Handful of Sand Goes Blu-Ray

blu-ray.jpgWith pressure mounting over the past few weeks as a result of the defections of Warner, Netflix, Best Buy, and Wal-mart, Toshiba finally acknowledged this week that the slow death of HD-DVD is complete. This announcment freed Universal and Paramount to announce their support for Blu-Ray discs (here and here). Roughly Drafted has a very interesting (and very detailed) history of the format war for those so inclined. With the emergence of Blu-Ray as the HD format of choice, this should be the year when HD moves into the mainstream. DVD still has plenty of life to live, but I think this will be the year that not-so-early adopters start buying into the new media.

Not-so-early adopters like me, in fact. Last weekend's developments gave me the confidence in the new format to go out and buy a Playstation 3. Now I'm not much of a gamer in my old age, but the Playstation 3 is also reportedly one of the best, cheapest Blu-Ray players on the market. As it has WiFi built-in, firmware updates can be downloaded and installed without much hassle (it was one of the first things I did after setting up the box). Since we already had a DVD player hooked up to our Sony 40" LCD via an HDMI cable, swapping in the Playstation 3 took less than 5 minutes. After completing the onscreen set-up, I popped in the Spiderman 3 disc that came with the system, dimmed the lights, and marveled at what high-definition really means.

Now I was convinced. I hopped onto Amazon, found a 3-for-2 sale, and ordered the first twelve titles of my nascent Blu-Ray library. The most exciting: the new, 5-disc edition of Blade Runner. I am practically salivating in anticipation of watching it.

UPDATE: Via The Digital Bits, a good example of why physical media is not going to be replaced by movie downloads any time soon.

Newer, cheaper Blu-Ray

High definition movies are a sight to behold. I know, as a recent owner of a Xbox 360 with HD-DVD add-on. When I hung my Mitsubishi HD-1000 projector from the ceiling and watched King Kong in 106" of high definition glory, it was amazing. That didn't stop me, however, from taking it all back a few days later.

The problem was, I just can't tell whether HD-DVD will be around in a year or two. I kept thinking that perhaps I should buy the Playstation 3 with built-in Blu-Ray instead. Going back and forth like this, I realized I didn't want either one. DVD is good enough for now. I'll let the HD format war run its course, then I'll invest. I'm just not cut out to be an early adopter.

I am glad to see, however, that there are some benefits to having competition:

Sony Corp. said Monday it is bringing out a cheaper player for Blu-ray discs early this summer, a crucial step in its battle to make the high-definition format the replacement for DVDs.

The BDP-S300 will cost $599, yet will have the same capabilities as the $999 BDP-S1 Sony is currently selling, said Randy Waynick, senior vice president of the home products division of Sony Electronics.

Sony and Samsung Corp., which also makes a Blu-ray player, have been undersold by Toshiba Corp.'s players for the rival HD DVD format. Toshiba has a model on the market for $499.

It took years for early DVD players to become affordable. Part of the problem was that the transition to digital from videotape was much bigger and more expensive than the switch from regular DVDs to high-definition discs will be. But the lack of any format competition also meant that DVD could take its time and reap the profits when they came. The improvement over VHS was undeniable, so the product eventually sold itself.

With high definition, that's not an option. First of all, not everyone is ready to upgrade again. Some people only started buying DVDs within the past couple years, so for them DVD is nowhere near the end of its life. Furthermore, the benefits of HD are only found in video and audio. Unlike the VHS->DVD transition, which gave consumers a more compact medium, which did not require rewinding and did not degrade with age, the advantages of HD are only content-based, and only available to those who have the equipment to take advantage. And as the SACD/DVD-Audio fiasco proves, high definition audio is not a big draw, especially when DVD already has digital surround sound.

So the high definition video is really the key, and I think that eventually, it will be enough to bring people over from DVD. But it's going to be a hard sell, and while the format war bring the advantage of competition, it also risks confusing and alienating the consumer. Even people like me, who have the video and audio components to enjoy HD, and the disposable income to afford it, may be consciously choosing to sit on the sideline. So long as that is true, neither side will be getting what they really want: our money.

Fords for the Good Guys

I just finished watching season three of 24 on DVD. It was not as satisfying as the first two seasons, but it was worth adding to my Netflix queue. It made for good escapist entertainment.

Since I did not watch it when it was on broadcast TV, I did not realize that Ford was heavily involved in financing the show (apparently even supporting a commercial-free airing of an episode). It was not until the last few episodes that I noticed that all of the good guys drove Fords, and that all of the bad guys drove Chevrolets. Not only did they purchase Chevys, but when they happened to need to carjack another vehicle...alas, another Chevy. What a silly and subtly disturbing thing.

2000 AD DVD Review

2000 AD is a 1999 Hong Kong release from director Gordon Chan, starring pop star Aaron Kwok. Though the plot is essentially an instrument for getting from one action sequence to another, the action is sufficiently well-planned, performed, and photographed to make this a worthwhile popcorn flick.

The Film

As the title of the film might suggest, the plot is loosely centered around some notion of the Y2K bug, though it is never particularly clear what the mechanics of the supposed computer risk really are. Considering that Y2K seemed a much bigger deal in 1999 than it does now, it is actually better for the film that the details of the "computer warfare" behind all of the intrigue are left ambiguous. Suffice it to say that this new breeding ground for international conflict involves multinational corporations, the governments of Hong Kong and Singapore, and of course, the CIA. Caught in the middle is Peter Li (Kwok).

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It turns out Peter's brother, Greg (Ray Lui), is somehow mixed up in all of this. His visit to Hong Kong to see his brother is not just a pleasure trip, and it is no coincidence that a computer security company's corporate aircraft is shot down shortly after his arrival. Further levels of intrigue are added with the arrival of Greg's fiancee from America (Phyllis Quek) and a special forces commando sent undercover by the government of Singapore (James Lye).

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Though the true motives of many of the characters is not immediately apparent, it is at least clear that Kwok is our protagonist and that CIA agent Kelvin Wong (Andrew Lin) is the bad guy. Putting aside for a moment the "big bad CIA" cliche at the heart of this character, Lin is at least somewhat creepy without making it totally unbelievable that he could actually hold such a pivotal government job (unlike, say, Gary Oldman in Leon; I mean, I love that movie and Oldman's performance in particular, but is it really possible that such a nutcase could retain a supervisory position in the DEA? I hope not). Lin does well enough with the material he is given, and is an adequate villain for us to root against.

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When Greg makes copies of some mysterious secret files while staying at Peter's apartment, Peter and his comedy sidekick Benny (Daniel Wu) become embroiled in this murky web of intrigue. To be honest, the plot is much more murky than it is intriguing. The effort to keep the audience guessing about various character's motives and loyalties is excessive and merely results in depriving most of them of any coherent motive or loyalty at all. The same is true of the vague computer warfare element, which is essentially a cobbled together version of the most superficial elements needed for a technothriller: incomprehensible computer babble, several international locations, and close-ups of Zip disks.

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So the plot is nothing to get excited about, but at least the actors do well with what they were given. Special praise goes to Francis Ng, whose Hong Kong police officer is absolutely believable in his professionalism and empathy.

What truly saves this film from mere mediocrity is its action sequences. They are spaced throughout the film, which does raise some pacing issues (particularly at the end, which feels rushed and anticlimactic compared to early scenes). But they are worth the ride, as Chan and action director Yuen Tak have put together several very exciting action pieces. With a good surround system, this is just a fun way to spend an hour and a half.

Style: 4 (out ot 5)
Substance: 2 (out ot 5)
Overall: 3 (out ot 5)

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The DVD

2000ad.gifAs I have come to expect, the Region 2 PAL release by Hong Kong Legends is quite good. The video is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, and it is sharp and clean, as ought to be expected from such a recent film.

There are two language tracks: the original Cantonese and a dubbed English track. Both are presented in DD 5.1 channel surround sound. I never listen to dubs, so I can't comment on the quality of that track. The Cantonese track is adequate throughout, though it only shines in the all-important action sequences. In particular, the first battle sequence, with the rooftop sniper, is a lot of fun with a good surround system.

The main extra is a HKL staple, the audio commentary with film expert Bey Logan. He is always interesting, and here he is joined by the director, Gordon Chan. They have a good rapport, and though Logan is usually capable of handling a commentary himself, putting him in more of an interviewer role works quite well in this case, where Chan obviously knows even more about the film. Other extras include a featurette with pretty interesting behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Kwok (20 min), as well as interviews with the director (14 min) and with Andrew Lin (17 min).

Video: 4 (out ot 5)
Audio: 3.5 (out ot 5)
Extras: 4 (out ot 5)
Overall: 4 (out ot 5)

Saulabi DVD Review

Saulabi is a 2002 release from Korea, though I'm not sure anyone there would admit it. It is a failure on almost all fronts, from production to plot, acting and directing. There is nothing redeeming about the film, and the technical quality of the disc itself is an affront to the hundreds of better films that have not been granted such a presentation on DVD.

The Film

I wish I could tell you what this movie was about. I wish it were about something. Instead, the scattered elements that might have made a plot serve simply to convey outrage at the evil Japanese and their treatment of Koreans. I probably would not even have understood that much without reading online synopsis of the film. From what I gather, the film is centered on a small group of Korean expatriates who were driven from their land in humiliation.

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All but a pair of their young warriors are killed in an early attack in the film (why this attack occurred, where it was located, and who started it are beyond me). One of these warriors is (apparently) sent on a mission to restore the village's ancient rights by reassembling the "Heaven's Sword." To do so, he must travel into another village to meet a swordmaster (I think), who stumbles around drunk and is almost killed before the young hero intervenes.

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I could attempt to parse out the plot of the rest of the film, but there really isn't one. The young expatriate hero falls in love with the daughter of a local aristocrat, who is of course already promised in marriage to the local warlord. As it turns out, neither the girl's father nor the warlord are pleased by this relationship. Much enmity ensues.

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The battle scenes are sparse and uninteresting. The love story is cliched and uninteresting. The sets are cramped, unadorned, and uninteresting. It is nearly impossible to figure out where any of the scenes are taking place or how far apart any of the locations are. Any sense of drama is washed out by cliche, any possibility of a climax is washed out by incoherence. Also, the acting stinks.

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Let me speak plainly. This is an awful movie. If you have the good fortune of reading this review BEFORE renting it, then do not rent it. It has no redeeming qualities. It is not bad in any sense that might allow cult worship, like Rocky Horror or even Showgirls. It is bad in the most inane and mind-numbing way. Avoid at all costs.

Style: 1 (out ot 5)
Substance: 0 (out ot 5)
Overall: 0.5 (out ot 5)

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The DVD

saulabi.gifWhat a waste of a perfetly good DVD. With so many fine Asian films yet to receive a decent anamorphic transfer or surround sound audio (let alone DTS), it gives me no pleasure to acknowledge that the technical specs on this Region 0 Infinity Entertainment release are pretty decent.

The video is not pristine, and with any other 2002 film I would actually register surprise and displeasure. But it does a more than adequate job of conveying the dull photography in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The Korean language track is not the most robust track you will ever hear, but both the DTS and DD5.1 are more than the film deserves. The subtitles have a lot of grammatical problems, and at first this will seem quite frustrating. Ultimately, however, I realized that they are most frustrating because the plot does not make any sense, and the subtitles do adequately convey that. The sparse extras are all Korean language only, which in this case does not bother me at all.

Video: 4 (out ot 5)
Audio: 4 (out ot 5)
Extras: 0.5 (out ot 5)
Overall: 3 (out ot 5)

Limited Edition DVDs

There is something at least a little bizarre about my recent interest in limited edition DVDs, primarily purchased from a nice gentleman in Colorado who imports them from overseas and operates as theDVDetective. It would be truly bizarre, in my opinion, if it were just a matter of collecting the things because they are rare. That would be silly, though there are any number of examples of just such hobbies. Instead, the limited editions often come with really nifty extras, either in the packaging, the content, or both.

Then the question is, are they worth it? The answer is almost certainly no. When I look at the limited edition sets that I've collected, I feel a lot of excitement and not a little embarassment. I imagine I would feel the same way if I had a Mercedes parked outside. It is not merely limited or relatively rare, it actually has tangible advantages over a less expensive car. But there is also vanity, and the notion that one must spend money on something, and I am unsettled by both.

The Rise and Fall of Asian Cinema

There is good reason to think that the long-awaited resurgence of Japanese cinema is finally upon us:

There's a new cherry-blossom spring in Japanese cinema, and it's not one that radically breaks from the successful formulas of old, nor pits Japanese film against its competitors, but one that builds on the glories of the past and revels in the achievements of other cinemas, like those of rivals China and Korea.

The story goes on to highlight some of the most exciting new releases, particularly those by Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano (whose films have as much in common as Pixar and Kill Bill).

News is not so good across the sea, as suggested in this article discussing growing concern about the Hong Kong film industry:

Twenty film professionals have set up an emergency task force to find solutions to save the ailing Hong Kong film industry, which has seen production numbers fall to an all-time low of about 50 this year. The task force comprises such key executives and creatives as "Infernal Affairs" producer Nansun Shi, "Hero" producer Bill Kong, Media Asia's John Chong, Applause Pictures' Peter Chan, director-producer Gordon Chan, Mandarin Films' Raymond Wong and Golden Harvest managing director Phoon Chiong-kit. One of the suggestions to come out of the group is the setting up of a special cultural region in Guangdong that could take advantage of the more common cultural links shared by Hong Kong and southern China. "Guangdong is ideologically closer to Hong Kong. It is a good starting point," task force convener Shi said Monday in a story in the South China Morning Post.

It is clear to everyone that the golden age of Hong Kong cinema has passed. Whether this means it will disappear completely, absorbed into the growing mainland Chinese film industry, or will someday see a resurgence, is unknown.

No More Excuses: BUY AKIRA!

If for some incomprehensible reason (such as disliking anime) you don't yet own a copy of Akira, now is your chance. DeepDiscountDVD has the DTS version on sale for $12.47 with free shipping. Go. Buy. Now.

UPDATE: Oh, but if for some incomprehensible reason (such as not having a surround sound receiver) you don't have DTS audio capability, DeepDiscountDVD has a version with regular old Dolby sound for $9.97. So no excuses!

Musa: The Warrior DVD Review

Musa: The Warrior is the latest film from across the Pacific to capture my attention. Joint Security Area and Shiri had already demonstrated to me the maturity of Korean cinema, and I was intrigued to see a Korean attempt at my favorite genre, the historical epic. When I saw it on sale at HKFlix, I took a chance and ordered it. And I was richly rewarded.

The Film

The film is set in northern China, circa 1375. The rise of the Han's Ming Dynasty has pushed back the shrinking Yuan Empire of the Mongols. At the same time, relations between the Ming and the Koryu (ancestors of present-day Koreans) have been deteriorating, most recently with the death of a Ming envoy in Korea. In hopes of mending ties with the rising Chinese power, a peace delegation has been sent from Korea to the Ming capital of Nanjing. But because of deteriorated attitude toward the Koryu, the delegation is captured and exiled to the desert.

The Koryu soon find themselves caught in the middle of the Ming/Yuan conflict. They are freed from their Ming captors by cavalry of the Yuan empire, who slaughter all of the Ming. Unfortunately, all of the Koryu diplomatic representatives also perish in the battle or soon thereafter. Without these diplomats, the group cannot accomplish its mission and must return to Korea in failure. The young general (Joo Jin-Mo) charged with protecting the delegation takes command and leads the group in a punishing attempt to cross the desert.

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The Koryu soon find an oasis with food and rest, but before long another group of Yuan soldiers arrive, with a prisoner in tow. They have captured a Ming princess (Zhang Zi-yi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), another token in the ongoing Ming/Yuan conflict. Jin-mo decides to rescue the princess from the Yuan, another controversial assertion of his authority that puts the group in harm's way.

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Jin-mo also refuses to release the slave (Jung Woo-sung) of a dead diplomat, whose master had granted him freedom before his own death. The slave proves to be perhaps the most dangerous member of the group, with spear-wielding skills that astonish throughout the story. His intense loyalty to his deceased master is only subdued when replaced by an attachment to the rescued princess.

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Though the early scenes of the film lay the clear groundwork for a rivalry between Jin-mo and Woo-sung, a third member of the Koryo delegation soon emerges as the true leader and hero of the film. The leader of the lower class members of the group (Ahn Sung-ki) demonstrates a keen sense for battle and a talent with the bow that has no equal outside of Middle-Earth. His quiet wisdom and calm demeanor in battle strike a contrast to both of the more passionate warriors, and it seems at times that the whole film consists of Sung-ki extricating the group from the trouble that Jin-mo and Woo-sung got them in.

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The story also features a tremendous enemy in the figure of the Yuan general (Yu Rong-kwong, Iron Monkey) who pursues the group to recapture the princess. He is an absolutely worthy adversary, and his story arc is as interesting as that of the protagonists (though it is harder to gather from the shorter cut of the film; more on that later). The remainder of the film consists largely of his pursuit of the princess and her Koryo rescuers.

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There are a lot of things to love about this film. It has a grand breadth, yet also achieves admirable depth in a rather large set of ensemble characters. The plot has its epic aspects, seen best in the pursuit of the Koryo by the Yuan cavalry, and its character-driven aspects, seen best in the internal divisions within the Koryo band. And it accomplishes all this in subtleties that most in Hollywood would not dare trust their audiences to notice. The cinematography and photography are astonishing throughout, as are the choreography and editing of the battle scenes. And the brutality and sadness of warfare are never subsumed by sentimentality.

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Yet some are bound to be disappointed because of false expectations. With Zhang Zi-yi and Yu Rong-kwong onboard, many will come seeking the wire-fu martial arts action of recent wuxia films. But the combat in Musa has more in common with Braveheart and Gladiator than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film also purposely lacks the sheen and color of Hero, instead opting for the gritty reality akin to Lawrence of Arabia. That the film takes so much from the best epics of the West while retaining the storytelling of the East is one of its finest accomplishments. If you approach the film with appropriate expectations, it succeeds on nearly every level.

Style: 5 (out ot 5)
Substance: 4 (out ot 5)
Overall: 4.5 (out ot 5)

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The DVD

shaw.gifI own the PAL-formatted, Region 2 edition of Musa from Premier Asia, and it is a DVD presentation truly worthy of the film. Premier Asia is the latest label from the folks who created Hong Kong Legends, a series which I collect almost religiously because of their skill in remastering Asian film prints, which for many years lacked the protective care and storage of Hollywood films.

Of course, Musa is a 2001 production, so it comes as no surprise that the 2.35:1 anamorphic video is pristine. As mentioned, there is a gritty feel to the film, and this comes across as intended. Some studios (Miramax comes to mind) have gained a nasty habit of making the transfer too soft, losing some of the detail necessary to the visual presentation. Not so here.

I used the Korean DTS track for my viewing, and it too was wonderful, with both the dialogue-intense and the battle scenes well served, something that is not always true when a film has such a dynamic range. In addition, the English subtitles were easy to read, and as expected from Premier Asia, free of any grammatical or spelling errors. (The Korean language track is also available in Dolby Digital 5.1, as is a dubbed English track, which I have no use for whatsoever).

And then there are the special features, always a strong suit for Premeir Asia and HKL. In addition to the always worthy audio commentary of Bey Logan (here joined by Mike Leeder), this edition of Musa features an entire second disc of features with numerous featurettes.

The second disc also includes twenty minutes of deleted scenes. Unlike most American films, where the deleted scenes were never part of the film, the deleted scenes here actually were in the original release. The Korean cut of the film runs about twenty minutes longer. I have a copy of that cut on the way to me, so I'll comment more on it later. But my present impression is that the cuts largely benefit the pacing of the film. So for those find themselves drifting away during the slow parts of a longer film, this shorter international cut is for you. If you're like me, and you usually prefer a bit more exposition at the cost of a slower pace, then I say pick up both: the international version for the longer cut, and the Premier Asia version for the commentary and extras.

Video: 4 (out ot 5)
Audio: 4.5 (out ot 5)
Extras: 4.5 (out ot 5)
Overall: 4.5 (out ot 5)

New DVD Covers: The Mariachi Trilogy

Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy is one of the most underrated film cycles of recent years, but fortunately all three films have received pretty decent releases on DVD. The only deficiency is the lack of any uniformity between the DVD covers, belying any connection between the films at all. To rectify that, I have crafted new covers for each: El Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico:

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The backs are straight copies of the originals; there was nothing wrong with them. As for the front covers, the El Mariachi front is from the original, minus the obnoxious review quotes and the "special edition" banner. The Desperado front is from the original DVD release, much preferable to the special edition's own front. And the OUATIM front is simply a scan of the insert found inside the DVD case.

The only particularly original parts of the design are the spines, which is where the uniformity was most important to me. I took the belt/pistol image from the original OUATIM cover, then added a new "trilogy" logo and the original logos for each. For a preview of what the spines look like all lined up, click here.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

That's right. DeepDiscountDVD is having their 20% off sale. That's 20% their already discounted prices, usually the lowest available on the web.

Check out this thread at DVDTalk for more info. Or don't, if you don't want your wallet to get a lot lighter.

New DVD Covers - The Godfather Trilogy

A series that needs no introduction. Here is my cover for the first film:

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The covers for the second and third films are in the same theme.

Just because the MPRE is in two days doesn't mean I have to study for it. Right?

New DVD Cover - Glory

My latest custom DVD cover, for one of my favorite films, Edward Zwick's Glory:

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As a brilliant and somber film, Glory received the special edition DVD treatment it deserved. Unfortunately, it also received the dreaded "floating head" DVD cover, which you can see here. I like mine better.

Custom DVD Covers

Other than the Xbox, which does make an excellent election-eve distraction device, I've been busying myself with a rather geeky hobby: creating custom DVD covers. There is a whole community of DVD fans and artists on the web creating their own covers for their favorite DVDs, and they've largely been driven underground by the movie studios and their threats of copyright actions. Nonetheless, the community is thriving and I've gotten a lot of tips from more experienced hobbyists. Anyhow, for my first try I decided to take a shot at the four DVD volumes of Futurama, my favorite cartoon. I don't like the boxes they came in, either in form (several thinpaks within a box covered by a slipcase) or appearance (rather random and frenetic artwork). Not to mention that they don't match each other, so even if you have them all lined up it doesn't look very attractive.

Here's the original Volume One design:

And here's the rough draft of my design (in an unusably low resolution to avoid a nasty e-mail from Fox):

None of the graphics are originals, but the design is mine. I'm still working on the spine, as I'd like for the four boxes to create one single image when they're all on a shelf next to each other. Otherwise, this is the basic design for all four volumes. It's been a fun little project, and I look forward to continuing this hobby. It lets me enjoy my DVDs in a slightly more creative way, and anything that give me a chance to be artistic is a good thing.

What I Really Want For Christmas

Just in case anyone was unsure of what to get me for Christmas, maybe a few of you can pitch in for this:

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Only $5,250! That's a full 30% off. My thanks in advance.

Film Section

I think the aspect of my recreational life least represented on this website is my love of film, movies, cinema, what have you. It is hard to say what early exposure was most influential in developing this interest (I'll have to ask my mother), but my memory provides two vivid recollections: The Neverending Story and Star Wars. Since I was born in 1980, the latter came to me via television, and I can still remember quite clearly the VHS copy that my grandfather had of the movies, recorded off some local Chicago station. So clearly, in fact, that I still find it a bit unusual to watch Star Wars without commercials. I can identify the exact moment when each commercial break is supposed to come.

As for The Neverending Story, it would almost have been a miracle for me not to fall in love with that movie. A skinny little bookworm like me? Suffice it to say that it was that movie which proved to me once and for all that a great film can take you right out of this world at least as well as the best books.

So to coincide with my renewed interest in film (which itself coincides with my signing bonus and the return of a little disposable income), I've begun working on a new film section for the website. Whether it will ever contain more than a list of the DVDs I own, I cannot say. I hope so. For now, that will have to do. And for those who question the opening of a film section while the music section remains as dormant as ever... well, it's my website and I'll do what I want.