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The Home Theater Forum Hi-Def Reviews
presented by The Digital Bits

The reviews below were written by regular contributors to The Home Theater Forum. At the end of each review, you'll find a link to an official thread at The HTF where you can discuss the discs with fellow enthusiasts. Note that the review format will vary, and is different than our regular format here at The Bits. The opinions expressed are those of the individual reviewer, and do not necessarily represent those of The Digital Bits. We simply present these reviews for your reading pleasure, and we hope you enjoy them!


300 (Blu-ray Disc)

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300
Directed by Zack Snyder

Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2007
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rating: R
Audio: PCM 5.1, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
MSRP: $34.95

Release Date: July 31, 2007
Review Date: August 10, 2007

Review by Matt Hough - Charlotte, NC


The Film - 4/5

The annuls of history are riddled by heroic last stands (the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Little Big Horn, the Alamo), and the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which three hundred Spartan soldiers made a courageous stand against an invading army of 250,000 Persians ranks as one of history’s most legendary encounters. Like the other previously mentioned routs, the movies have often depicted the events of these legendary encounters, and the Battle of Thermopylae is no different having previously shown up on-screen in the cheesy, forgettable 1962 film The 300 Spartans. Zack Snyder’s film ‘300’ rights that wrong by presenting an astounding visual account of the war in all its glory, majesty, and power.

The film’s screenplay by director Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon was based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, the same Frank Miller responsible for the offbeat and thoroughly entertaining neo-noir Sin City (and co-director of its film incarnation). Miller’s graphic take on this famous three day standoff in 480 B.C. has been captured by director Snyder and his crew with astonishing fidelity to the look and tone of the original artwork and dialogue. I’d venture to say that ‘300’ is quite possibly the greatest achievement yet in combining live action with computer backgrounds on the screen. Once one buys into the look, sound, and spirit of this world, it is quite easy to get lost in it so hypnotic is the spell that is cast by the stylized visuals and by a pitch perfect cast.

Gerard Butler stars as Spartan king Leonidas, the very embodiment of the no-nonsense Spartan warrior with a herculean physique, a lion’s heart, and a fearless, cocksure demeanor. This is not a man to be tested or challenged for the words “surrender” and “defeat” are not in his vocabulary, and the model he sets for his men seems to have carried over to every last one of his soldiers. His queen is Gorgo played by Lena Headey. Another model of Spartan strength and possessing a fierce will, she is more than a match for her husband and one of the real joys of this production (though she stays in Sparta with their son when her husband goes off to battle, she has her own hands full dealing with an insidious politician played by Dominic West, another great asset to the movie). Leonidas’ Persian enemy, the man-god Xerxes, is effectively played as a menacing effete by Rodrigo Santoro.

The choreographed majesty of the battle scenes is particularly impressive in the early-going as the crafty Greeks position themselves in a narrow pass and manage to ward off advance after advance with their own seemingly invincible strategies. Though not a particular fan of war films (with the occasional exception), I was dazzled by the effectiveness of the Greeks’ moves and countermoves, frustrating the Persians who had hoped that their victory would be assured by their sheer numbers and the advance word on their bottomless bag of tricks, all of which the Greeks find ready solutions for much to the dismay of the Persians.

If the film has weaknesses, they’re mainly due to some less than convincing CGI creatures and the close-to-unending battle footage. As things become desperate and the combat turns from team playing to individual combat, the hackings and slashings begin to become just a bit tiresome and repetitive. Beautifully rendered they are from beginning to end (and the CGI backdrops throughout the entire film are breathtaking to watch), but the final squirmishes which show individual audience favorites going to their inevitable deaths might have come just a bit sooner.

Video Quality - 5/5

The Panavision 2.40:1 aspect ratio is faithfully rendered on this Blu-ray disc in 1080p using the VC-1 codec. To capture the look of the original graphic novel, there is grain, contrast has been heightened, and blacks occasionally go so deep as to be crushed. But those aren’t defects or problems: that was the original intended look of the film, and the Blu-ray disc presents the exact experience I had at the theater while now sitting in my own home. In its own way, this is a reference quality high definition disc, but only if you know what the look of the film was intended to be from the outset. The film has been divided into 30 chapters.

Audio Quality - 5/5

The Blu-ray disc offers three English soundtracks. I selected the PCM 5.1 track which is reference quality by any standard. The sound is bold, brassy, and yet startlingly distinct with almost constant use of all available channels with both music and sound effects and tremendously powerful LFE. It’s a completely immersive experience and one of the great soundtracks currently available on any format.

Special Features - 5/5

The Blu-ray comes with plentiful extras and only a few of them not worth a look and a listen.

The audio commentary is by director Zack Snyder, scripter Kurt Johnstad, and director of photography Larry Fong. It’s mostly Synder’s show, and his enthusiasm for the project and his knowledge of the myriad technical details in making the picture are an interesting listen especially if one is curious about what was real on the set and what was created in a computer. His two fellow commentators don’t add much to the track, unfortunately.

“300 Spartans – Fact or Fiction?” is an entertaining high definition history lesson concerning how much is actually true and how much is Frank Miller hyperbole insofar as the story for the film is concerned. This informative and entertaining featurette runs about 24½ minutes.

“Who Were the Spartans?” is a 4½-minute high definition quickie about the people of the city state Sparta and how they were reflected by the actors in the film. This could certainly have been longer and in more detail.

“Preparing for Battle” runs 6:43 and is a fascinating “pitch reel” for Warner execs to give them the look and feel of the projected project. I quite enjoyed seeing the tone of the film set this early in the filmmaking process.

“The Frank Miller Tapes” is another excellent background piece on the author of the original graphic novel. Tracing his interest in art, discussing the pivotal people in his professional life, and his interests in crime dramas, this piece runs not quite 15 minutes.

Two featurettes not in high definition are also two of the weaker entries in the bonus section: “The Making of ‘300’” and “Making ‘300’ in Images.” The latter is a rapid fire 4-minute collage of still images put together in dizzying succession showing the construction and filming in total. The former is a 6-minute piece of fluff that seems insignificant after the much richer featurettes which have preceded it.

The disc offers twelve Webisodes (all in standard definition), brief featurettes dealing with people involved both before and behind the camera. Gerard Butler’s segment is the most interesting of the actors presented (watching him doing arm curls to help get into shape is very impressive) while from the production team, I most appreciated the segments featuring art director James Bissell and costume designer Michael Wilkinson as they talked about the incredible amount of detailed work needed to get the film in its final form. The other segments involve actors Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro and segments on training the actors, the stunt work involved in the film, the adaptation of the novel to the screen, the culture of Sparta, some scene studies, and a look at some of the fantastic characters in the film. All of these featurettes which run anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes in length, are worth viewing.

The bonus features conclude with four minutes of deleted footage (three scenes) with introductory commentary by director Zack Snyder. The scenes are certainly valuable records of what might have found their way into the movie, but clearly none of them were absolutely necessary for the finished film.

In Conclusion - 4.5/5 (not an average)

‘300’ makes something monumental (and monumentally entertaining) out of one of history’s most notorious standoffs, and the story now has a film version fitting to its importance in the history of Greece. The Blu-ray disc is an exceptional high definition rendering of this very entertaining and moving story.

Discuss this review here at The Home Theater Forum.




300 (HD-DVD)

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300
Release Date: Available now (released July 31, 2007)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Packaging/Materials: Standard single-disc HD DVD case
Year: 2007
Rating: R
Running Time: 1h50m
Video (Feature): 1080p high definition 16x9 2.40:1
Audio (Feature): Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1; Dolby Digital Plus: English 5.1, French 5.1, Spanish 5.1
Video (Special Features): Partially 1080i high definition, partially 480i or 480p standard definition
Audio (Special Features): Stereo
Subtitles: Feature only: English, French, Spanish
MSRP: $39.99

Review by Cameron Yee


The Feature: 4.5/5

"300," adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel about the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, is soaked in melodrama - from its dialogue, to its plot, to its visuals. But it rarely grows tiresome, its heavy handedness avoiding outright absurdity; the film as a whole maintaining a fine balance between style and substance. Perhaps its because those two qualities are so perfectly paired: High contrast images and copious slo-mo battle scenes mirror the Spartan's black-and-white morality and veneration of the fight, resulting in a synergized film that exhilarates when another might merely entertain. The one element that sometimes goes too far is the narration, which at times describes the obvious or trumpets the Spartan code unneccesarily. Given the voice over is an integral part of the story structure, it would seem the screenwriters painted themselves into a corner. But overall it's a small fault in a film that many will find a worthy addition to their movie collection.

Video Quality: 5/5

The film is correctly framed at 2.40:1, is VC-1 encoded and free of dust, dirt, damage and edge haloes. The highly stylized, high contrast look of the film is perfectly rendered in high definition, the deep swaths of black and white never getting out of control or unstable. Of course the high contrast manipulation - called "The Crush" by the filmmakers - precludes the usual evaluation of shadow and highlight detail. But overall image detail is remarkable - perhaps more than usual because of the high contrast. Flying embers, kicked up sand and dirt, and the added-in-post grain all have an incredible clarity. At times the extent of the image manipulation gives the picture an artificiality resembling full CGI productions like the upcoming "Beowulf," in particular the first scene with Dilios (David Wenham) by the fire. But this of course is merely an observation laced with a curiosity about where digital manipulation will take us in the next several years. If we continue to get eye poppingly beautiful works like "300" let's hope we also get the same caliber of high definition transfers.

Audio Quality: 5/5

The film's Dolby Digital Plus option will certainly please listeners, but if one has the capability the Dolby TrueHD track is preferable for its wider soundstage and greater overall sonic depth. The audio mix on both tracks have surround channels in an almost constant state of activity, whether providing soundtrack support, atmospheric sound effects or directional effects in battle scenes. Though LFE is present and healthy, don't expect profoundly heavy moments that rattle the foundation (think the Balrog scene in "Lord of the Rings") - to my recollection there aren't any. And while dialogue is generally clear and intelligible, I did at times have to turn on the subtitles to catch certain names or to get past the accents or emphatic deliveries.

Special Features: 5/5

Bluescreen Picture-In-Picture Version: Easily the highlight of the special features, viewers are able to watch the feature and unmanipulated version at the same time. With Snyder providing audio commentary, one can see the full extent of "The Crush," which pieces were set and which were added in post and really how much blue and green screen was used to make the film. Here's hoping other HD releases will include this special feature. My only criticism is the constant "300" bug in the top right corner, which seems like a potential display burn-in problem for those with CRT sets. Currently exclusive to the HD DVD release.

"Vengeance and Valor" strategy game: A "Risk" style game that continues the battle between the Greeks and Persians. Being a horrible strategist in games as simple as checkers, I didn't do very well, but I'd be interested to know if the game is any good for those "Risk" aficionados. Currently exclusive to the HD DVD release.

Pick Your Favorite Scene: Compile your favorite moments from the movie and store them for a quick revisit and/or share them with fellow fans via the online component. As expected inputting letters is a bit tedious with just a remote and there doesn't seem to be a way to record a scene as you're watching it in the standard viewing mode, but the feature works all around and could prove popular especially with action oriented fare. Currently exclusive to the HD DVD release.

"300: Fact or Fiction" (24m34s): Snyder, Miller and historians share some of the actual history of the battle and the Spartan culture and society.

"Who Were the Spartans?" (4m32s): A brief look at the Spartan warrior society and its values.

"Preparing for Battle" (6m42s): How the graphic novel came to be adapted for film, with selections from the original animated storyboards and film test footage used to persuade the studio to bankroll the production.

"Frank Miller Tapes" (14m42s): Miller talks about how he came to create "300." Friends and colleagues also chime in on what makes Miller so great.

"Making of 300" (5m50s): Standard promotional featurette, in 4:3.

"Making of 300 in Images" (3m39s): Production stills set to music and presented in rapid succession, in 4:3.

Webisodes (38m21s): Twelve featurettes covering everything from production design to the actors' physical training, in 4:3.

Deleted Scenes (3m23s): Three scenes, introduced by Snyder. The first two deal with Ephialtes' attempted suicide; the third is of a giant-little-person-archer pairing that was deemed too over-the-top. Good decisions all around.

Web Enabled Downloads: Download up to 13 ring tones and/or up to 25 wallpapers for your mobile phone. No pricing is stated, so caveat emptor. Currently exclusive to the HD DVD release.

Recap

The Feature: 4.5/5
Video Quality: 5/5
Audio Quality: 5/5
Special Features: 5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4.5/5


A pulpy but exhilarating film gets first class treatment, with excellent audio and video transfers and a great set of special features. A recommended addition to one's HD library.

Discuss this review here at The Home Theater Forum.


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