HD DVD Movie Reviews for June 12, 2007

This week’s Word from the Street for June 12, 2007 includes reviews of these new HD DVD releases: Black Christmas: Unrated, Born on the Fourth of July, Breach, Bruce Almighty, Daylight, Harsh Times, Liar Liar, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Music and Lyrics, Sneakers, and Living Landscapes: The World’s Most Beautiful Places.

Black Christmas: Unrated (2006) (Weinstein)
Featuring: Andrea Martin, Katie Cassidy, Lacey Chabert, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth “Total Hottie” Winstead, Kristen Cloke, Crystal Lowe and Oliver Hudson

I still get a kick once in a while to pick up the phone, dial up a friend and screech and moan saying “biiiiilllYYYY, nooooOOOO, ackkkk… AGGGnessSS!” Cracks my buddy Paul up to no end (we’re fans of the horror flick, no doubt about it), as we hold the original Bob Clark film in high regard. It’s slow moving, builds a gradual, queasy pace and offers more suspense than full-tilt kill action (this was the dawn of the slasher era) but, man, it’s totally effective at what it does and still manages to freak me out. Bob Clark would go on to direct other Christmas stories (sadly, he was recently killed by a drunk driver), and Black Christmas would fade from view as John Carpenter’s Halloween trumped it for overall popularity and repeat performances. For fans of cult horror films, it’s a touchstone piece of cinema that influenced countless other horror movies both good and bad. Then, along comes a “re-imagining” of the film that takes great pains to emphasize backstories that add absolutely nothing to the original characters except to make them either less scary or less sympathetic, and with director Glen Morgan of X-Files fame you get a film that plays more like the kill-fest that’s more like the Final Destination series (another Morgan effort) than a thriller that makes you squirm with suspense. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is damned hot though, so there’s that, and she’s in hi-def… so there’s that too.

Other than Ms. Hottie von Winstead we get a very nice transfer from the theatrical release (widescreen, 2.35 ratio)… nothing wrong with the picture. Black levels and contrast are consistent throughout giving good detail to the darkest corners of the killer’s hideaways. You get a nice audio mix as well in either Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or a 1.5mbps DD Plus 5.1 mix (subtitles in Spanish). Both offer good ambient tones and full use of the surround channels. The features give three alternate endings and some deleted scenes (the unrated edition really presents much of what was seen theatrically… give or take an extended ripped eyeball shot or two). The making-of items include What Have You Done?: The Remaking of Black Christmas (Bob Clark gets a few minutes to speak his mind as do fans of the original) and May All Your Christmases Be Black: A Filmmaker’s Journey (wherein Glen Morgan proceeds to bitch and moan about how hard it is to remake a film and achieve success (ha!), yadda yadda). The release in HD DVD isn’t really worth the time when you can still see the original on standard-def and get a much better scare.

Born on the Fourth of July (Universal)
Featuring: Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, Frank Whaley, Kyra Sedgwick, Caroline Kava, Raymond J. Barry and Jerry Levine

Born on the Fourth of July is a beautifully haunting film, a continuation of many of the themes Stone explored in the more combat oriented Platoon, and it reaches levels of near-operatic intensity at times as Kovic struggles to understand his family after years away from them and how they must struggle to understand him and how the war ultimately affected them all. Stone experiments here, for the first time, with unconventional storytelling methods and creating dramatic shifts in mood and segues between scenes using colored lighting and camera effects. He hadn’t yet gone overboard here, as he would later with Natural Born Killers, but the wonderful look of the film, it’s rich tones and fantastic use of widescreen make this a gorgeous visual effort as well as a tremendous dramatic accomplishment. The acting is, Hail Xenu, nothing short of fantstic… Tom Cruise is truly at his best here and it’s probably still his single finest dramatic role in many ways. The drunken verbal confrontation with his harridan mother is still an amazing moment of the kind of audacity that rings true in any argument between loved ones seemingly incapable of understanding each other’s fears and troubles while his latter verbal snit with Willem Dafoe’s crazed-vet Charlie. Nary a performance comes across as unbelievable… it’s a testament to Stone’s absolute skill and utter control over his actors (at least in his early works up until the brilliant Nixon) and probably why Cruise elicits much sympathy in this role even when being a perfect sonofabitch to those around him. This is a great war film, not just a great Vietnam War film, and it’s certainly on par with William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. It has withstood the test of time, and is quite simply a sad, tragic and finally uplifting classic that’s easily one of Stone’s many masterpieces of cinema.

The transfer is just as impressive in 1080 progressive resolution (widescreen 2.35) with every detail standing out and deep color saturation throughout with absolutely no bleed. The audio is a bit of a letdown in a DD Plus 5.1 English language track (French is offered in DD 2.0, subtitles are in English and French). If it weren’t for the absolute quality of the film itself, I wouldn’t bother recommending the HD DVD release. It’s not remastered, and aside from the sharpness and clarity of 1080 scan lines, it’s a letdown on the audio side of the equation and offers nothing in terms of features other than an audio commentary with Oliver Stone and a short video segment called NBC News Archives: Back Story – Born On The Fourth Of July.

Breach (Universal) [DVD/HD DVD Combo]
Featuring: Laura Linney, Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe

Another film with top-notch acting, Breach is a film you’ll either find riveting because of the subject matter or rather dull for the very same thing. The film centers on FBI operative Eric O’Neill (Phillippe) who is assigned to become the assistant of Robert Hanssen, soon to be infamous for selling American secretes to the Russians for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. The film can be plodding at times as it plays with the procedural end of things, but it’s driving force is really the acting and particularly Chris Cooper as Hanssen, a chillingly cold and calculating figure who commands peers and subordinates alike through fear and intimidation. The cat and mouse game between Phillippe and Cooper is what makes the film an enjoyment rather than a chore and elvates it to an above par film of a true-story event. Director Billy Ray has a straightforward style that doesn’t mess around and gets right into character motivation and how the ways they paint themselves into an increasingly darkened corner. As with his film Shattered Glass Ray proves himself a strong director of actors and allows for some fine tension-filled moments as Hanssen struggles to avoid capture for his crimes and O’Neill attempts to avoid blowing the cover of his friendship in order to put an end to Hanssen’s work with the Moscow. If you liked Donnie Brasco you’ll enjoy this one.

The HD DVD release offers a crisp transfer (widescreen 1.85) in 1080p… it’s not a showcase disc nor even tries to be, but it is a serviceable effort for hi-def. The audio is offered in DD Plus 5.1 (English at the higher bit rate of 1.5mbps, there’s a French track at 640kbps, as well as English, Spanish and French subtitles). The excellent and informational audio commentary includes writer/director Billy Ray along with the real-life Eric O’Neill. There’s a few featurettes here including Breaching the Truth, Anatomy of a Character and finally a Dateline special that aired on NBC back when the Hanssen affair was at the forefront of the nation’s news called The Mole (sounds like a reality game show, but it’s actually a nice addition to the HD DVD release). There’s about 18 minutes worth of deleted and alternate scenes. Breach is worth a rental if not a buy for those that like spy films and thrillers with highly accomplished actors doing their absolute best.

Bruce Almighty (Universal)
Featuring: Jim Carrey, Jennifer Aniston, Morgan “Just call me God” Freeman and Philip Baker Hall

Tom Shadyac’s successful high-concept comedy Bruce Almighty is simply okay by me. Funny in parts (mostly with Morgan Freeman’s dry delivery as the Alighty Himself playing off a less than crazed Jim Carrey) the film sags from the middle to the end as Bruce learns those saccharine life lessons found in nearly every comedy that hasn’t the balls to do something original and cutting edge… then again, the film avoids the crudeness (for the most part) of Carrey’s other comedies (not counting his very good turn in The Truman Show). The highlight of the whole thing is actually the soon to be Almighty himself, Steve Carrell as Evan Baxter… he’s a quiet little riot of selfish insecurity. The HD DVD release is given a good transfer in VC-1 encoded 1080p with a widescreen 1.85 ratio image, but isn’t a huge improvement over the standard-def releases… in fact, with Liar, Liar also being released on HD DVD this week, you could almost pray for a two-pack offering… but alas, I don’t think we’ll see any films paired for retail sale in HD DVD for some time. Not so much worth the buy as worth the rental for family film night. The audio is equally unimpressive in DD Plus 5.1 surround (English/French same as the subtitles). There’s over 35 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes as well as a featurette called Inside the Creative Mind of Jim Carrey and audio insights from Tom Shadyac.

Daylight (Universal)
Featuring: Sylvester Stallone, Dan Hedaya, Viggo Mortensen, Jay O. Sanders, Claire Bloom, Amy Brenneman and Karen Young

Nominated for two Razzie Awards, this latter day Stallone effort is notable only for the disaster moment that strikes toward the beginning of the film (a jaw-dropper!)… other than that the film itself is the disaster with lame character archtypes, lamer character building moments and virtually no plot or reason to care about what happens other than “people are trapped, oh no!” The HD DVD release is strictly for the cut-out bin… no care’s been put into it and though the picture is sharp and crisp (as it ought to be in 1080p, widescreen 1.85 ratio), the audio, de rigeur for any action film, is substandard at best for this format. You have an English DD Plus 5.1 mix and a French DD 2.0 mix… nothing to shout out about. Subtitles are in English and French while the standard-def special features include The Making of Daylight, an audio commentary with director Rob Cohen and a music video with (whoa!) Donna Summer… hot stuff, baby… too bad the film and hi-def release are anything but.

Harsh Times (Weinstein)
Featuring: Christian Bale, Eva Longoria, Freddy Rodriguez, Noel Gugliemi and Terry Crews

Let’s just say that Training Day wasn’t one of my favorite films and I think it’s largely the script that’s to blame. David Ayer, the writer of that film, has come up with another twisted and gritty document on urban crime called Harsh Times and indeed the times in South Central Los Angeles are pretty darned harsh. Christian Bale does some excellent work here (as usual). He plays an ex-Marine recently back from the Gulf War (1st one) where he got to live out his aggressive tendencies with impunity toward the enemy. He comes home to find his best bud (Freddie Rodriguez) and girlfriend at a crossroads in their relationship. Both overgrown boys go out on the mean streets of L.A. on the pretense of finding work and all manner of mayhem (drugs n’ violence and booze n’ violence), much of which is similar to what occurred in Training Day, transpires. The film tries hard to go down difficult roads portraying their lives as variations on the same downward spiral, but the result is that the film often feels absurd, much like Training Day did. Harsh Times benefits from excellent performances from its core cast

Liar Liar (Universal)
Featuring: Jim Carrey, Jennifer Tilly, Maura Tierney, Swoosie Kurtz, Amanda Donohoe and Cary Elwes

Another Tom Shadyac/Jim Carrey effort, this one less high concept than Bruce Almighty but still in the vein of bland and (sometimes) heartwarming comedy that can make you easily go into a diabetic coma toward the end of its running time. Carrey plays a heartless and crass lawyer named Fletcher Reede, a guy for whom lying is not only habit, it’s an asset. He lies to everyone both professionally and casually, but when it comes to his wife and son Max, the lying gets to be a bit too much… with missed family days and and a a birthday date for Max, the kid finally decides to make a wish that (don’tcha just know it) causes Dad to be unable to lie in any situation… even when it’s totally useful like protecting someone’s feelings. You know how this one goes… Carrey is able to make it work on that rubbery face and his zany gestures, but really it’s hard to root for the guy even when he’s making good toward the end. Overall it’s not as fun as Bruce Almighty and less screamingly subversive than Shadyac and Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The tech specs are basically the same as those for Bruce Almighty with the look and sound of the film up to the hi-def quality we expect from the HD DVD format.

You get a widescreen 1.85 ratio image at 1080p (VC-1 encoding), with audio in DD Plus 5.1 surround (English/French)… again, the release is better looking than standard-def with good but not very impressive audio quality similar to Bruce Almighty. For features there a single deleted scene and some outtakes as well as a theatrical trailer. For fans of the Shadyac/Carrey comedy efforts, there’s a featurette called Bridging the Comedy Chasm and an audio commentary by Shadyac.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Universal)
Featuring: Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman and FISH!

I had fairly liberal parents who worked… and got to see this on cable back in the late 80’s. Needless to say, it warped my precious little mind and I loved every minute of it! The Python troupe sets out to offend just about everyone and everything (especially fish) in this series of interconnected vignettes patterned after their “and not for something completely different” sketch comedy style they popularized during their Flying Circus years. The different scenarios feature an Oliver! type musical number about the Catholic Church, comic (and often grim!) ruminations on birth, sex, life in general and death (if you’re lucky, at the hands of gorgeous naked women who’ll chase you off a cliff to the waiting casket below). There’s an awesome Terry Gilliam short that opens the film prior to the actual features… this little gem’s become a minor classic and led to Gilliam directing Brazil after the Cannes premier of Meaning of Life. Basically, if you enjoy the Pythons in all their TV and film incarnations, then you’ll really dig this one. It’s definitely not for all tastes, but you know who you are (the ahem, easily offended and religiously whackopathic simply won’t like this one, no sir!). To me it’s a slice of fried comic gold that helped to inspire a generation of subsequent cinematic comedians to upend every taboo imaginable in a motion picture. What’s most remarkable about the film is how it keeps your attention without having any true plot or characters to speak of… the various “characters” are basically used as props (and funny ones at that) who get called back depending on the sketch situation. Regardless, it’s just as jaw-dropping funny and sharply astute in its satire as their Life of Brian if not at least The Holy Grail. The image quality of the disc is a nice leap forward from the remastered standard-def release.

The theatrical 1.85 widescreen image in 1080p (VC-1 encoded) is very detailed, sharp without any edge enhancements that made the standard-DVD look a little harsh. There’s good contrast and black levels throughout with good color saturation. The HD DVD image pretty much pops off the screen. The audio, however, is not any better to my ears than prior releases surround mix. For the HD DVD release, there’s a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix and a French DD Plus 2.0 mono mix. Yawn. Not that the film really needs boombastic sound, but the Pythons do use a lot of ambient and effects sounds (not to mention musical numbers) in Meaning of Life and the lack of a good uncompressed or TrueHD lossless version only means that the original audio for the film was of dubious quality to begin with. The set of features (and oh! they are huge, so absolutely big, gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you!) is nearly identical to the 2-disc standard-def edition released a few years back. Nothing really new here, but what is here is comic gold for Python fans:

• An Eric Idle introduction
• Feature audio commentary with the two Terrys (Gilliam and Jones) who directed the film
• Soundtrack for the Lonely: A Soundtrack for People Watching at Home
The Meaning of Making The Meaning of Life
• Educational Tips to Prepare You for Life in the Real World
• Un Film de John Cleese: A New Trailer for the John Cleese Version of the Film
• Virtual Reunion: The Pythons Together Again
• What Fish Think: Go Into the Minds of Fish
• Remastering a Masterpiece: How to Revive an Old Master
• Song and Dance: A Featurette About 2 of the Film’s Musical Numbers
• Songs Unsung: Alternate Versions of the Original Songs
• In-Your-Face Promotional Material: Selling The Meaning of Life
• The Snipped Bits: Deleted Scenes

All-in-all, this is a must have release for the comedy section of your library. The Pythons are at their brilliant best here and the multitude of extra features (not a dead parrot among them) here make the HD DVD release worth the buy.

Music and Lyrics (Warner) [DVD/HD DVD Combo]
Featuring: Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Campbell Scott, Kristen Johnston and Brad Garrett

A nice little romantic comedy with a musical kick, let’s face it… it’s plenty hard to resist either Hugh Grant or Drew Barrymore… they’ve got the “just found love but don’t know what to do with it” vibe down pat by now in respective rom-coms of their own. Here, Grant stars as Alex Fletcher, one of the sidemen of PoP! (think Oates, Garfunkle, Ridgely, the News) a onetime ‘80s band famous for insipid little hits like Pop! Goes My Heart. Now on the downturn of a once quasi-famous career, Fletcher does tribute runs of PoP!’s hit parade slumming it to make a buck. A youthful pop singer whose hot with the tween set decides to dig up and resuscitate his flagging career by commissioning a song from him, and suddenly his life’s in turnaround and he needs to strike gold in a riverbed full of pyrite. As luck would have it (and luck is all it takes in a rom-com, that and a meet-cute!), the lovely lass that tends his houseplants can write lyrics to his music… and thus we have Music and Lyrics. Grant and Barrymore have good, if weird, chemistry (maybe it’s the age thing) and the relationship has it’s ups and downs… after some light conflict (involving credit for the song they write together) they’re like oil and water, but soon it’s more like Goober Grape… they just kinda go together and that’s that. The film’s actually pretty good in comparison with most other recent comedies that style themselves romantic (and usually fall short on the comedy side). Following in the footsteps of Bill Nighy’s riotous and sympathetic turns as fading rock stars, Grant makes a decent impression as Fletcher, and Barrymore is her goofy, charming self, but sometimes the plot and narrative seem all too familiar and all too stale. Ultimately this film makes a better DVD experience than a theatrical one (unless it’s date night).

The Combo-disc’s HD DVD side offers a fine transfer in widescreen 1.85 ratio (VC-1 encoded at1080p) but nothing extraordinary. It avoids the completely flat look that often afflicts rom-coms and offers nice detail and clarity. For a film that showcases music (and lyrics) throughout its running time, the audio is just plain sad for a hi-def release in either format. The English (Spanish and French[Quebec]) audio tracks are offered in DD Plus 5.1 surround (still at 640kbps!), no uncompressed mix offered, no higher bitrate given. Such a shame, but for those interested in the music only, the disc does give an option for a music-only track in DD 2.0 (be still my beating eardrums). I’m not impressed… Warner’s should have given this release a much better audio mix at least. For features you get a making-of doc (Note for Note: The Making of Music and Lyrics) some deleted scenes, a gag reel, a theatrical trailer and a music video for “Pop! Goes My Heart.” I’m not quite sure why this is a combo-flipper disc since the standard-def release occurred only a while back, but Warner’s must have their reasons… in any case the standard-def specs for this release are the same as the standard-DVD solo release.

Sneakers (Universal)
Featuring: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell and Dan Aykroyd

For a film not well remembered by the general public years after its release, inside the hacker community of phreaks and geeks there’s still warm fuzzy for this movie because, aside from the band-o’-misfits clichés of character, the film mostly gets things about hackers right, aside from their quirks and eccentricities. With a stellar cast fronted by an excellent Robert Redford, the film opens with a flashback to the past that eventually catches up with his character Martin Bishop (last name may or may not be accurate, since his real identity is underground). The kid who was once Marty, a minor-league hacker who escaped capture by the Feds becomes what’s known as a White Hat hacker (as opposed to those who wear the black hat) with a Tiger Team of various phone phreaks, computer geeks, cryptographers and electrical engineers, not to mention an ex-CIA agent played by Poitier. It’s great to see River Phoenix, timeless as James Dean in many of his films, Sneakers gave him a chance to outgrow the kid-roles of his initial acting years and prove himself against a strong ensemble cast. To get into the guts of the film’s script would be to give away a lot of the fun and yes, excitement that the “tiger team” Martin Bishop plays against the NSA (up to no good as usual with their black bag operations and black box McGuffins) as they attempt to uncover a Russian connection to a brilliant mathematician and cryptographer named Dr. Gunter Janek. It’s a fun film that still stands up well, though the DIY and top-tier technology used in the film has come a long way since then.

The 1.85 widescreen, VC-1 encoded transfer looks good in 1080 progressive HD resolution for a film that wasn’t shot for visual intensity back in the early 90’s. The color is nicely saturated and the black levels acquit themselves nicely scene-for-scene. Since one of the team’s members is blind and uses his ears as an accentuated tool in the team’s effort (he’s the sonic snoop and has a knowledge of analog phone tones) you would expect the audio transfer to really stand out but, sadly, it does not. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 offering allows for nicely mixed and understandable dialog, but not much else (also offered in DD Plus 2.0/French as are the subtitles). If anything, the sound is only adequate and not a knockout for the HD format. There’s only a smattering of features including an interesting scene specific audio commentary from writer/director Phil Alden Robinson, writer Lawrence Lasker and writer Walter Parkes. There’s also a 29-minutemaking-of doc that’s really nothing special and a theatrical trailer.

Living Landscapes: The World’s Most Beautiful Places (Customflix)
Featuring: Maui! And other lovely places in HD

This 75-minute HD compilation could serve as a nice showcase disc for your hi-def system. It’s a relaxing look at some of the world’s most visually awe-inspiring places such as Costa Rica, Hawaii, The Grand Tetons (but hey wait, no Iraq!). Not something you’d run out and buy for the entertainment experience but a nice addition to a truly hi-def library. The visuals on this disc are outstanding. Audio is offered in DD 5.1 surround… not truly up to HD standards.

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