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Batman loses his cool

Christian Bale

Christian Bale is a talented actor who has won justifiable acclaim for the challenging and diverse array of roles he has taken on. In addition to this, he is also a raving egomaniac with an uncontrollable temper and an extremely vindictive personality, judging by a leaked audio clip smuggled from the set of his most recent movie, Terminator Salvation. In it, he erupts when cinematographer Shane Hurlbut accidentally walks past his eyeline (remember this: not into frame but past his eyeline) during a take, and then proceeds to rant and scream at the hapless fellow for getting on for four minutes. Throughout all of this, the film’s director, Joseph McGinty “McG” Nichol, proves to be about as much use at diffusing the situation as a teaspoon of water in extinguishing a bushfire. (Then again, to have directed a film like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and still be able to face turning up for work each day must require a fairly mellow personality to begin with.)

As someone on the film’s IMDB board pointed out, Bale’s behaviour here actually highly reminiscent of that of Klaus Kinski, another talented actor famed both for taking on challenging roles and having a ferocious temper and insatiable ego. Watch this clip of Kinski bawling out the unit chef during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (Kinski wasn’t a fan of the man’s cuisine, apparently) and note the similarities. Both men, incidentally, have worked with Herzog, who I can only conclude must be an incredibly masochistic director. Either that, or he enjoys the challenge of attempting to tame madmen.

Oh, and finally, I love how Bale, ever the method actor, rants at Hurlbut in an American accent.

Thanks to Lyris for the link.

Posted: Tuesday, February 03, 2009 at 2:36 PM | Comments: 12 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Web

Suspiria goes Blu


Over at the High-Def Digest forums, it is being reported that Eagle Pictures will be releasing Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria on Blu-ray Disc in Italy on March 11th. The source, as far as I can gather, is a product listing at online DVD store, so it’s probably worth taking this with a pinch of salt for the time being (I haven’t come across it listed anywhere else). Still, if it turns out to be true, then, for me personally, this is some of the most exciting news to come out of high definition land in ages. Of all the titles in my collection that are begging for the HD treatment, I can’t think of any more deserving than Suspiria, undoubtedly one of the most stunning-looking films ever made.

My main concern at the moment, however, is the previous “Definition Edition” DVD of the film put out by Eagle Pictures. You may remember what it looked like, but just in cast you don’t, let me refresh your memory. That’s right: a horrible, ugly contrast-boosted mess, so blown out that several moments were rendered unintelligible. My big fear is that this same source will be used for the BD - and I think it would make sense to assume that this will be the case, as the Definitive Edition was created from a brand new HD master in 2007, and I doubt that they would revisit the film elements again so soon after that. Right now, I’m just hoping against hope that the contrast boosting was applied not to the HD master itself but at the standard definition down-conversion stage. Anyway, I’ve pre-ordered a copy and will keep you posted.

Posted: Monday, February 02, 2009 at 11:52 AM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Technology | Web

DVDs I bought or received in the month of January

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • January 2, 2009: The Messengers (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 2, 2009: The Untouchables (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 2, 2009: Poltergeist (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 2, 2009: Black Sheep (Region ABC UK, Blu-ray)
  • January 5, 2009: Death Proof (Region ABC USA, Blu-ray)
  • January 5, 2009: Planet Terror (Region ABC USA, Blu-ray)
  • January 22, 2009: The 39 Steps (2008 BBC TV version) (Region 2 UK, DVD) [review copy]
  • January 26, 2009: Peep Show: Series 5 (Region 2 UK, DVD)
  • January 29, 2009: Shaun of the Dead (Region 0 UK, HD DVD) [gift]
  • January 30, 2009: The Butterfly Effect (Region A Canada, Blu-ray)
  • January 30, 2009: American Psycho (Region ABC Australia, Blu-ray)
  • January 30, 2009: The Descent (Region ABC Australia, Blu-ray)
Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 10:42 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | TV

Another bonzer Aussie BD

Blu-ray Blu-ray

Back in February 2007, Lions Gate released Mary Harron’s film American Psycho on Blu-ray Disc in the US, and a thoroughly cack-handed job they did of it too, delivering an image so processed that every single edge had masses and masses of ringing surrounding it, and all the actors looked like they’d been deep fat fried. To add insult to injury, Lions Gate encoded their horrible image in MPEG-2 on a single layer disc, and junked most of the extras from its DVD counterpart.

Flash forward just under a couple of years, and the film materialises on BD in Australia, under the auspices of Sony Pictures. Now, I try not to judge books by their covers, but come on: Sony or Lions Gate? Who would you trust to get the job done? I ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday, and we had a fine evening watching Bruce Wayne… sorry, Patrick Bateman… slicing and dicing his way through a variety of yuppies, hookers and bums. So, is the Australian disc an improvement on its woeful US counterpart? You bet it is. No, it’s not a stellar-looking title by any means, suffering from a degree of ringing and a slight diffuseness, but it’s a significant step up all the same. The upgrade to an AVC encode on a dual layer disc gives the film more room to breathe, reducing artefacting, while detail and overall realism are greatly improved thanks to considerably less ringing and noise reduction. By the looks of it, the same master was used for both discs, but Sony managed to restrain themselves from subjecting it to the added round of digital post-processing applied by Lions Gate. You just have to look at Examples 13 and 14 to see how much less distracting ringing there is, and Examples 6 and 8 to see how the reduced filtering makes subtle (and some not so subtle) improvements to the overall level of detail. Unfortunately, as with the Lions Gate release, a number of the extras are still MIA (the same ones, actually), but, in every other respect, the Australian release constitutes a major upgrade from the miserable-looking US disc… meaning that Lions Gate got pantsed by the Aussies twice in a row (c.f. The Descent).

(Screen captures after the jump…)

[Continue reading "Another bonzer Aussie BD"...]

Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 8:21 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology

Australia to the rescue

Blu-ray Blu-ray

My copy of the Australian Blu-ray Disc of The Descent, distributed by Icon Home Entertainment, arrived today (along with some other BD goodies which I’ll hopefully get a chance to post about tomorrow evening). You may remember my post from a week ago which outlined the situation regarding this release and its rather dramatic colour palette difference from the US version put out by Lions Gate. So, how does it measure up? Given that the pressing of the US release which features the superior AVC encode is now extremely hard to come by, with the poorer quality MPEG-2 version having all but replaced it, is this Australian version, itself AVC encoded, an adequate replacement? The answer is “yes”… and then some.

First, some screen captures. There are so many significant differences between the two versions that I ended up with a large number and struggled to cut it down to a reasonable amount. Eventually, I settled on 20 images for each, down from approximately 70 beforehand (!!). Hopefully these give you some idea of the improvements made with the Australian release.

(Screen captures after the jump…)

[Continue reading "Australia to the rescue"...]

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 10:52 PM | Comments: 12 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology

How on earth did that happen?

Blu-ray HD DVD

So far, the Universal titles that have made the jump from HD DVD to Blu-ray have been a bit of a mixed back. Broadly speaking, titles on BD that are sourced from a digital intermediate (DI) have generally at least been the equal of their HD DVD counterparts, if not actually bettering them (some, including Miami Vice, have benefited from the increased bandwidth and bit rates afforded by BD), while those taken from print sources (such as U-571 and the first two Mummy films) have suffered from an added layer of DNR, resulting in the not-so-hilarious irony that the versions available on a defunct format actually look better than those released on the winning system. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it has applied to most of the cases that have come under the microscope.

When I posted captures for the HD DVD release of The Bourne Identity back in December, I half-jokingly said that I’d taken these screenshots so I had evidence ready for when the BD version came out in January, probably looking inferior. Well, fortunately for all concerned, I now have to eat a slice of humble pie. You see, not only does the BD of The Bourne Identity not look worse than its HD DVD predecessor, it actually looks better.

Yes, in a curious twist, Universal would appear to have finally woken up and heard the criticism being hurled at them on account of their inferior BDs. The newly released BD of The Bourne Identity, available in The Bourne Trilogy box set, actually shows more visible grain and detail than its predecessor. Captures have been posted by Xylon at the AV Science Forum, and they show that, while not night and day, the improvement is significant enough to potentially warrant double dipping (although I personally will wait for the set to come down significantly in price). The increased bit rate afforded by BD’s larger capacity also means that noticeable improvements have been made to the compression on The Bourne Supremacy, while The Bourne Ultimatum, already a magnificent HD DVD, looks set to be at the very least its equal on BD.

All in all, this is very promising news, and I hope it means that we can now expect better from Universal on BD. I don’t doubt that they’ll continue to dust off grotty masters for some of their catalogue titles, but at least it looks like there’s now a good chance that they won’t look any worse than their HD DVD counterparts. Potential customers can buy with impunity: the Bourne BD box set looks like a winner.

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 2:15 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology

Donkey Punch Blu-ray impressions


Last night, we watched a rental copy of Optimum’s Region B Blu-ray Disc release of Donkey Punch, a British horror movie from 2008. I didn’t really know anything at all about it going in, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised by it. Note that I’m using “pleasantly” in the loosest possible sense of the word, as in actual fact it’s a pretty nasty little movie that rarely pulls any punches and is the absolute antithesis to the PG-13 “horror” movies Hollywood tends to churn out over the summer. (It’s also considerably nastier than many of the so-called “torture porn”* R-rated Hollywood horrors, if only because psychologically it’s a whole lot more unpleasant.) I didn’t actually know what the enonymous “donkey punch” of the film’s title was, and for those who are in the same position as me, I’m not going to spoil it. Instead, I’ll just say that the film is tense, ballsy and unpredictable, and definitely worth a look if you’re tired of your horror movies always coming in one of the two approved configurations (PG-13 horror-lite or R-rated “torture porn”).

So, tarmaccing, huh?

Donkey Punch was shot using some sort of reasonably high-end digital apparatus, and this is readily evident in Optimum’s BD, which alternates between looking very good and not very good at all. The whole image has been slightly filtered, as evinced by the consistent ringing at the top and bottom edges of the 1.85:1 frame. Luckily, there aren’t many high contrast edges in the film, so this is less destructive than it is in, say, Kung Fu Panda, which I watched a couple of days ago and which suffered from exactly the same issue. Compression artefacts do show up on a number of occasions; see, for example, shots 3 and 5. By far the biggest issue, though, is digital noise. Shots which take place in bright light generally look very good indeed, but many of those that take place in the dark are afflicted by a large amount of pronounced interference, which looks nothing like film grain and gives the image a rather cheap, home-made appearance. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the digital photography, which means that what we find on the disc is pretty much an accurate representation of the source materials (barring the filtering), but it’s not nice to look at. 6/10

Donkey Punch
studio: Optimum; country: UK; region code: B; codec: AVC;
file size: 18.5 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 26.76 Mbit/sec

Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch Donkey Punch

* Note: I actually hate the term “torture porn”, but it’s in such wide usage that it seems to be the most straightforward way of conveying the sort of films I’m talking about.

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 10:29 AM | Comments: 13 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Death Proof Blu-ray impressions


We watched the BD of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof last night, and I must say that the film has gone up a little in my estimation since I last saw it. While, previously, I felt that only the final half-hour was worth anything, I actually found myself getting into the first half a lot more this time round. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that, watching it in high definition on a 123” screen, I was able to appreciate the vibe Tarantino was aiming for much more easily. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but what I do know is that, after the first half, when the focus switches from one set of girls to another, I began to lose interest, and that didn’t pick up until the justly lauded final half-hour. The fact that Tarantino, for some reason, opts to dispense with the deliberately degraded film stock once he moves on to Zoë Bell and her chums, does a lot to back up my earlier theory. Simply put, there’s something cool and atmospheric about watching a bunch of people wittering away in Tarantino-speak on what looks like a beat-up old print, but, when doing the same with another bunch of people, only this time on a pristine print, the effect is lessened considerably. Still, barring that sag in the middle, I do think this is a pretty decent film. It’s no masterpiece, for sure, but I’m not convinced it’s the train wreck some people think it is. I just wish it could have been edited a little tighter. Tarantino’s biggest problem is that he’s infuriatingly self-indulgent (and I’m not just talking about him inserting himself into roles in his movies).

On to the transfer, and, as with Planet Terror, it’s quite difficult to objectively assess the image quality, because once again the look is intentionally that of a grubby old print, at least for the first hour or so. The big difference is that, unlike Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino actually shot his segment of Grindhouse on film, and then physically degraded the elements, rather than resorting to artificial digital trickery. As a result, it looks a whole lot more authentic than anything in Planet Terror, and vastly more atmospheric. Perhaps as a result of the real world degrading, Death Proof is significantly less detailed than its partner in crime, but in my opinion more pleasing to look at overall.

Moving on to the “clean” half of the film, this part is much easier to critique because, this time round, it’s not meant to look bad. Perhaps because he didn’t want a repeat of the overly clean Kill Bill, Tarantino opted not to go for a digital intermediate on this film, so the master used for this BD is derived from a print source. Wisely, The Weinstein Company have opted to leave the material alone, so the grain appears to be intact. There is a degree of softness to the image, and some prominent haloing (see Example 14 for a particularly pronounced example), but I suspect that this is down to the source materials rather than any trickery on the digital front. Aesthetically, it’s not as nice as a lot of recent films on BD, but I’m fairly convinced it’s a faithful reproduction of the film elements.

As with Planet Terror, I’m going to refrain from giving this disc an overall rating for image quality, but, looking at the “clean” segment alone, I suspect a high 8/10 or low 9/10 would be in order.

Death Proof
studio: Weinstein; country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 27.7 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 34.92 Mbit/sec

Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof Death Proof

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 10:47 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Kung Fu Panda Blu-ray impressions


I don’t like to tar an entire studio with the same brush, but broadly speaking I haven’t thought much of DreamWorks’ animated output. Barring their collaborations with Aardman, most of their stuff leaves me cold, with unattractive character designs, stiff animation, bland celebrity voices, irritating pop culture references and a lack of actual story development. Tonight, though, we watched the UK Blu-ray Disc of Kung Fu Panda, a rental copy of which has been sitting on my desk for some time, and I have to say it entertained me. It still suffered from some of the same problems that have plagued other DreamWorks films, most notably the overuse of celebrity actors who no-one remembers for their voices, as well as some truly hideous-looking character designs, but it was, overall, an enjoyable 92 minutes and certainly a whole heap better than, say, Shrek. Overall, I’d say it clocks in a couple of pegs below Pixar’s worst, which would be (in my opinion) A Bug’s Life.

Transfer-wise… well, this one has been praised in virtually every circle as “perfect”, “reference quality”, etc. Some viewers do seem to be under the impression that digitally-sourced animation is inherently flawless and couldn’t possibly look bad on BD. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, it can. Discs like Ratatouille and Open Season are basically perceptually perfect (at least to my eyes), but, at the other end of the spectrum, The Simpsons Movie and Asterix and the Vikings, both of which are traditionally animated but were composited entirely on computers, suffer from needless low pass filtering, which removes the finest level of detail and adds unsightly ringing to edges with his contrasts.

Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda is in this latter category, again thanks to filtering. The overall effect is actually far from awful, and indeed I can even understand why many people have failed to notice this problem, but it’s definitely there, and it’s consistent throughout. If you look at any of the screen captures below, you’ll see that the letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the image suffer from a mild amount of ringing. This sort of thing is almost always indicative of filtering of some sort, and indeed if you look at, for example, the branches in Example 13 or the rope bridge in Example 14, you can see clearly the extent to which it affects the image as a whole. In the end, it’s definitely a very watchable transfer, but it’s a shame it looks like this, because it didn’t have to. Digital animation may not automatically look perfect, but it could and should. 8/10

Kung Fu Panda
studio: Paramount; country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC;
file size: 22.8 GB; average bit rate (including audio): 35.44 Mbit/sec

Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda Kung Fu Panda

Posted: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 9:48 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Deeper descent

Blu-ray Blu-ray

You may remember, when I wrote my review of the US Blu-ray Disc release of The Descent, that I mentioned that two completely different colour grades of the film appeared to have been created, with the US BD showing a completely different colour palette from my old 2-disc UK DVD. This wasn’t simply a case of the colours having been pushed slightly in the direction of, say, accentuating the reds or the blues, or the contrast having been tweaked: someone had to have gone in and altered the digital intermediate. (You can see a couple of examples of these differences if you visit my review, the second of which shows one of the most extreme instances of this discrepancy.) Personally, while I hold the US BD up as one of the best-looking high definition titles ever released, I’ve always been slightly disappointed that the darker, richer “UK grade” hadn’t made it to BD.

Until now, that is. Recently, Icon Home Entertainment released The Descent on BD in Australia. Discussing this new release at the AV Science Forum, poster kingkong650, having noticed differences in the colour palette when compared to the older US release, said:

Following on from what I mentioned in a previous post about the difference in colour I noticed between the US MPEG-2 version and the Australian version, I decided to investigate a little bit further, so I went looking for my UK DVD of The Descent, the version where I watched the film for the first time, to see what the colours were like on that version. Once I finally found it under piles of dvds stashed away, what I saw was pretty interesting.

The part where I’ve really noticed a big difference in colour is just after they arrive at the hole, when they’re preparing the ropes and harnesses to go down. The US MPEG-2 version has a strong blue tint while the Australian release’s colours are more natural looking and also seem a little brighter. When Juno goes down the hole and looks up, in the US version the light streaming through the hole looks white and the reflection on her face is tinted blue, while in the Australian version, the light streaming down is more golden and the reflected light on her face reflects that.

When I put the UK DVD in and jumped to the same bit in the film, the colours were very similar to the Australian version, with the light looking golden rather than white and no sign of the blue tint of the US release. It’s bizarre that they released different colour schemes for this film. Makes me wonder which one the director considers the definative version?

You can follow the discussion that ensued for yourselves, but the long and short of it is that we think the Australian BD has the same colour timing as the UK DVD. I’ve been trying to avoid double dipping of late (except when it comes to upgrading titles I own on DVD to BD), but my admiration for this film, and my preference for the “UK grade”, caused me to cave in and order myself a copy of the new edition from DVD Crave. A full comparison will be carried out once my copy arrives. Given that the US BD (well, the AVC version at any rate, rather than the inferior MPEG-2 re-release) is one of the best-looking titles out there, the Australian release will have its work cut out trying to match it, let alone beat it, but word of mouth so far seems very promising.

PS. In case anyone’s wondering, the Australian release has been confirmed to be region-free, just like the US version.

Posted: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 9:09 AM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology | Web

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 3 and 4: Deus Ex Machina


Written by Nicholas Blincoe; Directed by Andy Hay

This episode manages quite a remarkable feat: on the one hand, it’s completely different from any other episode of Waking the Dead ever aired; on the other, it totally forgettable. It plods along to its conclusion, going in one ear and out the other, leaving no lasting impression. The plot is an odd one that doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the series, clumsily roping Boyd and co into recovering the Skull of the Mahdi, an artefact taken from Sudan as a war trophy more than a century ago, when a prominent Sudanese politician, Khaled Ahmed (Abdi Gouhad), goes on hunger strike. The team are also tasked with re-investigating the murder of an Iraqi refugee, Omar Jaffiri (Hassani Shapi), whose death may be related to the case of the skull. Along the way, they come across the Fakir society, a crowd of pretentious academics who like to dress up in robes and perform bizarre, masonic-like rituals.

Struggling to put my finger on just why this episode left me so cold, I popped over to the BBC’s official Waking the Dead web site and took a gander at the various user reviews that had been submitted. One writer, Ian Gould, hit the nail on the head:

There were too many loose ends and the first part gave the viewer no ideas at all. I expect to be confused but this was beyond confusion, almost bordering on boredom.


The top and bottom of this episode is that it was based on three ideas of interrogation and that seemed to be the whole plot. I have never been disappointed with this excellent programme before but this particular episode was rubbish.

I apologise for using another viewer’s review in place of my own, but this simply demonstrates how much of a non-entity this episode was for me. Barring some striking images injected by the director, among them Eve’s physical reconstruction of the scene of Jaffiri’s murder, which mixes the past with the present in a manner reminiscent of Series 3’s vastly superior Breaking Glass, I can’t recall a single memorable moment in the storyline’s entire two-hour duration. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I actually watched the episode (I’m currently playing catch-up with my reviews), but I didn’t in any way feel compelled to revisit it. When it aired it was, by a considerable margin, the worst Waking the Dead episode to date, and while I feel that the next season’s Wounds was even poorer, there’s not really all that much between them.

Holby connections: in addition to his appearance in Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, Adam James (Michael Leonard in this episode) had a recurring role in Casualty as lawyer-cum-rapist Pete Guildford during Series 19.

Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:31 AM
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead

Black Sheep Blu-ray impressions


I watched Icon’s UK Blu-ray Disc release of Black Sheep this evening. It wasn’t exactly high art, and it was neither funny enough to fully function as a comedy nor scary enough to work as a horror movie, but it certainly entertained me and wasn’t boring by any stretch of the imagination - a big step up from the last two BDs I watched (The Messengers and I am Legend, in case anyone’s interested).

Quality-wise, we have an AVC encode with an alarmingly low file size and bit rate - but, as I always say, bit rates aren’t everything. In fact, this film actually looks pretty good on BD, despite the presence of some fairly noticeable filtering and some degree of grain reduction. Otherwise, it looks pretty pleasing to the eye, with an agreeable level of detail and nothing in the way of unsightly compression artefacts. 8/10

Black Sheep
studio: Icon; country: UK; region code: ABC;
codec: AVC; file size: 10.8 GB; average bit rate: 18.04 Mbit/sec

Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep Black Sheep

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 9:47 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

The lights are on but no-one’s home


Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days. I know I promised a full review of Tomb Raider: Underworld, but the three people in the world who are on tenterhooks for it will have to wait slightly longer. The fact is I’ve been under the weather lately, having picked up that brute of a cold that’s been going round. My head feels considerably clearer today than it did yesterday, but I’ve still got quite a bit of catching up to do, including read an entire PhD thesis before my next meeting with my supervisors on Tuesday 20th. I’ve also, as of today, started attention a Junior Honours class in Italian cinema, hosted by one of my supervisors. Much as I’d like to, I won’t be attending every single class, because each session is five hours long, which, when you’re studying part-time, cuts a pretty big chunk out of your week, but it should provide a good opportunity for me to fill in some of the (fairly substantial) blanks that exist in my knowledge of Italian cinema.

Oh, and I picked up a new monitor for a ridiculously low price. More on it later, hopefully, once it’s been properly calibrated and I have a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 5:10 PM
Categories: Cinema | Games | General | PhD | Reviews | Technology

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 1 and 2: Wren Boys


Written by Declan Croghan; Directed by Tim Fywell

For some reason, no episodes of Waking the Dead aired in 2006. When Series 6 finally came round, in January 2007, around 16 months had passed since the end of Series 5. The show came back with a new producer, Colin Wratten (who came from EastEnders and, before that, Holby City), a new lead writer, Declan Croghan, and a new pathologist, played by Tara Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, while Waking the Dead doesn’t have much in common with the previous show I did a full run through, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they do share one trait: both go off the rails in their sixth season.

Admittedly, Peter Boyd’s fall from grace is considerably less drastic than Buffy Summers’. Even at its worst, Waking the Dead still manages to retain a veneer of respectability, and I could never claim that these episodes are badly made (whereas some of the latter-day Buffy episodes were shockingly poorly written and directed). Instead, they just tend to feel rather empty, going from Point A to Point B, going through the motions but leaving no real lasting impression. One of the biggest losses come Season 6 is the team feeling that permeated the earlier episodes. Series 5 had its work cut out, having to make do without two of the five original characters, but it somehow managed to pull through, retaining the dynamic between the three remaining regulars and working hard to integrate the two newcomers. Such traits are not in evidence by Series 6. By and large, the characters behave like automatons, the interplay between them feels forced, and they function less as a team and more as a collection of people clocking in and out of the office.

It doesn’t help that the writers seem intent on ignoring any previously established continuity. Their biggest faux pas would come with Series 7 (which I’ll discuss when I get that far), but for now, the wheels are already being set in motion. Stella’s betrayal at the end of the previous series is never even mentioned, while Spence’s brush with death, which provided the cliffhanger between the two series, is brushed aside in a single reference to him having had a tattoo painted around his bullet wound. Seeing him laughing and joking about this with Stella, who played a part in his brush with death, is such a blatant breach of continuity that I find it nearly impossible to forgive. The fact that Felix is never once mentioned is also hard to swallow, although admittedly not entirely surprising, particularly if, as I suspect, she was only ever intended as a last-minute temporary replacement for Frankie.

Unfortunately, the new pathologist, Eve Lockhart, just makes us yearn all the more for her predecessors. The writers are at great pains to ram down our throats the fact that the character is alternative and wacky, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes, burning incense in the lab, listening to reggae music at crime scenes, and so on. Unfortunately, the actress, Tara Fitzgerald, may be many things, but “wacky” is not one of them. Her attempts to be so come across as completely forced, and all too often end up veering towards “annoying” rather than the “charming” that I suspect the writers were going for. At least, however, she is a little more animated in these opening episodes than she would later become: come Series 7, she would barely alter her facial expression and tone of delivery at all. Her major gimmick, aside from her insincere wackiness and amazingly deep voice, is that she keeps a “body farm” consisting of a bank of old body parts, which sounds interesting in theory but in practice is only ever referred to a couple of times.

Anyway, the series begins with what is probably the least impressive episode of Waking the Dead to date. There was worse to come, but I remember the massive disappointment I felt when this two-parter initially aired a couple of years back. The basic plot is that the team are investigating the case of a teenage boy found drowned in a pit of concrete back in 1990. A teenage boy is dumped outside a Casualty department, badly beaten, and Boyd suspects there may be a connection. (I actually can’t remember what it is that causes him to suspect this, which says a lot about how much of an impact the storyline made on me.) This leads him and the team to investigate the community of travellers from which the boy came, along the way taking in the sights of a local abbey and a young nun apparently suffering from stigmata.

This episode does actually have a rather interesting theme: the combination of pagan and Christian beliefs and rituals. As far as I can gather, it’s a pretty accurate representation of the religious beliefs held in many traveller communities, harking back to the latter days of the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain, when the occupying forces concluded that the easiest way to convert the local tribes to Christianity was to mix the doctrine in with their existing pagan traditions, resulting in (to quote Bremner, Bird & Fortune’s piss-take of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) “an à la carte religion”. At the same time, though, I think that the episode’s greatest failing is that there are simply too many ideas scrambling for attention, resulting in it feeling incredibly disjointed and not very satisfying as a whole. In addition to the exploration of the travellers and their beliefs, we’ve got stigmata, hallucinogenics, Rottweilers straight out of The Omen, a goat demon who seems to have stepped straight out of Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, arranged fights which clearly own something of a debt to David Fincher’s Fight Club, a family tree as complicated as a spaghetti junction, a young mother offering her unwanted newborn child up to a benevolent angel (no, really), and the curious arrival of an envelope addressed to Mel containing a bracelet inscribed with Hebrew letters. The latter sets up a plot strand which is actually carried through the entire season before finally coming to a head in the final episode, Yahrzeit. I’d like to say that this storyline, which hearkens back to the good old days, provides a sense of continuity to the series and resolves Boyd’s feelings as regards Mel’s death, but I’m sorry to say that, for me at least, this is something that should have been done in Series 5 if at all. Barely mentioning Mel in that series and then taking up the storyline again over a year later, while introducing some whopping continuity errors in the process (more on that later), merely cements my ambivalence towards this season.

Holby connections: Gregory Foreman (Davy in this episode) has appeared in Casualty at various points in Series 22 as Charlie Fairhead’s son, Louis.

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 3:17 PM
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead

I am Legend Blu-ray impressions


Back in September, I promised Land of Whimsy reader LGANS316 that I would watch and offer my thoughts on a number of Blu-ray titles, among them I am Legend. I don’t often get direct requests, so I’m somewhat ashamed that it’s taken me so long to get round to this one. (In my defence, it took forever for LoveFilm to send me the rental disc.) Anyway, we watched it tonight. I’m not going to say too much about the film, which I found amazingly dull for something featuring Will Smith fighting zombies and Emma Thompson curing cancer, and instead concentrate on this disc itself.

Referring back to LGANS316’s original request:

I am Legend - (Blu-ray) - In-depth analysis on the encode and whether the picture quality is really reference grade ? I discerned banding artefacts and compression noise on few scenes on my Panny Plasma but these claims were disregarded by AVS forum members which is fine. However there is some amount of DNR smearing going on in certain fast motion scenes.

Watching this title on my brother’s 123” projection screen, I can’t honestly say I noticed any instances of banding. However, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a reference grade title. As with so many Warner discs, it has been filtered and grain reduced, robbing the film of its original texture and eradicating high frequency detail. Whenever I’m watching a well-known actor, I tend to find myself mentally comparing his or her appearance on the disc in question with that of other releases, and throughout I was constantly reminded of 20th Century Fox’s I, Robot disc - a vastly superior product in every way. It just looks flat and underwhelming overall, with the depth of field tending to be artificially limited by the fact that nothing truly comes into focus, except in the most extreme close-ups. It’s also not all that brilliantly compressed - I detected instances of blocking during fast movement - symptomatic, perhaps, of Warner’s generally stingy bit rates. The theatrical cut (the version I watched) has an average bit rate of 23.37 Mbit/sec, including six 640 Kbit/sec Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks and a lossless TrueHD 5.1 track. Oh, and instead of using seamless branching, Warner have included two different versions of the film on the disc. No wonder the encoder was starved.

Is it an awful transfer? No, it’s not. It’s just an underwhelming one, and one that is symptomatic of Warner’s output in general. 7/10

I am Legend
studio: Warner; country: UK; region code: ABC;
codec: VC-1; file size: 16.4 GB; average bit rate: 23.37 Mbit/sec

I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend I am Legend

And just for reference… I, Robot.

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2009 at 10:29 PM | Comments: 10 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

Exotic treats from foreign lands

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD

Although the vast majority of sites specialising in Blu-ray Disc news seem only to report on titles being released in America, a veritable treasure trove of titles lies beyond the borders of the US of A. It pays to keep an eye on what’s being released further afield - something which, in my laziness, I must admit I don’t always do. Imagine what a pleasant surprise I had, then, when, browsing the AV Science Forum today, I discovered that Alliance Atlantis in Canada are planning to release a whole host of titles unavailable on BD anywhere else, including Se7en, The Butterfly Effect and 21 Grams (thread here). Additionally, Sony’s UK wing will be releasing several titles on April 6th, including David Fincher’s Panic Room (thread here). Call me crazy, but I actually find myself revisiting it more than any of Fincher’s other films. Sure, you can argue that Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac have more meat to them, but in terms of sheer entertainment I just love this unashamed piece of B-movie fun.

In any event, these four titles are must-buys for me. I actually had a hankering to watch Panic Room again recently, but I’m glad I held off, knowing that an HD release isn’t too far off. I mean, the bare-bones UK DVD is pretty nice as far as standard definition goes, but still…

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2009 at 7:53 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD

Blu-ray review: The Messengers

A friend of mine once commented to me, in relation to another film entirely, that writing anything about it was a challenge because you can’t review thin air. I find myself in exactly the same boat with The Messengers: it doesn’t exist in a tangible form so much as it merely floats around in the ether for 90 minutes before promptly disappearing without a trace. It’s neither obnoxious nor offensive… it just is, which I would argue is just about the worst thing a film can possibly be. If you want to watch a recent ghost house movie, I recommend The Orphanage, which exploits the premise far more effectively and actually creates something approaching a lasting impression. Unless you have trouble sleeping, give The Messengers a miss.

I manage to cure my insomnia with The Messengers, a tiresome little haunted house movie starring Kristen Stewart (Panic Room, Twilight) and directed by the Pang brothers (The Eye), which should serve as a warning to any other promising filmmakers considering making the leap to Hollywood.

Review at DVD Times.

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2009 at 5:31 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews

Planet Terror Blu-ray impressions (long post)


My long-awaited copies of Planet Terror and Death Proof on BD arrived yesterday. We watched the former last night, and it was quite an interesting experience. As I’m sure just about everyone is aware, Planet Terror was shot digitally but, in an attempt to recreate the “grindhouse” aesthetic, director Robert Rodriguez intentionally added several layers of fake degradation, in the form of heavy grain, missing frames, splices, tramlines, dirt, scratches and other assorted artefacts. The end result is about as far from what most people expect from the high definition experience as you can get, to the extent that many have questioned the point of buying these films (Death Proof is similarly affected) in HD. I’ve always found such attitudes puzzling, since, from my perspective, lowering the resolution and adding a whole extra layer of digital artefacts, as you would get with the DVD editions, seems simply to be making the whole situation ten times worse. With the BD versions, you get something that is arguably closer to a “true” grindhouse experience, because the 1920x1080 resolution allows you to see every scratch, fleck and particle of grain, in addition to the underlying detail.

That’s not to say that the effect is entirely convincing. Watching the film at this high a resolution ably demonstrates that, while Rodriguez and co clearly wanted to evoke the aesthetic of damaged film, they don’t really understand how the process works. When the image warps and bends, it’s clearly the work of image manipulation software, and it’s somewhat distracting when you notice the same library of scratch effects being re-used again and again. That’s not to say that it’s an unpleasant experience, but I suspect the effect would have been a whole lot more convincing had Rodriguez done what Quentin Tarantino did with Death Proof and actually shot on film then physically degraded the elements rather than relying on computer trickery to fake it.

(Screen captures after the jump…)

[Continue reading "Planet Terror Blu-ray impressions (long post)"...]

Posted: Tuesday, January 06, 2009 at 12:07 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology

Just a little something to whet your appetites…

L'important c'est daimer

Mondo Vision’s official web site has finally been fully launched, now with complete information on the currently announced releases as well as the company itself. An extract from their philosophy:

We hope to be around for the years to come, and to give viewers the chance to experience some unique films from around the world, which would otherwise remain buried: a feast of insights into cinema at its most obscure, excessive, and marginalized, aimed at adventurous cinephiles eager to uncover lost and forgotten gems of subversive cinema. For us and our audience, these unique films and their respective directors represent filmmaking at its most challenging and brilliant. We hope you’ll join us!

At the same time, Mondo Vision has given the authoring house the go-ahead to post screen captures from Mondo Vision’s upcoming second DVD release, Andrzej Zulawksi’s 1975 film L’important c’est d’aimer (The Important Thing is to Love), which stars Romy Schneider, Fabio Testi, Jacques Dutronc and Klaus Kinski. As with the already available La femme publique, this will be the first ever release of the film to fully cater to English speakers. Currently, those not fluent in French have to make do with a frankly horrible-looking mess from German label New Entertainment World, released under the title of Nachtblende. I’ve actually read reviews which praise this catastrophe, so I can only imagine what the feedback will be like once Mondo Vision’s edition hits the shelves.

Some screengrabs from the Mondo Vision version:

L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer L'important c'est d'aimer

And here’s the Nachtblende disc that it’s up against:

Nachtblende Nachtblende Nachtblende

Note: we have reason to believe that both transfers were minted from exactly the same source. Make of that what you will.

Posted: Monday, January 05, 2009 at 7:05 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Mondo Vision | Reviews

The Messengers Blu-ray impressions


The thing about buying a movie blind, having never seen it before and knowing next to nothing about it, is that you’re taking a risk. It might turn out to be great and it might turn out to be awful, but it you don’t take the plunge, you’ll never know. That may be stating the obvious, but the notion of risk-taking is something that doesn’t seem to ever have occurred to the makers of The Messengers, a “scary house” movie so bland and innocuous that it feels like a 90-minute void rather than a film. The first English-language feature directed by the legendary Pang brothers (The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous), I’m tempted to assume that the language barrier is the reason for them failing to extract anything that might be classed as performances from the cast (which includes Kristen Stewart, she of Panic Room and the current smash hit, Twilight), but then again the script they’re working from is so anaemic and riddled with implausibilities that I don’t think anyone could have made something worthwhile out of it.

My advice? Watch The Orphanage instead.

In what seems like a sick joke on the part of the authoring team, Momentum’s BD (UK, all regions) is very nice indeed. In addition to an impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 Kbps) track, which does a fine job of highlighting the fact that lossless audio is not the be all and end all of HD sound, the transfer is very nice indeed, particularly given that it is an MPEG-2 encode on a single-layer BD25. Are there any imperfections? Well, there is some block noise in the shadows at times, as well as a small number of instances of banding on gradients, and some minor quantisation that really shouldn’t be visible during “normal” playback. Otherwise, I didn’t notice any major issues when watching the film on a 123” display, so, barring these niggles, there’s nothing to complain about at all. Except the film, that is. 9/10

The Messengers
studio: Momentum; country: UK; region code: ABC;
codec: MPEG-2; file size: 18.6 GB; average bit rate: 29.56 Mbit/sec

The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers The Messengers

Posted: Monday, January 05, 2009 at 2:03 PM | Comments: 13 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology

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