect.

All I can say is that I’m glad this was a review copy and thus something I didn’t have to pay for, except with the two hours and twenty minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. Miami Vice is an incoherent mess, an eyesore and assault on the ears. It’s one hundred and forty minutes of Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx slicking back their hair and/or adjusting their shades as they swagger around various seaside locations with their jaws firmly set and their designer shades glinting in the sunlight. The plot feels like your average 45-minute cop show stretched out to beyond the normal length of a feature film, while the characters are nothing more than mere archetypes who spit out corny dialogue and offer us glaring insights into their tedious and insincere emotions.

Style-wise, the film is all over the place. Mann shot it using a combination of traditional 35mm and 1080p high definition. Some of it looks fine, but the night scenes look absolutely vile, filled with obnoxious amounts of digital noise. Meanwhile, a whole lot of scenes have what can only be described as a motion blur effect, presumably the result of shooting the footage interlaced and then deinterlacing it for the final transfer. Mann used similar techniques on his previous film, Collateral, and they were just as bad there. If this is the future of cinema, I think I’d prefer to remain in the past. Oh, and the camerawork is dreadful, too: I get that Mann wanted to convey a sense of urgency, but when your viewpoint is jittering all of the place, Blair Witch-style, I feel ready to vomit rather than being drawn into the action.

Simply put, this is the worst film I’ve added to my HD collection thus far. A 3/10 is, I feel, extremely generous. Not recommended. The disc itself, however, is very good, with an array of extras that I’ll no doubt have to plough through and a solid transfer that does the best it can with the uninspiring quality of the source materials.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 12, 2006 at 10:04 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Reviews | TV | Technology
 

It’s called addiction

HD DVD HD DVD

I’m sure I’m going to regret this when my credit card bill comes in, but at just over £10 per title (thanks to the ridiculously weak US dollar), these HD DVDs at Deep Discount DVD were too cheap to pass up (thanks Phantom for recommending them to me). I ordered The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca, which, released in 1938 and 1942 respectively, will be the oldest titles I will own on HD DVD, not to mention (and correct me if I’m wrong here) the oldest titles available on the format, period. And yet, despite their age, they’re apparently two of the best-looking discs out there.

With Robin Hood, I must confess that the real draw for me is not the main feature itself but the chance to see two Looney Tunes classics, Rabbit Hood and Robin Hood Daffy, in full 1080p high definition - my first encounter with 2D animation in HD. As for Casablanca, I’ve seen it before, and it’s one of those films that I find myself respecting more than actually liking, but, for some reason, I have a genuine hankering to see an Academy ratio black and white film in high definition, and Casablanca certainly fits that particular bill.

 
Posted: Monday, December 11, 2006 at 8:18 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | HD DVD
 

Trauma Profondo

DVD

Dario Argento’s 1993 US production Trauma is often considered to be something of a loose re-imagining of his 1975 classic Profondo Rosso - during its development, it was even referred to (probably jokingly) by its original co-writer, Gianni Romoli, as “Deeper Red”. The two films are certainly thematically very much alike, containing so many of the staples of Argento’s gialli - the damaged male protagonist, the terrifying mother figure, the black gloves, etc. However, I never realised how visually similar they were until I read this article by Guillaume Bryon. The text itself is in French, but don’t worry if you can’t read it: by far the most revealing elements are the various screen captures comparing compositions and events in Profondo Rosso with those that resurfaced 18 years later in Trauma.

PS. I may have posted this before (the article was originally published over a year ago), but it’s worth repeating for those that didn’t catch it the first time.

 
Posted: Monday, December 11, 2006 at 2:51 PM
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli
 

Do you see what I see?

Make click.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006 at 10:55 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD
 

SD to HD image comparison

No, no, I haven’t actually somehow magically managed to get HD DVDs to play in my computer. This is merely a demonstration to give you some idea of the difference in resolution between standard definition and high definition, using the 1080p QuickTime V for Vendetta trailer (available here) as a source. I’m afraid I couldn’t capture the exact same frame, and the black levels are a little off (blame whoever encoded it, not me), but you should still be able to get some idea of the phenomenal leap in quality that is achieved. The DVD image was upscaled to 1920x1080, and a 508x721 portion was then selected to prevent the image from being monstrously huge on your average computer screen.

Mouse over to switch between versions:
Standard definition | High definition

V for Vendetta standard definition vs. high definition

Quite something, isn’t it? It certainly lets you appreciate the added level of facial detail.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006 at 10:34 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

La haute définition

HD DVD

Feminists beware! My first HD DVD from Studio Canal is winging its way to me as we speak, and it’s - gasp! - Basic Instinct. As it happens, I’ve never seen Paul Verhoeven’s “classic” (so I’m not yet sure whether “classic” should ineed be inside quotation marks), but I know of its reputation, and, of the currently available Studio Canal titles, it’s the one that I thought seemed like the most interesting. (Whether in a good or a bad way remains to be seen, of course.)

Anyway, I should hopefully receive this from Amazon.fr in a week of so. Isn’t this whole universal 24 fps 1080p and no region coding lark great?

 
Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006 at 5:43 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 
 

 
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