Welcome to the first installment of my new weekly column, “Monty Cristo’s Musings”.
I have been reading AICN since the year of its inception, and one of my favorite parts of the site for some time was Moriarty’s Rumblings From the Lab. In the years since I began reading him, Drew has become one of the film writers whose work I admire the most.
For those unfamiliar, Moriarty would contribute a rather meaty, long-form piece called “Moriarty’s Rumblings from the Lab”, which would touch on various topics from new releases and set visits to home video and so on. I’m planning to do the same sort of thing. I’m still doing my Criterion Collected column separate from this one (and yes, it is more behind than anything ever has been). One longform piece like this makes more sense than piecemealing it out. Let me know what you think.
Without further ado, let’s get the ball rolling.
Blu-Grades is the section of this column that discusses Blu-ray upgrades, debuts, and remasters, mostly for vintage/catalog films. I may discuss recent disc releases, highlight the best out there right off my shelf, or things that I recommend staying away from at all costs. On that note...
RECALL “THE COLOR OF MONEY”
Disney Home Entertainment should voluntarily recall their just-released COLOR OF MONEY Blu-ray. The color gamut is impossibly shallow (even for a movie that was intended to look desaturated) and the picture looks like it was run through a series of Instagram filters.
You could compare the picture quality to a laserdisc rip (a bad one at that) and not be far off. The sticker touting “NEW! Digitally restored" might be accurate to actions that were performed, but it is useless as an indicator of the actual quality of that work. There’s a reason that Criterion does their best to make sure that their releases are “Director-Approved” (whenever possible) and mark them as such.
This is a major slap in the face relative to how many of Scorsese's back catalogue titles have received such glorious treatment and care over the last couple of years. The original GANGS OF NEW YORK Blu-ray was a mess, but it was remastered and re-released in 2010. TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and CAPE FEAR have all received the best of care on Blu-ray by other studios. Criterion's wonderful DVD edition of LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST received a magnificent Blu-ray upgrade earlier this year.
This all makes this massive transgression all the worse, and it is why I simply can't fathom why the “autopilot” job got done with this title, especially on what is billed as a 25th Anniversary Edition. Maybe the complete lack of extras should've warned me. Oh well, they already have my money. That doesn't mean they have to get yours for substandard work.
Do not purchase this. You've been warned.
MORE GHIBLI BLU
A few weeks ago, Disney released a new wave of long-awaited (by me at least) Blu-rays of Studio Ghibli movies. The video and audio transfers of the two vintage movies are on par with the crystal-clear, bright, and crisp picture found on their release of NAUSICAA two years ago. The transfer on ARRIETTY is very much on par with PONYO (also from two years ago). Here are some scattered thoughts on each film before I come back around to offer some thoughts on them as a group.
CASTLE IN THE SKY (LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY, 1987)
In 2010, Disney put out a two disc special edition DVD of CASTLE IN THE SKY to replace their 2003 single disc release. This coincided with a similar reissue of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, which was in turn timed for the home video premiere of PONYO. This new Blu-ray preserves what I consider the actual extras from that edition: featurettes that include short interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and longtime composer Joe Hisaishi. Unfortunately, this release also retains the flawed English subtitle translation found in previous editions. Anime/Ghibli die-hards may be put completely off by that, but it doesn’t bother me in general.
WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995)
This 1995 title is different than what many would expect from the Ghibli brand, which is often associated with fantasy films like SPIRITED AWAY or PRINCESS MONONOKE. The flights of fantastic adventure are limited to a few short sequences in WHISPER OF THE HEART, but that doesn't make it any less engaging of a narrative. It's definitely one of the least known among the Ghibli canon to casual fans, so I'm glad that they have included it alongside the much higher profile CASTLE IN THE SKY and THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETY to give it some more exposure. I, for one, had never watched it, even though I had seen its pseudo-sequel/prequel THE CAT RETURNS.
The last thing I expected was for the movie to open with the Olivia Newton-John cover of “Country Roads, Take Me Home”, but it was an interesting through-line to a story about a young girl trying to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants to do. The limited fantasy sequences I mentioned above take place not in the narrative world of the movie, but rather, the narrative that the heroine starts writing. The “quest” of the story is one of self-discovery in the real world. I wish I'd seen it sooner. It's inspiring and life-affirming.
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETY (ARRIETTY THE BORROWER)
This story of little people who live under the floorboards lead the 2010 Japanese box office for very good reason. It mixes tight storytelling with gorgeous visuals and music to create a memorable little fable. Ghibli's passion for exploring some of the same themes repeatedly (though through different lenses) has never gotten old for me.
The most surprising thing about this release is the fact that it carries very few extras. The same "Original Japanese Storyboards" alternate video angle is available as it is on the other titles. This plays the final audio track alongside a progression of storyboards for the full runtime. In addition to that, there’s a music video for Cécile Corbel’s theme song for the movie in Japanese. She’s a huge fan of Ghibli from France who sent them a fan letter with one of her CDs enclosed. They liked it so much that here she is, doing a really wonderful theme song for a Studio Ghibli movie.
Much less interesting or entertaining is the autotune-drenched video for Bridget Mendler’s “Summertime”, recorded by the Disney Channel star who voices Arrietty in the dub track. It also gets its own Making Of featurette, bafflingly. It’s just a reminder of the bizarre “synergy” of pairing Disney Channel pop princesses with the world of Ghibli.
The biggest flaw that I can point out about these three titles is that the suggested retail price of them all is rather high (Arrietty: $29.96, Castle: $29.88, Whisper: $27.99 as of this writing) , especially considering that two of them don't feature many extras of note.
Some of my friends with kids consider $30 a reasonable price to pay for something that their children will play over and over and over again, but others like myself, who are cinephiles and collectors only, may find that to be a bit exorbitant. For that price, I'm used to getting a Criterion Collection disc packed with extras and commentary. That's not the case here.
Of course, importing the Japanese releases of any of the above titles would cost just as much if not more (UPDATE: $45-90 according to Talkbackers...yikes), so if you want the best presentation of these movies that you can get, these are perfectly worthy of your money if $30 per disc is within your price range (again, excluding the subtitle translation issue).
LETHAL WEAPON RE-MASTERED AND COLLECTED
I've been waiting for this set for a couple of years, ever since the British version of it was released. This edition mirrors the 2010 one from the UK, down to the artwork. It's a massive leap forward from the lousy 2006 Blu-rays put out here in the states. Unlike those discs, these feature loads of extras, including Richard Donner commentaries on all four films.
The biggest surprise to me was associate producer Geoff Johns joining on the lethal weapon 4 commentary. Geoff Johns is better-known these days as the co-publisher of DC comics. Also featured on all four discs are deleted scenes from all four movies, with loads more on the original film than the three or so on each of the sequels.
The biggest highlight in terms of extras is the bonus fifth disc, which features two hours of retrospective interviews with the cast, director Richard Donner, series creator Shane Black, and studio executives from throughout the series’ production from 1985 to 1998. The mastering of both the video and the audio on all four films is very faithful to the original 35mm theatrical presentation of all four, and it’s well worth it once the price is in line with what you think it’s worth. It’s currently about $50 at Amazon.
This is where I dig into the world of technology, which intersects more and more with the world of the cinephile.
Last Monday at WWDC, Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, the fruit company announced new hardware and software. They also quietly released a few additional new products. I plan to continue covering technology as it relates to the tech/movie geek in this column going forward, and I would love to know what you guys would like to see covered.
Let's look at what I found the most interesting or infuriating amongst the various Apple announcements and releases this past week.
RETINA MACS AND THE FUTURE OF DISPLAYS
The next-generation MacBook Pro that debuted on Monday is gotten the vast majority of the attention from the press and the public. Since then, I've had some hands-on time with it at one of the local Apple retail stores here in Austin.
Its 15.4 inch, 2880 x 1800, 220 dpi display is, in a word, breathtaking. The computer it's self is thinner and lighter and more powerful than I think most people will assume is possible, until they see it in action that is.
I had been looking to buy a new Mac Pro machine for video editing and media production. After a while in the store with this new machine, I decided that the moment they arrive in stock at my local Apple retail store, I'm buying one of these on the spot.
I spent what amounted to a couple of hours trying to tax the hardware to the greatest extent possible. I tried to make the fans spin as loudly as they could, or get it hot to the touch...but neither thing came to pass. I should clarify that unlike pro video editors, who shoot on RED Epics in full 4K resolution, I will not be pushing this thing beyond its limits, but for what I need to do, it is more than adequate, and will be a worthwhile investment for some years to come.
The thing that I think is most noteworthy about this announcement and release isn't what we're looking at here and now, but what we will be looking at in the relatively near future when and if Apple chooses to enter the TV market.
At CES this year, I saw a number of prototype TVs from a variety of manufacturers. All of them said that their 4K TVs would not be hitting the market anytime relatively soon. They all cited that components cost too much and that there is not yet content that will truly take advantage of it. Apple has an interesting foothold on both component supplies as well as the (Retina) quality of content they deliver.
As has been very evident in the past, when Apple enters a market seriously and with full force, they find a way to change it forever. Apple's exacting control over its supply-chain component inventory gives it the ability to do what no other TV manufacturer could do. I think that they could make a 4K TV affordable to the general public within a year and a half. If you ask me, before we see an Apple TV screen itself, we will see a radical overhaul to the AppleTV platform. More on that next week.
IPAD SMART CASE (NOT THE COVER YOU'RE LOOKING FOR)
I actually went and bought one of these because I was tired of my iPad Smart Cover sliding off of my 3rd gen iPad. Unfortunately, the new Smart Case flops off just as reliably, if not worse. This is a bad thing for a case that costs $50. The biggest benefit is that the grippy backing makes it less prone to slide off your lap while reading on a couch or in an easy chair. The cover folds around into a triangle, just like the Smart Cover, to create a landscape-orientation stand. The problem here is that it creates a closer-to-vertical angle than before, such that you have to position it further back to comfortably view. This will drive people nuts on planes and in airports in particular, where space is at a premium. Most un-Apple-like of all is the fact that the port holes don’t match up quite perfectly. All-around, this thing just doesn’t do the job.
THUNDERBOLT/GIGABIT ETHERNET ADAPTER
I’ve been using an 11-inch MacBook Air as my primary computer since the middle of last year. While WiFi usually does fine, I have missed the ability to connect via much faster hardwired ethernet. As obnoxious as dongles like this are, it works exactly as advertised (albeit for $30). Now I just wish they’d hurry up with the FireWire 800 one they promised, so that I can use my portable external hard drives.
MAGSAFE 1/MAGSAFE 2 ADAPTER
The new Retina MacBook Pro has a new, shorter, and wider power adapter plug. This thing is designed to make it so that your existing power bricks will work with it. At $10, it seems super cheap…but it’s probably got an enormous profit margin if you think about it. Regardless, I have to get one if I want the power lead on my 27” Thunderbolt Display to plug into the new 15” MacBook Pro I’m buying. Would it have really cost them that much to just throw one in with the new $2200 starting price laptops they’re selling? I guess so.
THE NEW AIRPORT EXPRESS
Another quiet “here it is” new product is the complete revamp of the $99 Airport Express Base Station. Redesigned to have the exact same dimensions as the hockey puck AppleTV (but with a white plastic shell instead of black), this little wonder is just as powerful as the $179 Airport Extreme, with dual-band, super-fast 802.11n Wifi.
Unlike the old Express, this one adds an additional Gigabit Ethernet plug on the back, so if you only need one hardwired ethernet connection instead of four, you can get the same powerful WiFi performance for something closer to the mass-market WiFi routers on the store shelf. Additionally, you can set up the base station from your computer or your iPad/iPhone in a couple of minutes flat, including port forwarding and mapping (for advanced users). Apple may have finally made their routers “just work” after years of promising ease-of-use.
I'll share some more thoughts on the tech business in next week's column, including some thoughts on Boxee and some of the efforts that they're making both in hardware and software, namely the recently-announced Cloudee service and the Boxee Live TV dongle.
I should note that I’m not just covering Apple stuff, that’s just the biggest news this time around. Apparently, Microsoft is making a major announcement of some sort today…maybe a tablet to go with their new SmartGlass initiative. We’ll see.
Another regular feature of this column will be a focus on the gear that I use in my daily life, professionally and personally. This sort of sharing among my friends has pointed me to a ton of useful gadgets, goods, software, and services that have become essentials for me on a daily basis. I hope that “Geek Gear” does that for some of you at some point or another.
MOST BAGS REALLY SUCK
I've been on what has felt like an everlasting quest to find the bag that suits all of my very particular needs, and as a result, I've ended up spending what amounts to at least hundreds if not thousands of dollars trying to find something the checks all the boxes on my list. I'm astounded to admit that I'm rather certain I've found the one bag to rule them all. I'm even happier that it's made in USA and it just so happens that the company that makes them seems to be full of really wonderful people.
Tom Bihn has been making bags for over 20 years up in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of switching to an outsourced, mass production model that would undoubtedly make them more mass-market money, they have opted to maintain a very personal relationship with their customers, and that’s resulted in extreme loyalty (and for good reason).
In early March, I received one of their Ristretto bags made specifically for the 11-inch MacBook Air, and it’s perfect for what I want. It has just as many compartments pockets and pouches that I need for everyday use (as well as the occasional short trip), but without adding unnecessary bulk to the bag, which would negate its purpose in being portable. This is been a problem for me with countless other bags from companies like Timbuktu, Kensington, and Brenthaven, which are either not tailor-made for the computer items that I'm putting in them, or they simply aren't made with practical use in mind.
I can use the Ristretto to just carry the computer's PowerBrick, a couple of cables, some pens, notecards, and a small journal on a light day. On a busier day, I can also stuff it with my iPad, a couple of additional journals, a steno book, even more notecards, business cards, and some other cords...and it still manages to hold everything. It's made of the most durable ballistic material that I've ever had on a bag, and padded sensibly. They make all sorts of optional straps and add-ons that make sense for whatever the given individual might need.
If you look at this bag and think it’s too much or too little, the good news is that they make different bags tailor fit for the particular kind of electronic device that you carry it most often, and use the same general design principles in each case, producing something that makes sense for the job. Since getting this bag, I've managed to avoid using every other bag that I would constantly swap my equipment in and out of on a regular basis, even when gone for the majority of a week on a trip for work. It is made organizing myself for events like SXSW, CinemaCon, and the ATX Television Festival vastly simpler than it used to be (when it comes to the pack I carry around all day).
I should note that they sent me a complementary bag for review. This happened only after I inquired about trying to buy one of the bags when they were temporarily out of stock (due to extreme popularity the instant they went on sale). It’s the first bag over the last five years, comp or purchased, that I haven’t thrown across the room in frustration even once. Time to shop for a camera bag for my DSLR.
I hope you guys enjoyed this first column. Next week, I’ll be at the Aruba International Film Festival with my wife, so expect some thoughts from there in addition to discussion of the Universal 100th Anniversary Blu-ray restorations thus far, the “Bizarro Cut” of WANDERLUST, the DTV goofiness of FLICKA 3, more Cool Tech, and another Geek Gear recommendation.