Saturday, June 21, 2008

The 1080 Times, vol. 2

A lot of HD-DVD reviews this week (including the best one yet), but first some odd goings-on in HD-DVD land: Some time last month, all the Warner Bros. HD-DVDs jumped in price. While they used to be going in the $12-15 range at online retailers, now it's hard to find even one below $21. This may not seem very strange, but consider that most of these are more expensive than even their Blu-Ray counterparts. A good example is the high-def-exclusive Blade Runner 5-Disc Complete Collector's Edition, which has an MSRP of $39.99. Amazon has the Blu-Ray version for $19.99 (up from $14.95 last week), and the HD-DVD for $27.95. Shouldn't it be the other way around? I hope this is only a temporary price hike, and that it's not motivated by Warner Bros. trying to entice more Blu-Ray converts.

Now, on to the reviews. And remember, these scores are for HD-DVDs, but many are available on Blu-Ray and feature the same high-def transfer.

The Wild Bunch -- This HD-DVD is proof that not every movie will translate well to high def. Peckinpah's classic still looks great, but it's barely an upgrade from the standard disc, and this may be due to the way it was filmed. The Wild Bunch is color-wise not very vibrant, brown and dark Earth tones typically fill the frame, not leaving much to be exploited by the HD upgrade. There are a few exceptions: the Bunch's send-off at the village with sunlight pouring through the trees is even more breath-taking, and the day-for-night shots after the opening shootout have more clarity. Still, this is easily the least-impressive HD-DVD I've come across and not worth the upgrade even for fans of the movie. Score: 3

Cat People -- An odd choice to be included in one of the first batches of HD-DVDs, Paul Schraeder's re-imagining of the Val Lewton classic is a stunner in high def. Set in New Orleans, there are shots that you will want framed after seeing them in this eye-popping presentation. Maybe the best example of what HD can do with dark scenes, as a shot of Nastassja Kinski disrobing in the moonlight retains a stunning amount of detail. Score: 9

2001: A Space Odyssey -- I was eager to see what HD-DVD could do with a 70mm movie, and the result is perfect, if not a tad disappointing. Maybe this is the kind of disc that deserves to be seen in 1080p (I watch in 720p) to really feel the full effect, because I was never truly blown away. Everything looks crisp and perfect (particularly in the final act), but compared to the remastered standard disc, it's not a startling upgrade. These releases in 2007 represented the first time 2001 was available in widescreen, and again I ask: how did we ever tolerate this in full screen? Score: 8

Miami Vice -- Another movie filmed in HD, putting it on a different level when viewed in this format. The opening boat race is a satisfying introduction to what you'll experience for the rest of the movie, and it only gets better with Michael Mann's usual dazzling nighttime urban photography. And yes, the mojitos look so good in HD, the mere sight of them could throw a recovering alcoholic off the wagon. Score: 9

Children of Men -- Like all recent movies on HD, there's a slight bit of disappointment since it looked great to begin with, but it's hard not to be impressed with Children of Men's realistic natural lighting and how it translates. The sudden, hot scorches of sunlight on the frame almost make you squint, and the violence seems more vicious. Score: 8.5

Black Snake Moan -- Another movie with cinematography that translates well to HD, as Craig Brewer's heat-soaked South fires up every pixel on your screen. The early shot of Samuel L. Jackson bulldozing a blooming rose garden is one of those visuals where you know you're not watching standard DVD any more. Score: 9

The Searchers -- Here it is, the best possible example of HD-DVD. I honestly don't know how it could get any better than this. What looked great on standard DVD causes you to drool in HD. I watched this twice in two days just because I had to get a look at it again. John Ford's photography deserves a lot of credit, but I really think it's due to it being filmed in VistaVision, which was billed as superior to CinemaScope. There are so many details on your screen, and life-like colors, it seems too good to be true. A 10 score doesn't do this justice, if you upgrade to HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, this should be your first purchase. Score: 10

King Kong -- In the previous volume, I mentioned how I was unimpressed with 300, and wondered how well CGI movies in general would fare in HD. King Kong somewhat supports that guess, but a few scenes prove me wrong. The shots of King Kong in a neon-filled Times Square almost looks 3-D, and is one of the best examples of HD visuals I've seen. In general, though, the many CGI effects look how you would expect them to, and don't amaze you that much. Score: 7

The Sopranos -- A true rip-off in many ways, good thing I only paid about $7 for it. With an MSRP of $129.95 (and still $84.95 on Amazon), The Sopranos barely registers a blip in HD. It could be due to inferior camera work, but whatever it is this is hardly better than a standard DVD and most people won't even notice a difference. Score: 2

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
-- Even better than I expected, with Roger Deakins' lauded cinematography looking more amazing in HD. The opening night train robbery is a true show stopper. Score: 9


TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hey, Adam ... thanks for the updates on these HD movies. I truly drool over the prospects of "The Assassination of Jesse James" in HD.

One statement bothers me, though. You say at one point "If you upgrade to HD-DVD or Blu-Ray ..." Maybe I'm missing something, but why would anyone do the former?

Adam Ross said...

Good question, Rick. It's a wacky decision to dive into HD-DVD at this point, but it can have its rewards. Consider: Blu-Ray players cost about $400 right now, with discs averaging $25-30. HD-DVD players can be found for around $50 (the latest, most-up-to-date model), and most discs are discounted in the $10-15 range. The format doesn't disappoint and it's an inexpensive way to hold you over until Blu-Ray comes down in price.

Read more about my conversion to HD-DVD here.