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Writer, director, musician, and multimedia junkie. www.felixemartinez.com © 2008-2009 F.E.M.

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    Friday, October 31, 2008

    Countdown To - Halloween

    This is the final installment of my "Countdown To Halloween" series. Here are the previous posts:

    Tobe Hooper Double Feature (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre/Poltergeist)
    The Shining
    The Descent

    Tonite: the Halloween Blu-ray.

    Now then...I'm an unabashed John Carpenter fan/geek. If you don't believe me, look at this video.

    I remember watching Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1980 and seeing them give Carpenter's Halloween a big "thumbs-up." This was a surprise, as I thought most critics looked down their noses at horror films.

    Back then, our neighborhood didn't have cable, so watching film clips on TV shows like Sneak Previews was a big deal. I remember Siskel and Ebert played the scene at the end of the film when The Shape attacks Jamie Lee Curtis in the closet. I was riveted. That looked like some intense shit!

    We finally got the ON-TV pay channel right around this time, and Halloween was broadcast in the fall of 1980, uncut, uncensored, with no commercial interruptions. Remember, in the early '80s, there was really no significant home video market; no Blockbuster Video, no pay-per-view (as we now know it), and cable/pay TV was in its infancy. It was a really unique thing to see a movie like this, in this manner.

    Halloween lived up to everything I had heard/read: it was frightening, it was stylish, it was funny, it was just so friggin' cool. I was perplexed by the long, smooth tracking shots (this was before I saw The Shining), and couldn't figure out how they were accomplished. They were too smooth for hand-held, and the shots tracked through close quarters and inside houses, so a crane was out of the question. After watching the end credits, I wanted to know more about the "Panaglide" (a clone of the Steadicam). This was one of the first instances where I wanted to learn more about the director, John Carpenter (who also composed the memorable score), and his cinematographer, Dean Cundey. But the biggest surprise was that the film wasn't gory. The intensity of the film was generated by pure, delicious suspense.

    Since my introduction to Halloween was via pay-TV, I didn't realize I had missed probably 1/3 of the movie, compositionally. The square-ish 4:3 aspect ratio of television cropped out a significant portion of the film's original widescreen 2.35:1 image, and it was not until the letterboxed Criterion laserdisc was released in the early 1990s that I saw the ingenious framing Carpenter and Cundey employed throughout the feature.

    In 1997, Anchor Bay released a horrific DVD of Halloween (horrific in a bad way). This release was so atrocious, many folks nearly wrote off the then-new video format. The image quality was absolutely dreadful.

    Enter Bill Lustig, who at the time was restoring and producing DVDs for Anchor Bay. In 1999, he stepped in to take the reigns and produce the Limited Edition DVD of Halloween, and it was a revelation. The film transfer and color timing was approved by Dean Cundey, so this was a reference disc for Halloween fans. In some ways, it still is (more on this in a bit). Here's the production diary of the Lustig Halloween DVD from DVDReview.com.

    In 2003, Anchor Bay released Halloween as a DiviMax DVD, which sported a new high-definition transfer of the film. There were improvements in sharpness and clarity, but the color timing was wrong. Big time. Unlike the Cundey-approved version, the DiviMax DVD had bright green leaves throughout the first third of the film (Halloween was shot in the spring of 1978 in Southern California), and the incredibly cool and creepy blue backlights and shadows in the final third of the film were turned pale/white. I found this DVD to be incredibly frustrating to watch. There were clearly benefits from the hi-def transfer, but the colors looked wrong. I gave up on it and stuck with my 1999 DVD for my annual viewings on All Hallows Eve.

    So last year, Anchor Bay (now Starz) released Halloween on Blu-ray, and a part of me cringed because they were using the existing DiviMax transfer for the hi-def disc. I picked it up anyway.

    The good news is that the HD upgrade is substantial. Resolution is greatly improved, and the 5.1 audio sounds incredible in uncompressed PCM. There was an attempt to bring the color balance closer to Dean Cundey's approved transfer, but it still falls short: while the leaves look like fall again, and some of the blue backlights and shadows have returned, a lot of the blue is still MIA. Here are screen shot comparisons of the different versions. Judge for yourself.

    Do I recommend the Halloween Blu-ray? Yes, with reservations. The special features, including the 89-minute documentary "'Halloween': A Cut Above the Rest," are fantastic, and the entire package is a great value. However, this is still not the Halloween I know and love, and hope that one day it will be released as intended by the filmmakers.

    But tonite, I'll be spinning my Halloween Blu-ray disc with a big, Loomis grin on my face: "Hey Lonnie, get your ass away from there!"

    Monday, October 27, 2008

    Countdown To Halloween - The Descent

    It's rare for a new horror film to rattle my grown-up senses and give me the heebee jeebies.

    The Descent came out a couple years ago and did well, critically and commercially, but I didn't catch it 'til it came 'round on Blu-ray.

    The story/set-up is simple: a group of adventure-seeking women embark on a caving expedition into an uncharted mine and, well, things start to go sour real quick.

    To critique a horror film for a simple plot is beside the point. Like with jazz, it ain't about the chords or the main melody, but what you do with it. How you twist it and milk it for all its worth. And The Descent approaches a John-Fucking-Coltrane level of inventiveness on a simple theme.

    Director Neil Marshall does an admirable job creating a palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia, even before the really bad stuff starts to happen. If you watch this one on a big HD screen with the surround sound up to reference level, you will be rattled to your core. Guaranteed. If you have a smaller screen, you'll just be scared shitless.

    The Blu-ray does an exquisite job capturing all the detail in the inky blackness of the cave environments, made all the more impressive when one discovers in the special features that the bulk of the film was shot on a soundstage. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 image is a dramatic improvement over the DVD, but of course this is to be expected. The audio choices are PCM 6.1 surround or Dolby Digital Surround EX. If you have a decent system, the sound mix will effectively raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

    Special features include commentaries, a 40+ minute documentary, interview with director Neil Marshall, deleted and extended scenes, etc.

    A choice of two endings is provided on the menu when choosing a version of the film. I prefer the international (original/unrated) cut and would recommend watching The Descent for the first time in this manner. While I won't give away the details why, I will say that it's the version most consistent with the film's overall tone.

    Go ahead and explore The Descent on Blu-ray this spooky season. Enter at your own risk...

    Saturday, October 25, 2008

    Countdown To Halloween - The Shining

    It's hard to believe that back in the summer of 1980, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was a "failure" on many levels. I still vaguely recall the critics and moviegoers complaining about the film - that it wasn't scary; that the acting was over the top; that it was too long. Stephen King even killed the movie in the press when it was released.

    But to me, the trailer just scared the shit out of my 12 year-old self. I wanted to see it. Bad. That low tracking shot of Nicholson in semi-profile, limping through the snow with an axe, chasing after his little boy, was enough to give me nightmares for a week. That's still one of my favorite images from any movie, ever.

    I never did see The Shining during its theatrical run; my parents wouldn't allow it. Ironically, they did let me see The Amityville Horror the prior year, and Poltergeist a couple years later - two other films dealing with supernatural events tearing at the family unit. Kubrick's film seemed reviled upon its release. No one really championed it, and few wanted to see it.

    I finally saw it on a pay TV channel called ON-TV a year later and, not surprisingly, I fell in love with it. Curiously, I was most drawn to the scene of Nicholson at the bar conversing with “Lloyd,” the bartender. I didn’t know much about acting back then, but I was fascinated with all the little things Nicholson was doing with his face, his eyes, and his hands. I could watch that scene over and over and still see new things going on. I still do.

    I also really dug the various smooth tracking shots, which I later learned was accomplished with the Steadicam, operated by its inventor, Garrett Brown. But the music was what really sent me over the moon. It created a palpable mood and atmosphere. It was also an assault on the senses. I’d never heard music like that before - dissonant and beautiful; ominous and foreboding. Many years later, I tracked down Gordon Stainforth, the assistant editor who was instructed by Kubrick to create the sound montage that would become the soundtrack, along with cues written by composer Wendy Carlos. Here’s my interview with Stainforth.

    The production of The Shining also fascinated me. I heard/read that it took two years to make; that Kubrick had his actors do 20, 30, 50 or more takes; that the entire interior of the hotel was a constructed set which burned down toward the end of production; that Kubrick edited his film after it had been released to theaters; that he wanted all home video releases of his flat (non-widescreen) films - including The Shining - presented in a 4:3 non-letterboxed “square” ratio. Etc., etc. Here’s a great site which answers pretty much any question you ever had about The Shining. If you're a fan, be careful, you'll be there a while!

    Of course, the film is now considered a classic. Kubrick's films all have a way of gaining in reflection. I own the laserdisc, two different DVD releases, and now the Blu-ray, which for the first time presents The Shining in a 1.85:1 ratio in a glorious 1080P VC-1 encode and accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. I can’t really express how beautiful this film looks (and sounds) on Blu-ray. You can see the snow falling behind the blown out windows, lit by the late, great John Alcott; the small details in Nicholson’s jacket during the job interview; the texture of the Overlook Hotel’s walls. Wow.

    Vivian Kubrick’s wonderful behind-the-scenes documentary, “Making ‘The Shining’” has been ported over from the last (good) DVD release from 2001, and there is just a wealth of stuff in the special features. More than one can imagine.

    So is The Shining a horror film? A domestic tragedy? A black comedy? I’ve seen the film dozens of times and depending on my mood and/or state of mind, I find that the answer is…yes.

    The Shining on Blu-ray is must-viewing this Halloween season.

    Friday, October 24, 2008

    Countdown To Halloween - Tobe Hooper Double Feature

    Halloween is only one week away, and as I usually do during my favorite time of the year, I watch lots of horror films to get in the mood for this festive, freaky night.

    Now that many classic and new horror films are on Blu-ray, it's a trick or treat indeed.

    A Tobe Hooper double feature: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.

    My introduction with TCM was during its re-release, I think, during the summer of 1982 - when Hooper/Spielberg's Poltergeist (more on the film's production controversy in a bit) was hitting theaters. I was about 14 years old, had never seen TCM, had heard quite a bit about it, and was expecting the goriest, most extreme horror film ever made. It was R-rated, and of course my parents would have never taken me to see it, so, they dropped me off - alone - at the cinema (what parent would do that nowadays?). I bought a ticket for some G or PG-rated fare, and instead snuck into the dark auditorium where TCM would assault its viewers.

    Since I knew the ushers would kick my punky, PG-13-ass out of the place if they saw me sitting alone, I found a young couple and sat one seat over next to them - like if we were together. Right. They kinda looked over at me and smiled when they saw me lower my head when the usher made his rounds. Bless 'em for playing along.

    So the movie starts, and I notice the film looks...bad. I mean, I didn't know much about film, technically, back then, but I immediately saw this film looked...different. In a bad way. It was very grainy, and the color and lighting (densities) seemed off. And I soon realized that contrary to its reputation, TCM is relatively gore-free. You see very little blood onscreen, and most of the horrific violence is implied. That being said, I was sufficiently rattled by the end of the film. The great achievement of Hooper and company was that they created a level of hysteria and dark, disturbing humor that mounts and mounts and mounts to nightmarish levels. Something about the combination of strange, terrifying, hysterical, and darkly humorous imagery and the soundtrack comprised of mostly percussive, industrial, and metallic sounds just freaked me out in such a cool way.

    Fast-forward many years later, and I own various versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray.

    The Blu-ray is a revelation. Finally, finally for the first time, the film looks right. What I didn't know back then was that TCM was filmed in 1974 on low ASA 16mm reversal film stock (25 ASA, I believe), to reduce the grain before the 35mm blow-up for film prints. Unfortunately, the prints that made the theater rounds over the years weren't of high quality.

    Enter Don May, Jr., of Synapse Films, who a few years ago made a new internegative from the original A-B reversal film elements and transferred it to HD. All I can say is...wow!

    While the image and new surround sound mix won't compete with Speed Racer or other HD eye candy made in the past few years, the Blu-ray of TCM delivers in spades. A 1080p VC-1 encode captures the visuals, while DTS 5.1, PCM stereo, and the original mono soundtrack offer multiple audio choices. All the great special features ported over over from the special edition DVD round out the package.

    Here are some of Don May's comments about the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Blu-ray. If you're a fan, you'll be very pleased.

    Now onto Poltergeist...

    One such fan of TCM was Steven Spielberg, who tapped Hooper to direct Poltergeist. Although Spielberg was co-writing and producing this family ghost story, he was contractually barred from directing while the production of E.T. was occurring simultaneously. Nonetheless, Poltergeist certainly feels like a Spielberg film: the familial touches, the humor, the effective acting by children. And Spielberg was certainly comfortable with horror, with Jaws under his belt. There were so many rumors that Spielberg had in fact "ghost"-directed (ah, the puns keep comin'...) Poltergeist that the Directors Guild of America launched an inquiry, and Spielberg himself printed an open letter in the Hollywood Reporter to set the record straight and underscore that Hooper "delivered the goods" and in fact directed the film.

    However, a recent interview with Zelda Rubenstein ("Tangina") at Aint-It-Cool-News has re-ignited the controversy. She reveals in the 2007 interview with "Quint":
    "I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments. You’re not going to hear that from Tobe Hooper, you’ll hear it from Zelda, because that was my honest to God experience. I’m not a fan of Tobe Hooper… he allowed some unacceptable chemical agents into his work."

    But the movie still rocks, and holds up to today's horror fare. I love it!

    I've seen Poltergeist on film, video, laserdisc, and DVD, and once again the Blu-ray smokes them all - yep, even the film print I saw back in 1982 had some audio problems I recall clearly. A sparkling 1080p VC-1 encode and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround make the Poltergeist Blu-ray release a winner - especially since Warner seems to be dropping hi-res audio tracks on some recent releases. The special features are slim, and may be explained by the production controversy, but the DigiBook package is elegant and includes a nice 30-page booklet.

    Tomorrow night...Kubrick's The Shining...

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    Distributing Apples & Oranges Digitally

    Our Apples & Oranges album, "Contrast" is now available on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby and other fine digital retailers in the world of ether.

    There's that rare feeling when everything clicks; when obstacles and challenges fall by the wayside and things just go smoothly...

    My tenure with Apples & Oranges goes back a ways. I performed, wrote, and produced in an unabashed pop-rock genre, released an album in the '90s, and had material in the can for the sophomore release. Then life intervened, and the stuff stayed in the can.

    By this time, the music industry had imploded (one can still argue that it's still collapsing into itself, a black hole that is expanding at an exponential rate), and we simply did not want to do the old CD master-replicate-self-distribute route. We hated inventory - tracking it, shipping it, dealing with it. So we waited for technology to catch up.

    Then we started hearing about CD Baby, an online music store where many independent artists (approximately 240,000) sell their wares. CD Baby sure seemed to make things easy: warehousing product, letting the artist choose the price point, and keeping only a small percentage in return (plus a one-time set-up fee). But we were stuck with still having to replicate CDs when the world was moving towards digital files and digital audio players.

    Then we saw that CD Baby began to offer digital distribution, and we finally jumped in. They encoded the album into iTunes Plus format (a higher-res encoding of the music, free of digital rights management), and distributed the product to their partner companies. All for a 9% cut and a $55 set-up and barcode creation fee. Can't beat that. Here's all you need to know about digital distribution. Truly a turn-key, affordable, professional, and artist-friendly system that was a breeze. The employees were also sweethearts to deal with. Big thumbs up from us!

    So now the album is out in the world, and we're quite proud of the final product. The original 24-bit 48kHz files sound pretty darned good at iTunes Plus quality (256 kbps AAC, no DRM), and it's just a big juicy mouthful of pop-rock confection.


    P.S. - as we were finalizing the album for digital distribution, CD Baby owner/founder Derek Sivers announced he was was selling the company to Disc Makers after a 7-year partnership between the two firms. This ideally brings together the replication and distribution worlds for independent artists. Which continues to beg the question: what in the world are the major labels good for...?

    Friday, October 3, 2008

    Digital Distribution and Blu-ray Done Right

    My apologies for taking the month of September off, but I have a good excuse. I swear...

    The last six weeks or so saw me jumping head-first into the wonderful world of digital distribution for my album with Apples & Oranges, Contrast, and thanks to the good folks at CD Baby, the process was shockingly simple, efficient, and affordable.

    And the best part: no friggin' inventory.

    The album will be up at iTunes and other sites soon. More info in a future post; it really is a cool story.

    In the meantime, here's a music video for A&O's "Talking Trash," created with a box of promotional stills, album artwork, and news clippings. The lyrics might provoke a smile, as they allude to an age of false prophets and demagogues. Is this the past, present, or future? Uh, yeah.

    The digital distribution/download experience also validated for me the fact that while it's a proven avenue for music delivery, the same cannot be said for feature film HD content in the home. The bandwidth and infrastructure is simply not there. The Blu-ray format will be with us for some time, and thank goodness.

    Because as a film buff, I've been in heaven for the past few weeks.

    You may recall I raked Disney over the coals for their atrocity on Blu-ray called Gangs Of New York, but they have redeemed themselves (for the time being) with the absolutely stellar Blu-ray release of Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2. The Blus are quantum leaps over the respective DVDs, but this, of course, was expected. What wasn't expected was a transparent film-like presentation in the home, devoid of the DNR and edge-enhancement plaguing recent "high-def" releases. Grain and high-frequency detail were intact and the uncompressed audio was superb, making the Kill Bill opus a rockin' good time. Yes, I know there's the long-awaited Whole Bloody Affair version, but I love the story presented as two acts. And the audiovisual quality of the Blus really make the pair highly recommended buys.

    Then we have the much-maligned Speed Racer, which I found to be a blast in the theater and an absolutely stunning work of art. Yes, art. The film will continue to polarize viewers, but like the similar, hyperkinetic visual orgy that is Moulin Rouge, a cult following appears to be growing.

    I've seen some pretty amazing things on Blu-ray over the past year, but nothing - I mean nothing - touches the audiovisual bliss of Speed Racer in HD. Sure, the Blu-ray's visual quality smokes the film print I saw in the theater, which wasn't much of a revelation since the color timing was never optimized for analog film. Yes, it is true, that Warner Bros. skimped on the audio, but I was pleasantly surprised that it still delivered the goods. Definitely recommended.

    But just because an image is not HD-originated and "pristine" doesn't mean it's not a miracle of home entertainment.

    Case in point: the restored Godfather Collection. Talk about a challenge for home video. These films, as photographed by the legendary Gordon Willis, are probably the biggest test of home entertainment technology. Willis "skated on the emulsion" (as Francis Coppola says in one of the documentaries in the set), capturing images at the very edge of exposure so that no lab could brighten things up or adjust the work he did in camera. If this is dangerous stuff for theatrical prints, it's a downright nightmare for standard definition home video, which has a very narrow dynamic range and limited resolution.

    And it gets worse: the first two films were also in such bad shape, photochemically, that they were in danger of being lost forever. Enter Robert A. Harris, who brought these classics back from the dead. But a lot can happen on the way to Blu-ray. Fortunately in this case, all the natural grain, delicate densities, and color timing have made their way to the final Blu-ray product intact. The experience of viewing these films at home on Blu-ray is hard to describe. The bigger your screen, the richer the experience. One can now fully explore the images Willis captured on film over 35 years ago. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing. Exceedingly recommended.

    What a treasure.

    © 2008 Felix E. Martinez