Monday, December 31, 2007

Farewell 2007!

It's New Year's Eve and the holidays are pretty soon going to be over - although it's been hard to tell where work ends and holiday starts since I haven't been doing PAID work (through choice :)) since the end of October. Hopefully the New Year will change all that, although I'm going to miss relatively easy days at home in my study just learning (playing is probably a better word!) new stuff.

This is the time of year when it's traditional to make resolutions for the new year. For me it's going to be pretty much 'business as usual' - which means that, in the short term at least, blogging is going to be taking a bit of a back seat. Apologies to those who follow my various film/shiny disc review blogs - these are likely to remain relatively quiet, at least until I've made some progress on activities I've marked as higher priority for January.

At the moment stuff related to work is taking priority and the company web site is effectively the test bed for some infrastructure stuff that will make auto-updating of my personal web site and various blogs much less time-consuming. My Shiny Discs web site will be the ultimate benefactor of all this 'behind the scenes' work, but that is still some way off. Blame Microsoft, who seem to release new technologies and updates on an almost daily basis, such that keeping sufficiently up-to-date to know what's important and what isn't and trying to guarantee code isn't obsolete the day it's written is becoming increasingly difficult.

I have no real plans for New Year's Eve, other than to have another iteration of my CV so that it's ready to submit for some advertised contract vacancies on New Year's Day.

On the blogging front I intend to sort out my work-related blog first, if only because I'm way behind on stashing useful and essential work-releated links, an activity that needs to be accelerated given today's news that The Daily Grind (Larkware News) - a useful set of daily links for the .NET developer - is shutting down shop today. A new year's resolution is to make sure I update the work-related blog daily, with similar plans for this personal blog not likely to come to fruition until later in the year - in the meantime my Twitter 'tweets' (blog entries limited to 140 characters) are usually updated at least a couple of times a day.

Looking back, 2007 has been a good year after what was for me a very bleak year preceding it. Hopefully 2008 will be even better - for me, and for you, although I see Gordon Brown is already trying to spoil the party with warnings of doom and gloom.

Anyway, Gordon Brown aside, Happy New Year wherever and whoever you are (that doesn't apply to Christopher Lee or any of his family, obviously ;-))

P.S. Forgot to mention that I did a quick write-up on My Top 10 Shiny Discs of 2007 over on the rather excellent Filmstalker blog.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Carol/Lust, Caution

This week I've had two excellent evenings out: one at the theatre in Greenwich, the other at the cinema in Clapham. Both productions were what I would call "real highlights of 2007" in their respective fields. Alas, both were presented in venues that could have easily benefitted from more 'bums on seats', and it's kind of depressing that work of the sort of quality I've witnessed this week isn't proving more successful on a commercial level.

On Wednesday, I went to see A Christmas Carol at The Greenwich Playhouse. To be honest, it's a production I went to see more because it was an adaptation by my friend Brian Sibley, than because it was something I felt I really needed to see: Greenwich is not the most central location (although thankfully, the theatre is right next to the main station) and A Christmas Carol is hardly an unfamiliar piece, trotted out on TV, DVD and in the theatre every December (there are three theatrical productions in London alone this year I believe). My mistake, because as it turned out this excursion turned out to be a genuine highlight of my cultural excursions in 2007: the production is genuinely new, innovative, exciting, fast-paced, and really, really magical!

Brian has taken a very familiar story and given it a new spin by making Dickens himself an integral part of the play. There's an emphasis on the social problems of the times in new scenes that I haven't seen in other versions, and some scenes that are so moving that several audience members could be seen dabbing their eyes at certain times in the production. No matter how familiar you are with the story, you'll find something new here.

Christmas Carol - the flyer

The production itself is superb. The cast make excellent use of a small, but modern, space that gives an intimacy that just isn't there in West End productions. The staging, use of props, and use of puppets for the ghosts and the wonderful 'Tiny Tim' make this an incredibly complex production to perform, and I would imagine a complete nightmare to direct. And yet the small cast of eight manage complex changes and direction flawlessly, while all the time giving believable, real performances. The actors are all professionals, if not household names, and I can't remember a time where I saw a theatrical cast work so hard, or witnessed such a consistently high standard from every member of the cast. In short, it's a real family treat, and a 'must see' this Christmas.

The production runs until 6th January and tickets are a bargain at just £11 (£9 concessions) from the box office on 0208 858 9256. Do yourself a favour and go see it!

The audience I saw the play with were clearly as much in love with the production as I was, as apparently are the critics. But don't just take my word for it - check out the rave reviews and photo's that Brian's posted over on his blog.

Since he made that blog post more, equally enthusiastic, reviews have appeared in the local press. I sincerely hope that their enthusiasm for this production translates across into 'bums on seats' because it would be a shame if a production as good as this one didn't have a full house every night for the remainder of its run. More information can be found at

Last night I went to the Clapham Picture House to see a preview of Ang Lee's new film Lust, Caution which was followed by a satellite screening of a live Q&A with the director. It was quite depressing to see a cinema that was less than a tenth full, for a film that won the Venice Film Festival Film of the Year, and has received nothing but praise from the critics.

I've liked most of Lee's films, from The Ice Storm, through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain, and even including the poorly received The Hulk movie he made, but Lust, Caution is, I think, his most polished film to date - perfect in nearly every way.

In the Q&A session Lee described the film as his most personal, and certainly it's his most explicit, with three sex scenes that, while short (although apparently taking twelve days to film), leave little to the imagination. These may put some potential audiences off but they are more than warranted I think in helping to convey the depth of emotion that needs to be conveyed if the rather unbelievable outcome from the book is to be in any way believable. It's not a short film, running at two and a half hours, but I found myself gripped throughout the entire running time.

In many ways Lust, Caution is like two films in one, with a central violent event forming the 'hinge' of the two. The first half is what the director called an 'overly dramatic' melodrama, concentrating on the story of a group of actors in pre-War Hong Kong putting together a naive plot to assasinate a traitorous politician who's colluding with the Japanese. The second half is more a 'film noir', complete with subtle, but nicely done, homages to Hitchcock. Lee talked about his deliberate usage of more desaturated colours and natural performances for the second half, obtaining incredibly subtle, nuanced performances from his cast in a story that moves on three years from the first half, with the same characters attempting to finish what they'd set out to do in the first half.

The ending is shocking in an 'obviously not a Hollywood movie' kind of way, but all the more powerful for all that, and I'm struggling to get the film out of my head the next day. In the Q&A session after the screening Lee talked about the fact that his last six films have all been 'tragedies' and that he really needs to get back to the genre he started with in Taiwan - comedy. When the 'tragedy' he produces is as good as Lust, Caution it would be a pity to see him move away from a genre that he's so adept at, and which has the power to move audiences so visibly. The film goes on general release in the UK in January and I strongly urge you to see it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Conversation with Philip Pullman

During one of the coffee breaks on the British Film Institute tour of the National Archive last Wednesday, a small group of us chatted about how often we go to the cinema. I repeated my oft-expressed view that with current home cinema equipment, timely shiny disc release dates, and the nightmare that is a trip to the cinema these days it was hard to justify any visits to the local fleapit. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old git (again!) a cinema trip these days seems to mean having to watch a film surrounded by ringing mobile phones, kids asking dumb questions at the top of their voices, and individuals noisly chomping on huge buckets of popcorn that could feed a family of twelve. Since when did a trip to the movies become a meal time for the whole family? Add in some truly appalling prints, poor projection systems and ridiculously inflated ticket prices and travel delays courtesy of London's transport system, why would anyone not just wait a few weeks for the DVD?

After my trip to see The Golden Compass yesterday (reviewed here on my Movie Review blog, I have a new irritant to add to the long list of why cinema trips can be a nightmare - false fire alarms causing disruption and long delays in getting in to see your film! OK, so maybe this isn't a common problem and I was unlucky, but when the one or two inexperienced staff in charge advise all and sundry that there will be a 40 minute delay and it would be best to come back later, only to then start the screening 15 minutes earlier than they've just advised, you can perhaps see why people end up getting very annoyed (not me on this occasion as I've learnt from experience never to trust what poorly paid staff tell you!)

One way some of the specialist cinema's are trying to lure audiences back is through offering their own version of DVD Extra's and my local cinema, the Clapham Picture House, has taken to offering not just a great membership scheme with the occasional free preview, but also a series of 'satellite' interviews and Q&A sessions with key figures tied in with a film screening.

Next Friday they're offering a preview screening of Ang Lee's latest film Lust, Caution, with satellite transmission of a Q&A with the director immediately afterwards. Given that the film doesn't go on general release here until next year, this is a screening I'm certainly interested in attending, especially at the bargain basement price of £8.50 all-in, even if it is a 45 minute walk each way to attend.

Earlier this afternoon I followed up on yesterday's viewing of The Golden Compass, with a satellite interview with Philip Pullman, the writer of the original book on which the film is based.

Personally, I think the cinema missed an opportunity in not bundling this in with a screening of the film itself, and the half-empty cinema seemed to indicate that maybe £5 to watch one hour of someone being interviewed by someone rather nervous and inexperienced in the role was a little on the expensive side, particularly given that a Hollywood film running twice as long could be had for about the same price. That being said, the satellite screening, which was broadcast to cinema's across the whole of the UK, shows initiative and it will be interesting to see how much more of this sort of event local cinema's offer to combat the threat from home entertainment systems.

The Conversation with Philip Pullman was an interesting affair, mainly because Pullman has no qualms with deflating pompous rhetoric or theories about his work. At one point the interviewer asked if it was true he had several times walked out of interviews when he thought the questions were bad. "I'm far too well brought up to have done that", came the reply, and indeed it proved, although Pullman did manage to demonstrate without any fuss that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and had no problems dismissing long, elaborate, pretentious theories about existential symbolism in his work, masquerading as questions with short, succint answers such as "I think that's complete tosh.". It proved to be an entertaining sixty minutes.

On the specifics of the film of the first book in his Dark Materials trilogy, the author made it quite clear that he is very happy with the film. When pushed and asked what he would have changed he could only think of two things: the final scene where he felt the conversation from Lydia is too long and should have been shortened, and that she and the bear should have shown more visible signs of what they'd just gone through by appearing more embattled, albeit determined and optimistic about the future; and a scene that was apparently shot but cut just after the witch appears to Lydia on the boat, in which her former lover appears and senses the witch's presence and talks of sensing 'a smell of the North'.

Most of the conversation centred around his writings, views on spirituality and philosophy, and perhaps most passionately his views on teaching (and the fact that the government have destroyed everything good about what teachers do with their insistence on 'measuring only things that can be measured, not the things that can't be measured and are actually more important' - he's not a fan of SATs!)

At one point the understandably nervous interviewer, having already delivered what seemed to be a 'gay rights' speech on the importance of Daniel Craig in speedo's retaining his inner child (WTF?!!), asked Pullman about the 10,000 girls who'd auditioned for the part of Lydia in the film before Dakota Blue Richards got the role. Unfortunately it was like watching a car crash in slow motion as he launched into patronising piffle about the importance of children following their dreams, at the end of which Pullman delivered the killer blow: "I doubt the 9,999 children who didn't get the role would necessarily agree with you". Brilliant stuff that was only spoilt by the interviewer suffering from a bout of hubris, trying to defend his position and persuade Pullman to agree that his point had been well made.

Pullman's honesty and refusal to kotow to the interviewer, while sometimes blunt to the point that some might consider rude, encouraged me to look out some of his work and read it. He freely admitted to 'borrowing' from a lot of sources, singling out a couple of scenes from The Magnificent Seven, apparently one of his all-time favourite films, which he'd 'borrowed' for his books.

The hour came to a rather abrupt halt before audience questions could really be asked, but one audience member wasn't going to leave without getting the answer to his question. 'What daemon would you have?' he shouted as the interviewer tried to wrap things up. Pullman's reply was short, sweet and to the point. 'A magpie', he responded, before adding by way of explanation, 'They steal things'.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tour of the BFI National Archives

I had a fantastic day today, taking a tour of the British Film Institute National Archives at Berkhamstead. The day was offered as one of the perks of having BFI Champion membership, but ordinary BFI members (it's cheap to join!) can also take the tour for a £25 fee, with the next tour due to take place in January, as detailed on the BFI web site in the Members area. More information about the archive can be found here. I highly recommend the tour if you have any interest at all in films and/or the restoration process that the BFI undertakes!

Eight of us had a fantastic tour that covered some of the memorabilia, films, posters, TV tapes and demonstrations of all the various stages of film and TV video preservation and restoration work that the British Film Institute undertakes. It was all very impressive, and we were even given lunch and a goodie bag as well!

I've posted my photo's as a Flickr slideshow (alas, I asked permission to take pictures AFTER we'd covered a couple of areas so some areas we were shown are not represented). Make sure you click on the photo (when an 'information' icon will appear) to see the description of what each photo is about. Unfortunately Flickr has chosen to display them in reverse order, so you can follow my tour backwards!

Monday, November 19, 2007

BBC Drama's

Lots of work to do today, with the official release of Visual Studio 2008 - the latest version of the software tool I spend 90% of my working day in. But luckily I'd pre-prepared a review of Hotel Babylon Series 1 on Blu-Ray disc.

It's not just today's shiny disc review that comes courtesy of the BBC. Smile of the Day is taken from their Children in Need live broadcast from last Friday. Given copyright issues I'm not sure how long this link will work, but hopefull it will work so that you can see the eight minute sketch where David Tenant's Who meets Peter Davison's Who to great comedic effect. The sketch, which takes place between the end of Series 3 and the new series was written by the excellent Stephen Moffat rather than the God-awful Russel T Davies for those wondering why I'm recommending something that usually has me going into rant mode! Check it out here.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blu-Ray Hi-Jinx

Little new to report today, as I spent most of yesterday catching up on unwatched shiny discs - Hairspray and Die Hard 4.0 on Blu-Ray disc to be precise. Both were excellent, and it's good to see Blu-Ray FINALLY delivering the sort of picture quality the format promised but completely failed to deliver on early releases. Both also include generous and excellent extra's. Fuller reviews will no doubt appear over on my Blu-Ray blog at some point.

Just read that Blu-Ray owners have been screwed over yet again. Sony have effectively been pushing beta players onto the market at extortionate prices for a year now, simply as a spoiler to the rival completed HD-DVD spec. That much is pretty well known and should have been solved by now. Sony had promised that the Profile 1.1 spec, required to support a pretty basic 'picture in picture' feature would have to be a standard feature on ALL Blu-Ray players sold as from October 2007. It seems they've now relented and, as at the time of writing, not one of the players from manufacturers available in the UK, Sony key amongst them, appears to support this very basic format (and there is already a Profile 2.0 spec on its way, which will obsolete even those players IF and WHEN they finally become available).

One of the advertised features on the Hairspray Blu-Ray disc appears to be a picture-in-picture feature. It turns out that because the Profile 1.1 players needed to play this weren't ready in time that this disc, like a couple of others, achieves this by putting TWO copies of the film on the disc: one with the 'picture in picture' feature permanently embedded, one without. Now you know why the Blu-Ray format NEEDS that increased capacity over supposedly inferior HD-DVD disc format! Ridiculous! I suspect that in the run-up to Christmas a lot of gullible fools will get caught out buying players that this time next year won't be able to play many of the special features of the Blu-Ray discs being released. Buyer beware!

On my shiny disc review blogs high defininition reviews have taken a bit of a backseat to standard DVD reviews of late, mainly because trying to capture the required screenshots to accompany the reviews is such a time-consuming pain. With standard DVDs simple software like PowerDVD can be used to grab pictures from the actual disk. With HD-DVD and Blu-Ray I'm stuck with taking photo's from a plasma screen and then processing the heck out of them in Photoshop. And they still look dreadful. For some reason the original photo's always have a ridiculous green cast to them and life would be so much easier if Cyberquest's Ultra PowerDVD which plays HD-DVD and/or Blu-Ray disc offered the same screen capture facility as its older, and much cheaper, sibling product.

Today's shiny disc review is of the Disney classic The Jungle Book. You can check it out over on my UK DVD Review blog

Amongst the pile of shiny discs waiting to be watched, and at some point reviewed, are a couple of new Stephen Poliakoff plays, that were transmitted on the Beeb's terrestrial channels a couple of weeks ago I think. I'm a big fan of this series - there tend to be a couple of new ones each year - but have to admit I laughed out loud at today's Smile of the Day, which is Stephen Poliakoff's 'The Bill' from the excellent, if generally 'unsafe for work' (not this time), blog from Skip's Acorn Treasury. Brilliant stuff!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beowulf in 3D

Yesterday, I went to see Beowulf, one of those new 3D motion-capture computer-generated films, which has received little in the way of advance publicity, despite a collossal Hollywood budget, and which looked like it was going to be a car crash waiting to happen.

The fact that bloggers were being invited to a free pre-screening of the film in 3D at the London IMAX was an encouraging sign - the last time I got an invite like this was for 300, which is another film I doubt I'd have bothered making a trip to a cinema to see, but which absolutely needs to be seen on a big screen rather than waiting for the DVD.

This time around I was abroad on vacation when the screening was scheduled, but faced with mounting evidence that this was a good film (early marks in the high 80's and early 90's from public and critics on imdb and rotten tomatoes) I took advantage of early afternoon ticket availability and shelled out for a ticket.

I'm glad I did. The film's not perfect but as a 3D experience it's pretty jaw-dropping. I suspect that even on a dull old 2D screen the film pretty much works, but if you're going to see this film you really want to move heaven and earth to try and see it in 3D, preferably on a mammoth IMAX screen. Watching this, it's not hard to see why the talk in so many film magazines over the last six months has been of 3D 'saving' cinema's in a world where many homes are getting home theatre environments that can easily rival, if not outperform, the local multiplex fleapit.

There are a few things in the film that don't work and are just plain wrong. I'm still not sure why a medieval picture features Angeline Jolie in high heels (fans of hers should be warned that her screen time measured in minutes is just single figures) when everything else appears authentic to the period. Nor do I understand why there's a rather ridiculous Austin-Powers 'hide the weenie' fight scene included as the laughs this raises are clearly out of whack with the rather serious nature of the film. But for the most part I was thoroughly entertained, blown away even, and have no hesitation in recommending it FOR THE OVER 12'S!

That last little disclaimer phrase is a bit of a sticking point with me. For reasons I cannot fathom the film has been licensed 12A which means anyone can see it. As has become usual with my IMAX excursion the first 15 minutes of the film were for me totally ruined by the two stupid women who took their young kids to see what is a very scary, and gory film that is full of not just violence but sexual innuendo too. As if the constant questions from a young girl in the party drowning out the film dialogue weren't bad enough, the group of 4 then disrupted everyone's viewing by finally realising about 20 minutes in that perhaps this film wasn't suitable for young children after all and standing up to make a long, noisy exit from the middle of the row.

I appreciate the film cost a lot to make, and that the film-makers wanted as young a rating as possible to maximise their audience, but someone at the BBFC should be fired for giving this film such a low rating, with the official excuse apparently not being 'We were given back-handers' but that 'It's fantasy violence'. Ah that's OK then! Given the level of reality now available with these computer generated images (although, somewhat confusingly, the Ray Winstone-voiced Beowulf has a six pack and the face of Sean Bean) presumably we can expect the kiddies to be able to enjoy full-on hardcore porn in this format in the next year or two, simply because it's computer-generated rather than 'real'!!!

Today's shiny disc review (read it by clicking on the title) is of The Golden Door on UK DVD.

Smile of the Day comes in the form of a rather smutty joke, courtesy of Andy Jarrett. I know I shouldn't laugh, but I did. Check out Coma Cure on Andy's blog.

Friday, November 16, 2007

No Country For Old Men

If ever there was a title that cried out to me and my views of Britain, then the Coen Brothers' new film, No Country For Old Men is surely one!

Thanks to Brian Sibley I got to attend a preview of the film, which hits British cinema's any week now, last night. With an imdb score over 8.9 and a Rotten Tomatoes rating in the 90's (yikes!) I was looking forward to this new film, and I wasn't disappointed, although the film certainly won't be to everyone's taste, much like their career-best Fargo struggled with some audiences who couldn't quite 'get' the quirky characters at the film's core.

I had meant to mention The Coen Brothers in Tuesday's review of The Good German on my UK DVD Review Blog but forgot. In 2001 they made one of my favourite films The Man Who Wasn't There - the PROPER way to do a 1940's -styled film noir for the modern age. This under-rated gem can be had for a bargain price on DVD and is well worth checking out.

No Country For Old Men, like most Coen Brothers movies, is all about characters, and quirky characters at that, albeit at the expense of formulaic story-lines or predictable endings. With some excellent performances from the rather odd-looking Javier Bardem (the stand-out actor in the under-rated Goya's Ghosts) and Tommy Lee Miller it's not hard to see why this is winning awards all over the festival circuit. Well worth seeing when it finally gets its UK theatrical release. I really need to write a filler review for my UK Film Review blog, but with a backlog of shiny disc reviews already waiting to be written it'll have to wait!

I've managed to get ONE new DVD review published - my review of 'The Flying Scotsman' is now up on my UK DVD Review blog. DVD reviews of The Jungle Book, Lost Season 3, Jekyll, Show Business - The Road to Broadway on standard DVD, Die Hard 4.0, Hotel Babylon Series 1 and 28 Days Later on Blu-Ray, and Talk to Me and Eyes Wide Shut on HD-DVD will be forthcoming once I've made rather more progress than I have done to date on the studying/work project front!

Smile of the Day comes courtesy of YouTube once again. If you're a fan of Riverdance, or even if you're not, check out this fun video of the show as peformed by dancing monkeys

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Back From Cyprus

The week's holiday in Cyprus was great, thanks largely to the weather being much better than expected at this time of the year (late season). I managed to get a tan, and also visit haunts from my childhood (I was in Cyprus aged 5 to 7 and a half) such as Episkopi and Troodos, thanks to having a hire car for the week. I'd like to say it brought back a lot of memories, but it's scary how much more my sister (18 months younger than me) remembers (or claims to remember!) of the time. What few memories did return were extremely vague ones of the place rather than any distinct new personal memories.

What does hit you about the place is how British it all is - or rather how 1960's British it all is. The British influence is obvious in the side of the road they drive on, the electrical plugs they use, the low crime rate and good manners everywhere. It's not hard to see why so many Brits buy holiday homes and then emigrate there. Returning to Gatwick, with the plane circling forever before being allowed to land, whereupon we were able to join ridiculously long queues for passport control and wait an eternity for baggage, I found myself wondering why on earth so many of us choose to stay in this country!

Now that I'm back I've managed to post my review of the DVD of The Good Shepherd which came out last week, over on my UK DVD Review Blog

Smile of the Day comes courtesy of YouTube. Check out Medieval Help Desk.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Las Vegas Here I come!

I'm in the middle of one holiday (currently in Cyprus, staying at my sister's flat near Limassol, back in the UK on Monday) and I've already booked the next one (sort of).

The Venetial Resort Hotel Casino and a ticket for Microsoft's MIX08 conference in Las Vegas are now booked. Hotel is booked for the week 3rd March to 8th March, with the conference just taking up 2.5 days at the end of that week. I've never been to Las Vegas so looking forward to a couple of days R&R beforehand. I missed MIX07 last year because I'd booked Microsoft's PDC conference in L.A. for later that year but then they went and cancelled it, so this year I'm not taking any chances. The UK version of the MIX conference which I attended a few weeks ago here in London was a pale shadow of the US version of these things and it's better to go direct to the source, especially as they're usually timed to coincide with major new releases from Microsoft.

Will book flights when I get back to the UK (late on Sunday) - not sure at this stage whether I'll also be able to fit in a trip to Los Angeles as well.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

What Hi-Fi?/Stuff Show 2007

The What Hi-Fi?/Stuff show, taking place this weekend at The Novotel in Hammersmith, West London, is a bit of a misnomer for me as its main appeal is around home cinema rather than hi-fi.

There are very few shows or even shops in London that let you see the latest offerings from manufacturers that the magazines are all currently reviewing, so it's a good chance to actually see the different products 'in the flesh' and compare them.

I went last year for the first time but came away extremely disappointed. The show was split confusingly over several floors, poorly sign-posted, with small over-crowded stands and ridiculously small demo rooms that involved very long queues if you wanted to get information from an actual person or see a demo. It seemed a bit of a rip-off, given the ticket price of over a tenner, and the need to take a day off work on Friday if you wanted to avoid the even bigger crowds over the weekend.

This year, with me being available to attend anyway, I decided to spend the £13.50 or thereabouts and go again, if only because it's a good way to get all the latest brochures. I arrived a little bit earlier this year, just before the show opened, and had a much better experience, although my complaints about the poor demo rooms and terrible layout and sign posting are the same (in fact, if anything, the signposting was worse this year and I found myself far too often having to act as unofficial ambassador for the show, directing people as to how they could see what they'd come to see and couldn't find).


I hit the Sony stand first, since with nobody other than staff around, there seemed a good chance of getting some basic questions answered. Alas the staff seemed just as clueless as your average local sales assistant. A simple question like 'What's the difference between the V, W and X models you sell in all the different sizes of your Bravia LCD TV's?' drew a blank 'I don't know. If you wait I'll find someone who knows'. Given that the Sony stand was there displaying nothing but V, W and X versions of Sony's Bravia range of LCD TV's, is it too much to expect their on-site staff to understand even the basics of the product they're selling?

Fortunately, with the stand being empty of other show attendees, the manager of the Sony area was on hand, and he did know the product range they were showing off (although a bit lost when it came to knowing prices - a bit odd when I'd have thought that was the one thing most people need to know upfront?!).

Although the Bravia range is nice, I saw nothing to convince me that LCD has surpassed (or even equalled) plasma, but have to admit that the 72" LCD that was in pride of place appeared to come pretty close. That assessment has to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt since it was displaying brightly lit scenes and no night time scenes that invariably show how poor LCD technology can be, particularly when viewed in low lighting conditions.

Regular readers will know I dislike Sony with a vengeance - they use the public as their QA department and nearly all their products seem to miraculously fail just a month outside their guarantee period, with the repair cost invariably being close to the cost of buying the product again as new, with TV's being perhaps the one exception to this general Sony rule. The other 'gouge the public' Sony rule is one of obfuscation with a 'style over technical specs substance' design that is best left to the likes of Bang &Olufsen or Apple.

I asked the cost of the 72" Bravia. "2,999" came the reply. Now, I know LCD is cheaper than plasma, and prices everywhere have come down, but even so... I was impressed. Maybe I've been too harsh on Sony. Alas, not! The salesman quickly realised his mistake. "I'm sorry, I've got a digit wrong. It's "29,999"!

Now I know there are people out there with more money than sense (name your favourite major league football player here) but even the Davd Beckham's of this world must realise that's a ridiculous price to pay for a decidedly inferior technology. A superior 65" plasma can be had for a fraction of that cost. Who on earth are the intended audience for this thing? (which apparently has won awards from What Hi-Fi already! The mind boggles!)


Next stop was Denon. I'm a big fan of theirs since I was a user of their DJ mixing decks (and helped them launch one particular model at a very posh do at a country house many years ago), and have a solid and reliable mini hi-fi system from them, but don't currently have any of their components in my home cinema system despite the constantly enthusiastic reviews from thee magazines.

Alas, my aging and monstrous Yamaha DSP-A1, at the time I bought it, their flagship model, is proving a weak link in my home cinema system. The LCD display has pretty much died which is annoying in a 'flagship' product less than 10 years old. Worse, it's suddenly taken to letting lose the most ridiculously loud pops at the most inopportune moments. But perhaps most importantly of all it doesn't have the much-desired HDMI inputs.

It looks like Denon will have some very nice possible replacements that are THX-II certified and do everything needed (the new gimmicks like 7 speaker support, zones, network connectivity, iPod native support, full HDMI 1.3 etc), if not now then next year which is the timeframe I'm looking at.

In one corner of the Denon show area were their latest CD/MP3 mixing decks, designed to look much more like traditional Technics vinyl mixing decks - the products have obviously moved on a long way since I last looked at them. I resisted the temptation to try and live the old days at 'Heaven' and have a play!


My visit to Pioneer was pretty much as expected. I've been pleased with my 'third generation' 50 inch plasma (although watching Fargo the other day it's clear that all those scare stories about plasma burn are not totally without foundation), but it lacks the essential HDMI inputs (Blu-Ray looks worse than DVD through my system because of the inability to connect through a PC-like terminal) and doesn't go above 720p high-def when HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs play at 1080p. Pioneer have their new 'eighth' generation Kuro range available now and have at last recognised the fact that people want 1080p resolution sets. After several years with my 50 inch model it's starting to feel small, so it's good to see they now have a 60 inch model (and selling for two thirds the price that my 50 inch model cost when originally purchased). Given the rave reviews (and essential multiple HDMI 1.3 inputs) I suspect that either this (or the equally well reviewed Panasonic 65 inch model) will be by next upgrade purchase. Unfortunately Panasonic weren't at the show for me to look at their model to see if it was up to the quality I deserve (giggle).


I then made the mistake of attending a Sim2 demonstration up on the second floor. They make 'the best' projectors and I'd heard nothing but praise for them and their demo so decided to make sure I attended it this year.

To say I was totally blown away is an understatement!

They ran four demo's, using HD material from a Tony Bennett Blu-Ray disc, an excerpt from a 'Planet Earth' Blu-Ray disc, an excerpt from the 'Transformers' movie on HD-DVD and finally a demo of 'Hot Fuzz' on HD-DVD, using four different models of their projector, and a variety of screens that siltently slid up and down from the ceiling.

The four-disc/four-projectors demo started with their entry level projector coming in at not far off £1,500, and ending with their latest '1080p with anamorphic lens' jobbie at £20,000! Apparently this time last year the less feature-complete 'flagship' model was being promoted at £40,000 so prices are, as with the plasma and LCD technologies, falling, to say the least!

To say these guys know their stuff and how to demo it is an understatement, and one particularly nice touch was the way they pointed out the flaws in highly detailed scenes from 'Planet Earth' which most of us would never notice (mist problems down to difficulties of encoding).

After this demonstration, I can understand why true cine-enthusiasts poo-poo the whole plasma TV approach to home movie viewing. It may be inconvenient to have to sit in the dark, but when the experience is as good as demonstrated here, you start to see why people go the projector/screen route instead. This was a 'cinema' experience that equalled the best I've had - inside or outside the home.

The 'Hot Fuzz' demo was as good as the presentation I'd had in a digitally upgraded 'state of the art' cinema in the West End. Not cheap when screens, sound-proofing and speaker set-ups are taken into account, but even so.... I need to start doing the lottery!

What Hi-Fi? 'High Definition' Demo

What Hi-Fi? ran their own 'hi-def' demo which is featured in a prominent position on the ground floor. This had ridiculously long queues and wait times last year, and it wasn't too dissimilar this year, even though overall the show was much quieter. I made the effort to see it this time though, and queued for about half an hour.

I left rather disappointed, probably because I'd been spoilt by the far superior Sim2 demo (the What Hi-Fi demo also used a Sim2 projector). The What Hi-Fi? demo was all about comparing two versions of a very long clip from the 'Transformers' movie (similar to the Sim2 clip, but longer): an 'upscaled' standard DVD with Dolby Digital sound (which is compressed) and then comparing it with the HD-DVD version which features True-HD sound. I guess it was a good demonstration of the difference in sound ('Transformers' is a VERY noisy film anyway), but a very poor one for trying to convince anybody to upgrade for the supposedly dramatic improvements in picture quality.

Despite being a 'reference' disc for HD-DVD, the film clip chosen has bad contrast, non-stop shaky camera-work and rapid cutting that makes it almost impossible to follow what's going on. Therefore, I would dare to suggest, NOT a great disc for showing the improved picture quality detail that becomes available with high definition formats. There is one 'less than a second' clip of skyscrapers from a helicopter shot in the long sequence that was used that DOES help to highlight the difference well, but the presenter didn't draw attention to that. The guy next to me (a Blu-Ray games player who was also into his movies) said he thought it was a pretty poor demo if it was meant to promote high definition. I couldn't disagree with him.

Elsewhere around the Show

Stand-wise, there were less companies than last year (Toshiba, who had a big stand last year, were missing - is HD-DVD already THAT dead in the water?!) but some interesting smaller stands, including Picture House Plasma TV Fireplaces. I have an eyesore of an old fireplace below my wall-mounted plasma, covered by some Lord of the Rings 'cloth' posters and my rack system. This company for 'between £3000 and £5000' make very nice fireplaces that incorporate motorised compartments for big plasma's so that they can be hidden behind the fire between use, offering useful shelf real estate as well. Very nice and I suspect I'll be looking at using them once I've got an estimate for removing the old fireplace and fitting a new one.

I managed to pick up a cheque for £11.98 for my old mobile phone - one of the advertised features of the show is that you can take your old mobiles in and get cash. - I hadn't realised they wouldn't take the power supply and case as well so had to bring those back home. For me then the ticket price was almost covered by that, and the first 500 entrants got a free pack of triple A Mallory batteries, which I laid claim to up on the second floor. All-in-all it was worth the cost of attending, but I question how long the show will survive. The layout is appalling, and too many of the key players were missing. All the problems I raised about the show over on The AV Forums, last year are still there, even though some of these are easily fixable. A more central London venue would attract far more 'passing trade' and that in turn would attract more of the vendors. The decreased attendance this year compared with last (at least when comparing the two Fridays) must mean this show is running on limited time unless the organisers get their act together. But if they DO have the event next year I'd probably attend, if only to take advantage of some of the offers available at the show (between 5% up to 20% off from some of the 'third party' companies that were participating).

Closing Thoughts

The show runs until tomorrow (Sunday) so if you're reading this the weekend of 3rd November you still have a chance to go. You can find all the details at the official show site (which is pretty dreadful!).

Yeah, but where's Smile of the Day and the new Shiny Disc Reveiw?

I'm running late for a meeting in central London with some friends, so no Smile of the Day or new DVD review yet. There will be an update to My DVD Review Blog when I come back so check that later today for a review of The Good German, which goes on sale on Monday.

Friday, November 02, 2007

So that was Halloween

I spent most of Halloween watching a very funny film on DVD which I've just finished reviewing on my UK DVD Review Blog. It's a French film (ie with the dreaded sub-titles) but well worth seeing anyway, especially if you like 'laugh out loud' farce. It's called Poltergay

This entry is being written very early in the morning (or late at night, depending on your viewpoint) as I've got an early morning start to go and attend the What HiFi?/Stuff Show. I've little interest in Hi-Fi, but a lot of interest in the new 1080p High definition plasma's from Pioneer (60 inch model) and Panasonic (65 inch model). My current Pioneer 50 inch model is looking a bit long in the tooth, and lacks the HDMI ports I need to get a decent picture from my Blu-Ray and HD-DVD decks. It's also limited to 720p resolution, so it'll be interesting to see how things have improved between my 'third generation' plasma and the 'eighth generation' screens that are now available. I went to the show last year and thought the admission price was a bit extortionate, given how small it was, but it is one of the few places where you can actually see the new models performing, and pick up the latest brochures.

Smile of the Day contains a four letter word, but is otherwise safe for work, despite the worrying title. It's a sketch from a couple of comedians, one of whom works on one of the big American chat shows. Check out Glory Hole on YouTube.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Stuck on the Phone

I am spending far too much time this morning on 'hold' lines trying to find out why delivery companies claim that a delivery was attempted when quite clearly it wasn't. So today's DVD review of Cellular over on my UK DVD Review Blog seems particularly appropriate, even if it is of a DVD that actually went on sale for the first time a couple of years ago.

Smile of the Day today is a BBC News Report on the visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to the UK. It's meant to be serious, but the music selected to greet the King on his arrival to meet the Queen, as featured at the beginning of the report is pure genius. I have a horrid feeling whoever made the choice might get sacked now that the Beeb have highlighted it - hopefully not!. You can see the report on YouTube here

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Today's new review is of Flood, over on my UK DVD Review Blog. The DVD went on sale on Monday this week.

Smile of the Day is another video clip/song. Although I own an XBox 360 I haven't yet succumbed to buying Halo 3 (although I have Halo and Halo 2) - there are just aren't enough hours in a day. Looks like I made a wise decision, at least if this Blame Halo 3 video is anything to go by!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Days of Glory

I finally got around to writing my first review of a film on Blu-Ray last night! I published the review of Days of Glory, over on my Blu-Ray Review Blog.

Smile of the Day comes courtesy of Jacqui, a friend I met when I visited New Zealand a few years ago. If I hadn't told you she lived in New Zealand you could probably have guessed after watching this YouTube video. It's very silly and very juvenile, but I challenge you not to find yourself smiling at it!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Kiss of Death

Going to bed relatively early (well before midnight - a first for me since I started my 'time out' from paid work to catch up on new technologies) is the kiss of death for curing my insomnia. I woke up 'wide awake' at 5am this morning. Needless to say as I type this, at around 6.30am, I'm feeling a lot less fresh than I was an hour or so ago.

I've published a new DVD review, of the 1947 'film noir' classic Kiss of Death which was released just a couple of weeks ago. You can read it here.

Today's Smile of the Day is a Dilbert cartoon, which was actually published a few days ago, but seems to so accurately describe my life I couldn't let it go by without comment!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Clocks Go Back/The Reaping on HD-DVD/Pachelbel's Canon

Guess who only just found out the clocks went back an hour today (doh!) - nice surprise to find there's an extra hour in the day though!

Have updated my HD-DVD Review Blog with a review of The Reaping

Smile of the Day is not so much humorous (although some might disagree) but something that put a smile on my face this morning. This YouTube video of someone performing Pachelbel's Canon put a smile on MY face this morning, as it's one of my favourite classical pieces of music, although the performance of it on electric guitar may not be to everyone's taste!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Line at 40

Shiny Disc Reviews Kick Off Again

I finally got the shiny disc reviews going again today, with my review of the DVD for Tell No One being published on my UK DVD Review Blog and an HD-DVD review of The Reaping almost finished, ready for publication on my HD-DVD Review Blog tomorrow. When I get to finally publish a review on my Blu-Ray Review Blog (probably not until Tuesday) I shall feel I'm 'back in the saddle', caught up again and finally back home for good (just in time to depart to Cyprus next weekend for a week long break with my sister).

Screen International

My weekly copy of Screen International, the weekly industry broadsheet for the film industry, arrived on the mat this morning. The paper is a bit of a disappointment, given the high cost of subscription, and usually comes across as an extremely thin content-free Variety or Hollywood Reporter wanna-be, with little of real interest to those not trying to make money or be a 'mover and shaker' in the film industry. But in this week's issue a few stories I'd missed on the various web sites I usually rely on for my news caught my eye.

Goal! 3

A big surprise is the news that principal photography has started on Goal! 3. The first film in the planned trilogy was a rather tired cliché 'poor boy makes good' coming of age story, and received luke-warm reviews with correspondingly disappointing box office performance, despite being the first football film to be given 'behind the scenes' access to the stars (including David Beckham, who with his 'deer in headlights' performance showed that any rumours of him moving to LA for a possible future career in acting are hilariously out-of-whack with reality).

Goal! 2 lost the writers of the first film, but tried to up the ante by shooting in Spain and having even more of the big name footballers make an appearance, with some clever CGI work meaning that we got to see the star of the film play in a real match. Alas, the film was even worse than the first, was universally panned by the critics, and disappeared within days of opening at the UK box office. Large amounts of money must have been lost, so it's somewhat surprising to read that somehow the financing has been found to complete the 'trilogy'. However news that the originally planned director Michael Apted has been replaced by Andy Morahan doesn't auger well for the project rescuing what, until now, has been an extremely wasted opportunity to present a woefully-unrepresented sport well on the big screen.

Another Dr Who -associated Rant (I can't help myself!)

Other surprising news is that the Adulthood follow-up to Kidulthood is already underway, with the lead 'actor', best known for his performance as Dr Who's side-kick 'Mickey', now taking on both director and lead actor duties. I guess I shouldn't pre-judge based on an appallingly bad performance on TV's most seriously over-rated science fiction show, but one can't help wondering whether the sequel has been commissioned based solely on the cronyism that seems to run rampant throughout the BBC and Dr Who in particular, rather than the commercial prospects or talent involved in the venture!

Stephen Moffat on Tin-Tin. Hoorah!

On a happier note, the one shining beacon in the cesspit of writing that has mostly been the new Dr Who, has been Stephen Moffat and it seems I'm not the only one who thinks so. While Billy Bunter (aka Russell T Davies) may be oblivious to his talents (one meagre story per season of Who), Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson are not. The writer has been hired to perform writing duties on the new Tin-Tin franchise of movies that the two directors are working on together. Suddenly I'm excited about a cartoon character's big screen debut, where before I had little interest at all!

40 Years of New Line Cinema

40 Years. New Line Cinema. Not the Same Old Story

Talk of Peter Jackson neatly brings me on to the subject of New Line Cinema, who receive a special 40 Years of... story in the current issue of the afore-mentioned Screen International. I love a lot of the company's output, if not the man at the top, Bob Shaye. For one of the worst examples of underling sycophancy I've ever seen, check out the extra's on the recently issued DVD of the man's The Last Mimzy - a text book example of why executive officers should NEVER be allowed to direct their own films as some sort of vanity project. The continual fawning from the cast and crew about their director's talent would be amusing if the evidence of him 'handling' his actors weren't so much in evidence elsewhere in the extra's, even if you were to ignore the car crash of a film that was the end-result. It almost makes one want to take Peter Jackson's side in the ongoing, and very public war of words between the two over accountability and ripping people off (I say 'almost' because let's not get carried away here in what has clearly been a case of two pots repeating to each other "You're a kettle and you're black!").

What's fascinating about the piece is to see what the company's biggest box office successes, Lord of the Rings aside, have been over the years. It's a real mixed bag with 2007, 2005, 1997 and 1991 (the years of Rush Hour 3, Wedding Crashers, Spawn and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II) generating good profits from absolute dreck when contrasted with 2004, 2001-2003 and 1995 (the years of The Notebook, The Lord of the Rings movies and Seven respectively.

Interesting film history aside, what I like most about the piece is the lack of mention of the wretched Hobbit project (it's a childish, inferior piece of work that just isn't going to meet expectations set by the Rings franchise so please let's stop encouraging them to do a 'Star Wars' and just set out on a ridiculous money-making venture that just rips off everybody involved) and the war of words between Bob Shaye and Peter Jackson.

Smile of the Day

I make no excuse for making this post's Smile of The Day a link to an advertisement! I'm a big fan of's products, and have several of their famed 'de-motivator' posters framed in my office at home. But their DespairWear Blogging t-shirt seems particularly apt, given the amount of time I seem to have spent blogging over the last few days! Check out the counter underneath the slogan. Genius!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fires in LA and San Diego

It's funny how you only really take on world events when they affect you or someone you know directly.

Last month, my friend Brian Sibley blogged about the fires in Greece (he was holidaying in Athens) and how great tracts of land were being destroyed and we Brits weren't helping out like other countries. It made a minor item in the news which would barely otherwise register on my radar suddenly seem more important.

This morning I got a shock going to read my friend Susan (Mooch)'s blog.

Susan and her family came over to stay in London last Summer. I'd met her and her family on my first trip to Los Angeles for the Fellowship of the Ring oscar party, and she's been a great friend ever since. Meeting up with her is always a highlight of any trip to that part of the world, and I've been the guest of her and her family in their home at San Diego more times than I care to remember.

Reading about her sudden evacuation, along with the very real threat to the family home, brings that 'minor' news item about some fires in California (almost universally angled at the celebrities whose homes in Hollywood are affected) to life in a vivid, horrid and personal way.

Thankfully, as you can see if you read her blog, she retains her wonderful sense of humour and understands the importance of these things vs what could have happened (so glad that one of the other 25 copies of the Viggo picture of Elijah Wood that I have hanging in my lounge has been saved <giggle>) in the face of what must be very worrying circumstances.

It does make me wonder what we've done to our planet, and how we could have got to a state where even now far too little action is being taken to avert a longer term catastrophe with global warming.

Blogs and Lovely Bones!

I'd hoped to have one of the shiny disc blogs updated today with a new DVD or HD-DVD review, but alas! most of yesterday was spent chasing up paperwork, sorting out PC's and generally trying to sort out my somewhat broken company web site.

My New Work-Related Blog

This attempt to fix the company web site turned into a 'tidy up the blogs' exercise with another new blog to cover work-related stuff set up at and a general tidying up of this blog too, at least in terms of the links and general contents of the right hand margin of this blog. I'll be trying to keep the new work-related blog up-to-date with daily updates, in much the same way as I'm trying to do with this personal one (well it beats studying! ;-)). If nothing else it'll put pressure on me to keep on track for certification preparation/new technology learning over the next few weeks.


I know this is supposed to be my personal blog, as opposed to my work-related one, but in trying to catch up with new technologies I came across Twitter, which at first glance came across as a pointless blog for people who like to use SMS text messaging (and severely limited, in that no blog entry can be more than 140 characters long!) before I realised its main use - giving people the ability to track where you are and what you're doing at any given time.

It's a bit over the top of course, but what's really cool is that you can add Twitter updates to blogs like this one (just click on a link from within Twitter and it's pretty much done!). If you look to the bottom of the right-hand margin of this blog you'll see a section labelled Twitter Updates. This is automatically updated (so long as I remember to keep updating it) with details of where I am and/or what I'm doing at the moment (or least fairly recently). It's a handy way of keeping friends and family aware of what you're doing - particularly if you're adept at sending SMS text messages.

I wonder how long it'll be before I tire of updating it!

Yet another Peter Jackson Fall Out

In a desperate attempt to have some film-related news in this blog post, I guess I can mention yesterday's story that Ryan Gosling has left the set of Peter Jackson's latest film, The Lovely Bones, owing to 'creative differences'. It never ceases to amaze me how fickle and stupid 'fans' of the Lord of the Rings films can be when it comes to news about Jackson, despite the mounting evidence that the man is not quite the naive, cuddly geek he likes to pretend he is in public. Forums are already full of bile for Gosling, with claims that he has been 'let go' because he can't act (try watching ANY of his films before making such ludicrous claims). Follow this argument through to its logical conclusion and presumably Howard Shore was 'let go' from King Kong at the last minute because he can't compose, and Viggo Mortensen keeps returning to make films with David Cronenberg, rather than Jackson, because he can't act!

In the meantime a film I might have been interested in seeing, despite the involvement of one of the most self-indulgent directors of our age, suddenly becomes one to avoid with the news that Mark 'Marky Mark' Whalberg is now taking over the part of Gosling's role. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!

Start the Day with a Smile

For today's 'start the day with a smile' link, I can't help but point you at the Lesbians and Lunges article on the hilarious Glitter for Brains blog. You may have heard that a couple of days ago J K Rowling 'out'ed Dumbledore as being gay. In the post I've linked to Lee reacts to the news, as well as giving an outrageous update on how he's getting on with his new personal trainer. Warning: This link is probably not worth following if you're a homophobe who's had a sense-of-humour bypass!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Transformer(ing) the Marketplace

Sunday turned out to be pretty much a Transformers day, what with me getting round to checking out the new HD-DVD release
(region free from the States, it's due out here on shiny disc in the UK at a hugely inflated price in a week or two) and the new issue of
Cinefex magazine waiting on my doormat when I returned from Ireland.

The latest Cinefex magazine

I saw the film on the big screen in Limerick just a few weeks ago and was lucky enough to see it in pristine condition (I suspect it was a digital cinema) with a fantastic sound system. It was, I felt, a film that needed to be seen on the big screen rather than shiny disc, and although I was glad I'd caught it I can't say I was as enthused as the likes of Empire magazine appeared to be with their rather over-the-top fanboy raves. Undoubtedly it was a roller-coaster ride of a film, and an entertaining experience, albeit one where you need to deposit your brains at the same stand where you buy the obscenely-sized tub of popcorn on the way in.

My personal enjoyment aside, I completely understand those who think director Michael Bay shouldn't be allowed near any film that has even the slimmest chance of being halfway decent. I know one can be too precious about these things (and I think I'm the only person on the planet who actually liked Pearl Harbor!) but let's face facts: Michael Bay is someone who approaches each film the same way - with no idea of subtlety, class, believable dialogue or even the most basic credibility. Worse, at least so far as I'm concerned, the man hasn't got a clue as to how to edit a movie unless it involves cutting things so fast you're likely to go into an epileptic fit if you try and actually follow each cut as it happens.

For the best example of 'a really good rant' about the man and the Transformers movie in particular check out the Radio 5 podcast where critic Mark Kermode goes into a long rant about Michael Bay 'the porn director'. It's hilariously accurate.

Michael Bay issues aside, and ignoring the fact that the film is too long - particularly with its overly-repetitive can't-make-out-what's-happening-in-the-fight-scenes second half - the film is an impressive technical tour-de-force, and it's not hard to see why two days after it officially went on sale this is now the biggest selling disc on the high definition format ever. CGI is often ropey and easily spottable even in the biggest budget pictures (I don't care what Lord of the Rings fanboys say - too often one is taken OUT of Tolkien's world because of poor matte paintings or poor special FX in those movies. Not so with this film, and if ILM don't sweep the boards with the FX awards this year then the Academy should just pack up and go home. On that front alone this film is ground-breaking, and as presented on the superb HD-DVD disc set that's been released this is reference-quality material.

In the cinema it was almost impossible to hear the dialogue because the surround sound effects were so loud throughout the whole movie, and it's the same here - which sound fanatics seem to see as being 'a good thing' despite the absence of a True-HD sound option. And although a 50" plasma can't compete with a large screen digital print (or the IMAX screen which is currently showing an 'alternate scenes' version in London) it's pretty clear that the HD-DVD disc represents a new standard in quality for showing off home cinema systems, even if you can't stand the totally dumbed-down content.

Leave your brain at the door, forget who Michael Bay is and it's an enjoyable romp. If you have an HD-DVD player this is pretty much a 'must own', not least because it makes excellent use of the new format with some great 'picture in picture' features, and a second high definition disc crammed full of extra's, themselves all in high definition, where most HD-DVD discs simply carry the low-resolution extra's over from the standard DVD. It becomes clear very quickly that a lot of work went into the HD-DVD presentation, which shows where the money is in making the movies these days, given that the film only exited the multiplexes a few weeks ago. Films are made to make money on shiny disc these days, and a cinema excursion may well recover the production costs, but it's the shiny disc that makes all the profits and needs to be an important part of the production process.

The Transformers disc is also a very important disc for another reason - it's extended the format war such that it's now looking like two formats (Blu-Ray and HD-DVD) are going to co-exist for quite some time now, where it had looked like Blu-Ray was going to be the clear winner. I've made no secrets of my preference (HD-DVD is region free; Blu-Ray isn't, costs more to produce - and therefore buy - for no perceivable advantage, requires a player that costs more, and is still in beta format with final specs which none of the existing players meet being finalised until next month) but Blu-Ray has clearly won the marketing war.

In the UK the HD-DVD camp have launched such a poor array of titles that the format seems doomed in Europe and it's only the cheap import service from MovieTyme who let you purchase in British pounds and ship from within the UK without import duties keeping the format alive with HD-DVD supporters. Originally Transformers was going to be made available in both high definition formats. But then Paramount and Dreamworks announced they were joining Universal Studios in going HD-DVD exclusive (at least for the next 18 months) which has changed the whole game. No self-respecting cinephile can afford to excluse both those studios from their collections.

Unfortunately I do think that longer term Blu-Ray will win, if only because Sony's marketing is so strong and they've managed to (finally!) persuade Fox to ramp up the titles they release. But in the meantime, I'm much preferring HD-DVD - if only because so many Blu-Ray titles are region locked and only available for US players.

Getting back to Transformers itself, it's hard to see why anybody would want any more information than is given in the over-the-top extra's disc included in the HD-DVD two disc pack that's been released. But if you do require more of a fix, or prefer your material in printed form, you could do worse than purchasing the latest Cinefex magazine which has three long, detailed essays into the effects processes used - not just for Transformers, but also for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Stardust too (with shorter pieces detailing work carried out on Sunshine and Resident Evil 3. Cinefex comes highly recommended from me, although UK readers will have to subscribe if they can't visit some of the more obscure cineaste stores in London.

Smile of the Day (courtesy of the not-for-the-prudish Skip's Acorn Treasury) is this You-Tube video on No dwarves or horses or things in places (Maxx's Diary). Don't worry, although the source for the link can get very racy there's nothing in the video itself likely to offend or shock, just hopefully raise a smile.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Police 'Flash' Travel Commuters!

Weekend catch-up means there's little film-related to report this morning, but the following picture from the folks at The Register gave me a mid-morning smile. I hope it gives you one too! I guess we should all be grateful that the bus used has a very short exhaust!

Policeman 'flashes' motorists from the back of a bus

The only films I got to see over the weekend were on shiny disc. Blue Blood was gripping in a 'should-have-been-a-reality-TV-show-not-a-movie' kind of way (ie well worth a rental, but not a purchase) and has had a strong commercial push with adverts for the DVD all over London, and even a free DVD of the first 20 minutes (with discount voucher) given away with some magazines. It's a good, life-affirming documentary, but given this had rave critical reviews on commercial theatrical release (which nobody went to see) I can't see the expensive marketing push boosting the possible profits. To loosely quote Homer Simpson 'Why pay money for what you can get for free on the TV?'.

A Mighty Heart arrived on US import HD-DVD last week, which is timely since it has only just had a theatrical cinema release over here in the UK.

I was really looking forward to A Mighty Heart, directed by Michael Winterbottom, not least because it features Angelina Jolie in a role that actually requires her having to act for a change. Unfortunately this one needs to be filed under the category 'extremely worthy, but God did they have to make it so dull?!'. It's not hard to see why many have dismissed it as little more than a vanity project for Jolie (with hubbie Brad Pitt as one of the producers). I think it has little to offer the average movie goer, and it's not hard to see why it performed so poorly at the American box office despite most of the serious critics giving it high marks. It's not a bad film, it's just not very exciting and given all the pre-release hype I was very disappointed with it. Full marks for shooting the film on location, but the hand-held 'on the hoof' camera footage means that the decision to make this a high-definition format release makes no sense at all. I'd rather see some decent back catalogue titles which can really show off the format released on HD-DVD instead.

It's a busy day today with dental appointments, watch repairs (they won't take them in in Saturdays - go figure!) and general PC tune-up prior to starting certification revision and AJAX learning, but I'm hoping to get time to watch the French thriller Tell No One on DVD tonight (it's at times like this I'm so grateful that every day I look at the TV guide I can't see anything I want to watch!). The critics love Tell No One so hopefully I will too. Short review tomorrow, hopefully!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New Film Books

Arriving back in the UK yesterday (huzzah!) I finally got a chance to pop into town to spend some book vouchers I'd been given as a leaving present from the folks at Intelligent Environments when I finished my contract work with them back in May.

For once computer books were NOT on the agenda :)

This is, of course, the time of year when books with titles like '<insert name of vaguely related magazine here > Film Review 2008' appear on the shelves. This consistent naming style of such annuals has always struck me as somewhat ridiculous, given that most of these books will have had to go to print less than half way through the year preceding the one advertised in the book's title.

I resisted the temptation to update one of my annual review guides - all becoming increasingly redundant in these days of internet access to sites like imdb and Rotten Tomatoes. My preference in these 'all movies you might see' review volumes is for the series from The Radio Times, although I haven't updated my copy since 2004. Apparently the newest volume, as one would expect, features more films. But it also features less pages which, given the miniscule, barely readable, print of my 2004 volume means that either they've made the reviews even shorter than the one or two sentence critiques they've used in the past, or that you're going to spend more than the cost of the book on a magnifying glass to be able to read anything. I think I'll pass on that one then!

One annual review I do look for every year - not least because, thanks to the joys of Ebay, I have every edition published since 1942 - is the Film Review annual which restricts itself to mini-reviews of the year it represents. Alas there are a few weeks to go before that one is published.

In the end my money went on the latest (and seemingly final) Movies of the...' series produced by the wonderful Taschen Books, and edited by Jurgen Muller. These lavishly produced books comprise the editor's choice of the 'seminal' 5-7 films of each year in the decade each volume covers. The series started with 'Movies of the 90s' and with each successive volume has moved backwards, a decade at a time. The 2007-published volume breaks the rules of previous titles in the series by covering films released between 1895 and 1920 in a section that would normally cover just a single year - but of course this makes sense given the paucity of quality and promotional material for that period.

cover image of 'Movies of the 20s'

This latest book is as luxurious as previous versions have been - consisting primarily of lots of black and white stills from movies with the accompanying short synopses and essays of appreciation almost passing as mere side notes. The 'white text on thick glossy black paper' approach is distinctive but does make keeping them in tip-top condition pretty much impossible as every finger print and smudge seems to get highlighted in a way that wouldn't be possible if a more traditional approach to printing had been taken.

But that's a minor criticism for what is arguably my favourite series of film criticisms ever. I don't always agree with the authors' selections for the given year (in fact often, I disagree - sometimes violently!), but for someone whose film knowledge prior to the mid 1970's is seriously lacking, the volumes are a God-send when it comes to hunting out essential gems from the past.

Shiny Disc reviews (or at least links) will start reappearing on this blog over the next few weeks, as background fller to the ongoing work on preparing for launch of the web site which will require a not insignificant amount of programming. As one of my ongoing mini film projects, now that the final (or, more accurately, chronologically the first) volume in the series has been printed, I'm going to start a separate series of reviews based on films highlighted in these volumes that are available on shiny disc format, in an attempt to catch up on the history of modern movies.

First up will be The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) - expect reviews to appear here when get around to delivering the copies I ordered yesterday.

Both films were, of course, directed by legendary film-maker D.W. Griffiths and it will be interesting to find out if watching them feels more like work than pleasure given how far we've come in the more than 90 years since these classics were made.

Monday, October 15, 2007

And it's back to Limerick I go....

... got the call I kind of knew I'd get at 6 o'clock this evening (sometimes being a "glass half empty" person means you're better prepared for when these things happen). At least I've got enough euro's left over for taxi fares at the other end!

So it's a morning flight back to Limerick tomorrow. Not sure if I'll be back home (for good this time - please God!) very late Friday night or whether it will be one of those 'last flight on Sunday' jobs (my flight to Limerick at the moment is booked one way).

Wish I'd not got up at 7am this morning having gone to bed at 4am because patching a server took far longer than it should have done. Sigh!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Back Home (For Good?)

Well Friday was officially the last day at work in Ireland. The last few days were so manic that a tooting taxi to take me to the airport on Friday afternoon arrived long before I was ready for it. I didn't really get a chance to say goodbye to the few people still left, struggling to meet a deadline that expires a week tomorrow (albeit two weeks later than the internally set one we were aiming for), and have spent most of the weekend since in a 'too tired to sleep' zombified state where the happy realisation that the 'Irish experiment' MAY really, finally be over, just hasn't really sunk in yet.

This is probably just as well because I have a horrid feeling I'm going to get a call for help tomorrow or Tuesday asking me to fly out and help avert a possible looming crisis before next Monday's deadline arrives. Hopefully not and I'm just being too 'glass half empty' about the whole thing.

Former colleagues on the project and friends seem surprised that I don't regret the whole difficult experience, but the truth is I needed a break from London and despite all the hassle and stress the contract achieved for me what I'd wanted from it. I met and worked with some really good people too, which is always a bonus. All that being said, it's good to be home!

Today I've started what I meant to do back in February when my new Vista laptop and two new widescreen monitors arrived: start the 'Spring cleaning' job I've been putting off for the best part of the last six years. Before going to Ireland I only ever got time to install one of the afore-mentioned monitors because of the ridiculously over-crowded office I have at home. The other monitor, complete with stand and docking station, has been blocking my hallway in sealed boxes for months and there comes a point where constantly moving piles of paperwork from one place to another in a vain attempt to try and acccommodate them really doesn't achieve anything. So more than 10 years of assorted paper, CDs, DVDs and electrical debris need to be correctly filed, abandoned or otherwise deployed so that I can start work on prepping for new Microsoft certification exams, getting to grips with the £300 worth of 'new client-side technology' books that were waiting for me when I got home (Thanks Brian and David for taking delivery and then bringing them round so they were waiting!) and, at some point, kick-starting development of the temporarily abandoned site and its associated blog reviews.

So it's good to be home, but I'll feel a lot more confident about that if I'm still here on Wednesday! In the meantime I don't think I've cleared as much dust, sorted out so many tangled wires, or repeatedly wiped down so many surfaces as I have in the last 24 hours. And that's just in one corner of one room! What I'm trying to say is... I may be back but it may still be some time before I'm back to the 'daily blog update' that was always the intention when I started this thing over a year ago.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Last Sunday in Limerick (DVD Catchup)

Well today is my last Sunday in Limerick. I'm back in old blighty next weekend for my regular fortnightly trip back to check the mail and bills (with a dental appointment on Monday meaning I don't fly back to Ireland until Tuesday) and then it's a short three and a half day week before offical contract end on 12th October.

Rent on the company flat (which I'm sharing with a recent new hire from Slovenia) is paid up only until October 12th which means there will be a somewhat premature departure of the two remaining developers (a Slovenian and a Russian - what an international group we are!) to Scotland where the project is now looking likely to run until some time around May next year under the 'control' of a new software development company whose chairman is on the board of the company that currently employs my services. At this stage of the game I'm under considerable pressure to go to Scotland, if only for a couple of weeks to help with handover, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now and I've finally come to the same conclusion that most of my former colleagues came to: that for my own health and sanity, if nothing else, it's time to move on. It feels like a personal failure in many ways, but not one I can rescue or have any real control over so despite the temptation of guaranteed employment for several months with a boss I'm really appreciative of, it's become a case of 'I tried my best. Time to move on rather than waste any more time'. So I'm looking forward to a return home and some time off to get to grips with some of the new technologies, hopefully getting the long-promised Shiny Discs web site off the ground before looking for another contract after Christmas.

With crazy work hours pretty much on hold for the last couple of weeks I've been able to use evenings and weekends in Ireland to catch up on the backlog of DVDs that have accumulated, thanks to the trusty laptop and WinDVD software....

Heroes, currently airing on the Beeb and about half way through the first season, has had its entire first season released on a lavish HD-DVD boxed set in the States, and is every bit as good as people have been saying it is. Think 'Harry Potter page turner' and you've pretty much got the gist of the TV series with its cliff-hanger endings and plot twists. Think X-Files or Lost before they got too formulaic. The thing about the twists in this show is it's clear they've been planned right from the beginning, unlike the last-minute 'what could we do to shock the audience and turn the world upside down?' nonsense that shows like Lost have resorted to as the pressure for more episodes has grown. Admittedly the final 10 minutes of last episode ARE a bit flat, but when a show's this consistently good through a 23 episode run, how could a 'finale' NOT be slightly disappointing?!! The HD-DVD package is excellent and (quelle suprise!) significantly cheaper than buying the scummy standard DVD 'half box' sets that are going to be released in the UK (the first one apparently hits UK stores tomorrow) so it's disappointing to read that it's pretty much disappeared from the 'high definition' Top 10 in the US just a couple of weeks after release. At the asking price of just under £50 on import, including delivery and customs charges, it's a complete steal and is a great showcase for the advantages of high definition viewing over standard DVD or terrestial TV viewing if you have a high definition TV. Heroes, despite its comic book-based premise, counts as some of the best character-based drama I've seen all year.

Not that I'm an expert when it comes to critical reviewing of course. I'm beginning to seriously question my faculties for accurate observation when so many of the professional critics seem to have opinions so much at variance with my own. What many of them are in total agreement about as being brilliant (Knocked Up, already out on HD-DVD, is OK but nowhere near as good as people keep saying it is just because Judd 'Superbad' Atapow is current flavour of the month) I find extremely mediocre, and what most of them regard as a missed opportunity I've regarded as excellent.

Highlights on British DVD (aside from the excellent third season of Battlestar Galactaca which I'm about half way through now) have been largely unexpected, given luke-warm critical reviews or just apathy from the cinema-going public. This week's highlights have included Chumscrubber which is a quirky gem of a movie. My friend Brian Sibley did such a good job on reviewing this when it got a limited theatrical release just 3 months ago that it seems pointless me trying to repeat what he's already done so eloquently (you can read Brian's blog review here). Chumscrubber is definitely worth a rental or purchase, even if the subject matter does at first glance seem a little 'off' and the title so damned lame.

Jindabyne, a story about the impact the discovery of a dead aboriginal girl on a men's fishing trip comes to have on their community is one of those 'worthy-and-quite-interesting-but-frankly-a-little-dull' art house movies that the critics go ga-ga over, but which left me a little cold, despite the presence of the ever-wonderful Laura Linney, and an excellent performance from Gabriel Byrne. It's a slow-paced 'back to Nature' story that's given plenty of time to breathe, but the planted little obscure seeds of character back-story just seemed too contrived and too vague. There were too many characters with problems that never really resolved themselves I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. This one is worth a rental definitely, but given all the critical raves I'd expected something a little more original with a bit more depth to it. It felt like a variation on a theme that I've seen far too many times before.

Factory Girl was the real surprise of this week's watch list - a purchase I'd nearly avoided because of lack of interest in the subject matter, Andy Warhol who I've always felt had far too much of the Emporer's new clothes about his so-called 'talent'. Guy Pearce is an actor always worth following and was ultimately the reason why I gave this one a go - he has a nack for avoiding the mainstream and choosing obscure little gems of films, and so it's proved with this one too. The film received luke-warm response, although most critics praised Pearce's performance, so the real surprise was not only Sienna Miller incredible performance in the title role, with what must surely be a career-best performance, but how much I enjoyed the film itself. Others seem to find the film too much of a mess, trying to cover too many areas unconvincingly, but I found it engrossing, original and highly moving. Given the current obsession with 'cult of celebrity' figures like Paris Hilton (yawnerama!) and Pete D'oherty it seems particularly relevant today. This one is, in my opinion, well worth a rental despite the lousy 20% review on Rotten Tomatoes and lowly 6.1 score on imdb, and although others found the visual style as 'pretentious' or 'distracting' as I find Mr Warhol himself, I thought it really helped to make the film something unique. Definitely one of the more enjoyable films I've seen in the last few months.

Like I said, I'm clearly out of touch!

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Advance Warning: There are no film or DVD reviews at all in this blog post!

Last weekend I took a trip to Dublin with a couple of my co-workers, Richard and Vitaly. I've been sharing the company flat with Richard for a few weeks but his contract ended on Friday and he decided not to renew (with the lousy weather, long hours and weekend working, and this being his first contract nobody could blame him). Vitaly is a Russian contractor who has worked for the last couple of years on the software that we are producing a new version of. His wife Nadia came along too.

Saturday was great, even though we were all exhausted after another difficult week at work. A quick early evening nap meant Saturday evening went really well and Dublin was what friends had told me it was - a fun, friendly city with lots of drunks (including us), but all of the friendly, smiley kind. A stag party from Manchester helped make the evening and I posted photo's from the weekend on an internal company 'social' web site which I've also posted here (beware three 'pages' of slow download and company 'in jokes'). What the photo's don't really convey is a sense of what a nightmare Sunday became when Richard's car broke down late Sunday morning in the middle of Dublin on a busy match day.

Using the internet to try and find a breakdown service on a day when an important national match is being played is not a wise idea. Two idiots wasted several hours we didn't have before towing us (in a battered old Ford Fiesta) to their 'premises' behind three off-road rubbish tips complete with roaming packs of rabid dogs, mad barking locked-up Alsations and the supposed office being a trailer home. It felt like we were about to become the participants in a bad Hollywood 'horror' flick, and far scarier at the time than any photo's I managed to grab (the mere act of which caused another altercation). A 170 Euro bribe had not been in my budget but was needed to get the car towed to the more public location of Dublin airport, where the RAC were joined and called out, with me thankfully managing to get a hire car for a week despite only having my photo passport without the accompanying paper license. The moral of the story is: if you're going to take your car abroad make sure you have recovery there!

Sunday was an expensive and wasteful (not to say stressful) end to what should have been an excellent weekend, and for Richard it was pretty much the last straw in what he has come to see as the 'nightmare' of his first contract in Ireland. Thankfully we have the pictures to remind us that we'd loved Dublin itself before the nightmare started!