You know what - this may well be the most superfluous review of a transfer that I've ever written. By now, almost all of you will be painfully aware of the problems this Blu-ray incarnation of Gladiator suffers. Forum frenzy had seemingly dictated that this transfer was a disaster on an epic scale even before most us had even clapped eyes on it. My own frustration at being way down the line to actually find out whether this was true or not inevitably led to my own expectations being woefully low. Having already got the original R1 and R2 editions, followed by the Superbit and the SD Extended Edition, the opportunity for a full-on, pixel-by-pixel comparison certainly offers itself, but there seems very little point, to be honest. Almost everything negative that you have heard about this transfer is actually true - which hurts to admit - but what has rarely been taken into account are the things that are surprisingly rewarding about it. Yep, believe it or not, there are some good point, too, which I will get to in due course.
Firstly, folks, this UK region-free release from Universal carries exactly the same transfer as the US edition from Paramount, so don't get your hopes up for any revelations.
Anyway, let's look at the established facts.
This 2.35:1 AVC MPEG-4 transfer has clearly been obtained by combining two earlier masters. The first, and predominant one, culled from the film's initial 2001 DVD debut, and the second hailing from the 2005 Extended Edition's release. What was deemed appropriate for the much lower resolution of standard DVD - the image artificially sharpened with edge enhancement - is something that often appals us when seen on a high-def picture. We don't need edge enhancement on a 1080p transfer, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of Gladiator's footage now carries it, whilst the extended elements, taken from a master that was created, no doubt, with one eye on an eventual hi-def release, have none. Plus, that other visual blight that poisons the eyes (and minds) of some viewers, yet leaves others amazingly untouched - yep, the dreaded smudge of DNR - is apparent upon every scene from the original theatrical cut, yet kept away from those extended scenes, which tend not to suffer any undue extra processing. The result of this cut 'n' paste transfer is an image that clearly alters from smooth and artificial to textured and natural throughout the movie. Clearly this is horribly unacceptable from a technical standpoint and totally puts this prestigious release in the shade, catapulting it from its intended top-tier ranking and leaving its blissfully unmolested brother-in-arms, Braveheart, waving dismissively down at it.
Those opening scenes in Germania, although the most notorious parts of the transfer and held up by the mob for ridicule and scorn on both sides of the Pond, however, have always looked ropey. That washed-out, frost-filtered appearance was never intended to produce swathes of detail. Its black levels were meant to be intense, as was its decoration of grim haziness. Mud, blood and shadow - it is a squalid image to be sure. However, it is the abject over-use of digital noise removal that has resulted in the loudest and most vociferous outcry. The “now-you-see-'em, now-you-don't” arrows that encounter the Bermuda Triangle whilst in mid-flight, the smeary trajectory of scratch removal leaving digital vapour trail are well-known causes for concern. But ... aha ... but, even knowing about the existence of these errant idiocies and reluctantly looking for (and finding) them, I didn't feel that they hampered the scene at all. In fact, in all honesty, I felt pretty stupid scrutinising such fast-moving frames for nano-second glimpses of digital black magic. Aye, it should never have happened, but I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of viewers aren't even going to notice it. Far more damaging, I would say, are the now-obvious CG elements, that look even more fake than they ever did before. Scott's insistence on “cooking” the distance travelled by the fireballs a little clearly blowing all physics out of the window, and the arrival of Commodus in Rome - which never looked all that convincing - now looks ridiculously artificial, both EE and DNR conspiring to rob the money-shots of any integrity.
The banding in the ochre swirl surrounding the titles is a disappointment, right from the get-go, you realise that something is wrong here. Bubbling away like one of Marvel's banding-plagued animated BD's, this is an immediate mistake that may be slight, but remains unforgivable and sets the tone for much of the disappointment that will follow. I could be wrong, but I thought I saw some more minimal banding taking place in the sky during one of Max's surreal landscape hallucinations, as well. Grain has not been entirely removed. Instead, it varies from scene to scene, though this very inconsistency can prove irritating. You will see it against the skies and during many of the more intense physical encounters, but it has a random quality that is very un-film-like. There is even a slight element of aliasing from time to time, though, on its own, this is barely noticeable and no major problem.
Maximus and Marcus Aurelius look startlingly processed during the early portion of the film, although I found that I quickly got used to this, and since a lot of other faces, later on, don't seem to suffer half as much, I was able to get by and, even, almost forget about it. That sound odd? Well, the thing is, the texture may have been altered (or stripped), but there is still a huge level of detail retained by the image. Yes, there is plentiful extra material to be found among the ranks of soldiery, and in the bigger, more crowded street scenes in Rome - something that is easily overlooked in all previous versions is the people climbing the stone steps in the far background, middle of the picture, as Proximo and his men enter the city - but the details found in the costumes, the sets, themselves, the rock and the sand, the jewellery etc, provide ample reasons why this transfer is not at all a complete loss. But, back to the unwanted processing - just look at the scene when Juba and Maximus sit in reflective conversation atop the walls of Proximo's desert compound. See how fine Juba looks in close-up, how texture-less Maximus looks, and then how the two of them and, indeed, the entire vista and set appear when viewed in a longer shot - awful. And yet, there are the little tiny hairs on Crowe's ears (yeah, I know, I know - how comprehensive do we need to get with this!) that define themselves even against the edge enhancement. Other scenes - Proximo emoting to Max about the glory of winning the crowd, Commodus reluctantly adhering to the mob and the comical scene of Hagen playfully choking - carry that fake “waxy” look of having been smoothed-over.
But, oh yes, the edge enhancement. Sadly, this seems to surround almost everything, not just figures silhouetted against horizons, or the edges of heads, shoulders and buildings - but individual spears, swords, structures, wagons, arms and armour. Many of the bright sunlit scenes in the Colosseum, itself, look startling bad when seen in mid to long-distance shots - such as the surrounding of a victorious Maximus and his men by the Praetorian after seeing off the chariots, or brightening the lines around the pillars, the walls and the statuary at virtually all times. Now, I'm not viciously bothered by EE usually, as once I've noticed it, I tend to just to get on with it, but this really is a pretty bad example of excessive haloing that has only been accentuated by the higher resolution.
Turning our attention to the transfer's handling of colour results in an altogether different outcome. I would say that the BD looks significantly better in its presentation of the spectrum. The pennants and flags of the Felix Legions now offer up some much more apparent purples and gold. Indeed, the purple of the Praetorians is also beneficially enhanced throughout. Scenes in the tents of the army encampment and the chambers of Commodus' palace have more intricate variance in colours. The earthy squalor of Germania is still accurately drab, overcast and miserable, the eerie sterile blue filtering of Scott's palette here remaining as cold as it always was. Yet the fires of the battle and the flickering lanterns still burn warmly. Once the darkness of the film's earlier act has subsided, the hot colours of Morocco and Rome (well, Malta) are beautiful in comparison. Flesh-tones have a lot of variance, although all tend to veer towards the hotter, more blushing end of the scale. Eyes reveal their colours keenly and finite contrasts in embroidery, tapestries and murals are well depicted. Blood is thick and dark, sand has some degree of variance and the tones and lustre of hard steel - whether pitted and worn or spangling and new - runs the gamut of shades and gleaming hues. Variety of colour in the Colosseum crowd is also well delineated and picked-out amongst the throng. The vivid red of the drapes, the paint and the blood-smeared on the ox before the chain-fight is also nicely saturated, as are the rose-petals (I mean poppies) showering the arena for the final duel. In fact, I have no problem whatsoever with the colour reproduction this transfer offers. Nor its very strong and consistent black levels and assured shadow delineation. Contrast, too, is typically put through its paces in a Ridley Scott film, but I would say comes up trumps here.
I must apologise if this write-up seems slightly schizophrenic, denouncing one minute, praising the next. But I can't recall encountering a transfer that provides such rich pickings, from one extreme to the other, that have to be examined. The image swings from mess to really quite appealing depending upon what element you are looking at. And, no matter how unsavoury the effects of the DNR, detail on this image is greater than on any previous home video release. This just isn't up for question. Even amidst the visually unholy squall of the Germania battle, we can see the advancing Roman lines with much more clarity - the image, during some shots, noticeably brighter than before - and individual faces, isolated pockets of skirmishing, foliage, armour and wounds are more readily apparent. Curiously, one shot during the melee that always looked quite glaringly speeded-up - a couple of Roman soldiers running from right to left - now looks evenly timed. It is brief, but I clocked that as an improvement. And there are many more little gems that crop up from time to time - even things that I, who have probably watched this film more times than anybody else, have never noticed before ... a helmet sitting on a ledge or accidentally knocked askew on an extra's head, someone blundering into pots and urns, and all manner of activities in the crowd scenes. This release has already become historic for all the wrong reasons, but can you honestly expect to get another one any time soon? If you can wait it out and, believe me, I know how hard this wait, and its eventual disappointment have been, then I wouldn't dream of persuading you to do otherwise. But this edition of Gladiator, as stupidly flawed as it is, is still appreciably better looking than the SD editions that have come before it. It all depends on whether you can interpret any of this as being enough to warrant forking out for it.
With my review copy going astray, I didn't mind buying this edition at all. And nor would I contemplate taking it back and complaining about it. Personally, as aggrieved by this transfer as I am, I can live with it and will still enjoy seeing it splashed across the big screen in more detail than I've ever seen it exhibit before on home video.
Perhaps fittingly, the UK release, whether you opt for the steel-book or the regular version, features cover imagery that is embossed and raised from the background - almost as though it has been sharpened with EE and glossed with DNR.
So, how well does Gladiator shape up in the arena of sound now that it has made it to the Colosseum of lossless audio?
Now, in all this controversy, the one thing that nobody seemed to mention, was the audio transfer. Surely to the Gods, they couldn't muck this element up. I mean, Ridley Scott's movies pride themselves on profoundly intelligent mixing, incorporating intricate and powerful sound designs - Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom Of Heaven have all got amazing audio dexterity and class. Gladiator had always stood at the forefront of those other titles with the utterly fantastic DTS 6.1 matrixed track that adorned the SD and Superbit editions. Sadly it dropped the ball when it first came to its Extended Edition release, which, in a bit of a shocker, carried only the (admittedly still very good) DD 5.1 track. But now we get the full Extended cut in lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1. WOW. At last.
And yet ... ohhh, I don't know, folks. To put this simply - to me, this track doesn't sound like much of an upgrade over the old DTS-ES. Listening to key sequences today from both this lossless incarnation and the previous 6.1, the older track actually, on occasion, seemed to carry more oomph, more weight and more density. With that one, I think I can feel the impacts more. The Battle Of Carthage, with its shunting overturning of the chariot by Maximus' boys, the crash into the arena wall that so excites Commodus and, best of all, the chariot that rockets through the gates and pitches over amid the carnage of toppled horses and attendants - none of this sounded appreciably better, engulfing or more sub-engaging with the lossless track. The clash of the Romans and the barbarians at the beginning was only as alarmingly fierce, the vast explosion of the hurled fire-pots and the rapid chunk! and thwunk! of Max's swords first severing a head against a tree and then removing the weapon and the hand of an enemy a little further on maybe even lacked the raw aggression of the older track.
But, before you go thinking that this track is decidedly inferior, it is not. It just doesn't seem to make much of improvement over the already stunning DTS 6.1. However this still offers a magnificent presentation of steerage, positioning, clarity, range, depth and all-round immersion. I would say that it is only the deep bass levels that I really thought would be more dominant - but, even so, they are still powerful enough to jaw-drop, foundation tremble and window rattle, so don't expect anything less than profound despite my apparent misgivings.
So, on to the good stuff.
The whip-around immersion of the arrow and fireball bombardment is pretty much awesome. The reach of the explosions across the front is terrific, the crash of bodies and the passage of horses around the set-up remarkably vivid and precise. Surround ambience is often fantastic, with voices convincingly emanating from all around with natural depth and distancing. The Romans' victory celebration, the musicians and the hubbub from each corner of the regal marquee is authentic, and the birdsong, the creaking of twigs and boughs during the sequence when Maximus is about to be executed widely dispersed and sounding perfectly natural. I will use these moments as key standards for much of the less bombastic scenes that follow. The Moroccan and Roman scenes all offer an equal dexterity, warmth and range for dialogue and ambience. Voices have distinction and the sense of scale in some of the larger chambers is palpable. Even the odd taunting voice from the crowd is delivered with firm directionality and distancing. Surround usage is supreme. Stand-outs abound. Maximus hurling his sword at a cantering Praetorian immaculately whups its way towards its target from over your right shoulder. The swinging of that face-pulping mace that takes out Mr. Spiky Hair is equally glorious. Carthage hurls arrows, spears and tumbling wood, horses and bodies from all around us with dazzling intensity. The tigers roar across the lounge so realistically that you may find yourself checking for rips in the carpet. The clanging of swords is sharp, acute and full of authentic-sounding heft. The variety in these metal-on-metal clashes is also wide and diverse. When Tigris (Arnie's long-time muscle-buddy, Sven-Ole Thorsen) suddenly lunges at Max, after he has been distracted by the attendants yanking on some suspicious chains, the litany of different clangs and clouts, as well as the realistic scuffle of kicked sand, definitely puts you right in the chopping-line. Maximus battling Commodus at the end produces some excellent sound effects, too. In fact this scene actually contains two of my favourite impact-sounds - the solid echoing sword bash that really resonates with wrist-jangling clout during the top-down shot of the pair circling each other, and the teeth-splintering bone crunch when Max slams his knee into the Emperor's poncy mush (God, I love that bit!). The roar of the crowd is always reassuringly deep and encompassing, too.
So the lossless track delivers where it counts.
But the other vital ingredient that has to truly shine is Zimmer's score, which is, thankfully, rich and full-bodied and flows effortlessly around the speakers. One thing that I did notice was that during the Battle Of Carthage, the metallic percussion that he uses, particularly during the moment when Maximus orders his men into “Single column! Single column!” is a little bit more pronounced. Detail in the score, across the high ends and the mid-range, is also smoother and a little more pleasing, stretching out to all the speakers with ease. Lisa Gerrard's haunting vocals simmer and then soar, her amazing voice able to drop and float with an uncanny precision that this track keeps pace with.
So, whilst this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track doesn't exactly walk all over the earlier DTS-ES 6.1 incarnation, it doesn't make a single mistake and delivers all-out immersive atmospherics with detail, depth and dynamism, providing a wonderfully exhilarating experience. It's just too bad that the video side of things couldn't match up.
Well, if you thought the film was epic. Cop a load of what's on offer here. Everything from the earlier Expanded Edition has been shipped over on to this 2-disc platter. And, here, folks, there is absolutely no room for complaint, as that already outstanding collection of bonuses has actually been added to with fresh goodies.
Disc 1 contains both the theatrical and the extended cut of the movie with a small introduction from Ridley Scott (which can be viewed separately, as well) for the longer version in which he explains that it is not a Director's Cut ... just a longer one. We get the two older Commentary Tracks, the best one adorning the Extended Cut with Scott and Russell Crowe, which is worth its weight in gold as far as I am concerned, and the one from Scott and Editor Pietro Scalia and Cinematographer John Mathieson for the Theatrical. Both commentaries are fine and worth listening to. The theatrical is drier and more technical, but solid and very informative, whilst the chat over the top of the Extended cut is fast, fun and ribald, with neither holding back with their language or choice of anecdote. But, as entertaining as it is, the track is also immensely infuriating. For me, this was a chance for Crowe, the man, to somehow redeem himself with regards to his attitude - but he still comes across as overly arrogant and big-headed. He even finds the time to tell a story of witnessing a drunken Oliver Reed punching everybody within reach on the streets of Malta. “So sad,” he intones. That's rich, coming from the world's most notable celebrity-thug! There is much talk of the filmmaking “Process” and the “Journey” of the character, which is nice, but it is dealt with in stuttering, only half-completed movie-speak, never quite revealing enough, or reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Still, it is wonderful to have the pair give some insight into the movie and the character of Maximus. I'd love to hear Scott's full thoughts on the mind-boggling concepts of theNic Cave penned sequel, though.
Disc 1 also contains the Scrolls Of Knowledge U-Controlled function, which applies pop-up trivia and behind-the-scenes featurettes to both versions of the film, but with the Extended Cut having a more comprehensive selection. Another little gimmick for this disc is the ability to select and bookmark a vast array of further featurettes that can be found over on the Disc 2, under the banner of Visions Of Elysium, which your player will remember for when you insert that disc.
So, what do we have in this second legion of extras?
Well, besides the bewildering plethora of featurettes in Visions Of Elysium, Disc 2 houses the epic making-of documentary Strength and Honour: Creating the World of Gladiator. Running for a staggering three hours and sixteen minutes (you can choose to watch individual chapters) this is the kind of thorough, in-depth and fully comprehensive appreciation that you wish all your favourite movies could have. Folks, this stuff is simply mesmerising in its wealth of detail and information. A veritable treasure-trove of story development, raw footage, interviews, behind-the-scenes gubbins and tremendous retrospect from an army of participants. Literally leaving no stone unturned, we are introduced to the producers, the writers, the historians, the fight co-ordinators, the actors and the director, himself, who all help to steer this monolithic chronicle across the sea of time. Some of the clips are like extended or alternate versions of information and interviews we've seen already on the original DVD from 2001 - but, don't feel short changed - this is the real deal, warts and all! Full of anecdote, frank and honest, the documentary hides nothing - from the actor/director spats and script turmoil of committee writing to the construction of weapons, costumes and visual effects - and conclusively proves that Rome wasn't built in a day. If I even began to divulge some of the meaty stuff examined and revealed herein, I'd possibly never stop. So, take my word for it, this is excellent. My one slight gripe is that Russell Crowe only appears in the interviews taken from the film's production whilst everybody else, except the big three thesps that are sadly no longer with us - Reed, Harris and the wonderfully eyebrow-tweaking David Hemmings - all appear keen to reminisce. What's especially nice to see is the aftermath of the film's global success and the multiple award-winning that it achieved and the effect all this adulation had upon the cast and crew - particularly costume designer Janty Yates, who still looks over-awed by it all. Top class. Well done to all involved.
And, guess what? This gargantuan documentary just got bigger! This has now been equipped with 64 exclusive PiP featurettes (small but good and extremely wide-ranging) that can be accessed separately or via U-Control. Taken as little extra asides to the themes explored in the main feature, this is just Gladiator Elysium, folks!
To be honest, there is so much stuff here that I haven't noticed if the previous version's Easter Egg regarding the very tantalising prospect of Gladiator 2: The Blood Of The Empire is here or not. Don't laugh or dismiss it - all the key players were involved in this and the scripts do exist. But bizarrely, no-one is ruling out some kind of return for Maximus. God, I hope not. Despite my unadulterated admiration for the character and the story, I just don't think his coming back would ever work, apart from in a prequel - Maximus: Rise To Glory! And the makers dutifully dismiss that option. Besides, I don't think I could go through this entire obsession again. Not to mention the important fact that the wife wouldn't be too happy, either.
Under the title of Aurelian Archives, we get the promotional material that fans will all be familiar with from the earlier SD editions. There are the Making Of Gladiator (25 mins), ace historical doc, Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport (50 mins), Hans Zimmer on Scoring Gladiator (21 mins), a few minutes with Crowe between takes and Spencer Treat Clark's text and photo Journal of the production. We get hundreds of images, stills and conceptual work for the film. Every single element from costume to weapons, furnishings to the Colosseum is detailed in close scrutiny - we meet the principal movers and shakers and are treated to lavish galleries of their work. Production Designer Arthur Max talks about scale, the differing locations - England, Malta, Morocco - and the pure logistics of it all. The original paintings, such as the pivotal Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome that kick-started the whole project, receive the respect they are due for their themes, imagery and use of lighting - all so integral to the look and style of the finished movie.
Storyboarding is covered with Conceptual Artist Sylvain Despretz and alongside his gallery we get multi-angle comparisons of storyboard-to-film, Ridley Scott's own doodlings and an in-depth section dedicated to Janty Yates' celebrated costume illustrations. Some of the promotional portraits are a hoot - check out some of Russell Crowe's naff heroic poses.
There are the Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes. We get the Alternate Title Design with a featurette all about this beautiful, striking but ultimately too long and elaborate take on the opening credits. Blood Vision which, with a mixture of storyboard and outtake (with optional commentary from Scott) details Maximus' vision of the murder of his wife and child. I love this scene - it also plays in the Treasure Chest montage of unused footage that is a holdover from the first SD releases - and I find it amazingly moving and visually haunting. The infamous Rhino Fight is covered with storyboard and CGI test footage and carries an optional commentary from Sylvain Despretz. This would have been immensely cool to have seen, but would have the dragged the movie into marathon running time. Incidentally, Hans Zimmer actually provided music for this sequence that is a great mixture of familiar heroic stuff as well as some startling new material. Next up is a newly-discovered Deleted Scene called Choose Your Weapon which runs for 49 seconds and, in all honesty, adds absolutely nothing, being merely a few inserts between Maximus and Juba during the pre-chain-fight sequence.
That Tresure Chest montage crops up here, too. Set to Zimmer's score, we get dialogue-less shots, ruminations and additional footage from the opening battle (more carnage here) to the various gladiatorial bouts (more carnage here, too) to Rome and Commodus' revenge against those who denounce him. It climaxes with that Blood Vision moment. Awesome.
And there's more. VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome is a nuts and bolts breakdown of the CG work pioneered to create the vast armies and the seamless reality of the Colosseum from quietly-spoken computer-boffins. Running for 23.48 mins, it is surprising just how easy it all looks!
One new thing that I loved about this was the freshly unearthed featurette, An Evening With Russell Crowe, that lasts for about 27 minutes and just has the star on amazingly charismatic and fun-loving form in front of a clearly agog audience, fielding questions like a pro and having a right old time of it. Yep, he is arrogant and inescapably up himself, but he is also one of the finest, most intense actors around and this little promo showcase from the post-release press junket is something he does spectacularly well - when he is in the right mood, that is.
And finally, we get the incredible Trailers - the Theatrical Teaser cut to Basil Poledouris' awesome score for Conan The Barbarian is by far the best - and a whopping 20 (yes 20!) TV Spots that have individual titles and themes. I still love that Coming 2000 AD slogan.
Folks, this set of bonuses reveals a passion and a dedication that it is only paralleled by The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy of extended editions. It is remarkable, vital and all-engrossing. No matter what your feelings towards double, triple, or quadruple-dipping, this package is absolutely essential for die-hard fans of the film, even considering any qualms regarding its troublesome transfer. Oh, and the menus are exquisite too.
How you could give this unbelievable roster of features anything less than the top score is beyond me.
One of the most troubled and controversial titles ever to make the leap to Blu-ray arrives with a sub-par transfer that, miraculously, still doesn't look as bad as so many are determined to make it seem. Nevertheless, my most eagerly anticipated Blu-ray release ever (with Jaws running a very close second), the wait awfully protracted by post strikes and made all the more unbearable by the wave of hostile reviews elsewhere, is an immense disappointment.
I had a dream that was Gladiator on Blu-ray - this is not it!
Yet there are glimpses here of what could have been. If only they'd used the 2005 print for the entire film, then there would be none of this resentment and Gladiator could justifiably sit beside Braveheart as a shining example of how to treat epically prestigious movies. However, no-one can dispute the startling value of this lavish package, and for most people who pick this up, the irony will be that they will adore its picture and revel in its audio, without question believing that this is the best it could ever be. And trying to point out its failures to them will have all the success of a Christian pleading with the lions. But I must confess that now I have finally seen what has been done to Gladiator, I am not as horrified as I thought I would be. There are enough elements here to have me spinning this edition many more times, I can tell you. But I would be lying if I claimed that I was happy with this image.
As Juba says to the spirit of Maximus, “I will see you again. But not yet ... not yet ...”, we should, perhaps, feel the same way about a future release of Gladiator that eradicates all the errors made with this one. But, as things stand right now, the mob is, indeed, fickle and the potential boycott of this edition does smack of Commodus' sulky petulance - at least as far as studios like Universal and Paramount are concerned. The image is most certainly not the abomination that many cite it as being, and the majority of punters will love what they see, I'm sure. The package, overall, is simply magnificent and the “event” of Gladiator's BD debut, as tarnished as it is, is still not quite a travesty. Regardless of the rather pointless argument about something in hi-def being better than the DVD “not being good enough”, I know which version of the film I will be watching in the future. It is NOT what it should have been, by an Appian Way, but the extra detail and colour of this transfer make it a worthwhile viewing experience, just the same.
At least the smoothly CG'd Oliver Reed now blends in with the rest of the image a bit better, eh?
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