Home Theater Magazine Article Archive

The following articles were previously published in the print edition of Home Theater magazine between 2008-2012. They should be read in context of the time they were originally written. Technical standards may have risen in the meantime. Writing styles and tastes also may have evolved as the author matured.

Home Theater, April 2008 - My first issue in print


A.I. Artificial Intelligence – The “Intelligence” Part Is Debatable

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2011.

It takes a very talented filmmaker to make a movie as infuriating as A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Had this been a typical piece of bombastic sci-fi claptrap, it could be easily dismissed and forgotten. Instead, we have the directorial artistry of Steven Spielberg, working from a story treatment by none other than Stanley Kubrick. As legend has it, Kubrick labored on the project for almost two decades without finding the right approach. Upon his death in 1999, friend Spielberg took the reins and fast-tracked the movie into production. The result is an interesting film with some interesting ideas, but Spielberg’s touchy-feely cinematic sensibilities clash badly with Kubrick’s cold intellectualism.

Truth be told, the first third of the film is a fascinating exploration of the central question: Can an artificial being experience legitimate human emotions? When robot child David (Haley Joel Osment) is programmed to love his human “mother,” is that love real or simulated? In turn, could a human love such a robot back? (That last part doesn’t seem like nearly as much of a stretch.) Things get a little silly in the next section, which turns into a cheesy Mad Max knockoff. The story nonetheless almost wraps up with a beautifully poetic conclusion, until the whole thing shoots off into a howlingly absurd epilogue that’s just about the single worst ending to any movie in the history of cinema. Apologists will try to pretend that it was all Kubrick’s concept, but there’s simply no way that Kubrick wrote any of the reams of bullshit technobabble exposition about “space-time pathways.” This is pure Spielbergian pap, a desperate attempt to explain away any hint of ambiguity, and it ruins the whole damn movie.

The Blu-ray release does an admirable job of translating Janusz Kaminski’s difficult cinematography to home video. The movie’s photography is richly contrasty, often hazy on purpose, and frequently grainy. The high-def image (negligibly opened up from 1.85:1 to a 16:9 framing) captures the film-like textures well. The DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 soundtrack does better in the subtler scenes, where its musical presence shines. Although the track builds up power in the middle section of the movie, these scenes come across a little muddy and lacking in distinction. Because Spielberg still doesn’t do commentaries, bonus features consist of more than an hour of featurettes, none of which can quite justify that awful ending. Really, just turn the movie off when the kid gets to the Blue Fairy. You’ll wish you did.

Alien Anthology – Because “Quadrilogy” Was Never a Real Word Anyway

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 2011.

For my money, the most fascinating aspect of the Alien series is just how different each movie is than the others. Rather than simply copy and repeat a successful formula ad nauseam, the producers made a point to hire directors with distinctive sensibilities for all four installments. How many other long-running film series can say the same?

Ridley Scott’s original Alien is essentially a haunted house thriller in space. The picture is artfully designed and incredibly atmospheric. It has compelling characters and some of the most iconic imagery in film history. It’s a straight-up masterpiece. For the first follow-up, James Cameron expanded the scope of the story into a full-blown action movie rollercoaster. Aliens is huge and exciting, with countless amazingly suspenseful set-pieces.

Fans will argue which of the first two movies is the best, and which of the last two is the worst. Maybe I’m the oddball, but I like them all. Alien 3 (or Alien3, technically) is widely disliked for killing off some fan favorite characters at the outset, and for a presumed plot hole about where an alien egg came from. The film also has a very bleak and nihilistic vision that many viewers find off-putting. None of this has ever bothered me. Director David Fincher would go on to greater acclaim for a similarly dark and oppressive style in his later work. More than any of the others, the third installment emphasizes the tragedy and hopelessness of Ellen Ripley’s nightmare.

Even though the third picture concludes with a fitting end to the storyline, there was still money to be made from a fourth. Thus we have the utterly unnecessary cash-in of Alien Resurrection. Yet director Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings a funhouse atmosphere to the proceedings, and the movie benefits from snappy dialogue by writer Joss Whedon (who reportedly hated the final product). Resurrection has some bizarre story twists, and an absurdly goofy creature effect at the end. But its weirdness is strangely entertaining, and that underwater scene is really cool.

Fox’s Alien Anthology Blu-ray set offers up all four movies in both their original theatrical versions and Special Edition or extended versions. Ridley Scott admits up front that the “Director’s Cut” of Alien is nothing of the sort. It’s a marketing gimmick, but doesn’t harm things too badly. Aliens gains a lot of subtext and character development in its longer version, but that colony scene on planet LV-426 derails the suspense and pacing of the first act. Because David Fincher has disowned Alien3, the extended cut was prepared without his help. The new footage improves the development and personalities of supporting characters (another of the biggest complaints about the theatrical version), but the alternate opening doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Do yourself a favor and skip the Special Edition of Resurrection. Its new intro and ending are laughably bad.

I’m conflicted on how to rate the video portions of these discs. Both of the first two films have been painstakingly remastered by their directors to bring out amazing depth and detail. Aliens in particular is a stunning improvement over any previous edition of the movie. On the other hand, both have also been recolored into a gaudy teal and orange color scheme. It’s a little annoying on Alien, and completely out of control on Aliens. Honestly, there’s barely a single shot in the latter not bathed in teal. In technical respects, both transfers are wonderful. Aesthetically, Aliens is just plain hideous. The later sequels are sourced from older masters. They’re not nearly as sharp as the first two. Alien3 looks like an old cable broadcast. Detail is only fair, and the contrast is a little washed out. Resurrection fares better. Its photography is extremely grainy and contrasty, but detail is pretty good (especially in close-ups). Neither suffers from any recoloring or obvious digital tinkering. All four movies have bass-heavy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks. As with the video, the fidelity and clarity of the audio is best on the older films, which have had more attention paid to the remastering. The box set promises over 50 hours of bonus features. I believe it. The volume of content here is overwhelming. Commentaries, deleted scenes, documentaries – there’s a copious bounty of it all. Highlights include the MU-TH-UR mode interactive interface on all movies, and an uncensored version of the Wreckage and Rage documentary about the making of Alien3 (which many will find more interesting than the film itself).  

Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita – Viddy Well, Little Brothers. Viddy Well.

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published August 2011.

The relationship between Warner Bros. and Stanley Kubrick was amazingly rare for Hollywood. The studio recognized the director’s important contribution to cinema, financed all of his movies from 1970 until his death in 1999, and allowed him unprecedented freedom and control of his projects. Through the acquisition of the MGM back catalog, Warner also obtained a couple of his most important older films. Many studios have wooed prospective talent by claiming to want to be “in the [insert your name here] business.” Almost always, those are just words. But Warner really did want to be in the Stanley Kubrick business, and has treated all of his films as crown jewels in the studio’s impressive catalog.

Warner already released Blu-ray editions of most of the Kubrick movies under its control. A new Stanley Kubrick Limited Edition Collection box set collects together the existing discs for 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, along with a new 40th Anniversary Edition of A Clockwork Orange. Warner even licensed Spartacus from Universal and Dr. Strangelove from Sony. Brand new to the Blu-ray format are Lolita and Barry Lyndon. The latter two movies are also available separately, as is a standalone digibook release of the new Clockwork Orange reissue. Those are the discs under review here.

Much debate has raged over the years about the proper aspect ratios in which to present Kubrick’s films. A lot of the confusion stems from Kubrick’s own ambiguous feelings about home video, and decisions he made back in the VHS and Laserdisc era to remove all matting so that his movies would fill the 4:3 TV screens of the day. Unfortunately, the director didn’t live long enough to witness the transition to 16:9 as the new HDTV standard. The Blu-rays for Lolita and A Clockwork Orange have been transferred at 1.66:1, which is generally acknowledged as Kubrick’s preferred theatrical ratio. Both have small pillarbox bars on the sides of the frame. For some reason, Warner has mildly cropped Barry Lyndon to 1.78:1. Realistically, the change doesn’t have much impact on the compositional balance. The movie still looks very well-framed. However, few of us are the obsessive perfectionists that Stanley Kubrick was.

Lolita looks pretty good for its age. The black & white photography has a nice grayscale balance and contrast. A light grain structure remains preserved. Detail is decent on the whole, though the movie has a lot of soft focus shots. Barry Lyndon is perhaps even more frustratingly soft. Kubrick famously shot the film mainly in natural light (including candlelight) using special lenses originally built for rear projection process shots. Sharpness was an attribute he sacrificed to get the look he wanted. The lighting and delicate colors are indeed lovely, but the picture is sometimes so soft that it’s actually hard on the eyes.

Unfortunately, even though a new high-resolution restoration of A Clockwork Orange played at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is sourced from the same older transfer as the first Blu-ray released back in 2007. It’s a dated master, with a bit too much digital tampering. Most of the grain has been removed and the picture seems a bit too bright. It’s watchable enough, but certainly isn’t “gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh,” as we may have hoped.

The soundtracks for all three movies are encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Lolita is preserved in its original mono. The other two films have been remixed into 5.1, but tastefully so. Both remain focused on the front soundstage, with only the music expanded to stereo. All three are suitably clear but otherwise undistinguished. For extras, Lolita and Barry Lyndon have only their theatrical trailers. Clockwork Orange gets a 2-disc set that carries over the commentary by and documentary about Malcolm McDowell, plus adds some new featurettes, digibook liner notes, and the excellent Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures documentary (sadly in SD). If you’re not going to spring for the whole box set, Lolita is perhaps the only essential purchase of these three standalone releases. It’s a masterpiece. Heresy though it may be, even as a huge Kubrick fan, I find Barry Lyndon almost insufferably dull. Your mileage may vary on that one. I fully expect that we’ll see yet another release of A Clockwork Orange somewhere down the line with an improved transfer, so I’d recommend waiting for that.

Big Trouble in Little China – Still Shaking the Pillars of Heaven

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2009.

A movie like Big Trouble in Little China could only have been made in the 1980s. During no other era in filmmaking would anyone attempt to combine a macho action flick, screwball comedy, supernatural fantasy, Western, and kung-fu extravaganza all into one crazy mash-up of B-movie fun. In today’s age of marketing focus groups, pre-fab franchises, and sequels to remakes of remakes and sequels, no studio head would ever greenlight a project this strange and unique. What’s amazing is that director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell made such a goofy concept work so well. Twenty-odd years later, their tale of a loudmouth trucker caught in the middle of a turf war between Asian street gangs and ancient sorcerers is still as giddily entertaining as ever.

After recently suffering through mediocre transfers on Ghostbusters and Spaceballs, this is finally what an ’80s movie is supposed to look like in high definition. The Blu-ray’s 2.35:1 picture may not be razor sharp, but it has plenty of detail and nice film-like textures. The source is clean, grain levels are appropriate, and there’s been no contrast boosting or other unwanted digital manipulation. Properly transferred, the old optical effects blend with the live action very well and actually look great.

Sadly, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track doesn’t fare so well. The sound quality is shrill and uncomfortable at high volumes. Supplements are mostly carried over from the old DVD edition. The highlights are some deleted scenes and a breezy commentary from Carpenter and Russell.

Ol’ Jack Burton says, Big Trouble is still big fun. Buy your copy today.

Blood: The Last Vampire – A Bloody Waste of Time

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. November 2009 (unpublished).

[Note: Due to scheduling issues and print space concerns, this article did not make the final edit for the magazine and was never published.]

The main character of Blood: The Last Vampire is not named Blood. Nor is she the last vampire. That should probably serve as your first warning. The movie is based on a 2000 anime film that ran only 48 minutes. The live action version has been padded to nearly twice that length. It shouldn’t have been. The story runs out of steam very early.

Korean actress Gianna (My Sassy Girl) stars as Saya, a Japanese girl who looks about 15 but is actually a centuries-old half-human and half-vampire hybrid. She works for a secret cabal called The Council to rid the world of evil bloodsuckers. Saya has been assigned to go undercover as a schoolgirl at a U.S. Air Force base in Japan that’s infested by vampires. She’ll use incredible samurai fighting skills to hack and slash her way to Onigen, the queen of the monsters that killed her father many centuries earlier. Along the way, she’ll also befriend and rescue a human girl (Allison Miller) caught in the middle of the conflict.

Director Chris Nahon is best known for Kiss of the Dragon, a passable Jet Li action flick from 2001. In the meantime, he seems to have forgotten how to put together a coherent movie. The film is dead stupid. Even though the story is set in 1970 against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, almost none of the actors make any attempt to look or dress like they belong in the decade. The acting and dialogue are uniformly embarrassing. Production values are quite low, especially the hokey visual effects. CG blood spatters and stop-motion monsters look ridiculously fake. Even the frenetic shaky-cam action scenes are incoherent and dull.

According to IMDb, the movie was shot on 35mm film. I have a hard time believing that. It looks like cheap digital video. The 2.35:1 picture is fairly sharp. However, the heavily-filtered colors look exaggerated and artificial. The entire movie has a sickly yellow pall. Contrasts are deep but frequently crush detail. The image also has weird streaky artifacts in dark parts of the screen, such as the end credits. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is plenty loud and bassy. Overall fidelity is only adequate and sometimes muddy. Bad ADR and dubbing are often apparent. Extras are limited to a pair of EPK featurettes, a storyboard gallery, and access to Sony’s standard BD-Live portal.

There’s a good reason movies like this go directly to video. Don’t waste your time or money.

Body of Lies – Save Ferris

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2009.

As depressing updates from the War on Terror continue to dominate the evening news, is the public ready to be entertained by a spy thriller set in the Middle East again? Apparently not. Despite an A-List cast and glossy production values, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies foundered at the box office last fall. Subject matter aside, the movie’s general mediocrity probably didn’t help its prospects much.

In his latest leading role, Leonardo DiCaprio still wants to convince the world that he’s a tough guy. He stars as CIA field agent Roger Ferris, our man in Jordan. Fluent in Arabic, Ferris works hard to recruit assets and gather first-person intel on Islamic extremists. Back home at Langley, his heartless supervisor Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) keeps up with the action via super-resolution spy plane surveillance footage. Even though he’s half a planet away, Hoffman always knows exactly what’s going on at all times. When a new terror cell attempts to wreak havoc across Europe, the two spies combine resources to stage their own fake terrorist organization in the hopes of ferreting out the group’s leader.

The film certainly benefits from hot-button topicality. It also has some intriguing insights into the futility of using advanced technology to fight an enemy that lives off the grid. Unfortunately, the picture is undone by a weak screenplay that tries to shoehorn in a pointless love story between Ferris and a pretty Muslim nurse. That storyline eventually takes over the plot when the girl is kidnapped and Ferris defies his training, experience, and common sense to rescue her. Naturally, this can only lead to a climax filled with the sort of foolish macho heroics common to almost any generic Hollywood action movie.

If nothing else, Ridley Scott’s films are renowned for their slick imagery and intense stylization. The Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 transfer captures his fondness for crazy color filters and varying film stocks pretty well. Some scenes are sharper or grainier than others by design. Many shots are extremely detailed, especially close-ups. The grain exhibits some blocky compression artifacts in a few spots. Light edge ringing and color banding also appear now and again. Luckily, these problems usually aren’t too distracting.

The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack features immersive use of the surround channels. However, it’s strangely devoid of deep bass activity during the action scenes. It almost sounds as if someone mistakenly dropped the .1 channel from the 5.1 mix. As a result, explosions sound very weak and unconvincing.

Ridley Scott, screenwriter William Monahan, and author David Ignatius were recorded separately for the audio commentary. Ignatius has some interesting things to say about Middle Eastern politics. The disc also offers nine Focus Point featurettes with over an hour of making-of content, five deleted scenes, and an Interactive Debriefing that consists of short interviews with Scott, Crowe, and DiCaprio. The movie’s trailer can be streamed in a tiny standard-def window via BD-Live. Disc 2 is a Digital Copy for Windows Media or iTunes. 

Body of Lies wants to be a Very Important Movie. Back in 2001, Ridley’s brother Tony made a fluffy but more entertaining take on this subject called Spy Game. Universal released it on HD DVD, but not yet on Blu-ray. All things considered, I’d rather watch that one again.

Boogie Nights – Everyone’s Blessed with One Special Thing

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2010.

Boogie Nights owes more than a little of its success to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. Their influences are none-too-subtly felt throughout, from the shot choices and editing rhythms to the sprawling, multi-character narrative. Nevertheless, the 1997 film was a virtuoso triumph and a spectacular breakthrough for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who had only made one previous feature. The movie has an outstanding cast of players including Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy, amongst many others. Mark Wahlberg proves himself a genuine actor able to keep up with such esteemed company. Burt Reynolds is especially good in a comeback role tailor-made for his mix of fatherly warmth and devilish charm.

The film traces the ups and downs of the porn industry through the late ’70s and early ’80s, as seen through the eyes of an aspiring stud with the chosen name Dirk Diggler. He and his extended makeshift family of misfits struggle with personal dramas such as divorce, infidelity, raging egos, drugs, and crime. Their stories parallel the industry’s upheaval from film to videotape, from professionals to amateurs, and from some naïve pretense of art to a mass-produced assembly line product.

The Blu-ray might take a little while to appreciate. At first glance, the 2.40:1 picture seems a bit soft. The movie was shot in a slightly hazy style to evoke the time period. It also has a lot of complicated wide-angle tracking shots that aren’t always razor sharp in focus. Once you settle in with it, the high-def image has a considerable amount of detail, nice colors, and natural contrast.  It has a rich, film-like appearance. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack captures the wide range from Michael Penn’s quiet, mournful score to the many big and bold ’70s tunes. Fidelity is excellent. Surround envelopment is surprisingly active and effective. The track even has a little bass kick that’ll put your TK421 modification to some good use.

All of the supplements on the disc originated with the Criterion Laserdisc edition. We get two commentaries, a half hour of deleted scenes, outtakes, a music video directed by Anderson (with its own commentary), and a trailer. Unfortunately, the infamous easter egg from the LD and DVD doesn’t appear to have made the transition. Boogie Nights is audacious, heartbreaking at times, and hugely entertaining. It’s the sort of movie that every young filmmaker wishes he could make. Few have the talent to actually pull it off.   

The Boondock Saints – Pray for Us Sinners

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2009.

The story behind the making of The Boondock Saints is more interesting than the movie itself. Too bad you won’t find any of that on this Blu-ray release. A few years after the film’s production wrapped, a couple of disgruntled former friends made a scathing documentary called Overnight about writer-director Troy Duffy’s diva antics and abusive behavior on set. For a brief moment in time, Duffy was Hollywood’s new golden boy, a bartender plucked from obscurity by the Weinstein brothers and handed a $15 million contract to make this movie. Unfortunately, his ego got the better of him. He quickly ruined the deal and burned all his bridges in the industry.

As for the film, Boondock Saints is a rather boneheaded action flick about a pair of Irish Catholic ne’er-do-wells who take it upon themselves to wage a religious crusade against all the mobsters, drug dealers, and lowlifes in their South Boston neighborhood. Willem Dafoe is the flamboyant FBI agent following the trail of bodies they leave behind.

Duffy obviously studied up on his Tarantino and John Woo, but is neither as smart nor as talented as his idols. The movie is filled with profane dialogue, non-linear editing tricks, and slo-mo action scenes. The script is dumb as dirt and the performances are embarrassingly over-the-top. And yet, the picture somehow manages to be crazily entertaining anyway. In what other movie will you find Dafoe dressed up in drag as an undercover hooker, porn star Ron Jeremy playing a Mafioso, and comedian Billy Connolly as a psycho hit man?

Boondock Saints bombed at the box office, but became a cult hit on DVD. Fox’s new Blu-ray edition contains both the theatrical and slightly bloodier Director’s Cut versions. The studio applied too much Noise Reduction and Edge Enhancement filtering to the 2.35:1 transfer. The result is a mushy, over-processed appearance. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is nothing special either. Dialogue is clear but flat. The action scenes are gratingly loud, without much surround activity. Fidelity is fair at best.

The disc has two audio commentaries. In the first, Duffy remains on his best behavior and avoids any mention of production strife. Even though he’s only in the movie for about 10 minutes, Billy Connolly spends the entire second track praising the film and defending the director. Also included are seven deleted scenes, some outtakes, a cheesy trailer, and the script. To nobody’s surprise, you won’t find a copy of Overnight here. You’ll have to get that one separately on DVD.

Das Boot – It’s Pronounced Like “Boat”

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2011.

Is it OK to sympathize with Nazis? That’s a thorny question, and not just for American viewers who’ve been raised on a diet of rah-rah patriotic war films about freedom-loving Yanks kicking the butts of dastardly Nazi scum. Germany itself has a very complicated and uncomfortable relationship with its past, and rarely broaches the topic on film. Wolfgang Petersen’s superlative submarine thriller Das Boot takes us inside a WWII U-boat patrolling the Atlantic in 1941. Technically, its crew members are Nazis. Yet few are ideologues and none are jackbooted villains. Mostly, they’re young boys who know nothing of politics, but hunger for the adventure of war, and believe themselves to be serving their country.

The film depicts the camaraderie of these men, their conflicts, their boredom, their excitement, their terror, and their growing disillusionment. In its most profound scene, the crew cheers at having destroyed a British cargo ship, and then watches in horror as the sailors from that ship leap off its flaming deck and desperately try to swim to the submarine for help they will not get. It’s a sobering moment, both beautiful and haunting.

Sony’s Blu-ray release offers both the 1981 theatrical cut (149 min.) and the 1997 Director’s Cut (208 min.) on separate discs. It does not include the 1985 TV miniseries version that clocked in at an astounding 293 minutes. That one’s currently exclusive to DVD. The Director’s Cut has obviously received the bulk of the attention and care here. The 1.85:1 transfer looks pretty good on the whole. The picture is a little soft and flat, and sometimes extremely grainy. But the well-lit interiors have a lot of detail, and colors can be surprisingly vibrant. The movie’s soundtrack was given a complete overhaul for the Director’s Cut. It was extensively re-recorded and remixed to take advantage of 5.1 surround sound. Like any good submarine movie, it’s filled with drips and creeks and groans, punctuated by rocking depth charges and bolts bursting from the pressure. It sounds great. Despite indications to the contrary in the disc menus, the theatrical cut is plain stereo only.

Supplements include a rather old commentary (director Petersen talks about watching Laserdiscs in his home theater) on the DC, a new retrospective documentary, a 1983 documentary about the war, and a handful of interesting featurettes. This is a case where the Director’s Cut really is an all-around better movie, both technically and artistically. Be sure to dive into the longer version first.

Cars 2 – Your Mileage May Vary

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2012.

The first Cars movie is generally recognized as one of Pixar’s weaker efforts. The Playskool-inspired characters and aesthetic targeted a very young audience and had less appeal for adults than most of the studio’s product. Nevertheless, the film coasted by on a pleasant, laid-back attitude and a lot of charm. Unfortunately, even that much is gone in Cars 2, the overbearing sequel that shifts the earlier entry’s weaknesses into overdrive and stalls out on its strengths. (OK, no more car puns. I promise.) In this one, comic relief redneck tow truck Mater is mistaken for a secret agent while best buddy Lightning McQueen gets targeted in a conspiracy to discredit an alternative fuel company.  The previous movie’s theme about slowing down and taking some time to enjoy life has been completely discarded in favor of lots of shooting, explosions, silly spy gadgets, and a disturbingly casual approach to violence (and even death). The movie has too much Larry the Cable Guy (now the lead character), and ultimately turns into a validation for, and celebration of, idiocy and obnoxiousness.

It sure looks pretty, though. The one saving grace here is Pixar’s amazing craftsmanship. The Cars world may make no logical sense at all, but its attention to detail in all of the settings is astounding. While adults may tune out of the dumb story, they can focus instead on picking out the fun cultural references as the characters dart around the globe from America to Tokyo, Paris, Italy and London. The Blu-ray, as expected, looks stunning. The 2.35:1 picture is vibrantly sharp, bright and colorful. The 3D version adds a very naturalistic and believable sense of space to the environment. On the other hand, it rarely pushes the depth of field too far in either direction, behind or in front of the screen plane. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is terrifically immersive, but unexpectedly a little timid in the dynamics. The bass only revs up during a couple of the race scenes. I recall the first film being more supercharged in that respect.

The 5-disc package contains a Blu-ray 3D disc, a regular Blu-ray, a disc of bonus features, a DVD and a Digital Copy. Supplements include two Pixar short films (one in 3D) and a wealth of information about how the animators “car-ified” the world. While the movie and the Blu-ray get so much right on a technical level, it’s a shame that the story falls so far below Pixar’s usual standards.

Contagion – Don’t Leave the House, Don’t Touch Anything, Don’t Even Breathe

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2012.

For a movie with a long list of famous actors on screen, the real star of Contagion doesn’t have a face at all. The main character of Steven Soderbergh’s global pandemic thriller is the deadly virus itself, as it spreads from point-of-contact in Hong Kong into the United States and soon around the world, killing millions of people indiscriminately. In some ways, the film plays like one of Irwin Allen’s old all-star disaster movies. We follow a large cast of characters as they’re affected by the tragedy, from Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow) to her panicked husband (Matt Damon), investigators from the CDC (Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne) and World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard), and more. Many of these are thinly-sketched. Some bit parts are populated with recognizable faces just to make sure they register at all. A few of the storylines feel unnecessary, and one subplot about an arrogant blogger (Jude Law) trying to profit from catastrophe rings false.

The people don’t seem to interest Soderbergh much here. He’s more fascinated with the process by which a virus could cripple the world. The director fixates on surfaces (or “fomites”) that transmit the disease: clothing, dishes, elevator buttons and so forth. We touch these things every day without a second thought. One innocent contact leads to infection, which leads to transmission, which leads to a spiraling cycle of panic, rioting, quarantine, mass graves, and the government grinding to a halt. Soderbergh observes all this with a detached, clinical aloofness that may frustrate some viewers and fascinate others. Fortunately, he lets a few human moments sink in when they’re really needed.

Despite being squeezed onto a single-layer disc, the Blu-ray’s 1.78:1 image (marginally opened up from the theatrical 1.85:1) looks virtually flawless. Shot digitally, the photography is very sharp and detailed, with next to no grain or noise. Soderbergh indulges in a lot of funky, unnatural colors, which appear to be reproduced accurately.  It looks more digital than film-like, but that seems suited to the cold, sterile tone of the movie. No unwanted artifacts are in evidence. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t a showy mix. It has no deep bass extension or attention-grabbing surround activity. However, Cliff Martinez’s throbbing electronic score is rendered cleanly and bleeds a bit to the rear channels. The thin supplement package is a disappointment. Extras are limited to a few superficial featurettes about the plausibility of the film’s plot and a DVD with Ultraviolet Digital Copy.

Crazy Heart – Lots of Heart, Not Much Crazy

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2010.

When Jeff Bridges finally won an Oscar earlier this year, many argued that it was really a career achievement award. Crazy Heart just happened to be the right movie at the right time for an actor who’d built up too much sentimental good will to ignore any longer. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. If not for its savvy Oscar campaign, the film probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention otherwise. It’s a very low-key character piece with a story that feels awfully familiar from the first frames. Nevertheless, the performances across the board are stellar.

Bridges stars as the washed-up country singer Bad Blake. He drinks too much, smokes too much, and takes better care of his guitar than himself. Bad hasn’t written a new song in years. His only headline appearances are at bowling alleys, where he barely scrapes together enough cash to keep himself drunk. Enter the pretty young newspaper reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who falls for him against her better judgment. Despite four previous marriages and a cynical outlook, this relationship may just give Bad the inspiration to clean himself up and get his career back on track.

Crazy Heart isn’t the type of movie you watch for an intricate plot or blazingly original storyline. This is an actors’ picture. The vividly drawn characters feel like they could live in our real world. They make you want to settle in and spend time in their company. And the music – real country music written by real country musicians – is terrific. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours.

It doesn’t hurt that the Blu-ray looks and sounds so great. The 2.35:1 picture has plenty of detail and a pleasing film-like appearance. Contrasts are rich, yet have very good shadow detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is front heavy. The movie is mostly dialogue except for the songs. Fortunately, those songs are broad, clear, and full-bodied. The music has great fidelity. That’s all you can ask for from a film like this.

If there’s any disappointment here, bonus features are sparse. A half hour of deleted and alternate music cuts are the highlight of the release. Otherwise, all we get is a short publicity interview, a trailer, and a Digital Copy on the second disc.  The screener sent for review had a set of promotional guitar picks in the case, though. That puts a whole new spin on Blu-ray interactivity!

The Damned United – Pretty Damned Fascinating

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2010.

The Damned United must be one of the least formulaic sports movies ever made. It has no dramatic losses followed by redemptive comebacks. There’s no Big Game where the underdog team puts everything on the line for a stunning last-minute play. In fact, for a sports picture, the film has very little sports footage. This is the story of a team manager, as seen from his perspective. One critical match isn’t shown at all. Instead, we sit it out in the protagonist’s office, as he paces uneasily and waits for word of the final score. The movie is nonetheless utterly thrilling.

Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) stars in the true story of Brian Clough, manager of the Derby County football club in England during the early 1970s. (That’s soccer to us Yanks.) His entire adult life has been dedicated to an all-consuming obsession with taking down rival team Leeds United. In terms we Americans might better understand, it’s the Red Sox versus the Yankees. Now imagine if the GM of the Red Sox were hired to take over the Yankees. Keep in mind that this comes after years of trash-talking the former manager and personally insulting each of the players in the national media. That’s exactly the position Clough steps into. It doesn’t go well for him. Not at all.

Director Tom Hooper has made some curious artistic decisions that directly affect the video and audio quality of the Blu-ray disc. The movie looks very much like an artifact of the 1970s. Although incredibly sharp and detailed at times, the footage often looks faded. Shadows are milky, and colors take strange shadings, as if the print has started to turn to vinegar. It’s all very deliberate and purposeful, but it may cause you to question your calibration settings at first. The soundtrack likewise is a little thin. It features a number of vintage music tracks of dated fidelity. Supplements include a lively commentary, 45 minutes of deleted scenes, and four very interesting featurettes. BD-Live access will take you to Sony’s standard web portal.

As scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen), The Damned United is an engrossing character study of a man undone by his own ego. Sheen and co-stars Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney deliver superlative performances. You don’t have to be a sports fan, or even know anything at all about soccer, to recognize this as a truly great sports movie.

The Day the Earth Stood Still – Klaatu Barada Whoa

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2009.

I’ll give the committee of studio executives that greenlit a remake of the beloved sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still one small piece of credit. The decision to cast Keanu Reeves as Klaatu wasn’t the worst idea they had. The role of a wooden, emotionless alien with little understanding of human behavior is well-suited to the actor’s particular talents, such as they are.

Unfortunately, that’s the last nice thing I have to say. The project is in other respects a complete embarrassment. The original film’s thoughtful blend of science fiction with religious parable and humanitarian concerns has been replaced by a cheesy disaster movie spectacle in the Roland Emmerich mold. The intelligent discourse about mankind’s warlike tendencies has been (ironically) replaced with fighter jets and explosions and swarms of rampaging nanobots. The old message about the dangers of nuclear weaponry was also updated to a new environmentalism angle, as if to make the movie more politically correct and “green.” Meanwhile, I wonder how much electricity the Weta Digital render farms wasted to bring us extensive CGI visual effects that are barely feature film quality. This new Day won’t be remembered a year from now, much less 50.

As is often the case, the worst movies look and sound the best on home video. The Blu-ray’s 2.35:1 transfer isn’t the sharpest I’ve seen, but has plenty of detail on display. Keanu’s beard in the opening prologue couldn’t look faker. The picture has excellent contrasts from deep blacks to gleaming whites, as well as very good shadow detail. Colors are strong, and the mild film grain looks natural.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is broad and immersive. It has both piercing highs and deep, rumbly low-frequency sweeps down to the lowest registers. Helicopters and jets regularly swoop through every channel. The mix is more concerned with loudness than musical fidelity, but still sounds pretty great. The disc is even D-Box enhanced, in case your chair weren’t shaking enough already.

The screenwriter’s commentary is surprisingly cogent considering how hackneyed his script was. The first disc also offers several featurettes, deleted scenes, storyboards, and Bonus View picture-in-picture material. The animatics for an unused space shuttle introduction are both fascinating and profoundly misguided.

Disc 2 is a Digital Copy for Windows and Apple. Best yet, Disc 3 is a movie-only edition of the 1951 original in sparkling black & white HD. If you’d like, you can buy that movie separately on Blu-ray with more dedicated supplements. In fact, just do that.

Daybreakers – A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2010.

Although vampires may have inundated pop culture in recent years, they have in many cases been emasculated in the process. The preening, angst-ridden eternal teenagers of Twilight and its ilk would just as soon hold a poetry reading than drink anyone’s blood. This is a sad state of affairs for the horror genre. Fortunately, some filmmakers – real horror filmmakers – are ready to restore vampires to their proper position as monsters. Among these are the Spierig Brothers, an Australian duo whose last feature was, admittedly, a fairly awful zombie comedy called Undead. With Daybreakers, the directors have hit upon an ingenious concept and executed it with slick, unpretentious B-movie efficiency.

In the near future, a vampiric plague has swept the globe. Vampires now rule the world. The last remaining mortal humans are hunted and harvested for their blood. With a blood shortage threatening to disrupt the civil order, hematologist (and human sympathizer) Ethan Hawke works to develop a synthetic blood substitute. Even if he finds one, his corporate bosses may have ulterior motives to ensure that humanity remains an endangered species.

The real fun of Daybreakers is how thoroughly its creators have thought out the workings of their vampire world. Cities have underground networks of walkway passages to shield residents from the sun. Luxury cars are built with “daytime driving modes” in which light-blocking video screens cover the windows. Even the vanity mirrors have been replaced with little video monitors, because vampires don’t cast reflections, of course.

The movie has heavily stylized photography. It’s often bathed in sickly green tones and has a very “tweaked,” digital appearance. Shot with Panavision Genesis HD cameras, the image also has a tendency to smear a little during motion. The picture is grainy for effect, and that grain sometimes comes across noisy. Nonetheless, the Blu-ray has a pretty sharp and appealing 2.40:1 transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack delivers plenty of jolts. It’s loud, aggressive, and has a nice bassy growl.

Lionsgate has really gone all-out with supplements for this one. The disc has a commentary, pop-up storyboards, a two-hour (!) documentary, and a pretty neat Spierig short film. BD Touch turns your phone or mobile device into a remote control. There’s even Twitter and Facebook integration through BD-Live. Disc 2 is a multi-format Digital Copy.

Daybreakers may not revolutionize the horror genre. But it’s a clever, creepy, gory good time all the same.

The Descendants – Payne on Suffering

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2012.

The Descendants would have us believe that a woman might cheat on George Clooney with… Matthew Lillard? Really, we’re told that she planned to divorce Danny Ocean to run off with Shaggy. And this is before she suffered a traumatic head injury. In what universe does this happen? Disbelief can only be suspended so far. Then again, we also learn that her mother has dementia. Perhaps I haven’t given the film enough credit. Mental illness must run in the family. Those sneaky writers put the answer right in front of us the whole time. Dean Pelton deserved his Oscar after all!

With that resolved, The Descendants is a solid dramatic piece about a man whose wife is left comatose after a boating accident. While still dealing with the revelation of her affair, he also has to wrangle two misbehaving daughters and arrange the sale of a large parcel of valuable Hawaiian land that his family inherited. It’s a rough week. To make matters more complicated, the wife’s lover stands to make a lot of money off that real estate deal. What’s a fella to do?

Clooney nicely underplays the role and is almost believable as an average schlub whose wife would cheat on him. But don’t we always expect good work from George Clooney? The real revelation here is Shailene Woodley, star of the atrocious cable series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, as his wild child daughter. It turns out that Woodley actually can act; she has apparently just been asked not to on her TV show. Director Alexander Payne, known for his satires such as About Schmidt and Sideways, reins in the condescending tone that he’s frequently criticized for, in favor of gentle humor and honest compassion. It’s his most mature work to date. Payne makes a point of deglamorizing the Hawaiian locations. As the main character says, Hawaii isn’t paradise; it’s just the place where they live.

The Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 picture is bright and has natural filmic textures (i.e. grain), but the lush tropical colors you might expect are instead understated. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t showy either. Dialogue is crisp and the Hawaiian music sounds good. Surround activity and bass are minimal, if used at all. Extras include a handful of short and generally pointless featurettes straight from the Electronic Press Kit, two deleted scenes, and a DVD with Digital Copy.

Drag Me to Hell – Gypsies and Demons and Talking Goats, Oh My!

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2009.

The 1980s-style Universal Pictures logo at the start of Drag Me to Hell announces director Sam Raimi’s intentions right off the bat. This is to be a return to form for the man who started his career with the Evil Dead movies. After the mainstream-friendly Spider-Man trilogy, audiences may have forgotten that Raimi was once known for his dark and twisted sense of humor. This new movie brings him back to his roots.

Alison Lohman stars as an adorable bank loan officer with a reputation for being too darn nice. Normally, that would be an admirable quality in a person. However, if Christine wants a promotion to Assistant Manager, she’ll need to learn how to make some tough decisions. Unfortunately, her first attempt at assertiveness goes south when she turns down the wrong old lady for a mortgage extension. One muttered Gypsy curse later, Christine’s week is ruined. Shadowy figures and scary visions torment her. Her too-understanding boyfriend (Justin Long) thinks she’s just stressed, but a psychic advisor warns that she has only three days to lift the curse before an evil demon claims her soul forever.

The mix of horror and comedy is a delicate balancing act. Raimi gleefully indulges in cheap shocks and over-the-top gross-out effects, usually played for laughs. The film is practically a parade of icky bodily fluids. Just when Christine’s journey seems like it can’t get any weirder, along come an evil hanky and a talking goat. The movie is violent, gory, cheesy in just the right measure, and a lot of fun.

Universal’s Blu-ray contains both the theatrical cut and a slightly grosser Unrated Director’s Cut. I doubt anyone watching a movie like Drag Me to Hell wants to see the tame version. The 2.40:1 transfer is crisp and detailed. Colors and contrast are both impressively rendered. The opening credits are grainy by design, but the movie’s photography is otherwise slick and polished. The supercharged DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is thunderously, punishingly loud. Stinger scare effects are guaranteed to shove you back in your seat. Although the track is encoded in 5.1 format, the hyper-aggressive surround channels will matrix effectively into 7.1 configuration with Dolby ProLogic IIx. All of the back speakers get a workout. The disc is also D-Box encoded, in case your rumbling subwoofer doesn’t shake your chair enough.

Extras are disappointingly slim. On disc are about half an hour of production diary videos hosted by Justin Long. They cover the expected topics such as visual effects, monster makeup, sound design, and of course goat training. That’s basically it, unless you count the (480i standard-def!) Blu-ray promo and 720p trailers before the main menu. I don’t think I’ve ever seen 720p content on a Blu-ray before.

This is one of Universal’s few day-and-date releases without U-Control. It does have BD-Live connectivity, though. Upon loading the disc, some useless widgets display ads for other Universal titles all over the menu screen. They can be disabled, but you must manually do so every time you start the disc. The studio’s BD-Live portal hosts assorted movie trailers, but no exclusive content for Drag Me to Hell. A Digital Copy for Mac or PC comes on a second disc.

Duplicity – Sort of Like Ocean’s 11, Give or Take About 9

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2009.

Duplicity is a movie that’s just a little too clever for its own good. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen star as corporate spies hired by rival multi-national conglomerates. Stolen documents indicate that one firm may be on the verge of launching a major new product. Owen’s job is to find out what that product is before the official announcement. He’ll lie, steal, stalk, and seduce employees to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, Roberts must stop him from discovering the product at all costs. There’s just one little wrinkle: the two of them are actually working together to play both companies against each other for personal gain.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has obviously patterned his movie after classic con artist capers from Trouble in Paradise to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with a healthy dose of the Ocean’s trilogy thrown in for good measure. The film has a breezy tone, a lot of star power, and plenty of witty banter. The opening slo-mo fistfight between feuding CEOs Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti is uproariously funny. Gilroy employs split screens, flashbacks, and confusing repeated actions to keep the audience guessing. Unfortunately, the plot has so many twists and turns and crosses and double-crosses that its unpredictability becomes entirely too predictable. The final twist is obvious from six miles away to everyone but the characters.

Even if the movie doesn’t amount to anything of substance, it sure looks terrific in high-def. The 2.40:1 picture is pleasingly sharp and colorful. The contrast range has solid black levels and very good shadow detail. Both lend the image a nice sense of depth. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t get too inventive in terms of sound design. This is a pretty standard comedy-drama mix. Nonetheless, James Newton Howard’s score fills a broad soundstage with strong instrumental separation and a bouncy beat. The surround channels lack many discrete directional effects, but create a fair amount of musical and ambient envelopment.

The disc’s only significant bonus feature is a commentary with brothers Tony and John Gilroy. (The latter produced and edited the film.) They discuss the challenge of shooting on New York City streets with Julia Roberts visible to the public. Although the disc is BD-Live enabled, the internet connection merely links to Universal’s standard portal for trailers to other movies that have nothing to do with this one.

Duplicity is light, frothy fun, but ultimately too insubstantial for repeated viewings. It will make a better rental than purchase.

Eagle Eye – Watch Out! Your Home Theater May Be Spying on You

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2009.

Suspension of disbelief is a tricky business. Many action/adventure movies strain the limits of credibility with outlandish plots or impossible heroics. Viewers can be very forgiving of such things, so long as the film stays true to its own rules and isn’t too blatantly dumb. Then we have movies like Eagle Eye, made by screenwriters with an aversion to logic, plausibility, and common sense so severe that it demonstrates a lack of respect for their audience’s intelligence.

Transformers star Shia LaBeouf plays his first grown-up role. You can tell by the wispy facial fuzz. His character Jerry Shaw is an unmotivated copy shop clerk whose life is upended when a mysterious cell phone caller demands that he follow its instructions or face serious repercussions. The voice can see everything he does and has control over literally anything electronic or electrical on the planet: phones, security cameras, traffic lights, even power lines. Jerry is thrown together with Michelle Monaghan, a single mom in the same situation. Together they must brave a series of increasingly ridiculous obstacles while on the run from an FBI agent (Billy Bob Thornton) who thinks they’re terrorists. This all somehow ties into a secret national surveillance program and a conspiracy to topple the American government.

Eagle Eye lifts ideas shamelessly from numerous action and sci-fi movies. Enemy of the State is obviously a big influence. If I named some of the others, that would probably give away a major story point. Big budget action sequences are strung together frenetically as the script’s coincidences and improbabilities pile up. The plot these characters must navigate is absurdly convoluted, to the point where you’ll spend most of the movie pondering the thousands of more efficient and realistic ways the villain of the piece could have accomplished its goal. Seriously, why would someone with unrestricted access to the country’s entire missile defense network need a kid with a trumpet to get close to the President?

If nothing else, at least the movie has slick production values that look great in high definition. The Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 transfer is plenty sharp and detailed. Light film grain is properly resolved, and close-ups are clear enough to see the makeup on the actors’ faces. Digital artifacts are virtually non-existent, though a minimal amount of edge ringing appears in a few scenes. The photography is also extremely contrasty, and some of the darker scenes sometimes lack shadow detail. But these are small nits to pick.

The lossless TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is superb as well. The surround channels not only get a workout from the usual action movie zooming and panning effects, but are put to creative use when the computer gathers its surveillance data. Bass activity also roars to life regularly whenever helicopter rotors, subway trains, car crashes and explosions litter the screen.

The disc’s supplemental package is pretty standard fare. Five HD featurettes cover the expected promotional and making-of ground. Four brief deleted scenes don’t amount to much, though the alternate ending adds an extra (completely predictable) twist. A gag reel, photo gallery, and trailer wrap up the bonus features.

Even with nice picture and sound, Eagle Eye never rises above rental fodder.

Escape from New York – Snake’s Still a Charmer

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2010.

Escape from New York is set the far-off dystopian future year of 1997. By my calculation, the Predator should be visiting Los Angeles to hunt Danny Glover around this time, and Skynet will launch its apocalyptic Judgment Day any minute now. In the meantime, rampant crime has overridden America. When Air Force One crashes into the maximum security island prison of Manhattan, no guards, police force, or military can rescue the President. The rules there are simple: “Once you go in, you don’t come out.” Only one man can save the day. Snake Plissken is a convict with Special Forces training and a bad attitude. He’ll do the job, but don’t cross him, or you won’t live to regret it.

Considering its reputation as an action classic, Escape from New York has surprisingly little action content. The movie has a few fistfights and a simple car chase, all of which are rather mild by today’s Jason Bourne standards. Plissken is less an invincible superhero than a catalyst to set things in motion. He spends most of the movie limping on an injured leg. Yet wherever he goes, his imposing presence dominates the scene. Kurt Russell makes Plissken a genuine cinematic icon. The movie is also distinguished by director John Carpenter’s compelling vision of societal breakdown. The picture is slow but eerily atmospheric, and that goes a long way.

MGM’s Blu-ray + DVD edition is a very stripped-down affair. Other than a trailer on the DVD, neither disc has any other supplements. That’s practically inexcusable when the studio’s last DVD release in 2003 had a terrific commentary, a deleted scene, and more. Why aren’t those on the Blu-ray? At the very least, why didn’t MGM put that DVD in the case?

The 2.35:1 high-def transfer doesn’t have much eye candy pop, but is thankfully free from digital manipulation. This is a dark, grainy movie by nature. If mid-tones perhaps look a little dim, black levels are never crushed. There’s plenty of shadow detail available. The director’s choice of anamorphic lenses leaves many scenes with focus issues, but that’s a side effect of the production. Neither DNR nor artificial sharpening is evident. This is a much better and more natural transfer than the earlier Blu-ray released in Europe. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack shines with clear, resonant musical fidelity and a fair amount of bass. The Blu-ray doesn’t have a lot of frills, but just like Snake, it’ll get the job done.

The Fighter – Hailee Steinfeld Was Robbed

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2011.

After the biggest commercial and critical flop of his career, an acclaimed art house darling filmmaker decided to get back in Hollywood’s good graces by directing an unexpectedly safe and conventional sports picture. The movie had a generic title and a simple premise about a washed-up athlete trying to make his own comeback. Nonetheless, the film was a surprise hit and scored some Oscar nominations. Hold on a second; did you think I was talking about Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 movie The Wrestler? Oh no, this is The Fighter, from David O. Russell (director of Three Kings and I [Heart] Huckabees). They’re totally different movies. You see, one is about a wrestler, while the other is about a boxer. Also, The Wrestler has some measure of psychological complexity completely missing here. 

If you’ve seen the trailer for The Fighter, you already know the whole movie. A scrappy boxer (Mark Wahlberg) is about to call it quits on his career after being held back by his crackhead brother (Christian Bale) and domineering mother (Melissa Leo). New professional management promises to get him to the big time so long as he leaves his family behind. The fighter is conflicted by this decision. In the end, everybody finds redemption, everybody learns to work together, and everybody comes up a winner. I’m told that the movie is based on a true story, which makes me wonder why every Hollywood bio-pic seems to follow the exact same rags-to-riches, triumph-over-adversity story structure. Is real life actually this formulaic?

About the only thing that distinguishes The Fighter from any other sports movie ever made is director Russell’s absolute glee in portraying the Lowell, MA setting as the biggest dump in the country, populated by some of the dumbest, most unattractive people alive. Wahlberg’s character has a gaggle of hideous, dimwit sisters who function as a Greek chorus heckling every story point. Bale and Leo both somehow won Oscars for their broad, showboating performances. Bale is once again in the scary-thin mode he adopts between Batman movies. I suspect that the Academy voters wanted to reward him with something before his heart explodes. Leo is fairly entertaining as the shrewish mother, but I can think of dozens of actresses who might have played the role as well or better. The movie is really anchored by Wahlberg, who’s very good at the everyman palooka thing, and Amy Adams as his skank girlfriend. You can tell that you’re supposed to root for them because they’re so much better looking than anyone else in town.

For the most part, the Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 picture looks impressively detailed and colorful. However, Russell made the curious artistic choice to shoot every important boxing match on cruddy, artifact-ridden standard-def video. I guess it’s supposed to remind us of watching the fights on cable in the early ’90s or something. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has nice fidelity and some hard-hitting bass. The boxing scenes are really loud and powerful. Extras are almost as lean as Christian Bale. We get a director’s commentary, a half-hour making-of featurette, a short interview with the real life subjects, a trailer, and some deleted scenes. Disc 2 is a DVD plus Digital Copy combo.

Firefly: The Complete Series – Canceled Series Revived Once More, With Feeling

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2009.

For a TV series killed by its network after barely half a season, Firefly sure has had an incredible afterlife. Back in 2002, Fox had so little faith in Joss Whedon’s mélange of sci-fi and Western genres that they promoted it badly and aired its episodes out of order. They even broadcast the pilot episode that introduces the characters and storylines dead last. Not surprisingly, most viewers found the plot and concept confusing. The show fared poorly in the ratings, and Fox pulled the plug after only ten episodes. Four more episodes went unaired and the ongoing story received no resolution.

Nonetheless, Whedon’s colorful characters and witty dialogue drove some viewers to obsession. The cult of Firefly grew once the show hit home video. Based on strong DVD sales, Whedon eventually convinced another studio (Universal) to allow him to wrap up the series with a feature film named Serenity. Not since Police Squad! spawned The Naked Gun has a failed TV show gotten such a happy ending.

Eager to satisfy (or exploit, depending on your point of view) the Browncoat fan base just a little more, Fox now brings all 14 episodes of Firefly to Blu-ray in a 3-disc package with a nearly-obscene $89.98 MSRP. At its best, in those shots with actual high-definition quality, the 16:9 transfer is pleasingly sharp and detailed. Unfortunately, all of the show’s computer-generated visual effects were rendered and composited only at standard-definition resolution for budgetary reasons. As a result, any time a shot contains a CG element, even a small detail in the background, the entire shot must be upconverted from SD. Within any given scene, the quality may jump back and forth from HD to SD repeatedly. The effect is a little distracting, but unavoidable.   

In better news, the soundtrack has been upgraded from the DVD’s low bit rate Dolby Digital 2.0 to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. For the most part, it still sounds a little dull and weak, even for a TV show. However, clarity is slightly improved and surround effects are more pronounced and directional.

All of the DVD’s bonus features made the transition to Blu-ray, including 7 episode commentaries, 4 deleted scenes, and a handful of featurettes. New to the Blu-ray are an exclusive commentary on episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and a reunion roundtable chat with Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Ron Glass, and Alan Tudyk. The group clearly had a good time reminiscing about the show, even if some bitterness about the cancellation remains.

Get Low – Dancing on His Grave

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2011.

In years past, a charming little movie like Get Low might have been able to build some buzz on the festival circuit, do decent business in general release, and maybe even get remembered come awards season. Those days are virtually over in the current distribution market. Despite a fair amount of acclaim when it made the festival rounds in 2009, the film barely eked out a limited theatrical run a year later and was almost immediately forgotten. This is an injustice.

Based loosely on a true story, the film stars Robert Duvall as a crusty backwoods hermit who, in the midst of the Great Depression, rides into town with a wad of cash in hand and hires the local funeral director (Bill Murray) to throw him a lavish “funeral party” for which everyone from the surrounding four counties is invited. The catch is that he plans to attend – alive. Old man Bush is a legendary figure. He’s lived the last forty years in isolation, surrounded by terrible rumors and tall tales of all the awful things he’d allegedly done. Now he wants to hear every story. More importantly, he wants to tell his own story, the real story, of the tragic past that drove him away from human contact.

This could be a set-up for quirky comedy. Instead, Get Low is simply a well-observed character drama about interesting people. The performances by Duvall, Murray, and especially Sissy Spacek are exemplary. The story is touching, a little sad, and full of human warmth. It’s nice to have movies like this around.

The Blu-ray release looks flat-out stunning. The 2.40:1 picture is extremely sharp and loaded with detail that’s clearly visible far into the background of scenes. Rich contrasts lend the image an impressive sense of depth without sacrificing shadow detail. No unwanted digital artifacts are at all apparent. Frankly, this high-def transfer is perfect. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is just as impressive. For a simple drama, it has a robust musical presence, sharp sound effects, and a surprisingly deep soundstage.

Extras are highlighted by a commentary with Duvall, Spacek, the director, and the producer. That’s followed by a handful of short Electronic Press Kit featurettes and a trailer. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, mostly so that the studio can plaster annoying ads over the main menu. This isn’t the sort of disc you buy for its supplement package, but the movie is worth getting to know anyway.

Ghostbusters – Bustin’ Makes Me Feel Good!

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published September 2009.

After 25 years and countless viewings, Ghostbusters still feels as fresh and funny as ever. Unlike most so-called action comedies, the film was written with a real story first, not just a string of jokes in search of a loose structure. The cast of talented comedians, all in their primes, draw the humor naturally from the situations, rather than the other way around. The movie has endearing characters and a complex, fully-formed mythology all its own. Even if the jokes may lose their punch from repetition and the special effects show their age, the movie definitely still works. It’s a genuine classic and impossible not to love.

The Blu-ray transfer presents a real conundrum. Although it avoids overt digital artifacts such as edge enhancement or Digital Noise Reduction, the picture is very dull, drab, soft, and grainy. Sure, the movie was made in the mid ’80s. But even by the standards of the day, the image still looks below par. The color balance leans too blue, and both contrast and gamma have been artificially tweaked. It’s like watching on a TV set for the “Cool” color temperature mode. As a result, flesh tones look washed out, whites bloom, and grain is emphasized excessively. The overly-bright picture also draws attention to the seams in the special effects and matte paintings. On the other hand, it has a fair amount of detail. At the very least, it looks better than either previous DVD edition. Sadly, that’s not saying much.

Ghostbusters has never been a stunner on home video. The Blu-ray doesn’t do much to turn that streak around. As weak as the picture looks, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is worse. The high end of the audio has been rolled off so much that there’s practically none left. It’s all mid tones and boomy bass. The proton packs deliver a nice kick, and there are a few sporadic directional effects, but fidelity of the track is hollow and lifeless.

The disc gets interactive with a new Slimer Mode picture-in-picture feature and BD-Live CineChat, in case you really feel the need to text “Who You Gonna Call?” jokes to your buddies while watching. Traditional supplements include an old commentary, deleted scenes, and a few featurettes carried over from the DVDs, as well as some new promos for the recent tie-in video game.

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, Ghostbusters will still save the day. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray fails to bring much new life to this supernatural comedy.

Go – Sex, Drugs, and Affordable Off-Brand Consumer Products?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2009.

In the immediate aftermath of the success of Pulp Fiction, almost every up up-and-coming new filmmaker in Hollywood tried to imitate Quentin Tarantino. Most of them did an insufferably lousy job of it. With Go, future Bourne Identity director Doug Liman was one of the few to get the formula right. His film has all the clever dialogue, hipster cool attitude, shocking violence, brash comedy, and confusing non-linear time shifts that were the hallmarks of Tarantino’s style. Yet it also manages to feel fresh and fun, unlike most of the other stale retreads of the day.

The movie tells three interlocking stories that take place over the course of the same crazy night. In the first, a broke and desperate supermarket cashier (Sarah Polley) makes a misbegotten attempt to become a drug dealer to pay her rent. That plan doesn’t work out so well after her pissed-off distributor and a trio of undercover cops get in the way. Story B concerns a horny idiot on his first Vegas adventure. A stolen car, hotel fire, and inability to control himself at a strip club conspire to ruin his good time. Finally, we follow two TV actors (Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf) on a ride-along with a real detective who has weird ulterior motives for wanting to hang around them.

These three tales are told consecutively even though their timelines cross paths. At each story shift, we see familiar events restaged from a new perspective. The film is smart, energetic, and frequently hilarious. It has a huge cast of recognizable faces from movies and TV. William Fichtner (Armageddon, Prison Break) just about steals the show. Even Katie Holmes (before she got Cruise-ified) is surprisingly appealing. Go is a forgotten gem that deserves rediscovery.

The Blu-ray’s technical presentation is solid if unexceptional. The 2.40:1 picture is a little soft and flat, but has pretty good detail and bright, pleasing colors. Some scenes are hazier or grainier than others by design. Likewise, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack makes use of some fun, bouncy music with a nice low-end beat. However, sound effects are a little dull and the mix is rarely very immersive.

Extras include an audio commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette, and some music videos. All were copied over from the old DVD. Sony has also added a link to their BD-Live portal, which only contains trailers that have nothing to do with this particular movie.

Gone with the Wind – You Should be Watched, and Often

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2010.

How does one sum up a movie like Gone with the Wind? The word “daunting” seems appropriate. Everything about the film exists on a scale almost beyond belief – the epic sweep of its story, the enormous expense and magnitude of its production, its staggering length, its extraordinary success, and its reputation as one of the greatest classics from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Even the prospect of just sitting down to watch a four-hour movie is, well, daunting. Could any movie possibly live up to the burden of such expectations? Amazingly, yes.

The most impressive thing about it is that, once you settle in, that four-hour length just flies by. Although the film is a historical epic, it largely avoids the weight and pomposity that the genre usually entails. At its heart, it’s simply the greatest soap opera ever made. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s overripe potboiler and set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the story has juicy characters, crackling dialogue, scandal and intrigue, love triangles, betrayal, revenge, loss, despair, and triumph. All are told with searing emotions, dramatized by a fabulous cast and astounding production values. This is melodrama elevated to art.

Perhaps more than any other studio in Hollywood, Warner Bros. knows how to treat its classics. The Limited Edition Blu-ray is packaged in a deluxe box set that contains a photo book, soundtrack CD, art cards, and other swag. Video content is spread among two Blu-ray discs and a double-sided DVD. Sadly, all the extras are standard def. What they lack in resolution, they make up in both quantity and quality. Film historian Rudy Behlmer delivers an informative commentary on disc 1. Disc 2 has over eight hours of documentaries, featurettes, vintage footage, and even a 1980 TV movie starring Tony Curtis as producer David O. Selznick. As if that weren’t enough, the third disc holds an additional six-hour (!) documentary about the heyday of MGM Studios.

Even though the entire movie has been squeezed onto one Blu-ray, quality never suffers. Warner has meticulously restored the three-strip Technicolor photography from a new 8k scan. Dirt and age defects have been cleared away. Much of the movie was shot in an intentionally diffuse style, so the image may not exhibit the ultra-sharpness of some modern productions. Nonetheless, detail and textures are much better resolved than any previous video edition. The ornate sets and costumes are more easily appreciated than ever. Colors are undoubtedly more accurate as well, but seem a little less vivid than expected. In general, the second half of the movie is more vibrant than the first. But these are small nits to pick. For a film from 1939, the whole thing looks terrific.

The audio reveals its age more than the video. Hiss and pops have been removed, but the music is brittle, without much distinction of instruments. The bottom end is very shallow. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix is tastefully done and mostly faithful to its monaural origins. Surround use is very limited. The original mono mix has also been provided in Dolby Digital 1.0 format for purists.

Even 70 years after its release, Gone with the Wind remains a movie that belongs in the collection of every film lover. Frankly, you should give a damn.

Green Lantern – Difficult Color, Green

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 2012.

In the rush to adapt every superhero comic into a summer tentpole blockbuster, Hollywood appears to have forgotten that some of the goofy things that work on a comic book page decidedly do not work in live action. Case in point: Green Lantern, in which Ryan Reynolds plays a cocky fighter pilot (you might call him a maverick, wink wink) who gets recruited by a purple alien to join a league of space police. The Green Lantern Corps, led by a devil-looking dude named Sinestro (yeah, that’s not suspicious at all), harness the power of will via the color green. (If you thought green represented envy, you’re not alone.) Smug jackass Hal Jordan is basically a whiny jerk through the whole movie, until he has to save the Earth from a tentacled smoke monster that wields the yellow power of fear. That’s when Hal finally wises up and follows the steps in his official Hero’s Journey manual. Meanwhile, the thousands of other members of the Lantern Corps stand back and let their newest untrained recruit single-handedly face off against the greatest evil in the universe. Thanks a lot, guys.

I’m sure that this plays better in the comics. It would pretty much have to. The movie, unfortunately, is a cheesy CGI-fest with an unlikable lead character, a dumb script, some really lame action set-pieces, and a gaudy eye sore visual design. The Extended Cut newly premiering on video doesn’t especially help matters by adding another redundant flashback prologue sequence to the two or three prologues that the movie already had.

Warner Bros. offers up the movie in a plethora of viewing options. The 3-disc combo pack under review contains a Blu-ray 3D disc (theatrical cut only), a standard Blu-ray (both cuts), a DVD, and an UltraViolet Digital Copy. Also provided are a bounty of supplements, including a Maximum Movie Mode interface, Focus Points featurettes, deleted scenes, a digital comic, and more.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is plenty loud, dynamic, and enveloping.

Video quality fares best in 2D. The 2.40:1 picture is very sharp and colorful (especially the vibrant greens, natch). However, it’s also exceedingly dark for some reason. Viewing in 3D made a lot of the movie impenetrable on my screen. As a post-converted effort, the 3D effect yields mostly moderate depth and a “pop-up book” layering of flat images in front of one another. I found the movie slightly more engaging without the gimmick. That’s not saying much, of course.

Hancock – What If Superman Was a Jerk?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2009.

With Hancock, Will Smith continues his streak of high-concept star vehicles with low-rent screenplays. After saving the world from aliens, robots, and hyperactive zombies in previous summer tentpole action flicks, the actor finally plays and all-out superhero. He can fly; he can deflect bullets; he’s more powerful than a locomotive. You get the idea. There’s just one problem: Hancock is a washed up, drunken loser who causes more damage than good. Everybody hates him, except the friendly PR stooge whose life he saved. Ray Embry (Jason Bateman) is determined to rehab the hero’s image, even if his wife (Charlize Theron) isn’t too happy about letting the jerk hang around their precocious son.

It’s a clever idea, and Smith seems to be having fun playing an unlikable character. He and Bateman have strong comedic chemistry. The movie’s failing is tone. It’s too foul-mouthed and violent to be a PG-13 family comedy, yet too silly and dumb to be an adult action movie. The theatrical release tried for the former, and the new Unrated cut tries for the latter. The Blu-ray includes both versions, and neither works. The movie also has a plot twist so lame and so obvious that Sony freely divulges it right on the disc’s cover art.

The high-def transfer is as slick and glossy as you might expect from a $150 million wannabe-blockbuster. The picture has deeply saturated colors and is sharp enough to reveal the limitations of the CGI visual effects. On the other hand, the image is a little too noisy in places and is lacking in fine textural details. Nice work, if not quite a reference standard. The 2.40:1 framing makes director Peter Berg’s shaky-cam style all the more nauseating.

The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack has as much Smash!-Bam!-Boom! you could want. It’s plenty loud and makes active use of the surrounds and bass, but subtlety and nuance weren’t on anyone’s agenda. The disc is also D-Box enhanced in case you really need more rumbling action in your chair.

Supplements include seven HD featurettes about the VFX, about how much everybody loved making the movie, and about Berg’s loony behavior on set. A Bonus View picture-in-picture visual diary plays boring B-roll footage in sync with the film. Via BD-Live, you can download an additional 3-minute featurette that probably should have been on the disc in the first place. Disc 2 contains a Digital Copy compatible only with PC playback or Sony’s own Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable platforms.

The Hangover – Three Men and a Baby. And a Tiger. I Bet Tom Selleck Is Jealous.

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published March 2010.

There may not be a single original idea in The Hangover. That’s OK. Who needs ’em, anyway? Todd Phillips, director of Old School, returns with another tale of male bonding and delayed adolescence. In this one, three buddies throw a wild Las Vegas bachelor party for their best friend. Things don’t go well. Or perhaps things went really, really well. Either way, the guys can’t remember a damn thing the next morning. All they know is that their hotel room is trashed, one of them has lost a tooth, and a couple of unexpected guests are staying with them. Oh, and the groom-to-be is missing. That might be a problem.

Over the next two days, the boys must sort through the aftermath of their crazy night and follow a trail of clues on a scavenger hunt for their friend. The situation escalates in absurdity quickly. The movie plays like Bachelor Party crossed with Very Bad Things, only with fewer dead hookers. It would have to rate pretty low on the originality scale. Fortunately, it fares pretty well on the funny scale. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis may not be big-name movie stars yet, but have great chemistry. The Hangover isn’t a great movie, but it has some great laughs.

The Blu-ray offers the film in both its theatrical cut and a raunchier Unrated cut. The 2.40:1 high-def transfer is bright and sharp. Contrasts sometimes seem a little blown-out in the daytime scenes. Since the story is set in a desert, that’s probably intentional. Black levels are nice and inky during nighttime scenes. All the Vegas neon colors pop beautifully. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is nothing remarkable. The film has a standard comedy mix. It’s all dialogue and a few licensed songs. Surround activity and dynamic range are harder to find than Justin Bartha’s character.

The disc feels like it has more promos and trailers before the menu than supplements. A few minutes of deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a couple of other mildly amusing bits are barely worth a single watch. The interactive “Map of Destruction” puts a fancy interface on what amounts to standard EPK filler content. The picture-in-picture commentary is only available on the theatrical cut. It’s also kind of dull. You can jump to BD-Live to stream a trailer and a profanity montage that should have been on the disc in the first place. Disc 2 is the Digital Copy for WMV and iTunes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 – Nobody Beats the Wiz

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2011.

J.K. Rowling fans have long complained that the Harry Potter novels are so labyrinthine and complex that each deserves to be split into at least two movies to do the author’s prose justice. Now that the studio has done just that for the final book, many of those same fans complain that it’s a shameless ploy to con them into buying another movie ticket. Some people are never satisfied.

Even at a hefty 146 minutes, part 1 of The Deathly Hallows jumps right into the action and wastes no time with set-up or exposition. If you’ve made it through the previous six movies, you already know who these characters are and what’s going on. These are dark times for the young wizard. Dumbledore is dead. Evil lord Voldemort has overthrown the Ministry of Magic and declared Potter an outlaw. This is the first film in the series that has no scenes at Hogwarts Academy. Harry and friends spend the entire picture on the run, avoiding their enemies while trying to collect and destroy the remaining Horcruxes (objects that contain fragments of Voldemort’s soul). All the while, Voldemort hunts them while searching for the title objects, three magical implements that will make him impervious to death and the most powerful wizard in the world.

For my money, The Prisoner of Azkaban is still the best movie in the franchise. However, this one isn’t far behind. The story moves at a breakneck pace and features some incredible suspense. Yet it still finds room for plenty of great character moments. The cliffhanger also does a terrific job of building anticipation for the final film.

Warner’s Blu-ray transfer is consistent in quality with the last couple in the series. The movie’s photography is very dark and very teal. The 2.35:1 picture is so dark, in fact, that it has hardly any highlights at all. This will be problematic on many digital displays. You need great contrast to do this one justice. Fortunately, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is an absolute stunner. This mix has amazing power and envelopment without sacrificing subtlety or fidelity.

The highlight of the extras is the interactive Maximum Movie Mode. Most everything else is fluff. A promised sneak peak at the opening to the next film didn’t materialize on the provided screener copy. The Digital Copy on Disc 3 is only good for an absurdly short timeframe and will probably have expired by the time you read this.

Hereafter – Life, Support

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2011.

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter opens with a disturbingly realistic recreation of the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004. The scene is both a bravura visual effects sequence (that earned the film its only Oscar nomination) and a masterful piece of directing. Eastwood’s matter-of-fact approach builds an enormous degree of foreboding and dread before the event, which pays off with stomach-tightening horror when the wave hits. The film had the misfortune to be released on video only four days after the similar tsunami devastated Japan in March of this year. The studio obviously couldn’t have foreseen that when it scheduled the release months earlier, but the timing is nonetheless unfortunate.

After that prologue, Eastwood dials way back. The rest of the film branches off to follow three separate storylines. A French journalist who survived the tsunami tries to write a book about her tunnel-of-light near-death experience, but can’t find any interested publishers. A young boy loses his identical twin brother to a car accident in London, and visits a series of quack psychics in hopes of contacting him again. In San Francisco, a real psychic who can speak to the dead (Matt Damon) just wants to be left alone, but is pressured by his obnoxious brother to make money off the talent. These threads will naturally all converge in the end.

The subject matter of all three stories is admittedly a little hokey, but I suppose we can’t blame Eastwood (80 when he directed the movie) too much for wanting to ruminate on his mortality. He’s earned the right. Even if it isn’t one of his better works, this slow, contemplative drama manages to be quietly affecting anyway, whether you believe in the afterlife or not. Damon’s storyline in particular conveys the aching loneliness of a man cursed to instantly know more than he wants about anyone he touches, and thus left unable to form real connections with anyone.

The Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 image is satisfyingly sharp. Colors are solid, though sometimes bleached for effect. Black levels are impressively inky, but shadow detail is sometimes crushed. Dialogue in the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a mix of English and subtitled French. The tsunami hits with a lot of bass and frantic directional activity, but the rest of the film is mostly understated. Extras include some Focus Points featurettes and an engrossing feature-length documentary called The Eastwood Factor (in HD) by film critic Richard Schickel, plus a DVD/Digital Copy combo disc.

Invictus – Rugby: 1 / Racism: 0

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published August 2010.

That Invictus works at all as a piece of drama is entirely a measure of Clint Eastwood’s skill and craftsmanship as a filmmaker. The movie tells the true story of Nelson Mandela’s early days in office as President of South Africa, during which he faced opposition and resentment from the country’s white minority. At the same time, the black majority (including many on the President’s own staff) continued to harbor distrust for their former oppressors. Rather than give in to these divisive pressures, Mandela directed his attentions toward the most unlikely of places. He saw potential in the failing national rugby team, the Springboks, to be a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness, if only he could unite white and black sports fans behind their bid to win the 1995 World Cup.

There were just two problems with this plan. Rugby, and specifically the Springboks’ green and gold team colors, had long represented Apartheid. That was a difficult impression to change. Also, the team kind of stunk.

The subject matter of the film is very earnest and well-intentioned. Too much so. The script is a little preachy and didactic. The performances (highlighted by Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Springbok team captain François Pineaar) are almost painfully solemn and respectful in every scene. The picture runs at least half an hour too long, and has a story arc so formulaic that any viewer could predict the ultimate outcome even if it weren’t based on historical fact. In most respects, this movie simply should not work. Yet, somehow, Eastwood’s mastery of tone and steadfast hand as a dramatist keep the material surprisingly engaging. It’s not his best movie, but it’s better than it might have been without him.

The Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 picture looks wonderful. The image is very bright and sharp. Detail is outstanding. Colors are often bleached for effect (that South African sun beats down pretty hard), but appear accurate throughout. Film grain is properly resolved. Only some very minor aliasing artifacts in rare instances detract from the film-like presentation. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is understated for the most part, but builds to rousing strength and envelopment during the rugby matches.

Supplements begin with a Bonus View picture-in-picture track featuring interviews focused on the background history of the story. That’s followed by a couple of featurettes and an excerpt from a documentary about Eastwood’s career. Disc 2 is a DVD/Digital Copy combo.

J. Edgar – Information Is Power

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2012.

At over 80 years of age and still plugging away, Clint Eastwood may be past his artistic prime. The director’s last couple of movies, Invictus and Hereafter, were generally dismissed by both critics and audiences. His latest, J. Edgar, received just about Eastwood’s worst reception yet. Perhaps I’m an apologist, but I continue to find value even in these admittedly flawed films. Even so, I think that his late-period works are probably best suited for home viewing, not movie theaters. The older he gets, the smaller Eastwood’s films seem to become. Even when dealing with a larger-than-life subject like controversial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Eastwood scales down and draws inward. In another filmmaker’s hands, this could have been a rousing epic about the rise and fall of an American icon. Eastwood, however, doesn’t seem interested in that. He has instead put together a subdued (some might complain sedate) character study of a complicated man.

Told in flashback structure with some intentionally jumbled chronology, the movie covers the expected highlights of Hoover’s life story: his scientific approach to crime solving, the Bureau’s most famous case (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping), Hoover’s obsession with so-called radicals, his extreme secrecy and abuses of power, and his much-rumored relationship with best friend and right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). While Leonardo DiCaprio gives an excellent lead performance, the film is hampered by its rigid adherence to bio-pic formula and a script that tries to blame all of Hoover’s faults on serious mommy issues. The production also suffers from some really bad old-age makeup, especially on poor Hammer, who often looks like he’s wearing a Halloween mask. It’s very disappointing that a craftsman of Eastwood’s caliber would overlook a detail like that. Yet despite its problems, the film tells an interesting story and plays better in the less demanding environment of a home theater.

Warner’s Blu-ray edition sports a nicely-detailed 2.40:1 high-def transfer. Like many of Eastwood’s recent movies, J. Edgar has a very desaturated color palette, practically black & white in some sections. It’s also an extremely dark picture, frequently swallowed in bottomless shadows. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack mostly consists of dialogue and subtle ambience, but fidelity is nice and the few bursts of gunfire or explosions are suitably startling. The only extra on the disc is a superficial half-hour featurette about the real Hoover. The package also includes a DVD and a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy.

Jane Eyre – What’s Your Tale of Woe?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2011.

According to the painstaking research I performed before writing this review (i.e. looking at Wikipedia for all of five minutes), Charlotte Brontë’s proto-feminist novel (I cribbed that phrase right from the wiki, FYI) had been adapted at least fifteen times for the silver screen and an additional ten for television – the most recent in 2006 – before this year’s revival. That’s to say nothing of the theatrical stagings, radio shows, and numerous attempts to sequelize, prequelize, spin-off, or retell the story in literary form. What is it about this book that inspires so many people to tell the same story over and over until someone finally gets it right?

The latest Jane Eyre comes from director Cary Fukunaga, an American filmmaker of Swedish and Japanese descent whose only previous feature was the Mexican gangster film Sin Nombre. In other words, he’s exactly the first person you’d think of to make a British period romance starring an Australian actress and German-Irish leading man. The mind reels.

Many adaptations of Jane Eyre cast actors too attractive to play the homely Jane and square-headed Rochester. In 1944, Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine poured on all the resplendent movie star glamour of the Hollywood studio system at its peak. Fukunaga gives us the gorgeous Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and studly Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class). Well, at least he dresses them down a bit. That’s something. They’re both fine actors, and I can’t complain about the performances. In other respects, the director jumbles the story’s chronology a little and plays up the gothic atmosphere to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, the central relationship feels condensed and underdeveloped. Rochester is essentially a big creep, and the film fails to convince us why a strong-willed girl like Jane would fall so instantly smitten with him. That’s kind of a big problem.

It’s really a lovely movie to look at, though. The 1.85:1 photography was shot mostly in natural light. Aside from an over-reliance on teal color grading (a personal bugbear of mine) during the night scenes, the film has some breathtaking imagery. The Blu-ray transfer is pleasingly sharp and detailed. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has crisp dialogue, atmospheric ambience, and the occasional blaring thunderclap. Extras include some deleted scenes, two commentaries (one is an easily-found easter egg) and three puff-piece featurettes.

Did we really need yet another Jane Eyre? Perhaps not, but even if imperfect, this one is entirely watchable.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D – Bringing Mediocrity to the 3rd Dimension

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 2009.

As if the title didn’t already tell you everything important, allow me to recap the plot of the latest adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Brendan Fraser plays a brilliant-yet-studly geology professor. (Stop snickering! That’s really not polite!) The prof believes that the famous Jules Verne novel from which the movie takes its title (that’s what we call “metatextual”) is a true story, not fiction. With his 13-year-old nephew in tow, he travels to Iceland, meets up with a pretty mountain guide, gets trapped in a cave, rides a mining car rollercoaster Temple of Doom-style, and falls through a volcanic tube thousands of miles down to the planet’s hollow core. Talk about a busy weekend!

Fortunately, a convenient water slide softens their landing, there’s plenty of illumination so far from sunshine, and depth pressure doesn’t seem to apply. In their quest to find a way out, the trio must brave unimaginable dangers like giant monstrous plants, flying piranha, a bridge of floating magnetic rocks, and one incredibly slow T-Rex, all laid out in stages like a video game.

The movie was shot in digital 3D and has plenty of “Comin’ at ya!” gags involving yo-yos, tape measures, and pointy objects. The dopey script defies many laws of physics and logic. The film is geared toward an audience of 8-year-old boys, who may one day look back on it fondly as their own generation’s Goonies. In the meantime, parents will find it just tolerable.

The Blu-ray contains both 2D and 3D versions of the movie. Both have been modified from the theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio to screen-filling 16:9. The 2-disc set has a nifty lenticular slipcover and comes with four pairs of glasses with magenta and green lenses. The 2D transfer is bright and colorful, but has soft details and washed out contrasts. The 3D gimmick works reasonably well. However, the crummy anaglyph process makes the picture dim and ruins the colors. Audio is limited to a lossy but nonetheless engaging Dolby Digital 5.1 track with plenty of bouncy surround activity and roaring bass.

Brendan Fraser and director Eric Brevig deliver a jokey audio commentary. Three fluffy HD featurettes provide an overview of the “Hollow Earth” theory, a tour of the blue-screen set, and a recipe for making dinosaur drool. Disc 2 contains a Digital Copy (2D version only) compatible with both Windows Media and iTunes.

King Kong – The Eighth Wonder of the World

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2010.

King Kong is the granddaddy of all special effects blockbusters. Its legend has survived more than seven decades, a forgettable sequel, and two inferior remakes. Despite some dated technical elements, broad “theatrical” style of acting, and indulgence in uncomfortable racial stereotypes, Kong is still a marvelous adventure picture. The raw ambition of the piece and its enormous sense of spectacle still dazzle.

Creator and co-director Merian C. Cooper wasn’t content to let an oversized gorilla tromp around in the jungle, even if audiences of the time would have been plenty satisfied with that alone. Cooper had to throw in dinosaurs and prehistoric monsters too. And because even that wasn’t enough, he had the vision to drag the beast right into the modern civilized world and let it run rampant in the streets and on the skyscrapers of New York City. The audacity is astounding. Yet what really makes Kong a work of genius is its ability to invest the stop-motion monster with genuine personality. Even though he’d spent most of the movie stomping on and chewing up countless men, and tossing an innocent woman to her doom, somehow we still feel pity for him in the end. That remarkable ability to elicit our sympathy for something so monstrous (and so artificial) makes King Kong timeless.

For this new Blu-ray, Warner Home Video has put in a considerable amount of effort cleaning up dirt and age-related defects, even beyond the work performed for the 2005 DVD edition. It still looks like a movie from 1933, but with fewer distracting hairs and grit on the print. In terms of sharpness, honestly the improvement is pretty slight. Due to its extensive use of optical composites, Kong will always be a soft picture. If anything, the high-def transfer is most revealing of grain, which can be quite heavy at times. Some viewers will appreciate this more than others. The mono soundtrack also shows its age. It’s rather flat, sibilant, and has quite a bit of underlying hiss. Make no mistake, this is perhaps the best that the movie has ever been presented. Just set expectations accordingly.

Extras are plentiful. There’s a terrific essay in the digibook packaging, a commentary by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen, a 2.5 hour documentary about the film, another hour-long biography of Cooper, and more. All told, this is a wonderful package for a cinematic giant. Seeing is believing.

The King’s Speech – King Oscar

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2011.

Honestly, how often does anyone agree with the Academy Awards anyway? When feel-good period piece The King’s Speech won out at this year’s ceremony over David Fincher’s Facebook drama The Social Network, I knew more than a few people who were outraged at the decision. The King’s Speech is such a safe, conventional crowd-pleaser, they argued. It’s been tailor made to appeal to older Academy voters, whereas The Social Network is much younger, hipper, and edgier. It’s the movie of the moment. How could the Academy fail to recognize that? Personally, I didn’t bother to see either one in theaters. I waited until Blu-ray to catch up with both. Having now done that, I can’t deny that The King’s Speech is some Grade-A Oscar bait served up with flourish on one of Harvey Weinstein’s jewel-encrusted sterling platters. With that said, it’s very good at what it does and an excellent example of the form. Is there really something wrong with that?

I was a big fan of director Tom Hooper’s last movie, The Damned United. Here, he takes on the story of Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George of England (played brilliantly by Colin Firth), whose debilitating stammer leads him to seek treatment from a speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) with some unorthodox and controversial methods. After their father the king dies, elder brother Edward (Guy Pearce) scandalously abdicates the crown to run off with a married woman. Thus, “Bertie” reluctantly ascends to the throne as King George VI, whereupon he’s called to deliver a critical speech to rally the nation on the eve of World War II. Barely able to get two words out without a terrible stutter, speeches aren’t exactly the king’s forte.

No doubt, the film glosses over and simplifies a lot of history for the sake of its inspirational message. Edward’s Nazi sympathies aren’t even mentioned, and the key to Albert overcoming his stammer essentially boils down to facing his fears and working through his daddy issues. Nonetheless, this is a perfectly entertaining, smart, witty, and emotionally rousing movie. Firth gives a tremendous performance that’s worthy of every bit of its acclaim. Was this the best film released in 2010? Perhaps not (neither was The Social Network), but I have no hesitation in recommending it.

The Blu-ray contains only the original R-rated version of the movie, with all of the (very funny) profanity intact. A few months after its release, Weinstein chopped up the picture and had it re-rated PG-13 in a crazy bid to appeal to children, or some such absurd rationale. The disc looks pretty good for the most part. The 1.85:1 image is reasonably sharp and has a nice sense of detail in clothing textures. However, the movie’s color palette is a teal nightmare totally unsuited to the material. Hooper also has a curious fondness for elevating black levels so that shadows are a milky gray. (He did the same in The Damned United.) The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack fares better. It has a rich musicality and terrific clarity of sound effects, ambience, and of course dialogue. The supplemental package is a bit lean. A director’s commentary is followed by a handful of superficial featurettes and a PSA for The Stuttering Foundation.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Ritchie Before Madonna

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2010.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a movie about schemers, lowlifes, thugs, mobsters, dimwits, and cheaters. In other words, it’s one of the many quirky crime dramas made it the wake of Pulp Fiction. In the late 1990s, countless young filmmakers wanted to be the next Quentin Tarantino. Few of them had the talent. British director Guy Ritchie (Madonna’s future ex-husband) managed to break through the clutter with this rough but wildly entertaining debut feature.

Ritchie produced Lock, Stock for next to no money at all. The film has dodgy production values and a talky script with too much annoying voiceover narration. However, it also has a cast of appealing up-and-coming actors, many colorful characters, and an ingenious plot that continually doubles back onto itself with twist upon twist upon very clever twist. Although confusing at first, the story builds to an uproariously hilarious and satisfying climax. Above all else, the picture clearly establishes Ritchie’s cinematic voice as a fresh and exciting new talent.

The movie was shot very cheaply on 16mm film, and absolutely looks it. The stock is rough and grainy. The cameras have frequent focus issues. Colors take on a yellowish pall throughout. The Blu-ray’s 1.85:1 transfer is nonetheless often very sharp, sometimes too much so. Some artificial sharpening may have been applied. Contrast levels also run very hot. Black crush is occasionally a severe problem, especially around the 39 minute mark. Even so, by and large, the disc is an acceptable presentation for the movie’s gritty aesthetic. If nothing else, it’s a noticeable improvement over DVD quality. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is likewise riddled with problems that stem from the original production. Dialogue recording levels and fidelity are all over the map. Dynamic range is flat during even the big action sequences. On the other hand, the surround channels are brought to surprising life. I doubt anyone expected this to sound any better than it does.

The Blu-ray contains only the movie’s 108-minute theatrical cut, not the longer 120-minute version released on DVD in 2006. Despite this, the disc carries over only the few supplements from the Director’s Cut DVD, but none of those from the older DVD. We’re left with a short making-of featurette and a very brief profanity reel. For the high-def disc, Universal has also added D-Box enhancement and a link to the studio’s generic BD-Live portal. Neither is particularly exciting. The Cockney slang dictionary from the original DVD might have been more helpful.

The Losers – I Guess They’re the B-Team

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2010.

Officially, The Losers is based on a “hugely popular” comic book that I doubt you or anyone you know has ever heard of. I sure hadn’t. Really, it’s based on The A-Team. You know it, I know it, and anybody who saw the trailer knows it. When Fox locked down the rights to a big screen A-Team remake for the summer of 2010, Warner Bros. decided to rush out a knock-off for release a couple months earlier. Sadly, audiences this year haven’t been nearly as interested in the revival of ’80s-style action as the studios making these movies. Both pictures, as well as parody MacGruber, flopped at the box office. The ’80s are dead; long live the ’80s.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan from Watchmen stars as the leader of a rag-tag group of Special Forces operatives who are officially written off by the U.S. government when a mission goes south. After faking their deaths and hiding out in Boliva for a while, the team finds support from a mysterious femme fatale played by Zoë Saldana. She offers to get them back to the States and finance their mission to take down the evil CIA spook (Jason Patric) who set them up in the first place.

The movie is silly and derivative. The action scenes are frantically staged and over-the-top ridiculous. Many of the cartoony visual effects outright stink. And yet, somehow, The Losers still manages to be a fairly decent little timewaster. Morgan makes a fine leading man. The rest of the cast (including Chris Evans, Idris Elba, and Columbus Short) have good chemistry and frequently hilarious banter. The film has a breezy, light-hearted tone and never takes itself too seriously. It’s dumb, but not insultingly so. As far as summer entertainment goes, there were a lot worse examples than this in 2010.

Despite the movie’s low budget (only $25 million), the Blu-ray is as slick and polished as you’d expect from any summer action flick. The 2.40:1 image is sharp as a blade and loaded with detail. It’s a little grainy at times, but never inappropriately so. Colors are often oversaturated for effect, which is actually kind of annoying. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has plenty of slamming bass impact and zinging surround activity. Extras add up to a half hour of featurettes, a bizarre deleted scene, and generic BD-Live connectivity. Disc 2 is a DVD/Digital Copy combo. 

The Losers probably isn’t a keeper, but it will make a perfectly fine rental.

El Mariachi / Desperado – The Biggest Mexican I Have Ever Seen

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2011.

Legend has it that director Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for a measly $7,000 with nothing but a second-hand camera and a whole lot of ingenuity at his disposal. In truth, the studio pumped another $1 million in post production work into the picture after acquiring it. That fact should in no way diminish the achievement. While this is clearly an amateur film with a silly plot, dumb dialogue, and bad acting, it’s also a very entertaining and inventive action comedy. It proved to the world that Rodriguez was a talent to keep an eye on.

For his follow-up, Rodriguez was granted $7 million to play with. Although that’s literally a thousand times the budget of his first effort, it’s still peanuts by Hollywood standards. He put his all into it and produced a movie that looks at least a dozen times more expensive. Desperado is part sequel, part remake, and all fun. Rising stars Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek tear across the screen with guns a-blazin’. The movie is funny, charming, and very sexy.

Sony Pictures has combined these first two entries in the Mariachi trilogy onto one Double Feature Blu-ray disc. Both movies are presented at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. El Mariachi looks very much like something shot on 16mm for seven grand. The picture is swarming in heavy, noisy grain. Camera focus is frequently erratic, but colors look good and detail is still a noticeable improvement over DVD. The Spanish language DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is comprised entirely of post-production ADR and foley work. Sound effects are canned and the music is weak. Desperado is a huge upgrade in all respects. It has a much sharper and more detailed picture with rich, saturated colors. The (natively English) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is aggressively dynamic, musically rich, and makes playful use of discrete directional effects. 

Extras are light, but Rodriguez provides great commentaries for both features. Also recycled from DVD are a “10-Minute Film School” segment and an early short film. New to Blu-ray is an interactive editing feature that I found entirely frustrating and useless, plus the studio’s usual BD-Live link. A third installment in this franchise, the disappointing Once Upon a Time in Mexico, has been segregated from the others with a separate Blu-ray release. This suits me just fine. Mexico is a dreary, dull repetition of the first two movies. I’d prefer to pretend that one never happened.

Memento – Remember Sammy Jankis

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2011.

One disappointment aside, the Anniversary Edition is a worthy upgrade of a great movie. Don’t let this one slip your mind.

The bonus features are an improvement but also a letdown. The new Blu-ray brings over a handful of supplements from the infamous Limited Edition DVD (the one with the impossible-to-navigate menus). We get a commentary by Nolan, an IFC Anatomy of a Scene special, and the original short story in text. A half-hour director interview is new to this release. Unfortunately, not everything made the transition from DVD. The biggest item missing is the most desired: the chronological version of the movie, which makes an interesting curiosity if nothing else.

Despite its dicey tech specs, the older Blu-ray actually sported a decent high-def picture. Nonetheless, the anniversary disc boasts a brand new transfer approved by the director. In comparison, the 2.35:1 image (an AVC encode this time) is a little sharper, darker in contrast, and has more saturated colors. Some blues have been replaced with teal, as is the modern fad in color grading, but it’s not too gaudy or obnoxious an issue here. There are selected things I prefer in the old transfer, but overall the new one is a noticeable improvement. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack can be surprisingly loud and powerful. Gun shots hit with a lot of bass. The musical score has pleasing warmth and fidelity, and the surround channels are creatively used.

This marks the second time Memento has hit Blu-ray. The film was last released back in 2006 as one of the format’s earliest titles. It was one of those notorious single-layer discs with MPEG-2 encoding and no extras. The movie’s rights have since shifted from Sony to Lionsgate, which has reissued it as a new “10th Anniversary Special Edition.” That’s a little weird considering that the movie is actually eleven years old. I feel like this is some sort of mind game puzzle I’m meant to solve.

Long before he blew our minds with Inception, writer/director Christopher Nolan dazzled the world with his brilliant psychological thriller Memento. The film is a masterpiece, and not just for the ingenious “backwards” narrative (a conceit previously used in 1983’s Betrayal and one famous episode of Seinfeld). Nolan uses the complicated structure to both generate incredible suspense and elicit genuine emotional power. The story wouldn’t work nearly as well told in any other order.

[Note: The final published version of this Memento review was significantly altered (and, in my opinion, mangled) by the magazine editor at the time. The above represents the original draft as I intended it.]

Miracle at St. Anna – Not So Miraculous

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2009.

As Spike Lee describes it, Miracle at St. Anna was intended as a corrective for the countless movies that have whitewashed or ignored the role played by African Americans during World War II. Judging by the results, the director must have signed on to the first screenplay about the subject that passed his desk. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm, he neglected to notice the script’s heavy-handedness and blunt incompetence.

Adapted by James McBride from his own novel, the film tells the story of four Buffalo Soldiers from the 92nd Infantry Division that get separated from their regiment and seek shelter in a small Italian village behind enemy lines. As they wait for rescue, the men care for a small boy, fight over a pretty woman, capture a Nazi, and deal with betrayal from an Italian freedom fighter.

The movie wants to be many things: war epic, murder mystery, period romance, and Neorealist drama among others. Lee even throws in some Magic Realism at the end for no apparent reason. The script meanders for nearly three hours. Its tone is all over the map. The dialogue is awful, and the performances are uniformly amateurish. Frankly, the entire project’s an embarrassment.

The Blu-ray looks especially great during the bookend scenes set in the 1980s. The picture there is sharp and detailed enough to reveal seams in the lousy old age makeup. The bulk of the movie takes place as a flashback to 1944, which has been photographed softer and grainier by design. It’s not the slickest-looking movie, but the 2.35:1 transfer has a nice film-like appearance and no distracting digital artifacts.

The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack roars to life during the combat scenes. Rifles crack, machine guns rattle, and explosions rock the room from every channel in the soundstage. The surrounds get less action in the dramatic moments, but the score exhibits pleasing warmth and spaciousness.

Spike Lee hosts a roundtable discussion with surviving WWII veterans. Another HD featurette covers the history of the Buffalo Soldiers better than the movie does. Nine deleted scenes wrap up the supplement package, unless you count the annoying ads and trailers before the disc’s main menu.

Love or hate his outspoken views, Spike Lee has always been a talented filmmaker. He wants to tell an important story with Miracle at St. Anna, but desperately overreaches. There’s barely a moment in the film recognizable as Lee’s work. Sadly, the results are tedious and borderline unwatchable.

Mother – There’s No Stopping This Mommie Dearest

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. August 2010 (unpublished).

[Note: Due to scheduling issues and print space concerns, this article did not make the final edit for the magazine and was never published.]

A few years ago, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho made a splash in international circles with his satirical monster movie The Host. Personally, I was underwhelmed by it. I found it a letdown from the director’s previous feature, the thought-provoking serial killer drama Memories of Murder. Now he’s back with Mother, a film more in keeping with his earlier work. This one’s about a batty, overprotective mother whose slow-witted son Do-joon is arrested for the murder of a local schoolgirl. Police coerce a confession from the boy, who is easily confused and has an exceptionally poor memory. They quickly close the case and ship him off to prison. Everyone in town believes him guilty. Their lawyer thinks the family is nuts and won’t do much to help them. (In his defense, they are pretty nuts.) When she pries too much, even Do-joon shuts his mother out. He doesn’t mind prison so much. The food there isn’t bad, and at least he’s free of her incessant smothering.

But the persistent Mother won’t give up. She decides to investigate the case herself, in her own peculiar way, which doesn’t leave her many friends in town. The more she digs, the more terrible secrets she uncovers about the victim, and about a series of men that were connected to her. She’s also reminded of a dark secret from her own past that she’s tried to suppress.

The film is very blackly comic. When the police find the girl’s body, they chatter about how the characters on CSI would treat the crime scene. Mother herself is quite an odd duck. Her relationship with adult son Do-joon borders on incestuous. Korean TV star Kim Hye-ja gives a remarkable performance in the role. She’s utterly daft at times, and yet ultimately sympathetic in her single-minded determination and love for her son.

Unfortunately, Magnolia’s Blu-ray transfer is a mess. The 2.35:1 picture is plagued by serious banding, blocking, and aliasing artifacts throughout. Black levels are elevated to the point of distraction. It sounds nice, though. The Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack benefits from sterling musical fidelity and immersive directional effects. Bonus features are plentiful. There’s a feature-length documentary, another hour of shorter featurettes, and a couple of trailers. The disc is also BD-Live enabled (nothing of note there).

Mother deftly shifts between dark comedy and serious tragedy. It’s a masterpiece. Don’t let the Blu-ray’s technical failings deter you from this terrific movie.

Never Let Me Go – Fiction with a Tiny Bit of Science

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2011.

Movies based on books inevitably pose a challenge for anyone who’s actually read the book in question. Never Let Me Go is based on a virtually unadaptable novel by Kazuo Ishiguro which seems at first to be a memoir of childhood at an isolated British boarding school where things are ever so slightly… off. Ishiguro keeps the exact details of the setting and time period vague, and carries the narrative through almost half the book before revealing the actual nature of the story. The author has luxuries in print that the film adaptation simply doesn’t. How does a studio market a movie without telling the audience what it is?

Consequently, screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek have been forced to make some changes that have profound impacts on the way the story is told. The most significant is to forgo almost any sense of mystery. The movie gives up its secrets early on, even in the very first scene. I had a hard time getting past this. It feels like the whole point of the novel is lost. But is that really a flaw in the movie or just a different approach to the material? I’ll be honest that I’m still undecided on that question.

The studio has chosen to promote Never Let Me Go as a science fiction film. It is and it isn’t. Like the author’s earlier The Remains of the Day (and its excellent film adaptation), this is really a story about missed opportunities, misguided beliefs, and unrequited love. The sci-fi elements here are background, and set the stage for a complex ethical debate about the way human beings treat each other. In the movie’s favor, Romanek has really nailed the tone of the piece, which was perhaps its most challenging aspect to capture.

The Blu-ray release is a splendid-looking disc. The 2.35:1 picture has outstanding visibility of fine detail even far into the background of shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack likewise has very good fidelity and a strong sense of atmosphere. Bonus features are minimal, unfortunately. All we get there are a half-hour featurette, a trailer, and some image galleries. Never Let Me Go is a tricky film to evaluate, but I have to say that it played better for me on second viewing, once I’d come to terms with its narrative changes from the novel. Viewers who haven’t read the book may not be burdened by quite so much baggage.

Pirate Radio – Hey Man, Is That Freedom Rock?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2010.

By the summer of 1966, British rock & roll had taken the world by storm. The Who, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and more played all day every day on radio airwaves in countless countries – except Britain itself, where rock music had been almost completely banished by broadcasters. But the soundtrack of the nation’s rebellious youth couldn’t be suppressed. Enterprising rock rebels set up pirate broadcast stations on old freighters in the North Sea, just outside British territorial limits. From there, they blared hedonistic tunes straight into the heart of the country, to the delight of thousands of listeners.

At least, that’s how Pirate Radio tells it. The historical facts may have been fudged a bit for entertainment purposes. The film was written and directed by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), and stars a huge cast of popular character actors such as Bill Nighy, Rys Ifans, and Nick Frost as the crew of fictional station Radio Rock. Philip Seymour Hoffman is their head DJ, an American who calls himself The Count. Meanwhile, an ineffectual government minister (Kenneth Branagh) makes repeated attempts to shut the operation down.

The movie is overflowing with storylines and subplots, strung together in the shaggiest of structures. Even this shortened American version (cut down 20 minutes from the original British release, called The Boat that Rocked) runs long for a comedy. Nevertheless, it’s all great, boisterous fun. The characters are charming and colorful, the tunes are great, and the humor is infectious. This is a world I want to live in for a couple hours.  

The Blu-ray’s 2.35:1 picture accurately reflects some retro stylistic decisions. The photography is a little grainy and very, very bright. It’s almost bleached during scenes in the daylight sun. The vibrant colors in the wardrobe and production design pop nicely. The image is also fairly sharp, and has no unwanted digital processing artifacts. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is all about the vintage songs, which are presented with pleasing analog warmth.

Extras kick off with about an hour of deleted scenes. As Curtis explains, these were some of the funniest bits he filmed, but ultimately didn’t progress the story enough. Also included are a commentary and a handful of featurettes straight from the Electronic Press Kit. The disc is BD-Live enabled so as to plaster annoying ads over the main menu, and offers Universal’s standard My Scenes bookmark feature.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire – Not Exactly What Gollum Had in Mind

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2010.

In case you hadn’t heard, the movie Precious is based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire. To make sure you get the message, the film’s producers (Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry) have even added that info right into the title. Imagine if every movie adaptation of a book did the same. Theater marquees would be clogged with the likes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Based on the Novel of the Same Name by J.K. Rowling.

Precious is the latest entry in the catharsis-through-misery Oscar sweepstakes. It’s 2009’s Crash or Babel. Like those films, it wallows in the unhappiness of its characters. This one is the story of a 16-year-old girl who is obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child. She’s been abused by her mother and sexually molested by her father. Her life is crushed by despair. Director Lee Daniels photographs the story in extreme close-ups of every unpleasant detail. He likes to shove them in our faces. Not to worry, these movies almost always wrap up with an inspirational message about the triumph of the human spirit. That’s where the beautiful, loving, flawlessly wonderful teacher (based on author Sapphire herself, naturally) steps in to lift Precious out of her circumstances. Grab that box of tissues and cue the award nominations.

Star Gabourey Sidibe is a real discovery. Her deeply internalized performance is worthy of all its acclaim. By the time you read this, Mo’Nique will likely already have a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the abusive mother. She certainly delivers a doozy of a speech at the end. However, her part is a one-dimensional caricature otherwise.

For such gritty subject matter, the Blu-ray’s 1.85:1 transfer is surprisingly sharp and colorful. All those icky close-ups of greasy food, stained teeth, and Mariah Carey’s facial hair are showcased in horrifying detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is crisp and clear. It’s not a showy mix. Surround activity is sparse and dynamic range is modest. But it has nice musical fidelity. Extras include a director’s commentary, a handful of interview featurettes, one deleted scene, and Sidibe’s audition tape. Interactivity is limited to a bookmark feature.

Precious is a lurid tale that occasionally wrings real emotional power from its subject matter. You might feel like you’ve suffered PTSD when it’s over. Unfortunately, the film is also incredibly calculated to deliver maximum uplift and win awards. No wonder Oprah went crazy for it.

Predators – Déjà Vu All Over Again

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 2011.

Well, at least it’s better than those AvP movies. That’s got to count for something. Maybe not a lot, but something. Perhaps it’s just time we acknowledge that Predator isn’t a viable long-term film franchise. Don’t get me wrong, the original Schwarzenegger picture from 1987 is a lean and mean B-movie classic. Unfortunately, previous attempts to cash in on its success only resulted in a goofy sequel in 1990 and two terrible crossovers with the Alien series. With this latest entry, producer Robert Rodriguez ignores those completely. He wants to do for Predator what Aliens did for Alien, but largely misses the point in the process. Rather than expand the scope of the story, he’s simply dashed off a carbon copy.

In this one, another group of battle-hardened tough guys find themselves stalked through the jungle by alien hunters. The twist? They’ve been kidnapped and brought to an alien game preserve planet that happens to look exactly like an Earth jungle. The plot then follows the first Predator film note for note. The members are picked off one by one until the biggest and baddest tough guy learns how to outwit and overcome his opponents. The movie even recycles the old musical score and throws in constant references to remind you of the original. Even if he’s put on a little bit of muscle, I just can’t buy Adrien Brody as a badass. Don’t get me started on the scrawny kid from That ’70s Show.

The Blu-ray is a brand new release from Fox. In other words, it probably won’t work in your Blu-ray player without a firmware update. The disc stalled in two of my three players. Only the PS3 got past the main menu. Once I got it going, the 2.35:1 high-def transfer is technically sound. I’m not really a fan of the digital photography with artificial grain layered on top, or the weird purplish color grading, but the look is clearly intentional. The picture is very sharp and detailed, and has no distracting artifacts. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack rumbles like mad, though gunshots lack crispness. Extras include a commentary, cheesy backstory Motion Comics, a trio of featurettes, and some deleted scenes. Live Lookup will download cast info from the internet. There’s also a Digital Copy on disc 2.

In all, Predators isn’t terrible, just pointless and unnecessary. Honestly, at least the one with Danny Glover was campy fun. This sequel is derivative, predictable, and dull.

Race to Witch Mountain – No Flying Winnebago = No Sale

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2009.

Cynics will argue that Hollywood ran out of original ideas years ago. As if to prove the point, now it’s apparently even run out of decent old movies to remake. With Race to Witch Mountain, Disney attempts to recapture the magic of that questionable “classic” Escape to Witch Mountain, in which a pair of precocious amnesiac children discover that they’re actually aliens with magical powers such as ESP and telekinesis. With the help of that nice old man from Green Acres and a flying RV camper, the kids run away from their evil foster father and trek to their spaceship at the title location. The TV-quality movie was harmless and forgettable kiddie fun.

The remake dumps the amnesia angle and tries to jazz the whole thing up for a new ADHD generation raised on Ritalin and Michael Bay’s Transformers. Stepping in for Eddie Albert is Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as The Rock. He plays a muscular Las Vegas cabbie who gets dragged into the adventure when the alien kids bum a ride in his taxi. On their tail are scary government agents and a scarier monster assassin. The movie is frantically paced and inappropriately violent. It’s loaded with fights, car crashes, explosions, and overdone visual effects. All that’s missing is even a single iota of charm.

Because your kids will undoubtedly want to watch the movie anywhere and everywhere you go, Disney has packaged up a Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy (for PC and Mac) all in one case. A sticker on the shrinkwrap proudly declares it to be “a $74 value,” yours for only $44.99. What a bargain! For a 3-disc set, extras are sparse. There are 9 deleted scenes, a few minutes of bloopers, and a short featurette where the director points out references to the original Witch Mountain.

Luckily, the 2.40:1 high-def transfer looks fantastic. The picture has vibrant colors, rich contrasts, and lots of that elusive “3-D pop.” The image has tremendous depth and is quite sharp. However, textures seem slightly smoothed over. Despite being shot on 35mm, almost no film grain is at all visible on the Blu-ray. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is plenty loud and rumbly. The surround channels get a good workout too. The track is technically proficient in all respects, but lacks the crispness and soundstage immersion of the best audio available on Blu-ray. These are minor quibbles in a great-looking and -sounding disc. Even so, this is one Race you’ll wish you could Escape.

Repo Men – His Heart’s Just Not in It

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 2010.

Just to be clear, Repo Men is not a sequel to ’80s cult oddity Repo Man. It might be a whole lot more interesting if it were. Instead, the movie is a sci-fi thriller set in an unspecified dystopian future where a corporation called The Union has a monopoly on (very expensive) artificial organs. When clients fail to make their payments on time, the company dispatches repossession agents to reclaim its property – by slicing these organs out on the spot. It’s a bloody but lucrative job. Jude Law is one of the Union’s top repo men, and enjoys his work a great deal. That all changes after a repo goes sour. An accident leaves him with an artificial heart he can’t afford and an inconvenient compassion for the clients he once so merrily eviscerated. When his own payments fall overdue, Law goes on the run, and the company assigns best friend Forest Whitaker to hunt him down.

This sounds like a juicy concept. In better hands, it might have been played for some delicious dark comedy. Unfortunately, the product we’re delivered is merely competent and frequently dull. Action scenes are gruesome but otherwise uninspired, and they’re only sporadically strung along. Despite a little bit of muscle mass he’s put on, Jude Law still looks too much like a British dandy to be a convincing action hero. A movie like this needs a Bruce Willis, not a Hugh Grant.

Things pick up in the last half hour, which climaxes with an almost Cronenbergian mixture of sexual fetishism and body horror. The final twist is also pretty effective, even if it’s been shamelessly lifted from another famous dystopian sci-fi cult movie. But these are hardly enough to make up for the film’s other failings.

Universal’s Blu-ray contains both the theatrical cut and an Unrated Version that adds 8 minutes of extra gore. The 2.35:1 picture is scalpel sharp. It has great colors, inky blacks, and few flaws of note. The rumbly DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack will shake your seat while surround effects zing all around the room. Extras include a commentary, U-Control picture-in-picture features, a few deleted scenes, and some very funny fake commercials for products in the movie.

Two questions: If so many clients skip payments, why doesn’t the company just shut the organs off remotely? Failing that, why not at least add GPS tracking to its products? The whole plot of this movie collapses when you apply pesky logic to it.

Se7en – Drop Dead Gorgeous

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2010.

Previously known for his work on Madonna and George Michael music videos, director David Fincher made his feature debut with the poorly-received Alien 3. Its critical and commercial failure nearly brought his career in the movies to a premature end. Now he’s an A-List filmmaker and an Academy Award nominee. The turnabout all started with one project. On paper, Se7en sounds like a terribly formulaic suspense thriller. A weathered detective one week from retirement (Morgan Freeman) and his brash young partner (Brad Pitt) play cat-and-mouse games with a dangerous serial killer who has the high concept M.O. of staging murder scenes to represent the Seven Deadly Sins. Hasn’t Ashley Judd starred in this movie a dozen times already?

What sets Se7en apart from other movies of its ilk is Fincher’s nihilistic cinematic vision. He crafts a compellingly oppressive atmosphere of doom and gloom throughout. The story takes place in an unnamed city perpetually drowned in rain. Layers of clutter and decay permeate every set, so much that there’s almost no way for the eye to take in every important clue. The world is really quite beautiful in its dankness and misery. The script by Andrew Kevin Walker also has much more intellectual and thematic weight than expected, and an uncompromising ending that still packs a lot of emotional power.

The director has a reputation as a technical perfectionist. As if the previous video transfers he approved for the Criterion Collection laserdisc or the Platinum Series DVD weren’t impressive enough, he’s taken the time to supervise a brand new high-def remaster for Blu-ray that shatters any previous standard for the movie’s presentation. The 2.35:1 picture is as sharp and detailed as anything ever seen on Blu-ray. The level of textural detail is amazing. This is a supremely dark movie; the HD image has fathomless blacks, crisp whites, and exactly as much shadow detail as is needed exactly where it’s needed. The DTS –HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is equally impressive in its clarity, immersiveness, and stomach-tightening dynamics. I don’t give out 5-star scores easily. This disc deserves them in both categories.

The digibook package features an essay that gives away the movie’s ending. Don’t read it beforehand. Extras from the last DVD are all here, including four comprehensive commentaries, deleted scenes, and two (slightly) alternate endings. Some featurettes about the DVD video master are woefully out of date, unfortunately. Both the before and after comparisons look like garbage compared to this extraordinary Blu-ray.

Serenity – Cult Sci-Fi Film Still Shiny on Blu-ray

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published March 2009.

Joss Whedon never lets a good idea die. When his script for a horror-comedy movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer flopped in theaters, he resurrected it as a popular and long-running TV show. In the opposite direction, after the Fox network canceled his sci-fi Western series Firefly in the middle of its first season, Whedon convinced Universal Studios to let him make a feature film out of it. In many ways, Serenity is the finale episode that Firefly never got. The film successfully brings closure to the show’s ongoing storyline. At the same time, it was also structured to work well for new viewers. Even if you haven’t seen the TV series, the movie reintroduces the concept and stands on its own as an exciting sci-fi adventure with witty dialogue and compelling, quirky characters.

Unfortunately, the film foundered at the box office. However, like all things Whedon touches, it eventually built a cult audience and performed much better on home video. Universal has already released it twice so far on DVD. Serenity was also the studio’s first release on the HD DVD format back in 2006. For their first swing at high-def media, they did a pretty good job with it. That disc had a fairly strong transfer, thunderous Dolby Digital Plus audio, and all the supplements from the original DVD. Now that a couple years have passed, they’re finally bringing it to Blu-ray as well. To make up for the delay, Universal has given the Serenity Blu-ray better cover art, lossless audio, and a host of new bonus features.

Technically, the Blu-ray’s video is a new VC-1 encoding. In practical terms, it looks mostly the same as the HD DVD. If anything, it’s a slight bit softer. The movie already has softish photography, so this can be frustrating at times, but the disc otherwise has adequate detail and good colors. It’s still too dark, though. Even in bright daylight scenes, the picture is too contrasty and has poor shadow detail.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack features slamming deep bass, aggressive surround action, and excellent clarity and separation of sounds. All the bonus material from both the HD DVD and the later Collector’s Edition DVD is here: two audio commentaries, six featurettes, Whedon intro, deleted scenes, and outtakes. Brand new to the Blu-ray is the interactive U-Control interface, which provides Bonus View picture-in-picture segments, a video commentary, and pop-up text information. Don’t miss the “Fruity Oaty Good Time” easter egg hidden in the Extended Scenes menu.

Seven Pounds – Pretentious Drama Lacks Weight

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2009.

Seven Pounds is a plot twist movie in search of a plot twist. Despite a coy ad campaign that refused to divulge anything about its story other than random clips of Will Smith running in the rain and yelling at people, the film holds few secrets worth sharing. The last time Smith worked with Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino, the actor was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. This time around, their collaboration earns only befuddlement and a shrug of indifference.

Smith stars as a man named Ben Thomas. (Or does he?) Ben is an IRS agent. (Or is he?) Something about his story doesn’t add up. Rather, nothing about his story adds up. Jumpy flashbacks reveal glimpses of a Dark Secret and a Big Tragedy in his past. In the present day, Ben mostly mopes around and acts very strangely. He has a list of seven people that he seems to be stalking. Each person needs something very specific. Ben claims to be in a unique position to solve all their problems, but only if they deserve his help.

With this film, Muccino apparently fancies himself the second coming of M. Night Shyamalan. The director slowly unfolds a mystery that really wouldn’t be so mysterious if he’d just tell the story in a straightforward manner. The script intentionally withholds key information such as who Ben really is, what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it. We’re meant to learn these secrets in a big revelation at the end. Unfortunately, the subliminal clues that Muccino lays in throughout the movie aren’t very subliminal at all. Anyone paying attention should be able to figure out the answers within the first ten minutes. Everything afterwards is just pretentious filler.

For such a dull movie, the Blu-ray surely sparkles. The 2.40:1 high-def transfer is tack sharp and extremely detailed. The colors and contrast are smooth and luscious. No edge ringing or other digital artifacts rear their ugly heads. Frankly, it looks perfect. The visuals are supported by a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack with nice musical heft and atmospheric use of ambient sounds in the surround channels. The mix isn’t showy, but it enhances the drama effectively.

Bonus features include a thickly-accented commentary from the director, a few making-of featurettes, four deleted scenes, and some info on jellyfish and antique printing presses (both of which figure into the film’s plot). Disc 2 provides a Digital Copy for Mac, PC, PSP, and iPod. Too bad the movie’s not worth watching more than once.

Silverado – They Ride Horses, Don’t They?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2009.

A critic’s quote on back cover of the new Silverado Blu-ray describes the film as a “revisionist Western.” There’s really nothing revisionist about it. The 1985 movie is a classic oater in the Hollywood tradition. It has all the standard elements, as if ticked off from a checklist of director Lawrence Kasdan’s favorite old movies. There’s a jailbreak, a wagon train, a stampede, a square dance, a saloon brawl, dirty rustlers, and a crooked sheriff. Of course, it must also have plenty of gunfights and a tense showdown in the center of town.

Silverado may not reinvent the genre, but it does a fine job of reviving it for modern audiences. Kevin Kline and Scott Glenn headline a stellar cast of ’80s talent. Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, and Rosanna Arquette fill important supporting roles. But the film really served as a breakout vehicle for Kevin Costner, whose rambunctious young gunslinger steals the show. Kasdan has constructed a solid story with a complex plot, understated humor, and lots of action. The movie remains grandly entertaining two decades later.

Kasdan shot Silverado in Super Techniscope, an early version of the format now known as Super 35. The high-def transfer presents the film in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Some prior DVD editions incorrectly opened the mattes to 1.85:1. The wider ratio frames the sprawling landscapes more effectively. The picture is rather grainy, sometimes quite heavily. However, it has pleasing film-like textures and a strong sense of detail. The studio seems to have resisted over-applying Digital Noise Reduction. Colors are appropriately dusty for the most part, but flesh tones look a little too red. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack offers the score with sweeping breadth. Fidelity is satisfying but not exceptional. Gunshots crack nicely. Directional effects are sporadic but often surprisingly effective.

The digibook packaging contains some production notes and cast bios. On disc, the commentary from Western historians is much more fun than expected. The men offer appreciation for the film, but aren’t afraid to be critical either. Kevin Costner reminiscences in the Return to Silverado featurette. A making-of piece also discusses the production. This is one of the first discs with Sony’s new Movie IQ function, which uses BD-Live connectivity to provide updatable cast information and trivia. Select the pop-up lightbulb icon during any scene to find out who a particular actor is and where you’ve seen him before. It’s a nifty feature that the studio promises to use more extensively in the future.

Smart People – Not as Smart as It Wants to Be

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2008.

It’s the sort of pitch that indie movie producers love: Take a pretentious script about a dysfunctional family, add a cast filled with recent Oscar and Golden Globe nominees, and put it in the hands of a director capable of stretching a buck. Slap the pieces of this pre-fab formula together and you have one of those angsty, low-budget dramas that play well at Sundance.

Smart People tries very desperately to mimic Curtis Hanson’s well-respected Wonder Boys, right down to its Pittsburgh setting. Dennis Quaid steps into the Michael Douglas role as a burned-out English Lit professor experiencing a mid-life crisis. Unfortunately, the similarities are all superficial. Where Hanson’s film was charming, a little rough around the edges, and emotionally honest, director Noam Murro’s is cynical, formulaic, and dull.

Still mourning his wife’s death years earlier, Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) spends his life wallowing in his own pity while basking in his arrogant intellectual superiority over others. A stupid fence-climbing escapade leads to a mild head injury and, consequently, his driver’s license being suspended for six months. This inconvenience is nicely timed with the arrival of his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). Chuck needs a place to stay, and Lawrence needs a chauffeur. Lawrence’s uptight, Young Republican daughter (Ellen Page) is initially put off by Chuck’s shiftless ways, but eventually falls under his spell and learns to loosen up a little after he gives her some pot and gets her drunk. Meanwhile, Lawrence has been trying to spark up a romance with his doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), who frankly has no good reason to put up with this pompous jerk.

The movie has solid, understated performances, but the characters are too unlikable and their developmental arcs lacking in motivation. I suppose we’re meant to find the sarcastic dialogue scathingly funny, but it’s never as clever as the filmmakers seem to think. The story is predictable and not particularly deep or enlightening. All in all, it’s just another annoying Sundance drama whose only appeal is a cast of stars that will remind you of the other, better movies they’ve been in.

I can’t say that I really understand the artistic need to shoot this low-key character drama in a “scope” 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but Buena Vista’s high-def transfer has a nice, very film-like appearance. Even if this isn’t the most sharply photographed of movies, detail is fairly good, and colors are warm and natural. The image is a little grainy, but appropriately so. No edge ringing or other unwanted digital artifacts intrude.

The uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack is almost all dialogue, with a minimal amount of music and basically no surround usage. It’s fine for what it needs to be, and there isn’t much more to say about it than that.

Supplements include a predictably dry audio commentary from the director and screenwriter, a substance-less EPK featurette, two minutes of outtakes, and ten minutes of deleted scenes that would have only served to make the characters even more obnoxious.

Snatch – Double Entendre? What Double Entendre?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2010.

After his breakthrough success with the rollicking Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie followed up quickly with another “lad” movie along the same lines. Snatch reteams the director with actors Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones. It has a similar quirky sensibility, stylized visuals, and twisty convoluted plot. But it also has a much bigger budget, better production values, and a few higher-wattage stars.

Once again, Ritchie orchestrates a madcap caper centered around gangsters, hustlers, and various other losers and lowlifes. The story this time involves a diamond heist and an illegal underground boxing circuit. Characters have colorful nicknames like Turkish, Brick Top, Four Fingered Freddy, Boris the Blade, and Bullet Tooth Tony. Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro pop in to deliver eccentric supporting turns. Pitt especially steals the show as a scheming Gypsy brawler with an unintelligible accent. The plot continually circles around and doubles back on itself in unpredictable and very entertaining ways.

Ironically, at first glance, the Snatch 1.85:1 high-def transfer looks softer than Universal’s gritty and grainy Blu-ray release for the much lower budget Lock, Stock. Mainly that’s to do with its higher-quality and finer-grained 35mm film stock, which gives the movie a smoother and slicker appearance. It may not be as superficially sharp, but definitely has a better sense of fine object detail once you settle into it. Nonetheless, the disc looks a little filtered. The image has very little grain texture. Facial features sometimes smear when in motion. This suggests that some Digital Noise Reduction was used. The worst of it is in the first half-hour. The picture is generally better after that. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack makes creative use of directional effects. The bouncy score has nice musical clarity. Dynamics are nothing special, but gunshots deliver a nice crack.

Most of the supplements are recycled from previous DVD editions. These include a commentary, making-of featurette, deleted scenes, storyboards, photo gallery, and trailers & TV spots. Hidden in the Languages menu is an option for “Pikey” subtitles specifically for Brad Pitt’s character. New to the Blu-ray are Sony’s Movie IQ cast trivia interface, a feature that lets you edit video clips to share online, and access to the studio’s BD-Live portal.

In certain respects, Snatch amounts to more of the same from Guy Ritchie, a director whose attempts to stray beyond the crime movie genre have met with mixed success. On the other hand, why complain when the results are this much fun?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Still the Fairest of Them All

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2009.

As we all surely remember, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature-length animated film. But it’s also much more than a trivia notation in cinema history. This motion picture is truly a work of art. Walt Disney spared no expense and withheld no amount of painstaking labor to bring his vision to the screen. The film’s painterly attention to light and shading, its graceful movements, and its intricate art design far exceeded anything other animators had the ambition to attempt back in 1937. The movie still impresses every bit as much today. Witness the carvings that cover every wooden surface in the dwarfs’ cottage. These subtle details may not draw the eye, but their presence helps to bring the characters’ world to rich and vibrant life.

The story is classic fairy tale stuff – a neglected princess, an evil stepmother, a handsome prince. Truth be told, the plot is a little thin, even for a kids’ film. Snow White herself isn’t Disney’s most appealing heroine. She’s often too flightily oblivious, even to the point of acting selfishly. (Honestly, who just moves into a strange house while its occupants are at work?) Fortunately, the dwarfs are adorable, the artwork is magnificent, and the world Disney conjures leaves an indelible impression. Snow White may not be the best of Disney’s classic animated features, but it’s undeniably a masterpiece all the same.

If I really wanted to, I could nit-pick apart the Blu-ray transfer. The picture looks perhaps a little too digitally scrubbed. Some Noise Reduction artifacts are apparent at times. Film grain is almost nonexistent, and line detail could be better defined. I’m sure the color palette has also been tweaked and enhanced. Nevertheless, by and large, the high-def image looks splendid. The picture is bright and clean, with wonderful solidity and depth. Those delicate colors sparkle. The original 1.37:1 Academy Ratio framing has been preserved. You may choose to watch it with either standard pillarbox bars or “Disney View,” which fills in the sides of the screen with distracting watercolor paintings.

For a 70-year-old movie, the audio has held up acceptably. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 remixed soundtrack has thin dialogue and fragile song vocals, but it’s certainly listenable for its age. Despite the 7.1 label, the track has little to no surround action. A “Restored Original Soundtrack” is also available in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. That one has even more brittle high end.

Supplements are plentiful. Disc 1 features a commentary compiled from audio interviews with Uncle Walt himself, a couple of deleted scenes, story sketches for an abandoned sequel, and some games for the kids. The Hyperion Studios interactive tour on Disc 2 will consume hours of an animation fan’s life. There you’ll find a bounty of production featurettes, vintage footage, and classic animated shorts (including Steamboat Willie). The discs have far more content than I have room to list here. A third disc offers the movie on standard-def DVD.

The Blu-ray comes in several packaging variations. There’s a regular BD case, a DVD-sized case, and a few collector’s sets combined with books, plush toys, or other swag. Whichever you buy, the Snow White Blu-ray is a worthy tribute to Walt Disney’s daring, innovation, and genius.

Spaceballs – Never Underestimate the Power of the Schwartz

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published September 2009.

Produced at the tail end of the period during which Mel Brooks was still funny, Spaceballs tries to do for sci-fi what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. The film is both a loving tribute and zany spoof of the genre. Its scattershot humor is filled with silly sight gags, bad puns, and a surprising amount of swearing for a PG movie. The jokes are hit-or-miss. Fortunately, enough of them hit the mark that the movie can still bring a smile.

To be honest, the Blu-ray transfer is barely distinguishable from the Collector’s Edition DVD released in 2004. The picture is very soft and hazy, with only fair detail and colors. DNR filtering appears to have taken a toll. The movie looks about the quality of an average HD cable broadcast. On the other hand, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and clear. The track has little surround activity and can be a bit strident. However, low-end is nice and rumbly. The “pew pew” effects have never sounded so sharp.

Supplements are a replication of the CE DVD. We have a dull commentary, an annoying documentary, plus some other odds and ends. For no particular reason, MGM has also thrown in a copy of the original DVD that dates back to 2000. That disc has a non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer on one side and a full frame transfer on the other. The studio must be trying to clear out old stock.

Speed Racer – Warning: Overdosage of Eye Candy May Lead to Nausea

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber in September 2008 (unpublished).

[Note: Due to a disagreement between myself and the magazine editor at the time, who felt that the video portion of the review wasn’t enthusiastic enough, this article was never published. He took only my headline and wrote a more flattering review himself. The upshot to this is that I was paid in full for a total of nine words.]

I’ll say this for it, Speed Racer is the closest any live action movie has yet come to replicating the distinctive style of anime. The movie is in fact about 99% computer animation with a few real actors stuck in for effect. It has a frenetic visual design overloaded with kaleidoscopic colors, spastically edited action, and layers upon layers of densely packed imagery colliding onto the screen. On a technical level, this is a brave new path for digital filmmaking that Larry and Andy Wachowski are attempting to forge.

Unfortunately, as a movie, it’s also kind of awful. Based on the 1960s anime series, the film’s plot summary goes something like this: Young racecar driver Speed Racer (yes, that’s his name) likes to go really fast through courses that look like they were built by a demented Hot Wheels designer on acid. In his way are an evil corporation, rival driver Racer X, and a chimp flinging poop. Basically, it’s a lot of pointless nonsense. The movie is aggressively obnoxious, repetitive, and dumb. While innovative, its garish visuals left me feeling like I was having a 135-minute seizure in the middle of Willy Wonka’s candy shop.

This is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. I know and respect people who have defended the picture as light-hearted entertainment. Sadly, I remain on the “hate it” side of the fence. I was bored out of my mind and spent the whole movie wishing that a doctor would prescribe the Wachowskis some Ritalin.

Say what you will about its storytelling, Speed Racer‘s high-def transfer is astoundingly sharp and detailed, perhaps a new reference standard in that regard. The way the imagery was shot and composited means that every element in every layer anywhere in the frame remains in crystal clear focus at all times. Despite being squeezed onto a single-layer disc, compression artifacts are not noticeable, even during the most complex of fast-moving action scenes. Some minor color banding does intrude on a few occasions, however. The colors are all oversaturated by design, which causes some distractingly orange flesh tones. The contrast is also so hot that patches of solid color frequently bloom and crush detail. That’s an intentional stylistic decision, but I personally found it very hard on the eyes.

Disappointingly, Warner has elected to include only a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. There are no lossless audio options. The track has plenty of power and thrust during the race scenes, as well as surround activity constantly zipping through the rear channels, but it lacks the crispness and clarity of the best high-res audio.

For a 3-disc set, extras are sparse. The main disc contains three EPK featurettes. The piece on “Car Fu” is interesting. The others not so much. Disc 2 is a lame DVD set-top racing game that takes about 10 minutes to play. Disc 3 is a Digital Copy compatible only with Windows Media. Be warned that iPod owners get no love, even though the sticker on the case promises otherwise.

The Spirit – Color Me Dispirited

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2009.

“My city screams,” says the masked crimefighter known as The Spirit. After a debacle like this, who can blame it? Esteemed comic artist Frank Miller (creator of The Dark Knight Returns and 300) makes his solo directorial debut with this adaptation of his mentor Will Eisner’s classic comic series. Despite promises to remain faithful to the source, the end result is more Miller than Eisner. In this case, that’s not such a good thing.

The Spirit was shot entirely on a greenscreen digital backlot, mostly in black & white with small bursts of color (primarily red). It looks almost exactly like the movie version of Miller’s Sin City, but has none of that film’s intelligence or entertainment value. Set in the vaguely 1940s-era metropolis of Central City, the story follows an anonymous do-gooder (Gabriel Macht) as he battles a nefarious criminal mastermind called The Octopus (a cackling, over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson) in a quest for immortality.

The movie is an uncomfortable mix of superheroics, film noir, and Greek mythology. It has sluggish pacing, obnoxious Road Runner-style violence, and dumb comic relief. The acting is almost uniformly terrible. Scarlett Johansson delivers the worst performance of her career as gangster moll Silken Floss. Miller demonstrates no talent for screenwriting or film directing. He should probably stick to comics. Embrace your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses.

In the disc supplements, the director talks about his preference for vertical visuals in a city setting. Nonetheless, he chose to shoot the film in a wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Chalk that up as another artistic mistake. The Blu-ray transfer is no doubt technically transparent to the digitally-photographed source. The stark contrasts (inky blacks and gleaming whites) don’t exhibit much shadow detail, but that seems to be intentional. Although Sky Captain-like diffuse lighting effects leave the picture a touch soft, there’s plenty of detail on display, especially in close-ups. The style is both striking and a little hard on the eyes.

The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack takes full advantage of all 7.1 channels. Sound effects sweep through every speaker. Gunshots are exceedingly loud, and the bass is often punishing. Bonus features include a dull commentary and an alternate storyboard ending. Three featurettes discuss the character’s history, Miller’s career, and greenscreen filmmaking. BD-Live access will bring you pointless (and inaccurate) time and weather feeds on the main menu. At the time of this writing, the MoLog blogging feature wasn’t active. Disc 2 is a Digital Copy for Windows and Apple.

Splice – There Are Some Things You Do Not Do

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2010.

The characters in Splice do a lot of things they shouldn’t. Apparently, the temptations to play God and mess with the laws of nature are too powerful for a pair of hipster d’bag geneticists to resist. Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) fancy themselves members of the rock & roll technocratic elite. They’re more concerned with their cover story in Wired magazine than pesky little details like ethics or good sense. First, they splice the genes of random animals together to produce a pair of mutant blobs that are a rich source of enzymes valuable to their pharmaceutical parent company. When that proves successful, they move on to illegal experiments with human DNA. As anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie should expect, the results of their efforts are… unfortunate.

It starts as a test, just to see if they can do it. Then that test spirals out of control, beyond the point of no return. The thing they create looks like an armless two-legged rodent, so ugly that it’s almost cute. Soon, it sprouts arms and grows at an exponential rate into a vaguely humanoid little girl, and in no time flat into a fully matured young woman – a young woman with amphibious lungs, a tail with poisonous stinger, and other interesting biological anomalies that are revealed at inconvenient moments. They call her Dren. Well, from there, things get icky on a lot of different levels.

Splice wants to be the kind of philosophical B-movie that David Cronenberg used to make. Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) laces the gross-out scares with a simplistic ethical debate and elements of genre parody. (The film is really a black comedy about bad parenting.) Unfortunately, he succumbs to too many horror movie clichés. In the end, the picture turns predictable and, sadly, dumb. Much like Dren herself, Splice starts out with enormous potential, but eventually turns into an ungainly mutant concoction.

The high-def 16:9 transfer showcases the cold and sterile atmosphere in superb fashion. The sharp picture has plenty of detail and minimal grain. Colors are very bold, especially greens and blues. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack likewise brings to life every squishy sound effect with excellent clarity. However, like far too many Warner releases, the amount of bonus material is directly proportional to the film’s box office success, which in this case isn’t much. All we get are a half-hour production featurette and a Digital Copy. Make this a rental.

Terminator Salvation – Ohhh, Gooooood for You! And How Was It?

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2010.

I’m sure we all remember Christian Bale’s infamous verbal tirade against cinematographer Shane Hurlbut from the set of Terminator Salvation. That sound bite probably generated more publicity than the movie itself. Ironically, that recording could practically be an outtake from the film. Bale spends the entire movie in full-on screaming mode. Scene after scene, he either barks out orders or shouts at robots. It’s an annoying, one-note performance from an actor capable of better.  

In this fourth Terminator picture, Bale takes over as the adult John Connor, leader of the human resistance. Yet Connor’s not even the lead in this entry. That would be Sam Worthington as Marcus, a death row inmate who signs his body over to science, then wakes up 15 years later to find that the world has ended. Salvation is the first Terminator without any time travel. Almost the entire movie takes place after Judgment Day, but before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous T-800 model cyborg has been developed.

For a big budget sci-fi action flick, Salvation is proficient at what it needs to do. The film has plenty of explosions, expensive VFX, and robotic mayhem. The script is coherent and doesn’t insult its audience nearly as badly as some of 2009’s other summer blockbusters. At the same time, it’s a rather generic and derivative post-apocalyptic adventure. There’s just nothing particularly groundbreaking or innovative here.

The Blu-ray offers both the theatrical cut and a Director’s Cut on separate discs. The difference comes to only three minutes. The DC has slightly more violence, and actress Moon Bloodgood flashes some side-boob. The 2.40:1 transfer captures the movie’s bleached colors and gritty textures extremely well. The image has excellent definition of details such as skin pores and hairs, especially during close-ups. Meanwhile, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack digs deep with thunderous bass and sharp mechanical sound effects. Disc 1 offers BD-Live access for community screenings and custom commentaries. In the Maximum Movie Mode (only on the disc 2 theatrical cut), director McG steps in front of the picture to walk viewers through the film’s production via P-i-P video clips and pop-up trivia. Beyond that are only two simple making-of featurettes. The third disc is a Digital Copy for WMV or iTunes.

Salvation falls at about the same level as Terminator 3. It’s not the disaster that it might have been, but also nowhere near as good as the first two movies in the series. That’s both a relief and a waste of potential.

THX 1138: Director’s Cut – For Greater Efficiency, Consumption Is Being Standardized

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2010.

Is there another phrase in all of filmdom that can fill movie lovers with more dread than “The George Lucas Director’s Cut”? After desecrating his beloved Star Wars trilogy with ridiculous and unwanted enhancements, the director went back and did the same to his debut feature as well. While the results aren’t quite as drastic, he’s still inflicted a fair amount of videogame-quality CGI onto the 1971 movie.

THX 1138 started out as a student film (found in the disc’s extras). Lucas later remade and expanded the project with a new cast. The story borrows heavily from novels like Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World. In a dystopian future society, people have been reduced to numbers. They live in sterile, bland environments, remain sedated at all times, and are prohibited from forming emotions or engaging in illegal perversions (i.e. sex). When THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and his cohabitant LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) stop taking their meds and fall in love, they’re hunted by robotic police agents that enforce the social order.

Aside from the gaudy new CG effects, the film is made in a minimalist, surreal style. Most of the dialogue consists of nonsensical babbling of numbers and statistics. The movie is intended as a satire of consumerism and conformity, and everything else that George Lucas – now head of a multi-billion dollar merchandising empire – would later come to represent.

The Blu-ray contains only the 2004 Director’s Cut, unfortunately. The 2.35:1 transfer looks fairly good overall. Some shots are soft, but others display exceptional detail in hair and freckles. A light amount of digital processing and some shoddy compression distract occasionally. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack lacks much surround activity or bass, but resolves Walter Murch’s intricate aural montages with satisfying clarity.

In the audio commentary, Lucas refuses to acknowledge the irony that his obsessive revisionism is exactly the type of dictatorial conformity he once railed against. Other extras include the original short film, an FX-only audio track, and trailers from both the original run and the Director’s Cut promotion. Documentaries and other features go into some depth about the production, the sound design, and the history of studio American Zoetrope.

Unlike Star Wars, the new version of THX 1138 isn’t unwatchable. Even so, the changes stand out badly, and do absolutely nothing to enhance or improve the film in any way. At some point, Lucas must learn to leave his old movies well enough alone.

The Town – They Rahbbed a Friggin’ Bank in Bahston

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published March 2011.

Isn’t it interesting how Ben Affleck has managed to reinvent himself as a successful filmmaker after the public tired of him as a celebrity? When a string of lousy movies had just about killed his acting career, Affleck surprised everyone with his excellent directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. And here we thought that his writing Oscar for Good Will Hunting was really all Matt Damon’s doing (or perhaps William Goldman’s). Maybe he’s smarter than we assumed? Recently, Affleck parlayed that success into writing, directing, and starring in the ambitious heist thriller The Town.

The movie informs us early on that the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston is the bank robbery capital of America. I’ve lived in Boston for twenty years and had no idea. I should probably watch the local news more. Affleck and Jeremy Renner run a crew of hardcore professional thieves. In the opening scene, they hold up a bank and take the manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage. Although they let her go, Affleck’s character decides to check in on her to make sure she doesn’t know anything incriminating. Of course, he winds up falling for the girl. He’s that well-established character type: the criminal with a heart of gold who’s ready to give up his dastardly ways for the love of a good woman. Naturally, those plans are thrown into jeopardy by the complications of One Last Job. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. The dogged FBI agent on his tail (Jon Hamm) may prove annoying as well.

The Town owes a lot to previous heist movies, especially The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Heat. Mostly the latter. It’s a long movie, made even longer by a new Extended Cut. Despite strong performances (a little heavy on the accents) and much attention to character detail, the story is mired in formula and cliché. Fortunately, the authentic local color and Affleck’s proficiency with the action scenes win out in the end.

Warner’s Blu-ray edition contains both the theatrical cut and an Extended Cut that adds almost half an hour. Rather than use seamless branching, the studio has opted to squeeze two entirely separate encodings onto the same disc. That’s not a wise decision for a movie this long, but the results are nonetheless pretty good. The 2.40:1 picture is quite sharp and has a nice sense of depth. Colors are pleasingly vibrant, though I object to the overuse of teal and orange. (In one scene, Boston Harbor is bright teal like it’s the friggin’ Caribbean or something. It looks ridiculous.) Problems arise in seriously crushed black levels and some smeary grain patterns. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very clear, but seems to lack dynamics for an action movie of this type until a couple of sequences near the end rev up the intensity.

Bonus features are surprisingly limited. Affleck offers a commentary on both versions of the movie. A half hour of Focus Points featurettes can be watched individually or branched off from the theatrical cut. Disc 2 is a DVD and Digital Copy combo.

The Town isn’t the great movie it wants to be, but is good enough to get by. It plays like Heat-lite. Perhaps we can call it “Warmth.”

The Town: Ultimate Collector’s Edition – Highway Robbery

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 2012.

Of all the great classic movies in the vast Warner Bros. library that might make good candidates for the deluxe box set treatment, why The Town? Ben Affleck’s bank heist thriller was reasonably popular and critically well-received upon its theatrical release in 2010, but was neither the massive blockbuster smash nor the Oscar contender that the studio may have hoped. People liked it, but certainly not enough to put the film in the same pantheon as, say, Casablanca or Ben-Hur. Further, the initial Blu-ray release (reviewed March 2011) was already pretty satisfying. That disc had a solid video transfer and contained both the theatrical cut and a half-hour-longer Extended Cut that gave director/star Affleck all the opportunity he needed to expand the film into the epic he wanted it to be. I can’t imagine that too many people were clamoring for more.

Nevertheless, here we have it. Warner has bestowed upon The Town a Blu-ray re-release that now has not just two but three versions of the film. In addition to the previous theatrical and Extended cuts, a new “Extended Cut with Alternate Ending” tacks on three additional minutes to make the finale a little less like The Shawshank Redemption and a little more like, well, lots of other movies instead. Even Affleck admits in the commentary track that he likes the older ending better.

The box set holds three discs. One is a duplicate of the prior Blu-ray with the theatrical and Extended cuts pointlessly encoded as separate files (rather than seamlessly branched). The Alternate Ending version gets a new Blu-ray all to itself. The2.40:1 high-def transfer on that one has been re-encoded and has marginally better grain definition, but still suffers from black crush issues and has far too much teal coloring for my liking.

The commentary and featurettes from the earlier Blu-ray are still here, along with a new a 30-minute documentary called A Director’s Journey. The new disc has mostly the same commentary, aside from new bits about the ending. The final disc is a DVD of the Alternate Ending version. A code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy has also been provided. Physical swag in the box set consists of a photo book and assorted printed materials such mug shots, a map and other bric-a-brac. Are you really a big enough fan of The Town to pay $49.99 list price for that? I fail to see the need for it, but then again, my last name isn’t Affleck.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon – Third Time, Still No Charm

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2012.

In one sense, I almost have a grudging respect for Michael Bay and his crappy movies. The director rarely has aspirations toward making art. He just wants to play with a bunch of expensive toys. He puts every cent of his movies’ astronomical budgets on screen with the intention of creating a sensory overload of sights and sounds on an astounding scale. He really tries to give his fans something awesome. There’s a purity in that. Unfortunately, the man is utterly incompetent at storytelling, and that’s kind of an important part of being a filmmaker.

So here we have a third Transformers movie, in which Bay once again makes giant robots smash into each other for two and a half hours of metal-on-metal mayhem. In this one, the evil Decepticons destroy Chicago and slaughter thousands of innocent people, and the petulant Autobots pretty much let them get away with it for a long time, in order to teach humans a lesson. Or something. As with the last two of these, the story makes no sense at all. It has huge plot holes and devotes lengthy screen time to dozens of characters who serve no purpose to the story whatsoever. It has no sense of structure or pacing, and is overflowing with the “dorky humor” that Bay swore he’d eliminate in this outing.

On the other hand, Bay sure does make things go boom real good, and often. The decision to shoot this one in 3D also forced Bay to slow down his spastic editing and frame his action scenes from camera angles where you can tell what’s happening in them. This is easily his most visually coherent film yet. However, the robots still mostly look the same as one another, which makes it virtually impossible to know which robot did what to whom at any given moment.

Paramount’s initial Blu-ray withholds the 3D or any supplements, aside from a DVD and Digital Copy. We’ll get more with a double-dip later in the year. Although just 2D, the 2.40:1 digitally-photographed image is bright, sharp and glossy. Colors pop in all the glorious teal and orange shades that Bay can conjure. The slam-bang Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack has pounding bass and enveloping surround activity from start to finish. Yet it’s also better balanced and less monotonous than the mixes for the previous two installments. The disc is eye and ear candy of the highest order. Too bad the movie will rot your brain in the process.

True Grit – Hoorawed by a Little Girl

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published September 2011.

The decision to remake a movie widely regarded as a classic should not be taken lightly. This is a lesson that the makers of the recent Day the Earth Stood Still and (to a lesser degree) Arthur revamps learned the hard way. Even the estimable Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, experienced one of the biggest failures of their mutual career with a tonally discordant remake of the beloved Ealing Studios comedy The Ladykillers a few years back. Nonetheless, never known to shrink from a challenge, the Coens jumped right back into the remake game with a new reworking of True Grit, last adapted to screen back in 1969 with an iconic performance that won John Wayne his only Oscar. This is an even bigger challenge, and somehow they got this one right. The new True Grit bests the previous film in just about every way.

If the directors are to be believed (and sometimes they can’t be – witness the “Based on a True Story” credit on Fargo), the Coens last saw the old film as children and regarded it as “cheesy.” They claim to have avoided rewatching it and went straight back to the source material, the original novel by author Charles Portis. They would no doubt argue that their True Grit is a “re-adaptation” and not a remake, but that seems like splitting hairs to me. In any case, the new film is quite similar to the old one in many scenes and much of the dialogue (all taken from the book, I’m sure), but strikes a decidedly more serious and less campy tone.

Jeff Bridges puts his own fabulous spin on the role of drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. He’s actually playing the character and not just playing The Duke, which already gives him a leg up over Wayne. Most of the supporting cast is a big improvement as well, especially real actor Matt Damon in a role last stiltedly essayed by country-western singer Glen Campbell. Best of all is Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl who sets the plot in motion. She’s a revelation and an instant breakout star. She got robbed at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Paramount’s Blu-ray is a thing of beauty. The 2.35:1 transfer is extremely sharp, with an outstanding sense of detail and no unwanted digital artifacts to be found. Colors, contrast and shadow detail are exquisitely rendered. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is likewise a stunner. Surround activity is restrained (per the Coens’ preference), but gunshots boom with authority and Carter Burwell’s terrific score fills the soundstage with lovely warmth and fidelity. No matter how much he may mumble his lines, Bridges’ dialogue is always discernable. The Coens don’t generally care much for supplements. We get a few short featurettes of moderate interest here, as well as a pretty good half-hour bio of author Portis. Disc 2 is a DVD and Digital Copy.

While The King’s Speech and The Social Network claimed most of the attention at year-end awards time, True Grit was easily my pick for best film of 2010. It’s not only a better film than the original, but a masterpiece in its own right. I don’t say such things lightly.

Videodrome – We Live in Overstimulated Times

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2011.

In recent years, David Cronenberg has broadened his scope to mainstream-friendly projects like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. However, the director will remain primarily known for his “New Flesh” series of body horror thrillers from the late 1970s through to the end of the ’90s. Of these, his 1986 remake of The Fly was the only true breakout commercial success. Yet 1983’s Videodrome is arguably the signature piece of this phase in the filmmaker’s career. The movie is a perfect capsule of Cronenberg’s favorite themes, including physical transformation, the loss of personal identity, and the tenuous barrier that separates reality from fantasy. If a fantasy is so vivid that we perceive it as real, does it not become our reality?

James Woods stars as Max Renn, a sleazebag TV producer who peddles “softcore pornography and hardcore violence.” His search for new thrills to titillate his audience brings him across a pirate broadcast called Videodrome that features nothing but graphic rape and torture. He’s immediately intrigued. Unfortunately, exposure to a hidden signal buried in the program triggers a series of paranoid hallucinations that Max soon cannot distinguish from reality. Ingeniously, Cronenberg tells the story entirely from Max’s perspective. The character is never sure when or whether he’s hallucinating, and so neither are we. A crackpot evangelist character named Brian O’Blivion prophesizes a merger of man and technology in a time when people create alternate lives in the electronic realm. Cronenberg thought that TV would be the medium in question, but his vision presages the internet pretty eerily.  

The Criterion Collection released Videodrome on DVD back in 2004 in clever packaging that resembled a Betamax cassette. The new Blu-ray retains the same case artwork, but Blu-ray’s smaller and slimmer profile loses some of the effect. The 1.85:1 high-def transfer is quite dark and grainy (appropriately so), but also very detailed and colorful. In its best scenes, the vividness and depth are breathtaking. Although only mono, the PCM 1.0 soundtrack delivers many squishy sound effects in uncomfortable clarity. Gunshots and explosions sound canned, however.

A strong supplement package is highlighted by two commentaries: one from Cronenberg and his cinematographer, the other by James Woods and co-star Debbie Harry. Woods in particular has some interesting insights into the film. Also included are a short film from the director, several vintage documentaries, special effects featurettes, and interviews. It’s a great package. Long live the new flesh!

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – Lost in Translation

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2011.

Hollywood remakes foreign movies all the time, ostensibly to make the stories more accessible to local audiences. Yet there seems to be a double standard in place. Foreign filmmakers rarely attempt to remake English-language movies. Either that speaks to America’s pervasive cultural influence on the rest of the world, or simply the fact that foreign audiences aren’t as afraid to read subtitles. Or both. When acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (of Hero and House of Flying Daggers) announced that he would remake Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut feature Blood Simple as a historical period piece, he certainly raised some eyebrows. It was an audacious move, but one that (with all the talent involved) could have resulted in an intriguing fusion of Eastern and Western cinematic sensibilities. Instead, he gave us this giant mess.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is set in feudal China, much like the director’s last few films. It follows the broad strokes of the Blood Simple plot. An abused wife cheats on her loutish husband with a dimwit lover. The husband hires a detective (in this case, a morally flexible law officer) to confirm his suspicions, and then to murder the couple. However, a series of misunderstandings and double-crosses fouls up those plans in a very convoluted chain of events.

Whereas the Coens made a thriller laced with a darkly comic streak, Zhang has chosen to adapt the material as a very broad slapstick farce. One goofy supporting character even has giant buck teeth. The outrageously cartoonish tone feels beneath the director’s abilities. Then, from out of nowhere, the movie shifts gears in the second half and settles down into a fairly effective suspense piece. While the last act is a huge improvement over the first, the two parts of the picture don’t mesh together in the slightest.

Even if the story doesn’t work at all, the breathtakingly gorgeous digital cinematography looks fantastic on Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 picture is exceptionally sharp and detailed, with rich contrast and eye-popping colors. The Mandarin language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also startlingly dynamic and enveloping. One cannon blast is almost powerful enough to punch a hole in your wall for real. For supplements, the disc includes almost two hours of production featurettes, a misleading trailer that makes the movie look totally serious, and the standard Sony BD-Live link. Despite all this, I think I’d rather just watch Blood Simple again. That’s a much better movie.

X-Men: First Class – Franchise Still Sitting in Coach

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2011.

After the disastrous Wolverine movie, you might think that producers of the X-Men franchise would shy away from further prequels. Perhaps desperate for redemption, they moved forward anyway with X-Men: First Class, an origin story about young Professor X and Magneto (here James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and the foundation of the mutant superhero team. Original director Bryan Singer returns as a producer but hands the reins over to Matthew Vaughn, who recently made the entertaining Kick-Ass. With these pieces in place, plus a retro-fabulous 1960s setting, the film seemed primed to restore the series to its former glory. How, then, did the end result turn out to be so plodding and dull?

Behind the scenes, First Class suffered from a rushed production schedule and a lot of last-minute rewriting by multiple hands. In its defense, the seams are rarely obvious, and Vaughn pieces the whole thing together with consummate professionalism. However, the screenplay is largely repetitive of storylines already covered in prior movies. Young Mystique’s character arc is virtually the same as Rogue’s, and a subplot about a cure for mutantism is recycled straight from The Last Stand. Far too many of the new mutants have the same powers as earlier characters (teleportation, telepathy, weather control), and those with new powers are mostly silly. (Laser hula hoops, seriously?)

The heart of the movie is the dynamic between Xavier and Eric, which is well played by both actors, especially the (forgive me) magnetically charismatic Fassbender. Kevin Bacon also makes a juicy villain. Unfortunately, the young recruits are mostly annoying, and dead-behind-the-eyes starlet January Jones gives one of the worst performances ever put to film as Bacon’s chief henchwoman. She’s embarrassingly bad. The movie has a lot going on plot-wise, but takes at least an hour and a half to warm up. Perhaps worst of all, Vaughn does basically nothing interesting at all with the ’60s setting.

The Blu-ray, at least, looks terrific. Aside from some shoddy CG effects and a few shots with dodgy camera focus (neither the fault of the disc transfer), the 2.35:1 high-def image excels in sharpness, detail and contrast. It makes splendid home theater eye candy. Meanwhile, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very bombastic, with lots of rumbly bass and zinging surrounds. I wasn’t so impressed with its fidelity, though. The track is plenty loud, but sounds muddy and flat. Henry Jackman’s droning, tedious musical score doesn’t help much in that regard. Supplements include a very good 70-minute documentary, a handful of brief featurettes, some deleted scenes, a pointless interactive character guide game, an isolated score and a Digital Copy. Connect to BD-Live for the film’s trailer, some stunt scene test footage and Fox’s Live Lookup cast database. A director’s commentary is conspicuously absent.

For reasons I don’t especially comprehend, many X-Men fanboys fell in love with First Class and proclaimed it the best in the series. Although it’s certainly a step up from Wolverine, the movie just isn’t any fun. It doesn’t hold a candle to the far superior X2. When your film only really comes to life during a 30-second cameo by the star of previous entries, that’s a pretty big problem.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Sound and Fury, You Know the Rest

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2009.

The biggest problem with X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that the Wolverine character’s origin story was already covered sufficiently in the previous X-Men movies, specifically Bryan Singer’s far superior X2: X-Men United. The new prequel retreads most of the same ground in a less interesting manner. The mutant known as Logan discovers his feral powers, joins Col. Stryker’s secret military strike squad, has indestructible adamantium bonded to his skeleton, and eventually goes rogue and loses his memory. Previously, we discovered all this through a series of flashbacks intermixed with an interesting mystery plot. Here, the events are simply recited through plodding exposition. We already know the outcome of this story. Newer details, such as a love story with beautiful Kayla Silverfox and a rivalry with half-brother Victor/Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), feel like filler and aren’t particularly compelling. Given that Logan’s destined to forget all of this at the end anyway, the whole thing seems rather pointless.

Hugh Jackman appears to have put on about 50 pounds of pure muscle. He looks skyward and screams to the heavens over and over again. You can make a drinking game out of it. When he’s not doing that, he’s striding angrily in slow motion while huge explosions detonate in the background behind him. Unable to make Wolverine a better movie than its predecessors, director Gavin Hood settles for bigger, louder, and dumber instead. For a $150 million summer tentpole picture, the movie has quite shoddy CGI visual effects. Even Wolverine’s claws look terribly fake this time out.

If you can get past that, the Blu-ray’s technical aspects otherwise meet all expectations for a movie of this budget. The 2.35:1 high-def transfer is a slight bit soft, presumably to help blend the CGI with the live action footage. However, it’s suitably slick and glossy. Detail is pretty good, and fine grain structure is intact. Colors appear accurate, even though they may not leap off the screen. Black levels are perhaps too light, but not severely so. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is loud and throbbing, with plenty of aggressive surround action.

Supplements include two commentaries, deleted scenes, detailed character bios, and several featurettes. Ultimate X-Mode offers several Bonus View P-i-P options, while Live Lookup connects to BD-Live for updatable cast info (similar to Sony’s Movie IQ). Disc 2 contains a Digital Copy for Mac or PC.

Wolverine isn’t a terrible movie, just an unnecessary one. It’s another step in the wrong direction for the franchise after the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand.

Zombieland – For the Love of a Twinkie

Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2010.

We all know that the zombie apocalypse is coming eventually. That much isn’t even in question. The hows or whys aren’t important. All that matters is survival. How do you live out your days uninfected once the entire planet is overrun with undead brain-munchers? A smart survivor needs rules to live by. Columbus (Jesse Eiserberg) has plenty of rules. Stay limber, for one. Don’t forget the cardio workout. Wear a seatbelt. Perhaps most importantly, always double-tap a zombie kill. An extreme introvert with countless phobias, all Columbus has in his life are the rules.

At least, that’s all he had until he ran into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a crazy redneck who loves killing zombies almost as much as he craves Twinkies. Tallahassee doesn’t care much for structure or discipline. By the time he meets the smoking hot girl (Emma Stone) and her little sister (Abigail Breslin) on their way to an amusement park that legend says is free of zombies, Columbus finds all his rules out the window.

Zombieland is a rollicking fun horror comedy loaded with action, gore, and zombie mayhem. Sure, Eisenberg’s character feels like it was written for Michael Cera. You can also chip away at logical inconsistencies like why the electricity still works everywhere after the apocalypse. None of that matters. The movie is a blast.

The Blu-ray’s 2.40:1 transfer is just about perfect. The image is incredibly sharp with an astounding level of detail. Colors are deep and rich. The movie was shot on digital video and has no film grain. My only (very minor) nitpick is that the picture can be quite dark at times. Of course, it’s a zombie movie, so that’s appropriate. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly good, but didn’t wow me. The track is quite loud and has some rockin’ songs. There’s a decent amount of bass in the mains, but almost no LFE. The surrounds seem underused as well.

The best extra is a picture-in-picture track with a lot of production info. The disc also has a commentary, a handful of featurettes, BD-Live access and Sony’s MovieIQ. Disc 2 is a multi-format Digital Copy. 

For a zombie action comedy, Zombieland doesn’t quite reach the heights of genius set by Shaun of the Dead. What movie can? For what it sets out to do, Zombieland hits all of its marks and is great fun. Be sure to stick around for a gag after the end credits.

BD-Live in Action: Are Blu-ray Internet Features Worth the Hassle?

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2009.

Remember DVD-ROM features on movie releases? When was the last time you saw or used one? For a brief period in the early days of the DVD boom, movie studios promoted ROM features as one of the format’s great technological advances. In addition to the usual audio commentaries, deleted scenes, and featurettes on their discs, studios could add further content only accessible from a computer. For instance, owners of The Matrix on DVD who wanted to watch that movie’s theatrical trailer had to connect to the internet and download it from the studio’s web site via the disc’s ROM section. Although DVD-ROM was an interesting concept, most viewers found the execution frustrating. They didn’t want to play the discs in their computers, and didn’t want to download the proprietary software needed in most cases. More importantly, they didn’t understand why these features weren’t included with the normal disc contents that they could watch on their regular DVD players. Eventually, studios acknowledged the lack of interest. ROM features are very rarely used on DVD anymore.

Now that we’re in the High-Definition Age, studios are eager to show off the advanced features that Blu-ray offers over standard DVD. Of course, high-def video and lossless audio are the format’s biggest selling points. Interactive functions such as Bonus View and BD-Live are next in line. The latter is a sort of 21st Century spin on the old DVD-ROM idea, but a lot more powerful and at least a little more user-friendly. In its favor, BD-Live doesn’t require computer playback or software installation. On the other hand, it does require a Profile 2.0-compliant Blu-ray player. Unfortunately, not all models meet that spec. If you don’t own a Profile 2.0 player, a disc’s BD-Live features simply won’t work. Those options will either be grayed out in the disc menu or will trigger an error message. Thankfully, the format’s top-selling unit (Sony’s Playstation 3 console) is fully BD-Live compatible. Many manufacturers are including BD-Live in their latest standalone players as well. Be sure to look for the actual phrase “BD-Live” in a player’s specs when shopping. A notation that the player supports Java functions doesn’t cover it.

What’s Available from BD-Live?

Once you have a Profile 2.0 player connected online through the machine’s Ethernet jack (or Wi-Fi, in the case of the PS3), a Blu-ray enabled with BD-Live may prompt you to download that content as soon as you insert the disc. If not, select the BD-Live option in the main menu. In either scenario, you’ll then be taken to the studio’s web portal for the movie. From there, the features should be listed in a new menu interface. Depending on the specific type of feature, you may be able to download the content right away or may need to register a Login ID and password with the studio first. In some cases, you can do this from the BD-Live portal using an on-screen keypad and the directional buttons on your player’s remote. In others, you may be directed to use your computer to visit the studio’s BD-Live web site for the registration process. Disney prefers the latter method, for example. After you’ve registered your information on the disneybdlivenetwork.com site, you can then enter your new ID and password from the player to sign in and access the features.

Because BD-Live is a relatively new development (the PS3 wasn’t updated to Profile 2.0 until mid-2008), we’re still in the early stages of content creation. Some features are more sophisticated or interactive than others. At its most basic level, a BD-Live portal can provide trailers, videos, or featurettes that didn’t make it to the disc otherwise. Many Sony BD-Live titles have no actual online content for the movie you’re watching, just an assortment of trailers for unrelated films. Other Sony titles like Starship Troopers 3: Marauder and Resident Evil: Degeneration offer footage from the Comic-Con panel discussions about those movies in a choice of SD or HD quality. (The SD versions download much faster.) Among the more entertaining videos available from BD-Live are the “Dispatches from the Edge of Madness” skits on Dreamworks’ release of Tropic Thunder. In those, members of the movie’s cast stay in character to deliver bizarre behind-the-scenes interviews for the film-within-the-film.

The above examples are fairly straightforward video clips without any interactive components. Naturally, this begs the question of why these videos weren’t included with the regular disc contents in the first place. A lack of data space on the disc could play a part on some titles. Perhaps an even more likely cause is the ever-shrinking window between a movie’s theatrical release and home video. Sometimes, certain bonus material may not be ready in time for the disc authoring. If they choose to, studios can use BD-Live to keep the content for a movie fresh well after a disc’s release. Suppose the director of a film were to record a new audio commentary months after the Blu-ray’s street date. Viewers may not need to buy a new “Special Edition” disc to hear it. They can simply download the commentary to their player and watch it with an existing copy.

Most users will likely find more interest in genuine interactive features that couldn’t be accomplished without an internet connection. The studios behind Hellboy II and The Dark Knight both held live chat events that allowed viewers to watch the movies while text messaging on-screen questions to the directors. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty has a Movie Chat option that lets you text with friends at any time of your choosing. The X Files: I Want to Believe offers an online game in which fans can explore clues to an exclusive mystery storyline and trade information with each other to solve the case.

Some features require the use of a computer. With Sleeping Beauty‘s Movie Mail, a user can record a video message on a webcam, upload it to Disney’s server, and forward it to a friend. The recipient can then view the message Picture-in-Picture while watching their own Blu-ray. Along similar lines, viewers can record and upload Fan Commentaries for The Dark Knight to the Warner Home Video BD-Live portal, from which anyone can download and view them. At the time of this writing, there are already dozens of Fan Commentaries available for the film.

Perhaps the silliest BD-Live interactive feature to date is the “Put Yourself in the Movie” option on Starship Troopers and Starship Troopers 3. After you’ve registered and logged into the BD-Live portal on either disc, Sony will email you instructions to upload a personal photo from your computer. Once ready, you must go back into BD-Live and align your face onto an animated trooper’s body (male or female). When you return to the disc’s main menu, you’ll find a new option in the bonus features to view a half dozen clips from the movie with your cartoon avatar composited over the live action footage. It takes a long time to accomplish all of this, and the results look pretty ridiculous.

BD-Live’s Challenges

Despite its potential, BD-Live still has some serious obstacles to overcome. Download speed and connectivity times are chief among these. Simply put, Sony’s PS3 is virtually the only Blu-ray player with tolerable connection times to BD-Live. Standalone players (such as the Panasonic DMP-BD50 I tested many of these features with) are often infuriatingly slow in this regard. Even the PS3 often takes several minutes to connect to the appropriate server for some titles. That’s to say nothing of how long it may take to download the content once you get there. To be fair, some studios use quicker streaming video feeds rather than straight downloads for certain features. But even those are subject to buffering lags.

This assumes that you can connect to BD-Live at all. Owners of most standalone Blu-ray players must add external memory to the units before any BD-Live functions will work. Yet this is rarely documented very clearly in the owner’s manuals. Further, many BD-Live features require you to update the player’s firmware first, if an update is even available. I’m still waiting for Panasonic to issue a workaround for the “Alliance Database” on Serenity. Currently, when I select that feature in the disc’s menus, all it does is stop playback of the Blu-ray entirely.

Once you do get in, the registration process for many features is often frustrating. The on-screen keypad in Sony’s BD-Live portal is agonizingly slow to move from letter to letter. The simple process of registering a name and email address seems endless. In theory, registration should go faster with studios that use web sites for this step. However, as I write this, the disneybdlivenetwork.com site is experiencing technical problems and won’t progress through all the steps of registration. A Google search reveals that numerous other users have faced the same problem over the last few months. As a result, they’ve been locked out of using most of the BD-Live features on titles like Sleeping Beauty and Wall-E.

The slow interaction speeds also affect the features themselves. Who wants to text message their friends on BD-Live when it may take several minutes to type a simple sentence letter-by-letter? While some features may allow interaction with laptops or PDAs to speed this process up, the greater question remains whether Blu-ray is really an appropriate vehicle for chatting and social networking. Sometimes, it’s faster and easier to just hop on a computer or cell phone to do those things.

Any one of these problems is a possible deal-breaker for a viewer expecting an instantaneous connection and user-friendly interface. In many ways, BD-Live feels like the early days of the internet, when web designers were still trying to get the hang of what their visitors wanted from a web site, and how to program their content to work with the existing computer hardware and internet infrastructure of the day. As it stands, there are some interesting BD-Live features available right now, but few that could be classified as essential to the experience of owning a Blu-ray. Many feel like gimmicks or extraneous filler material. If the movie studios want to convince us that BD-Live is more than a fancy version of DVD-ROM that will quickly grow boring, they’ll need to work hard to develop new features that work smoothly and offer compelling content. We’ve only started to see the building blocks of BD-Live’s potential. Now is the time for a true innovator to step in and show us what it can do.

Blu-Con 2010: Expanding the Market

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2011.

On November 2nd, the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) hosted the third annual Blu-Con conference in Los Angeles. Previous events focused on how Blu-ray would gain a foothold with home video consumers. Now that the format has made steady gains toward mainstream acceptance, this year’s theme was “Expanding the Market.” Blu-Con was an all-day event with a number of speakers, presentations, and discussion panels – including one moderated by this writer.

The day started with an introduction from Amy Jo Smith, the Executive Director of the DEG. Unfortunately, technical problems derailed a planned video presentation. (I believe that would qualify as irony.) Ron Sanders, President of both the DEG and Warner Home Video, delivered some encouraging statistics about Blu-ray growth. Over 20 million households now have Blu-ray players, and software sales are steadily growing, even for catalog titles.

The first major presentation was delivered by Bill Carr, Vice President of Music and Video for Amazon.com. He spoke to growing consumer confidence in Blu-ray. Amazon shoppers have voiced a strong demand for major catalog titles such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. However, Carr stated that his research shows that only a small percentage of viewers connect their Blu-ray players to the internet. A lack of Wi-Fi connectivity was cited as a major obstacle in this regard.

Keynote speakers of day were director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau, who declared their love for Blu-ray. Of course, the filmmakers were primarily present to promote the Avatar: Extended Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release. They showed off some of the new scenes added to the movie and clips from the bonus features. When asked in the Q&A afterwards whether 3D was a flavor of the month fad in Hollywood, Cameron dismissively declared that it was a “waste of time to even answer that question.” He described the growth of 3D as a renaissance that will continue indefinitely until standard 2D is phased out, much as color supplanted black & white.

The first discussion panel was the President’s Forum, which featured executives from Sony, Warner, Fox, Universal, and Lionsgate. The conversation was dominated by a discussion of how physical media sales are affected by the rental market, release windows, and Video on Demand services. Ron Sanders from Warner perhaps summed it up best when he explained that his studio looks at a movie’s performance across all media, not one format versus another. The other presidents agreed.

The Blu-ray 3D panel offered representation from Sony Electronics, Samsung, Warner Home Video, and Dreamworks SKG. DEG moderator Marc Finer (rightfully) pressed the topic of the limited availability of 3D software in the market. He also emphasized the problem of consumer frustration with manufacturer-exclusive bundle packages. The panelists promised that more content will be available soon, and pledged support for 3D education initiatives.

The Film Classics panel allowed representatives from Warner, Fox, Paramount, and Sony to show off clips from some of the year’s most impressive catalog title restorations: The Exorcist, The Sound of Music, The African Queen, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, respectively. They discussed a growing consumer appetite for catalog releases, as well as the challenges of remastering older movies where the original film elements are not in very good condition.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised when the DEG first asked me to host a discussion panel on Blu-ray interactivity. Some of my recent articles on the subject (see “BD-Live Under Scrutiny,” July 2010) have been rather critical of the lack of direction and innovation in this area. Nonetheless, I was offered the opportunity to moderate a conversation with representatives from both the software side (Tracey Garvin from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Robert Read from Universal Studios Home Entertainment) and hardware side (Jeff Cove from Panasonic and Jeff Cowan from Denon) of the industry.

Among the topics we tried to hit were a lack of standardization among features between studios, BD-Java compatibility problems that require repeated firmware updates, and how studios decide which interactive features are appropriate for a given movie. (Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t feel that Lawrence of Arabia is calling out for Twitter integration.) Because I actually do love Blu-ray and find great potential in its interactive capabilities, we also made sure to highlight some of the best uses of BD-Live to date, such as live director chats.

On the hardware end, we talked at length about the evolution of the Blu-ray player from a mere disc playback device to one that also acts a portal through which viewers can access streaming content such as Netflix, VUDU, and Pandora. On the topic of Wi-Fi connectivity, both of the Jeffs expressed concern about the reliability of Wi-Fi when performing firmware updates. Denon in particular has decided not to include Wi-Fi in Blu-ray players, due to the potential that a failed connection may “brick” a machine in the middle of a critical update.

I’ll be honest; I missed most of the last panel of the event (a look at music content on Blu-ray) because I was backstage wrapping things up after my own. The day finished with closing remarks from Craig Kornblau, President of Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Vice President of the DEG. All in all, Blu-Con 2010 was an interesting look at the state of the industry. I’m glad that I had an opportunity to contribute in some small way.

Blu-ray in the Third Dimension: To 3D or Not to 3D?

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2009.

Hollywood has 3D fever again. Every few decades, the movie industry attempts to lure audiences to theaters with the promise of a vivid, three-dimensional film experience. In the past, 3D has been little more than a gimmick or a fad. For a few years at a time, brief waves of novelty movies have achieved moderate success until audiences lost interest and moved on to other excitements. The major film studios are hoping for better results this time. The technology has evolved to make 3D less expensive and more convincing. A-List directors like Robert Zemekis and James Cameron are leading the charge. Movies released to IMAX 3D and digital 3D venues have proven very popular with audiences, and plenty more are on the way. Unfortunately, that 3D experience has never quite translated to home video in a satisfying manner, even on Blu-ray. Modern Blu-ray and HDTV equipment has the potential to improve that situation, perhaps even dramatically. So why are we still wearing those goofy red and blue cardboard glasses?


The first golden age of 3D launched in 1952 with the release of Bwana Devil, an otherwise forgettable jungle adventure starring Robert Stack. To achieve the 3D effect, two side-by-side cameras captured the action from slightly different angles. In theaters, dual projectors shone these stereoscopic pictures onto a (literally) silver screen. Contrary to popular belief, most audiences at the time did not wear glasses with red and blue lenses. Instead, viewers wore glasses with clear polarized lenses that only allowed each eye to see one of the images. The process had its drawbacks, but the illusion was convincing enough to make the movie a hit. For the next couple of years, Hollywood cranked out a host of 3D features in almost every genre: horror (House of Wax), science fiction (It Came from Outer Space), Western (Hondo), and musical (Kiss Me Kate). Even Alfred Hitchcock got in on the action with Dial M for Murder. The most popular 3D film of the era was Creature from the Black Lagoon, which spawned its own 3D sequel called Revenge of the Creature.

Sadly, the 3D craze of the 1950s didn’t last long. The complexity of maintaining two projectors in perfect sync was both expensive and difficult for theater owners. The reflective silver screens also caused image-quality problems with standard 2D movies, which were still the majority of releases. Meanwhile, the new spectacle of CinemaScope lured audiences away.

The next couple of decades saw little action on the 3D front, aside from a random feature here and there. However, during this time, new processes were developed to print stereoscopic images onto a single strip of film, either one image above the other or side-by-side. These techniques eliminated the need for dual projectors. Theater owners could adapt for 3D by adding a special lens in front of an existing single projector. This led to a brief 3D revival in the 1980s. Notable releases at that time included Amityville 3D, Friday the 13th Part 3, and Jaws 3D. Producers must have felt that sequels to existing popular franchises were a safe bet to spur interest in 3D again. It worked for a few years, but the poor quality of the movies soon pushed viewers back toward traditional 2D fare.

The latest resurgence in 3D has been driven by two significant developments in the theatrical arena: IMAX 3D and digital 3D. Theaters equipped with IMAX 3D utilize a proprietary Rolling Loop process that simultaneously runs two rolls of film through twin projection lenses. Depending on the specific venue, IMAX 3D may require viewers to wear polarized lenses or special LCD shutter glasses that rapidly open and close 96 times per second, alternating between each eye in sync with the projector. The polarized glasses are cheaper and more

IMAX has produced specialty IMAX 3D nature documentaries and short fiction films since the mid-1980s. Recently, IMAX has also branched out to exhibit 3D versions of mainstream Hollywood movies. The Polar Express was a big hit in 2004. The IMAX 3D version continued to play for months after the 2D version left theaters. The Ant Bully and Open Season followed. Even Superman Returns and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix incorporated special IMAX 3D sequences.

In contrast to IMAX, digital 3D theaters display stereoscopic imagery from a single DLP projector. Although it’s not the only option, the largest player in the digital 3D market is the RealD playback system. RealD projectors are fitted with a liquid crystal screen in front of the lens, which alternately projects the right-eye and left-eye imagery. Viewers wear circularly polarized glasses that are not unlike previous 3D formats but allow for head tilting movement without losing the three-dimensional effect. Viewers are often allowed to take the RealD glasses home afterwards, even though the glasses have limited usefulness outside a 3D theater. Competitors to RealD include Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, Disney Digital 3D, XpanD, and Tru3D. Each of these is similar in basic concept to RealD, aside from specific technical aspects of their implementations.

In the last few years, studios have released numerous feature films (mainly animated) in digital 3D, such as: Chicken Little, Monster House, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt. Older 2D movies can also be converted into digital 3D, as demonstrated by Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert and Journey to the Center of the Earth prove that live action works equally well in digital 3D. Some movies may even be released simultaneously to both IMAX 3D and digital 3D theaters, as was the case with Robert Zemekis’ animated adaptation of Beowulf.

In 2009, studios will release a number of major films in 3D versions, including Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age 3, and Pixar’s Up. Perhaps most anticipated of all is James Cameron’s live-action hydrid Avatar, which is scheduled for a December release. Industry analysts expect the $200 million feature to provide the most aggressive push for 3D yet.


The primary benefit of the IMAX 3D and digital 3D theatrical formats is their ability to project bright, vivid, full-color imagery. Unfortunately, that quality is usually lost on home video. For obvious reasons, any 3D method that requires two projectors is generally unfeasible for use in the majority of home theaters. Systems that use LCD shutter glasses are possible at home (more on this below), but these typically require expensive hardware and specially encoded disc software. As a result, most movies that played in 3D theatrically have only been available in flat 2D on DVD and Blu-ray.

Studios that are daring enough to release 3D editions of their movies to video usually choose the anaglyph color-separation process, in which an image is encoded in two separate color layers that are slightly offset from each other. This is where the red and blue glasses come into play. Each tinted lens allows one of the color layers to pass through, and the viewer’s brain combines them into a crude 3D effect. Anaglyph 3D was originally developed for black-and-white print images, but it can also be employed on color movies. In recent years, Spy Kids 3D: Game Over and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3D played theatrically in anaglyph 3D. For home use, the main advantage of anaglyph is its backwards compatibility with any TV or projector. Anaglyph requires no special equipment other than the cheap cardboard glasses, and it can be encoded onto any DVD or Blu-ray. (Even VHS tapes and television broadcasts have used anaglyph at various times.)

Of course, as anyone who has ever watched an anaglyph 3D movie will attest, the tinted glasses dim the picture considerably and ruin its color accuracy. Anaglyph images appear muddy and oddly colored, with serious halo and fringing artifacts. The 3D effect itself also tends to be very erratic and unsatisfying. All things considered, anaglyph is the least effective 3D format. Nevertheless, it’s the most compatible and therefore the most commonly used on home video.

Blu-ray’s improved color fidelity makes anaglyph 3D slightly less objectionable than on previous video formats, but only slightly. Blu-rays released in this method to date include The Polar Express, the Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Those first two titles come with old-fashioned red and blue cardboard glasses. Journey instead uses a modified form of anaglyph with magenta and green lenses. The result is a marginally better 3D effect, but the picture still looks pretty awful.

Better options are available, all with their share of drawbacks. Several companies have marketed field-sequential 3D on DVD. This process encodes stereoscopic images into alternating fields in an interlaced video stream on specially produced DVDs. The viewer wears LCD shutter glasses that sync to the output. This produces a better-quality 3D effect in full color. However, field-sequential 3D is designed for use with interlaced displays and will generally not work on a progressive-scan HDTV. In effect, this makes it useless for Blu-ray and most modern home theaters.

A few years ago, the Canadian company SENSIO released a $2,995 3D processor that’s compatible with progressive-scan projectors. Special SENSIO DVDs are encoded with side-by-side stereoscopic images. After you connect a DVD player to the SENSIO unit, the processor outputs the content in frame-sequential (as opposed to field-sequential) 3D at a 640-by-480 resolution and a 60-fps refresh rate via a VGA connection. Users once again wear LCD shutter glasses. While the product has some avid fans, the expense of the processor unit, low resolution, connectivity hassles, and limited title selection put SENSIO out of the reach of most consumers. The 60fps rate (effectively 30fps for each of the stereo pictures) is also prone to motion artifacts during playback.


In our high-definition era, technology exists to provide a better 3D experience. Newer 120Hz HDTVs make frame-sequential 3D a more attractive prospect than ever. Mitsubishi and Samsung both market “3D ready” rear-projection DLP sets paired with LCD shutter glasses. Samsung lists a few plasma models that way as well. The faster 120Hz refresh rates allow for a full 60fps to each stereo image and should eliminate motion artifacts.

These days, 3D is even possible without glasses. Sharp has developed a technique known as a Parallax Barrier for use in specialized LCD monitors. The Parallax Barrier is like a fine grating in front of the liquid crystal panel. Angled holes direct light to each of the viewer’s eyes separately, just like the polarized or shutter glasses do in other 3D applications. A simple Parallax Barrier might be stuck in an always-on position that would force everything into pseudo 3D. Fortunately, Sharp found a way around this by creating the Parallax Barrier from a second LCD screen (the “switching” LCD) that can be turned off for 2D viewing. The downside to Parallax Barrier displays is their limited viewing angle. Anyone seated outside the set’s sweet spot will lose the 3D effect.

Even if these HD displays can accept high-quality 3D imagery, we still lack a standardized method to store that 3D content on a Blu-ray disc. To solve this problem, Panasonic has submitted a proposal to the Blu-ray Disc Association for the creation of a 3D Blu-ray standard that utilizes an existing two-channel encoding function in the MPEG-4 AVC video codec. Even if accepted, this would still leave the problem of how to transmit the 120Hz signal from a Blu-ray player to the display. It’s possible that a revision to the existing HDMI 1.3 standard will be necessary to carry such a signal, along with all new hardware on both ends of the chain. Existing Blu-ray players and HDTVs (even 3D ready HDTVs) may not be compatible with the final standard.

To be sure, 3D is very complicated and often expensive to implement well. Anaglyph 3D is simply insufficient for a high-quality video format like Blu-ray. We’re on the verge of something special, but getting there continues to be a serious challenge.

Dolby Fidelity Forum 2010

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published February 2011.

In an event that may hopefully be expanded to wider audiences, Dolby Laboratories recently opened up its headquarters in San Francisco to a small group of home theater writers for a full-day tour dubbed the “Fidelity Forum.” For such a grand name, this was a surprisingly low-key affair. The proceedings were primarily hosted by Craig Eggers, Dolby’s Senior Manager of Consumer Electronics Partner Marketing. Other employees and executives from the company participated throughout the day.

The tour began at the office’s main screening room, where we were offered demos of Dolby’s new 7.1 theatrical sound format and Dolby 3D. The room is a fully soundproofed chamber. To demonstrate this point, we were all asked to hold our breaths and listen to… nothing. Literally, nothing. There was no sound in there other than our own heartbeats. In fact, Dolby has artificial noise generators that can be turned on to simulate the conditions in a normal theater. The seating is designed to provide the same acoustic experience no matter how many viewers are in the room, from a single listener to a packed audience.

Before the show, we were treated to a history of Dolby in theaters, and an explanation of the benefits that Dolby 3D has over other theatrical 3D formats. (Mainly, the Dolby process doesn’t require a silver screen, and can provide a more uniform picture without hotspotting.) The first demo clips were presented in standard 2D, however. We started with Dolby’s own special 7.1 trailer, followed by selected scenes from a number of Disney/Pixar films that had been remixed into 7.1 with assistance from Skywalker Sound. All were impressive, but an action scene from The Incredibles made especially stunning use of the entire auditorium’s sound space. All footage was digitally projected, though we were told that the theater is also fully equipped for film.

Remarkably, Dolby informed us that the cost for a theater to upgrade from 5.1 to 7.1 can be as little as $1,000. The 7.1 system requires no changes to a theater’s existing speakers or amplification, just a new decoder component. We then progressed to the 3D demos, which consisted of a 3D version of that Dolby 7.1 trailer, scenes from Toy Story 3 and Avatar, and finally the trailer for Tron Legacy.

The next stage of the tour was a sound mixing room, where we were given demonstrations of how multi-channel music is mixed. These ranged from modern pop (the famous Rube Goldberg-ian “This Too Shall Pass” video by OK Go) to a documentary series about classical composer Hector Berlioz. The latter led to an interesting discussion about the debate among musicians as to how live music content should be presented in a multi-channel sound mix.

In the home theater demo room, we had a chance to listen to a 9.1 sound system with Dolby Pro Logic IIz engaged. The clips from I Am Legend on Blu-ray and the video game Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 made a compelling case for the benefits of height channels in a home theater. The high speakers added a very effective sense of dimensionality and a fullness to the soundstage without coming across as gimmicky. While there’s currently no content natively mixed to take advantage of height channels, video games encoded with Pro Logic IIz cues are coming soon.

In addition to Blu-ray, Dolby has also been working to improve the sound quality of video streaming services. We watched clips from Avatar via VUDU and an episode of Lost from Netflix. Both were encoded with the Dolby Digital Plus codec, which apparently didn’t disappear with the end of HD DVD. If not quite lossless quality, it’s very close. It’s certainly a huge step forward from the crummy stereo audio that most of the Netflix catalog is still saddled with.

Throughout the tour, the Dolby representatives discussed the company’s “four screen strategy,” which extends from cinema to home theater, computers, and mobile devices. Perhaps one of the most surprising demonstrations we received was one more view of that Tron Legacy trailer. This time, it was output in 720p high definition and 5.1 surround from a Nokia N8 smartphone connected to an HDTV and surround sound system by HDMI. Although this certainly couldn’t be mistaken for Blu-ray, the presentation was downright amazing for something coming out of a phone.

The final leg of the tour took us to a very special little room called the “Sandbox.” It’s so named because this is where the Dolby engineers come to play. The room is stripped bare of everything except a mixing console and speakers – a lot of speakers. The Sandbox is equipped with a 23.1 discrete channel sound system. There are sixteen speakers arranged in a circle at ear level, six hanging from ropes in a ring above, one “voice of God” speaker in the center of the ceiling, and a subwoofer. With this equipment, the engineers can experiment with just about any sound configuration they can dream up. We listened to several audio clips upmixed to 23.1, including a cue from the Once Upon a Time in the West score that sounded just plain amazing.

The day wrapped up with a roundtable discussion with several Dolby executives. In addition to recapping what we’d seen earlier, they also talked about Dolby Volume, and the role that psychoacoustics play in the perception of audio quality. The Fidelity Forum was a very illuminating peek behind the curtain at the Dolby Laboratories. If I had any disappointment, such a visit could only serve to make my own home theater equipment seem terribly inadequate in comparison.

Drawing Blood from a Stone: Can Toshiba’s “Extended Detail” DVD Upconversion Threaten Blu-ray?

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published December 2008.

Someone at Toshiba has a serious case of sour grapes. As we all know, the company’s HD DVD format lost the high-definition war to Blu-ray earlier this year. At the time of their concession, it was rumored that Toshiba was expected to join the Blu-ray Disc Association with hat in hand and begin production of BD players. That didn’t happen. Instead, the company has decided to take another swipe at the competition from a different angle. Apparently, the new argument boils down to this: If HD DVD can’t be the high-def standard, then who needs high definition anyway?

According to Toshiba’s latest stance, upconversion of standard-def DVDs is what the market really wants. Why pay extra for true high-def Blu-rays when, so they claim, the technology exists to bring regular DVDs up to “near high-definition picture quality” for a fraction of the price? Thus, instead of the Toshiba-branded Blu-ray players some consumers were hoping for, the company has introduced a new DVD playback product it’s calling XDE, or “Extended Detail Enhancement.” Toshiba insists that XDE will improve the upconversion of normal DVDs to draw out more detail and produce a sharper, more vibrant image almost comparable to real high definition. The first player model, the XD-E500, has an MSRP of only $150, far below even the least expensive Blu-ray players. Lately, Toshiba has been careful to downplay some early speculation that XDE would be positioned as a “Blu-ray killer,” but it’s clear that the product is trying to sap away a lot of the excitement for real high-definition video.

Personally, I’m of two minds about this. I love high definition and want to watch all of my movies in glorious HD quality. I believe that high-def video is the way of the future and that the entire home entertainment industry should be moving forward, not looking back. Blu-ray is a terrific product (as was HD DVD), and I want to see it succeed. On the other hand, like most home theater fans, I still have a sizable collection of legacy DVDs that are finding little playback time on my HD screen. Once you’ve become accustomed to high-definition quality, it’s hard to settle for anything less. Many of the movies I own on DVD are years away from being released on Blu-ray, assuming they ever make the transition. If there were truly a way to improve DVD playback quality to closer approximate real high definition, wouldn’t that be worth investigating?

With all that in mind, I decided to give the XD-E500 a trial run. I have to admit that I approached some of Toshiba’s marketing claims with skepticism, but I attempted to keep an open mind. For comparison purposes, I also fired up an Oppo DV-980H (comparably priced at $169) and Toshiba’s own HD-XA2 flagship HD DVD player (now discontinued, last MSRP $799). All test material was screened on a BenQ W10000 1080p DLP projector onto a screen width of 6-feet.


Let’s not beat around the bush; the XD-E500 is an inexpensive piece of equipment, with all that entails. In order to meet its budget price point, Toshiba didn’t invest much in the unit’s build quality. It weighs barely 5 pounds and is half the shelf depth of a normal DVD player. That of course says nothing about how well it performs, but it feels aesthetically flimsy and cheap. The cutbacks extend to the generic user manual, which is hilariously bereft of any mention of what the new picture enhancement settings do or how they work. The box announces that the player “features a full suite of user-selectable picture improvements,” which the manual describes in a grand total of four sentences. I had to go to Toshiba’s web site for more information, and honestly the Amazon product page had the most thorough explanation of the player’s features.

The model has some design quirks. For example, there’s no resume-play function if you shut down and want to pick up where you left off later. The player has no option to pillarbox 4:3 or non-anamorphic content on a 16:9 HD screen, so discs of that type will unavoidably be stretched (a huge oversight). The illuminated XDE logo on the front panel also has an annoying tendency to light up again even after you’ve turned it off.

The picture enhancements are only available through the HDMI connection and only if you choose 1080i or 1080p output resolution. Those enhancements come in three selections: Sharpness, Color, and Contrast. Sharpness turns on automatically when you turn on any of the enhancements. The only way to turn off Sharpness is to turn all of the enhancements off. However, you cannot use both Color and Contrast simultaneously. The choices amount to: Sharpness alone, Color plus Sharpness, Contrast plus Sharpness, or everything off. These are all on/off decisions, with no gradations.

In theory, Sharpness is meant to apply edge and detail enhancement to improve the image’s vividness and clarity. Color boosts blues and greens, adding more pop to grass and skies without altering flesh tones much. Contrast adjusts the gamma range to enhance black level and shadow detail. Toshiba claims that all of these enhancements work by intelligent processing that “analyzes the picture and adds enhancement precisely where it’s needed.” In other words, within an individual frame, some parts of the image may undergo processing while other parts do not.


None of the picture controls affect core deinterlacing performance, which is based on a Zoran processing chip. The processing fared poorly with many of the jaggie and cadence tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD. Video-based and mixed-source content are not this machine’s strength, but it handles film-based material with a straightforward 3:2 cadence well enough. These results are roughly equivalent to the Mediatek processing in the Oppo DV-980H. (Oppo’s top-end DV-983H model has superior Anchor Bay deinterlacing for $399.) Meanwhile, the pricy HD-XA2 HD DVD player has a Reon processor from Silicon Optix that breezes through any deinterlacing challenge you can throw at it.

The XD-E500 also has an option to frame-rate-convert DVDs to 1080p/24 output resolution if your display supports it. This worked surprisingly well on all of the film-based movies I tried. In fact, I’d even say it worked better than the similar function in the HD-XA2, which occasionally loses frame lock and has problems with DVD menus that don’t function properly when the 24-fps option is engaged. The XD-E500 gave me no problems in that regard during my testing.

With all of the video enhancements turned off, the XDE player has a very soft picture, even for standard-def. That being the case, additional processing is practically a necessity. The enhancement modes are a mixed bag. The Color mode makes everything look garish and cartoonish. I don’t recommend it at all. On balance, I found that Contrast provides the most pleasing picture overall, and I defaulted to that one for the majority of my tests. As I mentioned earlier, engaging any of these modes turns on the Sharpness edge and detail enhancement, as well as a moderate amount of digital noise reduction that is not adjustable.

When paused, the XD-E500 always froze on a half-resolution interlaced field and scaled that to fill the frame. This makes the text in most DVD menus look terrible, and it also makes it very difficult to view a resolution test pattern to judge how much edge ringing the Sharpness setting adds to a picture. I’m sure Toshiba would argue that it designed this player for real-world movie playback, not test patterns. However, ringing was visible on every DVD movie I watched, without exception, whenever an enhancement mode was active. As far as the so-called intelligent processing goes, it seemed that the ringing was most prominent in the background of shots rather than the foreground, as if the filter were trying to sharpen up objects that would be harder to see. In a scene of a man walking down the street, the man didn’t exhibit any halos around him, but the houses, lampposts, and street signs behind him did. If the intent was to make the ringing less noticeable, it doesn’t work. Whenever objects in the distance are near one another, their halos frequently overlap and only draw more attention to the artifact.

In general terms, the XD-E500’s processing does make the picture look somewhat crisper than other upconverting DVD players such as the DV-980H, but this is a superficial improvement only. It doesn’t truly generate any “extended detail,” and the ringing is bothersome in the background of shots or whenever text appears on the screen. The Oppo machine has a softer but more natural and film-like image. I very nearly duplicated the XD-E500’s results with the Toshiba HD-XA2 when I turned on its Mosquito Noise Reduction and set its Edge Enhancement to the maximum setting of 2, which I found to be too strong. The HD-XA2 does better with its Edge Enhancement at a setting of 1. Unfortunately, there’s no way to adjust the intensity of the filter on the XDE player. On the other hand, the XD-E500 is significantly less expensive than the (discontinued) HD-XA2 was.


As for claims that the XDE player brings DVDs to “near high-definition” quality, I certainly didn’t feel that way in much I watched. The player tends to do better with animation than live action. You could almost mistake Monsters, Inc. for a true HD image. But honestly, how difficult is it to make a Pixar disc look good? In fact, I felt that way about the disc in all three of the machines I tried.

For back-to-back comparisons of upconverted standard-def material to real high-def, I decided I’d try to give the XD-E500 as much benefit of the doubt as I could. I might have chosen some difficult, poorly mastered titles to see how badly it trips up, but instead I wanted to give it a shot to do its best with some very clean, well-mastered material. I compared parts of Hellboy on DVD and Blu-ray, and then Hot Fuzz on DVD and HD DVD. In both cases, there was absolutely no mistaking the upconverted SD picture for anything like real high definition. It was a night-and-day difference. The DVDs looked soft and artifact-ridden, while the high-def discs had immensely more detail, depth, and clarity.

In terms of quality, XDE seems to be more hype than substance at this point in time. To be fair about it, the XD-E500 is a decent upconverting DVD player, especially for a price of only $150. Its DVD playback is similar to more expensive upconverting models. Still, it’s not magic and the claims that it makes a DVD near high-def are rather outlandish. I’ll concede that other manufacturers make similar farfetched boasts about their upconverting DVD players, but the way Toshiba has branded the process “Extended Detail Enhancement” implies that it has developed a revolutionary new technology that will draw more real picture detail from a DVD source. That just isn’t the case. Perhaps on a smaller HDTV, its picture enhancements might appear more impressive. On a large screen, its drawbacks are quite evident. For the discerning home theater consumer, Blu-ray is still a tremendous improvement and worth the investment.

However, let’s be frank here. XDE is not designed for the discerning home theater consumer. Toshiba is targeting the product for new HDTV owners who are hesitant about buying into Blu-ray. XDE is meant to pacify them into believing that their existing DVD libraries can look every bit as good with just a small outlay of cash. Whether Toshiba will succeed in convincing people of that fantasy remains to be seen.

Firmware Updates: Are Consumers Now Beta Testers?

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published May 2008.

As the consumer electronics landscape continues to evolve, we seem to be moving further away from a state of plug-and-play. There once was a perception that each new generation of a product should be easier to use, more inviting, more user-friendly than the last, but that hardly feels like the case anymore, especially when it comes to home theater gear. Nowadays, not only must we keep up with an ever-expanding list of complicated features and setup options for every piece of equipment we buy, after installation we’re also expected to routinely monitor the manufacturers’ announcements for the availability of new firmware updates.

The notion of software patches is certainly nothing new in the world of computers. When a program you use turns buggy, you download and install a file to fix it. When a new virus makes the rounds, it’s time to refresh your internet security profiles. Firmware updates for other CE goods work on the same basic principle. For better or worse, as the products we use get more advanced, they behave more and more like computers-in-boxes, and that includes the potential for glitchy behavior or the need to add new features after purchase. Already, certain manufacturers have offered firmware updates for cell phones, digital cameras, video game consoles, A/V receivers, and even HDTVs. I wouldn’t be surprised if some day in the near future we see digital toasters that need regular updating to properly measure the optimal temperature for every type of bread.

There are two schools of thought about this increasing reliance on firmware updates. The first is that it represents an innovative boon to consumers, allowing the end user to easily add features or repair problems on their own without costly professional servicing. On the other hand, there’s an expectation that the merchandise we buy should be stable and ready to use out of the box, and that manufacturers are now forcing consumers to act as beta testers for products they haven’t properly run through a full development cycle. To be fair, both arguments have merit.

In the home theater realm, firmware updates are most frequently needed for disc players than any other type of product, and of those it’s the next-generation high definition formats that get the most attention. Standard DVD players only rarely require the user to upgrade their firmware; generally speaking, most DVD studios have gotten the hang of how to author their discs by now, and the range of possible DVD player features is pretty much set in stone. However, high-def players of both the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats are much more operationally complex than standard DVD players, not only in the higher resolution picture they offer, but also the programming language used in the authoring of their movie discs. Additionally, both formats offer new advanced interactive features not available on DVD, many of which are still in the infancy of their potential. As the movie studios continue to experiment and innovate with the authoring of their discs and the features they wish to offer viewers, the players may at times require updating to resolve compatibility issues or add new functions.

For a disc player, there are two primary ways to upgrade the firmware. The most common is to download a file from the manufacturer’s web site and burn it to a CD-R, which can be loaded into the player. The type of file may require specific burning or loading steps, so it’s always advised to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, or else you risk turning otherwise perfectly good CD-Rs into coasters. On machines that are internet-capable, the alternative is to simply connect an Ethernet cable to your modem or router and follow the on-screen directions for installing the latest firmware. Assuming that your disc player is located somewhere near your router, that’s a relatively painless process. If not, needless to say, it’s a hassle. Sony’s Playstation 3 console makes this much easier through its wireless setup, and it’s a shame that the standalone player manufacturers haven’t taken the initiative to incorporate wireless internet connections into their products as well. Still, better one of these minor inconveniences than the need to disconnect the player and bring it to a repair center for updating.

In terms of adding new features, firmware updates have enabled the full decoding of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio and the output of 1080p24 video from selected HD DVD players. On the Blu-ray side, firmware updates keep Java interactive features running, and the Playstation 3 (still by far the most popular Blu-ray player) has been updated to support the latest Profile 1.1 picture-in-picture functions, with another update to Profile 2.0 rumored for the future.

That said, these firmware enhancements have been used primarily to resolve playback and compatibility problems, and unfortunately there are still quite a lot of those at this stage in the game. Sometimes it seems like every time 20th Century Fox releases a new movie, half the Blu-ray players on the market require firmware updates to play it properly, due to glitches brought on by Java programming incompatibilities. HD DVD Combo discs (mainly from Universal and Warner Bros.) haven’t fared much better, many succumbing to dropouts, skipping, or catastrophic playback errors until firmware updates for the players can improve their readability.

In the past, if a DVD player wasn’t working properly, the owner was often required to take it to a repair center or ship it back to the manufacturer, and then wait several weeks to see if the problem could be resolved. While that still may be necessary in cases where the mechanical operation of a unit is broken, issues with software compatibility can often be addressed by the users themselves. Naturally, it would be easier for consumers if all HD DVD and Blu-ray players promised 100% bug-free performance for all current and future software, as well as full support for all planned functions and features. Failing that, firmware updates at least offer some measure of security and future-proofing.

But there are risks. If the firmware isn’t installed properly, either due to corrupted data in the downloaded file or the user not following the provided instructions, it’s possible for an owner to “brick” their unit (render it operationally dead), and this may not be covered by a warranty. Even if the installation goes well, there have been cases where a new firmware has caused more bugs than it fixed. For example, recent updates to Toshiba’s HD DVD player line (specifically, Firmware v2.0 for the HD-A35 model and Firmware v2.8 for the HD-XA2) introduced a problem with jaggy artifacts on discs encoded with AVC MPEG-4 compression when viewed at 1080p24 resolution. When issues like these occur, sometimes they can be resolved by reverting to an earlier firmware version while waiting for the next update, but in other cases, the hardware may not allow retroactive installation of older firmware. Luckily, cases like this have been relatively rare.

Firmware updates demonstrate a willingness on the part of hardware manufacturers to respond directly to consumers having functional problems with their products. A disc player bought today won’t necessarily need replacing tomorrow, even if the movie studios start incorporating previously unexpected features on their discs. All technology inevitably advances, and these days, that progression moves at a faster pace than ever. All things considered, I’d rather the manufacturers continually improve and innovate their products than stagnate at a set level. We’re only now seeing the beginning of what’s possible in interactive and web-enabled features on high definition media. Who knows what will be available in a few years’ time? Firmware updates can’t necessarily guarantee that current players will be ready for any changes to come, but they certainly help.

High-Def Interactivity: A Practical Guide

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published April 2008.

When the high definition video disc formats arrived on the scene in mid-2006, both Blu-ray and HD DVD trumpeted their many exciting new enhancements over standard DVD. Not only did they give us stunning 1080p high-def video and high resolution audio, but both also promised to transform the very ways we view and interact with movies. The first order of business for each was to streamline and improve their disc menu navigation systems. No longer forcing viewers to exit a movie in order to get to a main menu screen for setup changes or selecting bonus content, now pop-up menus powered by the respective interactive platforms (BD-Java for Blu-ray, and Microsoft’s HDi for HD DVD) are available during movie playback. These are pretty slick and convenient, if not quite revolutionary in themselves.

Of more interest are the new ways to watch supplemental bonus material. The traditional audio commentaries, documentaries, and featurettes are still around, but Blu-ray and HD DVD are also capable of displaying video segments Picture-in-Picture within the movie itself, and offering web-enabled content to be downloaded through an Ethernet connection. The PiP option has proven surprisingly refreshing. Some commentaries are decidedly more engaging when you can watch the participants speaking and interacting on top of the movie. Better yet, rather than slogging through a series of short featurettes, now behind-the-scenes and making-of footage can be viewed during the relevant portions of the film. Among the most creative implementations of this to date are the “U-Control” function on Universal’s Children of Men HD DVD, which provides a closer look at the various posters and production design elements from the background of scenes as they appear, and the “In-Movie Experience” on Warner’s HD DVD edition of 300, showcasing the entire film’s original bluescreen production footage (before all the computer animation and visual effects were added) in sync with the completed version.

On the web-enabled front, we seem to still be in the early stages of what is possible, but Warner, Paramount, and Universal have been at the forefront of experimenting with innovative new approaches. Paramount’s Transformers offers updatable fact tracks and trivia about the plot and characters. Evan Almighty from Universal has a “U-Shop” center where you can buy merchandise related to the movie. More intriguing is Warner’s “Live Community Screening” feature on the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix HD DVD, which allows multiple viewers in different locations to watch the movie together while text messaging each other on screen.

If the above examples seem to favor HD DVD over Blu-ray, that isn’t the result any particular format favoritism. Due to the ways each side has developed and implemented their interactive functions, HD DVD took an early lead in this area, and Blu-ray has only recently made significant strides. All HD DVD players since the 2006 HD-A1 model have included a mandatory PiP video decoder and Ethernet connection. Things have worked a little differently on Blu-ray, however, and this may affect a prospective buyer’s purchasing decisions.

BD players are divided into categories called “Profiles” that determine their level of support for advanced interactive features. Early players were classified as Profile 1.0 (or the Grace Period Profile) and had neither a secondary video decoder nor an internet connection. As of November 1st, 2007, all new Blu-ray models are required to comply with Profile 1.1 (also known as the Final Standard Profile or “Bonus View”), adding decoders for secondary video and audio, plus 256 MB of local storage capability. This gives Profile 1.1 machines the ability to display Picture-in-Picture content along with the movie. Yet another level above this will be Profile 2.0 (or “BD-Live”), an optional standard that incorporates those secondary video and audio decoders, a larger 1 GB of local storage capability, and an internet connection.

The first Blu-ray titles to offer Bonus View features hit store shelves at the beginning of this year. These included Sunshine from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Resident Evil: Extinction from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, both with Picture-in-Picture video segments that work similarly to Warner’s “In-Movie Experience” HD DVD tracks. Pushing the bar furthest is Lionsgate Entertainment, already offering web-enabled content such as the “MoLog” blogging feature on Saw IV (available well in advance of BD-Live hardware capable of utilizing it).

Judging by their presentations at this year’s CES, the studios supporting Blu-ray will be stressing interactivity in a big way in 2008. In addition to the above, Warner plans to bring its In-Movie Experience tracks to Blu-ray, and that means finally releasing some much-delayed titles such as Batman Begins and The Matrix Trilogy that have thus far only been available on HD DVD. Disney sees interactivity as a critical component to its upcoming Blu-ray plans, and promises full motion Picture-in-Picture content on Finding Nemo and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, plus multi-player BD-Live games on their Platinum Series release of Sleeping Beauty.

Unfortunately, standalone Blu-ray players cannot be upgraded to higher Profiles through firmware updates. Profile 1.0 units lack the video decoding hardware for PiP and the Ethernet connection for BD-Live. On the other hand, Sony’s Playstation 3 console has all of the required hardware inside, and has already been updated to Profile 1.1 compliance. (As of this writing, BD-Live functionality is expected to be enabled at a later time.) The first Profile 1.1 standalone disc player, the Panasonic DMP-BD30, was released in November and, as mentioned, all subsequent models are required to meet that specification, but not necessarily Profile 2.0.  

Legacy Blu-ray players will continue to work normally for movie playback and standard supplemental content, but will not be able to access the Bonus View or BD-Live features on enabled discs. If you already own a Blu-ray player and aren’t interested in any of these new bells and whistles, an upgrade may not be necessary. But if purchasing a new player now, it will likely be in your best interest to shop for a model that supports all of the latest and upcoming features. For Profile 1.1 compliance, look for the phrases “Final Standard Profile” or “Bonus View.” Profile 2.0 must specifically reference “BD-Live.” (A simple notation that the player supports Java functions is not sufficient in itself.)

If none of the Picture-in-Picture or web-enabled supplements described above strike your fancy, consider the potential an internet connection brings to continually refresh the content available for a given title. Should the director of your favorite movie record a new audio commentary, you may not need to buy a whole new disc to hear it. Simply download it to the player and watch it along with your existing copy. Content providers have only just begun to explore the possibilities available. Along with the High Definition video and high-res audio, these new interactive functions are a big part of what differentiates both Blu-ray and HD DVD as truly next-generation products, an evolutionary step up from regular DVD.

How to Appreciate High Definition: There’s More to HDTV Than Looking Through a Window

Written by Joshua Zyber. October June 2008

We’re living in the age of High Definition, where the presentation of movies on home video has reached a quality far surpassing anything possible just a few years ago. At its best, the Blu-ray format offers the potential to recreate a theatrical movie-going experience much closer than standard DVD can bring us. And yet countless misconceptions exist that frequently lead viewers into the trap of expecting all movies on Blu-ray to look the same as one another, and to exhibit a consistent “high-def” appearance. Specifically, I’m referring to the so-called “looking through a window” effect, an elusive quality associated with HD sports broadcasts, American Idol, or other shot-on-video productions with razor sharp and crystal clear imagery free of grain or noise. Certainly, the feeling these programs can generate that the people on screen are in the same physical space as the viewer is very impressive, but it’s not the only goal in a quality HD presentation. In fact, it often runs contrary to the artistic intent of a film.

While there has been movement in some quarters to shoot modern movies on HD video (Miami Vice, Zodiac, and the last couple of Star Wars prequels, for example), the majority of theatrical features have been and continue to be photographed on 35mm film stock. Film, by its nature, is an analog photochemical medium comprised of thousands of tiny particles of silver halide grain that, when exposed to light, band together to form a representation of the object being photographed. Grain is the very essence of film, the underlying base element that comprises the final image, similar to the brush strokes in a painting. Just as those brush strokes remain visible in a finished painting, the photographic image will also retain a texture of grain structure. The size of the grain particles and the degree to which they’re apparent to the human eye will depend on the exposure speed and latitude of the specific film stock used and the amount of light exposed in a given scene.

These factors are often within the control of the filmmakers, who can choose appropriate film stocks and light their scenes at the proper levels to achieve a desired stylistic appearance. In some cases, steps will be taken to reduce grain and produce a very slick, glossy image. However, in other cases, grain is not always objectionable. Indeed, in some films, a heavily grainy picture may be completely intentional. Like a painter selecting finer or coarser brushes, a film director can use the grain structure to add texture to the image. Even directors shooting on digital video will sometimes deliberately add simulated grain in post-production to emulate film stocks, as Zack Snyder did with 300. Why would a filmmaker want a grainy texture? You might as well ask why an Impressionist painting has such thick brush strokes. It’s an artistic effect that evokes a mood or creates a specific emotional reaction in the audience. Would the opening battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan be quite as harrowing without the oppressive grain clouding the visuals, were it shot instead to look like a daytime TV soap opera? Of course not. Paintings do not all strive for absolute realism, and neither are all movies photographed to look the same as one another. If they were, this would be a very boring world we live in.

People have been watching film prints projected onto large theater screens for over a century now, and in that time, there’s been little outcry about the presence of grain there. The grain is an expected part of the theatrical experience, completely natural in that venue. So why is it that, when the same movies come to Blu-ray, suddenly viewers are so surprised and annoyed that they can still see grain? Simply put, we’ve been conditioned for decades to expect the things we see in a movie theater and the things we watch on a TV to look different than one another. In the past, the small analog TVs that most people owned and the lower-resolution video formats (up to and including even DVD) were incapable of capturing all the detail present in a film print. As a result, grain particles were often not fully resolved and didn’t make much of an impression on the TV screen. To extend the painting analogy once more, it’s akin to the difference between seeing an original Monet in a museum where you can study the detail in its canvas and paint, or simply looking at a photocopy reproduction of it printed on nondescript cardstock paper. Now that we have larger HDTV and projection screens and a high-resolution video format like Blu-ray, we can see more (not necessarily all yet) of the detail in the source, and in turn often more of the grain as well. A more accurate reproduction of the source should be something we in the home theater hobby celebrate, not something to complain about.

This isn’t to say that all grain is intentional. Sometimes, filmmakers use lesser quality film stocks for budgetary reasons or, due to time constraints and other pressures, simply aren’t able to get their shots the way they want them and have to make do with the best they’re able to achieve. In the days before digital compositing, the optical processes used for matte shots and other special effects often introduced extra graininess to the affected scenes. Also, the process of striking dupe prints several generations removed from the film negative may result in additional grain. Then of course we also have cases where a DVD or Blu-ray simply has a bad transfer, with unwanted video noise (which is not the same thing as real film grain) caused by a poor film-to-video digitization, artificial electronic sharpening filters (which tend to make real grain look excessively sparkly), or inadequate digital compression. As such, we can’t make a blanket assumption that all grain or noise is a good thing, any more than we should assume that it’s always bad. Such factors need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Over time, as a viewer gains experience watching a variety of different types of films, the distinctions between an intentional stylistic effect, an issue introduced during the movie’s production, and a poor transfer becomes clearer.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there, among both viewers and even some of the home video studios in charge of mastering their movie libraries in high definition. The expectation that all HD material should be clean and grain-free has, on occasion, led to the application of Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) and other electronic processes during the video transfer process to reduce or eliminate the appearance of grain particles. A typical side effect of DNR is that it may reduce not just grain, but all high frequency information in the image. This causes a general softening of the picture and a lack of fine object detail, commonly manifested in waxy facial features without skin pores or any variances in complexion. Individual hairs blur into an indistinct mass. Clothing fabric loses texture (like the thread weave) and looks smoothed over. Basically, the chief benefit of high definition (its ability to capture those details) is minimized in a misguided attempt to homogenize the way all movies look. Ironically, this filtering of the image also removes some of that apparent sharpness and “3D pop” many viewers look for.

A recent victim of needless DNR is the Blu-ray edition of Patton. Originally photographed on 65mm film, the source elements for this movie should already exhibit a very fine-grained nature when transferred to video. Technically, the grain particles themselves start the same size as 35mm stock, but the 65mm film area is much larger, making each particle appear smaller when displayed on the same size screen. Unfortunately, despite this, somewhere along the line a decision was made to apply further grain removal to Patton through the use of Noise Reduction. The disc released to market looks exceedingly clean, more like digital video than film, and in a very superficial sense may even seem impressive at first. However, the picture has almost no grain at all and has a distinct softness and lack of detail as described above, which is certainly not what the 65mm production was intended to look like.

A striking example of the missing detail is found at time code 11:59, a wide shot of a battlefield with a dog in the center left. The dog leaps forward, but his motion is halted and jerked back in mid air, seemingly for no reason. It looks very strange indeed. The following close-up shot reveals that the dog is tethered by a leash. Given the size of the dog in the frame, Blu-ray’s 1080p resolution should be capable of resolving the leash in the wide shot as well, but instead it has been virtually erased from the image by DNR. In a still frame, you can barely discern a thin line attached to the dog, but its height has been reduced to barely a single pixel and its color blends into the background. During regular playback, the leash vanishes from sight. I wouldn’t say that Patton looks terrible by any means. It probably looks pretty good on a small HDTV, but the larger your screen size, the more obvious these problems stand out. The disc is not an accurate representation of the movie’s photography, and simply does not live up to Blu-ray’s potential.

Though the use of complex computational algorithms such as those developed by the Lowry Digital transfer lab, in some cases it may be possible to remove grain from an image without removing other important high frequency detail. This can prove useful in the transfer of film elements that have degraded with age or that have genuinely unintentional and unwanted grain, but should not be used as a matter of course to remove grain entirely from all film-to-video transfers. In addition to the aesthetic wishes of the filmmakers, there are sometimes technical considerations of a more practical nature against scrubbing a photographed image too cleanly, as in the following story relayed by respected film preservationist Robert A. Harris:

“When Image Entertainment did the first go-round of the Chaplin sets for Laserdisc, David Shepard went through the Chaplin vaults and pulled out the finest surviving dupe elements. One would assume that would be a good thing, but it actually created problems, which could not be solved in a pre-digital world. The fact is that Chaplin and his DP knew precisely what they were doing. They understood film as a medium – something that digital people generally do not. And they understood the duping and final presentation process. City Lights is a good example. There are wires in the original photography, but one is not supposed to see them. Original print stock from 1931 did not permit their exposure, nor did going a couple of generations further away to a dupe neg. However, scan those original negatives, or even a modern fine grain master, and all is revealed. The message here? One has to think while performing transfers, now more than ever.”

With all that said, it doesn’t serve any purpose to create a hysteria about Digital Noise Reduction, grain removal, or the alleged rampant softening of HD transfers, any more than a knee-jerk reaction against grain does. DNR is a tool that, like many others, can be used well or used inappropriately. With the advent of the Digital Intermediate, modern filmmakers themselves sometimes apply DNR and other digital processing techniques to their films during post-production to reduce grain, recolor, or deliberately soften the image if they didn’t get what they wanted from the photography during shooting. Further, the appearance of a random selected scene in a movie, or even an entire movie that looks softer than others, doesn’t necessarily mean that DNR was applied. Nor does it necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with the digital compression codec used to author the disc, or that the studio used too low a bit rate in the encoding. Sometimes it just means that the movie has soft-focus photography or that one scene had to be shot softly for technical or artistic reasons. The only way for a viewer to know for absolutely certain is to compare the Blu-ray disc to the original source, which isn’t usually an option.

As mentioned earlier, not all movies are photographed to look the same as one another. That “through a window” look with no grain and startling visibility of micro-detail may be appropriate for some content, but not for all. Experience watching many different sorts of movies can help develop an appreciation for each film’s unique qualities. Transferring film to video is an extremely complex process requiring many considerations both technical and artistic. The goal of a high definition transfer should be to faithfully replicate the filmmakers’ visual intentions, whatever they might be. A good Blu-ray disc will accurately reproduce the original photography, not alter it to fit in with arbitrary standards imposed by others. If a movie was grainy on film, it should be grainy on Blu-ray. Imposing Digital Noise Reduction or other invasive techniques to clean up, soften, sharpen, tweak, or add “pop” to an image without the filmmakers’ consent or at least an educated understanding of their intentions is like penciling in a bigger smile on the Mona Lisa. It simply isn’t appropriate for the transfer technicians to make that decision. According to Mr. Harris, “If the ‘clean image’ pandering continues, it will have a real and permanent effect on the way that our film heritage is viewed and perceived by the consumer.” And that would truly be a crime against the filmmaking art.

In Memoriam: HD DVD

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published June 2008.

Now that Toshiba has officially pulled the plug on HD DVD, and all of the format’s previously supporting studios have pledged a transition to rival Blu-ray, our two-year high definition format war draws to a close. Many in the industry and the media are declaring this a great victory for the consumer. Personally, I’ve always held a contrarian view on the matter, and believe that the format war offered more benefits than disadvantages for home theater fans. Although I like Blu-ray a great deal and look forward to its continued evolution as the de facto format of choice for discerning videophiles, I also found a tremendous amount of merit in HD DVD, and can’t help feeling that its potential was cut short. For me, the demise of HD DVD marks a bittersweet resolution to this conflict.

When this brouhaha started in the Spring of 2006, no one was more excited for the arrival of high definition on disc than I. At the time, I was already growing dissatisfied with the quality of standard DVD, and the HD programming schedule on cable wasn’t particularly satisfying. (I’ve never been able to stand movies cropped from their original aspect ratios, edited, or interrupted by commercials.) For pre-recorded high definition media, the tape-based D-Theater format, overly expensive and cumbersome by design, was a stopgap at best and never seemed like a wise investment. No, what I really wanted was a high-def video disc, with all the convenience and features of DVD in a higher-quality package. As I followed news of the developing HD DVD (formerly Advanced Optical Disc) and Blu-ray formats, the wait for either to debut seemed excruciatingly long.

First out of the gate in April of ’06 was HD DVD, and I had Toshiba’s HD-A1 player on pre-order for the not-unreasonable MSRP of $499. I was determined to have one of these wonderful new toys the day it premiered. The machine arrived promptly on schedule, but the movies I’d ordered with it were delayed, leaving me with nothing to watch. I frantically called stores in my area until I found one with a copy of Serenity on the shiny new format. By the time I had everything hooked up and ready to play, my anticipation was at a fever pitch, and that first disc lived up to all of my expectations. It looked and sounded terrific, a vast improvement over DVD and even better than the other high-def sources I’d experienced. The next couple of titles to arrive, The Last Samurai and The Phantom of the Opera, were equally stunning, if not more so. Even though the first HD DVDs did not yet offer any innovative new bonus features, they at least managed to carry over all of the supplements from their respective DVD editions. For the next few months, the main supporting studios (Universal, Warner, and Paramount) cranked out a steady stream of stellar-quality releases, and soon discs like The Bourne Supremacy and Batman Begins started including Picture-in-Picture interactive content that made the process of watching bonus features a lot more involving than anything we’d seen on DVD. This was unmistakably the dawn of a wonderful new era for home theater.

Of course, first-generation products are rarely flawless right off the bat, and HD DVD had some obstacles to overcome. That HD-A1 player and its more expensive HD-XA1 brother were clunky computers-in-boxes with poor user ergonomics, both limited to 1080i resolution output. They were slow to load their software and prone to infuriating glitches and freeze-ups during playback, a problem further exacerbated by Warner and Universal’s fondness for Combo discs (HD DVD on one side, standard DVD on the other) that to this day cause a host of incompatibility issues. Firmware updates for the players helped somewhat, but it wasn’t until the second and third generations that the format achieved much technical stability.

And then there was Blu-ray. Backed by a wider variety of hardware manufacturers and movie studios, the competing disc format promised greater storage capacity, more bandwidth, and 1080p resolution output from every player. While the media was quick to play up this rivalry as another VHS vs. Betamax death match for the hearts and minds of the home video consumer, as a high definition fan I chose to see it as an embarrassment of riches. After such a long wait, not just one but two new video disc formats were flooding the market with exciting HD content. As before, I rushed out to pick up the first player available (Samsung’s BD-P1000) on its release day in June of ’06. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray launch was something of a bust at first. That $999 Samsung was an overpriced dud. The initial wave of software was plagued by poor mastering quality, and frequently short-changed buyers by dropping most of the supplements found on the comparable DVD editions. It would be several more months before Sony, Pioneer, and Panasonic would unveil respectable playback hardware for the format, and just as long before the Blu-ray movie studios would get their acts together and provide more consistent quality software. Despite all the technical advantages Blu-ray promised on paper, the first round of this format war went decidedly in HD DVD’s favor.

The tide started to turn at the end of 2006 with the arrival of Sony’s Playstation 3. As a video game console, the PS3 may not have lived up to expectations, but as a high definition disc player it outperformed and quickly outsold standalone units from either format, putting Blu-ray capability into the hands of millions of potential new viewers. Just how many PS3 owners actually use their decks for Blu-ray playback is still a controversial subject, but it cannot be denied that the machine made a significant impact on the high-def war. Blu-ray disc sales almost instantly overtook HD DVD, and never relented afterwards. Undoubtedly helping matters, software quality for the format improved dramatically around the same time, finally drawing even with HD DVD.

Already, the contest was growing increasingly divisive with the public, fans of each side sniping at one another in online discussion forums about their preferred format being better than the other for a litany of reasons technological, philosophical, and often just plain fictional. In reality, the format war itself was driving both sides to continually improve themselves while lowering prices. Blu-ray players descended to HD DVD’s original pricing level, and HD DVD dropped even lower. All the while, the quality of each just kept getting better and better. Partisan supporters of either side may have complained bitterly about the battle, but those of us in the middle who only wanted great high definition video were thrilled to reap the rewards of this competition and enjoy the benefits both formats provided.

Blu-ray maintained a sales lead throughout 2007, progressively more so with each passing month, but HD DVD kept plugging along, continuing to release plenty of great high definition titles, many enhanced by PiP and web-enabled content. The second and third generation players, though still occasionally glitchy (especially on those damned Combo discs), were big improvements over the first, and finally offered 1080p and 1080p24 ouptut on the higher-end models. Toshiba scored a major coup in August by securing format exclusivity from the formerly-neutral Paramount, reportedly by handing them a nice incentive package. By the end of the year, HD DVD claimed several of the highest-selling high-def releases of 2007, including Transformers, Shrek the Third, and The Bourne Ultimatum. Unfortunately, they weren’t enough for the format to grasp an overall victory.

The other shoe finally dropped in January of this year when Warner Home Video, previously format neutral but a longstanding booster of HD DVD, abandoned the format and went Blu-ray exclusive. As with Paramount’s earlier move, an incentive package is presumed to have forced the decision. The news was a devastating blow that triggered a chain reaction of further setbacks. Soon afterwards, a string of major retailer defections from Netflix, Best Buy, and Walmart put HD DVD into an untenable position. Toshiba conceded their defeat on February 19th, ending development, manufacturing, and marketing of the format. Almost immediately, Universal and Paramount announced their intentions to support Blu-ray. Previously-planned releases may trickle out for a little while yet, but HD DVD is effectively dead.

With the war over, it’s time to look back at exactly where Toshiba went wrong. Arguments will be made that HD DVD’s technical limitations (less storage and bandwidth per disc than Blu-ray) marked it as inherently inferior, but HD DVD proved innumerable times over that it could maintain every bit the high quality image and sound as Blu-ray, even on very long movies with plenty of bonus content. In fact, HD DVD took an early technological lead in the implementation of interactive features that Blu-ray has only recently begun to roll out. Every HD DVD player includes a mandatory Picture-in-Picture decoder and internet connection, making it more advanced and consumer-friendly in this regard than Blu-ray’s tiered hardware “Profiles.” On the other hand, Toshiba made a considerable mistake by limiting many of their lower- and mid-level players to 1080i resolution and stripping out useful features like multi-channel analog audio connections in order to keep costs down. Software compatibility and playback problems also continued to haunt the format throughout its lifetime, which may be a factor of having only one significant hardware developer. (To be fair, Blu-ray players have had many of their own issues with incompatibilities and glitchiness.) Nonetheless, the truth of the matter is that the war wasn’t won over technical issues.

In my opinion, HD DVD’s biggest failure and the primary factor in its ultimate demise was flat-out lousy marketing. By focusing almost exclusively on lower prices, Toshiba and the HD DVD Promotional Group positioned themselves as a less-advanced, bargain basement competitor to the seemingly sleeker and more high-end Blu-ray, regardless of the real merits of each format. They were almost entirely unsuccessful in promoting their own benefits over Blu-ray or, worse yet, even over standard DVD. Toshiba’s insistence on stressing the DVD upconversion capabilities of their players, which they claimed would scale any old regular DVD to “near high-def” quality, undercut the desire by general consumers to buy the more expensive HD DVD discs, or to buy the HD DVD players when other brands of upconverting DVD hardware could be purchased for as little as $50 at the local discount store. There was simply no buzz around HD DVD; it was always seen as “the other guy” living in the shadow of Blu-ray. Meanwhile, the Blu-ray Disc Association worked hard to build their format an appealing mystique as a premium product and the presumed frontrunner in the format far. This was an image the press was happy to perpetuate in countless op-ed articles decrying Toshiba as a spoilsport causing consumer confusion and holding back high definition from mass acceptance.

In any case, the two-year battle is now over. Blu-ray has won, and I certainly don’t begrudge them their hard-fought victory. As I said at the start, I like Blu-ray a great deal. After some initial growing pains, it has matured into an excellent high definition vehicle with potential for further improvement. But I do question why there couldn’t have been room in the marketplace for both formats, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Both Blu-ray and HD DVD proved themselves as worthy products for the home theater consumer, and I feel that HD DVD’s lifespan was cut artificially and undeservedly short. As the sole remaining HD video disc, the responsibility now falls to Blu-ray to continue evolving, innovating, and carrying us forward into our high definition future.

Movies in the Third Dimension: To 3D or Not to 3D?

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published in the December 2010 Avatar Special issue of Home Theater magazine. Updated from an article originally published in April 2009.

Hollywood has 3D fever again. Every few decades, the movie industry attempts to lure audiences to theaters with the promise of a vivid, three-dimensional film experience. In the past, 3D has been little more than a gimmick or a fad. For a few years at a time, brief waves of novelty movies have achieved moderate success until audiences lost interest and moved on to other excitements. The major film studios are hoping that this latest resurgence will have more legs. The technology has evolved to make 3D less expensive and more convincing. A-List directors like James Cameron and Robert Zemekis are leading the charge. Movies released to IMAX 3D and digital 3D venues have proven very popular with audiences, and plenty more are on the way. Could we be moving toward a future where almost all movies will eventually be 3D, much as color replaced black & white? Or will 3D prove once again to merely be a fad that eventually burns itself out?


The first golden age of 3D launched in 1952 with the release of Bwana Devil, an otherwise forgettable jungle adventure starring Robert Stack. To achieve the 3D effect, two side-by-side cameras captured the action from slightly different angles. In theaters, dual projectors shone these stereoscopic pictures onto a (literally) silver screen. Contrary to popular belief, most audiences at the time did not wear glasses with red and blue lenses. Instead, viewers wore glasses with clear polarized lenses that only allowed each eye to see one of the images. The process had its drawbacks, but the illusion was convincing enough to make the movie a hit. For the next couple of years, Hollywood cranked out a host of 3D features in almost every genre: horror (House of Wax), science fiction (It Came from Outer Space), Western (Hondo), and musical (Kiss Me Kate). Even Alfred Hitchcock got in on the action with Dial M for Murder. The most popular 3D film of the era was Creature from the Black Lagoon, which spawned its own 3D sequel called Revenge of the Creature.

Sadly, the 3D craze of the 1950s didn’t last long. The complexity of maintaining two projectors in perfect sync was both expensive and difficult for theater owners. The reflective silver screens also caused image-quality problems with standard 2D movies, which were still the majority of releases. Meanwhile, the new spectacle of CinemaScope lured audiences away.

The next couple of decades saw little action on the 3D front, aside from a random feature here and there. However, during this time, new processes were developed to print stereoscopic images onto a single strip of film, either one image above the other or side by side. These techniques eliminated the need for dual projectors. Theater owners could adapt for 3D by adding a special lens in front of an existing single projector. This led to a brief 3D revival in the 1980s. Notable releases at that time included Amityville 3D, Friday the 13th Part 3, and Jaws 3D. Producers must have felt that sequels to existing popular franchises were a safe bet to spur interest in 3D again. It worked for a few years, but the poor quality of the movies soon pushed viewers back toward traditional 2D fare.

In the early years of this new century, director Robert Rodiguez gave 3D another push with Spy Kids 3D: Game Over and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3D. Unfortunately, the type of 3D he chose to use was the anaglyph color-separation process. This is where those notorious red and blue glasses come into play. For anaglyph, an image is encoded in two separate color layers that are slightly offset from each other. Each tinted lens in the glasses allows one of the color layers to pass through. Then, the viewer’s brain combines them into a crude 3D effect. Anaglyph 3D was originally developed for black-and-white print images, but it can also be employed on color movies. The main advantage of anaglyph is its backwards compatibility with any type of projector or display. Theaters don’t need to install new projectors or new lenses. Anaglyph requires no special equipment other than the cheap cardboard glasses. It can even be used on home video. Television broadcasts, VHS tapes, DVDs and Blu-ray discs have used anaglyph 3D at various times.

Of course, as anyone who has ever watched an anaglyph 3D movie will attest, the tinted glasses dim the picture considerably and ruin its color accuracy. Anaglyph images appear muddy and oddly colored, with serious halo and fringing artifacts. The 3D effect itself also tends to be very erratic and unsatisfying. All things considered, anaglyph is the least effective 3D format. The Spy Kids 3D and Sharkboy movies received widespread complaints from both critics and audiences. Anaglyph 3D has not been attempted in theaters since.


The latest resurgence in 3D has been driven by two significant developments in the theatrical arena: IMAX 3D and digital 3D. (There’s also a digital IMAX 3D, which combines aspects of both.) Movies can, and often are, simultaneously released in all of these different 3D formats, depending on the needs of each venue.

Theaters equipped with traditional IMAX 3D utilize a proprietary Rolling Loop process that simultaneously runs two rolls of film through twin projection lenses. Depending on the specific venue, IMAX 3D may require viewers to wear polarized lenses or special LCD shutter glasses that rapidly open and close 96 times per second, alternating between each eye in sync with the projector. The polarized glasses are cheaper and more common.

IMAX has produced specialty IMAX 3D nature documentaries and short fiction films since the mid-1980s. Recently, IMAX has also branched out to exhibit 3D versions of mainstream Hollywood movies. The Polar Express was a big hit in 2004. The IMAX 3D version continued to play for months after the 2D version left theaters. The Ant Bully and Open Season followed. Even Superman Returns and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix incorporated special IMAX 3D sequences.

In contrast to traditional IMAX, most digital 3D theaters display stereoscopic imagery from a single digital projector. Although it’s not the only option, the largest player in the digital 3D market is the RealD playback system. RealD projectors are fitted with a liquid crystal screen in front of the lens, which alternately projects the right-eye and left-eye imagery. Viewers wear circularly polarized glasses that are not unlike previous 3D formats but allow for head tilting movement without losing the three-dimensional effect. Viewers are often allowed to take the RealD glasses home afterwards, even though the glasses have limited usefulness outside a 3D theater.

Competitors to RealD include XpanD, Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, and (most recently) digital IMAX 3D. XpanD is similar in basic concept to RealD, aside from specific technical aspects of its implementation. Dolby 3D Digital Cinema uses sophisticated color filtration to separate the right-eye and left-eye images while maintaining the full color spectrum. (It’s like a super-advanced version of anaglyph without so many of the visual drawbacks.) Digital IMAX 3D shines the image from two separate projectors.

In the last few years, studios have released numerous feature films (mainly animated) in 3D. These have included Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens, the Robert Zemekis adaptations of Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, and Toy Story 3. Lately, it’s getting difficult to find an animated movie that isn’t in 3D! Digital productions such as the Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert and Journey to the Center of the Earth also demonstrated that live action works equally well in 3D.

Then came Avatar. James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster proved indisputably that 3D is a force to be reckoned with. The movie shattered box office records to become the highest-grossing film of all time, and more of that income came from 3D theaters than 2D. Even viewers who’d normally wait for home video flocked to theaters to see Avatar in 3D. And then they went back to see it again and again. Ever since that success, Hollywood studios have eagerly jumped on the 3D bandwagon. They’ve rushed new 3D features into production, and have even begun converting 2D movies into 3D.

Has Avatar really signaled the dawn of a new 3D renaissance, or is Hollywood shooting itself in the foot by overexposing the format? Could 3D be too much too soon?


In 2010, many viewers learned the hard way that not all 3D is created equally. Avatar worked so well in 3D because the movie was photographed with specially-built digital 3D cameras. Animated films like How to Train Your Dragon and Shrek Forever After were likewise produced explicitly for 3D. Their animation was rendered in 3D format from inception. In these movies, every shot was designed with 3D viewing in mind.

However, nowadays, it’s also possible to convert a 2D movie into 3D after-the-fact using complex digital rendering techniques. This was first demonstrated on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was originally photographed in 2D stop-motion animation, but has been re-released to selected theaters in 3D format annually since 2006. For that movie, digital artists painstakingly worked to adjust each and every shot into a new 3D rendering. The results have generally been well-received.

Unfortunately, not every 2D-to-3D conversion has worked out so well. After Avatar, a host of quickie 3D rush-jobs were performed on movies never designed for 3D. Among these, Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender stand out as the most notorious examples. In both cases, the theatrical 3D effects were unconvincing, murky, and often headache-inducing. Audiences felt cheated.

Unfortunately, for each new 3D movie released to theaters, the publicity and marketing materials rarely (if ever) advertise the difference between real 3D and simulated 3D conversions. Confusion between the two, and the radically different quality that each delivers, has led to a growing dissatisfaction with 3D in general. Given the higher ticket prices, some viewers have even vowed never to waste their money on 3D again.

Hollywood wants 3D to succeed. Given the economic troubles of recent years and the downturn in theatrical attendance, Hollywood may even need 3D to succeed. With the advent of 3D HDTVs and Blu-ray hardware now available to the home theater market, the worldwide electronics industry is also banking on a continued consumer interest in 3D. But for 3D to prove viable in the long term, viewers must feel that they’re getting something more than a gimmick. They need more movies that use 3D in an artistically purposeful way, as Avatar did, and fewer that simply try to cash in on the phenomenon with half-hearted and lackluster results. Otherwise, we may find that this latest 3D revival is just another fad that will eventually run out of steam.

Sweating the Small Stuff: Minor Inconveniences That Cause Big Headaches for Blu-ray Viewers

Written by Joshua Zyber. Published November 2008

When it comes to matters of home theater, I admit that I’m a nit-picker. For the premium prices they demand, I expect all of my hardware and software to excel in both quality and convenience. If it seems like I’ve been critical of Blu-ray in some previous articles, I promise that I do so only out of love. Blu-ray is the best available technology that we have for watching movies in our homes, and I want it to live up to its highest potential, not just for me but for everyone. While the format has proven capable of delivering in performance (great picture, great sound, innovative supplements), sometimes the little oversights and design quirks can cause the greatest frustrations for end users. With that in mind, this month I’d like to shine a spotlight on three small areas for improvement, two hardware-related and one software-related, that I find frequently detract from the Blu-ray experience. Though none are severe enough problems to rank as deal-breakers, all needlessly make life more difficult and could be easily fixed with just a little more thought and effort from the product designers.


Back in May of this year, our “High-Definition Audio” article mapped out the variety of different connection options and hardware requirements needed to transmit Blu-ray’s high-resolution audio formats (such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) from the Blu-ray player to a compatible A/V receiver in full quality. In my experience, the most direct method usually works the best. For that reason, I prefer to send the native audio bitstreams over an HDMI 1.3 connection, allowing my receiver to perform all the format decoding and additional processing. As noted in the May article, the downside to native bitstream transmission is that only the movie soundtrack itself will be sent. Secondary audio content like that for Picture-in-Picture interactive features is not part of the original bitstream, and can only be live-mixed in if the Blu-ray player does the decoding and then exports the signal as either PCM or analog.

I understand the technological limitations, but here’s the problem: In order to switch between in-player decoding and native bitstream transmission, the Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player I’ve been using (Panasonic’s DMP-BD30) requires you to stop disc playback, go into the player’s Setup menu, turn on the secondary audio decoding there, and then restart the disc. Although there’s a Secondary Audio button on the player’s remote, it will only work to turn on and off that audio if the feature has been enabled in the Setup menu. After you’re done watching the Bonus View content, you’ll have to remember to go back to the Setup menu to turn off the secondary audio decoding, or you won’t be able to transmit the primary soundtrack’s native bitstream on the next disc you watch.

Because the DMP-BD30 cannot decode the TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio codecs on its own, native bitstream transmission is the only way to hear those soundtracks in full lossless quality. And because secondary audio can’t be transmitted along with the native bitstream, the only way to hear interactive content is to turn the bitstreaming function off. I wish I could say that this was just a Panasonic design quirk, but I’ve verified the same basic functionality on Profile 1.1 models from LG and Pioneer as well.

Now this is obviously not a critical design flaw that should prevent anyone from buying a Blu-ray player, but it is a nuisance. I have to wonder why the hardware engineers would build the product this way. I can’t possibly be the first person who wanted to use both of these features and found it annoying to jump back and forth to the Setup menu. Is it not possible to engage the audio decoding from a button on the player’s remote? That would be a much more elegant solution to avoid this unnecessary burden.


Speaking of Blu-ray profiles, I’m sure most readers already know that Sony upgraded their Playstation 3 console to Profile 2.0 (BD-Live) status back in March of this year. However, standalone players have been slow to follow. After several months of delays, Panasonic and Sony finally unveiled set top Blu-ray players promising BD-Live compliance. There’s just one catch: As shipped from the factories, these players don’t actually meet the hardware requirements necessary to play BD-Live features.

You see, BD-Live functionality requires everything you’d find in a Profile 1.1 player (basic Blu-ray playback, a picture-in-picture video decoder, and a secondary audio decoder), plus an internet connection and at least 1 gigabyte of local storage. The PS3 in any of its variations will more than meets these needs. Thus far, the available standalone players claming BD-Live capability have everything except that 1 GB of memory, without which the BD-Live features on the Blu-ray discs won’t work.

Technically speaking, the Profile 2.0 specification only mandates that players must have support for that 1 GB of memory. That’s how models like the Panasonic DMP-BD50 (the first Profile 2.0 standalone Blu-ray player) skate by. The machine isn’t built with enough local storage on its own, but it does have an open port where you can insert an SD memory card. You’ll have to buy that separately, of course.

I admit, SD memory cards are cheap enough these days. Anyone spending $600 on a player like the DMP-BD50 can surely afford the extra $10 or so for the memory. But it’s a hassle, and it doesn’t need to be. Taking care of this at the factory might have added a few pennies to company’s bottom line, an expense they could inflate and pass on to the consumer with a slightly higher price tag. Frankly, I find it inconceivable why they would skimp on something like this. Do the engineers not attempt to use their products before shipping them out? And how is it possible that more than one manufacturer has done the exact same thing? The thought of it boggles the mind.


In last month’s “Beating the Black Bars” article, Tom Norton provided an overview of Constant Image Height projection and the goal of recreating an immersive cinematic experience in which “scope” (2.35:1 aspect ratio) movies are displayed larger and wider than “flat” (1.85:1 or less) movies, as they were intended to be seen in a theater. It takes a little work to get there, but the benefits are worth it. Unfortunately, in addition to the main hardware requirements, those who have implemented the CIH approach will occasionally encounter another major obstacle to their movie-watching enjoyment, one imposed arbitrarily by the home video studios issuing their films on Blu-ray and DVD. Simply put, what happens to subtitles at the bottom of the video frame when the image is zoomed to fill a 2.35:1 screen?

No doubt, of all the decisions involved in the authoring of a video disc, the question of where to place subtitles is probably not given a lot of thought. When it comes to playback on a standard 16:9 HDTV, putting the subtitles anywhere near the bottom of the screen is fine. But for the CIH projection viewer, there’s nothing more aggravating than firing up a foreign-language movie with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and finding the subtitles unreadable because the disc producers have positioned them in the lower letterbox bar. (Viewers requiring captions for the hard of hearing have an even bigger dilemma.) When you zoom that scope movie to properly fill a 2.35:1 screen, the letterbox bars and anything written in them get cut off. If you don’t understand or can’t hear the language being spoken by the characters on screen, the movie becomes unwatchable.

When you see a foreign-language movie in a theater, are the subtitles ever projected below the screen, outside the film print? Of course not; they’re at the bottom of the movie itself. And so it should be when that movie comes to home video. Some studios, like Universal, consistently do the right thing by keeping the subtitles inside the 2.35:1 frame. Others, like Warner Bros. and Sony, usually don’t. I’m sure that the needs of a niche CIH audience are likely not on the studios’ radars at all, but this is a growing market segment and it really wouldn’t take much effort to fix the problem once and for all. A few clicks of the mouse by the disc author could easily slide the subtitles up far enough to be readable on any screen.

In the meantime, what is a Constant Image Height viewer to do about all the discs already out there with subtitles in the letterbox bar? With DVD, certain software-based HTPC playback programs such as TheaterTek have the ability to adjust subtitle position up or down. Sadly, this won’t work with Blu-ray discs. On Blu-ray, subtitle position cannot be adjusted by the end user unless specifically programmed with that option during the disc authoring. (Sony experimented with this on Immortal Beloved, but soon gave up the attempt on subsequent releases.)

Short of learning to speak every language on Earth (or, for the hearing-impaired viewer, not watching movies at all), there are two other alternatives for watching these problematic discs in a CIH configuration. The first is to shrink the movie back to 16:9 size, centered in the middle of the 2.35:1 screen with black bars on all sides. Needless to say, doing that utterly defeats the purpose of having a 2.35:1 screen in the first place. A more advanced user will have to bring in an external video processor, because it’s doubtful that any projector or disc player will offer the scaling control needed. By reducing the picture to somewhere between 2.15:1 to 2.20:1 size on the screen and then shifting the image upwards so that the top of the movie is flush with the top of the screen, you should have small black bars on three sides of the frame. The bars on the left and right can be masked by curtains if you have them, and the lower bar should be just visible enough to fit the subtitle text. The exact size of the image will vary depending on the movie’s precise aspect ratio and the subtitle font, so some experimenting and tweaking will be necessary with each disc played. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the best available compromise to maintain a large movie picture and still have readable subtitles. Of course, it’s also the most complicated and expensive option as well. All for a problem that could be easily avoided up front while the disc is being authored.


I realize that all of the issues described above were not caused by any deliberate intent to irritate a Blu-ray viewer, but they do represent a lack of foresight on the part of the hardware manufacturers and the home video studios. I can only hope that some education will bring the matters to light and help them get resolved in the future. These are admittedly small problems that likely bother a small audience, but by the same token should require only a small amount of effort to fix on future products. I believe that the Blu-ray format can and should serve the needs of its consumers to the best of its potential, and even small improvements can make a big difference to the overall user experience.

Why Blu-ray Matters: Is DVD Still Relevant to Home Theater?

Written by Joshua Zyber in December 2008 (unpublished).

[Note: Due to scheduling issues, print space concerns, and other editorial decisions, this article was ultimately replaced by another piece I’d written and was not published.]

As you may have noticed, we write about Blu-ray a lot lately here at Home Theater. Some would say too much. In fact, a reader complained to me recently that we should rename the magazine Blu-Theater, because all he ever sees in it any more is Blu-ray and more Blu-ray. I guess he missed all of our articles about TVs, speakers, and other home theater equipment. Obviously, he was upset that the magazine has eliminated reviews of standard-definition DVDs and rarely covers regular DVD hardware these days, beyond the backwards compatibility features of Blu-ray players. We hear similar sentiments from other readers every so often.

In our December ’08 issue, I wrote an article about Toshiba’s so-called Extended Detail upconverting DVD player, which promises “near high-def picture quality” from normal DVDs. I wasn’t much impressed, and concluded that the machine isn’t a substitute for a Blu-ray player. That prompted allegations that the Blu-ray Disc Association must have paid off our magazine. I got a good laugh out of that. My bank account wishes that it had seen all these extra paychecks that I’ve allegedly received.

Some degree of skepticism is understandable. Depending on which industry pundits you listen to, Blu-ray is either the greatest invention since color television or a pointless fad doomed to failure. Competing market research firms have conducted studies about the format’s future and come to wildly inconsistent conclusions. Will Blu-ray overtake DVD to become the new video standard in a few years, or will it wither and die in that time? Is upconverted DVD good enough for most consumers? The answers to these questions seem to change every day. Market confusion, consumer apathy, and the nation’s economic downturn make Blu-ray a tough sell right now. How can we justify giving so much coverage to a product that still only captures a fraction of the home video market? Have we made a mistake by cutting back coverage of DVD when it’s still the dominant movie format in most households? In my opinion, no.

When I started in this hobby many years ago, I didn’t come from an electronic engineering background and I didn’t have any particular love of expensive hardware or technology. I also wasn’t idly rich or looking for ways to waste money. I was just a poor college undergrad who loved movies and couldn’t stand the pan & scan butchery on VHS. I scrimped and saved until I could afford a low-end Laserdisc player to watch movies in glorious letterbox. The unit I bought was single-side only (maximum playing time on LD was one hour per side), had no S-video output, no digital audio output, and no digital frame memory (so most discs couldn’t even pause on a freeze frame). I spent $350 for it. Better models ran upwards of $1,500. I didn’t understand much about other aspects of video quality at the time, but I certainly noticed the picture’s improved clarity. Soon enough, I needed a bigger and better TV to watch movies on, and a surround sound speaker package to complete the experience. With help from publications like this one, I learned more about technical matters and over time upgraded my equipment to build up a home theater.

Eventually, Laserdisc gave way to DVD. In some ways, the transition was incremental. Although the smaller disc offered much greater convenience and a slightly higher resolution picture, the video was still limited to interlaced standard definition. Honestly, early discs had such poor digital compression that some titles looked distinctly worse than Laserdisc. Many LD fans lamented the demise of the older format. However, anamorphic enhancement and advances in compression and mastering soon made a difference. I’m sure that everyone today would agree that DVD quickly grew into the superior product. We are all better off for it.

I can’t tell you the number of DVD players I’ve owned over the last decade. Every time a new model offered some improvement in video decoding, progressive scan, or upconversion, I eagerly jumped at the chance to capitalize on any small upgrade in performance. In addition, I’ve double- and triple-dipped my favorite movie titles whenever a remastered DVD promised just a bit better picture or sound. I’m sure many readers share this experience. It’s been an expensive journey at times, but the results have been worth it. As our TV and projection screen sizes grow ever larger, a corresponding increase in picture quality is necessary to maintain the integrity of the movie image and the illusion of having a theater in our homes.

Now we have Blu-ray, the next evolution in video reproduction. With six times the pixel resolution, Blu-ray is much more than an incremental step up from DVD. At its best, Blu-ray offers a night-and-day improvement and is much closer to that goal of recreating the cinematic experience. Of course, not every title looks six times better than DVD, per se. But it’s rare indeed to watch a Blu-ray that doesn’t provide some noticeable benefit in picture quality, even over the best DVDs viewed with the best upconverting DVD players. As sophisticated as upconversion algorithms have gotten, standard definition video simply doesn’t contain enough real picture detail to compete with high definition. After watching enough high-def content, standard definition starts to look blurry in comparison.

Yes, Blu-ray products carry a premium price over DVD. In these tough economic times, DVD may seem like the better bargain. But let’s keep things in perspective. For less than the price of that bottom-of-the-barrel Laserdisc player I purchased so many years ago, today you can buy a Panasonic DMP-BD35 (reviewed December ’08) that delivers stunning 1080p/24 video, full decoding and/or native bitstream transmission of all the latest high-res lossless audio formats, and compliance with Profile 2.0 interactive bonus features. That is the true bargain, and one of the best home theater investments available.

Certainly, DVD still holds a place in a modern home theater. There’s a wealth of content available on DVD that may not come to Blu-ray for years, if ever. I’d rather watch a movie in standard definition than not at all. On the other hand, whenever a movie is available on both formats, I’ll always choose the Blu-ray. DVD is a good product and has had a nice run, but at the end of the day, I’ll always go for the better quality. Frankly, I find it perplexing that there are actually people who will spend thousands (even tens of thousands) of dollars on a large screen HDTV or front projector and surround themselves with massive audiophile-grade tower speakers, only to feed their system low-res DVD content when better is available. As far as I’m concerned, “good enough” is never good enough.

Home Theater, both this magazine and the hobby in general, is about the pursuit of the best possible picture and sound quality, in whatever form that may come. We want the best screen and the best sound system, with the best content we can watch. DVD provided the finest movie experience in our homes for nearly a decade, but times change and technology progresses. Currently, 1080p high-definition video and lossless high-resolution audio are the gold standards that we strive for. Blu-ray is the medium that delivers them in the highest quality with the fewest compromises. Some day that may change. When a better product comes along, expect us to cover it with just as much enthusiasm.