HD DVD movie releases for July 10, 2007
Billy Madison (Universal)
Featuring: Adam Sandler, Darren McGavin, Bridgette Wilson, and Bradley Whitford
High-concept comic stupidity found quite a bit of favor in the late 90’s, and Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison is a classic of this lame little sub-genre of comedy. While I’m not fan myself (though parts of Happy Gilmore always make me giggle like an idiot), the film is very effective in milking Sandler’s talent for being loud, obnoxious (or brash, take your pick) and moronic in clever little subversive ways, upending the establishment (here, symbolized by Darren McGavin’s wealthy, master-of-the-universe hotel magnate) and giving a big raspberry to all that the more uptight among us hold sacred.
The plot is threadbare, simply a device to hang Sandler’s schtick upon: in order to gain his father’s trust and the possibility of having the family business pass to him, instead of the evil toady that works for his father, Billy posits a contest where he will return to elementary school and earn his way back up the educational system to graduate high school. Of course, he gains a hottie love interest in the bargain (is there a woman alive that wouldn’t be turned off by Billy yelling, shouting, screaming and generally acting like a severely retarded five year-old??).
The HD DVD release is a cut-out bin release with a 1080 progressive scanline look. The colors pop (and offer a little bleed), the clarity is fine and details standout in darkest areas of the widescreen 1.85 frame. You get a DD+ 5.1 surround mix (and a French DD+ 2.0 mix, subtitles are in English/French) that is adequate for this type of film… nothing stands out, but dialog comes across nicely in a large home theater room. The DVD features come back to haunt on the HD DVD release: same dull commentary by director Tamra Davis (largely doing better work in TV nowadays). There’s some deleted scenes (some camera mugging, etc.) and outtakes (more of the same this time out of character). Skip the buy, rent if you must.
Dante’s Peak (Universal)
Featuring: Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Charles Hallahan, and Jamie Renée Smith
Of the two volcano movies that just had to be made back in 1997, Dante’s Peak comes across as a less-cheeseball, more intense effort compared to the eponymously named Volcano. Both films take their build-to-action from the same material super-producer Irwin Allen did back in the 70’s, but Dante’s Peak is superior in building sympathetic characters (that don’t come across like jabbering kooks) that, once put in peril, you can actually give a lick about. The effects are far more realistic, similar to what I’ve seen from video footage of volcano’s doing their thing and, in fact, Dante’s Peak is very much inspired by the Mount St. Helen’s Plinian eruption in 1980 besides getting name-checked numerous times during the early part of the film. It offers some stumbles in the story, some true surprises (lake of acid! you rock!!) and some very tense moments (try getting that grandma’s screams out of your head immediately after seeing the film). Brosnan and Hamilton do fine work together and do their best with the very limited screenplay, but for the most part it’s a fun indulgence in setting up a town just to see it get knocked down in a pyroclastic flow of rock and ash. Neato! The HD DVD offers up the destruction in 1080p at a widescreen 2.35 ratio… the theatrical experience comes across exceptionally well in 16×9 video, and the level of detail blows the DVD into hot ash. The audio, important for this type of movie, is less than wonderful for hi-def, but still exemplary for digital disc formats. I want a TrueHD sound, at least, for action films in my library and especially disaster films where there’s a lot of bang, boom, blammo! Not to be found here is that kind of robust, knockdown fidelity I’ve come to love from TrueHD-MLP. The lossless format treats sound better and offers more sonic clarity and dynamic range at a much higher bitrate. The DD Plus 5.1 audio included on the HD DVD release of Dante’s Peak sounds good enough for the hi-def format, but it doesn’t take advantage of every surround channel in a way that would provide a truly immersive experience (I think the DTS DVD is superior on the audio side, but that disc lacks any features, is no longer produced and it lacks the hi-def video format of course). I’m a little disappointed, and figure this to be evidence of a cut-out bin attitude toward this release. Special Features on this HD DVD disc bear this out in that they match the Collector’s Edition DVD with nothing new here:
- Getting Close to the Show – The Making of Dante’s Peak
- Theatrical Trailer
- Commentary with Director Roger Donaldson and Production Designer Dennis Washington
IMAX: Blue Planet (Warner)
Featuring: The Beautiful Planet Earth
Imagine being a visitor from another planet (go ahead, imagine it!)… your approach to Planet Earth would be breathtaking in its scope as the small fuzzy blue dot becomes a blue-green and white sphere where obvious weather activity is taking place, but on closer inspection… wait! there seems to be spectacular changes taking place right before your eyes. That weather activity is changing the landscape while unseen seismic activity is also causing spectacular change that can be seen with surface volcanoes violently spewing forth, roiling the oceans and changing flatland into mountaintop. Earth’s dynamic changes, seen from space, is what drives this beautiful looking HD release. While the narration (by writer Toni Myers) is a little stiff and not as interesting as the image, the image of Earth against the inky-blackness of space is what makes this film worth owning on Blu-ray or HD DVD.
Ben Burtt was sound designer on IMAX’s The Dream is Alive (included on both Blue Planet hi-def DVD releases this week), which was directed by Graeme Ferguson and written by Toni Myers. Myers returns as the writer of Blue Planet with Ferguson now producing and Ben Burtt directing the spectacular show. Fans of the Star Wars series may remember Burtt as the dual-trilogy’s sound designer (and eventual sound/film editor), having come up with, from scratch, all the sounds needed to populate Lucas’s imaginary galaxy. Now, in the truly soundless environment of space, Burtt was able to supervise the filming of Earth footage (actually shot over five space shuttle missions by the astronauts themselves), as well as amazing looking ocean and land-based footage of our home planet. The theatrical IMAX film, though offering a stupendous (and huge) image in special large-format IMAX theaters, suffered from a short running time (42 minutes… most IMAX films are under 50 minutes) and narration that was a bit too-mellow, hardly enlightening the viewer any more than the standard Discovery channel documentary (and compared to the recent BBC/Discovery Planet Earth releases, it falls short of the mark set by that landmark work). Those flaws are exacerbated on the video releases, though the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases actually make them easier to take… again, the point of owning this film in either hi-def format is the image itself. The HD DVD disc presents a remastered transfer by Warners with VC-1 encoding (1080p, of course) and a 1.78 widescreen ratio. The image is simply excellent with very little to complain about here: with a remastered image from a formerly large-format IMAX film, the HD DVD stands up pretty well to videophile scrutiny, but I believe that the BBC Planet Earth HD DVD effort is superior… there’s just a little banding here n’ there on this disc, noticeable in the darkest blues, reds and warmer colors. The audio features an out-of-this-world DD TrueHD 5.1 mix that offers plenty of spatial usage of the surround channels while kicking out a full range of mids and highs… this does nothing to salvage the mostly uninteresting narration though. There’s also a standard DD 5.1 surround mix in French and English (subtitles are in English). The only special feature is the 1985 IMAX film, The Dream is Alive (remastered in 1080p) which covers the early days of NASA’s space shuttle development and missions. Of interest for space-travel and NASA buffs, the film spends quite a bit of time on the space shuttle Challenger, which would be destroyed on launch within a year of this film’s release (some of that doomed mission’s crew are featured in this IMAX film). It’s a very nice compliment to Blue Planet but, let’s face it, the magic of IMAX films is the ability to see them in an IMAX theater. Unfortunately, no matter how good your hi-def theater system is (unless your one of those who can afford to mimic the IMAX experience at home somehow), these films lose a lot of their large-format impact. This is not to say they don’t look good in hi-def, but the overall visual stimulation is brought down considerably for the smaller screens of the home theater.
The War (Universal)
Featuring: Elijah Wood, Kevin Costner, Mare Winningham, Christine Baranski and Lexi Randall
A mediocrity of a movie, if only because the woefully inept themes of the story are never developed the way they should be, and the central metaphor of the “war” over a treehouse (standing in for the conflict in Vietnam if not all conflicts and wars) is ludicrously played out. The saving grace of this message movie are the performances: Costner as the shell-shocked father of young kids (Wood and Randall) is excellent in a mostly subdued role, while Elijah Wood shines as Stu Simmons, a son trying to understand his father’s emotional pain and inability to hold down a job while at the same time asserting himself against local bullies intent on taking over the treehouse he and his sister have built. Young non-pro LaToya Chisholm offers up an excellent performance as a young black girl (friend to the Simmons kids) who must fight the racist attitudes of her schoolteacher and classmates. If it weren’t for the maudlin storytelling of director Jon Avnet, this might have been an exceptional actor’s picture, but those performances only stand out against the muddle of metaphor and contrived set-pieces (all taking place in 1970’s Mississippi). The children’s war over the treehouse never really coalesces into anything but a nicely staged, if patently ridiculous, coming-of-age moment, while the ending leaves one feeling a bit manipulated and a little morose. While the HD DVD offers a nice image (VC-1 encoded / 1080p, can’t go wrong there), it’s the audio on this disc that’s the standout… Still, the HD DVD image is nothing to complain about… it’s a very detailed 1.85 widescreen image with decent color saturation and dark hues. The Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD audio renders the dialog with warm mid-range tones and good balance in the surround channels (there’s also a DD Plus 5.1 offering in English and French… the English Plus track sounded excellent as well, but the TrueHD for this disc was somewhat fuller and robust). Subtitles are in English and French. No special features… consider this a rental if the subject matter and actors interest you.
The Wedding Date (Universal)
Featuring: Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams, and Jack Davenport
You’re better of missing this wedding date and just sending a card to the couple in question. Seriously, this isn’t up to even the bare minimum standards for a successful rom-com. Messing and Mulroney have little chemistry and the storyline (of a woman hiring a male escort to make her former fiancé– who’s marrying her sister!– jealous) is a contrived mix that never even aspires to the likes of say, Pretty Woman. In any case, if you dig romantic comedies, you might look elsewhere. This HD DVD effort is an affair that makes the film look better than it should: VC-1 encoded at 1080p, the image is sharp and clear with very good color saturation and no noticeable flaws. The audio offered in English DD Plus 5.1 surround makes the dialog from the center channels and sides sound understandable with warm mid-tones dominant (subtitles are English only). Special Features (in 480p) offered include:
- Feature Commentary with Debra Messing
- A Date With Debra – Debra Messing relates her favorite on set moments and stories.
- Deleted Scenes