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Léon Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Remember Léon (known as The Professional in the US)? Great film, looked absolutely terrible in every single incarnation on home video. Seemingly no-one could get it right, with even the so-called Superbit release being nothing more than a harsh, ringy mess with absolutely no detail whatsoever. (See here for evidence of just how appalling it looks.) When I first heard that the film had been released on Blu-ray by German distributor Kinowelt, my initial reaction was to assume that it would simply be more of the same. After all, the most recent US release, the 2005 version laughably referred to as a “Deluxe Edition”, was claimed to have come from a high definition master, and I made the not unreasonable assumption that the same master would simply be regurgitated for Blu-ray. Then, however, I was linked to screen captures of the new release by regular Land of Whimsy reader FoxyMulder, which, despite exhibiting a severe amount of contrast boosting, looked infinitely better than I’d expected.

I ordered a copy, which turned up on Friday. First, I’m sorry to have to report that this disc has been locked to Region B only, denying those of us with Region A players the right to watch this great film. As such, I’ve only been able to watch it on my 20” PC monitor and examine the encode at its native resolution in VirtualDubMod, so my impressions don’t necessarily correlate with the experience of viewing it on a decent-sized setup. (No doubt I’ll eventually have some means of watching Region B titles properly, but until then, I won’t be assigning a concrete rating to this disc or giving it a place in the HD Image Quality Rankings checklist.)

The disc itself comes in a very nice metal case, just like the one used for Warner’s UK Blu-ray release of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It looks very slick, albeit in a minimalist sort of way. The disc is dual layer and features both the shorter theatrical cut and longer integral version of the film, achieved through seamless branching (the file size listed below covers only the integral version). Separate English and German DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 tracks are included, as well as optional German subtitles. Finally, all of the bonus content from the aforementioned Deluxe Edition DVD has been ported over, barring the pop-up trivia track. This release also gains a DTS 2.0 (1.5 Mbps) isolated score, which I believe was previously featured on the old American single-disc and German 2-disc DVD releases. All in all, if you don’t mind the loss of the trivia track (and I can’t imagine many people mourning it), this is by far the most comprehensive package to have been released for the film so far.

As for the transfer, how is it? Well, like I said, much better than I expected. It’s an AVC encode, and it appears to have been taken from a completely different master, given that it carries the 2007 100th anniversary Gaumont logo at the start rather than the 1990s “map” version used for all previous releases. (Incidentally, I really hate it when studios do this, replacing their old studio logos when they re-release films. The French companies appear to be particularly fond doing of this.) As previously mentioned, contrast boosting has been applied, and in places it becomes excessive, blowing out the highlights completely and mangling shadow detail. This is particularly pronounced in shots 1 and 2 below, and is in my estimation similar to the utter travesty that was last year’s remastered version of Suspiria. Luckily, Léon features a far more muted palette than Argento’s masterpiece, so the effect is considerably less distracting overall. Still, it’s very disappointing that someone (Gaumont, I’m presuming) decided to do this, as it’s an odious practice and one that is every bit as destructive as noise reduction or edge enhancement.

That aside, it’s a rather nice-looking disc. Not stunningly perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but a solid presentation and a significant step up from the dreadful DVDs. Detail is good if not great, and while there is some ringing, I’m guessing it’s optically induced rather than the result of deliberate edge sharpening or filtering. Some noise reduction appears to have been applied, but it’s not overly destructive. Overall, despite the flaws, it’s well worth picking up, provided you can play the disc.

Léon: The Professional
(Kinowelt, Germany, AVC, 25.9 GB)

Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional Léon: The Professional

 
Posted: Monday, November 03, 2008 at 3:44 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Technology | Web
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of October

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • Carrie (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Chicken Run (R0 France, Blu-ray)
  • Disturbia (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • The Fourth Protocol (R2 UK, DVD)
  • The Frighteners (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • How the West Was Won (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • In the Folds of the Flesh (R0 USA, DVD)
  • L.A. Confidental (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Léon: The Professional (RB Germany, Blu-ray)
  • Lewis: Series Two (R2 UK, DVD)
  • A Mighty Heart (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • Monster (R0 Germany, Blu-ray)
  • The Omen Collection (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Sleeping Beauty (RA USA, Blu-ray)
  • Trial & Retribution: The Third Collection (R2 UK, DVD)

Oh god… that sound is my bank balance groaning. It’s been a long, long time since I bought this many titles in a single month - chalk it up to timing more than anything. I shall have to take care to ration myself strictly for the next little while.

 
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 10:42 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Gialli | HD DVD
 

Chicken Run Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Who knew that Aardman Animation’s Chicken Run had been released on Blu-ray? Not me, at least until the other day, when I accidentally stumbled across it on Amazon’s French web site. Taking a gamble, I placed an order for it. It arrived on Tuesday, and I’m happy to report that not only is it region-free (and without the hindrance of forced subtitles), it’s also a rather nice-looking disc. It doesn’t look amazing, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to how I would have liked The Nightmare Before Christmas to look than the version Disney ultimately ended up putting out. While some grain reduction have been performed, it’s of the temporal rather than spatial variety, meaning that it hasn’t led to the image being eroded or rendered waxy or watercolour-like. Unfortunately, some artefacts are present (look what happens to the axe in Example 13, below), but it’s a far more agreeable looking image overall. (The comparisons are valid, I think, given that both use stop motion animation, and both were shot on 35mm film, unlike, say, the digital Corpse Bride.)

Chicken Run
(Pathé/Studio Canal, France, VC-1, 15.8 GB)

Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run Chicken Run

 
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 7:28 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Halloween Blu-ray review: The Omen (2006 remake)

Blu-ray
Well, here we are once again, concluding yet another review of yet another box set of films in the Omen franchise. (I think it’s safe to call it a “franchise” rather than a series now, given that, with the 2006 remake, any remaining hints of artistic merit have been well and truly exterminated.) The big question, I suppose, is whether or not this four-disc Blu-ray collection is worth it. My answer, as usual, is going to have to be “no”: the original 1976 film is available separately for considerably less money than the four-movie set, and it’s really the only one worth bothering with, so my advice would be to save your cash and just pick up the first one.

That said, for those who are determined to be subjected to the full Omen experience (or as full as possible without the hilariously awful 1991 TV movie), this box set constitutes an admittedly expensive but nonetheless satisfying package. The first film has received by far the most lavish treatment, and rightly so, but the audio-visual quality of the subsequent entries in the series is nothing to be sniffed at either. The Omen Collection is not exactly The Godfather Collection of horror movie franchises in high definition, but in terms of image quality and the actual running time of the bonus content, it’s comparable. All told, Fox have provided a far more generous package here than anyone had any reason to expect, and, whatever you might think of the films, at least they are to be commended for not doing this project on the cheap.

I conclude my trawl through the Omen series of films with a review of the Region A Blu-ray release of the dire 2006 remake, available both separately or in The Omen Collection. The review also concludes with some general thoughts on this four-disc box set.

Review at DVD Times.

That concludes this year’s Halloween fun. Sorry I didn’t get round do reviewing an extra film, but the time just wasn’t there. Every year, I convince myself I’ll start working on the reviews earlier, but I always end up leaving them to the last minute.

 
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 6:45 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews
 

Halloween Blu-ray review: The Final Conflict

Blu-ray
As the conclusion to a trilogy, The Final Conflict is not even remotely satisfying. However, as I’ve said before, I prefer to look on the original Omen as a standalone film and the subsequent instalments as curious but unnecessary aberrations. As such, there’s not really a great deal to recommend here, barring the impressive performance by Sam Neill and the knowledge that, limp as it is, it is at least considerably better than the 2006 remake of The Omen and a slight - very slight - improvement on Damien: Omen II.

In which God’s followers reveal themselves to be so hopelessly inept as would-be assassins that Jesus Christ himself has to come down from the heavens to defeat Damien Thorn.

Review at DVD Times.

 
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 12:03 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews
 

Halloween Blu-ray review: Damien: Omen II

Blu-ray
Damien: Omen II is not a very good film, and as such it’s little wonder that the Blu-ray package assembled for it is a pale shadow of that of the original Omen. Still, it’s a perfectly adequate disc and one that, once again, proves to constitute a substantial upgrade over its DVD counterpart. Whether or not that makes the film itself any better is, of course, open to debate…

As part of DVD Times’ Halloween coverage, I’ve reviewed 20th Century Fox’s recent Region A Blu-ray release of Damien: Omen II, considered by some the least awful of the various cash-ins on the original Omen.

 
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 at 10:28 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Reviews
 

The Omen (2006 remake) Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

And I’m finally done with all four films in the box set. The reviews of Damien: Omen II, The Final Conflict and the 2006 remake of The Omen are now scheduled to go live at various points throughout October 31st. (If there’s time, I may actually try to get another horror review done as well.) My thoughts on the transfer of the 2006 remake, along with screen captures, are below.

The remake of The Omen was actually one of the first Blu-ray discs to be released by 20th Century Fox, back in November 2006. As such, it mirrors most of its counterparts from that period in that it features an MPEG-2 encode on a single layer BD-25 disc. The transfer, in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, it pretty good for the most part, with a good if not stunning level of detail and no obvious problems with the deliberately muted colour palette. Unfortunately, the aged codec and the low bit rate afforded by the single layer disc, combined with the moderate amount of grain that is present throughout, means that minor but noticeable artefacting is a fairly common occurrence. On the plus side, I can see no sign of filtering or artificial grain reduction, meaning that, artefacts aside, the overall look is pleasingly film-like. Don’t be put off by the blurry-looking 20th Century Fox logo at the start - immediately afterwards, the quality improves considerably.

The Omen (2006 remake)
(20th Century Fox, USA, MPEG-2, 18.9 GB)

The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake) The Omen (2006 remake)

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 8:47 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Technology
 

The Final Conflict Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Once again working through my Halloween reviews for the various films in The Omen Collection, I’ve done a few screen captures for The Final Conflict. My thoughts on the transfer, copied and pasted from the upcoming review, are below:

After the slight blip that was the transfer for Damien: Omen II, image quality picks up substantially for The Final Conflict, bringing it almost to the same level as that of the original film. In fact, as far as overall detail levels are concerned, number three may actually be the strongest of the lot, albeit probably thanks to differences in the photography and the improvements that were made to Panavision lenses in years between the films being shot. Once again, the image looks very film-like, with only some minor noise reduction causing any problems for the bulk of its duration. Unfortunately, the final confrontation in the ruined church grounds lets the side down, with some over-zealous NR resulting in very waxy textures and an overly synthetic look which is at odds with the rest of the film.* Still, a very impressive transfer overall for a not exactly treasured catalogue title.

* This corresponds with the final screen capture, below.

The Final Conflict
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 31.8 GB)

The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict The Final Conflict

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 8:39 PM
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Technology
 

Damien: Omen II Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Having already reviewed the Blu-ray release of Richard Donner’s original classic, The Omen, I’m currently working on reviews of the two sequels and John Moore’s 2006 remake for DVD Times’ Halloween reviews special. I can’t promise to get through them all in time for the 31st, but I’ll do my damnedest, and this afternoon I put together my review of the first sequel, Damien: Omen II. I took the opportunity to do some screen captures for this site, and my thoughts on the transfer, copied and pasted from the review, are below:

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Damien: Omen II looks significantly weaker on Blu-ray than the other two films in the trilogy. Like them, it features a 1080p, AVC encode on a dual layer BD50 disc, but detail is substantially lower. This is most pronounced in the opening sequence in the Middle East, where the image looks decidedly diffuse and almost defocused. After that, things do improve quite noticeably, but it never manages to attain the crispness of the other instalments. On the plus side, there is once again little in the way of digital manipulation, meaning that, even though the level of detail is less than stellar, it always looks like film rather than digital video. A handful of shots do suffer from an excessive amount of noise reduction, but they come and go virtually in the blink of an eye, and the rest of the film appears to be unaffected. (See 00:12:30,* 01:17:50 and 01:33:00 for the worst offenders.)

* This corresponds with the second screen capture, below.

Damien: Omen II
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 31.1 GB)

Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II Damien: Omen II

 
Posted: Monday, October 27, 2008 at 9:39 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Halloween | Technology | Web
 

How the West Was Won: SmileBox vs. flat

Blu-ray

As an addendum to my earlier post on Warner’s magnificent Blu-ray release of How the West Was Won, I have, by popular demand, included a few screen captures comparing the SmileBox version with the standard “flat” formatted edition. Superficially, the SmileBox version appears to demonstrate an increased level of sharpness, but in reality I suspect that this comes from an added amount of edge enhancement, and that there is no actual gain in real world detail. There is a small amount of haloing in some shots on both versions, but, in the case of the flat version, I’m not convinced that this was added digitally but rather is an optical or lens effect (don’t quote me on that, though - I could be mistaken). Either way, the ringing is accentuated in the SmileBox version - check out the edges of hat brims in particular, not to mention the curves at the top and bottom of the screen in the SmileBox version.

Ultimately, I definitely favour the flat version, but others may disagree, arguing that the SmileBox version is a more faithful approximation of the film’s original theatrical exhibition.

Example 1
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 2
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 3
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 4
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

Example 5
(Left: SmileBox version; Right: flat version)
How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

 
Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 9:53 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Warner accidentally releases really detailed BD

Blu-ray

I often think that Warner tend to release the most underwhelming high definition discs of the lot. While Universal have put out some almighty cock-ups, they have also released some excellent-looking titles, particularly where there newer films are concerned. In contrast, a lot of Warner’s material just tends to look above average, with virtually every title being afflicted by some degree of filtering, robbing the image of detail. (I actually laughed out loud when someone described Lions Gate’s filtered MPEG-2 re-release of The Descent as having been “Warner’d”.) Recently, however, I began to hear very good things about Warner’s Blu-ray release of How the West Was Won, and decided I had to see for myself.

My copy arrived yesterday, and golly, yes, this is an amazing-looking disc. In actual fact, I can’t think of a single other disc that demonstrates this level of detail. As is widely known, How the West Was Won was shot in Cinerama, employing three separate cameras filming in synchronisation, with the three resulting 35mm negatives being projected side by side. The result is a phenomenal level of detail which goes well beyond what the 1920x1080 resolution of full HD is capable of. This release contains two separate versions of the film, the first a standard “flat” presentation in a 2.89:1 aspect ratio, and the second a “SmileBox” version emulating the curved “wraparound theatrical experience”. The latter is obviously only an emulation of the original experience, given that none of us have curved televisions or projection screens (if I’m mistaken, let me know!), so I ultimately found myself favouring the “flat” presentation, but it’s nice of Warner to have provided both versions, allowing the viewer to decide how they want to experience the film.

Screen captures are included below. Marvel at the sheer level of sumptuous detail on display in them.

How the West Was Won
(Warner, USA, VC-1, 35.5 GB)

How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won How the West Was Won

 
Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 4:22 PM | Comments: 11 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Dead format + cheap-ass discs = a fun night at the movies

Blu-ray

Ever since the demise of HD DVD, the price of standalone players as sky-rocketed, while, at the same time, the exact opposite has happened to the media they play. Over at HMV’s UK web site, a number of HD DVD titles, some of them very good, are being pawned off for silly amounts of money, starting at £2.99 per title. Always on the look-out for a bargain, I picked up Disturbia, an extremely derivative but actually rather enjoyable rip-off of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring that annoying kid with the stupid name from Transformers and the new Indiana Jones film. I also grabbed A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie in blackface FTW!!!) and The Frighteners (a sort of half-way point between Peter Jackson’s earlier adventures with over the top exploitation romps and his later obsession with poorly edited, overly long CGI reels).

Disturbia features a rather good transfer taken from a decent master, albeit one that has been excessively grain reduced. The grain can’t have been that heavy to begin with, as facial features are, for the most part, still there, but it does mean that the image has a somewhat synthetic appearance, particularly in the opening sequence in which LaBeouf and his pops mash some fish and then, in a curious Karmic twist, get mashed themselves while on the road. Still, not bad at all for under three quid.

Disturbia
(Paramount, UK, AVC, 19 GB)

Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia Disturbia

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 3:14 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Yesterday, my brother received his copy of the Blu-ray release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which provided our nocturnal viewing entertainment. This was my second time seeing the film and my brother’s first, but I think our impressions were largely the same: it’s entertaining, and its heart is in the right place, but you can’t compare it to Raiders of the Lost Ark, probably my favourite action-adventure movie of all time. I’m not even sure you can put it in the same league as the first two sequels… although, that said, there is nothing as irritating in Crystal Skull as Kate fucking Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Instead, we get a somewhat underused Karen Allen, but you know what? Kudos to Steven Spielberg and co for bringing her back as a romantic interest for Harrison Ford rather than going down the more predictable route of pairing Shia LaBeouf up with a younger woman. It’s pretty unusual to see a romantic pairing between characters close to the age of drawing their pension in a Hollywood blockbuster, and dare I say it a tad more convincing than the alternatives.

It’s reassuring to see that Ford has still got what it takes to portray an albeit slightly slower, more gristled Indy, still able to hold his own in the action set-pieces. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Spielberg and Lucas, whose direction and script are the areas in which the film feels the most stale. There’s a “going through the motions” feel to a lot of the material, and I suspect that, ultimately, neither of these men is the same person they were when they made the original trilogy. Meanwhile, the over-reliance on CGI, CGI-generated UFOs and, worst of all, CGI-generated comic relief animals, feels out of place in an Indiana Jones film. (Although I’ll grant you that the UFOs portrayed in the film are no more absurd than the notion of a cup granting eternal life, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Still, I can’t say it bored me for a second, and when the lights came up I certainly felt suitably entertained.

Transfer-wise, Paramount’s BD is very nice indeed. I’m not sure I’d put it in the upper echelon of HD presentations, as it’s not the most detailed image I’ve seen, and I’m pretty sure at least some grain reduction was done somewhere in the chain (it’s odd that Spielberg apparently fought tooth and nail with Lucas to shoot this on film rather than digitally, because a lot of the time it’s all but grainless), but there’s nothing overly destructive to glimpse. Given the technological changes that have taken place in the last couple of decades (CGI and the use of digital intermediates, to name but two), it’s unsurprising that Crystal Skull is, visually speaking, the odd one out in the series, but, regardless of Spielberg’s cinematographic choices, the film looks great on Blu-ray and is another sterling effort from Paramount.

Oddly enough, though, I can’t really say the same about the audio. We both felt that there was something lacking, and I think Dan Ramer’s review at DVD File sums it up best:

The lossless TrueHD 5.1 is quite nice, but surprisingly unimpressive. All the right elements are there. […] And yet, I came away with the distinct impression that the dynamic range is a tad lacking. I had to pump up the gain by 6 dB to attain dialog loudness parity with other BDs. And even with the gain turned up that high, the sound effects didn’t have that visceral bite that satisfies. This is a wholly adequate track, but I expected a demo-quality experience.

 
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 34.1 GB)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

 
Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 11:48 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews | Technology
 

Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray impressions (long post)

Blu-ray

On Tuesday, I received my copy of Sleeping Beauty, the first of Disney’s animated classics to make it to Blu-ray. A 2-disc set (plus an utterly pointless “bonus DVD” version glued to the front cover), this Platinum Edition was quite clearly an extremely cost- and labour-intensive undertaking, and you can read more about the process in a very interesting interview with Theo Gluck, Director of Library Restoration and Preservation for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, as well as an interview with the considerably less informed Sara Duran-Singer, Senior Vice-President of Post Production at Disney.

Of course, what I’m sure everyone wants to know is how the end product looks. I’ll make this simple right off the bat: if you want a general, non-critical response, go and read any of the multitude of reviews written on various web sites that give it ratings of 100% or 10/10 and call it the best thing since sliced bread. For a slightly more in-depth analysis, read on.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: this is not the Sleeping Beauty that was released in cinemas in 1959. What I mean by that is that it is subject to the same degree of clean-up and revisionism that Disney has applied to the home video releases of its more prestigious animated titles since the Masterpiece Edition DVD of Alice in Wonderland in 2004 (I’m discounting red-headed stepchildren like The Aristocats and The Fox and the Hound, which were subjected to considerably less rigorous treatment). In other words, any trace of film grain has been scrubbed away, the colours have been altered (quite substantially, in some instances), and it essentially now looks like a film that was made in 2008 rather than 1959. Oddly enough, when something similar was done to Patton for 20th Century Fox’s recent Blu-ray release of that title, cinephiles the world over were up in arms. When Disney does it to their animated films, however, there is a curious lack of uproar. Perhaps it’s because, as an animated film, certain narrow-minded individuals don’t believe it to be worthy of “serious” attention? I doubt that this is the case, however - a brief glance at any number of film-related forums will reveal dozens of people who clearly love the film dearly and are over the moon about this new Blu-ray release.

That’s absolutely fine. I’m glad that people are enjoying this new disc, and have absolutely no problem with that. My concern is with the technicians at Disney, whose house practice of scrubbing the grain from their films goes completely against what I’m looking for when I pop a disc into my player. If a film never had grain to start with, then fine - I’m not expecting something like Ratatouille or Beauty and the Beast, both created entirely in the digital domain, to be sourced from prints (although, sometimes, I do think it would be nice). In the case of a film from the 50s, though, seeing something that has been processed to the extent that it no longer looks like it ever touched film is more than a little off-putting.

That said, for what it is, Sleeping Beauty looks very good indeed. Excellent at times, in fact. There is an extremely impressive amount of detail in the backgrounds, for example in shots 4, 8 and 9 below. The encoding is, for the most part, extremely good (barring a few isolated instances of artefacting). The expanded 2.55:1 aspect ratio (versus the 2.35:1 ratio of previous releases), greatly improves the image composition and reveals all sorts of details at the sides of the frame that were clearly intended to be seen. Unfortunately, barring the overly clean look, you also have to contend with the tell-tale side effects of such heavy noise reduction, mostly in the form of mangled outlines: take a look at the spears in shot 2, or the owl’s eyes in shot 7. For a particularly destructive example, gawp at the mess that is shot 5 - by far the worst-looking few seconds on the disc and something that is, mercifully, the exception rather than the rule.

There is a final point that I would like to make: the issue of the colours. As with the Platinum Edition DVD of Peter Pan, there has been some amount of debate as to the colour timing of this release. A comparison with previous releases of the film (such as the one performed by Chuck Pennington at the Golden Age Cartoons Forum) reveals major differences, and often not for the better. Look at the various different versions of the shot of Aurora and the three fairies (the first one in Chuck’s comparison): the 2008 DVD release, which is derived from the same master as the Blu-ray version, looks noticeably “off”, particularly in terms of Fauna (the green fairy)’s outfit. Put simply, the colours clash and don’t “read” properly. Contrast this with the previous releases, all of which look more natural. For an even more egregious example, take a look at shot 5, previously discussed above: there is far too much similarity in the different shades of blue in Merryweather’s costume for the image to read properly as a whole. Compare this with the 2003 DVD release, where there was proper delineation between the different shades of blue, making the image much easier to look at rather than a mish-mash of clashing hues.

Now, Disney staff have been quick to point out in interviews that the original animation cels and backgrounds were used as a reference during the colour timing. However, I rather fear that they have missed the point here: essentially, they are neglecting the fact that the artists specifically chose colours with an eye towards how they would ultimately look when printed to film, which is obviously not going to be the same as how they look on paper or an animation cel. Warner did exactly the same with their Looney Tunes DVDs, with equally problematic results. A couple of comments on the subject can be read at Cartoon Brew. Says Eric, in the context of the Looney Tunes DVDs:

Maurice Noble [stylist and co-director on many of the Looney Tunes cartoons] once explained to me how he would over saturate the colors in a character or a scene to compensate for the inferiority of the film. Once on film, the color would be toned down to about what he intended. This is where you could run into a problem during restoration.

This is followed by a post by Jeff Kurtti, a film historian and authority on all things Disney. What he says is particularly pertinent to Disney’s art practices:

The true reference point for restoration is a primary color film positive source, not the original animation art.

Studios such as Disney did extensive color testing on cel set-ups to determine how paints, backgrounds, and exposures would affect the final film image, many of the animation art colors are purposely distorted in order to “read” correctly on film. (There is a selection of camera tests like this on the “Snow White” laser disc and Platinum DVD.)

Alice (of Wonderland fame) on cels, for instance, has decidedly green blond hair, in order to “read” on film as golden yellow.

(Emphasis mine.)

Ultimately, my overall impression of this transfer is that, flaws aside, it is a very good one. It could have been a great one. However, thanks to Disney’s revisionism practices, it falls shy of perfection, meaning that, as good as it is, there are a number of moments that will take observant viewers out of the film itself, which I’m sure we will all agree is never a good thing. Overall, I’d say that the massive improvement in detail makes this a more than worthwhile upgrade over the previous standard definition releases, but it’s frustrating thanks to the number of things that have gone wrong along the way. Take a look at the captures below and judge for yourselves.

Sleeping Beauty
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 17 GB)

Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty

NB: thanks to Lyris for providing some of the screen captures.

 
Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 2:20 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Carrie Blu-ray impressions

Blu-ray

Today, I got to check out my first ever MGM Blu-ray disc in the form of Carrie. As you may or may not know, 20th Century Fox has, as of 2006, taken over the distribution of MGM’s titles on home video, so it is their logo that appears when you hit “Play”, and, I suppose, ultimately their responsibility. Fox received a lot of flack in the earliest days of Blu-ray, for their excessively high RRPs ($40 for every title, even catalogue ones), their favouring of the outdated MPEG-2 codec and their tendency to lose a substantial amount of bonus material during the DVD-to-BD transition. (Of course, some might counter by pointing out that, out of all the major studios releasing titles in HD, Fox is the only one to have included lossless audio on every disc right from the get-go.) To cap it all, Fox disappeared off the face of the HD map for the better part of 2007, citing concerns over weaknesses in the format’s copy protection. With the arrival of the new and improved (and supposedly impenetrable) BD+, Fox rejoined the fray… only for BD+ to be cracked within the week. Oddly enough, I don’t feel a shred of sympathy for them.

Anyway, Fox have made some improvements to the situation, gradually transitioning over to AVC instead of MPEG-2, and generally doing a better (but still well away from perfect) job of including the extras available on existing standard definition editions of films. And, of course, they haven’t done another disappearing act since the BD+ debacle turned out to be little more than hot air.

Unfortunately, for all the gains made by Fox, the people in charge of putting together their MGM titles are still labouring under the misconception that we are living in the dark ages. Bare-bones, single-layer, MPEG-2 discs devoid of all extras are the norm - in fact, I can’t remember the last MGM title to carry anything more than a trailer. And that’s assuming the discs come out at all - two years down the line, I’m still waiting for The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Ultimately, the MGM crew give the impression of treating HD as little more than an afterthought, and it’s because of this (and the lack of film I would actually want to buy from them) that have held me back from investigating their output at all until now.

Anyway, Carrie - how is it? Well, one thing’s for sure, the specs are typical MGM - MPEG-2 encode, single-layer disc, no extras apart from a trailer, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, alongside the original mono mix. For the latter alone MGM immediately gains points over the likes of Warner, who routinely omit the original audio of their films in favour of distracting remixes. That’s the strongest point in this release’s favour. Otherwise, there’s not much praise that can be heaped upon it, although we need to bear in mind the source materials: the image looks rather diffuse and murky, but then I doubt that Carrie ever looked razor-sharp to begin with. Grain reduction is evident in places, although not consistently, and at times the grain does look reasonably natural. It’s definitely no Patton or Dark City, that’s for sure. It’s unclear what the source material is - Lyris suspects a print rather than the original negative - but, if this is the case, it’s difficult to know whether going back to an earlier generation would have resulted in any appreciable improvement to the perceived image quality. It’s a tough one overall, and I doubt that it’s going to impress anyone (the “I want everything to look like a Pixar movie” crowd will complain about the grain, and the “I want films to look like film” lot will probably be equally unimpressed, albeit for different reasons), but I’ve seen plenty of high profile titles subjected to extensive restoration work which look a lot worse. It’s certainly no worse than a lot of the shovelware put out by Universal.

Carrie
(20th Century Fox/MGM, USA, MPEG-2, 18.5 GB)

Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie Carrie

 
Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008 at 6:26 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Blu-ray review: The Omen

Blu-ray
It’s hard to imagine a substantially better package for the high definition debut of one of the horror genre’s all-time greatest titles. So often, catalogue titles are mistreated or given short shrift, but the superb audio-visual presentation and all-encompassing package of extras, one of the best ever assembled for a film of this type, cause me to give this my highest recommendation. Simply put, The Omen on Blu-ray is a must-have.

No, not the ghastly remake of the same name. The original 1976 version of The Omen has finally made it to Blu-ray, and I’ve put it through its paces.

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 07, 2008 at 10:15 PM
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews
 

Well, slap my face! The Omen looks great!

Blu-ray

So yeah, I ended up shelling out for the no-holds-barred 4-disc super-duper The Omen Collection, containing the original three films and the dreadful remake, instead of staying sensible and just picking up The Omen on its own. The original reason for this was that the 4-disc version was an announced with a release date of September 9th, while the single-disc version ended up being put back to October 7th. Being an impatient bugger, I decided to splash out on the earlier but more expensive release. Ultimately, of course, the 4-disc set ended up being delayed too. Still, for better or for worse, the package arrived today, and, once I’d finally finished the latest draft of my PhD’s literature review, I wasted no time in cracking it open and investigating how the films looked.

“Very good indeed” is the answer. I guess the fact that my hopes for the image quality of this film on Blu-ray were not exactly high says a great deal about what a pessimist I’ve become. Now, before anyone asks, I’m not one of those people who believes that older films can’t benefit from the HD treatment: nothing could be further from the truth. It’s simply that, in my experience, older films are not always treated with the care and attention they deserve. Imagine my surprise, then, upon discovering that The Omen has been granted a rich, sumptuous, film-like transfer exhibiting few of the artefacts one tends to associate with catalogue titles that haven’t been treated appropriately (and Fox, it has to be said, have been prime offenders in the past). It manages to stay crisp and detailed and with a pleasing amount of grain left intact - although it does have the “sharp but slightly diffuse” look of films from that period that were shot anamorphically and with the use of lens filters. Rest assured, though, that it’s a pleasant kind of diffuseness rather than the ugly sort you get when the detail has been sucked out digitally. Essentially, it looks completely natural. No Patton, this!

To briefly sum up the other titles, Damien: Omen II looks noticeably softer than the first film, but I suspect it always looked this way. In any event, the original DVD release had the same issue in comparison with its two counterparts in SD. Detail does improve as the film goes on, but it never “pops” and almost looks unfocused at times. The Final Conflict, meanwhile, is a lot closer in terms of its overall look to the first film, although, in our brief run through it, Lyris was quick to draw my attention to some noise reduction artefacts in one of the darker scenes. More details on these titles once I’ve had a chance to watch them properly.

As for the remake, well, I don’t plan on watching it any time soon, but from the brief glance I took at it, it looks to be a pretty good presentation of a recent film. It was one of Fox’s first Blu-ray releases, and features an MPEG-2 encode on a BD-25, with the mild compression artefacts you’d expect. It also, surprisingly enough, exhibits less detail than the original Omen, but I suspect that this has more to do with the cinematographic choices than any tampering at the mastering end.

So, thank you, Fox, for transferring the original, a true classic, properly and not Pattonizing it. I never expected it to look this good and, as a result of my expectations being exceeded considerably, I now have a big smile on my face (although the fact that I’ve reached another milestone in my PhD work might also have something to do with that). And, as an added plus, the original mono tracks (and 2.0 surround for the third film) are present and correct in addition to lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 remixes.

The Omen
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 22.5 GB)

The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen The Omen

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 07, 2008 at 7:01 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | PhD | Technology
 

Blu-ray review: Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2

Blu-ray Blu-ray
Provided the lack of extras and the presence of the tamer R-rated cut of Volume 1 don’t deter you, both volumes of Kill Bill have been well-served on Blu-ray. In an ideal world, the Weinstein Company would have released the combined cut of both films, entitled “The Whole Bloody Affair” (which also includes the House of Blue Leaves fight scene in colour and the violence deleted from the R-rated version), in high definition by now. Given that they have yet to even release it on DVD, however, it looks like this is going to be the best we’ll get for some time, and really, we could do a hell of a lot worse.

Now that Quentin Tarantino’s B-movie epic has finally surfaced in high definition, I’ve done double duty and reviewed the Blu-ray releases of both volumes of Kill Bill at once.

 
Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2008 at 10:01 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Reviews
 

Home Alone comes to Blu-ray

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD

Aboard the HMS Whimsy, it is a long-held tradition that, each Christmas, we watch the holiday classic Home Alone (and it is a classic, whatever the naysayers might claim). In years gone by, we were forced to make do with the old Region 2 PAL DVD from 1999, one of the worst standard definition DVDs ever released (and beaten only, or so I’m told, by the even worse Region 1 NTSC version). Then, in 2006, we were able to upgrade to the newly released Family Fun Edition, which, shameful name aside, turned out to be a massive improvement over its predecessor.

This Christmas will be something special, however. Why? Because, for the first time, we will be watching Home Alone in high definition.

Yessir, Home Alone is coming to Blu-ray. As reported by High-Def Digest, 20th Century Fox have scheduled it for a December 2 release in the US. No details have been announced yet, barring the RRP of $34.99, but this is definitely one title I’ll be pre-ordering without a moment’s hesitation. Laugh at me if you like, but this is one of my most anticipated HD releases and has been since I first got wind of Blu-ray and HD DVD.

 
Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2008 at 5:39 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of September

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD
  • Blow (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • La Femme Publique (R0 USA, DVD) [sample copy]
  • Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
  • The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Kill Bill Volume 1 (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Kill Bill Volume 2 (R0 USA, Blu-ray)
  • Mean Girls (R2 UK, DVD) [gift]
  • Mother of Tears (RB France, Blu-ray)
  • Tekkonkinkreet (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (RA USA, Blu-ray)

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days. I’ve been really busy with PhD work. Hopefully things will quieten down a bit by the middle of next week.

 
Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 10:03 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Mondo Vision | PhD
 
 

 
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