HD DVD Movie Releases June 26, 2007

HD DVD movie releases for June 26, 2007 include American Me, Army of Darkness, Being John Malkovich, The Big Lebowski, Black Snake Moan, Bulletproof, Dead Silence: Unrated, Freedom Vol. 1, Hustle & Flow, Mallrats, Meet Joe Black, Mystery Men, Unleashed, and The Watcher.

American Me (Universal)
Featuring: Edward James Olmos, William Forsythe, Evelina Fernandez and Pepe “I Get Chainsawed In Scarface” Serna

Edward James Olmos’s 1992 directorial debut is one of those crime-doesn’t pay films that makes prison life seem like the hell it truly is (Paris Hilton’s experience notwithstanding) while it makes life back out on the street appear less than paradise than it is a grim purgatory of lost chances and bad choices. Beginning in 1943 during Los Angeles’s Zoot Suit Riots, the film charts the rise of Santana (played by Panchito Gómez as a youth and later by Olmos himself) through his years of petty crime, juvenile hall (where he’s raped at knife-point then subsequently kills his attacker, thereby establishing his prison cred), eventually he forms an arm of the Mexican Mafia (La Eme) with his aging pals from his youth and propels himself to the upper echelon of gang life, both on the streets and doing time at the graybar hotel. It’s a movie with a moving and exciting first half that spirals downward into self-reflection and self-doubt eventually resulting in tragedy. The movie offers some solid performances, though Olmos was a little old to be playing a younger man on his way up the ranks of street gang life.

While the film looks fine in this 1080p transfer to the HD DVD format, the print is not remastered and the result is an aged look to the film with sharp details but a flat quality much like a TV movie. American Me is offered in widescreen 1.85. The sound elements are also showing age, though they get a boost from the DD Plus 5.1 track (there’s also a French DD Plus 2.0 stereo track). Surround elements are hardly there, but the dialog comes through nice and clear. The disc features include only Lives In Hazard, an award winning documentary about gang life.

Army of Darkness (Re-issue) (Universal)
Featuring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz and Richard Grove

Okay, let’s get one thing absolutely straight… As much as many of us (and I do mean many) love the Evil Dead series including Army of Darkness, I think most of us are fed up with the various releases and dips this movie series has offered us over the years to the point of wanting to use Ash’s boomstick on ourselves to quell the double-dipping confusion. While, yes, it’s true, there are alternate endings to the film, it really didn’t require anything less than a two-disc effort the first time around… it’s kind of what peeves video collectors and movie fans: the double-dip. Now we have a re-issue of Army of Darkness: the HD DVD release is a re-issue from the previous HD DVD/DVD combo disc released back in October, 2006 (which contained no extras whatsoever… not even a commentary track!). Blame Universal for that snafu… at least the Anchor Bay versions were mostly in fantastic form (with emphasis on the fan). Even then the lost footage that was often reincorporated into the various editions (cuts Universal and the MPAA wanted), the elements used were shoddy cutting-room floor stuff in terms of overall quality. Apparently there’s this really cool European version– but I digress… Here we have the “new” HD DVD release of this really awesome, totally cool, let-your-geek-flag-fly film… a little masterpiece of inventive filmmaking.

While not as low-budget as the first two films of the Evil Dead series, this film still wears its raggedy style on its sprocket holes, especially in the Harryhausen style stop-motion animation effects utilized for the army of the rotting (and bone-dry) dead. The film itself needs no review (it’s the 81 minute version with the ending preferred by Universal) and quite simply couldn’t be cooler… If you’re a true horror fan or film geek you totally owe it to yourself to see it… twice, due to the alternate ending filmed by director Sam Raimi at the insistence of Universal.

This time around it’s a single-layer HD disc (HD-15!) encoded in VC-1/1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85 widescreen. It’s exactly the same as the prior HD release and is still not remastered. The English audio really doesn’t do much on the surround channels in DD Plus 5.1 (at 1.5mbps it’s still pretty robust), but the overall dialog sections come across nice and distinct. There’s a Spanish DD 2.0 track as well as subtitles in English, Spanish and French. Again, this is pretty much what you got on the combo disc release… yawn. And now for the final turn of the ol’ screw: you get a theatrical trailer— here’s your hat, what’s your hurry, nice to see ya, goodbye, that’s all you get for your $20 bucks. A cut-out bin HD release for a wicked cool movie. Universal blows chunks for doing this to fans (fans of Unleashed, Being John Malkovich, and the other Universal dumped releases this week… you’re getting screwed too) and despite the respect I have for the movie itself, I’d pass on buying this disc. Owners of the combo release, or better yet try to find that ol’ limited edition standard-def release from Anchor Bay (avoid the others) should keep ’em. Universal botched what could have been a definitive release, and the only reason to own this would be an upgrade in video quality (granted, the reincorporated footage is the weakest point in all video versions that have come out) and true 16×9 presentation, otherwise save your cash… Shop smart, shop S-Mart!

Being John Malkovich (Universal)
Featuring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean and Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich!!

One of the ultimate meta-movies… a movie that, through the tweaking of certain cinematic, physiological and philosophical (not to mention ethical and psychological) conventions allows us to get into the mind of a world-famous actor– literally! This is a film of so many unconventional quirks and twists that just recalling some of the distinctive moments becomes as fun as seeing the film again and again: Craig/Malkovich’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment, Elijah the Chimp’s hilarious and poignant moment of clarity as he saves the caged Lotte, Malkovich’s own meta-moment as he enters deep into the recesses of his own mind/body… and of course, the 7-1/2 floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building where LesterCorp is housed. If all of this sounds confusing to one that hasn’t seen the film, consider that a first viewing won’t really help you sort it all out… this movie demands repeat viewings to get the full experience.

Charlie Kaufman’s now-famous screenplay remains a masterpiece of original, fearless storytelling that’s aided and abetted by director Spike Jonze’s offbeat cinematic style… there was nothing even remotely like this movie when it first came out. Parts Lynch, Cronenberg and Ashby it’s a weirdly funny film that’s also a grim reminder of identity. It’s a different kind of meta-movie than say Fellini’s 8-1/2 or Truffaut’s Day for Night (aka La Nuit Américaine). It centers less on the making of a movie than it does highlighting the voyeuristic experience of seeing the world (truly!) through someone else’s eyes. The film is remarkable for staying cohesive throughout despite the weird little twists and turns along the way, it never gets boring, never loses its narrative thread and stays interesting and wonderfully weird throughout.

The final twist at the end is simply one of the most melancholy denouement’s in the history of film… you will walk away from Being John Malkovich with literal answers to the questions the film presents, but they may not necessarily be answers you like. That does not take away from the enjoyment of the film, in fact, it makes it more enjoyable because it’s thought provoking long after the end credits have rolled. Cusak, Keener, Bean and Malkovich himself (not to mention Charlie Sheen of all folks) all do incredible work here, but the most amazing dedication to character comes from none other than Cameron Diaz. She completely submerged herself into the role of Lotte and it’s hard to tell there’s really a gorgeous woman playing the role and not just some dowdy hag they found on a casting lark.

The HD DVD disc offers a fine 1.85 widescreen transfer in vivid 1080p, while not a showcase disc, this is the preferred way to view this film. The English and French audio tracks are offered in DD Plus 5.1 surround. The dialog comes across loud and clear at 1.5mbps sampling rate, and the overall ambiance plays well across the back channels. Features are the sames the standard-def Special Edition release from 2000. Those features are listed as:

  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • 7-1/2 Floor Orientation
  • American Arts & Culture Presents…John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment
  • A Page with Nothing On It
  • An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering
  • An Interview with Director Spike Jonze
  • An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving
  • Cast & Crew Biographies & Filmographies
  • Spike’s Photo Album

The Big Lebowski (Universal)
Featuring: Jeff “The Whole Brevity Thing” Bridges, John “Prior Restraint” Goodman, John “Click, Click” Turturro, David “Achiever” Huddleston, Julianne “Zesty!” Moore and Steve “I Am The Walrus” Buscemi

Let me start this review by pouring myself a Caucasian, settling myself onto my rug—y’know the one that really ties the room together, man. Spark a jay and I’m ready to go…

THIS IS ONE OF THE FUNNIEST MOVIES EVER MADE… Ever. But, y’know, man, like… some folks will never get it, man. It’s not for everyone, but you know who you are… in fact you’re reading this and feeling very Dude right now. The Brothers Coen graced their fans with one of the wittiest little twists on a Chandleresque-style Lost Ang-el-eeze mystery that goes absolutely nowhere, and has a terrifically fun time doing it. Its daylight noir, very much in the spirit of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown but played mostly for laughs. The comedy is not overt, beat-you-over-the-head stuff, but rather a deadpan absurdist take on the shamus yarn. But y’know, maybe that’s just like my opinion, man. I’ve watched this as a double-bill with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and am struck by the many similarities there are between the two films (not only because of their laconic leading men), as well as other L.A. gumshoe flicks I’ve seen. Of course, the Coens’ have a visual and narrative madness to their method that pretty much screams “whacky” when it’s not muttering “quirky.” The motley characters that populate Lebowski’s running time range from the silly (the nihilists who once fronted a band not unlike Kraftwork) to the sublime (Arthur Digby Sellers, the writer of the fictional TV show Branded, now confined to an ancient iron lung, both relics from another time), and the cinematic situations would be right at home in a Three Stooges short or a Samuel Beckett play. While the Coens’ Fargo may have the awards and the fond memories of mainstream fans, The Big Lebowski is seemingly meant for a different audience that just kinda gets the inspired insanity the Brothers Coen have wrought (a parking lot battle between the children of the 60’s and some 1990’s Euro-nihilists is a prime example).

This is definitely a movie that demands and rewards repeat viewings (take a good look at the check the dude makes out at the Ralphs market), and after a while you’ll find yourself quoting this dialog driven film and name checking the characters to friends and family… and if they’re in the know, they’ll give right back and then some. You can even find “random quote generators” on the Internet for the film (at least two of them are still running were started years ago) and that alone speaks volumes for the wit (and wisdom) that the Coens’ colorful characters constantly spew forth. The L.A. locations and the wicked sharp characterizations all play true to LaLaLand… but the Coens’ still find time to stray from “reality” to showcase a Busby Berkeley-style musical number that exemplifies all the retro-tropes that will have bowling fanatics rolling in the lanes with laughter and fans of Hollywood Golden Era musicals grinning from ear-to-ear. The movie has an impressive scope for being the story of a stoned-out throwback to 60’s idealism, but it’s the tiniest of details that sometimes make the film rise above the usual slacker epic. In the end, it’s a movie about a man who just is… “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude.” And he will abide! This most excellent film is offered in a nice looking upgrade from the standard-def Collector’s Edition released a couple of years ago.

It’s a VC-1 encoded 1080p image on an HD-30 dual-layer disc (features are in 480p of course) with a widescreen 2.35 theatrical ratio for 16×9 screens. Again, this is only an upgrade in image quality for an already decent looking film (HD does do it justice. During the film’s prologue you can see the Dude’s check appears much clearer— note the date and the checks’ design—classic Coen details). It’s not particularly showcase quality, but it’s definitely suitable for average hi-def viewing. Colors are nicely saturated with no bleeds or edge enhancements while black levels are nicely balanced throughout. The Big Lebowski is well known for its musical soundtrack, not so much Carter Burwell’s score as the somewhat obscure pop songs and classic rock that play throughout the film… and there’s some seriously quirky selections here that you’ll want to hear again and again. The Gypsy King’s version of “Hotel California” is but one standout musical moment. The sound is another improvement over the standard-def release if only because the compression is at 1.5mbps for DD-Plus 5.1 Surround. It offers a well-balanced mix where the dialog is to the fore except during the moments where the songs tend to blare a bit and overshadow every other auditory aspect of the film. Much the same could be said of the standard-def releases audio, but there’s a warmer, more robust sense of sound here.

There’s a French DD-Plus 2.0 mix as well (640kbps) and subtitles are in English, French and Spanish. Now, Universal’s either got a total lack of understanding about this film and its strong cult classic status among fans or they’re just plain cheap and lazy when it comes to their older catalog of films. Perhaps they consider Lebowski too minor a film to beef up with better features. The HD DVD’s special features are exactly as they were in the standard-def Collector’s Edition. What we’re getting here is:

Special Introduction: Featuring Mortimer Young (who, according to the disc’s spec info, is) a practitioner of “non-uptight” film preservation. His restoration of the famous “toe scene,” presented here, will blow your mind.
• Photographs By Jeff Bridges: Images from the set of the film.
The Making-Of The Big Lebowski: Including interviews with the Coen brothers.

I’m of the mind that films with a strong fan base need to be considered for better treatment than a slap-dash release on video that’s destined for the cut-out bin. Universal has disregarded the extraordinary impact this particular film has had on film geeks and those with a strong commitment to this film’s loopy philosophy. It’s as if they have no frame of reference for their own damned film’s level of interest years after its initial release. It’s a film that simply requires more in-depth features. See, there’s this thing called Lebowskifest that, year after year, gains momentum in various cities nationwide. It’s where fan(atic)s of the film can dress up like their favorite characters (or props!), get together at bowling alleys for screenings of the film and also get in some bowling (between drinking plenty of Caucasians— that’s a White Russian for you undude types— and scoping out potential lady friends as well as protecting rugs that, y’know, really tie the room together). It’s a most unique experience and something Universal should have captured on film and included as a special feature… Lebowskifest is just one of the fan-centric communities and networks to have sprung up around this movie (there’s also a new religion called “Dudeism” in the parlance of our times, but that’s another story). I could go on and on, but perhaps you’ve gotten the point… it’s a movie that’s totally worth owning, though the HD DVD release doesn’t make one want to run out and go find an ATM.

Black Snake Moan (Paramount)
Featuring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina “Exploit Me” Ricci, Justin Timberlake and Kim Richards

This lurid title, redolent of the old miscegenation fallacies of the old American South is actually a morality tale whose title is taken from a blues song written in 1927 by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Other than that, this tale of a sex-addicted young woman named Rae (Ricci, in an shockingly immersive performance) and the religious ol’ bluesman who helps her find herself and overcome her mean demons, is a familiar yet off-beat redemption story told with originality and dramatic heft by the seasoned performers. Director Craig Brewer, of Hustle & Flow fame, continues to fuse his Southern Gothic influenced storytelling sensibilities with gritty, contemporary plotting to come up with engrossing stories that often had me rooting for folks that normally I wouldn’t give an iota of care about. Brewer has a sure hand with actors (including a very good, believe it-or-not, performance from Justin Timberlake) and his deft integration of musical elements (first the hip-hop of Hustle & Flow and now the bluesy roots music of the deep South in Black Snake Moan) proves he’s a major cinematic talent to watch… a storyteller whose sense of classic narrative rhythms and taste for the more lurid aspects of Southern life show flair without flash, and keeps you interested in his characters right to the end. (Off the cuff: this film had one of the BEST billboard advertising campaigns… ever! The kind that causes car accidents as rubberneckers try to get a handle on what they saw).

The image on the HD DVD offering, identical to the Blu-ray release, looks hot enough to cause the chips in your DLP projector to sizzle and crack. We get a widescreen 2.35 theatrical ratio transferred via 1080p that looks absolutely fantastic. You would think from the ad campaign that you might get a grindhouse-style look for this film, but it’s actually a rather beautiful looking picture with nary a blemish to be found. The audio is worthy of the hi-def release– as opposed to the Blu-ray disc, the English track is well-rounded on all channels thanks to a 1.5mbps DD Plus 5.1. (The French audio track remains in standard DD 5.1 surround with subtitles are in English/French/Spanish). As with the Blu-ray release, the special features here are adequate for a film that performed well in its initial first few weeks of release but then faded from view. There’s actually high-def bonus content here! Included on the disc are:

  • Alternate Scenes – Deleted Scenes (HD)
  • Audio Commentaries – Craig Brewer – Director/Writer
  • Behind the Scenes – “Conflicted: The Making of BLACK SNAKE MOAN”
  • Featurettes:
    • 1. “Rooted in the Blues”
    • 2. “The Black Snake Moan”

The featurettes give some excellent background on Brewer’s inspirations and the issues he faced in making and marketing the film. Worth viewing, especially to see the lengths to which both Ricci and Jackson went through to make their performances physically and emotionally believable. Wow!

Bulletproof (Universal)
Featuring: Adam Sandler, Damon Wayans, Kristen Wilson, James Farentino and James “Bada Bing” Caan

As Spike Lee’s preferred cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson can do no wrong… as a director however, he’s got a real sketchy record of cinematic accomplishments. Rather than the socially inquisitive filmmaking of Lee, Dickerson seems to prefer directing simple entertainments aimed at young, male crossover audiences (also known as crapertainment!). Bulletproof, starring one of my least favorite of entertainers (hmmmm, which one, Sandler or Wayans), simply aims to please that particular audience… nothing more, maybe a little less, but it’s there for your perusal, but I can’t recommend it. It’s criticproof! Still the HD DVD widescreen transfer (VC-1, 1080p) brings out excellent detail from this ten year-old film with good color saturation with no noticeable enhancements that would be jarring or glaring during viewing. The audio for this action film is nicely handled by the DD Plus 5.1 surround mix (English and French with subtitles in the same language). Action sequences standout with ambient tones on rear channels and dialog to the fore on the center channels. The disc offers no special features… the movie really doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment anyway.

Dead Silence: Unrated (Universal) [HD DVD/DVD Combo]
Featuring: Donnie Wahlberg, Amber Valletta and Ryan Kwanten

From James Wan and Leigh Whannell comes the kabillionth movie named “Dead Silence.” This one’s about a freaky old-lady, Mary Shaw whose life as a ventriloquist at the Guignol theater (natch) is undone by accusations that she murdered a young boy from town. She’s subsequently lynched and buried with the special ventriloquist dummies she’s fond of creating… Wouldn’t ya know it, she won’t stay dead! She comes back to haunt the townsfolk as a legend spoken of in children’s rhymes and then as a manifest evil prone to butchering anyone connected to the boy she was accused of murdering. Silly most of the time, creepy in fits and starts, the film is mostly a missed opportunity due to the uneven acting and poor pacing. Unlike the Saw franchise, this film mostly delivers momentary shock scares and moody atmosphere rather than the bloody “gorno” mayhem the filmmakers have become known for. The film’s a mixed bag reminiscent of the old Puppetmaster series of films (or the minor-league psychological horror classic Magic)… hardly worth the rental let alone a purchase for the horror shelf of your hi-def library. There’s an alternate opening sequence and very different alternate ending for the film that makes less sense than the theatrical version, but mostly the “unrated” content isn’t something you couldn’t have seen in the theater… mild stuff for a horror film.

The VC-1 encoded 2.40 widescreen transfer (1080p) looks excellent… the colors are a little muted as per the theatrical release without bleeding, while black levels are perfect… shadowy scenes offer plenty of detail. The audio in DD Plus 5.1 surround offers excellent (and creepy) ambient tones, while the shock moments leap off the rear channels. There’s a standard DD 5.1 surround mix as well, also in English with subtitles in English, Spanish and French. The special features offered include deleted scenes, a EPK-style making of feature, a section of backstory and other character creation tidbits called Mary Shaw’s Secrets, an overview of the creation of one of the film’s special effect sequences but, alas, no audio commentary from the filmmakers (though there is a music video called “We Sleep Forever”).

Hustle & Flow (Paramount)
Featuring: Terrence Howard, Ludacris, D.J. Qualls, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning and Taraji P. Henson

I was less of a fan of this film on its release, but on video it’s grown on me a bit… I still have plenty of issues in rooting for a pimp who treats women like shit on his show, but then I also watch plenty of Sopranos episodes and find myself rooting wholeheartedly for what boils down to a big, fat murdering thug. In any case, this film was Craig Brewer’s second feature effort (his first was a little seen film called The Poor & The Hungry) and it amounts to his mainstream debut… and it’s a knockout, if you can get past the queasy feeling of rooting for the success of a drug dealing pimp named DJay (an excellent Terrence Howard). The rags to riches to rags story (don’t wanna give away the end, but it’s rather conflicted that’s for sure) frames a high-energy film with a strong hip-hop beat. The film won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Strong on character development, with exciting performances by Howard, skinny-assed D.J. Qualls and Anthony Anderson, the film is definitely worth a look and seems to be part of Brewer’s ongoing fascination (see Black Snake Moan) with the racial and economic issues of the Deep South.

The HD DVD disc from Paramount is similar (but not exact) in transfer compression and encoding quality to Black Snake Moan on HD DVD. The overall image is very good: we have a 1.85 widescreen transfer that offers sharp detail (almost too sharp for the low-budget theatrical image… lots of grain apparent). With the HD DVD disc we have a much better mix in DD Plus 5.1 (English, Spanish, French as are the subtitles). Since the music in this film is hardly a trivial aspect, the DD Plus mix gives it added power and better use of the surround channels. The features, except for the theatrical trailers, are not in HD. They include:

  • Audio commentary with writer/director Craig Brewer
  • Extended Scenes
  • Featurette: Behind the Hustle
  • Featurette: By Any Means Necessary
  • Featurette: Creatin’ Crunk
  • Memphis hometown premiere
  • “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” – Acoustic performance
  • Character audition and rehearsal segments
  • 6 promotional spots
  • Theatrical Trailers (HD)

Mallrats (Universal)
Featuring: Jeremy London, Jason Lee, Michael Rooker, Claire Forlani, Shannen Doherty, Kevin Smith and Jason “Snootchy Bootchies” Mewes

The second film in Kevin Smith’s ongoing (yeah, he says it won’t, but it will) examination of his own View Askewniverse, Mallrats is a film that really is only partially interesting to the non-Smith fan, but entertaining enough for fans of his work to consider it a cult classic in its own right. I gather it’s mostly due to the various nods and in-jokes featuring comic books (Stan Lee’s dating tips, etc.) and references to other films (mainly Jaws) along with, of course, the continuing story of the droids, er… stoners Jay and Silent Bob. I saw it all and I was only partially amused, but there’s a reason films gain fans and this one has those reasons in spades if that’s what you’re after. At the very, very least, it’s an interesting failure for Smith, who would then go on to direct the far superior Chasing Amy (still his best film to date).

The HD DVD version offers Smith’s expanded version of the film. The transfer is at 1080p (VC-1 encoding) with a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85. The film was done as a comic book style homage, and the colors do pop nicely off the hi-def screen. No noticeable artifacts or edging, the HD DVD image is clean and very detailed. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio (English) sounds very good. All dialog comes across as well-defined and the ambient tones are nicely mixed for surround. It’s not spectacular, but then the film isn’t a boombastic action flick either. The other track is a French DD Plus 2.0 mix and there are subtitles in English and French. For special features, Universal’s brought over everything (adding nothing) from the last standard-def 10th Anniversary release including:

  • Feature commentary with director Kevin Smith, cast members Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Jason Mewes, producer Scott Mosier and Vincent Pereira
  • Over one hour of deleted scenes
  • Live footage from the feature commentary session
  • Making-of Featurette
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • MCA Soundtrack Presentation: The Goops “Build Me Up Buttercup”
  • Production Photographs

Meet Joe Black (Universal)
Featuring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Claire Forlani and Jeffrey Tambor

Long, slow, and kind of boring are some of the many criticisms that could be leveled at Meet Joe Black, director Martin Brest’s effort to remake Death Takes a Holiday (from 1934… anyone remember it? natch!). It’s regarded as one of the most expensive non-special effects laden movies ever made, and is still seeking to make its money back. If you really want to help put Universal in the “black” on this picture’s general ledger activity they’ve released the HD DVD version for your consideration. The performances are good, if a little um, stiff. Pitt generally underplays Death/Joe Black while Hopkins is in a more restrained mode and seems to be channeling his more melancholy mood from Shadowlands. The film works best as a meditation on the finality of death and the vigor of life, but more often than not, it’s the subplot, concerning Hopkins’ character’s dwindling power over his company that makes the film more of an effort (to stay awake) than it needs to be.

The HD DVD disc is another Universal offering containing hi-def theatrical video content and special features carried over from the prior standard-def release. The VC-1 encoded 1080p image (in 1.85 widescreen) looks great on the whole… at 1080p everything looks sharp, clear and highly detailed. The audio is offered in English and French (as our the subtitles) DD Plus 5.1 surround and leans toward the dialog end of the surround spectrum (heavy center channel). The standard-def features (nothing special about them, mind you) include:

  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Talent Bios
  • Production Notes
  • Spotlight on Location
  • Film Highlights
  • Universal Web Links

Mystery Men (Universal)
Featuring: Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Greg Kinnear, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Lena Olin, Tom Waits, Claire “I’m In Three HD DVD Releases This Week” Forlani, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Kel Mitchell and Paul “Pee Wee LIVES! Reubens

Based on, or perhaps inspired by, the comic book run called “Flaming Carrot Comics,” the film features an oddball assortment of superheroes who come across as a mere afterthought in the minds of the general public when compared with a true superhero like Captain Amazing (a droll turn on pompous sports figures and the culture of celebrity worship by Greg Kinnear). The sub-echelon “super”heroes of Champion City include The Shoveler (Macy doing his workmanlike best), The Blue Raja (Azaria in a hysterically funny performance) and Mr. Furious (a somewhat annoying Ben Stiller in the leading man role… of course, he gets the gal). They’re either a little late to the excitement of saving Champion City or, more often than not, upstaged by Captain Amazing, a superhero seemingly able to cultivate NASCAR-like endorsements (which he wears all over his super suit) and save the world so repeatedly that he suddenly realizes (as do his corporate handlers) he’s putting himself out of business for a lack of crime. On the pretense of re-igniting interest in his super-abilities (and so he can keep the ol’ money machine runnin’) he springs his arch-enemy, the absurdly named Casanova Frankenstein (played with his usual freewheeling intensity by Geoffrey Rush) from the asylum where he’s safely ensconed… unfortunately Casanova Frankenstein gets the better of Captain Amazing and it’s up to the lesser-known “heroes” to recruit others with latent super abilities to fight Casanova Frankenstein and save the day.

The film is funny in parts mostly toward the beginning but also during the recruitment scenes and the acting ensemble is probably the most cohesive aspect of the film… save for Stiller, who I’ve never been a huge fan of, most everyone seems to have a great time with their roles, especially Jeanne Garofalo as “The Bowler” (a lady who has her father’s skull inside a supercharged bowling ball) and Paul Ruebens as “The Spleen” who’s flatulence problems are a boon to the the team of Mystery Men (who actually call themselves “The Super Squad,” a moniker they’re always trying to change). There’s also some fun extended cameos by Eddie Izzard and, of all folks, Tom Waits. On the whole, though, the film loses cohesiveness once the action kicks in late in the 2nd act.

The HD DVD offers a VC-1 transfer at 1080 progressive scan lines with a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85. The image quality is very good overall, with no noticeable artifacts or harsh enhancements. The sound in English DD Plus 5.1 surround is adequate for hi-def systems… no glaring problems at all. There’s also a French track (DD Plus 2.0 stereo) with subtitles in English and French. Again, as this is part of Universals huge dump of product in the HD DVD format (going against Universal’s prior stance on only releasing HD DVD items in the “combo” format), the features are pretty much identical to the standard-def release. Those features include:

  • Spotlight on Location
  • Feature Commentary with Director Kinka Usher
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Universal Soundtrack Presentation
  • Music Highlights including Smashmouth
  • The Origin of the “Mystery Men” Comic Book Characters
  • Production Notes
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Although I couldn’t access them (Mac user for life), there may also be PC DVD-ROM Features similar to the standard-def release.

Unleashed (Re-issue) (Universal)
Featuring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Phyllida Law and Kerry Condon

Another re-issue from a previous HD DVD/DVD combo disc offering, this Universal release on HD DVD looks better than the standard-def release and offers the same basic set of features. If you’re into Jet-Li’s martial arts films you definitely get some fine action sequences (and a few truly hard hitting ones), but the action is surrounded by the weak plot elements and twists of producer/writer Luc Besson’s screenplay (that kinda reminded me of the first quarter of Conan the Barbarian to tell ya the truth). Director Louis Leterrier (the gent who’ll be directing the new, simpler and more action-oriented Incredible Hulk film) does a good job with both the action and his actors… including Li, who actually gets to stretch here with a more soulfully sad performance as Danny the Dog (also the original name of this film and far more appropriate to its dramatic side). Hoskins bring back a bit of his Long Good Friday role here as Danny’s somewhat brutal “owner,” Bart. Morgan Freeman does excellent work with his role as the blind piano tuner (in addition to being the film’s weakest element the plot is also downright quirky at times) and Kerry Condon (so excellent on the HBO series Rome) plays her scenes with Li tenderly and making the most of the schmaltzy moments.

The HD DVD transfer is of excellent quality, showing off the interesting camerawork and editing in all the detail 1080p can provide. The widescreen 2.35 image is well-saturated and offers sharpness without harsh edging. The audio is offered in English DD Plus 5.1 and a Spanish 2.0 Stereo mix. The DD Plus track is superb with a 1.5 mbps sampled bitrate that rips up the speakers during the action sequences… it’s a nice, you-are-there feel. The subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish. Features include:

  • The Collar Comes Off – Go behind the scenes with the stars and filmmakers of Unleashed.
  • Interview With director Louis Leterrier
  • Massive Attack (“Atta Boy”) and The RZA music (“Unleash Me”) videos

The Watcher (Universal)
Featuring: Keanu Reeves, James Spader and Marisa Tomei

A cut-out bin release for truly awful cut-out bin material. None of the actors should have done this, hope they enjoyed the paychecks. Simply put, Spader is an FBI agent newly retired who is haunted by the serial killer he doggedly tracked, but never caught. When the killer shows up in Chicago where Spader’s Joel Campbell character is now based, pictures of the victims show up on Campbell’s doorstep just before the bodies begin showing up all over town. It’s a typical cat-and-mouse game that we’ve seen countless times before only here you get a painful reminder of what a poor actor (and good prop) Keanu Reeves truly is. Ugh… don’t rent, don’t buy… run away! You can package crap anyway you want, but in the end its still crap… and this crapola is now packaged as an HD DVD release. Sure it’s nice n’ sharp in 1080p (VC-1 encoded with a widescreen ratio of 1.85) and the audio is adequate for HD in DD Plus 5.1 surround (English and French as our the subtitles) and the sound is more than sufficient for hi-def home theater but the cream of video technology can’t rise above the cruddy story, rote acting and yawn inducing plot. Subtitles are in English and French… thankfully, no extras are offered.

Freedom: Vol. 1 (Bandai Visual)

Don’t know much about this one other than that it’s a 24-minute anime segment and part of a serialized video release. The HD release is actually an HD DVD/DVD twin format disc release. The futuristic tale (part of a Nissan ad campaign thats’ been expanded to a serialized movie) might be something worth seeing if you’re totally into anime or Japanimation (or are a fan of Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira and Steamboy)), but other than that, not much here for the non-fan.

This release may be the first twin-disc release seen thus far in the U.S… I know of no other as of yet… it’s something Microsoft and Bandai came up with and it features both an HD DVD and standard DVD on one side rather than a flipper disc common to the HD DVD/DVD Combo format (one side has a label… so there’s no guess which is the playable side).

On inserting the disc you’ll be asked to choose from a menu which version you’d want to watch… from there you either get the 480p DVD image or the hi-def 1080p (VC-1) image in 1.78 widescreen. The devil between the two formats is apparent in the finest of details… you’ll see a LOT more with the HD DVD version wheras the DVD choice is limited in terms of sharpness and finer detail… some color banding and artifacting is apparent on the standard-def image, while the hi-def image is mostly free from these issues. For audio there’s a DD Plus 5.1 surround Japanese (default) language track that automatically puts the English subtitles into play. There’s also a linear Japanese PCM option (2.0 stereo). The DD Plus track is very robust and features excellent utilization of all surround channels. Special features are limited to the HD DVD selection… they will not play on a standard-def player or if the menu selection for standard-def is chosen on an HD DVD player. The only standard-def feature via the DVD selection is a trailer for the series next episode.

On the hi-def side, the features include the use of HD-i tech specs and offers side-by-side storyboards for the running time of the film as well as production credits. In addition, there’s a Computerized Simulation of the tunnel race sequence that plays during the sequence in a Picture-in-Picture format. Now, if you’re HD DVD player is hooked up to a broadband internet connection, you can download additional features and exclusive online content that was not available for viewing when I checked. Sounds interesting though and the menus provided seem to make navigating to the online content a fairly easy chore… but what the online items do is valuable if you wish to “unlock” via an access code (only available online) for some of the special features already stored on the disc. Lastly, the HD case is noteworthy for not having the regular HD DVD case appearance.

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Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson enjoys knife throwing, growing exotic mosses, and that warm spot where the sun shines through the corrugated box. Christian also writes for Gadget Review. You can also find Christian on Google+, and Twitter.

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