June 15, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• Taking the Plunge by Thomas J. Norton
• Dying A Quick Death At Retail by Shane Buettner
• DVDs of the Month by Thomas J. Norton

Taking the Plunge

By Thomas J. Norton

Will you be able to resist? With HD DVD players already on the market (though they are still hard to come by) and Blu-ray due soon, I wonder just how many enthusiasts will be able to hold fast to their typical answer when surveyed on the subject, "I'll wait until there's a winner."

That may take a while. Sony will certainly want to wait until the PlayStation3 is established in the market. Toshiba will wait to see just how much that videogame platform, which brings with it the promise of a competitively priced Blu-ray player, affects the race. And the whole ballgame will be changed if LG or someone else is able to bring a universal player to market at anything like an affordable price.

But because of HD DVD, and soon enough, Blu-ray, Tuesdays are fun again. Even when the new releases are of older films—as they have been almost universally to date—the anticipation of a fresh audio-video experience on the traditional video release day is palpable. For me, the first two months of the HD DVD format have echoed the early days of DVD.

And it hasn't come any too soon. The studios have pretty much milked their libraries, more than once, for creative ways to resell the same standard definition DVD titles. Anyone for Anaconda: the Super Director's Cut / Special Collector's Edition (Newly Remastered with Additional Deleted Scenes!)? While there are a few personal favorites that desperately need new transfers or even first releases (St. Elsewhere, where are you?) by and large the cupboard is bare of prime older movies and TV shows. In fact, if it weren't for the popularity of TV on DVD, which surprised everyone, the well would have run dry three years ago.

More than anything else it's this dearth of previously unreleased titles for DVD release that has the studios salivating over the potential of HD DVD, Blu-ray, or both. The success of high-definition on an optical disc could reinvigorate the video business.

I hope it does, even if it means I'll have to replace much of my video collection (but certainly not all of it- I'm not sure I really need a high def version of Danny Deckchair!). But it's chilling to look over the 1000+ titles on my DVD shelves and find very few that I'd decline, out of hand, to toss and replace with a new high def version. The cost would be crushing—particularly if the studios continue their practice of premium pricing for HD releases. (Did I hear you say that we in the biz get DVD review samples gratis? That's true, but not of everything. There are hundreds of titles in my collection that I've bought at retail, just like you. And a lot of freebies I would never have bought!)

Not all of my experiences with HD DVD to date have been pristine. With the caveat that so far I've watched these titles only on a 720p display (though arguably one of the very best, the Yamaha DPX-1300 DLP projector), I've found a few titles disappointing. The buzz in the on-line forums lately suggests that a few of the titles actually came not from 1080p/24 masters but from 1080i/60 masters instead, and that these were "bobbed" to create the 1080p/24 video on the disc. Bobbing is a crude way of de-interlacing video. Instead of properly stitching together the two fields that make up each frame of an interlaced image into a single frame, each field is instead line doubled by interpolating the additional lines needed to turn each 540p field into a 1080p frame.

In order to encode the disc at 1080p/24, a 1080i/60 master must not only be deinterlaced, but the extraneous fields that were added in the process of creating a 1080i/60 transfer from the 24fps film original must also be removed. This removal process is known as inverse 3/2 pulldown or reverse telecine.

The bottom line in all of this is that if bobbing does the conversion from 1080i/60 to 1080p/24, the resulting 1080p/24 is not high definition at all by any accepted definition of that term. And if the reverse telecine process is handled poorly, the image could also look worse than a good DVD.

I would not go that far with the two titles in question here, The Fugitive and Full Metal Jacket, both from Warner. They actually look quite respectable. But they are easily the least visually impressive HD DVDs I've seen. Nor are their audio tracks anything particularly special.

Two more recent titles that don't make the prime cut are The Bourne Supremacy and Constantine. The latter looks very clean, with surprisingly little visible film grain (though I would expect to see some), fine color, and good blacks (important in this film). But most of it looks surprisingly soft for a high definition transfer when blown up on a 78-inch wide projection screen. If I saw this image from a standard DVD, I'd rate that DVD below average in the detail department.

The Bourne Supremacy, on the other hand, does appear to be an accurate representation of that film's original elements. But the creative choices made in the film's look don't leave much room for eye-popping, high def detail. You won't use this disc to demonstrate HD on your home theater, but it is what it is. Both Bourne and Constantine do, however, have superlative surround sound.

The best-looking HD DVDs I've seen so far include The Phantom of the Opera, Unforgiven, U-571, Apollo 13, and The Chronicles of Riddick. The first four, all good films, belong in any early HD DVD collection (though clearly Unforgiven and Apollo 13 are in a class by themselves). Even Riddick contains enough eye candy to make it engaging. And it has been expanded here beyond its theatrical length by an additional 15 minutes, making its story far more coherent. If I were choosing a single HD DVD simply to demonstrate the format's picture quality, it would be Phantom, but Riddick wouldn't be far behind.

The above five titles also have exceptionally good sound, to which I can add Serenity, perhaps the best sounding of all the current HD DVDs. Serenity is also above average in picture quality, but not quite in the same class as the best-looking titles.

What about all of those other titles, the ones that fall between disappointing and great? I wrote off Doom early on despite its very good picture and sound because it's simply too dumb a film to consider. It's a hurl-inducing gore fest to boot, particularly in this "Unrated Extended Edition." The very dark Million Dollar Baby looks and sounds good, but its picture quality is uneven for a high definition transfer, looking sharp in some shots and surprisingly soft in others. And while it's also a fine film, it doesn't invite repeated viewing. Cinderella Man does, but, again, I don't find the transfer quality enough of an upgrade to get me excited.

Want more information? Our new movie blog, "The Movie Room," is now up and running, with more detail on many of these titles, and others as well. We'll also have a lot to say there about hot new standard definition DVDs. Check it out.

An entirely separate problem from the quality of the new HD DVD discs and players, which at their best can be astonishing, is their sheer (un)availability to date. Shane Buettner has a look at that problem in our next story.

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Dying A Quick Death At Retail

By Shane Buettner

Following HD DVD's launch and trying to get my hands of hardware and software as it's been released has given me a serious case of FUD ((Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) about both HD formats. The presence of HD DVD online and at retail is non-existent, and if it's the same for Blu-ray, good luck, and maybe good night.

My local retailers for HD DVD hardware and software are Magnolia Audio Video, Circuit City and Best Buy. Magnolia Audio Video and Circuit City, in a few random calls since HD DVD's launch, have never actually claimed to have an HD DVD player in stock to sell. Circuit and Best Buy typically have had to break from the phone call, and taken a couple of minutes just to give a lazy "check back next week," but at least Magnolia has claimed to have had players in stock and encouraged me to come in and order a player. As I write this Magnolia claims to have gotten in a run of 20-25 players and sold through it, and claims to have 10-12 orders in on their next run of 20-25 players (the exact arrival date of which is not known).

The software front is even more dire. My local Circuit City has occasionally had two or three copies of two or three titles, and that's it. On June 6th I went in and there was nothing- and nothing was exactly what the clerk I asked knew about what they are or where they might be.

On June 6th I continued on to two different Best Buy stores looking for the latest HD DVD releases, and there's a little story behind this too. Warner's PR firm has a strict policy of sending only one copy of each movie to any single publication. So, since Tom Norton and I are stationed 400 miles apart, I have to shop retail just like the common man order to cover Warner's entry into the new format. Makes sense. Screeners are too expensive to just hand out to journalists trying desperately to support your fledgling format. But I digress.

The reason I really wanted to track down some discs on June 6th is that this was supposed to be a hot day for HD DVD- not only had The Perfect Storm been released, but the relatively new Constantine was slated for that day in addition to a big combo HD DVD/DVD release of the brand spanking new Harrison Ford thriller Firewall. This disc is reputed to be the first disc to have brand new special features that take full advantage of the new format's enhanced interactivity.

Not only were none of these titles anywhere to be found at two different Best Buy stores, the HD DVDs had already been relegated to the miniscule shelf spaces, one of which was entirely separate from where the DVDs are sold. An aisle end display had perhaps a dozen copies of three or four different HD DVD movies, and then in the AV section of the store a flat panel TV was connected to an HD DVD player and there were perhaps 20 HD DVDs spanning 6-8 titles. None of them were the hot new titles that were in fact released that day.

This is the same treatment previously given to other fringe formats such as D-VHS/D-Theater, DVD-A and SACD, all of which can only be described as mainstream failures (of these formats only SACD is barely holding onto a narrow segment of the audiophile niche, and even there its sales are dwarfed by those of vinyl records). This is not retail support so much as retail life support!

Online the situation isn't much better. Amazon.com and Best Buy's web sites have consistently lagged behind with the new releases, often not having them available on the actual release date. As I write this Wal Mart's web site isn't advertising the three Warner titles released on June 6th. It's difficult to find HD DVD on either site without doing a direct search on the site.

Although initially HD DVD ads were prevalent, in Best Buy's 6/4 multi-page Sunday newspaper ad there were DVRs, DirecTV, progressive scan DVD players and even washing machines pimped as being on sale, but no HD DVD hardware or software.

Folks, Blu-ray had better get more run at retail than this, or we're going to be stuck with broadcast HD.

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By Thomas J. Norton

Kingdom of Heaven 4-Disc Director's Cut

Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendon Gleeson, Marton Csokas, and Liam Neeson. Directed by Ridley Scott. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1(anamorphic). 194 minutes (film). 2005. Not Rated. 5.1 Dolby Digital, 5.1 DTS. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98.

Picture 3.0* (out of 4*)
Sound 4.0*
Film 4.0*

When I read film critic Owen Gleiberman's review of the theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven in Entertainment Weekly a year or so back, I stopped to consider a phrase in his very first sentence. He referred to the film about the Crusades of the Middle Ages as "curiously remote." What, I pondered might make a film like this feel remote. Then it struck me. I hadn't yet seen the film, but other reviews referred to the efforts of both the script and director Ridley Scott to treat both the Christian and Moslem sides fairly. In today's sensitive climate, there was no other option. But if you have two sides whacking away at each other on screen and neither side is portrayed as the good guys, you're left with no one to root for. Gleiberman went on to make the same point. But that observation isn't exactly rocket science. Film convention demands that the viewer take sides. Otherwise your sympathies are split and you become confused and emotionally adrift. The film doesn't become remote. You do.

This extended Director's Cut doesn't alter that balance, but it does improve on the theatrical cut in so many other ways that it not only emerges as an entirely new experience, but one of Ridley Scott's finest films. It changes from a film that dropped from the radar shortly after it opened to a film that might have had a shot at an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 2005.

The original had too much story to tell in too little time, and left the viewer feeling rushed. When the young French Blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) encounters his previously unknown father, Godfrey, on the latter's way back to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, he at first declines Godfrey's plea to join him. But when he assaults his brother, the local priest, over an incident involving Balian's dead wife (who had committed suicide), he flees after Godfrey to join him. He runs to escape certain death in punishment for his act, but also to seek forgiveness both for him and for his dead wife.

In the original, Balian rises all to quickly to a position of prominence in Jerusalem, and we wonder how a humble blacksmith has become the noblest of knights. The extended version makes it very clear. In doing so it not only elevates the film from the mundane to the near great, but also enhances Orlando Bloom's role from perfunctory to impressive. He's no Russell Crowe, Scott's previous historical hero (Gladiator) but the part doesn't call for a Russell Crowe. Balian is not a great but disgraced general, but rather a good but humble man with undiscovered talents and a moral compass that ultimately validates his worth. The rest of the cast also rises smartly from (in some cases) the relative obscurity of their abbreviated roles in the original release to what turn out to be, in fact, superb performances across the board.

While the film tries to maintain a balance between Christians and Moslems, there is no question that the most significant villains here are on the Christian side. But by no means are all of the Christians portrayed as villains. Balian and his eventual followers, Tiberius the sheriff of Jerusalem (Jeremy Irons), the Hospitaler (David Thewlis) and Baldwin, the leper King of Jerusalem (an uncredited Edward Norton, completely covered apart from his eyes) are all noble and honorable men. But the fact that most of the film's running time takes place on the Christian side merely offers more opportunity for the story to show the wide variety of good and bad that spring up in any human endeavor as immense as the Crusades.

The film is spread out over two discs, with an intermission break and both an overture and brief intermission music. The video transfer is good, but softer than I'd like. Perhaps that will be corrected in a high definition version somewhere down the road. (Note to Fox: Make the first HD release of this film this extended cut and relegate the original to a historical curiosity, not an opportunity to double-dip yet again, this time on the HD enthusiast's dime.) The film's production design, with its Moorish interiors (the film was shot in Spain and Morocco) and sweeping battle scenes deserves the best transfer it can get. But while the current one could be better, it's still more than good enough to keep you absorbed in the film without distraction. Artifacts, including edge enhancement, were rarely evident.

The only down side to the detail HD will add is an enhancement of the movie's many gory fight scenes. There are a lot of bloody and cringe-inducing moments here, far more than in, say, Scott's Gladiator. This is my only reservation about the movie. We already know that war (particularly Medieval war) is hell. You don't need to (literally) hit us over the head with it. Excessive gore makes a film inaccessible to many viewers who could otherwise not only enjoy it, but just as important would profit from seeing it.

The sound is the real technical star here. I listened primarily to the 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Apart from some excessive bass (easily tamed by dialing down the subwoofer a bit) it is outstanding. The battle scenes are crushing, the surrounds active where appropriate, and the dialog natural. But the biggest treat for me was composer Harry Gregson-William's chorus-heavy score. It's ravishing, and ravishingly-recorded. I plan to pick up the CD at the first opportunity. Its only weakness is that while it has enough variety for a 2+-hour film, the 49 minutes added to this Director's Cut does result in a bit too much repetition.

I've come this far and still haven't touched on the special features. In addition to three fine commentary tracks there are two additional discs filled to overflowing with extras. The only shortcoming is that a few of the features provided on the original theatrical cut DVD are not included here. But apart from that you get your money's worth. The 4-disc set retails for $34.98, but it's available on Amazon for under $20. At that price it would be no bargain if the film were a dud. But it isn't. Even if there were no extras at all the movie itself would make this DVD package worth every penny.

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