H D - S E L E C T

A view on HD DVDs by Yunda Eddie Feng

 

Introduction: Hello, Beaver readers! I became a serious cineophile in 1994 when I saw Schindler's List on my birthday. I realized that movies weren't just for fun--they could be serious art, too (even mainstream popcorn flicks if they're made with skill). Although I have a BA in English, I went to grad school for an MA in Film Studies. There, I met my mentor Dr. Warren Buckland, who shares my interest in Steven Spielberg's artistry (Spielberg and art aren't mutually exclusive). I helped edit Dr. Buckland's book Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster. I also contributed a chapter to Dr. Buckland's forthcoming anthology of essays about "complex storytelling" movies--movies that avoid classical linear storylines in favor of temporal disruptions, unreliable narrators, metatheatrical/"self-aware" references, etc.

Eddie's Home Theatre:
Sharp 30-inch LCD TV (1280x768 resolution)
Toshiba HD-A2 HD-DVD player
Oppo OPDV971H SD-DVD player
Pioneer 7.1 DD/DTS receiver
Harmon Kardon speakers (5.1)

(I'm using the HD-A2's optical audio connection to obtain DTS 5.1 downmixes.)

Yunda Eddie Feng

 

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300 HD-DVD

(Zack Snyder, 2007)

 

Warner (USA)

2.40:1 1080p

116 minutes

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, DD Plus 5.1 English, DD Plus

        5.1 French, DD Plus 5.1 Spanish

Subtitles: Optional English, English SDH, French, Spanish

Extras: Picture-in-Picture Blue Screen Viewing Mode (with audio commentary by director Zack Snyder); deleted scenes; six featurettes; Webisodes; “Vengeance and Valor” game; bookmarks; Internet merchandising; audio commentary by Zack Snyder, Kurn Johnstad, and Larry Fong (SD-DVD side only)

Released: July 31st, 2007

HD-DVD case

30 chapters

 

When it was released in theatres, many reviewers criticized 300 for lacking a strong narrative to back up its strong visual style.  I find that angle of approach rather limiting; after all, cinema is a visual medium that doesn’t necessarily have to tell a story in order to be successful.  With that in mind, I decided to watch 300 as a visual-and-aural experience rather than as a narrative one.

 

Judging 300 purely on sights and sounds without any regard whatsoever for “story”, curiously, I arrive at the same conclusion as the “this movie has no story” reviewers--300 is not very good.  The visuals were degraded and manipulated in order to resemble a graphic novel, but the resultant quality is so bad that the movie looks like mud for about two-thirds of its running time.  The excessive use of slo-mo is irritating.  The actors shout so much that my ears tuned them out as white noise after half an hour.  Even though the movie unfolds as a fireside tale, David Wenham’s voiceover narration doesn’t add anything welcome to the proceedings.  The sound design, save for one bird flitting away as the Spartans gather for battle, is simply an undistinguished collection of loud, frenetic music and clanging/thudding objects.

 

There is another movie adapted from comic books that successfully adheres closely to the printed-graphics aesthetic, and I recommend that movie to viewers interested in seeing how comics can become great cinema.  The movie?  Ang Lee’s Hulk.

 

Video:

Like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, it’s not easy to assess 300’s (2.40:1 1080p) video quality due to the highly stylized presentation.  As I already wrote, two-thirds of the movie looks like mud, and video noise is so strong that I was reminded of the glory days of VHS tape.  Most of the actors and settings are murky and indistinct.  The HD video barely looks any better than the 480p video on the SD-DVD side.  Say what you will about how the movie is “supposed” to look this way, my eyes were very tired and sore after watching this movie.

 

Not all of 300 looks “bad”, though.  During the first third, the scenes set outdoors in broad daylight are very crisp and beautiful.  What’s interesting is that the HD-DVD has a picture-in-picture blue-screen option that lets you see the entire movie before any of the backgrounds and visual effects were inserted/applied.  The footage is very sharp and detailed.  With the picture-in-picture option, you can see just how much resolution was lost when the moviemakers applied the digital “crush” for the graphic-novel appearance.

 

 

I suppose my final analysis of the video is that this is a top-notch transfer of questionable source material.

 

Audio:

Warner equipped this HD-DVD with both Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and DD Plus 5.1 tracks for the original English audio.  These are very impressive, with very deep bass extensions and wide soundstages.  The aforementioned flitting bird flies seamlessly from the front center speaker to the rear left speaker; the imaging is so good that the bird really does appear to be in the room while it darts from one channel to another.  There are many other such instances of transparent sound design, and those of you who buy this disc could try playing the disc with the TV off and only the speakers on just for your ears’ fun.

 

You can also watch the movie with DD Plus 5.1 French and DD Plus 5.1 Spanish dubs.  Optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles support the audio.

 

Extras:

Although the HD-DVD side has 30 gigs of storage space vs. the Blu-Ray disc’s 50 gigs, the HD-DVD has more extras than the Blu-Ray disc.  The HD-DVD’s big advantage over any other version is the Picture-in-Picture Blue Screen option that overlays one of the movie’s rough edits over the movie itself.  Thus, you can see the movie with and without digital effects.  The Picture-in-Picture viewing mode comes with an audio commentary by director Zack Snyder.  I didn’t like the movie, but I did appreciate Snyder’s comments regarding the love scene between the King and Queen of Sparta.  Snyder says that the scene was edited in snippets to suggest memory, how we remember moments in fragments rather than in continuous streams.  Because the filmmaking here actually exhibits some rhyme-and-reason, this scene is one of the better ones in 300.

 

There are three deleted scenes with intros by Zack Snyder.

 

Six featurettes cover various aspects of the production, from Snyder’s discussions with graphic novelist Frank Miller and Warner Bros. to test footage, from production to post-production, and from real history to re-imagined history.

 

 

Twelve “Webisodes” from the official website make an appearance for a completist’s overview of the production.

 

The “Vengeance and Valor” game is played with your remote control pitting Spartans against the machine-controlled Persians.  I only played it once because unlike real life fighting (where skills count), this is essentially a paper battle, and numbers will win regardless of how well you use your remote control.

 

Finally, you can bookmark your favorite scenes (and share them on the Internet) as well as buy ringtones and wallpapers for your mobile phone if your HD-DVD player is connected to the Internet.

 

--Miscellaneous--

The SD-DVD side of this combo disc is probably the same as the single-disc widescreen SD-DVD release and Disc 1 of the two-disc SD DVD release.  The video is 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen.  You can watch the movie with DD 5.1 English, DD 2.0 surround English, DD 5.1 French, and DD 5.1 Spanish tracks.  Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles support the audio.  Upon loading, the disc plays some previews and promos.  The only obvious extra is an audio commentary by Zack Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad, and cinematographer Larry Fong.  This commentary is NOT on the HD-DVD side.  The three discuss the genesis of the project, difficulties in transposing a graphic novel to the big screen, and technical logistics, though much of this information is repeated in the Picture-in-Picture option as well as various featurettes.

 

In the Extras menu, you can highlight the blood splatter at the top of the page.  This leads to a video clip of Zack Snyder’s early pitches to Warner about making the movie.  This is a “real” extra on the HD-DVD side.

 

Oddly, neither side has any of 300’s theatrical trailers.

 

Summary:

The 300 HD-DVD/SD-DVD Combo features state-of-the-art audio and extras that highlight the powerful capabilities of the HD-DVD format.  Many early adopters will want to test these capabilities for themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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