Monday, May 26, 2008

The 1080 Times, vol. 1


So I'm living in the past with HD-DVD, why would any self-respecting consumer want to read about this outdated format? I'll tell you why: many of the HD-DVDs I'm planning to write about are not available on Blu-Ray, but when they do arrive on that format it will be the same high definition transfer and will look pretty much identical (the consensus is that the latest movies in HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are hard to distinguish). So HD-DVD and Blu-Ray converts alike should be able to take something informative from these posts.

Since getting player I've watched many HD-DVDs, either from online rental or buying them with a dramatic discount from Amazon. With my capsule reviews I'm assigning them a 1-10 score based on their HD Amaze-ability. These scores won't be entirely based on a movie's transfer, but simply how much the HD image will blow you away.

300 (combo format, $20.95): This was one of the pack-ins with my HD-DVD player, and while I was expecting to be amazed by the picture, like the movie itself it didn't really impress me. The HD 300 looks like...300, exactly as you saw it in the theater or on standard DVD. This is the only CGI-heavy HD-DVD I've watched, but I suspect that digital special effects don't receive too much of an upgrade in HD. There's nothing to complain about here, but I don't think casual viewers will notice much of a difference. Score: 5.

The Bourne Identity
($13.95): The other pack-in disc, The Bourne Identity looks fine but because of its subdued color pallet and dark locations never really shows off the HD format the way you think it would.. But the disc does have impressive extras, showing off the picture-in-picture capabilities by switching to a satellite view of where the action is taking place, with facts about the locations. Score: 6

Flags of Our Fathers ($18.95): The battle scenes definitely enter eye-popping territory, with the amazing shots of battleships filling the Pacific and their beach landings. Natural light always comes through beautifully in HD, and there's plenty of it in the Iwo Jima scenes. This movie also introduced me to a cool HD-DVD feature, where some discs come with a progress bar that pops up when you fast forward or pause (much like how a DVR works). Score: 8

Eastern Promises
(combo format, $17.95): The best of the recent movies I've seen on HD-DVD, in content and picture quality. While a lot of it is shot in dark streets and alleys, there also scenes like the Christmas dinner, which is an true show stopper in HD. The higher resolution also adds to the tattoo imagery, which is a prominent aspect of the plot. Score: 9

The Adventures of Robin Hood ($15.95): Without a doubt, the best example of what the HD format is capable of. I had heard a lot of good things about this disc, and it has to be seen to be believed. While the movie already has legendary Technocolor, in HD it's almost like watching it through a Viewmaster, taking on a near-3D quality in some focuses. Warner Bros also made the right move in porting over all the great extras from the original DVD, making this a must buy for HD-DVD converts (not yet available on Blu-Ray). Score: 10

The Cowboys ($14.95): This probably would have impressed me more if I had seen it before in non-HD. It's a great presentation, but nothing that will blow your socks off. However, there are a couple moments where you think "wow, this is HD," like when we see John Wayne wearing a coat that looks like it was stitched together by a costumer hours before. On a lesser format it would look like an ordinary coat, but in HD it looks recently-pressed with perfect seams -- not the kind of coat a rough rancher would be wearing. Score: 6

Into the Wild ($18.95): I was excited about this one, but it was strangely unspectacular. The Alaska scenes are what you would expect, but they're not as vibrant as I had hoped, maybe due to the lack of bright sunlight in the wilderness. Score: 7

The Road Warrior ($14.95): I had been dying to see this on HD since the early reviews raved about its unexpectedly amazing transfer. This is a personal reference movie for me, since I saw it probably 20 times on VHS and probably half that on the inferior DVD. Having said that: Wow! In HD your eyes start wandering away from the action and into the Australian hills that are now populated with greenery (who knew?). Lots of surprises: when a baddy punches through the window in Max's semi, you can see all the glass shards hurtling toward the screen; a few of the sunsets seem un-Earthly; and all the flames look like they're about to burn through your screen. A dream for Road Warrior lovers, or any action movie fan. Score: 10

Zodiac: Director's Cut ($18.95): This is realistically the best-looking HD-DVD out there, but it's in a different league than Adventures of Robin Hood because it was filmed in HD. This makes the movie look almost too lifelike, with almost no film grain and a quality from some light sources that make you want to jump inside your TV. Zodiac was my favorite movie of 2007 (not the best, but my favorite), so these discs seem to always be in my player. Beyond the fantastic visuals, it's just one of the best DVDs I've come across in the last couple years, mostly because of the outstanding documentaries. Score: 10

Blade Runner: 5-Disc Complete Collector's Edition ($21.95): Remember, while regular DVD consumers had to buy the big, pricey briefcase to obtain the fifth disc (containing Ridley Scott's "work print"), next-gen converts could buy a non-briefcase 5-disc version for roughly half the price. I traded in a few movies I hope to upgrade with HD-DVDs and only paid $1 of my money for it. The HD Blade Runner is everything you've dreamed of but somehow ... it disappointed me a little bit, and I think I know why. Since I already bought this on standard DVD and was amazed by the new transfer on it, the HD version wasn't able to quite blow me away. Nonetheless, this movie looks great on HD. For the first time you can see every layer of Scott's visual feast, with walls of rain, fog and steam clearly visible in each scene, with neon lights reflecting off windows and lights from flying cars bouncing off puddles on the street. Score: 9

*Note: I actually watch my HD-DVDs in 720p, because my clunker TV doesn't do 1080p, and its 1080i setting irritates me. Honestly, I chose The 1080 Times because it sounds better than The 720p Picayune.

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