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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Spartacus 50th Anniversary Edition



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#1 of 108 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted June 02 2010 - 07:51 AM

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SPARTACUS

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION


Studio: Universal

Year: 1960 (Restored by Robert A. Harris & James C. Katz in 1991)

Length:  3 hrs 17 mins

Genre: Historical Epic


Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1


BD Resolution: 1080p

BD Video Codec: AVC (@ an average 18 mbps)

Color/B&W: Color


Audio:

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.5 mbps)

French DTS 5.1


Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish


Film Rating: PG-13 (Violence, Sexuality)


Release Date: May 25, 2010


Starring:  Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin and Tony Curtis


Screenplay by:  Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Howard Fast

Executive Producer:  Kirk Douglas

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick


Film Rating:    4/5


Spartacus is a truly unusual Roman epic, for a host of reasons that have been discussed many times by greater minds than mine over the past 50 years.  For me, the interest centers on the recruitment of Stanley Kubrick into what was essentially a Kirk Douglas picture, and how Kubrick’s involvement did and did not impact the full measure of the film.  Watching the film today, you can see multiple examples of Kubrick’s steady framing – particularly the climactic battle sequence in wide compositions that allow the Roman legions to literally fill the screen.  There are also many subtler framing decisions, particularly a late scene with Charles Laughton that has form literally following function.  At the same time, I notice today a striking difference in style and tone between the Roman scenes with Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier, where things have a pretty crisp staging and pace to them, and the Kirk Douglas-centered sections of the film, where things take on a different pallor that feels closer to Douglas than Kubrick.   That aside, the film continues to impress even now, both due to what choices Kubrick was able to include, and due to some very clever dialogue and performances by Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov.  (One early scene where Ustinov, compelled to provide some of his gladiators for an unpaid deathmatch, tries to get his guests to pick the smaller and less expensive fighters, is priceless in itself.)


Spartacus has been released on Blu-ray one week ago as a 50th Anniversary Edition, following past releases on standard definition DVD and HD-DVD, and most notably, an excellent Criterion Collection laserdisc and DVD.   The Blu-ray edition holds a high definition picture and sound transfer, along with some of the special features from the Criterion edition, albeit without some helpful explanatory material, and without the terrific commentary recorded for that edition.  Further Blu-ray functionality is also part of the package, including the My Scenes bookmarking function and BD-Live access.  This has been a controversial release, given that the picture quality has come under intense criticism.  Readers of this forum are already familiar with this issue, but I will include a link in the appropriate area.

                                                       

VIDEO QUALITY   1 ½/5

Spartacus is presented in a 1080p AVC 2.20:1 transfer that apparently uses extensive DNR to try to clean the image, followed by an application of artificial grain to cover the wound.  Even on my 40” monitor, I was able to see a notable lack of definition in people’s faces throughout the film, which was profoundly depressing, given the capabilities of this format.  For a more thorough and proper discussion of this issue, I give you a link to Robert Harris’ thread about these matters.  Given Mr. Harris’ history with the 1991 restoration release of this film, and his familiarity with Kubrick’s intended look, I think he can speak better than anyone else to these issues.   http://www.hometheat...acus-in-blu-ray


 
AUDIO QUALITY   3 ½/5

Spartacus is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, along with a standard DTS 5.1 mix in French.  The sound fares much better than the picture here, with the greatest beneficiary being Alex North’s score, which fills all the channels with authority.



SPECIAL FEATURES      2/5

The Blu-Ray presentation of Spartacus comes with the usual BD-Live connectivity and My Scenes functionality.   There are a few special features in standard definition carried over from the superior Criterion release, but without the helpful explanations that could be found there, and most critically, without the group commentary that ties the whole thing together.  I think an argument could be made here that things would have gone better had this release been licensed directly to Criterion for Blu-ray release, but that ship has sailed.


Deleted Scenes – (7:40 Total, 480p, Anamorphic)  Four of the deleted scenes from the Criterion edition are here, including alternate takes of Spartacus’ first encounter with Varinia, the drastically edited no-Douglas ending of the 1967 cut, and the audio of a final scene with Charles Laughton.  Unfortunately, the explanations of this material from the Criterion release have been left out here, which is a real shame.


1960 Interviews – (2:58 and 3:44, 480p, Full Frame)  Two period interviews from the Criterion edition are presented here, including one with Peter Ustinov and one with Jean Simmons.  The latter interview contains helpful gaps for local reporters to insert themselves asking questions that Simmons then answers as if she was talking directly with them.   I should note that the more interesting 1992 Ustinov interview from the Criterion edition has NOT been included, which is another real shame.


Behind the Scenes – (5:11, 480p, Full Frame)  Another inclusion from the Criterion edition is this brief look at the staging and rehearsals for the gladiator school in the film.  There is no narration to this, and the footage is not in the greatest of shape, but it’s interesting to see Kirk Douglas staging rehearsal fights for the period version of EPK.


Vintage Newsreels – (4:58 Total, 480p, Full Frame)  Five period newsreels from the Criterion edition are shown here, featuring appearances at various events and premieres.  In one great bit, Kirk Douglas is shown getting his signature, shoeprints, and chin immortalized in cement at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.


Theatrical Trailer – (2:45, 480p, Non-Anamorphic)  Also from the Criterion edition, we get to see a re-release trailer for the movie after its collection of 4 Oscars.


Image Galleries – One very nice inclusion from the Criterion edition is this collection of images, broken up into sections for Production Stills, Concept Art, Costume Designs, Saul Bass Storyboards, and Posters & Print Art.


BD-Live - The more general BD-Live screen is accessible via the menu, which makes various online materials available, including tickers, trailers and special events.

My Scenes - The usual bookmarking feature is included here.


The film and the special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish.  The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.


IN THE END...

Spartacus is a film that certainly deserves attention and a good Blu-ray release.  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the full measure of that yet.  Due to the serious picture quality issues, and due to a surprisingly skimpy collection of special features, I am forced to recommend that fans of the film rent the standard definition Criterion DVD instead, assuming they don’t already own it.


Kevin Koster

June 2, 2010.

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#2 of 108 OFFLINE   Cees Alons

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Posted June 02 2010 - 08:55 AM

Thanks, Kevin.

Excellent review.


To bad the product doesn't really invite a purchase. In this case I already have the HD DVD and was hoping to replace it with a pristine BR, moreso because my original DVD is now dead, as it appeared.


(I'm assuming Anthony Hopkins is still uncredited for his one or two Oliver lines?)



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#3 of 108 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted June 02 2010 - 09:16 AM

You are correct.

I debated including him in the cast in the review, but I thought that might be interpreted as being a little cheeky.


Besides, I always thought that Hopkins was less of a "snails and oysters" man than a fan of "fava beans and a nice Chianti."  (Insert horrible sound effect here.)



#4 of 108 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted June 02 2010 - 09:43 AM

I'm glad I held onto my Criterion DVD. Sam Posten's review of the PQ of the HD-DVD was more favorable than what we're hearing about the BD.


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#5 of 108 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted June 02 2010 - 10:00 AM

I wish I could rent this and look at it myself. a 1-1/2 score seems like an overreaction. The score would suggest that image quality on this film is so bad the work done on it borders on incompetent. Not even Robert Harris went that far. The film may not look as close to the original as it should, but some of the screenshots that I have seen do not even come close to suggesting that the film image is completely unwatchable, as a 1-1/2 score would suggest.


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#6 of 108 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted June 02 2010 - 10:20 AM

I debated giving it a 2, but after reading Robert Harris' analysis, I didn't feel I could in good conscience go any higher.


For me a 1 1/2 isn't completely unwatchable, it's just substantially below the level that should have been achieved.


A 1/2 would be what I would call completely unwatchable.  I thought I was a point higher than that.


I strongly suggest renting the film and checking it out for yourself to see what has happened here, over the reliability of screenshots.  The issues I noticed, even on a 40" screen tended to be when people were in motion.



#7 of 108 OFFLINE   dpippel

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Posted June 02 2010 - 02:33 PM

Originally Posted by Edwin-S 

I wish I could rent this and look at it myself. a 1-1/2 score seems like an overreaction. The score would suggest that image quality on this film is so bad the work done on it borders on incompetent. Not even Robert Harris went that far. The film may not look as close to the original as it should, but some of the screenshots that I have seen do not even come close to suggesting that the film image is completely unwatchable, as a 1-1/2 score would suggest.


Overreaction? Mr. Harris called the Blu-ray "an absolute and undeniable fail." There aren't many ways you can interpret that comment, especially when you consider the source. And I'm not directing this at you Edwin, but people should know by now that screenshots are a pretty poor way to determine actual video quality.


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#8 of 108 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted June 02 2010 - 03:34 PM

I agree that screenshots are not the best way to determine video quality. In this case, I used them as a base because I can't rent the film (none of the rental chains where I'm at stock it) and I'm not going to buy it, considering its problematic transfer. The whole brouhaha over its PQ had me interested enough to want to see how bad it really was, just not badly enough to purchase another substandard version of the film. I just thought that 1-1/2 stars out of 5 for video quality seemed low for what I saw in the shots. On my scale, that kind of score would indicate problems far beyond the use of DNR; however, Kevin was kind enough to provide a rationale for his score. It did give me a better idea of how he would score "unwatchable". /img/vbsmilies/htf/smile.gif


Overreaction was a poor choice of terminology on my part.


"You bring a horse for me?" "Looks like......looks like we're shy of one horse." "No.......You brought two too many."

#9 of 108 OFFLINE   OliverK

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Posted June 03 2010 - 12:27 AM

With Spartacus Universal made 4 big mistakes:


1. they used an old master

2. that master was sharpened

3. excessive DNR cleanup to make it look prettier

4. the color timing is wrong


With an old master and everything else correct I still would not find a score of more than 3 or at most 3.5 out of 5 justifiable, so this is a baseline that one cannot surpass. Then we have to deduct points for sharpening, DNR/cleanup and color timing and now  1.5 is a reasonable score.


I also find it appalling that Universal would call this a 50th anniversary edition which implicates that this has been an extraordinary effort on behalf of the studio.


But then it really is an extraordinary effort - an extraordinarily disappointing one /img/vbsmilies/htf/laugh.gif



#10 of 108 OFFLINE   smithb

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Posted June 03 2010 - 01:38 AM

I guess I just view the way ratings should work differently. I don't feel that what could have been for a particular release comes into play (variable) because then it is too tied to that individual film and loses the ability to compare ratings across films. I think ratings should be based on a constant of what could be achieved for any film regardless of its significance, potential budget, masters available, or remastering efforts completed. When I see a rating of 3 for two films and I have one of them then I feel the other should be of equal quality, not drastically different because one had a higher potential. When I see the same reviewer rating both I have even more confidence in rating comparisons. Then ratings become of value to me.


So in my view from a Spartacus standpoint, it should not be severly dinged just because they used an old master but should be rated just by the quality of that old master alone in comparison to other film masters. If the quality is a 3 then so be it, but rate it on its own meirts not because another better one could have been used.


Maybe I'm alone in this, but to me ratings are like this:

5 - near perfect

4 - very good

3 - average

2 - poor

1 - unwatchable


With that in mind I find it hard to believe at this time that Spartacus would rate less then average (3) video wise when compared directly to other available BR releases on merit alone (not potential). This is assuming a constant is used in all ratings. But I will have to see it myself to know for sure.


I can fully undestand Robert Harris's issues with this release based on his intimate knowledge of the film itself from previous restortation work and his knowledge of the business. I don't doubt it might pull him completely out of enjoying this film. However, the vast majority of people aren't going to notice many of these issues without them being pointed out. From the screen captures I can tell the color differences but without knowing that there were differences it wouldn't have come to my attention. And now that it has I still couldn't pick the correct one without someone telling me based on the film-makers intent.


Maybe (in a way) I'm just lucky in that I'm more forgiving of releases then some. As even Mr. Harris stated:


"The other part of the equation will be based upon a mixture of personal background and knowledge of what a specific film can and should look like, that individual's perceptions of quality as well as their forgiveness of what a video image can / might be.  Visual perception can be very personal, and someone is not wrong for liking the disc."



#11 of 108 OFFLINE   OliverK

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Posted June 03 2010 - 02:02 AM

The whole point of the bad Spartacus reviews is that this is not a title of average quality but clearly below average. So even with your rating system it would be at most 2 and to some a 1 (unwatchable).


Old master means that one can see that it is old (low color fidelity, analog noise, low resolution, often with baked in EE etc.) - points must be deducted for this.

In theory one could argue that a 10 year old master could be as good as what we have today but in reality this is not the case as the technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the last ten and also in the last 2 years.





Originally Posted by smithb 

I guess I just view the way ratings should work differently. I don't feel that what could have been for a particular release comes into play (variable) because then it is too tied to that individual film and loses the ability to compare ratings across films. I think ratings should be based on a constant of what could be achieved for any film regardless of its significance, potential budget, masters available, or remastering efforts completed. When I see a rating of 3 for two films and I have one of them then I feel the other should be of equal quality, not drastically different because one had a higher potential. When I see the same reviewer rating both I have even more confidence in rating comparisons. Then ratings become of value to me.


So in my view from a Spartacus standpoint, it should not be severly dinged just because they used an old master but should be rated just by the quality of that old master alone in comparison to other film masters. If the quality is a 3 then so be it, but rate it on its own meirts not because another better one could have been used.


Maybe I'm alone in this, but to me ratings are like this:

5 - near perfect

4 - very good

3 - average

2 - poor

1 - unwatchable


With that in mind I find it hard to believe at this time that Spartacus would rate less then average (3) video wise when compared directly to other available BR releases on merit alone (not potential). This is assuming a constant is used in all ratings. But I will have to see it myself to know for sure.


I can fully undestand Robert Harris's issues with this release based on his intimate knowledge of the film itself from previous restortation work and his knowledge of the business. I don't doubt it might pull him completely out of enjoying this film. However, the vast majority of people aren't going to notice many of these issues without them being pointed out. From the screen captures I can tell the color differences but without knowing that there were differences it wouldn't have come to my attention. And now that it has I still couldn't pick the correct one without someone telling me based on the film-makers intent.


Maybe (in a way) I'm just lucky in that I'm more forgiving of releases then some. As even Mr. Harris stated:


"The other part of the equation will be based upon a mixture of personal background and knowledge of what a specific film can and should look like, that individual's perceptions of quality as well as their forgiveness of what a video image can / might be.  Visual perception can be very personal, and someone is not wrong for liking the disc."





#12 of 108 OFFLINE   smithb

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Posted June 03 2010 - 03:11 AM


Originally Posted by OliverK 

The whole point of the bad Spartacus reviews is that this is not a title of average quality but clearly below average. So even with your rating system it would be at most 2 and to some a 1 (unwatchable).


Old master means that one can see that it is old (low color fidelity, analog noise, low resolution, often with baked in EE etc.) - points must be deducted for this.

In theory one could argue that a 10 year old master could be as good as what we have today but in reality this is not the case as the technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the last ten and also in the last 2 years.


What I have interpreted from many of the various bad reviews is that it has not lived up to the potential of what it could have been or what people would have hoped for based on the relevance of this title. Which is nice to note in a review but not what I would expect to impact the rating given. Robert Harris maintains a lot of clout for his review of this release. And I can respect that, but that does not mean all will have the same critical view since most will not have nearly the understanding or background he has.


My opinion is that it is quite possible that this title is getting a harsher review based on piggy backing on Robert's comments. It would have been interesting to have seen the reaction if Robert's review had not come so quickly. In addition, there are too many other people providing reviews that are not as negative so seeing one review with a video rating of 1.5 and another of 4 leads me to believe it is more likely to be somewhere in the middle (i.e., average). Even the DVD Beaver reveiw seemed to indicate average in my interpretation.


Yes, using newer technologies will improve a master, but it still comes down to the source and how it was previously mastered to note the amount of differences. So I would agree that newer is better with respect to the same source and film. But there is a lot of variability between sources across films as well as how masters were previously generated in the past (regarding EE, cleanup, etc.). So that does not automatically mean a new master of one film will always be better then an older master of another film (as noted by the excess of DNR used on some new masters).


I never said the older Spartacus master was not flawed or shouldn't have points deducted, but to drop it to a 3 - 3.5 just because it is an older master does not make sense to me without details of exactly what was wrong with it. Just my opinion. And so a further drop to 1.5 does come across harsh. Again, just my opinion.



#13 of 108 OFFLINE   Robert Harris

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Posted June 03 2010 - 04:46 AM

Originally Posted by smithb 

I never said the older Spartacus master was not flawed or shouldn't have points deducted, but to drop it to a 3 - 3.5 just because it is an older master does not make sense to me without details of exactly what was wrong with it. Just my opinion. And so a further drop to 1.5 does come across harsh. Again, just my opinion.


There is nothing of any absolute point wrong with an older master, if that master was a quality product when produced.


This one was not.  It was heavily flawed.


As I noted elsewhere, Warner has a beautiful HD master of Singin' in the Rain.  It isn't on shelves for two reasons.


1.  They know that they can do better, and will not release it as it is.


2.  There would be comments that a major film has been released as 1080i, even though few people would

note any difference.


The Blu-ray of Spartacus faithfully reproduces the HD master encoded upon it.  That master should receive a 0.5 for being identifiable as the specific film.  Beyond that, there is no upside to the disc.  For what it's worth, I find Mr. Koster's review rather magnanimous, forgiving, and extremely kind.


RAH


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#14 of 108 OFFLINE   TravisR

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Posted June 03 2010 - 04:58 AM

While I understand why reviewers use numbers to rate Blu-rays, DVDs, movies, books, etc., I don't think they should ever be used. What one person thinks is, say, a 3 might not be what another person thinks is a 3.



#15 of 108 OFFLINE   Worth

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Posted June 03 2010 - 05:03 AM

And there can be no absolute standard because no two films are shot in the same manner. Spartacus should look like Spartacus, not like Crank and vice-versa. Everyone is entitled to their personal, aesthetic preferences, but an HD scan or transfer of a film should strive to look as much like the original source as possible, not some preconceived, abstract notion of an "ideal" picture.


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#16 of 108 OFFLINE   Robert George

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Posted June 03 2010 - 05:18 AM



Originally Posted by TravisR 

While I understand why reviewers use numbers to rate Blu-rays, DVDs, movies, books, etc., I don't think they should ever be used. What one person thinks is, say, a 3 might not be what another person thinks is a 3.



I've always felt that way, and never used numbers or stars in reviews I wrote.  With no offense meant to anyone in particular, my opinion has always been that number or star ratings were/are simply lazy on the part of the reviewer.  There are reviewers writing now that I know are better than that but I think still use these sort of ratings because so many others do it, they think readers expect it.



#17 of 108 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted June 03 2010 - 06:02 AM

I use numbers because it's a convenient and simple barometer for me to follow.  It's the same thing for me as giving a grade to a student.  Some students get As in class, and more students tend to get Cs.


I suppose the tenor of my review could be seen as piggybacking on Robert Harris'  work, but I really don't see it that way.  Unless I had a radically different opinion than him, and could back it up with a home theater system with a 100" screen, I keep his comments in the forefront of my thinking while writing my reviews here.  It's not a matter of saying I have an issue because he says so.  It's a matter that if he is seeing a major problem, and can explain it as clearly and succinctly as he has, it would be irresponsible for me to write a review saying not to worry about the picture quality.


It's not just a matter of the picture quality, either.  My point in the review is that I think this title would have been better served if it had been continued to be licensed to Criterion as part of their Blu-ray releases.  The picture quality issue would not have been anything like this, and they could have included all of the wonderful special features you can find on their SD DVD of the title.  As it is, the extras they did include are fairly skimpy, and they lack even the basic explanations that could be found on the Criterion release.  This is really a situation where you could apply the statement "Thrift, thrift, Horatio."


#18 of 108 OFFLINE   OliverK

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Posted June 03 2010 - 08:43 AM




Originally Posted by smithb 
I never said the older Spartacus master was not flawed or shouldn't have points deducted, but to drop it to a 3 - 3.5 just because it is an older master does not make sense to me without details of exactly what was wrong with it. Just my opinion. And so a further drop to 1.5 does come across harsh. Again, just my opinion.



It is not about being an old master but a BAD old master. I gave you details and if you want to continue to ignore these specifics there no further point to the discussion. If we say that an 'old ' master also means something that was done 3 years ago and from a standard 35mm source then I will agree that this could still look good, but we are talking here about something that was done 10 years back and even then the master was not exactly state of the art - big difference.


I already disliked the HD-DVD and if you check you will notice that RAH did not comment on it.

Some of us have actually seen how film look in general and also how specific films look (i.e. Spartacus) so we can form an opinion for ourselves.


Imo it still is very valuable that RAH draws attention to the issue as he has a different standing in the industry than you or I and if somebody somewhere does make an effort to actually have a look at Spartacus while looking for the problems that he mentions he might actually see that they are there and understand that the Spartacus Blu-Ray could have been so much better.



#19 of 108 OFFLINE   smithb

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Posted June 03 2010 - 09:10 AM


Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert Harris 

The Blu-ray of Spartacus faithfully reproduces the HD master encoded upon it.  That master should receive a 0.5 for being identifiable as the specific film.  Beyond that, there is no upside to the disc.


RAH


As I stated before, I can fully understand your criticism of this release. Based on your knowledge of the film and that this is your craft, I wouldn't expect you to pull any punches.


As for myself, I develop software for a living. I can be very critical when I think software doesn't live up to my expectations (even my own). As such, it is quite possible we might be on opposite sides of the fence in this regard. Just goes to show that we can't all have the same degree of passion for everything of interest around us.


While I'm sure your review of Spartacus is both accurate and complete, you are just too close to the product for it to be of a deciding factor to my purchasing decision. I'm sure some aspects, such as the DNR used, will be of some notice to me and make this a lesser release. However, I'm pretty sure there are many other factors that are driving you crazy when watching this disk that I either wouldn't notice at all, or wouldn't have enough knowledge to know how it was intended to be. Based on this, it is actually more relevant in this case for me to seek out other reviews with less knowledge of the subject because it will be more repesentative of what I will be seeing. As crazy as that sounds.


While I really enjoy watching films, I am easily drawn into the content and loose focus on the technical merits before long. Someone in another thread mentioned having some disappointments with the apparent damage shown in the beginning of the new BR release of Stagecoach. They weren't quite sure if the amount of damage went significantly down as the film continued or whether they just got so interested in the story that they no longer paid attention to it. That is how it is with me. However, I could imagine how someone in your shoes might have a hard time not evaluating the technical merits throughout.





#20 of 108 OFFLINE   dpippel

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Posted June 03 2010 - 09:24 AM

Originally Posted by smithb 

While I'm sure your review of Spartacus is both accurate and complete, you are just too close to the product for it to be of a deciding factor to my purchasing decision. I'm sure some aspects, such as the DNR used, will be of some notice to me and make this a lesser release. However, I'm pretty sure there are many other factors that are driving you crazy when watching this disk that I either wouldn't notice at all, or wouldn't have enough knowledge to know how it was intended to be. Based on this, it is actually more relevant in this case for me to seek out other reviews with less knowledge of the subject because it will be more repesentative of what I will be seeing. As crazy as that sounds.


It sure sounds crazy to me. One of the great things about this forum is that it enables members to interact with and LEARN FROM people in the industry like Robert Harris. The opportunity to educate oneself, learn about proper home video presentation, and raise ones standards about home theater is the primary purpose of a place like HTF. If you want to remain blissfully ignorant about quality issues regarding DVD/Blu-ray releases what's the point of being here?


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