Monday, July 21, 2008

The 1080 Times, vol. 3

Universal was HD-DVD exclusive (along with Paramount and DreamWorks) and the studio provided the format with its best vein of support, and perhaps helped extend its lifespan. This month saw the first Universal Blu-Ray discs released (among them: the Mummy trilogy and Doomsday), so BD owners will soon get a taste of the catalog titles HD-DVD converts have enjoyed. What sticks out to me about Universal's HD support is their eclectic choices for the format: Darkman, The Jerk, The Last Starfighter, Meet Joe Black, Mobsters, Sea of Love ... even Timecop!

These are obviously not the most popular movies in Universal's catalog (or movies that anyone would clamor to see in high def), but it's nice to know that it's possible to watch Navin R. Johnson in 1080p. In addition to putting a diverse selection on HD-DVD, Universal's discs are arguably the highest quality (and value) in the HD lot. I've yet to be disappointed by a Universal HD transfer, and almost all of them have an MSRP of $29.98 (compared to $39.99 for most), so they are all available now for only $13.98. Most interestingly, Universal HD-DVDs all have a special feature not found on others: an extra called My Scenes that allows you to save snippets of the movie. It's similar to the A-B feature found on any DVD player, but My Scenes are available for future viewing even after you stop the movie. This week I touch on three Universal HD-DVDs: The Big Lebowski, Tremors and The Thing.

Casablanca -- You can tell from the opening Warner Bros. logo that you're in for a treat with Casablanca in HD. If this is a good indication of what classic movies look like in this format, then Blu-Ray owners need to save their money for Criterion's initial batch of HD releases this fall. My first impression of Casablanca was that it looked more like a B&W movie from the 1960s, but it's actually better than that. Like The Adventures of Robin Hood, certain shots have a near 3-d quality, and the blacks are all dark as midnight. Only a handful of B&W movies were released on HD-DVD, thankfully Criterion will put plenty of these classics on Blu-Ray. Score: 10

The Big Lebowski -- This is a great example of an eye-popping Universal HD transfer, it just doesn't seem like it should look this good. In the bowling alley scenes you can see how the concourse (?) area behind the lanes are dimly lit, and the trophy case is illuminated by maybe one light bulb. In HD, the Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski comes to life even more, with all the neon and florescent lights looking perfectly crisp and natural. This is a must upgrade for fans of the movie. Score: 9

Tremors -- A nice surprise. From the opening shot, the image is 200% better than you could hope for on DVD, and it's probably due to most of it being shot under the hot desert sun of Nevada. The stark natural light takes full advantage of HD, and the result is something you can't turn away from. It's also fun to see that the excellent creature effects hold up with the increased resolution -- in fact, they might even look more realistic. And just how awesome is this movie? I loved it at the time, but hadn't seen it in a long time -- glad to see it hasn't faded at all. Score: 9

Rio Bravo
-- My first chance to watch a movie with heavy grain in HD, and while the result isn't very impressive, it is still a good improvement. I was unsure about how movies like Rio Bravo or The Sting would look in HD, since both have prominent film grain by design. With Rio Bravo, the movie is also shot in a unique color palette, and when cranked out in HD it won't catch the casual observer's eye. Having seen it many times, I was impressed with how much more detail you see in the interior scenes -- paintings on the wall stand out, and you can see fingerprints on beer glasses. But it's ultimately not a very worthy upgrade, especially with the price still hovering around $20. Score: 5

The Thing -- Another flawless Universal effort, this time with a movie that features very little natural light. This classic still shines due to Rob Bottin's epic creature effects, which look even more gruesome in HD. The Thing is also helped in the overly dark scenes where on VHS or DVD it was a little hard to make out faces and details. These scenes now have greater definition and are easier to follow. Although I've seen this movie countless times, in HD it somehow seemed more intense. Score: 8

1 comment:

Steve Langton said...

Although I can't jump for HD just yet, this sort of thing is invaluable as it gives concise information on how good certain films can look. Please keep 'em comin'.