November 8th, 2010

Bishop & Hudson (Aliens) (by mimisoliel)

"We're all in strung out shape, but stay frosty and alert."


  • Alas, I am sick. I was feeling nasty all day yesterday, went to bed early and woke up exhausted and stuffed. I hate being sick, it's such a waste of time off from work. On the other hand, I have to stave off boredom, so I write.


  • I was quite eager to get The Alien Anthology on Blu-ray mostly because of how good I expected Alien to look. I wasn't disappointed because it looks fantastic; the detail is stunning and the colors are something of a happy medium between the original bluer DVD and the more golden 2003 "Quadrillogy" edition. It is Aliens, however, that gains the most amount of benefit from the upgrade. I will refer people to earlier comments for my opinions on the film itself, which I've always considered a fantastic sequel and stand-alone movie.

    One of the benefits of the high definition format is that fine detail can more easily be seen. Film grain, while a part of the image, becomes less of a veil in front of the image and becomes more part of the texture. That said, given that Aliens was an extreme case, I wasn't really expecting much from the high def transfer. The film has always been grainy as all hell, a product of changes in the Kodak film stock that year combined with all of the photography in low-light conditions. James Cameron made a big deal about how he went back to the original negative and cleaned up the image for the Blu-ray transfer. "The grain is gone," he said, and that was a pretty scary statement. Digital Noise Reduction has yielded some damn ugly picture transfers such as Patton and The Longest Day, and there was a lot of anxiety that the film would look like that, people reduced to waxwork dummies and all fine detail lost.

    I'm not exactly sure what it is that Cameron did. Some have theorized that he applied DNR selectively and added live grain, and I've seen some question the color timing. What I do know is that not only does Aliens on Blu-ray look a gabazillion times better than it ever had before, but the image is still appropriately photochemical in appearance. The limitations of the original film stock (grain but also slightly muted blacks) are apparent here, but the contrasts high def can handle keep the image solid, so they're not in the way so much as they are part of the tone of the film. Yes, the image has been cleaned up, but not fuzzed up; there is still plenty of grain in several shots, but the contrast and color balance has been corrected, so the image has a depth and clarity it just didn't have before. The DVD looks like a faded 16 millimeter print by comparison.

    Furthermore, the limp Dolby Digital track has been replaced with a thunderous lossless DTS-MA rendering of the film's audio track. It seems to be the same mix, but without the compression it has more depth. It isn't just the explosive action sequences that benefit (although they are appropriately impressive), the quieter moments have a greater sense of ambience which often adds immeasurably to the tension. The DVD's audio, while it has its moments, just can't stack up.

    A few notes on the rest of the set:

    • The isolated score tracks on each disc are worth the price of the Blu-ray set for a film music enthusiast. In addition to playing the music in 5.1 sound, a small card appears on the screen with the piece's cue sheet title. Two tracks are provided for each Alien and Aliens, one representing the composer's intentiions, the other what ended up in the film. You can finally hear where "Combat Drop" from Aliens was supposed to be in the film. No, it wouldn't have been appropriate, but it is interesting to see. It was also interesting to hear some of the unreleased portions of Elliot Goldenthal's Alien³ score, the only one of the four scores not to get a remaster or expansion (though in my opinion the original album is an excellent listening experience in its own right).

    • The sound mix on the workprint cut of Alien³ has been redone. While the unfortunate music edit in "Adagio" was unavoidable, the rest are now cleaner and all of the dialogue is legible.

    • Joss Whedon's first draft of Alien Resurrection is actually not all that different from what ended up being the final film. A shame, I was hoping I could blame more of it on Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but it seems that some of the worst ideas were, in fact, Whedon's. I was hoping that the script would have added more depth to the crew of the Betty (many of the ideas that would eventually show up in Firefly are first seen here), but there isn't.

    • This is the single most elaborate concentration of materials I've ever seen. If Ridley Scott farted on a particular folding chair during the production of Alien, there is a picture of that chair somewhere in these archives. The "MU-TH-UR Mode" is an interactive framework that catalogs everything, turning what could have been a complete information overload into an encyclopedic database of information. There is even an index for each disc that allows you to access any entry. Superb authoring work, I have to say, excellent use of the capabilities of the format.

    • I would have preferred it if one could toggle between the two versions provided for each film, but that is only because I was spoiled by the Star Trek Blu-ray sets, which allows this option. Apocalypse Now does not offer this option either.


  • The central conceit of Frequency is a bit of science-fiction, a time fluctuation that allows a cop John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) to communicate with his long-dead firefighter father Frank (Dennis Quaid) in the past through the latter's ham radio set. This leads to several complications over the course of the film as the events of October of 1969 and October of 1999 occur "simultaneously," with constantly developing changes in the timeline that only John can perceive. Some of the changes have some horrifying consequences, with John ending up having to coach the untrained Frank with "cold case" evidence from thirty years later.

    Toby Emmerich's script has breathtaking firefighting sequences, interesting science-fiction concepts, deftly handled baseball nostalgia, family drama, and a bizarre twist on the murder mystery. There are some quarters that have criticized the genre mash-up on display, but I have to say that I've always felt that this was a very well-crafted and ambitious movie. While not a time travel story per se, it nevertheless touches on many of the same issues as that genre does, and the "real time" element of the two different eras is an interesting way of handling the phenomenon. Each time a major change in the time stream alters, there are subtle differences in John's house that reflect the person that lives there. There are a few cheats that director Gregory Hoblit admits to (he describes his preferred ending on the commentary track), but the backbone of the film is the relationship of Frank and John through the radio, and Caviezel and Quaid truly shine in these scenes which were, apparently, filmed simultaneously on matching sets to ensure natural flow.

    Frank's job ensures two breathtaking firefighting sequences as well. Michael Kamen's score contains some very arresting passages during the radio sequences and a show-stopping Requiem for a pivotal moment in the film. The supporting cast, featuring Elizabeth Mitchell, Noah Emmerich, Shawn Doyle and the ever-dependable Andre Braugher is able and authentic. While there is an isolated score under Kamen's commentary track on the DVD, it doesn't sound very good and Kamen occasionally talks over the music. The score deserves a decently mastered and edited release. This seems like a project La La Land might be able do.

    Set in Queens, I've always had a very warm reaction to the film. The action in the past takes place during the '69 World Series, which pushes all sorts of buttons in me, but also because my grandfather was a ham radio operator (WBY2QQ), thus emphasizing for myself (and my family) the connection between Frank and John.


  • I was introduced to Searching for Bobby Fisher, Steve Zallian's adaptation of Fred Waitzkin's account of his experiences with his chess prodigy son Josh, by a friend of mine whilst in college. I found the film's deliberate pace quietly arresting, aided in no small measure by Conrad Hall's gorgeous cinematography and James Horner's ruminative score, about as far from the kinetic Aliens as one can get. I recently revisited my laserdisc copy of the film, and found it quite refreshing to see a film that very specifically avoids having big moments.
Conan the King (Conan the Barbarian)

C R O M ! ! !

The new Tadlow/Prometheus recording of the complete score for Conan the Barbarian does not attempt to slavishly reproduce the original. Instead, James Fitzpatrick, Luc Van de Ven and Nic Raine have strived to re-create the performance of Basil Poledouris' epic masterpiece tbat the composer had always hoped for but couldn't get out of the orchestra. There are many, myself included, who feel that the raggedness of the performance on the original soundtrack fits the rough-hewn quality of the music. I still feel that way, but while this new set in no way replaces my Varèse Sarabande copy of the score, it can stand proudly next to it on my shelf as a completely viable alternative.

Sonically, James Fitzpatrick has done it again, recreating the particular ambiance of a recording without falling prey to any of the problems of the original. The sound quality of Jan Holzner and Michael Hradisky's recording is fantastic, but it is consistent with the overall tone of Pedegro Savina's work on the original. The clarity of sound is aided by the more traditional orchestral set-up favored by Nic Raine. Unfortunately, the CD appears to be mastered too hot, which creates some congestion in the louder passages, but nothing that I couldn't get past for the sake of the performance.

The corrected orchestrations means that there are some passages, such as "Theology/Civilization" that sound quite different from their original soundtrack counterparts. The female choir during "The Tree of Woe" makes gives that cue a more religioso feel. Some pieces are vastly different; "Conan Leaves Valeria" goes off in a different direction from "The Leaving." Those are the main differences, but there are some cases where the performance on the new recording is just plain better, "Pit Fights" being the primary example (the most improvements in that arena to come from the cues that weren't included on the original album or the Varèse Sarabande expanded re-issue which was based on Poledouris' plans for a 2 LP set in 1982 that never materialized).

I'm sure that the differences between this set and the original recording will leave some fans of the original soundtrack recording cold, but I'm about as big a fan of this score as you can get and it's gotten me pretty fired up (and I'm I'm all sick and miserable too). I just think it's the bee's knees to have such an interesting variation on one of my favorite film scores of all time that reflects more what Poledouris intended than what he ended up with.

I have to admit that the version of "Chamber of Mirrors" from Conan the Destroyer that is included here makes me hope that Prometheus and Tadlow join forces again for that score. Poledouris apparently found the performance of the main title to have been so dire that he left it off of his original soundtrack LP. It would be nice to see this redressed as well.