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page added: 4/25/06

Hi-Def Reviews
HD-DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, Editor of The Digital Bits

[Click here for some notes on our high-definition format reviews.]

Serenity (HD-DVD)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionHD-DVD FormatDolby Digital Plus

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

2005 (2006) - Universal

Film: B-
Video (1-20): 16
Video (DVD comparative): 6
Audio (1-20): 15
Audio (DVD comparative): 7
Extras: C+ (all DVD features included)

Specs and Features:
119 mins, PG-13, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), full analog resolution, HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, feature commentary (with director Joss Whedon), all video extras in MPEG-2 480 resolution, 9 deleted scenes (with optional director's commentary), outtake reel, 3 featurettes (Future History: The Story of Earth That Was, What's in a Firefly and Re-Lighting the Firefly), Joss Whedon introduction, Easter egg (Fruity Oaty Bar commercial), animated film-themed root menu with audio/"in-film" menu overlay, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English, French and Japanese (DD-Plus 5.1), subtitles: English (SDH), French and Spanish

Based on the short-lived but surprisingly popular Fox series, Firefly, writer/director Joss Whedon's Serenity continues the adventures of Mal, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee and the rest of their motley company, as they struggle to escape the forces of the dreaded Central Alliance and generally defend their endangered way of live. Over the course of the film's 119 minutes, fans of the series will learn exactly how Simon managed to free his sister, River, from the Alliance's nefarious scientists, exactly what the baddies wanted from her in the first place... and just what it is that they've been hiding all along. Dangerous truths will be uncovered because, as they say, you can't stop the signal.

Firefly impressed critics when it first aired on network TV, with its eclectic mix of Old West trappings and sci-fi tech, but it wasn't until the show finally arrived on DVD that the series really picked up critical mass. So popular had it become with the disciples of Whedon (also the creator of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), that Universal agreed to fund a bigscreen adventure to continue the story.

Serenity's characters are extremely likable, and its premise and presentation have an undeniable charm. Unfortunately, the film suffers from all the same problems the big screen Star Trek films have often fallen prey too... namely, if you don't already like the characters, it's hard to make yourself care overmuch. Its sci-fi production design is also extremely uneven, at times very well conceived and realized and at others overly hasty and generic. The occasional bit of slightly-too-juvenile humor is off-putting as well, as when Kaylee tartly complains, "Goin' on a year now I ain't had nothin' twixt my nethers weren't run on batteries!" or later in the film, when we meet a computer geek whose remote-planet-techie-Batcave comes complete with a Barbie Princess Sexbot. It's a decidedly teenaged boy's idea of what's funny or cute. That said, the Firefly universe has a undeniable potential... and the aspects its fans appreciate most are refreshingly unique.

Video-wise, the new HD-DVD version of Serenity offers a truly dramatic improvement in quality over the previous DVD's anamorphic widescreen transfer. The improvement in clarity and resolution offered by the new HD image is impressive. The DVD looks terribly soft by comparison - still film-like, certainly, but lacking the sheer level of detail and fidelity of the HD image. This is obvious in many aspects of the picture, for example the background stars when the Serenity is travelling through space. They're generally just a blur if you see them at all on the DVD, but in high-definition, you can count each and every one. Colors are tighter and a hair more accurate, and they're significantly more vibrant. Contrast is a bit better as well, with the darkest and lightest areas of the image retaining more detail in high-definition than on the standard DVD. The two biggest improvements in the HD video (aside from just sheer resolution), are the complete absence of ghosting or edge-enhancement of the kind that so plagues a standard DVD image, and also the almost total lack of visible digital compression artifacting. It's hard to know just how good this high-def video is, and how much better it might get in the future, but Serenity on HD-DVD is a near, if not quite completely, breathtaking experience.

The audio present on this HD-DVD release is a marked improvement over the original DVD as well. Here, you get higher-resolution Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 (the DVD had standard Dolby Digital 5.1). The difference between this and the original DVD mix is similar to what you'd expect going from regular Dolby Digital to a DTS mix, only a bit more dramatic (in fact, the surround decoder in most current home theater receivers actually recognizes the Plus bitstream as either DTS when you connect via Toslink or coaxial outputs, or LPCM via HDMI or the analog 5.1 outputs). Clarity and spatial imaging are notably improved, and the overall soundfield has a smoother, more natural character that's very pleasing. You hear a lot more of the subtle nuances in the rear channels, the dynamic range is greater and the bass is extremely subtle until needed for action, at which point it kicks in with a vengeance almost effortlessly. This is particularly in evidence just after the film's major space battle sequence. There's a scene in which the Serenity has been disabled and is falling through the atmosphere. The ship is spinning out of control, and you can hear the spinning effect all around you (along with little creaks, groans and crashes as the ship's hull and contents react to the rapid motion). Then, Wash manages to activate the ship's thrusters, which kick in at the last minute with a thunderous roar. It's really fantastic surround sound - not as improved as the visuals, but no slouch either. With many home theater-philes, I think, Dolby Digital-Plus is going to give standard DTS a real run for its money (DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD aside, of course).

It's worth noting that while there's nothing new here in terms of extras, and nothing native to HD, all of the features that were present on the previous DVD release have migrated over to the new HD-DVD version - Whedon's audio commentary, his preview screening introduction, the deleted scenes, the outtakes, the featurettes... everything. Even the Easter egg is here (highlight "Extras" on the main menu and navigate "left" twice with your remote to make the Serenity logo appear, then press "enter"). All of these features are present in their original 480 resolution and they're all full frame, encoded in MPEG-2 (as they were on the previous DVD) - the player upscales them to the resolution of choice (generally 1080i in the case of the Toshiba). They look okay, certainly, but the quality difference between the film and extras is dramatic. I'm not going to discuss each of the extras here, as they're all listed above. Just know that it's decent material - nothing outstanding, but if you're a Firefly/Serenity fan, I'm confident you'll enjoy it. If you're not, you can safely pass on it without missing much.

By the way, all of the extras, audio and subtitle options on this HD-DVD are accessed through a traditional film-themed root menu screen, albeit one that's much slicker and more stylish than we've generally seen from standard DVD releases in the past.

Serenity wouldn't be my choice for the best sci-fi film of recent years, and it wouldn't have been my first choice of debut material on HD-DVD either. But it's a decent film, certainly entertaining and above average, and while I suspect this isn't going to set the reference bar in terms of HD-DVD picture and sound quality (I'm looking for The Matrix, Batman Begins, U-571 or The Chronicles of Riddick to impress on that score), it's still pretty damn nice in the meantime.

The Last Samurai (HD-DVD)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionHD-DVD Format
Dolby Digital Plus

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

The Last Samurai
2003 (2006) - Warner Bros.

Film: C
Video (1-20): 14
Video (DVD comparative): 8
Audio (1-20): 13
Audio (DVD comparative): 6
Extras: B- (all DVD features included)

Specs and Features:
154 mins, R, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), full analog resolution, HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, feature commentary (with director Edward Zwick), all video extras in MPEG-2 480 resolution (anamorphic-enhanced full frame), 2 deleted scenes (with optional director's commentary), Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal, The History Channel's History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai documentary, 6 featurettes (including Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey, Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise, A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert, Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Nigla Dickson, From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons and Imperial Army Basic Training), Bushido: The Way of the Warrior interactive text, Japanese premiere footage, theatrical trailer, "in-film" menu overlay, scene access (41 chapters), languages: English and French and Japanese (DD-Plus 5.1), Spanish (DD-Plus 2.0), subtitles: English (SDH), French and Spanish

Nathan Algren is a hardened and bitter U.S. Army cavalry officer, who's fought and won many campaigns, but is losing a battle with his own conscience. Ordered by his government to commit atrocities against innocent men, women and children in the Indian Campaigns, Algren is plagued by nightmares and seems content to simply drink his demons away. He's given an unlikely chance to redeem himself, however, when he's hired as a military advisor to the young new Emperor of Japan. It seems that the Emperor's aides are pushing him to modernize and industrialize his noble island nation and to sweep aside its older, more traditional ways of life. But those old ways will not be cast aside so easily. A strong leader named Katsumoto emerges to unite the last of Japan's vaunted Samurai warriors, and they're willing to give their lives to protect the very heart of Japanese cultural identity. As you'd expect, Algren and Katsumoto quickly come into conflict... but are surprised at what they find in one another.

Directed by Edward Zwick (of thirtysomething fame) and written by John Logan (who also penned Gladiator), The Last Samurai should be a great film... but it isn't. Part of the blame for this falls on the script, which combines a number of worn-out story clichés (stranger in a strange land, morally compromised guy redeems himself for past actions, warrior wins respect and friendship of former enemy, etc) without really adding anything new or fresh. The result is a decidedly bland cinematic broth, despite Zwick's capable guidance. The rest of the blame, I think, falls upon Tom Cruise as Algren. Cruise is solid enough, as always, but he adds little to this film that any number of better actors couldn't have improved upon. As a result, this production feels way too much like another empty star vehicle. Frankly, it's only the cool gravitas of costar Ken Watanabe, as Katsumoto, that makes The Last Samurai worthy of your time.

The video quality on this HD-DVD release is quite good, but it's not nearly as great an improvement over this film's previous DVD release as was the case with Serenity. The video on the Serenity DVD suffered for the fact that the film and its extras were all packed onto the same disc. On the DVD release of The Last Samurai, the film was given a disc all to itself, and the extras were included on a second disc. So the Samurai DVDs original anamorphic widescreen video holds up surprisingly well when compared to this HD-DVD's high-definition image. That said, there are still noticeable and significant improvements in image clarity, overall detail, color fidelity and saturation, as you'd expect from HD. Additionally, as with the Serenity HD-DVD, Warner's high-definition version of The Last Samurai also improves the standard DVD image dramatically in the areas of edge-enhancement and compression artifacting. The result is a very pleasing and film-like visual experience, even if it's far from the best high-definition video reference material available.

The Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 audio here is also improved over this film's previous Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on DVD, though again the improvement is not as dramatic as it was on the Serenity HD-DVD. This film's audio is at times nicely atmospheric, so the higher resolution of the Plus mix lends itself nicely to greater clarity and subtlety, as well as refined spatial imaging. The dynamic range isn't quite as great as the Serenity HD-DVD's Plus mix, however, and neither is the bass quite as aggressive - both factors that make themselves fairly plain during this film's battle sequences. I should also note that the audio level on this disc (and all of the initial Warner titles) is recorded significantly below reference level, which means that you have to turn the volume way up to hear it normally. Why this was done one can only guess. Just know that if you play one of these Warner titles, then switch to a Universal disc, you'd better turn your receiver volume way down or you risk damaging your speakers. The volume issue aside, this is still a solid surround mix, and it serves the visuals well, though I suspect a good DTS track would've resulted in the same degree of improvement as the Plus track here did (and you can bet the DTS would have been louder).

As was the case with Serenity, all of the extras that were included on the previous DVD release of The Last Samurai have carried over to this new HD-DVD release (save the online weblinks, and nobody really cares about those anyway). With the added storage capacity of HD-DVD, however, it's now all on a single disc. These extras are also included in MPEG-2 480 video, however they look significantly better than those on the Serenity disc. In addition, while they all appear to be in full frame, the trailer is anamorphic widescreen. I'm wondering if perhaps Warner didn't convert all of the 4x3 material to 16x9 (by adding black bars on the sides electronically), so that all of the extras are really anamorphic enhanced. In any case, not only do these extras look better than Serenity's, the content is a lot better too. Again, I'm not going to go through all the features for you here, but the material included offers more real information, both in terms of the cast and crew's production experience and the real history of the period and culture depicted in the film.

One thing I've decided that I don't like about Warner's HD-DVDs thus far is the menu interface. Rather than providing you with a traditional, film-themed root menu for this disc, what you get instead is an interactive menu overlay. When you hit the 'menu' button on your remote, a little menu bar slides up over the still moving video with a "ssshhhh" sound. The bar lets you select from among all the various audio and subtitle options, the chapter selections and the disc's special features. As you select each area, there's an audible "click" and then an additional menu "ssshhhhes" onto the screen. As a result, navigating the disc becomes an irritating symphony of "ssshhhh, click, click, sssshhh, click..." You can turn the menu sound off in the software, but unfortunately you can't tell the player to make them default to 'always off,' so you have to turn them off on each new Warner disc. Frankly, I wish Warner would just make them default to off, and let you turn on the sounds if you really want them. The other irritating thing about Warner's menu bar is that the chapter selection images have only numbers instead of the usual text titles to describe the scene's content. This isn't so much a problem with this film, but I'll come back to this in the Phantom review next. Still, if you're not already familiar with the film, the lack of a text reference makes the scene selections here almost useless. Overall, I think the basic concept of Warner's menu bar is sound, but the execution needs definite refining. Frankly, though, I do still wish there was a root menu that you could dump out to when you wanted to. Not having one, after all these years with DVD, just seems wrong somehow.

By the way, everything you need to know about how to interact with the menu interface is explained in a short promo video before the film starts (thankfully, you can skip it).

In the end, even high-definition video can't help The Last Samurai become anything more than another entry in a terribly long string of average period actioners. The HD-DVD looks and sounds great, but if you're trying to really dazzle your friends with the format's "video and audio to die for," you'd best choose another title.

Phantom of the Opera (HD-DVD)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionHD-DVD Format
Dolby Digital PlusDolby TrueHD

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

The Phantom of the Opera
2004 (2006) - Warner Bros.

Film: C-
Video (1-20): 16
Video (DVD comparative): 8
Audio (1-20): 16 (estimated - see review)
Audio (DVD comparative): 8
Extras: C- (all DVD features included)

Specs and Features:
141 mins, PG-13, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), full analog resolution, HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all video extras in MPEG-2 480 resolution (anamorphic widescreen), Behind the Mask: The Story of The Phantom of the Opera documentary, 3-part The Making of The Phantom of the Opera documentary (Origins & Casting, Design and Supporting Cast and Recording the Album), additional scene, cast and crew 'singalong' video, theatrical trailer, "in-film" menu overlay, scene access (36 chapters), languages: English (Dolby TrueHD 5.1), English and French (DD-Plus 5.1), subtitles: English (SDH), French and Spanish

Arguably theatrical composer Andrew Lloyd Weber's most popular work, The Phantom of the Opera comes to life here on the big screen under the unlikely guiding hand of director Joel Schumacher.

As you may already know, Phantom tells the story of a young chorus girl named Christine, who is given a long-awaited chance at vocal fame and fortune on the stage of a Paris operahouse. Unfortunately, that success comes at a steep price, and it's the mysterious Phantom, a haunted soul who lives in the depths of the operahouse, that sets it. Can a past love help to break the Phantom's spell over Christine, or will she be doomed to a kept life in the darkness?

The film works adequately enough, but only just. Popular though it is, the melodramatic and often overblown self-importance of Weber's music sadly does little to draw me in here. The cast is solid but largely difficult to warm to and empathize with... and I'm afraid to say that I haven't truly enjoyed Schumacher's direction since The Lost Boys. Still, the production is mounted on a grand scale and if you love the music, you'll be happy to know that it sounds great. Expect much singing, pomp and brooding. And your girlfriend or wife might swoon.

As was the case with The Last Samurai, I was struck by just how well Warner's previous DVD release of The Phantom of the Opera held up in comparison to the new HD-DVD release. That's not a strike against the HD-DVD, but rather a testimonial for Warner's superb telecine and mastering work... and proof positive of the advantages of giving the film data plenty of breathing room on a DVD disc all its own. Still, there is a significant improvement with the new high-definition presentation, and with this film in particular, it makes a world of difference. Phantom is a lavish production, with a lush palate and subtle, evocative shadings of light and color. Every little bit of that detail and nuance is reproduced with near perfection in this 1080 presentation. The detail is exquisite, even in the darkest areas of the image, and the shadings are smooth and delicate. The visual image that results is compelling and extraordinarily film-like. Very pleasing indeed.

On the audio side of things, both Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks are included on this disc. Once again, both are recorded at a lower than standard reference level, so be aware of this when you boot up the disc (or switch to another film). You'd be forgiven for not wanting to shatter your eardrums or damage your surround sound system. Warner very much needs to correct this on future HD-DVD titles.

Once you turn the volume up accordingly, however, the Dolby Digital-Plus track is a perfect match to the high-definition visuals. Given that this is a musical, and a well-known and popular one at that, as you can imagine the sound quality is of paramount importance to the experience. The higher audio bitrate of the Plus mix allows for extraordinary clarity and the creation of a truly smooth and enveloping soundstage. The score is alternately darkly brooding and warmly romantic, and the mix reproduces both quite well, from the softest whispers of the Phantom in the shadows to the full, rich orchestral swells in "All I Ask of You." This is a very nice mix - I daresay this music has seldom sounded this good on disc before.

Significantly harder to peg, however, is the quality of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio. Unfortunately, the Toshiba hardware will not pass the TrueHD surround channels at this resolution, just 2.0 stereo (a warning message appears on screen when you try to select the TrueHD 5.1 informing you of this limitation), and even the stereo is just downmixed LPCM. If Dolby Digital-Plus equates to the best standard DTS presentations, TrueHD should - in theory, when the hardware is ready to handle it - be comparable or even greater to the quality you'd expect on an even higher resolution DVD-Audio disc. There's a good reason for that - TrueHD takes advantage of the same "lossless" MLP encoding process upon which the DVD-Audio format was based. However, with the current hardware limitations and without the same complete surround presentation as you get with the Plus mix, it's very difficult to make an accurate comparison. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for fully compatible HD-DVD players and surround receivers to know just how good TrueHD can be.

Once again, all of the extras from the previous 2-disc DVD release (most of which were found on Disc Two of the set) have been included here on the same disc with the film. Even the cast and crew 'sing-a-long' Easter egg that was offered on the original DVD is here, but it's no longer hidden (you'll find it under the special features in the "Fun + Games" section). As with The Last Samurai HD-DVD, the extras look fantastic in MPEG-2 480 video. This time, however, the video is genuine anamorphic widescreen that fills your 1.78:1 display. I suspect that the reason these extras look so good (on both this and The Last Samurai) is that Warner has gone out of their way to max out the video bitrate. That's a very nice touch, given how jarring the switch between the high-definition film and canned standard-definition extras could otherwise be. In terms of content, there's a bit less here than is really enough to call this disc a true special edition, but what you do get is at least solid. The director, cast and crew are all seen at work and talking about the production. Andrew Lloyd Weber himself is even in evidence on numerous occasions.

As with The Last Samurai, there's no root menu here, but instead you get an interactive menu overlay that appears over the film (while the film still plays in the background) when you hit the 'menu' button on your remote. It has all the same advantages and disadvantages as the one on Last Samurai, right down to the same annoying "ssshhhh, click, sssshhh, click..." audio. Again, there's a video that tells you how it all works, and again the scene selections have only numbers and no text to go along with the film images. What's particularly annoying about that lack of descriptive text on The Phantom of the Opera, is that this is a musical. On several occasions while looking over this DVD, I wanted to jump to a particular song or musical number... and you can't unless you know what the scene itself looks like visually. Dies ist nicht gut! Clearly more work is needed on this interface to maximize its use (though I will say that I very much like the time/length notation given in the menu's descriptive area for each of the different video features).

If only first rate video and audio were enough to make one love a film. I'm sure Phantom is someone's idea of a great movie experience and more power to them, but this film does little for me. Still, the presentation quality on this HD-DVD is at least enough to make it worth a spin... until such time as there's something better out there on the format to spin.

Bill Hunt
[email protected]

Notes on High-Definition Format Reviews (April 2006)

Reviewing the new HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats presents a number of unique challenges. First, the new formats will inevitably offer both video and audio quality that is dramatically improved over even the very best quality that standard DVD can offer. But just how good is it? How much will the quality vary between high-definition releases? How much will it improve over time? Second, we feel that it's important to be able to offer a comparison between the quality of existing DVD releases and the same releases in HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc format whenever possible. To assist us in this effort, we've made a few changes to the way we grade/score this material.

The Film and Extras categories will continue to be graded on the familiar A through F letter scale we've used always used here at The Bits, however we'll take care to note any extras that for whatever reason did not carry over from the previous DVD release to the new high-def release.

The Video category on high-def releases will be scored with a 1-20 numeric scale, which allows for a meaningful relative comparison between standard definition DVD video quality (generally 1-10 on the scale) and the high-definition video quality found on HD-DVD, Blu-ray Disc and other sources (11-20 on the scale). Splitting the video scale in half this way makes sense to us, as 1080 resolution should, in theory, be about double the quality of standard definition 480 resolution. Most of the initial high-definition video scores will average 15 on this scale, which allows room for inevitable improvements in the compression and presentation quality of the video as the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats mature. We will also endeavor to note, whenever possible, what the maximum allowed analog video resolution is, and which codecs were used to encode the video. It's also worth noting that you'll seldom see the anamorphic logo or the term 'anamorphic' used in these reviews. That's because high-definition video (unlike NTSC standard definition video) is by its nature a native 1.78:1 (16x9) aspect ratio format, making anamorphic enhancement unnecessary.

The Audio category will also now be scored on a 1-20 numeric scale, which again allows for a meaningful relative comparison between the standard Dolby Digital and DTS sound quality on standard DVDs (generally 1-10), and the Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD and high-resolution Linear PCM sound quality included on the new HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats (generally scored 11-20). Again, as with the video, we're going to start the scoring for the high-resolution audio quality a little bit lower to allow room for inevitable improvements in mixing and mastering. Keep in mind that the Toshiba HD-DVD players currently available do not output Dolby TrueHD in the full 5.1 (just downconverted LPCM 2.0), and that most current audio receivers read the Plus and TrueHD audio bitstreams as either DTS or LPCM, depending on your choice of outputs and system interconnects. This will change with time, as new HDMI 1.3 compliant equipment becomes available, but it seriously limits our current ability to accurately review the TrueHD audio in particular.

Hopefully, this new system for reviewing high-def releases on HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc will prove effective, reliable and accurate. We shall see.

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