HD DVD Movie Reviews July 3, 2007

This week’s HD DVD movie titles include: Blood Diamond, The Warriors: Ultimate Director’s Cut, and Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia and Robert De Niro star in the classic The Untouchables: Special Collector’s Edition.

Blood Diamond (Warner)
Features: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connelly

Though already released a few weeks back on Blu-ray, Warner’s is only now releasing Blood Diamond on HD DVD. This is movie that the De Beers company loves to hate, Blood Diamond actually received less mainstream press than I thought it would upon its premier last year. I figure most of the outrage against “blood” or conflict diamonds has already been generated from years of media reports covering the West African conflicts and South African profiteering that occurred during the 1990’s and eventually ended up in a process for ferreting out illegal diamonds mined out of war zones in order to illegally finance insurgent forces and their respective warlords. This process, called the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (with “Scheme” sounding kinda sketchy, don’tcha think?) is supposed to create transparencies in the diamond trade and make those declaring their effusive love each other feel good about putting a high-grade, 4-C rock on the ol’ ring-finger. And that, with the development of character archetypes we care about, is basically the plot for this earnest film that offers plenty of bloody action for the gung-ho and grim reminders for the socially conscious. The acting earned plenty of awards nominations, but some might find the characters to be rather two-dimensional as they race to find a rare pink diamond and discover the true meaning of Christmas (I’m kidding about that last part). The HD DVD release offers the same tech specs as the Blu-ray disc including widescreen 2.35 ratio image (1080p) with a video quality that focuses on the 4-Cs of hi-def: clarity, crispness, compression and color levels. There is some noticeable graininess at times (also apparent on the Blu-ray disc, but commented on now because of the hi-def comparison), but overall the image looks good especially in every gorgeously shot outdoor sequence. The audio differs from the Blu-ray release in giving us a DD True HD 5.1 mix that comes very close to the dynamic range of the PCM offered by the Blu-ray release. The audio acquits itself during the vicious battle sequences where automatic gunfire seems to come from everywhere in the room during the violent chaos, yet the dialog and score play off each other so that words are distinct and understandable. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 offerings in English, Spanish and French (like the subtitles) also sound fine for the hi-def theater system. The HD DVD disc offers an audio commentary by Director Edward Zwick along with a slew of production features and video diaries called “Focus Points” that include:

Blood on the Stone: Follow a Diamond’s Path from the Ground to the Stone
Becoming Archer: Profiling Leonardo DiCaprio
Journalism on the Front Line: Jennifer Connelly on Women Journalists at War
Inside the Siege of Freetown: Edward Zwick on One of the Movie’s Pivotal Sequences
• Nas “Shine on ‘Em” Music Video
• Theatrical Trailer

The major difference in hi-def releases comes from the HD DVD version which includes even more features such as the In-Movie Experience (IME) which is a picture-in-picture feature that allows a power-user to have an ongoing pop-up video commentary during the film and offers additional behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. It’s a cool little use of the HD DVD platform and not nearly as annoying as you’d think. Warner Home Video also included a few web-based features that utilize that broadband connection thingy on the back of HD DVD players… y’know that Ethernet port that seemed like a sneakers on a fish. Now it does something. WHV gives it the ability to allow the viewer to voice their opinions on aspects of the film (kind of like a never-ending screening of the film, I guess), vote on future WHV releases, as well as enjoy an additional interactive feature (ability to access maps of Africa showing areas of conflict diamond activity are a nice touch). WHV did not release these features on Blu-ray, so consider that when purchasing for your hi-def system. Note to HD DVD users: you may need a firmware upgrade for your HD DVD player to handle the broadband content, see manual or go to the website for that make/model to check for recent upgrades or possible firmware downloads.

The Untouchables: Special Collector’s Edition (Paramount)
Features: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia and Robert De Niro

Pure entertainment of the first order! The Untouchables, Brian DePlama and David Mamet’s film version of the old early 60’s TV show (and based on the real-life exploits of Bureau of Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness), is a completely re-watchable movie from start to finish. Well written by Mamet, it features lots of quotable dialog and memorable sequences staged so brilliantly by Brian DePlama as to overshadow much of his earlier, Hitchcock-style, suspense films. Two of the most well-known sequences, the meeting where Al Capone plays baseball with the noggin of one of his mob “employees,” and DePalma’s tension-filled Union Station homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Odessa Steps” sequence from the 1925 epic Battleship Potemkin are amazing in the way they play with audience expectations and the utter audacity with which they’re staged. The actors are all in fine form here, with De Niro creating a Capone for the ages (both physically and dramatically), Connery chewing scenery with his Scottish brogue delivery (playing an Irish cop in 20’s Chicago), and Kevin Costner, in Gary Cooper mode, as straight-laced Ness, putting in a performance that rivals Robert Stack’s command of the role on network TV . Supporting roles are handled well by Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith (and hey! gorgeous Patricia Clarkson shows up as Ness’s wife in a few scenes), but it’s Billy Drago who has the ultimate villain role as Capone’s nasty enforcer, Frank Nitti… he’s a complete sociopath whose bloody hands are in every dirty job (unlike in real life, where he assumed control of Capone’s organization through cunning and his business skills rather than resorting to murder). Nitti’s attack on Malone (Connery) is another stand-out sequence that recalls some of Coppola’s most operatic moments in the Godfather Trilogy (considering its use of the tragic Italian opera Pagliacci, it ought to).

The HD DVD disc is a hi-def remaster that found its way to the standard-def 2-Disc Collector’s Edition a while back and it looks gorgeous… save for some noticeable edging issues. Using an HD VC-1 (1080p) transfer, the video elements look excellent with very good color saturation (less bleed from the reds here to the point where it’s no longer a minor distraction… I find the HD DVD image to be superior to the Blu-ray offering). The black levels are top-notch and the deep browns prevalent throughout the film give off plenty of sharp detail. The 2.35 widescreen image shows off Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography in all its richness. The audio does an equally excellent job if using the DTS 6.1 (1.5 mbps) matrixed surround selection… as soon as the first aggressively urgent thrums of Ennio Morricone’s classic, powerful score come rumbling out of the speakers it’s apparent Paramount’s release is well worth the buy. The DTS-HD matrixed mix is very fine in letting the score roll off the rear speakers, but the 6.1 channels largely come into play during certain actions sequences, especially the Union Station sequence. Dialog comes across clear and understandable, hitting very warm tones from the center and side channels. The DD Plus EX 5.1 surround selection offers up to 1.5mbps bitrate compression (an improvement over the Blu-ray disc) which sounds impressive for a film released in 1987 before the advent of digital soundtracks (there’s also a DD Plus EX 5.1 track in Spanish or French at an even lower bitrate. Subtitles are in English, Spanish and French).

The special features are identical to the 2-Disc Special Collectors DVD edition and still manage to include no audio commentary from DePlama (who really doesn’t like to do ’em)… what you get is The Script, The Cast which includes a few interviews with DePalma, producer Art Linson and (via older inter-cut footage) the cast; Production Stories is an in-depth look at how Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum achieved the period look of the film; Reinventing the Genre is a look at how DePlama conceived the film’s overall place in the gangster genre and also dissects two of the films most violent sequences while offering up some deleted bits, The Classic offers up a conversation about the film’s memorable musical score; there’s also an EPK featurette called The Men that was used to promote the film and a theatrical trailer (new to the Blu-ray/HD DVD release, it’s in hi-def 1080p). Folks, this one belongs in your HD DVD library purely on the excellence of the video and audio transfers alone (also recommended for Blu-ray owners, though the specs vary and lack the nearly impeccable quality of the HD DVD release), but it’s also the pure gusto of the filmmaking that will make this disc repeatedly worth viewing.

The Warriors: Ultimate Director’s Cut (Paramount)
Features: Michael Beck, James Remar, Dorsey Wright, Deborah Van Valkenberg and David Patrick “Come Out to Plaaaaayyy-yay!” Kelly

CAN – YOU – DIG – IT!! Walter Hill’s little cult classic of a youth gang fighting to reach their home turf recently went from campy to comic book for the standard-def DVD Ultimate Director’s Cut release, and here it is again on hi-def. Nothing’s really changed except the bitrates and scanlines, so if you’re the movie geek that’s just gotta upgrade their existing collection, this one’s worth buying.

This New York story, as we should all know by now, concerns the pleather-clad Warriors from Coney Island. Led by Andy Gibb lookalike Swan (Michael Beck), the Warriors find themselves very, very far from home when then attend a gang summit called by Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs… needless to say, the attempt by Cyrus to unite all the New York gangs into a force to be reckoned with ends with his assassination, but whodunit?? Fingers point immediately to The Warriors and from then on, The Warriors must fight rival gangs— the best being the Baseball Furies (though their fight is kinda lame, not nearly what you’d expect) and The Lizzies n’ Punks. There’s the duplicitous Orphans and the somewhat bloodthirsty Rouges… all of them become help or hindrance during the Warriors odyssey homeward.

It’s a highly stylized film for it’s time, not quite the ultra-violent take on urban gang life its infamous poster would have you think it is… it’s more like a mix of The Wanderers and The Wiz than A Clockwork Orange… still, you’ll viddy well especially with the Director’s Cut sanctioned and modified by Walter Hill himself. The film now emphasizes its links less to Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel (source for the film) and goes way back in the Wayback Machine to the adventure of the Ten Thousand from Greek legend (same story… group of guys must get through enemy territory to find their way home to safety). Whereas the 1979 cut had passing references to Hill’s interest in the story of the Ten Thousand (recorded by Xenophon in his Anabasis) with the radio DJ as Greek chorus and the various tests of skill, wit and endurance faced by our heroes, Hill now creates a prologue that explicitly references that legend and creates comic book panels for the camera to loving pan over in which both exposition and transitions from scene-to-scene now occur. It’s a stunning little effect and though my buddy Paul, a huge fan of the film, hates the new look Hill’s given his gritty adventure yarn, I personally enjoyed it and felt it added some needed eye candy to a film that was, frankly, looking completely dated and worse for wear. Times have definitely changed since The Warriors original theatrical release, but overall the film is still very influential, more so for Hill’s visual artistry and handling of his young cast including the young James Remar (sheesh… my how the years have flown), and especially quirky David Patrick Kelly playing the utterly loathsome Luther (he plays a variation on that same name in Hill’s wonderfully silly 48 Hrs.), he of the most memorably haunting line in the film… the one that lingers long after the credits have rolled.

The HD DVD version of the Extended Director’s Cut is a fine looking video release for the film’s age… all things considered the picture, in the theatrical widescreen ratio of 1.85, looks incredible for its age, and I mean it looks like it could have been filmed yesterday. Paramount is currently avoiding VC-1 transfers on HD DVD in favor of AVC encoded MPEG-4 compression (1080p). The remastered image is bright and very crisp with a level of detail that should belie the film’s age, but doesn’t. The black levels are dark and retain exceptional detail while the overall saturation of the color plays very nice to the eye. There’s very little marring or video nose, and no noticeable edge enhancement. Where the film’s age is most apparent is on the audio side of the equation. With a DD 5.1 surround mix (here we have an upgrade from the Blu-ray) to 1.5mbps, there’s nothing really wrong here, in fact, I doubt there’s much Paramount could have done differently. The audio sounds great on the dialog end of the spectrum, while there’s not much action to distinguish the use of multi-channel surround and ambient tones barely register on the whole it’s a step up from the old video monaural track (which the Spanish and French languages retain in DD 1.0 mono). Subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish.

The extras are exactly the same save for the theatrical trailer which is now HD in 1080p. There’s a nice introduction by Walter Hill explaining the artistic changes and ties to Greek historical legend, there’s also four featurettes including The Beginning which relates how the rights to the book were purchased and the approach taken with the story as it was translated to a screenplay and eventually the pre-production fights and conceptual work done to create the distinctive gangs and their respective looks. The Battleground features some onset drama and production memories including what it takes to get hundreds of street-cast extras to do what you want. The Way Home features more in-depth production material including staging of some of the fight sequences, some absurd memories of real gangs honing in on the actors playing gang members and more on the film’s unique look and costumes… there’s also a bit on how David Patrick Kelly came up with his irritating little chant, total geek stuff! Love it! The Phenomenon offers even more details of the production, including some trivia on the voice of the radio DJ heard throughout the film as well as offering a deleted moment and alternative introduction and some reflections from the cast and crew on the film’s cult status. While this isn’t necessarily a showcase disc (unless you’re doing a side-by-side comparison with the older standard DVD or even older VHS, which will truly blow you away), it is a must-buy and highly recommended for fans of the film. For those with a casual interest, I’d consider buying it for the film’s content and its impressive HD DVD specs.

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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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