Friday, December 29, 2006

Just a reminder...

... that DVD mini-reviews are appearing over on the new UK DVD Review blog rather than here. In the last few days I've added my thoughts on the DVD releases of Lost Season 2, Monster House, Renaissance and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

I'll be posting quick reviews of the new Cinema Reserve edition of Tora! Tora! Tora!, the adrenaline-fuelled Crank, the Internet-hyped Snakes on a Plane, the 'gay art house' Ma Vrai Vie a Rouen, the surprisingly good American David Boreanaz vehicle Bones Season 1, the quintessentially English Driving Lessons and the political An Inconvenient Truth over the next few days

And a new HD-DVD Review blog will be kicking off with a review of the excellent World Trade Center HD-DVD in the new year (I'll post the URL for the HD-DVD review blog here as soon as the first reviews are available).

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Break

So that was Christmas! And very enjoyable it was too. Quieter than normal on the day itself, with just me and Mum at her place in Southampton, where normally the whole family would gather at my sister's in Reading. But it felt much more relaxed and a lot less stressed than normal with just the two of us. Easy for me to say of course as I just ate and read while I was waited on all day long. That's the life!

The HD-DVD player got a bit of a work-out on the Saturday before I headed off to Southampton, and the only two disks with a Christmas theme that have been so far released were first up on the basis that their 'sell by' date was about to expire! Judging the HD-DVD format, or its content, based on just these two Christmas releases, is not the wisest of moves as tradition dictates that any Christmas-themed movie has to be dire by its very definition.

A Christmas Story is not a film I've ever heard of, although I gather it's up there with the likes of A Wonderful Life in the States, in terms of audience appreciation, and mainly for the same reasons (failure at the box office, followed by a growing audience that latched onto it after heavy rotation on American TV at Christmas). The HD-DVD cover is truly dreadful, giving the impression this is some sort of Home Alone kiddie-oriented fare, where in actuality it's a more adult-oriented gently nostalgic affair. Good fun to watch on Christmas Eve once you realise it's not so much the story the title implies, but a series of rather disjointed anecdotes about childhood, as told by an adult wallowing somewhat in nostalgia. The author has a James Herriott -like ability to tell a very simple story that strikes a chord at the time of viewing, albeit one that when viewed in the cold light of day doesn't really boil down to much at all. I can see why it's popular (especially Stateside) and its lack of sentimentality is a good thing, but it's certainly nowhere near the same class as A Wonderful Life.

Looking at the film in its HD-DVD incarnation the reviews of A Christmas Story have been somewhat 'mixed' - actually more like very unkind - which seems to me to be unfair. While outdoor scenes and some indoor classroom scenes look like 'reference standard' DVD (without a 1080p screen it's hard for me to judge it against anything else), indoor scenes are swathed in seemingly deliberate soft-focus sepia washed-out tones. It's an odd mix of 3D vibrant clarity one minute, and soft focus washout the next, and unfortunately the soft-focus 'family indoors' scenes make up most of the film's running time, earning it a thumbs down for the HD-DVD's picture quality rating in many quarters. I'm pretty sure the poor picture quality fault (design?) is in the original film-making rather than in the HD-DVD transfer itself. For my part, I thought the title was worth the asking price and didn't feel it merited the 'dishonourable mention' it got over at the highdef digest's review of the year!

A Christmas Story screencap

Alas, I followed A Christmas Story with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on HD-DVD. To read the reviews over at imdb you'd think this was one of the funniest films ever made. It's currently running an average score of 7.1 where it should have a rating of 2 or even less. This is an absolute turkey from the Ben Stiller/Will Ferrell 'why write proper jokes when you can just gurn endlessly' school of film-making. Nearly two hours of my life that I'll never get back, and a timely reminder for the new year that what used to be a great source for finding good movies that I might otherwise have missed based on ratings, has become completely unreliable as everything coalesces to the same meaningless 'average' score.

Christmas is an excuse to catch up on reading and the backlog of film magazines and SFX took up most of Christmas Day. Am I the only one who resents the way these magazines have just become inflated, pre-release advertising material for films that are months away?! The highlight was the most ridiculous Christopher Lee interview I've ever read (and let's face it there have been quite a few that could seemingly qualify for that title over the years). Mr Lee is promoting an album and genuinely appears to think he's a singer now. I laughed out loud at the pomposity of the man as he talked about his new 'career', his 'heavy metal' credentials and yet again endlessly blew his own trumpet on the one hand whilst putting the poor journalist in his place on the other, only to turn a few pages to find some whipper-snapper journalist talking about the dangers of using the 'Dracula' word when the ac-tor Mr Lee is around. I laughed so hard I spilt tea down my sweater, but suspect that even as I type legal threats are being sent in the direction of the SFX offices in Bath, which won't be funny for the poor recipient of course!

The XBox 360 UncloakedI also managed to finish The XBox 360 Uncloaked, a book I've been dipping into, a chapter at a time, over the last month or so, and which has been a fascinating read. I'm not a games player, and don't really care about the XBox 360 itself, but the book is a fascinating account of the politics and power-plays made in the games industry, and gives great insight into the way Sony and Microsoft run their businesses. It's also that rare thing in these days of 'pay the staff nothing because everybody wants to work in media and we can just copy all our material off the internet' celebrity-obsessed journalism - a very well researched book. Probably TOO well researched! At times there are too many tangents the author goes off on, and too many names and minor anecdotes, as he chases a subject obviously very dear to his heart.

Many years ago I read a book called The Soul of a New Machine, a ground-breaking 'behind the scenes' look at how DEC engineers built a new mini-computer, and the author of this XBox 360 book, Dean Takahashi, says he wanted to write a similar book about the XBox 360. I don't think he's succeeded because there are too many people involved here - it's a less 'human' book than I remember 'Soul of a New Machine' being, but one has to admire the end result nevertheless. Well worth a read if you're interested in finding out anything at all about how the games industry works.

The only telly I've seen over Christmas was the first part of Little Britain Abroad (which proved a media backlash against this 'comedic institution' is long overdue - it was consistently unfunny all the way through) and the Doctor Who Christmas special. This latter programme just proved what I've been saying all along - the series has no hope of achieving any of its potential while Russel T Davies is in charge of it. Not only was the infantile script yet another retread on his usual theme, but there were so many of his inappropriate 'flourishes' I swear he must be churning this stuff out through an automated computer programme. So yet again we got the deus ex machina ending and yet again we got the obligatory gay references (oh look two blokes kissing in the background at the wedding - how brave, and on a kids programme too! - yawnerama). But even worse than that was the cacophony of solid ear-to-ear 'orchestral' music loudly playing ALL THE WAY THROUGH IT. Somebody talking in a quiet, emotional way? Just drown it in cacaphonic orchestral music. A quiet pause between loud action scenes? Just drown it in cacaphonic orchestral music. I don't think I've EVER heard such a mess of a soundtrack, and the 'music' completely undid all the hard work David Tennant was putting in. As if he didn't have enough to contend with given Catherine Tate's rather weak attempts at 'proper' acting and a 'written by Russel, aged six of class 2B' script! Series 3 is now officially on my 'Don't watch it, no matter how strong the pull of nostalgia' list, with the exception of the Stephen Moffat -penned episode if I spot it in the schedules in time. An unopened copy of Torchwood Part 1 on DVD sits in front of me and I really don't know that I can be bothered to open it or invest any time at all in watching it now, despite assurances from friends that 'after a slow start it gets much better than awful Doctor Who'.

Well that's the 'fun' stuff out the way. Alas, from hereonin, it's study and work for the rest of the holiday. Arriving back in London my usual insomniac's sleep pattern has returned (woke up at 3.30am and couldn't get back to sleep) - it seems there really is something about country air being better for you since I had the best night's sleep I've had in a long time on Christmas Eve in Southampton. I've ended up mapping out the next few days in terms of study to be achieved, and it's frightening how full the next few days look with my hopes of making progress on several fronts being thwarted by the sheer lack of hours in a day. My schedule includes a daily movie 'reward' at the end of each day (and a backlog DVD review too as I've been very lax on these recently) and it's hit and miss as to whether it's the studying or the movie watching that will get bumped as the schedule starts to slip! The new year will be here before I want it, I just know it!

Friday, December 15, 2006

That's Christmas Sorted!

XBox 360 DVD drive and a stack of HD-DVDs

Still no word from Amazon, after their email promise to investigate the shambles that is their ordering system and get back to me about the XBox HD-DVD player I ordered from them at the beginning of October which has never been despatched. It's now two weeks since their promise that they were taking the matter seriously and would get back to me! So thank goodness for MovieTyme who have saved the day. The unit I ordered from the States only last Friday evening arrived at work today.

Alas, work is even more manic than usual at the moment which means I've got to go into work on Sunday (no fun). And I've gone down with a stinker of a cold so plan on spending as much of Saturday as I can in bed, recuperating. I'm also about half way through Lost Season 2 and hooked again(it works so much better without all the TV ad breaks), even if it is on boring old 'standard' definiton DVD, rather than shiny, sexy new high definition DVD.

So the new unit isn't going to get opened and tested until Christmas weekend.

I just hope it doesn't turn out to be a defective unit - I've got way too many HD-DVD movies stacked up ready to watch over the Christmas break, and don't want my plans for a lazy, laid-back break wrecked on account of broken hardware! Touch wood, Microsoft have saved my sanity over the last few weeks. The high-end Toshiba DVD player is STILL in the repair shop with no date for when it will be fixed, so I'm reliant on my old XBox player for watching DVDs, and now the XBox 360 add-on player for my HD-DVDs.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Six Questions For Amazon UK That They Refuse to Answer

1. Why have people who pre-ordered the XBox 360 HD-DVD on the 13th October been told "no drives before Christmas" while those who ordered after that date (on the 17th) received their orders?

2. Why have those customers given a tip off that if they changed their method of delivery from the free 2-3 day option to the expensive 'next day' express option they'd move to the head of the queue, been given priority on any new shipments of their pre-ordered goods, regardless of the date they ordered their item?

3. Why have several of those who emailed you to complain that they had to upgrade their method of delivery for the more expensive option to receive their pre-ordered goods been given a refund of the extra delivery amount and received their goods, while those not realising the games that could be played to jump the queue are still waiting and have no idea of when they will receive their pre-ordered goods?

4. Why no communication from you about your complete inability to deliver to the 'expected date' that you agreed and have rigidly maintained for the last 3 months but which has now long since passed?

5. Why when customers point out their anger and disgust at the way you have no proper priority system, no consistent 'story' for the customers who phone you to complain, no consistency in how you handle orders, do you apologise, say you are taking the matter very seriously, promise you will look into things and get back to those customers, but then consistently and repeatedly not do so? (it's more than a week since you sent promises to those who emailed you that you would 'get back to them')

6. Why have you not learnt the lesson from last year when customers who pre-ordered the XBox 360 from you (not me, thankfully!) found themselves in exactly the same situation with regard to misinformation, automated 'apologies', and assurances that these 'mistakes' would not happen again?

I've complained about Amazon UK on this blog before. I don't understand why so many people put so much business their way when their customer service is so appalling. I guess it's because we're British. We don't complain. We just put up with completely shoddy service and give those companies more business because it somehow appears more convenient.

The HD-DVD discs I've been collecting, in anticipation of the general shortage of the discs as well as the players, will hopefully get to be viewed in a few weeks time now that I've found an alternative import supplier at (£30 over the British price, which is gouging the market, given the cost in America of the unit, but they have a LOT of happy ex-Amazon customers). Needless to say my order placed with Amazon on 15th October has been cancelled and no matter how tempting their prices or delivery estimates might appear they won't get any new orders for so much as a CD or book from me.

Looking back, I don't think I've had a single item delivered by their so-called 'expected' delivery date in all my years of using them, even when such items are displayed as 'in stock'. But, being British, I've carried on using them regardless. Never again! People say I've just been 'unlucky'. My answer to that is that if you pop over to you'll see there's a hell of a lot of people who seem to have been just as 'unlucky' where Amazon are concerned. And must be very happy that their profits are soaring thanks to so many 'unlucky' Amazon customers!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

National Portrait Gallery - Philip Hoare on the Pet Shop Boys

On Thursday evening I went to a talk by Philip Hoare entitled 'Pet Shop Boys Catalogue' at the National Portrait Gallery.

Hoare is the co-author of the coffee-table book Catalogue that was released a few weeks ago. The book is pretty much what it says - a bulky lavish document paying homage to the imagery and product that the pop group have released over the last 25 years. The only other 'completist' PSB fan that I know (Hi Birdy!) thought the whole book idea redundant and pointless, and, having bought the book, I can sort of see where he's coming from. Do you really need a photographic record of all the product the group have put out when you already have that product anyway? The book was apparently intended to accompany a high profile exhibition in an American art gallery, which subsequently fell through. Nevertheless it's a lavishly produced item and fans will no doubt be happy with it. It's fun to dip into occasionally, if only to remind yourself of the quality and diversity of the band's work over the years.

Hoare will be hosting another event at The National Gallery in January, when he interviews Neil Tennant. It's a somewhat disappointing indictment of our 'cult of celebrity' society that while that event sold out almost immediately (I have a ticket so will no doubt have further things to say at the time), this one was delievered towards rather a lot of empty seats, particularly towards the front of what was a fairly small lecture theatre to start with. Maybe I'm being unfair as to why the Tennant talk sold out and the book author talk was so quiet, and the attendees stayed away because they got wind of what the talk would be like, because, frankly, I thought it was an hour of rambling and rather pretentious tosh. On the plus side there were some nice photo's projected on the big screen behind Hoare while he talked and the Q & A which followed the talk wasn't the usual 'Can I have your autograph?' nonsense that such fan events tend to quickly turn into.

Hoare's talk was centred mainly around the similarities and influence of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde! Needless to say, I found it all extremely thin, like some school boy essay trying to justify something as being 'higher' art than it really and having no real content. Let's face it, the comparisons between these two rather camp stereotypes (Coward and Wilde) and Tennant when he's in plum-voiced, patronising, 'I'm delivering edicts from the philosophy of the Pet Shop Boys pop' mode are fairly obvious, but so what? Too much of the talk seemed to me to be 'stating the blooming obvious', and while the remainder of the talk at least gave a quick summary overview of the career of The Pet Shop Boys, given the fan boy audience, it all seemed somewhat redundant.

For me, the Q & A session after the talk was more interesting than the talk itself had been, with questions being pretty much serving as an excuse for Hoare to discuss 'what the band are really like' and pass on some gossip. Hoare, by his own admission, is not exactly discrete, and I know this makes me a bad person but I found the tittle-tattle about the two band members more interesting than any luvvie nonsense about what a great art institution (and geniuses to boot) the group are.

The other 'problem' I had with the event is my dislike of the whole 'hard core fan' thing (whatever the thing is that people are a fan of). The people around me seemed nice enough, but when everybody recognises everybody else (solely from fan-oriented events) and the conversations around you seem to be entirely about previous events, with the main theme being talk about days off work, travel and hotel booking for the next signing event from 'the boys', it all seems to err a little bit too much the wrong side of the thin line between being a fan and being stalkerish and scary. Particularly when, unlike say The Lord of the Rings fan base, with which I've become most familiar, the audience seem to be mainly 35-55 year old gay men!