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Moriarty Has Chosen Blu-Ray...For Now... And Here’s Why!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. Right now, as I start work on this article, I’m watching RESCUE DAWN on DVD in my office, so I’m not suddenly jumping ship or proclaiming DVD dead. However, I remain convinced that we are in the waning days of physical media sales. Blu-Ray. HD. It’s all just violins on the Titanic, friends. You think my kid’s going to grow up wanting to own physical media? He’ll have a media device. More than one, most likely. One in his room, one he carries with him. And those media devices will be filled with electronic files for any films or TV or music he’s interested in, not DVDs or HD or Blu-Ray. My kid is practically a cyborg. He’s keenly interested in anything tech. He plays intently with my Nintendo DS. He loves to carry around a busted Playstation remote and practice pushing buttons. He’s two, and he can operate a cell phone well enough to call specific people in my wife’s phone book. Believe me... the actual names "Blu-Ray" and "HD-DVD" won’t mean anything to him. Besides, the format war is just silly now. Arguing about what to call high definition DVDs is silly. I’m going to get an HD-DVD player soon. I’ve already got some HD-DVD titles here in the house, ready to be checked out. But for the moment, Blu-Ray has made it into the house first. And here's how it happened. I have a 60 inch rear-projection TV that stands in my family room right now. I’ve had it for a few years. I got it for my wife for Valentine’s Day one year. Well, ever since Toshi’s been walking, he’s been charging that TV set. Like he was born with a grudge against it. He beats the shit out of that thing. And about a month ago, one of the color guns went wonky. I don’t know any better word for it. So we thought about repairing it, but with Black Friday coming up... ... and so it was that I found myself out and about and at the Best Buy in Porter Ranch early last Friday. Not crazy-person-standing-outside-in-the-cold early, mind you. But early. I checked out every single motherscratchin’ one of the TVs they had for sale. There was one, a 42-inch LG plasma... it spoke to me. The price. The size. The image. That was the one for my family room. Our starter set. Viva la revolucion, right? I took it home, along with a wall mount that I would have to install myself.

Friday was a busy day, so it didn’t make it up onto the wall until late Saturday. By that time, though, it turns out I had more immediate use for that new set than I thought I would. When I was at the Best Buy, I got a copy of the Wal-Mart flyer, and I saw a deal they were running for Saturday morning for the Playstation 3. $499 for the 80GB hard drive model, which is what it normally costs, but they were throwing in fifteen free Blu-Ray DVDs. Ten in-store, and five via a mail-in offer. That’s a pretty irresistible starter kit for a shameless fucking degenerate home video junkie like me. I remember the day I bought my first DVD player in ’99. I broke down because the price looked right (it was still something like $399) and because I saw a few titles on DVD that I felt like I needed in my life. VIDEODROME letterboxed was the one that did it. The tipping point. And that first day, I took home VIDEODROME, FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. All three of those titles were later redone by Criterion, which I find to be a truly odd coincidence, and proof that I have been double-dipped since day one in DVD. It’s just par for the course. That deal... fifteen movies... that’s a heck of a starter kit. And part of me, I must confess, was drawn to the idea of playing CONAN on the PS3. THQ sent over a few copies of the game a few weeks ago, and I took the XBOX 360 version over to Henchman Mongo’s house, where I played the first few screens with him and Gregor Samsa. It seemed (A) really gory (B) very similar to GOD OF WAR and (C) easy, a combination I like as a casual gamer. I only play three or four games a year. And absolutely, if something’s sent to me, I’ll take that as an excuse I can sell to my wife. “It’s work. I have to review it. You think I want to play CONAN for four hours tonight? Hmmmmmm?”

… and so it was that I found myself out and about and at the Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch, which is actually just about 500 feet further down the same strip mall as the Best Buy in Porter Ranch, early last Saturday. This time, it was crazy-person-standing-outside-in-the-cold-early, since the sale was set to start at 8:00. I had my wife wake me up at 6:30, a nearly impossible feat most mornings. She managed to push me into my car and strap my feet to the pedals and get me moving, at which point the survival instinct kicked in and I was forced to consciousness. I got there around 6:45, and I was relieved to see that the store was open. I was able to walk right in and go to the electronics department. I found a floor manager, and they sent me back to a department at the back of the store. There were about seven other people already there, already in line ahead of me. You just had to sign in and give them a DL#, and then you could go away until 8:00. They had all of the Blu-Ray titles in the store that list at under $30 laid out in that little department, and you were encouraged to make a stack of ten titles you wanted. By the time 8:00 rolled around, I had changed my initial stack of ten at least fifteen times. Picking things up, putting things down. I am a sad mental patient when it comes to home video. I really am. I ended up with eight films I wanted and two films I’m indifferent to.

BLACK HAWK DOWN, 28 WEEKS LATER, TERMINATOR, TERMINATOR 2, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2: DEAD MAN’S CHEST. All should be strong visual demos of the system, and I can do comparisons to the old DVDs to see how much of an improvement I think it is.

I also got STARGATE and CRANK, but I’m not sure either one will stay here in the house permanently. Later that morning, I went by Amoeba Records, and I picked up a few more titles. 300. THE FOUNTAIN. KUNG FU HUSTLE. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. HELLBOY. RATATOUILLE. All seem to me to be good test discs for a new format. All are rich visual experiences, and I know what I’m looking for in a great transfer.

Of course I forgot to pick up an HDMI cable on Saturday. I did hang the 42-inch set on the wall, using this giant heavy rig that I had to assemble and mount. It’s the first thing I’ve installed here in my new house, so I’m disproportionally proud of it. It’s high enough that Toshi’s not going to be able to touch it, not even standing on a chair. It’s safe for now. It was almost 8:00 by the time I got this totally up on the wall, and I was ready to plug the system in immediately. And of course... no HDMI cable. So I didn’t make it back up to Best Buy until late Sunday afternoon. By the time I got back, played with Toshi for a while, helped my wife with a few things, and then finally had a chance to hook things up, it was 9:00 already. I picked an 8-foot Monster cable because it came with a 5-free-titles offer for Disney Blu-Ray titles. So that means I have another ten free titles still coming to me via mail-in offers. That’ll give me 26 Blu-Ray titles right off the bat. There are titles in there for me, for my son, for my wife. It’s a nice assortment. The first thing I did was play a little bit of CONAN. And, sure enough, I love it. It’s gory, it’s ridiculous, the women are all naked and preposterously built. It’s a love letter to Robert E. Howard’s creation, and it’s just plain fun. It’s not a very difficult game. I’m playing it on “normal” and I’ve pretty much breezed through the first five or six levels. I love learning new moves and trying them out in battle. The designers of the game really did go above and beyond in finishing moves. Toshi came in, so we played a few minutes of MOTORSTORM. I would rank my skills somewhere between “suck” and “suck a lot”, so Toshi spent most of the game going “Whooooooooa” every time I blew up. And then finally it was dark enough in the family room, at the far end of the house, to put in a movie and really take a look at the picture quality. I got close to the screen as I started the first film, 300, to see how it looked. The clarity was sharp, the colors a little muted. I had to tweak the settings a bit, and I fast forwarded to the battle scenes to use as a reference as I made the adjustments. Toshi wanted to sit and watch with me, though, and I don’t think he’s quite ready for 300 yet. So instead, once the settings were where I wanted them, I traded that disc out for RATATOUILLE. This was the first film Toshi sat through, beginning to end, in a theater, and he was just as fascinated by it the first time as he has been each time he’s seen it since. And right now, this is all he wants to watch, so it’s been on a few times. When we were on a cruise two weeks ago, the film was playing on the closed-circuit channels all day long.

The first time I saw clips from this film, I saw them at Pixar, sitting in a room with Brad Bird, so I’m guessing that was pretty much exactly what the image was supposed to look like. Each time I’ve seen it since, I’m comparing it to that version. I thought the DVD looked pretty darn good. So I was really excited to see how it would look on Blu-Ray. To my great disappointment, it looked sort of terrible. Choppy. Like I was watching a Quicktime on a computer that couldn’t handle the file size. Stuttery. I waited for it to stop, but about three minutes into the film, it became obvious that wasn’t going to go away. Inauspicious start. I put in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS next, worried about how I intentionally got the largest hard drive available for the PS3 and it seemed like my system couldn’t handle basic playback on a film.

To my great delight, my experience with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was completely different. The first thing I am amazed by is the quality of the deep blacks in the film. So much of the film plays with the night sky or the darkness, and the Blu-Ray picture quality is rich and vibrant. It looks like a film from the ‘70s, accurately reproducing the exact textures that I love so much in great ‘70s cinematography. Even standing close to the screen, it looks pretty great. I looked at some of the FX sequences, at the scene where Roy Neary gets lost, at some of the ending. Impressive. And as I tried a series of other discs, like KUNG FU HUSTLE and HELLBOY and THE FOUNTAIN, I was impressed by what I was seeing. I have these films on DVD, and I’ve watched them that way a few times. In each case, what I’m seeing on these Blu-Ray discs is superior. I thought maybe the player just needed to warm up, so I put RATATOUILLE back in. And again, it stuttered, playing in jerky fits and starts. That night, one of the regulars in our chat room, who also just bought a PS3, sent me a link and told me to check it out. When I first took a look at it, it immediately irritated me. I didn’t want anything complicated. I just want to be able to put in a a disc and have it play. But I decided to try it and see how easy this firmware update was. I followed the onscreen directions, used the USB memory card I always carry around with me on my keychain to move it from my PC to my PS3, and updated with one button. And sure enough... it worked. Perfectly. And now so does RATATOUILLE, which does indeed look like candy. In fact, that’s what I’d say about each of the films I’ve put in so far. They look like candy. Exceptional picture and sound quality, as one would expect. So far, I haven’t had time to sit down and watch an entire movie straight through. I’ve been watching bits and pieces. I’m going to watch two films on the system this weekend. 28 WEEKS LATER, which I haven’t seen yet, and BLACK HAWK DOWN. Looking forward to seeing them from start to finish. I look forward to offering you my reaction to Blu-Ray as I get more invested in it, and in comparing the HD-DVD and the Blu-Ray when I’ve got them both here, side-by-side. For now, I’m going to start work on a new batch of reviews. I’ll see if I can get three or four up in the next day here. My screening schedule is insane right now, and my travel schedule next week is crazy, and my screening schedule the week after that is nuts... and just thinking about it all makes me tired. Suffice it to say, I’m pleased with this purchase, and I am excited to spend more time exploring the new format in the weeks ahead.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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