Saturday, 8 January 2011

What Happened to the Reviews?

Well they kind of died (obviously) as I tried to get the ShinyDiscs video podcast web site off the ground instead.

The good news is that I am now podcasting regularly every week, although the focus is purely on new Blu-Ray releases. The new "hub" for all the reviews can be found at

There you'll find the latest audio podcasts, together with links to written reviews of films that include trailers, HD screen captures and links to other bits and pieces associated with the film.


Sunday, 3 January 2010

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (2007)

Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927)

One of the things I love about cinema is that it's an art form that hasn't been around that long - just 100 years more-or-less. This makes it possible to follow the history and growth of the medium from its very beginnings.

Alas, too many of the early 'film studio' books that documented the early years have been out of print for years so that the main source of historical information these days tends to be in the form of DVD and Blu-Ray releases: either of the old films themselves, the best of which contain accompanying historical commentary tracks or small booklets, or of new historical documentaries made by the studios to celebrate an anniversary.

An excellent example of the latter is the 6 hour documentary on MGM Studios history, introduced by Patrick Stewart, that was put out as three two-hour TV documentaries in the United States and given away as a double-sided DVD with import sets of the Blu-Ray versions of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

One of my new year resolutions (again!) was to delve a bit more into older 'classics' that were made before I was born or which I missed as a kid when TV was the main way of catching up on old classics, in an era when video tape recorders and DVD players didn't exist. Fortunately Eureka's "Masters of Cinema" imprint has now started releasing some of the most important or interesting classics on Blu-Ray. Curiously "Title #1" in their Blu-Ray series is NOT their first Blu-Ray release, arriving at the tail end of 2009 when other titles came out in 2008, and I really haven't been able to work out how their odd title numbering system works, but "Title #1" seemed a good place to start. And "Title #1" is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans by the highly praised German silent film director F.W. Murnau.

I should be upfront here about the fact that I find many of the old so-called classics dull beyond words, and I've never really been a fan of the so-called wonderful 'silent era'. Even as a kid from the generation that returned home from school to find children's hour prefaced with 'Laurel and Hardy' episodes on BBC1, I tended to want to turn over to the other channel.

Sunrise has been described by several critics as 'the most beautiful silent film ever made', and won oscars for Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Actress in 1928 so seemed to be a good film to start with, even though the thought of watching a silent film that runs for more than 90 minutes doesn't sound like much of a treat. The film was originally released just two days before the first talkie, and, apparently, was commercially a flop, despite all the critical praise it's received over the years.

Fortunately many of these silent classics have been issued with new music recordings that improve the 'silent' experience, and Sunrise is just such a title with the original mono Movietone score being joined by an 'Alternate Chamber Orchestra Score' in stereo that really enhanced the viewing experience for me. If you're watching the film for the first time, and assuming you're not a film student who insists on seeing the film 'as it would have been seen in 1927', I'd recommend going with the new stereo recording soundtrack over the original Movietone one.

still image from Sunrise

The basic plot, adapted from a German-published short story, is a deceptively straightforward one. A farmer with young wife and child in a marriage that's going stale has an affair with a 'city girl' who tries to lure him away from his farm, suggesting that he arrange a boating accident that kills his wife so that he can sell his farm and join her permanently in the City. In the event, the farmer can't go through with the murderous act, and he and his wife re-find their lost love on a day trip to the big metropolis. A storm arrives as the couple head for home and the wife goes missing, presumed dead. Nevertheless, realising the error of his ways, the farmer tells the City girl he is not prepared to resume his relationship, just before rescuers find his wife alive and well. This last point is a 'happy ending' apparently forced on the director by the Fox film studio - it seems nothing much changes in Hollywood!

The set-up and failed attempt at the murder are dealt with in the first 20 minutes, and the bulk of the film is spent covering the farming couple's reconciliation trip to the big city, where they visit a church wedding service, get pampered at a hair salon, have a professional take their photograph, and visit a circus fair and dance hall - all in a city that looks rather futuristic for its time.

This probably sounds less than thrilling, but what makes the film work is that it's a story of emotions - a story that's incredibly well told and still works well today. If you're a fan of cinema, basic story-telling well put together, excellent acting and direction or just quite spectacular special effects (no, really!) then Sunrise really is the must-see that its 8.3 score on imdb indicates it to be.

It's easy for those of us who aren't film students to dismiss film of this era, with its implicit exaggerated facial poses, dated dress sense etc seeming so irrelevant to today's times, but films like Sunrise demonstrate that in reality human nature and story telling really hasn't changed one jot in the last 100 years - it's just the technology and fashion that's changed. Thankfully the over-exaggerated gurning that plagues most silent films is mainly absent from this film, and the performances from Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien are superb, even subtle at times. It's not hard to see why Gaynor won the Best Actress oscar for her performance in this film.

For me, there were some very pleasant surprises in the film. There was a lot more humour than the dark subject matter had indicated: from the farce of the couple accidentally breaking a photographer's sculpture and trying to cover it up by substituting a golf ball for its broken head, to the slapstick of a drunk and an escaped pig and a dress that has straps which won't stay up, to the naivety of the 'out of town' couple. 'Come again', the hair salon owner says (via cue card) to the departing couple. 'And you must come and visit us' says the farmer's wife, sincerely by way of response.

But what surprised me most about this beautifully put together film was the special effects. There are one or two back-projection scenes where one can spot the joins (eg where the couple are kissing in the middle of a busy street and the traffic backdrop 'jumps' but the couple don't) but there are other scenes, such as one where the farmer walks across busy traffic, where I still couldn't work out how it was done. Murneau uses special effects - most of them, amazingly, performed 'in camera' - to help tell a story that would otherwise need sound, and as a result is able to convince the viewer over 90 minutes that sound really isn't needed. Indeed I barely noticed that this was a 'silent' film I was watching! There's some wonderful dissolve sequences too, such as the opening title scene where a drawing of a train station dissolves into the real thing, or where 'The Man' is tormented by images of 'The Girl from the City' carressing him.

still image from Sunrise

You can view the trailer for Sunrise on YouTube. However note that this is not taken from the Blu-Ray and doesn't, in my view, give the best indication of what the film is like.

As for the picture quality .. well if you're expecting a million pound makeover look elsewhere. The original print was destroyed by fire in the 30's and the two versions presented here (a Movietone version, and a shorter, but better preserved, Czechoslovakian version) have been pieced together from various fourth or fifth generation copies. The accompanying booklet details the various sources and explains that it's impossible to tell what the 'definitive' or originally edited film looked like. Different copies of the film use different takes, and two camera's were used so that the Movietone score could be accommodated on US prints which meant some cropping of the picture to accommodate it on the film strip, vs the non-Movietone version that could use the full frame. No attempt at repairing print damage has been attempted and although there is a high throughput of about 26-30MB/sec on the 1080p restoration Blu-Ray I suspect that the difference for most between the DVD and Blu-Ray versions, at least on smaller screen-sizes, is minimal because of the softness of the source material. A few crazy people on Amazon are talking about this Blu-Ray featuring a pin sharp picture - they clearly need to make an optician's appointment - and quickly!

Sunrise is indeed the classic many have said it is. Masters of Cinema have produced an excellent, comprehensive Blu-Ray version of the film, complete with an informative booklet about the restoration and a 'must hear' historical commentary track from cinematographer John Bailey. I can't wait for their Blu-Ray versions of the same director's City Girl, and also the classic Fritz Lang's "M", scheduled for release on Blu-Ray on 22nd February.

More info on this title on the supplier's website: supplier's web site.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

My Blu-Ray Top 10 for 2009

No. 1: Battlestar Galactica - The Complete Series

It's gritty, well-acted, beautifully written and despite the 'science fiction' tag is all about the characters - NOT the effects or aliens! The 'revamped for the noughties' Battlestar Galactica thankfully bears little relation to the bad hair/cheese-fest low budget series of the same name from the early 70's.

We've had a lot of high quality TV series from the States, and against all the odds, Battlestar Galactica proved to be right there amongst the best written shows that shine light on the human condition - shows like The West Wing, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Disillusioned former Star Trek writers were given the chance to produce the show they really WANTED to make, and the years of frustration with a tired, formulaic franchise that they'd previously been working on well past its 'Sell by' date helped them produce one of the best written drama series ever shown on TV.

Best of all, Battlestar Galactica has a beginning, a middle and an end, and just when you think you know where it's going, it changes tack on you (like the whole 'parallel Iraq' storyline that dominated the middle season of the series). Five years of one of the best shows on TV is now available in a reasonably priced tin box set that includes not just the mini series that kicked the whole thing off, but also extended versions of transmitted episodes (as well as the originally transmitted episodes), and extra one-off 'specials' as well. There's also a surfeit of episode commentaries and 'making of' featurettes that dissect the whole phenomenon.

This is the definitive set and the only thing excluded is the one-off 'special' The Plan (which retells the main story, but from the robotic Cylon adversary viewpoint), issued after the series ended. Since this late offering (available as a region free Blu-Ray in its own right, albeit on US import only) turned out to be a huge disappointment and represented a drop in quality compared to the main series anyway, its omission is no great loss.

Admittedly the series 'dark and gritty documentary style' with its profusion of grain and shaky-cam means this isn't a '3D window on the world' hi-def experience, but the series was shot using HD cameras and it looks far better on Blu-Ray than it did on terrestrial transmission or on the originally issued DVD sets.

If this had been shown on one of the major terrestrial channels like BBC1, it would have had a far bigger cultural impact outside the critics, media watchers and fan boys that caught onto the show through word of mouth and took the show to their hearts. It makes the 'overly polished turd' that is Russell T Davies' Doctor Who look like the infantile, poorly written, hammily acted, overly clunky garbage it is, and it's depressing to see the dominance of 'nostalgia over quality' where mainstream science fiction is concerned, with Battlestar Galactica never entering the popular consciousness the way the inferior Time Lord remake from the BBC did.

Bottom line: Battlestar Galactica is an essential purchase, even if you don't ordinarily like science fiction. If you can't afford the 'Limited Edition' Blu-Ray tin, HMV are currently offering the DVD equivalent in their instore sale at £70. At that price, it's a complete steal. Miss it at your peril!

No. 2: The Prisoner - The Complete Series

This ground-breaking ITV series from the 60's has had more releases on DVD than I've had hot dinners, with each successive release being apparently justified by a gradual improvement in picture quality (the first DVD release was like a really bad VHS recording!) The Blu-Ray edition packages the previously available extra's with an authorative paperback book detailing the origins of the series in an annoyingly over-sized cardboard case, but it's the picture quality that makes this an essential purchase - it blows all earlier editions away. Serious money has been spent on restoring a show that was thankfully shot in colour using expensive film cameras, and it looks absolutely stunning, albeit in 'old school' 4:3 format.

Admittedly, some of the stories are dated, and a few of the seventeen 45 minute episodes that were filmed are clearly 'filler' material, but when the series hits its stride nothing comes close (not even the expensive 'modern' remake starring Ian McKellan that Sky have put together).

Saturated colours, blemish-free prints, and stories that were thought-provoking and challenging mean that it's worth purchasing this series on Blu even if you own all the previous releases on DVD: the improvement in picture quality is THAT good. 'I am not a number. I am a free man.' has even more relevance in today's world of high surveillance, privacy-inhibiting laws than it did in the 60's.

No. 3: Moon

If you like your science fiction to be a non-stop CGI action popcorn rollercoaster ride, then Moon probably isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you like science fiction that's intense, thoughtful and mind-bending then Moon is a film you have to see.

David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, turns in a truly astonishing debut film as writer/director on this beautifully constructed slow burner that will have you thinking over its implications for days after you've seen it. Jones builds tension and cleverly constructs a story where the twist that a weaker director wouldn't have revealed until the end, makes an appearance 20 minutes into the main story.

Cleverly playing on expectations set by similarities to previous classics like 2001 and Solaris, the film is a true sci-fi classic in its own right, and comes across more as a masterwerk from some established master like Scorsese, than the debut feature from some 'punk who used to make music videos'!

And if Sam Rockwell doesn't get a 'Best Actor' nomination for his performance in this film then there really is no justice in the world. Don't
rent this one - buy it because you'll want to watch it several times over to discover its beautifully sign-posted subtleties and clues. The attention to even minor details in this film is astonishing. It also looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, which is all the more astonishing given its unbelievably low 'indy' budget.

No. 4: The Hurt Locker

Words like 'Iraq' and 'war' were the kiss of death at the box office, so it seemed like The Hurt Locker - a documentary-style fictionalised account of three bomb disposal experts working in Iraq - was on a trip to nowhere when it was theatrically released.

However a film that makes the esoteric Top 10 of a magazine like Sight and Sound, and gets called The Film of the Decade by Robert Duvall is worthy of anybody's attention, and I wasn't disappointed!

If you've seen the excellent US HBO TV series Generation Kill then you pretty much have the bare bones of what to expect here - except that The Hurt Locker condenses and intensifies the feel of that mini-series, managing not just a much shorter running time, but something with even more of an emotional punch to it too.

Unfortunately, UK purchasers get short-changed (again!) with the Blu-Ray release since it is lacking the commentary track from its female director, Kathryn Bigelow that the US release features, but the film is so powerful that the UK release makes my Top 10 anyway. An astonishing film, well presented in HD on Blu-Ray disc!

No. 5: The Wizard of Oz

Lovers of classic movies have been spoilt with expensive restorations this year. It's A Wonderful Life, North by Northwest, Brief Encounter, The General, Sunrise, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Red Shoes and Quo Vadis were just some of the classic films that received great high definition makeovers this year. (Side Warning: Avoid Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a truly dire 'restoration' that looks no better than a VHS release)

Gone with the Wind would have made my Top 10 (and is highly recommended, if only for the amazing quality of the HD transfer and the unbelievably generous extra's) had this hi-def release not just pipped it to the post in terms of being a better 'film' (For me Gone with the Wind is just rather over-hyped soap opera!)

The movie looks better than it could have done on first release, and although the UK release is worth consideration despite its unbelievably naff 'Singalong version' packaging, its the lavish US region free 'Ultimate Edition' import you want if you care about movies, including as it does an extra double-sided DVD disc with a 6 hour documentary on the history of the MGM film studio (which is also included with the region free US import of Gone With the Wind!). This documentary is presented in three two hour 'episodes' by Patrick Stewart and is worth the asking price of the import in its own right.

The Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic, and the over-saturated Technicolor land of Oz has never looked as gorgeous as it does on this Blu-Ray release which features not just the film itself, but hours of generous and informative extra's too.

No. 6: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The decision to do a remake of this classic from the 50's, starring a wooden Keanu Reeves and a lot of modern CGI nonsense in a tale about aliens warning us that they're watching us and can't allow us to destroy our planet seems timely. Alas, the resulting film was terrible, but its release was a good thing because it meant that we got a restored version of the original black and white classic on the HD format, to tie in with all the new film's publicity.

Play the old 1950's film next to the new version and even the most gadget-obsessed teenager who argues that he doesn't 'do' black and white films will be forced to agree that the original version is by far the superior release.

This timeless classic holds up well, and the Blu-Ray transfer is flawless - a convincing argument that even old 4:3 ratio black and white classics can enjoy the benefits of the high definition revolution.

No. 7: Star Trek XI

The original TV series was a classic, albeit one that outright stole most of its ideas from the less widely known Forbidden Planet (which was released on HD-DVD, so where is the Blu-Ray release of THAT title?!) Alas, the film versions of the first two TV shows bearing the 'Star Trek' legend never lived up to the hype of the original shows, a fact verified by this year's release of restored versions of all ten original films on Blu-Ray. Even in high definition it is astonishing how flabby and downright dull they all seem, frequently proving to be just elongated versions of the weakest episodes of the original TV series.

Then along come J J Abrams to bootstrap the whole franchise and, despite a misleadingly 'generic' trailer, and a writer/director with a reputation for sometimes getting carried away with 'style, gimmicks and endless repetition over substance' he delivered on all fronts this time round, giving us a film that old and new fans could embrace.

The Blu-Ray looks amazing and represents the state-of-the-art in special effects and digital grading. Coming so soon after the theatrical release, Paramount could have cashed in with a double-dip and a first 'bare bones' HD release, but there are enough extra's, albeit of the rather formulaic 'making of' variety, to keep the most ardent fan boy happy.

Apparently some Trekkies are refusing to watch the film because of the 'parallel timestream' reboot that Abrams' writers built into the script to free themselves from having to conform to complicated plot developments that have arisen over 40 years of the franchise. Their loss! Talk about burying your head in the sand and missing out on a treat!

No. 8: Midnight Express

OK, so this is more of a 'personal favourite' than a 'true classic' per se, and I struggled to choose between this and David Fincher's excellent Fight Club Blu-Ray release, but in the end nostalgia won out and I was very happy to see the big leap in picture quality improvement over the previous DVD with the release of this title on Blu-Ray.

Based on a true story, the book's a 'must read', and I've never understood why director Alan Parker went with a far-fetched and inferior made-up ending when the real story is much more dramatic and exciting. Nevertheless the film is a gripping, if sometimes harrowing, account of a young American drug smuggler's time in a brutal Turkish jail, with a career best performance from the late Brad Davis.

At a time when too many films from the 70's and 80's receive a lacklustre HD transfer (Don't get me started on Friedkin's post-processing 'rape' of The French Connection on Blu-Ray) that adds little over the DVD equivalent, it was a relief to find this dark, gritty film looking so good on the Blu-Ray format.

No. 9: Mad Men - The Complete Second Season

Arguably the best drama series currently being shown on television, Mad Men: The Complete Series 2 maintained the high standards set by the Emmy-award winning first season.

The writing's the thing, but the high production values of this tale of advertising and marketing men (and women) in the early 60's mean that the show looks best in glorious high definition.

The Blu-Ray release doesn't disappoint with stunning picture quality and a ton of accompanying commentary tracks for the episodes. If you haven't caught the show because the BBC have done their usual trick of constantly shifting it around the late night schedules when nobody's watching (WTF do they do that?!) then now's the time to catch up with it on Blu-Ray.

If you missed the first season there's a special bundle that packages the first two seasons together for a very reasonable price. This is high quality drama that's given the time it needs to breathe, beautifully acted and written, perfectly wedded to Blu-Ray viewing!

No. 10: Watchmen - The Director's Cut

It was a bit of a toss-up between this one and Coraline to be honest. I'm not a big fan of animation, even of the CGI variety, so the fact that Coraline was even under consideration is a testament to its quality.

But the opening title sequence to Watchmen swung it for me. Was there ever a better opening sequence for a movie? Issued in far too many versions, the Director's Cut is the version I'm choosing (or the 'Ultimate Edition' if you're happy to import), not least because it's the first time I've seen the over-hyped Blu-Ray special features used to such good effect.

The director's walkthrough of the film, where he stops and starts the film periodically, is an excellent use of the format and the picture-in-picture feature really works on this title. Admittedly the film is too slow burning for many (Iron Man or Spider-Man this isn't!) and criticisms that the director stayed perhaps a little too close to the original comic book, and made far too much use of his camera's slow motion feature, are valid. But for those with the patience to sit through the film's near 3 hour running time, this is a real treat.

The film is an astonishing accomplishment, albeit one that didn't fare well at the box office. The Blu-Ray (in all its different release formats) more than does justice to that accomplishment.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Highlights and Pick of the Week for 30th November 2009

Watchmen (Director's Cut) (2009).

This review was originally published at

Watchmen Blu-Ray Cover and review ratings

Nobody can accuse Warner Brothers of under-exploting their Watchmen franchise in the United States. The film, from 300's director Zack Snyder, under-performed at the US box-office, and needed international sales to recover its costs, despite an extremely vocal fanbase (which turned out to be smaller than expected) for its source material, and the endless internet and film magazine hype which, let's be honest here, was more than even the Summer's biggest tentpole releases have any reasonable right to expect. Even though it's less than a year since its theatrical release, our American cousins have seen FIVE different Blu-Ray releases associated with the title. Utter madness!

Here in the UK things thankfully haven't been quite so manic on the double-dipping front. We have had silly gimmicks like a 'limited edition' (so limited it can still be found at discount in shops across the land) 'blue Dr Manhattan' Blu-Ray holder release to accompany the original theatrical release, but this is small beer compared to the States who have had: the Motion Comic blu-ray, the separate inter-linked Tales of the Black Freighter animated story blu-ray (voiced by 300's Gerard Butler no less), the Director's Cut blu-ray (identical to this UK release although I'm not sure if we get the 3D cover the Americans got) and finally (this week) the Ultimate Collector's Edition blu-ray. This last release adds a few more extra's to the Director's Cut and apparently integrates the 'Black Freight' comic directly back into the the film so you may want to consider importing that instead, especially as it's a 'region free' release.

Most sensible folks (that'll be me then!) ordered the 'region free' Director's Cut on import when it was released State-side the same week as the rather thin UK theatrical cut a few months ago. But for those that didn't, a bona fide UK release is now available.

So for Brits this release is the best in a week that is dominated by operatic music releases and different packaged and re-packaged versions of THAT plot-free film featuring those wretched brain-dead 'Transformer' robots. Remember folks, just because it's noisy doesn't mean it's good and Michael Bay has proved time and time again that he hasn't got a clue when it comes to basic dialogue, story-telling, any kind of subtlety with regard to editing or filming, or even basic consistency so PLEASE don't waste your time and money on the Transformers 2 release also out this week. Read the reviews - they ALL say it's shit!

Not that Watchmen will be to everyone's taste of course. This is not your usual super-hero fare, set around 1985 (the Nixon years) in an alternate universe, it is a much darker, bloodier and allegorical take on life than your average Superman or Fantastic Four flick, and certainly NOT one for the kiddies! It also takes time to tell its story, which caused many who just didn't really get it to complain vociferously about how 'boring' it was. And now it's about 20 minutes longer! Oh dear!

But the added 20 minutes do improve the film, allowing more of the characters' backgrounds to shine through, giving depth and slightly better explanations for what happens in the film.

Visually the film is stunning, and if there were an oscar for 'Best title sequence ever', this film would surely win it. Against a background of the history of the times (Nixon, the moon landing etc) we're given a plotted history of the group known as the Watchmen, before suddenly being plunged into the story of former members being brutally murdered, one at a time.

There are a lot of characters to show here, and a lot to convey in the 3 hours plus running time, and that isn't helped by Snyder's over-use of 'operatic' slow motion that really can grate after a while. Clearly nobody had the nerve to warn the director that there is such a thing as 'over egging the pudding'. But nobody can deny that the visuals are stunning and every dollar of the 180 million it cost are up there on screen. There are no 'big name' cast members, but the director has clearly chosen his cast based on actors who were right for the role, rather than perceived box-office pulling power.

The critics were less enthusiastic about the film than the general public have been. I think with time that opinion will change, and the film will come to be seen as a genuinely innovative 'one off', albeit one too costly and risky to set a pattern for future productions. Watchmen has more class, polish and depth than the director's previous film (300), which effectively persuaded the studio to go ahead with this project. Despite performing less well it's a better film than 300 and it's a shame more people didn't go to the cinema to see it. With a pixel-perfect transfer, breath-taking sound, ridiculously high production values, and a copious amount of extra's, you have no excuse not to check out the Blu-Ray. If you bought the original theatrical release, then the decision to upgrade is entirely down to your appreciation of the original film and its basic premise. But if you haven't purchased a copy of Watchmen on shiny disc, you no longer have a reason for not doing so.

Other Releases This Week

If you've seen David Attenborough's Planet Earth on Blu-Ray, you know how stunning his wild life series are. The new series Life is just as good, and is really just more of the same, but when 'the same' is as good as this, what's not to like? If you missed out on Planet Earth you also have the opportunity to buy a double-pack bundle that packs the two series together for a reasonable price. Highly recommended!

G-Force is the seemingly obligatory 'CGI cartoon' release of the week. Unfortunately it's not a very good one. IMDB gives it an average rating of just 4.8, and although I haven't seen the Blu-Ray I did see a 3D trailer for the film at my local IMAX. The only thing I remember about the trailer was that it was unimaginative, had no laughs, and featured rather poor rendering. One to avoid unless you're really desperate for something - anything! - to keep the kids quiet.

Reviews for The Proposal have been somewhat mixed, although many have indicated this is the first watchable film Sandra Bullock has made in a long time. It's rom-com fare, which I usually find a total turn-off, so I've given this one a miss. On the other hand, Bullock is always worth watching, as is her co-star Ryan Reynolds and since they both get naked here....    The plot sounds ludicrous, and it's doubtful that this sort of material needs high-definition (unless, of course, your main interest is the afore-mentioned nakedness, in which case I guess your mileage may vary!). So for me this is more of a rental than anything I'd want to purchase.

If, like me, you enjoy a good horror movie, Orphan looks promising, twisting the Damien-like 'evil little boy' story into an 'evil little nine-year old girl' one. Reviews have, again, been somewhat mixed and most of the criticism seems to be around the lack of originality in the story. However 15,000 people liked it enough to give it an average score of 7.2 on imdb so it's probably worth a rental at least, if not an outright purchase.

Next week sees the 'last gasp' before Christmas with more than 10 new releases on the high definition format. The week after that sees just three new Blu-Ray releases, and they're all music, so if you're going to splurge out on discs for the festive season this week or next week is probably the time to do it!

And whilst on the subject of Christmas (I know! I know!) this seems an opportune time to mention a British site specialising in reviews and price comparisons of shiny disc boxed sets. It's nothing to do with us here at Shiny Discs, but it's well worth checking out for the latest news and reviews.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Lots of Blu-Ray reviews over at

The first edition of my weekly video podcast is now available and includes 7 Blu-Ray releases out in the UK this week. Please check it out over at

All future reviews are likely to appear in the video podcast rather than here!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Hotel Babylon Series One (2006)

Hotel Babylon: TV Series 7 out of 10, Blu-Ray disc 8 out of 10, On Sale 12th November 2007 at a typical online price of £30.89. Imdb rating at time of writing is 8.8

The BBC have finally released their first high definition disc titles in their home country, several months after they debuted Planet Earth across the Atlantic - good to see that UK tax-payers who fund their overseas expansion actually get some advantage (not!). Unfortunately the best new release for those that hadn't already purchased Planet Earth (which is superb) on import has been cancelled a mere week before its scheduled release. So if you were excited to see Bleak House advertised in full-page ads all over the home cinema/DVD/film magazines last month you're in for a disappointement. Yet another great way to spend the tax-payers money - glossy ads for titles you don't have - don'tcha think?!

Moving quickly on, we have four or five other high definition titles to look forward to. And, to their credit, the Beeb have released all the titles on both the available formats: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.

That being said, the initial list of titles seems a bizarre one at first glance. Does anybody REALLY want to see the infantile mess that is Robin Hood Series 1 on high definition disc? And what about the subject of this review (its coming, honest!) trash-TV 'soap' Hotel Babylon?!!! Have the BBC completely lost their minds?

Max Beasley fulfills the required 'hunk' factor as assistant manager Charlie Edwards

Well no, as it happens. I approached Hotel Babylon with some trepidation. I'm not too snobby to enjoy trash 'camp' TV, but learnt after getting drawn into the likes of Footballers' Wives, Bad Girls and Cutting It that plotlines soon become more and more ludicrous, and a sort of naffness unique to certain gay hairdresser establishments in the North ('Isn't the Eurovision Song Contest fab?!') quickly sets in. Watching several episodes of these shows back-to-back is a bit like watching The Jerry Springer Show - addictive, but you feel like you need to take a shower afterwards.

The TV advertising for Hotel Babylon, with its Z-list ex East-Enders actors did nothing to convince me that Hotel Babylon would be in any way different from these 'trash TV' shows. My bad!

There's still a high 'trash' quotient of course but, based on an insider's guide as to what really happens in five-star hotels (I don't think I'll EVER use a hotel glass to drink out of again!), this glossy soap delivers it with real panache and style. With individual scenes separated by consistently stunning high-definition helicopter shots of London during the day and night, the series really impresses on this high definition disc.

Tamzin Outhwaite is hotel manager Rebecca Mitchell and appears to have a huge male following, although this series solicited far too many 'mutton dressed as lamb' comments from this viewer

The scripts are, for the most part, well constructed, and the characters, with the sole exception of the obligatory super-bitch character fairly believable.

The real surprise is the main lead Max Beasley, someone I'd previously labelled as an out-of-work musician 'faking it' as an actor, who as Charlie delivers a performance that's subtle, sophisticated, real and charismatic - completely at odds with the rather ignorant, real-life persona heard and seen on chat shows (and the extra's on this three-disc set). Beasley plays the part of the newly promoted assistant manager, the series narrator, and slightly-naughty-but-essentially-good guy hero of the series. He's effectively the viewer's guide to the series and it's very bizarre that he only gets second-best billing, after the over-exposed Tamzin Outhwaite.

Outhwaite plays Charlie's boss, the general manager of the hotel of the title, and repeats her endless previous performances (ie she plays herself) on the few occasions the script actually gives her something to do. I can understand that she's more of a household name than Beasley, but even so she is effectively a rather minor character in the series so her name as the star of the show seems just plain wrong.

Emma Pierson is Anna Thornton-Wilton, Charlie's former girlfriend who now holds his old job as head of reception, and plays the part as cartoon pantomime bitch which is the way the part is written but drags the show down to the level of 'Bad Girls', 'Footballer's Wives' etc when it doesn't need to

In the eight, hour-long (real hour, not American TV hours that equate to 40 minutes!) episodes we get some nice self-contained stories, with ongoing story arcs that add character depth for most of the four or five main characters. The best scenes are invariably those taken directly from the book, with elaborate little cameos to illustrate each point. The series has had a lot of money spent on it and it shows, particularly in these little 'hotel life' recreation scenes, although the 360 degree fast spin-round effect soon gets tiring, particularly if you've already tired of it in the likes of Smokin' Aces.

Alas the series does, on a couple of occasion, feature ridiculous character reversals that just wouldn't happen in real life, usually just to up the 'trash' or 'pantomime' level of the plot - none of which is necessary as the series has enough strong characters and plot points to hold the viewer's attention throughout.

'Vince' from 'Queer as Folk', aka actor Craig Kelly, shows up as a rather villanous taxi driver

The BBC have done a great job on the high definition transfer of the show, and the series is a real visual treat for the eyes - a long, long way from the East-Enders production values I was expecting. There's the expected end-of-series cliff-hanger cop-out (Didn't Dallas do all this many, many years ago) but at least give the audience some sense of closure instead of leaving everything hanging in the balance.

The extra's are good value too, if far too gushing in places. I don't know if it was intended that the producer and director gush about how beautiful Outhwaite is for comedic effect whenever she looks particularly haggard or 'mutton dressed as lamb', but it soon wore thin. Luckily, although the commentary track is far too self-congratulatory and gushing, the other 'on the set' featurettes and cast interviews do make up for this. All-in-all, a surprisingly good high definition presentation of a rather good TV series for the masses.

I'm not convinced it's a purchase, but this one's definitely worth a rental, and the BBC appear to have got off to a good start with their high-definition releases. Those who thought that high definition was only about cinema are going to get a shock when they start looking at the TV series making their way onto the format, and Hotel Babylon is up there with the best of them. Recommended!

Emily, Max and Tamzin wonder whether they've ruined their careers by taking 2 years out to perform in what is effectively a very upmarket soap, but a soap nonetheless

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Days of Glory (2006)

Days of Glory: Film 8 out of 10, DVD 8 out of 10, On Sale 24th September 2007 at a typical online price of £16.89. Imdb rating at time of writing is 7.2, Rotten Tomatoes is 82% fresh

There aren't many films that can bring into effect a change in the law, but Days of Glory (released under the title of Indigènes, in its native France) did just that. Focusing on the way African Moslem soldiers were treated very much as second class citizens during the Second World War, President Chirac's wife was so moved by the film that her husband changed French law to ensure that soldiers from former colonies who'd fought to defend France received the same pension rights as their native French counterparts.

Although the film has ultimately righted an injustice with this change in law, the film-makers make it clear there are still some changes that need to be made, pointing out parallel scenarios elsewhere in the world, including the lack of rights of the Ghurka's who sacrificed everything to help Britain out in past World Wars.

The story is not a pretty one, but is beautifully told in this extraordinary film, which was rightly nominated for a 'Best Foreign Language Film' oscar at this year's Academy Awards.

Unfortunately, for this viewer, the key message of the film was somewhat diluted, by what appears to be somewhat exaggerated saber-rattling, as evidenced in the extra's. As the film becomes more successful the story of how many African soldiers were affected gets more and more exaggerated. Initially we're told that 200,000 Moslem soldiers fought for France, then suddenly the number becomes 230,000 and by the time we get to a Q & A with the director, as recorded for Al Jazeera TV, the number has miraculously leapt to 500,000! Such propaganda can only dilute and lessen the impact of the important message which the film has to impart.

Jamel Debbouze plays Said Otmari, the only child from a poor Moslem family, who signs up as an orderly, fighting to defend the 'Mother land' he's never seen

The film follows four soldiers making their way from Algeria, through Italy and France to Alsace between 1943 and 1945.

Said (Jamel Debbouze, last seen in the under-rated Angel-A) is a naive, poor Moslem who works as an orderly for a weary sergeant, Martinez (Bernard Blancan). Martinez is a pied noir who tries to speak up for his Arab troops, but seems to lack initiative on too many occasions, seemingly because he appears to be full of self-loathing for his own mixed parentage and doesn't want to rock the boat with his superiors.

Abdelkadar (Sami Bouaijila) has no such fear of his superiors. An excellent sniper, he fights injustice wherever he sees it and is keen to get promotion, not for reasons of blind ambition, but so that he can be seen to be equal to the French soldiers he fights alongside.

Things are pretty grim - and extremely purple! - on the front line, especially if you're a 'second class citizen' ie a Moslem

The movie has already drawn critical comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, primarily because of its identikit ending. Thankfully Days of Glory lacks the saccharine sentimentality that Spielberg lays on with a trowel at various points throughout that earlier, admittedly impressive, film. Here, the War set-pieces, whilst impressive, are not in the same league as Spielberg's earlier opus, and the gore is thankfully less in-your-face, but this is, I think, the better film.

The narrative thread is relatively loose, with the emphasis being on anecdotal scenes that stay in the mind long after the film is over: The meal menu which meant that only native French soldiers could have tomatoes with their lunch; the freezing feet of those Arab soldiers who wore sandals, not realising they'd have to march through snow; the innovative use of German propaganda leaflets dropped for Moslem soldiers, to fix holes in foot ware; the looters who refuse to rob a Church alms box because, on seeing a statue of Jesus on the cross, realise that it would be wrong to steal from an enemy's God when that God has clearly suffered pain.

Director Rachid Boucharab rights a terrible injustice with this powerful, moving tale of friendship and loyalty at a time when the French promise of liberty, equality and fraternity for the African soldiers proved extremely hollow. The two-hour film has an epic feel which, thanks to a superb, if largely unknown, cast delivers a powerful punch that pulls at the heart strings in all the right places.

Abdelkadar desperately wants to get a promotion, more to prove himself equal to non-Moslem fighters than for any real reasons of ambition.

The picture quality on this high definition Blu Ray disc, is quite simply stunning and shows that when the format actually tries to introduce quality it can easily be the equal of HD-DVD. The sound is equally impressive, and unusually for a Fox title this appears to be a region-free release, possibly because it's been released in Europe and not the USA, as of the time of writing.

The extra's are, unfortunately, presented in non-anamorphic standard definition, but include a 'warts and all' hour long Making of documentary that was made for a French television station. The disc also features a 10 minute introduction to the film from director, Rachid Boucharab, a 'UK Exclusive' copy of am Audience Q & A with the director and writer, filmed for Al Jazeera television, clocking in at just over 15 minutes, and an on-screen Historical Background essay which documents the research that was carried out before work was started on the film.

Sniper Messsaoud's French girlfriend waves goodbye, not realising their relationship is doomed thanks to the racism of the French censors who will not allow any of the couple's letters to each other to be delivered.

Films with subtitles always struggle with British audiences, but to dismiss this minor masterpiece based solely on the fact that it is in a foreign language, would be a minor crime. It's a film that needs to be seen by everyone, with its plea for tolerance and understanding all the more relevant given the current situation in Iraq.

Days of Glory, which is also available on standard DVD, is a great advert for the high definition Blu-Ray format, and has sufficient depth to pay repeated viewings. As such it's a recommended purchase over a rental, and comes highly recommended.

Martinez, a pied noir, tries to speak up for his men, but is in many ways full of self-loathing which prohibit him from doing as much as he could.