HD DVD Movie Review May 15, 2007

HD DVD Movie Review for May 15, 20007. This week’s Word from the Street includes reviews of the 1965 “war classic” Battle of the Bulge, the “sure to be sci-fi classic” The Fountain, and Mel Gibson in the “cult classic” The Road Warrior.

Battle of the Bulge (Warner) (Blu-ray)
Featuring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Robert Ryan, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Hans Christian Blech (not a Mad Magazine character, I assure you)

Time and time again, when The Simpsons makes reference to old WWII movies (usually in a flashback to Grampa Abe’s years fightin’ for the Allies), it’s pretty apparent that the hoary epics of the past are being parodied, in particular dusty gems like Battle of the Bulge from 1965. The acting, not the accuracy (from a historical standpoint), is the thing here. Much like The Longest Day this film gets the best out of its cast of stars. So what if an event that took place along the snowy forests of wintertime Belgium and Luxembourg now looks like it takes place on the dusty plains of Spain (where the battle footage was indeed shot), the bottom line is watching the Panzer commanders sing and Robert Shaw give arch Teutonic line readings, make the entire endeavor all worthwhile.

The HD DVD disc is identical to the Blu-ray release and offers a 16×9 widescreen transfer from the old Ultra Panavision 70 theatrical aspect ratio ( 2.75:1, a Cinerama format) with 1080p resolution. The sound is offered in English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround (or a facsimile of surround), and French DD Plus mono. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish (but no German!) and there’s an audio commentary by director Ken Annakin (insert your Vader jokes here). There’s a standard-def theatrical trailer and two vintage featurettes: the nearly 10 minute document The Filming of Battle of the Bulge and an eight minute interview short called History Recreated (which offers an interview with Robert Shaw). You can certainly find better war movies nowadays (especially those that reflect upon the achievements of the “Greatest Generation”), but you’d be hard pressed to come up with such an iconic American retelling of a famous Allied victory..

The Fountain (Warner) (Blu-ray)
Featuring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel “Hottie” Weisz, Ellen Burstyn

A trip, in the literal and figurative sense, from beginning to end, and The Fountain is nothing if not about endings and how we struggle to avoid them. Basically an extended series of jaw-droppingly beautiful riffs on thanatology through the ages and beyond, The Fountain is one of those films that demands repeat viewings. Sure it’s pretty pretentious stuff at times (fans of director Aronofsky may quibble), but it’s quite unlike anything else out there, and has solid performances from the gorgeous leads and, of course, the terrific Ellen Burstyn (oh so fine in Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream). The effects work occasionally has a throwback look that’s rather nice, the philosophy is wonky enough to be engaging, and the costumes, cinematography and score (by the awesome Clint Mansell) are all wonderful to behold.

Still, it’s not for everyone… though if you dug Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Mayan civilization, then I assure you that you’ll be blown away by Aronofsky’s take on the culture (and it’s just a segment of the overall film)… there’s action, tragic romance, and a quest for the tree of life. Just on that alone, it’s worth a look, and what a look it is in hi-def (though, like almost all Warner’s releases, this could have used a better sound compression method: 640kbps for HD DVD!! C’mon Warners!). The gorgeous image is widescreen ( 1.85 aspect ratio) enhanced for HD in 1080p resolution. Sound, which I think suffers a bit, is in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround or DD 5.1 surround in English/French (subtitles in English, Spanish and French).

The Road Warrior (Warner) (Blu-ray)
Featuring: Mel Gibson, Michael Preston, Bruce “Gyro Captain” Spence, Vernon “Wez” Wells, Kjell “Lord Humungus” Nilsson, Virginia Hey and Emil Minty

There is simply no way to avoid having this film in the action section of your hi-def library… it’s a true classic, even more than its original source film, 1979’s Mad Max. With an extremely terse and tense screenplay, George Miller’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece has set the standard for over two decades worth of films in a similar vein. Mel Gibson is spectacular in the role of Max, Dean Semler’s shots of the Australian Outback are pure eye candy, the car stunts are edge-of-your-seat insane, and the twisted villains (notably good ol’ mohawked Wez) are unforgettable. However, the Blu-ray disc is a lackluster affair without much thought put into anything beyond an upgrade in visual resolution via the hi-def format.

The video is at 1080p resolution ( 2.40 widescreen ratio) and looks much better than the standard-def release, but isn’t a showcase disc for pure HD visual quality. As usual for most WHV releases that weren’t theatrically released in the last decade, The Road Warrior gets the short shrift, and this is especially evident on the audio side of the equation. You get (similar to the Blu-ray 640kbps compression) Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround in English and 2-channel DD in French and Spanish. Again, I say “yawn.” Where’s the oomph in sound we’re supposed to get from the hi-def formats? Not here, and that’s sad for a premier action film like this one. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, French and the only thing that separates this disc (other than video resolution) from the standard-def release is the “exclusive to hi-def” content including commentary by director George Miller and lenser Dean Semler. I’d say “finally” here, since it’s the first true audio commentary for this film in any US format (or international for that matter). You can finally glean how Miller and Gibson developed the character further from the original film and get Semler’s thoughts on his techniques and insight into how they got the awesome and crazy shots of the vehicular chaos throughout the film. There’s also a short “exclusive to hi-def intro by the ancient sage of film, Leonard Maltin, and a standard-def theatrical trailer. Unless there’s a double-dip special edition in the future, Warner’s is kinda screwing fans of the film here by not putting forth a remastered image and pumped-up sound. A disappointment, but nevertheless a must have for any video library’s action section… the film, by itself, is still a major ass-kicker!

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