9/26/06 Edition

The Format War Begins...Again!
Blu-Ray and HD-DVD Line Up For Your Dollars
Plus: STAR WARS and GREASE Revisited; New Disney & Fox Round-Up!

If you’ve been following the home electronics front for the last year or so, you’re undoubtedly aware that a format war is brewing over the next generation of DVD. The two opposing formats -- backed by different groupings of studios and manufacturers -- and heirs to the current “standard definition” DVD are HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, and neither has so far shown much strength in terms of garnering substantial consumer interest.

Both formats offer high-definition video and uncompressed digital stereo audio (something that would rectify a particular pet peeve of audiophiles with our current DVDs). Without diving into overly technical terms, here’s a brief summation of the two formats and their respective attributes:

*Blu-Ray has the advantage of holding additional capacity on its discs (25GB vs. HD-DVD’s 15GB on a single-layer disc), making it potentially more powerful from a technical standpoint; the downside are its inherent manufacturing costs, which means most Blu-Ray players are roughly priced at double the SRP of a standard HD-DVD player. Blu-Ray is backed primarily by Sony, which is hoping its introduction via the upcoming Playstation 3 breaks Blu-Ray into the mainstream. However, the scant amount of PS3's that will be available this holiday season, combined with numerous technical issues that have plagued Blu-Ray thus far (most early Blu-Ray DVDs lack supplements, incredibly, despite all that space!), seem to hint that the format’s sluggish start will continue for the near future.

*HD-DVD discs might not be able to hold the same amount of data as Blu-Ray, but so far that doesn’t seem to be an issue in terms of audio/video quality. Of the discs currently available, published reports indicate that there’s no loss in quality between the respective Blu-Ray and HD-DVD versions -- at least not in the first generation of titles. In fact, relatively new recording compression codecs HD-DVD utilizes have, at the moment, rendered that additional Blu-Ray capacity meaningless in terms of producing a superior product to HD-DVD. The format has gotten off to a relatively healthier start as well: nearly three times as many films are available in HD-DVD as they are in Blu-Ray, players cost roughly half that as Blu-Ray, and Microsoft is planning an HD-DVD add-on for their Xbox 360 this Christmas at a cost not to exceed $199. Granted, HD-DVD sales aren’t setting the world on fire either, but with pricing in its favor and comparable quality between the two formats (not to mention the simple fact that it has “DVD” in its brand name), there seems little doubt HD-DVD has gotten out of the gate faster and healthier than Blu-Ray.

Whatever talk there might have been about the various manufacturers coming together for the greater good of selling one HDTV-DVD format has gone by the wayside, and the two formats apparently will be duking it out well into the holiday season.

This news can’t come as an appealing development for consumers, who are just now beginning to embrace HDTV itself. The confusion over the two formats, the open question as to whether or not consumers will even be interested in re-purchasing titles all over again so quickly after they disposed of their VHS collections, and other technical issues have understandably slowed the growth of both HD-DVD and especially Blu-Ray during their first few months in the marketplace.

Of course, The Aisle Seat will be there to cover whichever format takes off, but for the time being, it seems reasonable to say that the best course of action for consumers is to stand pat and let the battle play out before investing mucho dollars in either format. The differences between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD and your standard-definition DVD may be startling, especially to the technophile (and are also further dependant on the size of your TV), but make no mistake: the leap from either of these formats to regular DVD isn’t nearly the gap as, say, what DVD was to VHS. Yes, many of the transfers I’ve seen are impressive and often exceed standard-def DVD boundaries, but in some instances (particularly some of MGM’s early Blu-Ray discs), the differences are downright negligible. Subsequently, it’s entirely possible that, for some consumers -- the ones who gobbled up VHS in particular -- HD-DVD or Blu-Ray may be a very hard sell. (Because of this, Warner has recently begun undertaking the possibility of offering dual HD-DVD and Blu-Ray versions in a single DVD package -- making one feel that the future of either format will be intertwined in the other, or at the least favoring the format that’s less expensive to both produce and market to the consumer).

At any rate, I offer these suggestions not merely as an “FYI,” but also because this week marks the debut Aisle Seat coverage of Blu-Ray discs, with Buena Vista offering their first releases in the format: the 2000 Disney animated blockbuster DINOSAUR (***, 82 mins., PG); the recent, terrific Frank Marshall-directed adventure EIGHT BELOW (***½, 2006, 120 mins., PG); John Dahl’s little-seen and under-rated WWII epic THE GREAT RAID (***, 2005, 131 mins., R); and Kevin Smith’s JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (**½, 2001, 104 mins., R).

Before we examine the discs, I do have a confession to make: I own an HDTV and a fine upscaling DVD player (the multi-region Oppo HD970, which I highly recommend, by the way), but I do not own either a Blu-Ray machine nor an HD-DVD drive at the moment (I plan on possibly trying out the Xbox HD-DVD add-on, should the future for HD-DVD continue to look brighter later this year). So, in order to cover these fine releases for you, I went over to local electronics guru Ken McNamara’s set-up: not only does the man have an HDTV with 1080p compatibility, but he also owns one of the first Blu-Ray players out there (the Samsung BD-P1000).

After Kenny set up everything for me, I sat down and checked out each of the four discs. Having read some less-than-stellar comments about various early Blu-Ray titles (MGM’s “Terminator” in particular), I wasn’t sure what to expect from Buena Vista’s first Blu-Ray wave, but the results were more than respectable: each of the four titles truly did appear to be HDTV-quality, with excellent definition and detail and superb audio as crisp as the old days of uncompressed laserdisc sound. Obviously, a movie like “Dinosaur” -- with its vast amounts of animation and FX -- and the outdoor cinematography of “Eight Below” were better able to exploit the potential of the format than a movie like “Jay and Silent Bob,” which doesn’t exactly cry out for the benefits of HD to begin with. However, even in Kevin Smith’s movie, you could see the attributes of Blu-Ray at work -- background details begin to emerge, with stronger colors and an increased focus about the whole picture, making the image appear more like film than anything you’ve seen before outside of a theater.

Still, I’d use “Dinosaur” as more of a demo reel for the potential of Blu-Ray (and HD-based DVD altogether), since the movie really benefits from the enhanced detail and presentation that the format allows. The picture is top-notch, and the uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital (48kHz/24-bit) and DTS sound is likewise sensational.

As you might have heard, supplements are limited thus far on Blu-Ray discs: it seems awfully strange that a format with so much space for storage is having problems handling special features, but it’s apparently one of many technical issues Sony is still trying to straighten out with the format in its infancy.

At any rate, the discs do include commentary tracks: “Dinosaur” offers the Collector’s Edition filmmaker commentary track; “The Great Raid” includes the group commentary track with director John Dahl and others; “Eight Below” boasts Frank Marshall, Paul Walker and cinematographer Don Burgess’ commentary chat; and “Jay and Silent Bob” includes Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier and Jason Mewes’ engaging talk from the previous DVD edition. However, at least Buena Vista has also done a good job pricing these discs properly: at just about $20, the four titles are under the SRP of most other Blu-Ray titles.

On the whole, this is a strong Blu-Ray debut from Buena Vista. If you’re an early adopter and are seeking some of the better Blu-Ray titles out there, I highly recommend this batch of Buena Vista titles for their sound and visual quality, but keep in mind the lack of extras in relation to their standard-definition DVD counterparts.

Also New on DVD

From a discussion of high-definition DVD to transfers that are less than standard-def DVD quality we come to Lucasfilm’s new “Limited Edition” packaging of the Original STAR WARS Trilogy (“Star Wars,” “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”).

The newly available DVDs are comprised of double-disc sets: the first disc bearing the respective Special Edition version that was first issued in 2004, the second disc the Original Theatrical Version of each film that’s never been released on DVD before. It all sounds good, but the overall results are sadly disappointing for “old-school” Star Wars fans.

First for the good news: it’s great to have the original “Original Trilogy” on DVD at long last. The unexpurgated, pure ‘77 cut of “Star Wars” is still the finest cinematic achievement of all six movies, and for those who missed out on the laserdisc phenomenon, seeing it here on DVD might make viewers recall the first time they laid eyes on George Lucas’ original masterpiece altogether.

Now for the bad: the transfers are derived from the exact, same laserdisc masters that were prepared in 1993, and as such haven’t been improved or enhanced whatsoever for this DVD edition. The results are transfers that are not only not enhanced for 16:9 TVs (an inexplicable decision), but are grainier than ever before: there’s a persistent, moving “film” on the image at all times (especially so during the first “Star Wars”), and the transfer seems to be, overall, weaker and dirtier (for lack of a better term) than even those THX-approved laserdiscs from way back when.

If you compare these Original Trilogy transfers to the Special Editions, the difference is night and day: the 16:9 masters of the Special Edition are spectacular, with stronger colors and detail regrettably absent from the Original Trilogy appearance on this DVD set. So, if you don’t mind Greedo shooting first and the disappointing “world music” John Williams wrote to conclude the 1997 version of “Return of the Jedi,” I’d recommend sticking with the Special Editions...at least until the inevitable HD-DVD or Blu-Ray packages come around, and hopefully the original versions will receive the respect they deserve (and we’ll also see those still-unseen, other deleted scenes from the trilogy in the process!).

All three DVD sets are now available separately for a limited time, with different configurations existing at various retail chains (Walmart, for example, packages each DVD with a small reprint of its respective Marvel Comics adaptation while Best Buy offered a nifty metal box collecting this latest Original Trilogy release).

Movies for the Post-World Cup Blues

The World Cup might be over (some Americans aren’t even aware that it ever started!), but Buena Vista has not one but two recent features newly available on DVD that attempt to give the game of football (soccer to us Yanks) a proper cinematic spin.

Now, neither one of these films is as entertaining as “Victory” -- the cult-favorite, improbable 1981 teaming of Sylvester Stallone, Pele, Michael Caine and director John Huston -- yet both films should be of sufficient interest for soccer buffs.

The better of the two pictures is GOAL! THE DREAM BEGINS (**1/2, 2005, 118 mins., PG-13), the first of a trilogy (!) focusing on the journey of one Santiago Munez (the amiable Kuno Becker), a young Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles who follows his dream of becoming a soccer star to the U.K. There, his mentor (the terrific Stephen Dillane) garners Santiago the chance at playing for England’s premier team, Newcastle United, with the typical trials and tribulations following as Santiago overcomes adversity en route to gaining time on the field.

Danny Cannon directed this American-funded Touchstone release, which was supposed to kick start soccer on the silver screen at the same time the World Cup launched on TV. Unfortunately, “Goal!” wasn’t widely distributed and grossed only a paltry $4 million in its domestic play dates, though it fared somewhat better overseas (though even there, not enough to quite make back its $30 million budget -- making it a good thing for its creators that “Goal! 3" is already filming!).

Though the Dick Clement-Ian La Frenias-Mike Jefferies-Adrian Butchart script is relentlessly predictable, “Goal!” is still reasonably entertaining, especially as sports movies go. The film takes the time to develop Santiago’s background with his family in Los Angeles, his relationship with Dillane, a Newcastle star (Alessandro Nivola), and a nurse he meets in England (the lovely Anna Friel), all of which enhances the character and makes the audience willing to invest in his journey. Becker is winning and the picture looks and feels authentic, capturing the essence of the sport from the perspective of a young athlete at the start of his career.

Buena Vista’s DVD offers a good-looking 16:9 (2.40) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a group commentary talk featuring Cannon, and numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Meanwhile, any time that director David Anspaugh works with writer Angelo Pizzo, the results are usually golden: their 1986 classic “Hoosiers” has become rightly regarded as one of the greatest sports films of all-time, while their 1993 profile of an aspiring Notre Dame football walk-on, “Rudy,” has likewise become entrenched as one of the genre’s finest.

It was with great excitement, then, that Anspaugh and Pizzo announced their next project -- THE GAME OF THEIR LIVES -- several years ago. Profiling the famous American victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, the movie sounded like it had all the makings of a classic underdog tale, and would do for soccer what “Hoosiers” did for hoops and “Rudy” American pigskin.

Alas, something went very wrong en route to its finished product: composer Jerry Goldsmith, who penned outstanding scores for Anspaugh and Pizzo’s prior collaborations, died during production, and then the movie had a hard time finding a distributor.

A minuscule limited release occurred last year through IFC Films, and now Buena Vista has picked up the DVD rights to the picture and re-christened it under the uninspired title THE MIRACLE MATCH (**, 2005, 101 mins., PG), none-too-obviously hoping to capitalize on the success of their over-rated 2004 profile of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Anspaugh’s movie looks the part, at least, with the film strongly evoking time and place (1950s St. Louis) in much the same manner that “Hoosiers” did. The soccer sequences are well-shot and edited, but the story is basically a total misfire -- starting from the very beginning, where a wholly uninspired Patrick Stewart shows up as the movie’s elder narrator, who then spends the entire picture reciting his recollection of the team’s beginnings and eventual victory.

It’s bad enough that Stewart’s phony accent and inflection simply aren’t right -- what’s worse is that his dialogue wouldn’t sound out of place on any given episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Whatever little momentum is generated during the scenes of the players bonding (Gerard Butler is the only one who stands out, as goalkeeper Frank Burghi) is continuously trampled over by Stewart’s heavy-handed, often needless narration (perhaps a necessity due to post-production editing?), which only would have been worse had it been delivered by the likes of Al Gore.

It’s unfortunate that the movie never comes together, but alas, the third time isn’t the charm for Anspaugh and Pizzo. The picture feels disjointed and unsatisfying, while Williams Ross’ hollow score aspires for Goldsmith-ian heights but comes up empty with forgettable, saccharine orchestral passages.

Buena Vista’s DVD is essentially a bare-bones package as well: just a 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are on-hand. Disappointing, to say the least.

Also New From Buena Vista

THE WILD (**, 82 mins., 2006, G; Disney): Tepid animated feature released by Disney fails to provide the magic touch from the Mouse House. A group of animals flee the city zoo and find out that life in NYC is just a tad too “wild” for their own good in this silly confection, which young kids might enjoy but adults are advised to steer clear of (and if you must seek out one film about cartoon animals escaping from their urban confines, try “Madagascar” instead). Disney’s DVD looks great in 16:9 widescreen (1.78) and sounds just fine with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, though the Alan Silvestri soundtrack (with songs by Eric Idle and John duPrez among others) is the best thing about it. Deleted scenes, bloopers and a music video round out the kid-centric package.

STAY ALIVE (**, 101 mins., Unrated; Hollywood): Buena Vista’s old Hollywood Pictures label appears to have been resurrected in time to become the studio’s new home for direct-to-video and teen fare (especially since the Weinsteins took the Dimension brand with them), at least judging from this slickly-made, albeit forgettable, spring release. Co-produced by McG, “Stay Alive” offers Jon Foster, Samaire Armstrong, and Frankie Muniz as teens who find out that an underground video game they’re playing is legitimately deadly. Buena Vista’s Unrated DVD adds some 15 minutes of footage (including a subplot totally excised from the PG-13 theatrical cut), visual effects featurettes, and commentary by director William Brent Bell, but it’s mostly disposable -- horror fans ought to check out Sony’s October 3rd release of “The Woods” (reviewed in last week’s Aisle Seat) instead.

STICK IT (**½, 103 mins., 2006, PG-13; Buena Vista): You have to give it up for Jeff Bridges, who nabs top-billing in this surprisingly watchable gymnastics comedy. Missy Peregrym is a rebellious teen who returns to the gym in spite of sarcastic, snotty teammates and a checkered past; Bridges is the tough-love coach who attempts to steer her on the right path in a movie that tries to do for gymnastics what “Bring It On” did for cheerleading -- and no surprise with that picture’s writer, Jessica Bendinger, making her debut here as director. The movie is a bit uneven but generally entertaining, with fairly well-defined characters and some laughs sprinkled in along the way. Buena Vista’s DVD offers deleted scenes, bloopers, music videos, two different commentaries and additional gymnastics routines performed by some of the world’s finest athletes. 

New From Fox

POINT BREAK: Pure Adrenaline Edition (**½, 1991, 122 mins., R; Fox): A modest box-office success that became a favorite on video, Kathryn Bigelow’s well-shot 1991 action thriller “Point Break” gets a new edition courtesy of Fox. With a healthy 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital and 4.0 surround sound, three featurettes (with one major retrospective, “It’s Make or Break”) and eight deleted scenes screened here for the first time, fans ought to jump for joy over this slick new package which presents Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves at their early ‘90s best. Silly, but fun -- and you already knew that!

RETURN TO THE PLANET OF THE APES (1975, 316 mins., Fox): After Fox finished up their long running sci-fi saga with the so-so “Battle For the Planet of the Apes,” the studio tried turning the franchise into a Saturday morning cartoon with “Return to the Planet of the Apes.” Despite having produced by the usually reliable DePatie-Freleng group, mostly pedestrian animation sunk this interestingly-plotted series, which ran for 13 episodes in the fall of 1975 before being banished into obscurity -- at least until now. Fox’s two-disc DVD set preserves the complete series (with tags for “next week’s episode”) in sharp, colorful full-screen transfers and mono sound, and fans ought to be delighted by how healthy these rarely-screened shows look.

BRATZ: Passion 4 Fashion Diamondz (73 mins., 2006, Fox): You have to give these Bratz credit for getting around. Yet another “Bratz” feature length video is newly on tap from Fox this week, with the girls heading to the road to recruit the talents of young fashion designers. The voice talents include former “Punky” Soleil Moon Frye and Lacey Chabert, both of whom would know something about playing teen heroines, and it goes without saying “Bratz”’s intended audienz will probably enjoyz it. Fox’s DVD also offers a soundtrack and video game ad.

Also New on DVD

GREASE: ROCKIN’ RYDELL EDITION (***, 110 mins., 1978, PG; Paramount): Thankfully, the new Paramount edition of the OTHER big 1977 blockbuster -- the all-star filming of the Broadway musical “Grease” -- turns out to have more in its corner than the latest DVD go-round for “Star Wars.” A new 16:9 transfer is the main plus to the “Rockin’ Rydell Edition,” while some 11 deleted/extended/alternate scenes are shown here for the first time. John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John sound bites from both the original 1977 press junket, as well as the 2002 25th Anniversary launch party, are also on-hand, along with numerous other featurettes, but for many fans the most revealing of the extras will be the new commentary track with director Randal Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch. The two not just reminisce about the film but indulge in some tasty anecdotes, making this new release highly recommended for all “Grease” fanatics, even those who might be holding off in the hopes of an HD-based DVD special edition in the near future.

GILMORE GIRLS: Complete Season 6 (2005-06, 945 mins., Warner): Amy Sherman-Palladino’s WB comic-drama has faltered a bit in its last two seasons, with the cracks really showing during Season 6. In what turned out to be Sherman-Palladino’s final year overseeing her creation, mom-and-daughter Gilmore are separated for about a third of the season -- something that caused Gilmore fans to uproar and ratings to dip slightly. Though Lorelai and Rory are reunited eventually, there’s just something “off” about this sixth season, what with Lorelai’s failing relationship with Luke and the arrival of the daughter he never knew he had (yawn).
The performances are still top-notch and the dialogue often as clever as anything else on broadcast TV, yet you can’t help but feel the golden years of the program are fading off into the sunset -- and most especially now that its creator-producer won’t be around to finish it off. Warner’s box-set offers the complete year in fine full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo, but nothing in the way of extras to appease “Gilmore” addicts.

GALAXINA (* movie, *** for presentation; 88 mins., 1980, R; BCI Eclipse): Slain Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten’s short-lived film career met a tragic end shortly after the release of this highly forgettable sci-fi spoof. Writer-director William Sachs’ 1980 “comedy” isn’t funny -- at all -- but the adequate model effects and widescreen frame at least create the illusion that you’re watching a vintage, post-“Star Wars” spoof, years before Mel Brooks tried his own satire out with “Spaceballs.” Given its poor reputation, it’s no surprise that “Galaxina” really IS awful (and not in a good way, either), but BCI Eclipse’s DVD presentation is exceptionally good: the 16:9 transfer appears reasonably well composed, the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are quite good, and extras include not just a commentary with director Sachs and star Stephen Macht, but also vintage Starlog and Fangoria magazine articles in DVD-ROM format. Those will make you recall the good old days of growing up in the “golden age” of ‘80s sci-fi...at least until you put the movie on. Kudos to BCI Eclipse for putting a splendid package together that’s a lot more substantive than the movie itself deserved.

New From Lionsgate

AKEELAH AND THE BEE (***½, 112 mins., 2006, PG; Lionsgate): Moving, wholesome family drama follows a young African-American girl (the outstanding Keke Palmer) as she enters the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, after having been trained under the guidance of her English professor (Laurence Fishburne). Writer-director Doug Atchison’s excellent film (produced by Starbucks Entertainment!) is a must for families and just about anyone looking for a solid character piece with positive messages and perfect performances all around; it’s still one of the best films of 2006 that I’ve seen. Lionsgate’s DVD offers a Making Of featurette, gag reel, deleted scenes, 16:9 (2.35) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Unquestionably recommended!

ULTIMATE AVENGERS 2 (**½, 73 mins., 2006, PG-13; Lionsgate): Marvel’s run of small-screen animated adaptations of their more popular comic book characters has gotten off to decidedly mixed results. Though not nearly as satisfying as Bruce Timm’s “Batman” and “Superman” animated series for DC Comics/Warner Bros., “Ultimate Avengers 2" is a modest improvement on its predecessor -- last spring’s so-so adaptation of the Marvel team-up featuring Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Wasp and others. There’s more action in this briskly-paced, 73-minute effort, though the animation remains only so-so. Lionsgate’s DVD offers 16:9 widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a featurette, and a look at upcoming animated editions of “Dr. Strange” and “Iron Man.”

STEPHEN KING’S DESPERATION (**½, 131 mins., 2006, R; Lionsgate): Decent ABC-TV movie version of Stephen King’s novel -- shown here with some added, R-rated gore -- is as solid an adaptation as one could hope, given that the source material wasn’t that strong to begin with. Ron Perlman is the sadistic small-town sheriff with a touch of the supernatural; Annabeth Gish and Henry Thomas are two of the unfortunate folks arrested by Perlman in this feature-length production. Production values are solid with writer-director Mick Garris reuniting most of the same crew from his previous King affairs (composer Nicholas Pike among them), but it never kicks into another gear, in spite of solid work from Gish, Perlman, Steven Weber, Tom Skerritt and others. Lionsgate’s DVD sports an excellent 16:9 widescreen (1.78) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and commentary from Garris and Perlman.

NEXT TIME: THE LAKE HOUSE and other news and notes! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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