Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quatermass and The Pit [Roy Ward Baker]

Having not seen any of the BBC televsion series, my exposure to Quatermass is restricted to two Hammer films, The Quatermass Xperiment and this one. Xperiment had good atmosphere and direction, and I am naturally a sucker for old-skool pulp science-fiction, but it was in the end more monster movie than hardcore SF. The Pit however, has greater ambitions.

The film starts with the discovery of proto-human skulls at a digging site in the underground rail station for this place originally called Hob's Lane (as one of the characters helpfully reveals, Hob is another nick name for the devil). Local science man Matthew Roney believes that the skulls date to a time well before previously known existence of man. More mystery unfolds when the digging crew unearths a metallic compartment never seen before. Colonel Breen and Professor Quatermass come in as the government's military and scientific representatives. While Breen is quick to dub the compartment as an unexploded German warhead, glossing over such inexplicables as why the metal is hazardously cold to the touch and can resist any amount of heat/drilling without disclosing its insides, Quatermass, alongwith Roney's assistant Barbara, undertakes a more holistic investigation, linking events in the local history of Hob's lane to the presence of the alien compartment. The script by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale interprets old superstitions in the light of an alien intelligence and its impact on the human civilization. In fact, The Pit's major idea is that modern man was an engineered product of the aliens as a means of transferring their mindset, and thereby surviving by proxy, when their own race died out. Shades of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey there, but in a far more accessible package.

Roy Ward Baker's direction maintains a serious scientific tone and the solid acting does a lot of service to the immersion factor here, necessary since the props and optical effects are distinctly low-budget and unsuited for the script's ambition. Andrew Keir is a good Quatermass, more pleasant-mannered than Xperiment's Brian Donlevy (Apparently that was a very wrong portrayal, rendering Quatermass an egomaniac, but I actually liked it a good deal and thought it added a certain bite to the character), but not afraid to talk tough when the situation calls. The supporting characters are all strongly etched in this film, although Col. Breen suffers from a lack of depth.

While the bombastic trick solution climax (all these alien invasion films have to have them, don't they?) is not particularly satisfying, the film on the whole is a good one, traveling a long way on interesting concepts delivered with respect and intelligence. Consider that a strong recommendation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

That blu-ray thingy

Having acquired a blu-ray disc (BD) drive and watching stuff on it for the past week or so, I'm just giving off a few of my collected impressions of the format and what I feel it's worth.

First off, I'm not one of those people that want “the latest and the greatest” as soon as it's available, so my reason to go BD was not simply because “it's there”. But to be frank it was also not because I felt that there was some unbridgeable gap in visual quality between DVD and BD. Depending wholly on the type of film, available source material and the quality of the transfer that is made, the difference can sometimes be quite fine. An indispensible guide for me in this regard has been DVD Beaver, which gives you not only erudite “not-muddled-in-jargon” opinion but also provides actual screencaps through which you can make your own opinion.

My first inclinations towards blu-ray came when the major studios in a bid to push the blu-ray format on to a reluctant public started piling their “extras” aka bonus features onto the blu-ray versions of their releases; Star Trek and Up are prime examples of such favoritism. Also, while initially there was a significant price difference between BD and DVD, that difference has come down to the point where unless you buy everything at launch, you're paying the same price for BD as you did for DVD some years back.

But a major sticking point for me was still the player. I did not want to invest Rs. 10,000 (>200USD) in a new blu-ray player, not especially after I had just set up my own decent DVD-based home viewing setup. The other aspect here is that, unlike the mature DVD, blu-ray as a format is still evolving, a point on which I will elaborate later in this update. Then came my PC upgrade and the building of a system that had the horsepower to, among other things, effortlessly play high-definition media. This neatly coincided with the arrival of low-priced blu-ray drives for PC. Since I'm not looking to write blu-rays anytime soon, I went in for a cheap ASUS drive that essentially serves to only read disc media, be it BD/DVD/CD.

So having gotten a player and a half dozen films on the BD format (Adventures of Robin Hood, Avatar, Star Trek, Terminator 2, Up, Wings of Desire), what are my impressions so far regarding the benefits of blu-ray?

In the case of new films shot on High-Definition (HD) video or featuring significant amounts of computer generated imagery, the shift to blu-ray is a no-brainer. Having seen the BD version of James Cameron's Avatar on my home system, I can attest to that from personal experience: the gob-smacking clarity and level of detail, rock-steady stability of the image in motion and ability to handle strong color contrasts without any noticeable flicker/graphic artifacts is beyond what I have seen on DVD thus far (granted I have not seen Avatar itself on DVD but IMO the DVD versions of Pixar films (The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up) form a sufficient benchmark to hold against). This sort of film is what will act as the game-changer in swaying the minds of the public at large towards adoption of the blu-ray format.

But is blu-ray only good for the latest sci-fi action blockbuster with heavy CGI use? Not necessarily. A shift to higher resolutions and bitrates will benefit almost any sort of film. But in the case of older classics, the benefits are of a different sort. It's not so much in terms of giving a pop-out shiny quality to the visuals. That would be a wrong thing to aim for too; these classics were shot on film, some under low-budget conditions or using soft lighting schemes, and the transfer should faithfully reflect the source. With a skilled blu-ray transfer of an older classic, there will be an incremental (ranging from just noticeable to significant) increase of detail but the main benefit will be in terms of stability of the image, lesser need to manipulate the contrast to show detail and the accurate reproduction of the color tones of the original film to the highest extent. Check out DVD Beaver's screencap comparisons of the Criterion DVD and BD versions of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha here. This is a very relevant comparison given that both these versions come from the same HD master, but the BD is able to depict the detail without the contrast boost and unnatural hue seen on the DVD transfer. If your aim is to see the masterpieces of cinema with the highest possible fidelity to the original source (and after all, isn't this why studios like Criterion enjoy their premium prices and their dedicated fanbase?) there is a tangible benefit to making the BD shift. Also unless you're the sort that feels some value-addition to having stuff spread out over multiple DVD's instead of being contained in a single BD, it's a damned sight more convenient.

But there are also reasons to hold back right now, especially if you want to be the pop-in-and-play user. As of now there is no widespread availability of region-free BD players, at least at reasonable cost; if you want to mix and match BD's from different regions based on content or availability, you're out of luck. Also, while DVD is a mature standard, BD technology is still evolving: Player firmware may require to be upgraded to support new copy protection measures if you want to keep playing the latest discs. With successive generations players will improve in speed of access to content. Since my BD's are played on an internet-connected PC drive using readily upgradeable software (to play the media and allow multi-region access) I have a greater flexibility than a conventional BD player owner would. If you're not comfortable with this kind of software upgrading, one suggestion would be to hold off buying loads of new content for maybe a couple of years now and then plunge whichever way you are suited.

Am I committed to buying only blu-rays from now on? Absolutely not. For me it's a wait and watch game. I intend to look through trusted review websites to give me their viewpoint (and yes, actual screen comparisons, more of them should do that). Remember that BD cannot give you a good experience if the source material or digital mastering is not of a high caliber. I certainly wouldn't want to upgrade my existing DVD's unless I see a massive level up in video quality or a boatload of new extras on the blu-ray version (So no Superman The Movie BD for me, unless someone is feeling generous :D). For new purchases, price will be an important factor. I would go for a cheaper DVD version if I thought the blu-ray didn't give me a significantly higher wow factor on the visuals / bonus content.

So that's my take on the far.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Sorry for having avoided you so long, blog. Things have just been like that, when typing more than a Facebook status update has seemed taxing to the mind.

Lots of good things happened today, and a few nasty ones (they have to, don't they). First off, a trip to my Santa Claus cousin who now appears almost every quarter with bags full of goodies. Feast your eyes on these:

The main haul of course is the ASUS Blu-Ray drive. With this I finally enter the realm of HD movies, fuck YEAH!
Movie haul is a mix of DVD's and Blu-rays. Wings of Desire, a beautiful film by Wim Wenders, is my first Criterion Blu-Ray. I was a little apprehensive after rumors that the blu-ray cases being smaller the booklets accompanying the disc would be badly affected. Yes, it is smaller in size, but the quality of paper and print has been maintained so Criterion blu-rays are very much in the running so far as future purchases are concerned. Star Trek and Avatar Collector's Edition blu-ray hauls were no-brainers. Another look at the movie hauls:

Off to Lamington road then to get another fan for the PC, forgot to get those darned L-shaped connectors for SATA drives which I need to be able to hook up both my optical drives and also any future hard-drive, given that my gargantuan video card has nicely seated itself over the existing ports.

Okay, the BAD. After getting home, put the drive in and installed the software, told my bro we would be soon watching the new Star Trek movie on  fucking blu-ray. I then discover that switching the display to my plasma TV causes the PowerDVD to throw up a warning that the "Protected content cannot be played on this output" because it's not HDCP compliant! OK now, my TV is connected  by HDMI to the DVI port on my card through an adapter. So I take the cable and plug it directly into the HDMI output on my card. and vice-versa for my monitor. Fine? Not so. As various combinations brought to light the horrible fact that for some reason, my plasma TV refused to accept HDMI connections from anything other than the DVI port. I have no idea where the problem is. The plasma TV manual says that the HDMI connectors are HDCP compatible, the card is HDCP compliant. Then why the FUCK does it not accept a direct HDMI (or even a Displayport to HDMI adapter) output from the PC?

So I was going to be resigned to watching blu-ray movies on a 22" monitor while my 50" plasma TV would lie unused? Searching through the internet reveals no clue as to the problem. But in the end I found one solution. I installed a program called AnyDVD HD which strips off the copy-protection and allows me to play the disc on an unprotected digital video connection. So yes, I saw a bit of Star Trek on the bigger screen and it was good. I still think the image is not optimal (colors sometimes seem a bit off and I'm not sure smoke and fog look as natural as they should), but at least it works.

A software hack that may be defeated is not the solution I would have wanted but it's the one I have to use because nothing else works you mother-raping movie industry jerks! I will evaluate this trial version and if it proves universally suitable I may have to give the makers of this software my money for their useful program.

P.S. Update on the visual quality bit: Turns out some of the wonky quality visuals I had been getting was because of settings on my video card. The main culprit was this setting called "Dynamic Contrast" which makes on-the-fly adjustments to maximize the contrast in any given frame. Totally fucks up dark scenes / scenes with fog. All is good now.