Home Theater Workout
The following reviews appeared as "Reference DVD" features in the Movies section of Sound & Vision. Out of the 22 discs chosen for their exceptional audio and video from September 2000 through July/August 2003, I consider these five the standouts. BLUE CRUSH Universal
H awaiian surfer girl lives to ride pipe but - between working, raising a kid sister, and dating an NFL quarterback - doesn't have enough time to hit the waves. Blue Crush is a lightweight romp that won't tax your intellect but will make you want to plan your next vacation for Hawaii. The surfing scenes are exciting, and they come along frequently enough that you won't have time to get hung up on the thin characters and plot.
As eye candy, Blue Crush rates high. Much of the film was shot using natural light, and the sun-drenched beach scenes display remarkable contrast and vivid color. I don't think I've ever seen the ocean look this inviting. Shadows are solid, even in shots that take place at dawn or dusk, and there isn't a trace of speckling or edge enhancement. The surprisingly potent soundtrack centers you in the action during surfing scenes, with buckets of water gushing from the front to the rear of the room. Underwater sequences are particularly effective, with all channels engaged at once to create a realistic sense of submersion. Extras include a cast and director commentary, deleted scenes, a Lenny Kravitz music video, and three featurettes on surfing. English, French, and Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1; letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.
BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA Columbia TriStar
Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 remake of Dracula was the last film I caught at the massive single-screen cinema in my hometown before it finally shut its doors, and watching it under such ideal conditions had a huge impact on me. Each one of Coppola's frames looked as carefully composed as a painting, and the way he layered images on top of one another infused even ordinary scenes with dramatic intensity.
I was brought back to that first screening by the new Superbit DVD edition of Dracula - one in a series of discs released by Sony that use lower compression rates in the transfer, at the expense of DVD extras. The disc's image quality is nothing if not cinematic: colors look rich and robust, and the wide contrast range creates an almost three-dimensional effect. There's even enough detail to bring out the texture of film grain - another factor adding to my nostalgia trip. The soundtrack, heard on a good system, is as impressive as the picture. In scenes where Jonathan Harker roams through Dracula's castle, the rear channels deliver a shifting fabric of bat noises, monstrous breathing, and ghoulish music. And when the Dark One makes his voyage to England, the ungodly sonic storm that he unleashes is something to experience. English, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1; letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT Columbia TriStar (Superbit)
The pristine images and dynamic soundtrack of the earlier Fifth Element DVD have led many to regard it as the reference disc to end all reference discs. It's hard, therefore, to imagine that Columbia TriStar could go back and do better, but it has. The new release is part of the studio's Superbit line - premium DVDs that eschew extras in order to make room for both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks and a video track that's encoded at twice the normal DVD bit rate. The result doesn't look twice as good, but it's a definite improvement that owners of big-screen TVs and front-projection systems should notice.
Comparing the original transfer with the Superbit, what immediately grabs you is the latter's greater image clarity. Shadows have improved depth and detail, and colors look more intense. The complex backgrounds in many shots are rock-solid and free of the pulsing artifacts that show up in several scenes on the original disc. Except for the addition of a DTS soundtrack, there's not much new to report on the audio front. The movie's wonderfully playful score and active surround effects remain first-rate. English, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1; letterboxed (2.35:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.
MULLHOLLAND DR. Universal Movie DVD
No two people seem to agree on what Mulholland Dr. is about. My take is that the first half, in which an innocent young woman newly arrived in town helps an amnesiac track down her identity, is actually a dream that is packed with clues to the real course of events shown in the second half. However, the film also suggests that there is a deeper layer of reality where monstrous figures shape our destinies.
The flawless transfer makes this one of the best-looking DVDs I've ever seen. The film drifts through various lighting schemes - dark to dim to deliriously sunny - and all are rendered with the appropriate degree of contrast. Colors look vivid, and skin tones are consistently natural from scene to scene. Director David Lynch is a master of sound design, and Mulholland Dr. contains textbook examples of his use of cacophony and other sonic shifts. Soft but persistent low-frequency rumbles create an overall atmosphere of subtle disquiet. Against this backdrop, unexpectedly loud scenes - like the car crash that opens the film or the weird nightclub performance - are incredibly jarring. Sadly, the only extras are the trailer and some biographies, and there are no chapter stops. English, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1; letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer. VERTICAL LIMIT Columbia TriStar
If there's an upside to mountaineering, you won't be able to glean it from watching Vertical Limit. From start to finish, the cast of climbers in this story of an ill-fated attempt to scale the world's most dangerous peak are repeatedly subjected to avalanches, entombment in ice caves, and other acts of God. And then there's a brilliant rescue mission (involving sticks of nitroglycerin) that kills more people than it saves. The script may be over the top, but Vertical Limit makes for an amazing DVD experience. The highly effective Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack loads on bass and directional effects in the numerous disaster setups. But it's also active in the quiet scenes, conveying subtle sounds like wind whipping across a snow-filled valley. Image quality is excellent. Most of the film was shot on location on snow-capped peaks, and both the white powder and the rocky crags beneath come across with incredible detail. Also, the climbers' colorful jackets and camping gear are intensely vibrant, and their flesh tones always look natural. The extensive supplements include a director's commentary, a making-of documentary, and a National Geographic featurette plus recountings of search-and-rescue missions. English, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround; French, Dolby Surround; letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.