2001: A DVD Odyssey Sound and Picture: The Best of the Best

Sound and Picture: The Best of the Best

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Shares Best Video Transfer honors with El Dorado. Nothing else this year came even close to these two for astonishingly crisp, clean, detailed images. The sound is a little bright, but the outstanding recording of James Newton Howard's majestic score more than makes up for it. (Audiophile alert: The soundtrack CD is a sonic blockbuster, too.) The two-disc Collector's Edition and the one-disc standard release look and sound identical. The film is enjoyable, though the talking dinosaurs and monkeys keep it firmly in the kids-first school of animation. But caveat emptor: Dinosaur does not play flawlessly on all DVD players. That might normally disqualify the transfer, but it looks and sounds so stunning that it deserves a spin in your machine. A remastered release is rumored, but we have no definite word on it.

El Dorado
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While this film doesn't reach quite the same high level as DreamWorks' best animation efforts (Chicken Run and Prince of Egypt), there's still a lot to savor. Count on the up side the excellent voiceover performances by Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline, plus the funny if slender story of two con men who discover the lost city of the title. The sound ranges from very good to spectacular. It's a little bright, but not enough to knock it out of a top rating. The Dolby Digital track sounds more open than the DTS, though the latter is richer, sweeter, and, as usual, recorded at a much higher level. This, with Dinosaur, is one of the two best-looking video transfers here. The colors are vivid, the detail and sharpness unsurpassed. There is also some smashing demo material (particularly chapters 24 and 25).

Fight Club
(20th Century Fox)
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This film is a strange animal. It's never truly entertaining in the usual sense, but is so unpredictable and off the wall that you get sucked into its grungy world. The images aren't pretty—the photography is consistently dark and grainy—but the DVD transfer captures the mood perfectly. The audio mix is absolutely incredible, including some of the deepest bass yet captured on DVD: Check out chapter 27, and from chapter 30 to the end. If you're not amazed, your subwoofer just doesn't go deep enough.

The Green Mile
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The Green Mile has been criticized for being slow and overlong, but a deliberate pace is one of its strengths for those willing to sit back and take it all in. This is not an action movie, and there are only a couple of scenes here that qualify as slam-bang demo material. But it's nevertheless one of those audio/video experiences that will be appreciated by home-theater fans who appreciate pristine audio and video quality served up with subtlety.

High Fidelity
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A consistently solid and original romantic comedy about a schlub of a record-store owner, Rob Gordon, who is obsessed with compiling Top Five lists. Most of them are of music and recordings, but the real McGuffin is Gordon's list of his own Top Five Romantic Breakups. While the film is not about high fidelity or recordings per se, music and records play important roles—it was clearly written by someone (Nick Hornby, from his novel) intimately familiar with the subject. Sample: Rob is reorganizing his own LP collection (biographically!) when a friend remarks, "You really shouldn't leave them in piles like that. The weight . . . "

The main audio attraction is the song-loaded soundtrack. It's little short of spectacular, and marginally betters even the one from the more widely publicized Almost Famous. The video creeps up on you more slowly, but before long you appreciate how consistently good it is: creamy-smooth and naturally detailed, neither achingly sharp nor soft and furry. Shadow detail is nearly perfect, and there's no obvious edge enhancement. I quickly tired of looking for a reason to give it less than a top rating and simply gave in to its relaxed, filmlike look.

(Columbia TriStar)
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Don't expect to come away whistling the score from this grim but oddly intriguing look at the recent ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. But the photography is surprisingly vivid, the video transfer appropriately bright, sharp, and pristine—there is no attempt to duplicate Saving Private Ryan's grainy atmosphere. Strangely, this does not detract from the cheerless plot. If anything, the beauty of the Balkan countryside drives home even more deeply the tragedy taking place within it. While never truly spectacular in a demo sense, the sound is top-drawer, too. This is particularly true of the score, with its crisp, driving percussion and haunting Yugoslav folk melodies.

Snow Falling on Cedars
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A moving look at the discrimination practiced against Japanese-Americans before and, in particular, during and after World War II, this film is much more about atmosphere, moods, and ideas than about plot. Because of that, you'll find it either subtly poetic or ponderous, but it will reward those who can sit still for its slow unfolding. While the images are consistently dark and brownish, the transfer could not be better or more appropriate to the film. The sound and mix are astonishing, though reserved and subtle through most of the film, with one major exception—the highly graphic battle scenes in chapter 14. Furthermore, the recording of James Newton Howard's atmospheric score could not be better. It's natural rather than overblown, full of the sort of depth and dimensionality audiophiles relish—in a word, spectacular, though not in the usual sense of that word.

Titan A.E.
(20th Century Fox)
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The plot and voice characterizations here are interesting if not always entirely satisfying, but the video is outstanding—one of the best efforts ever from Fox. While the mix of conventional and computer animation does not always work, there's little else to criticize in the look of the film and its transfer to DVD. The sound—ignoring the occasionally annoying and inappropriate rock soundtrack—is spectacular in every way, with vivid surround activity and crushing bass.

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As recent submarine movies go, this belongs in the second rank—it doesn't equal Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October—and was severely criticized for the liberties it took in suggesting that Americans captured the first Enigma coding machine from a German sub. That honor belongs to the Royal Navy, as the end-titles make clear. But it's still a cracking good story, with lots of action and a soundtrack to die for. Just make sure your subwoofers are prepared for it! There's nothing to complain about in the crisply detailed video transfer, either.