Sunday, May 30, 2010

The stuff of Nightmares

I used to be the type who goes for the O.G., the original stuff. The days of breaking the bank for collector's editions and McFarlane movie-theme figurines are over. There's no bargain I could refuse. Thus begin my mild obsession with 4-in-1 DVD packs!

Two-in-ones, three, four, sometimes fifty-in-ones (ah, MP4s) are quite the norms in pirated wares, but the legitimate faction is also into the bargain pack game, although almost usually with older, evergreen titles. The great thing in going legit here is the quality: pirated bundle-packs usually cram several movies onto a single disc. Depending on the movie lengths, an 8.5 Gb double-layer disc (affectionately called by the pirates as "DVD-9s") is quite a tight fit even for just two movies. Video quality is sacrificed in the process.

Get an original many-in-ones though, and you'll not find such compromise. Using dual-side DVDs (equivalent to taking two DVDs and glueing them together on the label side), each movie in a way occupies its own entire disc space, no different than when the movies were produced and sold individually. The Nightmare on Elm Street 4-in-1 DVD pack has Parts I and II printed on the first disc. You watch one movie on one side, then flip it over to see the other. I don't know how the company is able to save cost and lower the prices significantly by using this format, since they would still have to burn the same amount of sides if the movies were produced and sold individually. Physically compacting 4 movies into 2 discs also helps a little in maximising shelf space.

One of the disadvantages of dual-side DVDs is that its "sensitive" regions are exposed on both sides, which encourages easy smudges and all other manner of scratches, the hassle is worth the price tag. Another problem is that one of the mainstays sacrificed in the name of bargain hunters is the second-disc special features. Unless the movie is truly one of your favourites, special features can be quite a chore to sift through. There aren't many titles (with more than two sequels) given the economy pack treatment, probably due to their everlasting appeal (e.g. the pricey Aliens Quadrilogy box set, Harry Potter, Die Hard, James Bond, etc.) So far, I've only found A Nightmare on Elm Street (pictured above), Lethal Weapon, Ocean's Eleven, Batman, Rush Hour, etc. There are some eco-packs that are a mixture of unrelated titles, but these are usually two-packers than four.

In conclusion, original 4-in-1 DVD sets are great value for money and takes no more shelf space than a standard DVD box does. Titles available on these four-packers aren't wide, though, and special feature discs that accompany the main feature on the individual DVDs are usually left out of the set. The highly exposed discs get easily damaged too, if you have butter fingers.

Next up: A Nightmare on Elm Street - The Review!

Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

When I think of an action adventure movie set in the beautiful, golden desert of a Middle Eastern land, I expect picturesque cinematography, exotic locales and people, and brave, noble warriors who greet each other by tapping their lips and forehead before finishing with a hand wave, like Ardeth Bay in The Mummy. In this world, things are either said to be blessed, while others are cursed. People smile alot. Warriors are proud, hold their honour in high esteem, and are penitent towards God/Allah. They wield curved sabres, and the sword fights are intricately choreographed, often along stairwells or at the topmost edge of a castle wall. The beautiful heroine is usually feisty, while the hero smiles in amusement. Yeah, these stuff are cheesy as hell, but that's also why it is so fun.

Sadly, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time achieves only a few of these things. Picturesque cinematography was replaced by CGI landscapes. There were a few nice shots of sand dunes, but they were really tight shots, so you don't really see the full expanse of the desert. This is also one of the movies where the British accent doesn't work, especially with Prince Dastan's Cockney-like English. Nobody does the Middle Eastern hand-wave greet thing. And the "heroes" all started off doing something that is far from noble or honorable, trick or no trick. They behaved more like barbaric Vikings than proud Persians.

Another weak part is the use of the Dagger of Time. The use and limitations of this device are sketchy. No doubt, it is a magical artifact that can reverse time, but how far back does it turn the clock? Does it depend on how long the button is being pressed? Why is there a modern-day red button on the hilt of a medieval dagger in the first place? How much magic sand do you need for say, a 30-second jump back in time? How do you even measure the amount of sand per second of time travelling? Why does Princess Tamira wears a vial of magic sand around her neck even though the use of the Dagger is forbidden, apart from giving the hero (and hetero male audiences) an opportunity to check out her cleavage? None of these questions were answered in the movie.

The worst offender is the action, which is close to terrible. I heard some people calling the movie "Prince of Parkour", but associating the art of freerunning to this movie is an insult to the discipline. The action was filmed and edited in such a disjointed way that makes it very difficult to appreciate the parkour and swordfights on display. (For a good example of parkour action, see the Daniel Craig James Bond movie, Casino Royale.) Perhaps there never was much choreography in the first place, and the rapid edits serve to hide this shortcoming.

Still, I can't fully diss-miss this movie, as it does try its best to charm its way through humour, camaraderie among the cast, and some unexpected dramatic turns. Average at best.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A layman's lesson in anamorphic transfers: Red Cliff DVDs

Just wanted to share my experience renting the DVDs to John Woo's excellent Red Cliff bilogy. It is also a good opportunity to make known the importance of anamorphic DVDs.

Back to Red Cliff: The movies are not really sequels, but two parts of an entire storyline. The movies were shown separately in the cinemas, and were also released in two separate DVDs.

Red Cliff was a big hit in Asia, so it was a surprised to discover how poorly conceived one of the DVDs were.

The subject in scrutiny is DVD Part I, which was not an anamorphic transfer, meaning that the the video was recorded as a 4:3 fullscreen video (a near perfect square, like what you see on free TV). This isn't an issue if the video was cropped to fit a fullscreen TV, but they used the widescreen format (a rectangle, like in the cinemas) and "squeezed" it into fullscreen. This means that on a classic, square TV, you will see the two black bars on the top and bottom of the screen instead of a video that fills the entire screen. Not much problem there. But on a widescreen TV, the picture looks overstretched width-wise. Worse, the black bars eats up screen and data space, reducing the picture quality of the actual video presentation. If you are not familiar with anamorphic transfers, there's a bit of a technical explanation to it, but essentially it's a recording technique that efficiently retains video quality of movies shot in widescreen format on DVDs. Most good original DVDs would indicate whether it's an anamorphic transfer at the back of their covers. Red Cliff Part I DVD is not anamorphic, thus the video quality is glaringly low on a hi-definition LCD.

Red Cliff Part 2 DVD is anamorphic, though, and the picture fits my LCD correctly. Picture quality is a lot better than Part I DVD, but then I noticed that the video seemed to have fine, horizontal "black stripes". I was about to blame the DVD again, until I read this article about video interlacing and progressive scan. Nevertheless, the video quality is still not to my satisfaction when compared to other original DVDs I owned.

Bottom line: Don't buy Red Cliff Part I DVD (unless they release an anamorphic version), but Part II is ok, though you may see some interlacing issues if your player or TV isn't "progressive". Chim... The Red Cliff Blu-Rays are a better bet, but no comments on those until I finally get them.

All the Red Cliff discs in Singapore are currently distributed by Scorpio East.