Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Absolute Last DVD List of 2007 List

First, the bad news.

We decided not to hold price against anyone, as early adopters understand that they will be making up the profit shortfall on new technology. Instead we concentrate on irksome productions that only serve to remind us of classics still unavailable on HD, the needlessly defective, and the resolution-challenged.

The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut – HD-DVD & Blu-ray (1979)
We would prefer to blame studio huckstership rather than grand scale hubris on the part of the otherwise talented Walter Hill, but someone had to decide that subtext just wasn’t good enough anymore. A few years ago, Hill’s minor masterpiece suffered the addition of a ridiculous prologue directly linking the film with the Anabasis (Xenophon’s story of 10,000 Greek warriors who must fight their way through hostile Persia back to the sea) that would be better suiting a peplum from the 50s, along with Creepshow-style comic book panels to most major transition points. These changes make any previous definition of ‘unnecessary’ and ‘annoying’ utterly superfluous. Though it did have the effect of making Paramount’s initial DVD offering of the title, previously memorable only for the ugliest cover art imaginable, into an instant collectable, available only on Amazon from 3rd party sellers or Ebay. And, of course, this God-awful victim of cosmetic surgery is the version preserved on HD disc. Thanks, Paramount!
My angel is a centerfold!!!

The Hills Have Eyes 2 - Blu-ray (2007)
Without apology, I really liked Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s ’77 stomach turner about a typical suburban family who run afoul of a less typical family of cannibals in the southwestern desert. Aja’s Haute Tension (2003) is a flat-out horror masterpiece – a grim, play-for-keeps (and blissfully mirthless) ode to classic American grindhouse fare – and proof that he was the right person to helm the remake of one of the decade’s rawest gems. Aja only tripped up by providing too much backstory for the man-eating family (inspired by the splendidly gruesome Swaney Bean legend but that error only stands out as a small black ink spot on an otherwise gleaming, white page. The sequel to the remake was penned by Craven and son Jonathan, but should not be confused with Craven’s own Hills Have Eyes part II made in 1985, and directed by music video and commercial vet Martin Weisz. A slow, meandering death march of a film, so utterly devoid of even the smallest spark of invention that we were reminded of the scene in Ed Wood where the studio executive is so aghast at what he’s seeing that he assumes it to be a prank. Substituting a National Guard platoon out on desert maneuvers for the previous film’s vacationing family, the film desperately tries to reach over the Aja void for violent excess which is neither earned nor appreciated (including a particularly ugly rape scene). Sadder still is the top shelf treatment accorded it by Fox on Blu-ray, with a stunning image and thunderous audio. Where is the initial Aja remake? Hell, where’s Terror Train?

The Bourne Ultimatum - HD-DVD (2007)
Great movie – the third in a series that gets inexplicably better with each entry. To celebrate the release of the third Jason Bourne film on HD-DVD, Universal decided to make this a combo disc (see Star Trek above) which necessitates a complex manufacturing process giving the discs a high failure rate. The AVS Forum for HD-DVD was filled with complaints from people whose discs locked up at nearly exactly the same moment (some were on their second returns only to find the lock-up happening again). I’ve yet to see this sort of issue crop up with Blu-ray discs to the degree they do with these irritating combos. Now, maybe I’m not being fair to Bourne – actually, I’m definitely not. But since I couldn’t even finish watching the movie, poor Jason will just have to stand in for every other poorly manufactured combo HD-DVD. So, anyone know what happens at the end?

Spider-Man: The High-Definition Trilogy - Blu-ray (2002-2007)
The first two Spider-Man movies sit among the upper echelon of comic adaptations. Along with Donner’s Superman, Singer’s X-Men films, and Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins, it represents the high watermark of what is achievable with a combination of verisimilitude and the savvy of a good filmmaker. Spider-Man 3, however, seemed to be the movie that neither the director nor cast had much enthusiasm for – it oozes ‘contractual obligation’ from every pore. Director Sam Raimi had opposed using fan favorite villain Venom in the films, but was overruled, resulting in the sort of unenthusiastic over-saturation of bad guys not seen since the gay fantasia Batman films of Joel Schumacher (all due respect to Sam, but Green Goblin Jr. and Sandman pale miserably beside Venom). Alright, Sony, you made a stinker – two out of three is still a winning average, right? I’ll just pick up the first two on Blu-ray and be on my way. What’s that? I can’t? You mean I have to buy an expensive box set of all three in order to get the first two?!? I know that Warner Bros is doing the same thing with the Oceans 11 movies, but who the hell cares? You’re holding loved ones for ransom alongside my noisy upstairs neighbors who I’d like to see shot anyway! Booooo!

28 Days Later - Blu-ray (2002)
Real simple – the movie is great; in fact it’s one of the better horror movies of the decade. Trainspotting director Danny Boyle borrows liberally from Day of the Triffids, Dawn of the Dead, and numerous other genre efforts to create a world (England, specifically) nearly devoid of human life and overrun with zombie-ish victims of an outbreak of a virus called Rage, which turns normal folk into bloodthirsty maniacs within seconds after exposure. However, most of the film was shot using Canon DV cameras with a resolution considerably less than the 1080p capacity of Blu-ray. The visual differences between the standard DVD and the Blu-ray disc are almost negligible, and at twice the price. On general principal, I’m not a fan of warning stickers, but when the source material is of a significant lower resolution than is advertised prominently on the box, that’s something you might consider mentioning.

Finally, to end on a more upbeat note, here’s a random sampling of some of the best catalog titles to come out last year. By “catalog titles” we mean anything released before I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and after Edison’s Frankenstein. All titles were released on both formats.

Battle of the Bulge (1965) – Grand scale World War II action made before we had to take it seriously and use jerky-cam and wash out the color scheme. Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Robert Shaw headline the perfect Saturday afternoon. The HD rendering of the 2.76x1 Ultra Panavision ratio is breathtaking.

Rio Bravo (1959) – Our favorite John Wayne western was actually directed by Howard Hawks, and there were few others who were better at depicting male bonding in the midst of crisis. From the wordless introduction to Dino’s great moment in the bar, to the final walk down the street, there’s nary a step put wrong.

The Untouchables (1987) – DePalma’s best gun-for-hire studio work to date. Career making roles for Costner and Andy Garcia, Connery’s Oscar winning comeback, and DeNiro back when his presence actually meant something, combine with a David Mamet script and one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores. By making a film about movies rather than gangsters and G-Men, DePalma wound up with a classic.

Blade Runner (1982) – Maybe the most lavishly DVD set ever produced. 5 discs (!) plus production drawings, replicas of the ‘spinner’ ship and unicorn, and a plastic-encased lenticular image from the film. Both Scott’s new cut and the previous variants are presented in 1080p, but the new cut has gone through a painstaking restoration process and looks flawless.

Viva Las Vegas (1964) – Still Elvis’ best; a charmer that has the smarts to match up the King with Ann-Margret, a performer somewhat closer to his own speed (closer at least than Shelly Fabares). C’mon Everybody, My Rival, The Lady Loves Me, and What’d I Say are just a few of the featured numbers. Notable also for what may be the longest single date in movie history.

Alexander Revisited (2004) – Joining the official Heaven’s Gate 'most hated, seldom seen' club immediately upon release, Oliver Stone’s massive biopic on the life of Alexander the Great is a much, much better film than all your friends who never saw it would lead you to believe. A miscast Colin Farrell’s uneven performance creates some shaky ground on which stone has to erect several hours worth of narrative, but good work from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie – and a great performance from Val Kilmer as Philip – help to level the playing field. Stone is very good at keeping these massive, multi-character productions focused, and the risky time jumping structure pays off well. This 220min version is Stone’s third edit, following the initial theatrical cut (175min), and a more streamlined ‘director’s cut’ for video (167min). Until Universal fixes their butt-ugly Spartacus, it’s the best ancient world epic on HD disc.

Wyatt Earp (1994)
The flashier Tombstone beat Earp to theaters by several months and seemed to steal all the recently ignited post-Unforgiven fire for westerns. Lawrence Kasdan’s quite epic traces Wyatt’s life from childhood in linear, old style Hollywood fashion. Costner catches a lot of shit these days, but he has a presence in westerns that few actors of his generation have. The script’s take on Earp as a man emotionally closed off by past tragedies suits Costner’s stoic visage well. Joining him is a mouth watering collection of actors who are all perfectly suited to their roles; Gene Hackman as papa Earp, Michael Masden as brother Virgil (look fast for a young James Caviezel as Warren Earp), Bill Pullman and Tom Sizemore as the Mastersons, and Jeff Fahey as Ike Clanton! A slightly longer cut was released on DVD and VHS some time ago, but the DVD release was the standard theatrical cut as is the HD release – but all added scenes are present as ‘Deleted Scenes’ to take the sting out.