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-Established 1997-

page added: 7/19/06

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.]

Apollo 13 (HD-DVD)

1080p - Analog Full ResolutionHD-DVD FormatDolby Digital Plus

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Apollo 13
1995 (2006) - Universal

Film: A+
Video (1-20): 16
Video (DVD comparative): 8
Audio (1-20): 16
Audio (DVD comparative): 8
Extras: B (most DVD features included)

Specs and Features:
140 mins, PG, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), full analog resolution, HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, audio commentary (with director Ron Howard), audio commentary (with Jim and Marilyn Lovell), all video extras in MPEG-2 480 resolution, Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13 documentary, Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond documentary, Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story featurette, , 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

DVD Features Not Included:
116-minute IMAX version of Apollo 13, theatrical trailer

On April 11, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert rocketed from the Earth on what would have been Mankind's third mission to the Moon. It's hard to believe now, some thirty-five years later, that walking on the Moon was then considered so routine that most of the world had lost interest. That quickly changed fifty-five hours into the mission however, when an explosion onboard the spacecraft ended the astronaut's dreams of going to the Moon, and nearly their lives as well. For four tense days, thousands of NASA technicians struggled heroically to overcome virtually insurmountable odds, and the entire world collectively held its breath in the desperate hope that these three brave men would return safely home.

Based loosely on the book Lost Moon, written by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 13 is an extraordinarily gripping and accurate depiction of the doomed flight, which although a failure by mission standards, is rightly considered by many to be NASA's finest hour. Directed masterfully by Ron Howard, Apollo 13 rings honest and true from beginning to end. The script is well written by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert (Reinert also produced and directed For All Mankind, perhaps the best documentary you'll ever see on the Apollo missions). What amazes me most about this film, is the extraordinary attention paid to detail, and the way it keeps you on the edge of your seat, despite the fact that you know how it's going to end. The zero-gravity is not a special effect - the filmmakers actually put the set in a NASA jet, capable simulating weightlessness by diving headlong at the ground for 30 seconds at a time. The launch sequence is simply breathtaking, and gives me a chill every time. Perhaps the greatest testament to this film, is the fact that many of the actual participants in this real-life drama, after seeing Apollo 13, felt as though they had relived the event.

Hanks (who is himself a huge fan of the space program) gives a poignant and perfectly understated performance as mission commander Jim Lovell, a veteran astronaut on his last and greatest mission. Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan all deliver some of the best performances of their careers as well. And Ed Harris is absolutely terrific as Gene Kranz, the stalwart Flight Director back in Mission Control, for whom "failure is not an option". There are even some great cameos to look for: B-movie mogul Roger Corman, Howard's mother, father and brother Clint (as the EECOM), Herb Jefferson, Jr. (Boomer from the original Battlestar Galactica TV series) and both Jim and Marilyn Lovell.

The HD-DVD's high-definition video benefits greatly from all of the clean-up work that was done a few years ago for the IMAX release. Overall image clarity is wonderful here. Light to moderate print grain is visible, and you'll see the occasional scratch or bit of dirt, but I have to say that this is as good as I've ever seen Apollo 13 looking before. Color is vibrant but not oversaturated, and the shadows are deep without looking crushed. Detail is good at all times. It's quite something to see the shot where Hanks (as Lovell) is holding up his thumb to block out the Moon. When he pulls it away, and the camera focuses on the Moon, the stars you see are delightful - crisp and numerous. During the launch sequence, I found myself riveted by all the little pieces of ice falling from the side of the Saturn V rocket. It was also a thrill to be able to read all of the labels on the switches and controls in the Command Module. The detail is so good here that I realized for the first time watching this film (and I've seen it many times) that the crew patches hanging on the walls of Mission Control are all wrong - they're based on the souvenir patches and not the actual patches the crews wore! Truly, this is space-geek heaven. All in all, the HD-DVD offers an exceptionally pleasing image that is a great improvement over the most recent standard DVD release, which was itself quite good in its way. Still, the DVD is much softer looking comparatively, with grayer blacks and a somewhat subdued appearance. This is one case where I'm definitely spoiled - I'll never be able to watch the standard definition version again.

The 5.1 Plus audio is equally exceptional. Once of the things that always drove me crazy about the regular Dolby Digital mix was the way that some of the dialogue tended to get a little buried in the sound effects - the astronaut com audio during the launch sequence for example. Not so here, despite the fact that the launch effects are thunderous, with deep, gut-rumbling bass enough to rattle your windows. Even in the midst of all this, you can clearly hear the call out: "We have cleared the tower at 13:13!" The whole sequence is just thrilling and the added clarity and expansiveness of the Plus mix really puts you right in the thick of things.

Nearly all of the extras that were available on the previous DVD releases are included here, save for the IMAX version of the film (full frame and shorter, so who wants that anyway?) and the theatrical trailer. Everything else is here, however, is all well worth having. The commentaries (one by director Howard and the other with real Jim and Marilyn Lovell) are excellent - packed with interesting information and good listening in general. The best of the rest is the nearly hour-long documentary on the making of the film, Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13. It features interviews with virtually everyone involved, including many of the actual historical participants. Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond starts off a bit dry and generic, but it develops into a surprisingly comprehensive historical piece covering everything from the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the recent Columbia tragedy. It runs about 48 minutes. Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story runs only 12 minutes and looks more specifically at the real men and Apollo 13 mission, featuring new interviews with Lovell and his wife, Fred Haise, Gene Kranz and a couple of the other mission controllers involved. The piece was original created for Dateline NBC, and it's a good quick primer on the actual events.

Apollo 13 is a wonderful film about the best things we do as humans (and Americans) - push back the frontiers, explore the wonders of the Universe and pull together in times of crisis to overcome adversity. It's gripping, entertaining... and a great film to watch with the whole family. It's highly recommended, and it's definitely a must-own disc for those looking for a superior HD-DVD experience.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (HD-DVD)

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

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2005 (2006) - Warner Bros.

Film: A
Video (1-20): 16
Video (DVD comparative): 9
Audio (1-20): 14
Audio (DVD comparative): 6
Extras: C- (all DVD features included)

Specs and Features (HD-DVD only):
103 mins, R, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), full analog resolution, HD-15C (HD-DVD and DVD Combo Format), Elite Red HD packaging, audio commentary (with director Shane Black and stars Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr.), all video extras in MPEG-2 480 resolution (anamorphic-enhanced full frame), gag reel, theatrical trailer, "in-film" menu overlay, scene access (29 chapters), languages: English and French (DD-Plus 5.1), Spanish (DD-Plus 2.0), subtitles: English (SDH), English, French and Spanish

DVD Side Features:
Same as HD-DVD side and standalone DVD

You know how every once in a while, a film comes along that just takes you completely by surprise? Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was that film for me in 2005. It's a delightfully twisted little film-noir... or maybe you'd call it a hard-boiled buddy caper. Either way, it's a damn great little flick. Much of this is due to the unlikely but successful on-screen pairing of two of my all-time favorite actors, Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. These guys aren't given nearly enough credit as actors, in my opinion, and they show just how good they really are be here. Downey plays, Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief who suddenly finds himself swept up in the Hollywood movie scene after he's offered an unplanned audition. While there at a party, he happens to meet up with Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), an old girl friend from high school who's become just another one of many screwed-up Hollywood actress wanna-bes since he last saw her. Things get even more interesting, however, when Harry suddenly finds himself at the center of a murder/crime caper, with which he's oddly ill-equipped to deal (strange, given his profession). Fortunately, Kilmer steps in as Gay Perry, your basic hard-nosed private eye, to help sleuth out all the particulars. And yes... he's gay, while interestingly being also the most traditionally 'tough' of the pair. Their resulting personal dynamic, and the story through which they're sifted, results in one of the most unexpectedly entertaining film experiences I've had in some time. I don't want to say any more than I already have - you just really need to see this one for yourself. It's a quirky little cinematic gem.

Warner's HD-DVD is actually a combo format disc, meaning that it includes both high-definition HD-DVD and standard-definition DVD versions of the film on different sides of the same disc. Some have made quite a lot of hay about the benefits of the combo format, but while I admit that it's nice to have both versions in principle, it isn't really something I personally care much about. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of 'flipper' discs. I'd rather just have the high-def version with all the extras that were on the DVD - so I can get RID of the DVD - and maybe have the studio use the extra space (if any) for even more extras. Anyway, that's just the cut of my jib. I suppose, however, that I can see the benefits of the combo format to those who might be purchasing these discs early, in anticipation of buying an HD-DVD player in the future. For the record, my Pioneer DV-59AVi standard-definition player read the DVD side just fine, though I didn't dally long on it.

On the flip-side, the high-definition image quality is exceptional. Detail is crisp and natural looking, and there's very light grain visible throughout resulting in a wonderfully film-like experience. The clarity is so good, in fact, that the image takes on an almost three-dimensional quality from time to time. Contrast is rock solid, with deep blacks and yet abundant shadow detail. Color plays a significant role in creating atmosphere and mood in this film, and the HD-DVD video renders it every last bit of it with vibrant and accurate hues. All of these aspects represent a clear improvement over the standard DVD image (contrast and detail in particular), although the difference here isn't quite as pronounced as it is on some titles. That isn't a strike against the HD-DVD image in any way, rather it's a testament to the quality of the standard DVD video presentation. Warner does damn nice video work on many of their DVDs these days.

Audio is included here in a very nice Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix that's smooth and atmospheric. This being a dialogue-driven film, there's not a major need for blood-pumping surround, but the mix is surprisingly lively. There's plenty of subtle little surround cues in the quiet scenes, but when the mix does need to kick in hard (gunfights, car crashes, etc), the dynamic range is surprising. You'll enjoy pleasingly rich bass and very smooth panning. Dialogue is nicely clean and clear, and the film's playful musical score in particular benefits greatly from the added sonic resolution of the Plus mix. The standard DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is quite good too, but it still feels more directional and front-loaded - less natural all around compared to the Plus audio on the high-def side.

The extras included on the HD-DVD and DVD sides are identical, and they're exactly the same as you get on the stand-alone DVD version. Included are an audio commentary track with writer/director Shane Black and stars Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr, a gag reel and the film's theatrical trailer. The gag reel is cute, both you're not likely to watch it more than once or twice. The trailer is anamorphic widescreen, which is a nice touch. The audio commentary track is surprisingly good, and it's definitely the best thing on the disc extras-wise. Kilmer and Downey have great chemistry together, making this a fun listen. Black even manages to sneak some interesting production information in from time to time. It's a good track and worth your time if you like the film.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite films of the last few years - easily among the best films of 2005. It's sharply funny, surprisingly original and entertaining, and twists in interesting and unexpected ways. It's probably not for everyone, but I couldn't recommend it more highly to those looking for something a little different than the usual Hollywood fare. And hey - buying the combo disc means you'll enjoy great DVD quality now, and even better high-def quality down the line... though once you flip that disc to HD, I warn you, you'll never look at the other side again.

Pitch Black: Unrated Director's Cut (HD-DVD)

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

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Pitch Black
Unrated Director's Cut - 2000 (2006) - Universal

Film: B+
Video (1-20): 14
Video (DVD comparative): 6
Audio (1-20): 13
Audio (DVD comparative): 7
Extras: C- (most DVD extras included)

Specs and Features:
112 mins, Unrated, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), full analog resolution, HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, audio commentary (with director David Twohy and actors Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser), audio commentary with David Twohy, producer Tom Engleman and VFX supervisor Peter Chiang), all video extras in MPEG-2 480 resolution, video introduction by David Twohy, 3 featurettes (The Making of Pitch Black, Dark Fury: Advancing the Arc, A View into the Dark), The Chronicles of Riddick Visual Encyclopedia (PARTIAL interactive text with video), John's Chase Log (interactive text), Raveworld Pitch Black event video, The Game is On videogame trailer, animated generic Universal root menu with audio/"in-film" menu overlay, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD-Plus 5.1), subtitles: English (SDH), French and Spanish

DVD Features Not Included:
theatrical trailers, part of the Visual Encyclopedia material

You know, there's nothing I like more than a savvy little Sci-fi thriller. A Sci-fi flick that's smart, with some great effects (low-budget or not) that doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is. That's Pitch Black in a nutshell. The plot is simple as all get out. A freighter is travelling through space with its crew and passengers in hypersleep, when it accidentally passes through a comet's tail and suffers a series of hull breaches, which kill its Captain. The ship is knocked off course, into the atmosphere of an alien planet, and its docking pilot, Fry (played by Radha Mitchell), manages to crash-land the ship in such a way that 9 of the 40+ people on board survive (in a very cool little special effects sequence). So there they are, stuck on an alien planet with limited supplies and little hope of rescue - pretty bad right? Well, it gets worse. One of the passengers who survived is a psycho-killer escaped convict named Riddick (played by Vin Diesel). Riddick was being transferred back to prison... and now he's loose somewhere. But that's not even the worst of it. The planet is routinely bathed in the light of the system's three stars, but it seems that once ever 28 years or so, an eclipse plunges it into complete darkness. And that's when the shit hits the fan... because the planet's only major life forms are nasty little creatures with razor-sharp claws and teeth that only come out to play in the dark - think fast-flying piranhas and land sharks quick as cheetahs. Guess what time it is. That's right... nearly lights out. How's that for a cool premise?

Pitch Black was co-written and directed by none other than David Twohy, who previously wrote and directed another nifty little Sci-fi flick, The Arrival. Twohy also helped to pen the screenplays for G.I. Jane, Waterworld and The Fugitive, and later went on to write and direct a sequel of sorts to this film, The Chronicles of Riddick. One of the reasons that Pitch Black is so effective, is that Twohy keeps it nice and simple, and he knows that what you don't see is infinitely more scary than what you do. You're only really asked to buy into one plot contrivance - the fact that the ship just happens to crash on the day before the 28-year eclipse. Otherwise, it's a pretty straightforward "survival of the fittest" yarn. I was also surprised at the depth of each character - these aren't the most well-rounded characters you'll ever see, but for this type of flick, there's more to each character than meets the eye. The special effects are excellent - particularly the creature effects. These aliens are some strange little mothers, straight out of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. The acting also isn't half bad. Mitchell plays her character very well, and I really like Vin Diesel in this role. What's more, the pair are backed by a good supporting cast, which includes Claudia Black (of TV's Farscape), Cole Hauser and Keith David.

As part of Universal's early HD-DVD slate, the high-definition image quality is quite impressive. The video here generally represents a major improvement over the previous DVD release. As you'd expect, color saturation, image detail and clarity, and contrast are all dramatically better in high-definition, whereas the standard definition image appears far softer, with lackluster hues and an all-around washed-out looking appearance. Reds, yellows, blues... they're all richer and more intense in high-def. The added detail rendered in high-definition is striking. One needs only to watch the film's opening crash sequence to see the difference. The stars are crisp, the texture of the swirling cloud-tops in the atmosphere is more pronounced... hell, you can even see the individual stitching on Mitchell's jacket and read her crew patch. The added resolution means that you see much more of the print grain, which is light to moderate depending on the scene, but it's never distracting. Indeed, given that this was a fairly low budget production (not to mention that it's a gritty looking film by design), it's actually very true to the theatrical experience.

The enhanced contrast in particular makes a difference in this film, in which so much action takes place in the dark. The blacks are much deeper here on the HD-DVD than you've likely seen them outside of the movie theater. Unfortunately, there is one scene in particular where the deeper blacks are actually a hindrance. As the twin suns are eclipsed, and the characters are caught out in the open when night falls, the image has been adjusted such that the HD-DVD version of the scene appears much darker than the DVD. Too much image detail gets crushed into the shadows and disappears - so much in fact that when Claudia Black's character is being hunted, you can barely see what happens to her. The DVD, by comparison, renders this scene in greater detail with much more of the action visible. The difference between the two is really only a problem in this scene, and the change may even have been a deliberate one (designed to literally keep you more in the dark and thus ratchet up the tension), but having become used to the way the scene played out on DVD, the loss of detail is a bit irksome. Still, the other improvements are so significant that I can't see myself ever watching the standard definition version again... no doubt I'll get used to all those blacker blacks.

The HD-DVD's Dolby Digital-Plus track renders a wonderfully natural soundfield. Audio effects have a tighter, more precise quality to them, and yet they linger nicely to enhance the atmosphere. Bass reinforcement is deep and resonant. This isn't as dynamic a mix as you'll hear on some other films on HD-DVD, but it's perfectly suited to this particular film experience. Once the creatures start to appear (or not) in the shadows, you'll hear lots of creepy and enveloping panning effects. Compared to the Dolby Digital and DTS mixes on the standard DVD, the Plus mix is markedly smoother and more natural sounding, although the DTS manages to hold its own.

Unfortunately, the HD-DVD doesn't port over quite all of the previous DVD's extras (notably missing are the theatrical trailers and some of the Visual Encyclopedia material), but then the DVD's extras weren't particularly interesting anyway. The best of the lot is a pair of audio commentaries, one featuring the director with Vin Diesel and Cole Hauser, and the other the director with some of the production crew. The Making of Pitch Black featurette is worth watching, but most of the rest of the material here is just promotional fluff (although John's Chase Log does help to flesh out some of the events that took place in the fictional story universe prior to the film's opening). Oddly, the studio seems to have run out of time with regard to the menus - rather than using film imagery as other Universal HD-DVDs do, this disc has only a generic studio logo to bolster the root menu. Strange.

Pitch Black isn't the best offering available on HD-DVD so far, but this disc is still much preferred over the standard DVD version. This is an original and entertaining Sci-fi thriller, and it's well worth your time. If the extras are lackluster... and they are... the improved picture and sound quality more than makes up for it.

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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