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Duck and cover!

Fallout 3

On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Fallout 3 at GAME. While I was a big fan of Black Isle Studios’ Icewind Dale and especially Planescape: Torment, for one reason or another I never really got into their Fallout series. However, after reading a lot of good things about Bethesda Softworks’ third game in the franchise (Black Isle having been unceremoniously dissolved in 2003), spotting the hefty discount at which it was being offered, and starved of any good, in-depth RPGs of late, I decided to give it a shot.

I’m glad I did, because while Fallout 3 has problems, it feels very much like a spiritual successor to the great Black Isle RPGs of yesteryear. While the game is decidedly combat-oriented (and can be very punishing if you wade in out of your depth), there’s also a decent amount of emphasis on plot development and conversations with NPC characters. The character system is pleasingly complex without being incomprehensible, with a wide array of different stats at your disposal, many of which affect your ability to bribe, intimidate or lie to characters through dialogue (if you so choose). This is not unlike Planescape, which bestowed considerable rewards to those who pumped their Intelligence and Charisma, therefore delivering a more interesting experience to players who used their brains instead of their fists.

The biggest downside is that the game is fairly ugly - a somewhat significant problem given how long you spend looking at it. I don’t mean that the graphics are technically bad, but rather that the visual style is unappealing. True, I wouldn’t expect any depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland to be rainbows and cherry blossom, but there’s something repetitive about the never-ending grey and brown environments in which you spend most of your time. I even decked my character out with a shock of bright red hair in an attempt to alleviate some of the monotony. The character animation is also wooden, with the pseudo-realistic designs all too often falling into that “uncanny valley” pitfall. I realise that 3D is what all the cool kids want nowadays, but personally I miss the good old days of Black Isle’s top-down 2D RPGs, with their artful, wonderfully detailed pre-rendered backgrounds.

(Oh, and the voice acting matches the animation. I found out a few moments ago that the player character’s father is voiced by Liam Neeson - yet another example of a live action actor turning out to be a poor voice-over artist.)

Another significant problem comes in the form of the game’s combat system. I’m not referring to the VATS system, whereby you can pause the game and issue orders at your leisure, targeting a specific part of the enemy for that optimal kill-shot. This is a great feature that adds a pleasing amount of tactical strategy to the action. Unfortunately, the real-time model is less than ideal, and this is really the only viable option in close quarters. You end up strafing about like a ninny, trying desperately to land a hit, with the wooden animation providing very poor visual feedback. The control system simply isn’t suited to this type of combat, and I now find myself regretting having chosen to specialise mainly in the “up close and personal” side rather pumping the abilities relating to ranged combat.

From what little I’ve experienced of it so far (preparing for the post-graduate symposium having sucked up much of my time this week), Fallout 3 is a great game and a welcome return to the glory years of PC role-playing games. Elements of it are rather clunky, but it would be unfair to say that this is any different from the old Infinity Engine games, which always struck me as being decidedly flawed when it came to the combat side of things. (One of the reasons I loved Planescape so much was the extent to which combat was downplayed in favour of dialogue, neatly circumventing the engine’s biggest failing.) On the contrary, shifting the formula into the third dimension has simply resulted in many of the same problems being present in a slightly different form. Despite these flaws, the qualities of the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world still managed to shine through, and I’m confident that Fallout 3 is very much in the same vein. Perhaps I’ll re-roll and start again with a more tactically-oriented character.

Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 11:18 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | PhD | Technology

Just arrived…


Mean Girls (BD, Paramount, Region ABC, USA)

By the way, apologies for the lack of news posts. Things are pretty hectic at the moment, wrapping up the redrafting of the third chapter of my thesis. In addition, I spent most of yesterday helping out with a rewrite of a script my brother will be shooting before too long, and today I’ve just concluded a marathon key-bashing session, reviewing check discs of the recent BD releases of The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Posted: Monday, April 20, 2009 at 2:48 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | PhD

Just arrived…


Rebus (DVD, Delta, Region 0, UK)

I was pleasantly surprised to spot this in Fopp today, where I was killing time while waiting before my meeting with my supervisors. The previous DVD release (by Universal) of this series starring John Hannah as the eponymous DI Rebus was missing the fourth and final episode, which would have aired on September 11th 2001 had a nice man called Osama Bin Laden not kicked up a bit of a stink, sending the TV schedules to halfway to hell. That episode ultimately disappeared into the ether and I believe aired a couple of times on one of ITV’s cable channels. It’s present and correct on this new edition. I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly gripped by Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, but I liked this TV adaptation of them, considerably more so than the dour Ken Stott interpretation that came along later.


Suspiria (Blu-ray, CDE, Region B, Italy)

Oh boy…

Posted: Friday, March 20, 2009 at 1:47 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | General | PhD | TV

I’ve been busy


This evening, in advance of tomorrow’s meeting with my supervisors to discuss the recently completed Chapter 3 of my PhD thesis, I tackled the dreaded Six-Monthly Research Progress Review Report, a self-assessment form (on progress so date as well as what you intend to spend the next few months doing) which all Glasgow University research students carry out every (you guessed it) six months. The last time I did one of these, it was like pulling teeth and had to go through a good few drafts before either myself or my supervisors were satisfied with it. This time, however, it was an altogether more painless activity, which I suspect bodes well for my PhD on the whole, because it suggests that I’m now far clearer about what I want to do and how I intend to do it. Looking back at my previous report, I’ve actually achieved more in the last six months than I actually set out to, which means another feather in my cap.

Over the last couple of days I’ve taken the opportunity to turn my attention to matters of a considerably less academic variety, mainly the performing of a veritable blitzkrieg on my bedroom, which had become so untidy that simply walking from one end to the other was, frankly, a safety hazard. I’m not by nature a particularly tidy person, preferring to dump things on the nearest possible surface or, failing that, the middle of the floor. I wish I’d taken a “before picture”, but I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time. Instead, here’s the result of a good couple of days on my hands and knees, inhaling enough dust to last me several lifetimes. It will probably last oh, a week or two before once again resembling a bomb site.

You know, this actually scares me.

My other achievement this week, a considerably less pleasing one, was getting my first midge bite of 2009. Summer is, alas, definitely on the way. Can I go and hibernate until autumn, please?

Posted: Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 7:27 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: General | PhD

So near and yet so far


I reached a significant milestone in my PhD thesis today: the completion of the initial draft of my first actual analysis chapter. Prior to that, I’d written an Introduction (Chapter 1) and more drafts of the Literature Review (Chapter 2) than I care to remember. As a result, actually sitting down and writing about the films themselves came as something of a relief after nearly a year and a half of wading through the swamps of purely theoretical thinking.

This piece, which will be either Chapter 3 or Chapter 4 in the finished thesis (depending on where the chapter I’m going to work on next ends up fitting in), examines the male protagonists of gialli like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Short Night of the Glass Dolls - apparently “liberated” middle-class artists indulging in bohemian lifestyles in major European cities - and the issues of power and powerlessness that emerge from the films. Crucial to this chapter is my overriding theory that the characters in these gialli, which I have dubbed ‘masculine nightmare’ films, are embroiled in an ongoing power struggle, whether the aggressor is a serial killer, a duplicitous wife or society itself. From my conclusion to the chapter (warning: spoilers below):

Central to these portrayals of the roving male protagonist as a perpetual victim of suppression is an underlying fear of the loss of liberty: regardless of the situations in which they find themselves, characters such as Sam Dalmas, Andrea Bild, George Dumurrier and Greg Moore ultimately find themselves destabilised, trapped and powerless. All too often, they find out that the world is not exactly what they thought it was, whether it turns out that the apparently helpless victim is in fact the aggressor (in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), that a supposedly dead wife is in fact very much alive (in One on Top of the Other), or that “the average man” cannot in fact “survive and keep individualism alive” (in Short Night of the Glass Dolls). Ultimately, they are left trapped, isolated and unable to trust even their own eyes; in short, they are denied agency.

The fact that these ‘masculine nightmare’ gialli materialised during a period of significant social reform and considerable advancement for, among others, the women’s liberation movements of Italy, Europe and the world at large seems, to point to a fear of the loss of power and control afforded to men in conventional patriarchal society that extends far beyond the conventional ‘boogie (wo)man’ stories portrayed in these films. Put simply, while a giallo such as Short Night of the Glass Dolls centres on the prevalent worst nightmare of being buried alive, it is actually addressing a far broader fear of a loss of power, control and authority in general…

If all that didn’t sound too esoteric for your tastes, and you’re interested in taking a look let me know (ideally, by emailing me at whiggles[at]ntlworld[dot]com) and I can send you a copy.

Foucault, by the way, turned out to be very useful in conceptualising this notion of “power”. Or rather, Sarah Mills’ explanation of what Foucault was actually on about. If you’re struggling to make head or tail of the man’s writing, I heartily recommend her book, part of the Routledge “Critical Thinkers” series.

Posted: Monday, March 16, 2009 at 2:55 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | PhD

Do it yourself

Dell Ultrasharp 2709W

Impressively, after a few days of propping it up using a pile of CD jewel cases, my lopsided monitor is lopsided no more. I suppose you could say that, barring the pinching/backlight bleed in the top left hand corner, I’m now completely satisfied with this troublesome display. It’s also so large, as computer screens go, that every other display now looks tiny in comparison, including the 23” Fujitsu I now use in my bedroom, itself nothing to be sniffed at in the size stakes.

In other news, my next PhD deadline - the first draft of a chapter on the male protagonist in the gialli - is fast approaching, and I have written… not a lot. It’s funny, because back when this was decided on as my next objective, I felt I could easily rattle out a few thousand words (the rough aim, for this chapter, is 10,000, incidentally). Now, however, I’m finding myself facing a severe case of writer’s constipation. I know more or less what I want to say, but am having a surprising amount of difficulty in crafting it into something that flows. Next week is going to have to be a pretty intensive one as far as productivity goes, that’s all I can say.

Posted: Friday, February 27, 2009 at 10:19 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: PhD | Technology

A very bloody Christmas


I’m afraid there won’t be a DVD review this week. I’ve simply been too busy, both with PhD work (I need to turn in a draft of what will eventually become my first analysis chapter before the end of March) and with the day job (since the beginning of the year, I’ve been getting sent on relief to various libraries around Glasgow, with the travel cutting into my “me” time). Rather than post nothing, though (which would be bad manners after I promised a review every week), I decided to dig up a piece I’d previously started and polish it up to a standard fit to be seen by other eyes. It’s a review of the 2-parter Barbara Machin wrote for Casualty during Christmas 2006. As such, it’s a bit late coming, and it’s a little on the long-winded side, but hey - at least it allows me to avoid breaking one of my New Year resolutions.

Killing Me Softly and Silent Night
Series 21, Episodes 15 and 16
Written by Barbara Machin; Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence
Originally aired December 23rd and 24th, 2006

It's been too long.

It’s been too long.

A normal Christmas Eve shift in Holby City Hospital’s Accident & Emergency department: patients suffering from various ailments, minor and major, are waiting to be treated, and the staff are knuckling down while each having to juggle the demands of the job with their own personal woes. However, unbeknownst to them, two members of the team are about to come face to face with death in a very literal sense as what seems like a bog standard day turns into anything but. Nothing will ever be the same again come the end of the shift…

I’ve probably watched this two-parter more times than any other episode of Casualty made in the last decade, and with good reason: as far as I’m concerned, these are the best episodes that have been made at least since we entered the twenty-first century, and you have to go back to, oh, say, Series 12 and Love Me Tender to find an episode of comparable quality. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any great episodes between “Love Me Tender” and this two-parter - there definitely have, but the calibre of these episodes is such that they eclipse everything else made in recent years.

I think that part of what makes these episodes stand out is that they fall bang in the middle of a very rough patch in Casualty’s history. Series 21 is, as I’ve said a few times now, in my opinion the absolute worst series of all time, due to a combination of lazy writing, inconsistent characterisation, unbelievable storylines and a genuine sense that no-one on the writing staff knew or cared what they were doing. It says a lot about how bad things had got that it took an outsider to turn the show on its head and, arguably, show the regulars how it should be done. That someone, of course, is Barbara Machin, who, along with the likes of Bryan Elsley (Skins), Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford) and Peter Bowker (Blackpool), was part of a bold, daring team of writers that joined the show when it was in the early stages of becoming Great Television (™) and helped lead it through its golden age period. Machin left Casualty after writing Series 13’s excellent episode One From the Heart, and from then went on to do Waking the Dead, of which I’m a massive fan, as you probably know.

[Continue reading "A very bloody Christmas"...]

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 12:13 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: General | PhD | Reviews | TV

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 | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | General | PhD | Reviews | Technology

That was the year that was


With another year been and gone, now seems like a good time to sit back and reflect on the past 365 days. I’ve experienced some highs and lows, the lowest of which would undoubtedly be losing my last two surviving grandparents in the space of a few months. On the upside, I feel that I’ve begun to make real progress with my PhD, which is finally evolving into something tangible, the process of which will no doubt continue in 2009. Otherwise, I can’t say that very much has changed for me. I continued to work part-time in my job at the library, with the various rounds of staff transfers mercifully passing me by and life continuing as before. Is it my dream job? No, I should say not, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go through periods of finding it (and the Great British public) incredibly frustrating. However, all things considered, I can think of plenty other less desirable jobs I could be doing. At least this one is convenient and, all things considered, reasonably well-paid.

Zeros and Ones

Logitech Z-5500 Digital

In relation to the battle between rival high definition formats Blu-ray and HD DVD, last year’s annual round-up included the statement “With no end to the format war in sight any time soon, 2008 looks set to be another interesting year.” Well, it seemed that I’d barely finished writing those words when the HD DVD camp threw in the towel. To be honest, the writing had been on the wall for some time, but several people, myself included, still adopted an “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” mentality in the early days of 2008. With Warner’s abandonment of the format only a few days later, however, the writing was well and truly on the wall. Within days, the game was up and the remaining HD DVD-supporting majors (Universal and Paramount) were pledging allegiance to the Blu flag. In any event, once the stragglers got up and running, it turned out to be a pretty damn good year for HD content, with some truly amazing transfers seeing the light of day, while the arrival of several high profile titles such as The Godfather trilogy and The Dark Knight, plus the certainty afforded by there now only being a single HD format, undoubtedly contributed to more people taking the plunge and lending their support to the platform.

I bought myself a new computer - a full tower system after my brief dalliance with the world of small form factors the previous year. After relying on my more technologically competent relatives in the past, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to build the whole thing from scratch myself - seriously, deciphering some of those poorly translated user manuals practically requires a diploma in itself. I also upgraded my PC’s aged Creative audio system with some nice new Logitech speakers and a veritable beast of a subwoofer. I also ultimately succeeded in going region-free for Blu-ray playback, thanks to SlySoft’s AnyDVD HD software, allowing me to use my system as a multi-region HD home theatre PC.

At the Pictures


This year, my brother put together a pretty impressive projection system, accompanied by a meaty sound setup, allowing us to enjoy a film-watching environment that more closely approximates the big screen experience. Despite this, however, my overall viewing figures were somewhat reduced in 2008 compared with 2007 (themselves a reduction from 2006). I maintain a log of all the films I watch, and the total tally for 2008 is 128, 67 of which were first time viewings. The increasingly wide array of available Blu-ray titles certainly led to me taking increased risks with titles I hadn’t previously seen, but at the same time caused me to be far less likely to tune in to television broadcasts of films. (I watched 56 films on Blu-ray, 44 on DVD and 14 on HD DVD, versus 7 on TV.)

I got the opportunity to see several what might be termed “significant” films, among them the great - 28 Weeks Later, Across the Universe, Atonement, Bonnie and Clyde, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dark City, Eastern Promises, Enchanted, Fight Club, The Fly (the David Cronenberg version), Juno, The Life Before Her Eyes, The Maltese Falcon, A Matter of Loaf and Death, Mean Girls, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Orphanage, Persepolis, The Plague Dogs, Rabid Dogs, The Shining, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Volver, Wall-E - the good - The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Almost Famous, Blow, The Brave One, Chungking Express, La Femme Publique, Grindhouse, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Memento, My Blueberry Nights, Nikita, Resident Evil: Extinction, School of Rock, Shaun of the Dead, La Vie en Rose - the disappointing - 30 Days of Night, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Dark Knight, Doomsday, Gone Baby Gone, Running Scared, Tekkonkinkreet - and the downright dreadful - Freddy Got Fingered, Omen IV: The Awakening and, last but not least, Seytan.

Best film I saw this year? Definitely Atonement. Worst? Oh, come on, do I even have to answer that? I saw Freddy Got Fingered, for god’s sake.



Much to my chagrin, my reading this year was pretty limited. In addition to perusing a number of academic tomes as part of my PhD research, I sat down with The Field of Blood, The Last Breath, Garnethill, Exile and Resolution by Denise Mina, Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James, Demo by Alison Miller, The Deceiver and The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsythe, and Above Suspicion by Lynda La Plante. I also re-read Mercy Alexander by George Tiffin, and tucked into The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - the latter serving as my sole piece of non-fiction reading that had no direct relation to my PhD. I also started Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, a celebrated classic that I must admit I’m making very slow progress with indeed.

Song and Dance

I picked up the following CDs: Atonement (Dario Marianelli), Echoes of War: The Music of Blizzard Entertainment (Eminence Symphony Orchestra), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Pink and the Lily (Sandi Thom) and Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez).

Posted: Thursday, January 01, 2009 at 5:36 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Books | Cinema | DVD | General | HD DVD | Music | PhD | Reviews | Technology

Happy New Year 2009!


Well, 2008 came and went a lot more quickly than I was expecting. I’ll be doing one of my usual annual summaries later, but for now I thought I’d do something completely new and write down some New Year’s resolutions. In the past, I’ve scoffed at such practices, believing that, if you want to change something, the best time to do it is now, not when you hang up the new calendar. However, I’m beginning to come round to the notion that, sometimes, we all need an extra little kick to do the things we know we should do but can’t face up to, and the start of a new year seems like as good a time as any to make an actual commitment. So, without further ado, here are my goals for 2009, in no particular order:

Write more reviews. Once upon a time, I was quite prolific as a writer at DVD Times. In 2008, however, my output slowed to a trickle. Some of this can be blamed on my workload: I’m researching a PhD and also holding down a part-time job. That said, I could definitely stand to make better use of my free time, so my first resolution for 2009 is to attempt to write one review per week. These might not all be fully-fledged, in-depth pieces like my Wall-E Blu-ray review, which was a massive undertaking, but I could at least stand to write technical reviews of BDs whose DVD counterparts have already been covered either by myself or other DVD Times reviews.

Pay off my student loan. When I did my undergraduate degree between 2001 and 2005, I took out a student loan. Given that I lived at home and was within easy travelling distance of the university, I qualified for the smallest available loan, something which I am now exceedingly glad of, having heard the figures bandied about by some former students (particularly those in the US - yikes!). In comparison, £2,500 feels quite maneagable, and, in any event, payment will be facilitated somewhat by a generous donation I received from a dead relative on Christmas Day (thanks, Gran).

Lose weight. In Spring of 2005, I lost a considerable amount of weight in a short space of time. Unfortunately, some of that has subsequently piled back on, and while I’m far from as large as I once was, I could stand to be smaller. I can also see myself ending up on the slippery slope to becoming a fatty again, something I don’t particularly want to happen. I don’t subscribe to any particularly outlandish diets: my weight loss system is basically “Three square meals a day, five portions of fruit and nothing else in between.” It worked in 2005, and it can work again in 2009. All it takes is a little willpower in the first couple of weeks, and then I don’t even miss the crisps, sweets etc.

Watch more films. I saw a number of “significant” films in 2008, some of which I’ll list in my review of 2008 post. In general, though, viewing figures were down: I saw a total of 67 films for the first time, a mere seven of which were released that year. I’m not much of a cinema-goer these days - I tend to think it’s just not worth the hassle - but I could have done better. I still can’t believe I didn’t at least go to see Quantum of Solace. I know some people try to watch a film every single day, but that’s just not possible from my point of view: as much as I’d like it to, my entire life doesn’t revolve around watching movies. I’m not going to make a pledge to watch X number of movies this year, as I surely wouldn’t be able to keep to it, so I’m simply going to say “I’ll do better.”

Post more. I definitely wrote considerably fewer posts for this site in 2008 than I did in 2007. While I wouldn’t say I neglected the site as such, I do think I could have written more. While I’m not a believer in posting something every day simply for the sake of it, on far too many occasions I neglected to post a news item that either myself or others would have found interesting simply because I couldn’t be bothered. I’m not sure what the solution to this is, but I know some people have a habit of setting aside a specific time of the day for blogging, so that’s one possible answer. In any event, expect to see more activity at Land of Whimsy in 2009.

Posted: Thursday, January 01, 2009 at 12:47 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | General | PhD | Web

Christmas comes early (long post)

Logitech Z-5500 Digital

Apologies for the posting constipation recently. I’m currently in crunch mode on the latest submission for my PhD, which is due in early next week and will consist of an introduction to my thesis, covering its origins, key aims and my working definition of what exactly a giallo is. (One of the downsides to choosing such an obscure branch of the movie tree for your research is that, at the start of every article you write or presentation you give, you have to squander precious words or minutes explaining what the hell you’re talking about.) Still, despite this being a pretty intensive period, I’m enjoying this phase a lot more than the last one (the literature review), which I felt dragged on for too long without me having a clear sense of direction.

Anyway, I just thought I’d check in to post that I decided to finally replace my PC’s ageing Creative Inspire 5.1 Digital 5700 speakers with a spruce new Logitech Z-5500 Digital package as an early Christmas present. I did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I wanted better audio than I was currently getting, and, while I knew I could never compete with my brother’s setup, at least not without having access to vastly more money and space than I currently have, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to go for the best setup I could get my hands on within my current means. Various reviews swung me towards the Z-5500, which, unlike most of the current generation of PC speakers, has the added bonus of including its own internal Dolby Digital and DTS decoders, should I ever want to send it encoded signals in either of these two formats.

[Continue reading "Christmas comes early (long post)"...]

Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2008 at 6:11 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | Gialli | PhD | Technology

Well, slap my face! The Omen looks great!


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

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

New layout launched!


OMGLOLWTF???!!!11~ No, you haven’t come to the wrong place, and no, there is no need to adjust your television set. Just a week shy of two years ago, I launched the ninth design of my web site. It was a design that I was pretty pleased with at the time, and returning to the Movable Type content management system was certainly a relief after bashing my head against the brick wall that is Blogger for so long, but, as time wore on, I began to tire of its rather drag, charmless colour palette, among other things. However, despite a couple of aborted attempts, I never did manage to come up with anything suitable to replace it. Until now.

The other day, when I should have been reading about popular European cinema, inspiration suddenly struck me, and I came up with the design you now see. In addition to the name change - the site is now called Land of Whimsy rather than, although the old URL will remain active for the time being - I’ve made a number of aesthetic changes. First and foremost, the main text column and sidebar are now both somewhat wider than they used to be, which will hopefully make things feel a bit less cramped. There are a number of other tweaks and alterations that you’ll no doubt discover for yourselves as time goes on. I should probably point out that this layout requires a minimum resolution of 1024x768, and a reasonably recent browser (you can get Mozilla Firefox 3.0.1 here).

At the moment, only the main index page reflects the new design; all the others still point to the old version 9 layout. As time goes on, I’ll be making my way through them and updating them to conform to the new look, but for the time being I thought it best to get at least some of it up and running. If you have any comments on the new look, I’d love to hear them.

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 10:22 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: General | PhD | Web

A little update…


Apologies for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been pretty busy lately with PhD stuff, but am approaching my (partially self-imposed) deadline of getting the second draft of my literature review in the can by the end of September.

In the meantime, I’ve also been devoting some time to putting together a new layout for this site, its first complete redesign in two years. I don’t have an ETA yet, and there’s no guarantee that the one I’m currently experimenting with will actually see the light of day, but I think it’s high time for a change. At the very least, I want something with more interesting colours and a less cluttered layout.

Posted: Tuesday, September 09, 2008 at 9:48 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: General | PhD | Web

What have I been up to?


It’s been nearly two months since I said anything at all about my PhD, and even longer since I actually said anything concrete about what stage I’m at, so I thought I’d give you a brief status report. I’ve spent the last three weeks frantically pulling together my literature review chapter, and I completed the first complete draft yesterday evening - all 8,900 words of it. To put that into perspective, that’s more or less half the length of my entire MLitt thesis from 2006.

In many respects, it still feels as if I’m feeling around in the dark, but an actual direction is beginning to emerge, and I feel a lot clearer now about my aims than I did six months ago. I attribute a lot of that to my supervisor, who has been very good when it has come to pushing me forward and impressing upon me the constant need to remember the bigger picture - i.e. what I’m hoping to achieve with this thesis. When you’re working on a project of any length, especially one that will, in all likelihood take me a further four years to complete, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and lose track of my goals.

This is why, although I initially found it strange, I’ve slowly come to the realisation that writing the literature review before anything else was indeed a good move. At first, I found the suggestion that I should do this rather baffling: after all, I’m going to keep on reading new sources almost until the very end of this project, so how could I possibly put together a comprehensive review of the literature at this early stage? The answer is that the literature review, at this point, is not meant to be all-encompassing. Instead, the aim is to identify and present the key arguments, developing a skeleton for the chapter to which I will, as I progress, be able to add more meat. By doing this, I should hopefully be able to have the most important debates, not to mention my aims, in my mind at all times as I write the rest of the thesis.

So far, I would appear to be on track for my intended goal of delivering a second draft of the literature review before the end of September. I don’t doubt that I will have some substantial revisions to make to the chapter following my meeting with my supervisor tomorrow, but it feels like I’ve made a substantial amount of progress in the last few weeks. I’ve still got a mountain to climb, but I’ve made it over the first foothill.

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 2:17 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: PhD

A well-earned break

As of 5 PM tomorrow, I’m on holiday. My birthday is on Friday, July 4th, and I’ve decided to take a week’s break to coincide. I have the Wednesday and Saturday of the week off work, and I’m stuffing my PhD work into a dark cupboard. I haven’t had a real break from either of my two forms of work since Christmas, so it’ll be nice to put my feet up for a while.

Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 at 8:55 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: General | PhD

We interrupt this programme for a special report


Sorry about the lack of updates lately. I’m currently knee-deep in putting together a paper for the departmental Postgraduate Symposium, which takes place over Monday and Tuesday next week. My presentation is on Monday afternoon, and, while I’m nearing the home stretch as far as my paper is concerned, I want to take the time to make it as good as possible, so I’ve been spending pretty much all the time I have available on it.

Still, I’ve also taken the time to hammer out some plans for my new computer. Having weighed up the possibilities, I think I’m going to go with the following:

Case and PSU: Antec Sonata III Piano Black Quiet Mid Tower Case - With 500W EarthWatts PSU

Motherboard: ASUS P5K-E/WIFI-AP AiLifestyle Series P35 Socket 775 Socket eSATA 8 channel Audio ATX

CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3GHz (1333MHz) Socket 775 6MB L2 Cache OEM

CPU cooler: Scythe Mine Rev-B

RAM: Corsair 4GB Kit (2x2GB) DDR2 800MHz/PC2-6400 XMS2 Memory Non-ECC Unbuffered

Video card: Gecube HD 3870 512MB GDDR3 OC edition Dual DVI TV Out PCI-E

Sound card: Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1

I already have my optical drive (an LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray/HD DVD combo) ready and waiting. Plus, I’ll retain my current monitor, audio system, keyboard, mouse and hard drives.

I feel pretty comfortable with the motherboard and RAM, since my brother bought exactly the same models for his machine and both are serving him very well. Plus, I’m an ASUS loyalist through and through and have bought motherboards from them (barring my current Shuttle) since 2002. I decided to go with a fast dual-core CPU rather than spending more money on a quad-core with a lower clock speed. I’m well aware of the benefits of a quad-core system when it comes to video encoding and other CPU-crunching activities, but, when it comes to gaming performance, which will probably be my primary concern, I suspect I’m better off squeezing as many megahertz as possible out of a dual-core system, given how few games take advantage of more than two cores.

Any thoughts on this system? Any suggestions?

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 11:38 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Games | General | PhD | Technology

Thoughts on The Maltese Falcon, and various giallo/film noir observations


I had my first proper film noir experience today in the form of John Huston’s celebrated 1941 offering, The Maltese Falcon. I don’t mean by that that it was the first film noir I’d ever seen, but rather that it was the first time I sat down to watch a film thinking “Right, this is a film noir. What does that mean and how does it manifest itself?”

The Maltese Falcon is currently ranked as the 69th greatest film of all time on IMDB, and, regardless of how much or how little faith you put in such lists (personally, I think they’re generally of little value), it’s tough to deny that it’s difficult to approach any film with that sort of reputation, particularly one that’s over 60 years old. How do you even begin to comprehend how it would have been viewed at the time of its release, and how do you begin to appreciate its various innovations in that context, knowing full well that they have now been assimilated into the everyday language of film? The answer is that you don’t, unless you possess both a time machine and a means of erasing all of your existing knowledge and preconceptions regarding the type of film in question. The Maltese Falcon is very much a quintessential film noir, but it wouldn’t have been seen as such in 1941, given that the movement didn’t enjoy its glory period until some years later, and it would take even longer for people to begin actively referring to these as film noirs.

So anyway, did I enjoy The Maltese Falcon? Yes, I did - considerably so, in fact, although, as I find to be the case with many films that are considered the greatest of their respective genres or movements, my enjoyment didn’t develop into out and out awe or adulation. I found it consistently witty dialogue-wise and at many points engaging, but there were also several moments for me where things began to sag a bit and my interest started to wane. Each time that happened, a plot development would generally show up in a few minutes to regain my attention, but my overriding reaction was “Yeah, this is a really good film” rather than “Wow, this is one of the greatest films of all time!” (Oh, and a minor criticism: I must admit that the continual continuity flubs, mainly actors changing position between shots, kept taking me out of the drama.) That said, I’m pretty sure my reaction to Deep Red was somewhat similar the first time I saw it, and we all know how highly I regard it now.


Anyway, as I’ve continued reading up on film noir, the similarities between it and the giallo movement have become all the more pronounced. I’m not sure that much, if any, of this comes from my viewing of The Maltese Falcon, but I thought I’d note a few of my observations regarding the ties between the two movements:

- The giallo began in the late 60s as an offshoot of 30s pulp literature, whereas film noir kicked off more than two decades earlier, in the early 40s, drawing on the influence of 10s/20s German Expressionism (for the visuals) and hard-boiled detective pulp fiction (for the narratives and themes).

- For both movements, there is a broad agreement on what constitutes the key iconography, but no single universally accepted definition. In addition, broadly speaking, it is agreed that neither the giallo nor the film noir constitutes a genre. To describe film noir, Alain Silver uses the word “cycle”, which has obvious connotations of time, indicating that the movement is part of a specific period, an is echoed in writing on gialli which uses the Italian word ‘filone’, used to refer to trends and cycles.

- Key traits include moral ambiguity and sexual motivation, often involving a contemporary urban setting.

- Although there are a number of high profile exceptions (The Maltese Falcon being a case in point), the majority of gialli and film noirs tended to be B-movies, with modest budgets and a lack of major stars.

- Both movements seem to have emerged in times of social and/or political unrest:

— Literary gialli arrived in the 1930s during the rise of fascism.

— Filmic gialli emerged during a period of intense violence and terrorism in the early 1970s, and following considerable progress in the women’s emancipation movement.

— The hard-boiled detective novels which influenced film noir emerged in the US during the Depression of the 1930s.

Film noir as a movement took off during the aftermath of the Second World War, and its portrayal of powerful, independent women as dangerous (i.e. the femme fatale) can be seen as representative of the fears of a generation of men who returned from war to find that women had entered the public sector in their absence. The vilification and ultimate destruction of the femme fatale can be argued to constitute an attempt to restore ‘order’ and return women to what was perceived as their rightful place.

- Shared (partial) roots in German Expressionism: Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is considered to have sparked the main thrust of the giallo boom, has professed to having been influenced by German Expressionism, particularly the films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

- In both cases, the ‘colour’ terminology appears to have been applied retrospectively. ‘Film noir’, or so says Wikipedia (remind me not to quote that in my bibliography!), was first coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, and likewise the term ‘giallo’ does not appear to have been actively used when the films in question were initially released (trailers which do attempt to classify them tend to use the word ‘thrilling’, e.g. Deep Red). It may be that the giallo movement’s literary origins were only noticed and acknowledged later. (Does anyone know? An investigation of contemporary Italian press publications would probably be needed here.)

- Oh, and Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), referred to by some (e.g. Gary Needham) as the first cinematic giallo, was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, itself adapted in the US in 1946 and considered a major film noir.

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 7:45 PM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Gialli | PhD

DVD debacle


Tomorrow, my film noir crash course will begin in earnest, starting with a morning viewing of The Maltese Falcon, which I picked up today during my lunch break. I also snagged The Lady from Shanghai and The Postman Always Rings Twice, so a sincere word of thanks to everyone who suggested titles for me to look into.

I also decided to nab The Black Dahlia to give me a flavour for a more recent take on the noir framework. I’ve heard mixed reports about it, but I figure I might as well give it a whirl.


I got home to find a package from DVD Pacific waiting for me, containing the Blu-ray release of Bonnie and Clyde and the recent Platinum Edition DVD release of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. I’ve always had a strange relationship with the latter, since it’s one of the few Disney features where I actually read the source material before reading the film, and, perhaps for that reason, the adaptation never really stood up for me. It’s a very enjoyable film, don’t get me wrong, and Cruella De Vil is one of the greatest screen villains ever created, but the book, for me, just paints a much richer and more appealing image in my head.

An interesting point about this release is that, whereas the recent re-releases of The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood (and the upcoming The Sword in the Stone) were all matted to an aspect ratio of 1.75:1, 101 Dalmatians retains the open matte 1.33:1 format favoured by every prior home video release, something which pleases me greatly considering how borked The Jungle Book looked when matted. The behind the scenes documentary for 101 Dalmatians, contained on the second disc, mattes the image to a widescreen ratio, with disastrous results, and watching it made me thankful that Disney have opted for a full-frame presentation for this release. I mean, take a look at the image below and try to imagine how you might matte it without completely destroying the composition:

101 Dalmatians

Hopefully there will be a full review at DVD Times in the near future.

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2008 at 10:26 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | PhD

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