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