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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

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Short Takes on Recent Films Released on HD-DVD


Black Rain (HD-DVD)

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Black Rain
1989 (2006) - Paramount
Released on HD-DVD on January 23rd, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital PlusDTS

Film: B
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: B


Specs and Features:
125 mins, R, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.4:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition (except the theatrical trailer presented in HD), audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1EX & DTS 6.1 (English), Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned


Black Rain is a fairly gripping crime thriller that focuses on a New York detective (Michael Douglas) under investigation for corruption who, along with his partner (Andy Garcia), is tasked with returning a cold-blooded killer back to his native Japan. There he manages to hand his prisoner over to the wrong people and must then recapture him with the help of a straight-laced Japanese cop (Ken Takahura) and a beautiful club hostess (Kate Capshaw). The location shooting in Osaka adds a measure of the exotic to what is otherwise a pretty conventional police story with a protaganist we've seen many times before. Michael Douglas, however, elevates the character's interest with the same effective air of barely controlled anger that his father Kirk so often accomplished in similar material. In director Ridley Scott's hands, the plot does move along reasonably briskly and the action scenes are well blended with the more character-driven sequences. A quarter hour excised from the running time would have produced a tighter package more appropriate to the familiar material, though. The best thing in the film is the work by Ken Takahura and the worst is the script's condescending approach to Japanese police procedures reminiscent of past such filmic atrocities.

The film may not be the best, but the image transfer is in the upper ranks. The image is virtually spotless and offers a very film-like appearance with spot-on colours and fleshtones. Sharpness and image detail are very good with the exception of a few of the night-time sequences. There are DTS 6.1 and Dolby Digital Plus EX options for the sound, and while there is nice dynamicism across the front, none will blow you away as surround and LFE have minimal impact. The supplementary package is identical to that on the standard DVD two-disc release which appeared at about the same time and overall is very good, including a new and very thorough four-part documentary, one of Ridley Scott's usual fine audio commentaries, and the theatrical trailer (presented in HD).

If you're a fan of the film and somehow don't have a home video copy yet, this is the version to have, but if you already have the very fine recent two-disc standard DVD SE, an upgrade isn't really necessary.


Casino (HD-DVD)

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Casino
1995 (2006) - Universal
Released on HD-DVD on December 19th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B


Specs and Features:
179 mins, R, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, English SDH


With Martin Scorsese currently vying to win a directing Oscar for The Departed after five previous failed nominations, it's a pleasure to revisit one of his 1990s successes, Casino. In many ways a follow-up to Goodfellas, Casino goes beyond that film's men's world and adds in a female dimension in the person of Sharon Stone. She plays the gold-digging Ginger who comes between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Las Vegas. Despite Stone's presence though, Casino retains much of the Goodfellas ethos and the De Niro character's fate parallels that of Ray Liotta's in many ways. As always, Scorsese is a master in recreating an era and a way of life, and the film bears repeated viewings for that reason alone. All three principal players deliver superb performances and the film is riveting throughout. Typically for Scorsese, it will prove to be a little violent for some but averting the eyes at a few appropriate moments won't hurt one's appreciation of a master at work.

Casino has been well served on HD-DVD by Universal. The image is crisp, clear and colourful, and generates many scenes with a real three-dimensional pop. The sequences in the casino are particularly effective in this regard. Skin tones appear correct and source material defects are practically non-existent. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound track consisting of contemporary songs is a pleasure to experience, both in terms of the music itself as well as the energy the disc's audio imparts to them. Noticeable directionality and effective ambience characterize the soundtrack. The best of the extras is a four-part documentary that includes participation by virtually everyone involved with the film, but also included are some deleted scenes and an artificial audio commentary cobbled together from interviews with Scorsese, Stone, and writer Nicholas Pileggi. Recommended, even for those who already have the recent standard DVD SE.


Field of Dreams  (HD-DVD)

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Field of Dreams
1989 (2006) - Universal
Released on HD-DVD on December 12th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 17.5
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: A


Specs and Features:
106 mins, PG, VC1 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc Anniversary Edition DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English) & 2.0 (French), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, English SDH


"If you build it, he will come" is one of those lines from the movies that has made its way into the general consciousness over time. In this case, we have the marvelous tribute to the restorative quality of baseball that is Fields of Dreams to thank. Based on a short story by W.P. Kinsella, the film is a fantasy in which an Iowa farmer is inspired by a persistent voice to plow under part of his corn crop in order to build a baseball field. The voice then leads him on a voyage that links a 1960s protest writer, Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, and a baseball-player-turned-Minnesota-doctor. The film is ideally cast and performed in the persons of Kevin Costner starring as the farmer and James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster as the linked characters. Although the film focuses on baseball, Field of Dreams is not a baseball film, but one that blends past and present with assurance, creating a timeless atmosphere that allows baseball to act as a metaphor for the regaining of that which seemed irretrievably lost. A film to treasure and to enjoy with people you love.

Universal's HD-DVD presentation is also a pleasure to behold. Just don't expect too many scenes that really pop off the screen. Instead, this one offers just a smooth continuum of bright and precise images that creates an atmosphere of comfort and virtually never takes you out of it. That's in accord with my recollection of the film's theatrical look. There are a few soft sequences, but their impact is minor. Overall, the image is an improvement over the standard DVD available, but not remarkably so. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is sufficient unto the day, but that's about all. Making up for that, however, is a wheelbarrow full of extras all of which were found on the recent standard DVD Anniversary Edition. They include just about everything you could want to know about the film from an audio commentary and over two hours of documentaries/featurettes to deleted scenes and a large photo gallery. If you don't have Field of Dreams on disc at all, you should have and the HD version is the one to get. If you already have the 2004 standard DVD Anniversary Edition, the HD version is one you could probably pass up.


The Interpreter  (HD-DVD)

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The Interpreter
2006 (2006) - Universal
Released on HD-DVD on October 24th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital PlusDTS

Film: A-
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: A-


Specs and Features:
129 mins, PG-13, MPEG-4 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, French and Spanish) & DTS 5.1 (English), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, English SDH


This is a star-driven political thriller set in the United Nations, with a story that revolves around information that an interpreter there (Nicole Kidman) overhears concerning a potential assassination attempt. The matter is investigated by a federal agent (Sean Penn) who begins to wonder if the interpreter is more deeply involved than seems on the surface. Although the story is not particularly novel, the setting and actual location filming at the U.N. elevate one's interest. Both Kidman and Penn are excellent in their roles and the intensity that they bring to their characters, particularly in their scenes together, really come across on the screen. It helps that the characters are well-written and exhibit significant emotional development during the course of the story. Veteran director Sydney Pollack really has a knack for getting the most out of such material and the result is a polished piece of Hollywood entertainment.

The use of MPEG-4 rather than Universal's usual VC-1 encoding choice may or may not be responsible, but The Interpreter looks very nice indeed with considerable pop to the sharp image throughout. Colours are intense, almost oversaturated, but not excessively so. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix complements the film very well. The sound is clear and vibrant, and there is effective though generally subtle use of the surrounds to enhance the ambience of the exterior sequences. The disc's supplements, the same as on the standard DVD, are well conceived ranging from a very informative and typically well-presented audio commentary by Pollack, an interview with Pollack that provides some career context relative to The Interpreter, a featurette with Pollack that provides a good argument against pan & scan, a featurette on shooting in the United Nations including cast and crew interviews, interviews with real U.N. interpreters that give a sense of the difficulty of the job, and some minor deleted scenes and alternate ending. The Interpreter is an intelligent and entertaining film that's been very well served on HD-DVD and is recommended.


King Kong (HD-DVD)

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King Kong
2005 (2006) - Universal
Released on HD-DVD on November 14th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: B
Video (1-20): 19.5
Audio (1-20): 19.5
Extras: D


Specs and Features:
188 mins, PG, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), some DVD features included in standard definition (including selected parts of Peter Jackson's King Kong Production Diaries and art gallery stills), audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, English SDH


Peter Jackson's remake of the classic 1933 King Kong movie shows a lot of love for the original. It remains reasonably faithful to the story line and features a cast (Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody) that successfully creates a measure of continuity with the original's style and degree of theatricality. The special effects in the original were stunningly good for the time, but over 70 years later one would expect that aspect of the new film to represent a major step forward, given the capabilities of CGI. In many respects it does, yet the CGI utilization in the film is at times one of its mis-steps. The creation of Kong himself is quite well done, but somehow he lacks the sympathy of the stop-motion figure of the original. One major set piece (the stampede of the dinosaurs) is also a notable failure - not because the dinosaurs are poorly rendered, but because the juxtaposition with the escaping humans is so unrealistic. Many people have also criticized the film's length and that is a valid comment. The original was barely an hour and three-quarters long, yet the new version takes an additional hour and a quarter to tell the same story. Much of the extra time is used to linger on CGI effects that, while good, don't merit that much extra attention. The idea of an extended version of the film adding another 13 minutes (available on standard DVD, but not on this HD version) boggles the mind when Jackson would be doing us a favour by cutting the film by a half-hour.

The presentation of King Kong on HD-DVD is superb. The image is wondrously sharp and detailed with lush colours and visual pop throughout. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track is all a surround experience should be - dynamic and completely enveloping with ample engagement of the surrounds and LFE. The disc is probably the best HD-DVD demonstration material available to date. On the down side, Universal has ported over virtually none of the supplements available on the previously issued standard DVD three-disc SE. I say virtually, because we are given one of the studio's "U-Control" features that provides access to various materials from Peter Jackson's King Kong Production Diaries on an interactive basis during the course of the film. It's a rather cumbersome business for my liking, but I guess it's better than nothing. There's no doubt the HD version of the film itself improves somewhat on the standard DVD rendition, but if you like the film enough to have the latter already, I'd wait to upgrade until an inevitable SE comes to HD.


World Trade Center  (HD-DVD)

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World Trade Center
2006 (2006) - Paramount
Released on HD-DVD on December 12th, 2006
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A


Specs and Features:
128 mins, PG-13, VC1 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), 2 HD-30 DL discs, 2-disc Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc SE DVD features included (most in HD) plus two additional featurettes in HD, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, English SDH


Despite director Oliver Stone's reputation for films depicting extreme and sometimes unsentimental views of major events and people, this latest film of his is a model of decorum. Probably recognizing that any other approach to the traumatic events of 9/11 would be counterproductive, he delivers a very intimate story drawn from within the major happenings of that fateful day. The story is that of two New York Port Authority policemen who become trapped in the rubble of the collapsing towers and the subsequent events that lead to their rescue. Stone handles the material respectfully and with great restraint, yet he manages to impart tension remarkably even though we know the outcome. The strength of the film lies as much in what is not shown but implied, as in what is. Nicholas Cage does some of his best acting work in ages as policeman John McLoughlin while Michael Pena is equally as effective as the other officer Will Jimeno. Much of the film focuses on the two men as they are trapped in the rubble and it is superb at conveying the claustrophobic nature of the situation as well as the emotional reactions of the men. Stone intercuts these scenes effectively with the events happening with the men's families in their homes. The men's wives are given very fine portrayals by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello. World Trade Center has not tended to get quite the same respect as 2006's other 9/11 drama - United 93, but it is equally deserving of it.

As has been a tendency of late, Paramount provides the film with a two-disc presentation on HD. The film, with two commentaries and deleted/extended scenes, are found on the first one while a generous selection of supplements is contained on the second. The film's image looks very good indeed. The sharpness and level of detail are particularly notable with the latter really shining during the dark scenes that characterize much the time during which the men are trapped. Colours are vibrant and skin-tones are accurate, with the typical three-dimensional pop of HD frequently apparent. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is also very appealing. There are ample opportunities for subtle surround effects and LFE with the movement of the rubble and other falling debris, and they are conveying very convincingly. Otherwise the sound is clear and crisp with the dialogue-driven movie rooted in the centre with only occasional directional forays. The presentation's package of supplements is impressive not only for its volume and depth of materials, but also for the fact that most are presented in HD as well. The participation of the actual men portrayed in the film as well as others from the day's events is an emotional and compelling aspect of much of that material. Highly recommended.


New Classic HD Announcements

I wish I had lots of exciting new announcements of classic titles coming to HD for you, but to be honest, the first five months of 2007 are looking pretty sparse so far. Were I restricting myself to pre-1965 titles, there'd be nothing to report, but allowing a little more leeway, here are some titles that should be of interest All these titles are also included in the classic release database that I maintain in conjunction with my Classic Coming Attractions column.

January 16th - The Sting (1973) from Universal in HD-DVD

February 27th - Bullitt (1968) and The Getaway (1972) both from Warner Bros. in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray

May 8th - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) from Fox in Blu-ray, Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977), and The Graduate (1967) all from MGM in Blu-ray

June - A Fistful of Dollars (1964) from MGM in Blu-ray

Classic titles expected in 2007, but for which there are no concrete announcements include The Bridge on the River Kwai (Blu-ray), Forbidden Planet (Blu-ray), The Guns of Navarone (Blu-ray), Lawrence of Arabia (Blu-ray), The Maltese Falcon (HD-DVD and Blu-ray), The Music Man (HD-DVD and Blu-ray), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, Blu-ray), North by Northwest (HD-DVD and Blu-ray), The Professionals (Blu-ray), and Star Trek: The Original Series, Season One (HD-DVD, Blu-ray to follow in early 2008).

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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