Sunday 9 September, 2012 12:46

Greetings, programs!

It’s been nearly a month since my last post, which must stand as some kind of record in the Land of Whimsy annals. I never intended to leave it this long, but for a variety of reasons I’ve let this site go to the wayside.

Chapter 2

The first and most significant reason is that I’ve been busting my hump over the last six weeks or so working on a chapter for my thesis. This chapter, Chapter 2, is both the most important of the bunch and the most difficult to get right, given that it serves as both a historical overview of the years leading up to the giallo boom of 1970-1975 (basically I give a potted history of sociocultural developments in Western Europe in the years 1945-1970 - no small undertaking) and an explanation of the theoretical frameworks (mostly derived from criticism of film noir) with which I engage in my analysis chapters. I finally handed in a draft a little over a week ago and will be meeting my supervisors to discuss it on Tuesday, but there’s still a fair bit of work to be done with this chapter and, once I’m done with it, the rest of the thesis still has to be redrafted. Basically, I’m unlikely to have significant quantities of free time any time soon.

There’s another reason, though, and if I’m being honest it’s that I don’t get the same amount of enjoyment updating the site as I once did. For a number of years, most of the site’s content consisted of screen captures of and reviews of the video quality of Blu-ray Discs. These subjects still interest me a great deal, but the actual act of writing about them and in particular the laborious process of going through entire discs to select captures that are representative of the image quality as a whole were starting to feel like more and more of a chore. It’s entirely possible that I’ll feel differently when I have some free time on my hands, but I don’t want to promise anything. In the meantime, I’d recommend Matt Paprocki and Adam Tyner’s BD reviews if you want insightful criticism coupled with accurate screen captures.


I did want to give a brief rundown of a handful of recent acquisitions of note, however, starting with Disney’s recent combo release of THE RESCUERS and its sequel, THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER. As I noted in a previous post, this year has turned out to be something of a treasure trove in terms of Disney BD releases. The studio, so often cagey about putting out their animated movies, has for some reason opted to churn through a whole bunch of their lesser titles, releasing them on BD in various states of (dis)repair. Some, like the all-digital POCAHONTAS and TREASURE PLANET, have fared extremely well (passing no judgement on the quality of the films themselves), while the much earlier THE ARISTOCATS has been grain-scrubbed within an inch of its life and is now so soft and textureless that it looks as if the entire film was shot with an unfocused camera and Vaseline smeared on the lens. And don’t get me started on HOME ON THE RANGE - I know it’s difficult to describe the film in anything approaching fond terms, but Christ on a bike, what HAPPENED to it?

Anyway, with THE RESCUERS and its sequel, on the plus side the compositions look fine in their 1.66:1 aspect ratio presentations, and the old Buena Vista card has been restored to the start of THE RESCUERS (the previous DVDs had an anachronistic and beat-up old Walt Disney Pictures castle logo). Sadly, Disney have gone down the same route as THE FOX AND THE HOUND, attempting to clean up what are clearly fairly grainy source materials but doing a thoroughly half-assed job of it. Grain is present but it no longer looks like grain - instead it has a blotchy, watercoloury appearance to it. The overall destructiveness varies from shot to shot, but overall it just looks grubby, smudgy and ill-defined. I can’t say I’m too surprised in the case of THE RESCUERS, but for THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, this shouldn’t be the case. DOWN UNDER was the first Disney feature to be composited, inked and painted entirely using the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) process, and as such there’s no earthly reason for the BD to have been taken from a print transfer. I’ve long argued that the grainless, “perfect” look of digitally sourced animation is sterile and lifeless, but at least it would have avoided the destructive effects of grain reduction gone wrong. Here are a couple of captures taken from the French BD of WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, which includes this segment from DOWN UNDER taken straight from the CAPS files:

The Rescuers Down Under (CAPS) The Rescuers Down Under (CAPS)

(Disregard the ropey compression and interlacing artefacts in the above captures. The French WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is, for some reason, a 1080i50 jobbie.)

Now compare them with the recently released BD:

The Rescuers Down Under (Bd) The Rescuers Down Under (BD)

Feel cheated? I know I do. The only possible explanation for this is that Disney, looking to save a buck on two of their “B” titles, simply grabbed the first already-existing high definition master that came to hand, bulldozed it with grain reduction and slapped it on a disc, assuming that kids and their parents wouldn’t know the difference. That assumption may be correct, but it’s a thoroughly half-assed way to treat your customers.

(PS. WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY also includes additional clips of the film sourced from a print, but they look considerably more natural than anything in this BD release.)


“Thoroughly half-assed” would also be an altogether appropriate way to describe Universal’s upcoming ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION BD box set, as per former Masters of Cinema honcho Nick Wrigley’s ongoing mini-reviews of the check discs he has received, ahead of a larger piece to be published in SIGHT & SOUND magazine. I’m not going to repeat every single observation Nick has made (and the thread I linked to is still ongoing as he makes his way through all the discs in the collection), but it seems obvious that Universal have once again put the least effort possible into handling some of the most prestigious titles in their back catalogue, and the end results can at best be described as “all over the place”. I don’t expect every catalogue title to be 10/10 “demo material”, but when a film’s opening credits now contain multiple typos on the same card… well, it just says everything that needs to be said about Universal’s respect for its back catalogue and its customers. Given the exorbitant cost of this set (particularly the US version, which is likely to include the original non-mangled mono mix for VERTIGO absent from the EU version Nick has been reviewing), I’ve cancelled my pre-order and will only consider picking it up after a serious price reduction. I’ll be hanging on to my old velvet DVD box set, flawed as it is, for the time being. Nice going, Universal. On the plus side, you’ve just saved me the £140 (!!!) it would have cost me to import the US version - a price I’d happily have paid for pristine versions of some of the best work of one of my all-time favourite directors, but an outrage considering the leftovers you appear to have served up.

In other Hitchcock-related news, Warner is releasing DIAL M FOR MURDER and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in October. No advance word yet on how they look, but I trust Warner considerably more to get these right.


With all the Universal slagging, it would be remiss of me not to mention a rare instance of them actually doing a good job on a catalogue title… and I don’t mean a case like GLADIATOR, where it took Ridley Scott (allegedly) raising hell and a re-release to actually get it right. I’m talking about Steven Spielberg’s horror classic JAWS, which has just seen its BD debut. I picked it up recently (and just as a reminder, you can keep track of my recent purchases here while I’m not updating the site so frequently) and it was the first time I’d seen the film since I was a little kid, and given that I had next to no memory of it, it essentially counted as a “new film” for me. Universal’s 100th anniversary releases have been a mixed bag so far, with an awful lot of them simply being repackaged versions of travesties dating back to the days of the format war. JAWS, however, benefited from a new 4K transfer, and for the most part looks very nice. The grain reduction is a little more invasive than I would have liked, and it IS noticeable in places in the form of static particles and occasional smearing, but given some of the transfers Universal have signed off on, this is a complete revelation. In addition, the transition between the picture area and the letterbox bars is slightly soft rather than crisp. I’m not sure whether this is the result of deliberately softening the image or simply the particular 4K to 1080p downconversion process used, but either way it does suggest that the image is slightly less sharp than it might otherwise have been:

Jaws Jaws

It’s also worth pointing out that both the US and EU releases include a 7.1 remix AND the original mono, so you can buy either version with confidence. This is particularly significant, I feel, because the remix obscures one of the most iconic lines in the entire film: “Smile, you son of a bitch!” now becomes “Smile, you son of a *GUNSHOT*!” But yes, very good effort from Universal. If they put out a few more titles that looked like this, they wouldn’t have the reputation they have today for being the laziest and most unreliable of the majors for catalogue releases.

Finally, I’ve also been playing quite a bit of GUILD WARS 2, the recently released sequel to the only MMO I’ve ever enjoyed or invested any amount of time into. Like its predecessor, it has the obvious benefit of having no monthly fee attached to it, just a one-off charge for the game itself. There’s a lot to be said about this game and I might well do that in a later post at some point when I get the chance (no promises, though), but one thing I will say just now is that it is eye candy personified. A lot of the time I find myself stopping playing simply so I can admire the exquisitely crafted landscapes, which are about as far as you can get from the “50 Shades of Brown” approach most modern games seem to adopt:

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

Well, that’s about all for now. Sorry it’s taken me so long to post, and hopefully it won’t be another month till I once again stock my head above the parapet. Until next time, take care, folks!