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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Welcome to the first edition of HDC - High-Definition Classics and Beyond. This new column will appear regularly on The Digital Bits, interspersed with future editions of my ongoing Classic Coming Attractions column. As the new column's title suggests, it will provide news and reviews of classic films (generally pre-1970) available on the new High Definition media (HD-DVD and Blu-ray). In addition, however, I will also be including shorter reviews of more current titles that I feel would be of interest to classic enthusiasts. To start, I will be restricting myself to reviewing HD-DVD titles, but I hope to expand to include Blu-ray disc reviews in the near future. News of forthcoming titles, however, will be covered for both formats. Readers should be aware that any comments I make on a particular film in its HD review will draw upon any standard DVD review that I have done in the past for the same title. So if some material sounds familiar from time to time, that's why.

So, as a classic fan, should you bother with HD at this time? Obviously the titles are few so far and all have either previously been released on standard DVD or are seeing coincidental such releases. There's also the issue of the two vying formats and the lack of any apparent early resolution of their competition. Buying two different players, not to mention the need to have a high definition screen, is expensive and hard to justify for classic fans (or anyone) so far. On the other hand, increasing numbers of people have high definition sets for viewing HD television programming anyway and the cost of a new HD-DVD player is less than that of the first standard DVD players. Toshiba's HD-DVD player also offers the feature of upconverting standard DVD if you don't already have that capability. The clincher may well be just seeing one of the classic titles I review later in this column. They look that good! But whether you take the plunge now or decide to bide your time for a while, I hope you'll find this resource to be a useful guide for buying decisions now or keeping in mind titles for future consideration.

To date, most of the HD releases have come from two studios - Warner Bros. and Universal, with Paramount warranting a nod as well. Warners has been the more aggressive in terms of number as well as vintage of titles released. In HD-DVD, classic fans have already seen the studio release The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Searchers, Grand Prix, and The Dirty Dozen, with Casablanca, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, and Forbidden Planet less than a week away. Other titles that have been suggested though not formally announced by Warners include The Music Man, North by Northwest, and The Maltese Falcon. Universal has only given us Spartacus so far with no other classic titles announced to date. Paramount has made available no classic titles so far, although its recent release of Reds (in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray) seems like a classic release as that film has been unavailable for so long on home video. Speaking of the Blu-ray side of things, The Professionals and The Searchers have been the only classic titles announced. The latter was actually released by Warner Bros. on October 31st, but the former - set for an October release by Sony - was subsequently postponed with no new target date announced. Given this limited availability of titles so far, I have not developed a separate data base for HD classic releases. For now, they are included as bold entries in the general classic release data base that is maintained in conjunction with the Classic Coming Attractions column.

So, let's get into the meat of this first HDC outing. I have full reviews of The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Searchers, Grand Prix, The Dirty Dozen, and Reds along with shorter review comments on Unforgiven, Apollo 13, U-571, The Polar Express, Batman Begins, and Mission Impossible III - all of which may be of interest to classic fans. The reviews are ordered chronologically by original release year.

And please take the time to send me any comments, criticisms, or suggestions that you may have. I welcome all your feedback. Enjoy!

Reviews of Classic Titles in HD

The Adventures of Robin Hood (HD-DVD)

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The Adventures of Robin Hood
1938 (2006) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on September 26th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A+
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: A+

Specs and Features:
102 mins, PG, VC1 1080p standard (1.33:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all DVD special features included in standard definition (except 3 cartoons now presented in HD), audio: DD Plus 1.0 (English, French and Spanish), Closed Captioned

Watching this film in HD-DVD is an event far removed from the conditions under which I first saw it - in black and white with the first two reels omitted so that a local television station could shoehorn a showing into a 90-minute time slot with commercials. It's not hard to imagine the improvement that Warners' two-disc special edition DVD of a couple of years ago brought to my viewing of the film. Now here we are in late 2006 with the film just released on HD-DVD and while I anticipated good things, I was unprepared for the sheer breath-taking beauty of this Technicolor production in the new medium. Almost 70 years after it debuted, it's amazing that this film vies with the likes of recent hits Batman Begins, The Polar Express, and Mission Impossible III for the best looking image available on HD-DVD. Of course, the film itself is head and shoulders above any of this current fare - a superb production and an endlessly repeatable piece of entertainment arising from the happy coincidence of so many talents.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was conceived in the mid-1930s - a time when Warner Bros. was in the process of expanding its efforts into more prestigious productions beyond the gritty street-smart films of the Pre-Code era. The studio had just completed a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream using its stock company for the cast and then looked to the Robin Hood saga for a follow-up. James Cagney would play Robin Hood with Olivia DeHavilland as Maid Marian. While I bow to no one in my admiration for Cagney, fortunately for us the studio eventually turned to Errol Flynn instead. The role is one that Flynn was born to play and it is indeed the role by which he will always be remembered. There has never been an actor who looked better in period costume or more able to make his playing of such roles completely natural and believable. To his characterization, Flynn brought flair, charm, and athleticism that made for an unbeatable combination with a natural acting style too frequently underestimated.

But Flynn is only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the casting decisions. In addition to him, there are a number of players in the film that were associated with Warners throughout much of their careers - Oilivia DeHavilland as a beautiful and defiant Maid Marian, Claude Rains as a delightfully scheming and malevolent Prince John, and Alan Hale as an altogether satisfactory Little John. Added to these are admirable freelance casting choices such as Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisburne, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, and Ian Hunter as King Richard. All are so right in their roles that it now seems impossible to imagine anyone else portraying the many familiar characters that the Robin Hood saga involves.

Warners also made a wise decision in insisting on a screenplay that relies on several of the original Robin Hood legends that so many have grown up with. Thus we see recreated the wooden stave fight between Robin and Little John on the log bridge, the recruiting of Friar Tuck where he's discovered fishing in a river, and the archery contest that Robin wins by splitting his opponent's arrow. Filmed in stunning three-strip Technicolor, these scenes take on a magic that no other film version of Robin Hood (of which there have been many) has ever managed. Nor does the film disappoint in its action scenes; from battles in Nottingham Castle and Sherwood Forest to the climactic sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone - all are briskly staged and well-photographed under the direction of Michael Curtiz who assumed responsibility for the production after Warners became disenchanted with the efforts of the director initially assigned to the film, William Keighley. Flynn and Rathbone make for a superb pair of antagonists and the sword play between them - a combination of Flynn's enthusiasm and athleticism and Rathbone's fine technique arising from his personal interest in swordsmanship - is exhilarating.

One cannot watch The Adventures of Robin Hood without also being aware too of its magnificent score written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the art decoration by Carl Jules Wehl, and the costume design by Milo Anderson. The film won Academy Awards for both of the former as well as editing (Ralph Dawson), but missed out for Best Picture when an Academy brain cramp gave the award to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It with You (enjoyable as that film was).

Three years ago, this film was released on DVD, with the benefit of Warners' Ultra Resolution process, as part of The Warner Legends Collection and was universally hailed for its superb transfer and outstanding collection of supplementary material. It seems only fitting then that for its HD-DVD release, the same superlatives are once again appropriate. The initial scenes of Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone plotting and the encounter between Flynn and Rathbone in Sherwood Forest show us what we're in for - images with incredible depth and beauty. The colour saturation is very strong and the three-dimensionality is striking. One keeps looking for some letdown as the film progresses but it never occurs. Blacks are deep and luminous; image detail is amazing in its ability to convey small texture differences effectively; and authoring errors such as edge effects are non-existent. The film's natural grain is well handled, and the only things preventing a perfect score for the video are minor occurrences of some image softness.

The improvement of the HD-DVD mono sound over the standard DVD presentation is not as dramatic overall as for the video. There is, however, increased clarity in any dialogue that has to compete with background noise or music. Otherwise the audio presentation is warm and pleasing though obviously subject to the limitations of 1938. Background hiss is virtually non-existant. Korngold's score is well presented, with a quite acceptable degree of fidelity. French and Spanish mono and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

The disc retains all the supplements previously available on the DVD version. The only difference is the fact that three cartoons (Katnip Kollege, Rabbit Hood, Robin Hood Daffy) are now presented in 1080p, a welcome occurrence for HD enthusiasts looking for supplements especially mounted for the new technology. All look very good, whetting the appetite for more Looney Tunes in HD. Other supplements too numerous to mention are highlighted by a thorough and very listenable audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; a "Warner Night at the Movies" feature hosted by Leonard Maltin (including a coming attraction trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces, a newsreel, and a short), documentaries on the making of the film and on the Technicolor process (Glorious Technicolor, hosted by Angela Lansbury), an Errol Flynn trailer gallery, outtakes and home movies shot during production, and the isolated Korngold score.

Very highly recommended and the current benchmark for other HD discs.

The Searchers (HD-DVD)

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The Searchers
1956 (2006) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on August 22nd, 2006
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A+
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: B+

Specs and Features:
119 mins, Not Rated, VC1 1080p widescreen (1.78:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all DVD features of the SE included in standard definition (none of the additional supplements in the Ultimate Collector's Edition included), audio: DD Plus 1.0 (English, French and Spanish), Closed Captioned

The wait for a two-disc Special Edition of The Searchers finally ended this past June, and Warners has acted quickly to reap the rewards of its restoration efforts by making the film available on HD-DVD only two months later. The film of course is the classic John Ford western and the one that is often pointed to as the best of Ford's output. A magnificently structured and fully realized depiction of the competing forces of civilization and the wilderness - a theme at the core of many western dramas, The Searchers rewards repeated viewings on many levels. The acting performance by John Wayne is polished and thoughtful, outweighing the classic poses and mannerisms so often associated with him. The story itself is a complex one with a native American theme that grows ever more resonant as time passes. All the well-known Ford touches - the use of Monument Valley, the importance of community, the role of music, the juxtaposition of brief but furious bursts of action contrasted with the peace of normal everyday living - seem heightened by the film's melancholy air so poetically captured by the framing mechanism of the opening and closing cabin door that begins and ends the film.

The HD-DVD version of The Searchers is just one more piece of evidence that classic films need take no backseat to current releases when it comes to excellence in image quality. The film's Vista Vision cinematography by Winton Hoch has been rightly praised and so it is a pleasure to report that it is captured beautifully by this new release. As good as it looked on the standard definition DVD, it looks even more spectacular here. In any of the Monument Valley scenes, the level of detail and the three dimensional look of the image is striking. For the most part I found the colours very pleasing and intuitively correct both for indoor and outdoor scenes, with the exception of some skin tones that seemed a little red at times. Some viewers, however, have raised wider concerns about the colours of this HD-DVD release (particularly the blueness of the skies). Those concerned will find film preservationist Robert Harris's interview with Ned Price of Warner Bros. of interest in this regard. It's obvious that this film, by virtue of the state of its original source materials, posed considerable difficulties in developing a first-class product. The fact that it looks as good as it does is a testament to Warners' considerable efforts.

The mono sound is also in great shape, as was the earlier standard definition version. It offered a clean audio experience with all trace of hiss removed and Max Steiner's memorable music score fared very nicely given the vintage of the recording. There's little discernible difference between it and the HD rendition. French and Spanish mono tracks and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

Supplements include Peter Bogdanovich's usual fine audio commentary, three documentaries (a new one that's an appreciation of the film by contemporary filmmakers, a 1998 making-of documentary, and a set of vintage featurettes made in 1956 that were also available on the previous DVD release [Meet Jeffrey Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood, Setting Up Production - all of which originally appeared on TV's Warner Bros. Presents]), a film introduction by John Wayne's son and The Searchers co-star Patrick Wayne, and the theatrical trailer. None of this carry-over extra content is presented in HD nor are there any items new to the HD edition.

Very highly recommended. Another classic title that really shines in HD.

Grand Prix (HD-DVD)

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Grand Prix
1966 (2006) - MGM (Warner Bros.)
Released on HD-DVD on September 26th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B+

Specs and Features:
176 mins, Not Rated, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.2:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all DVD features included in standard definition, audio: DD Plus 5.1 (English) and 1.0 (French and Spanish), Closed Captioned

For car racing fans, Warner Bros. has taken its time issuing Grand Prix on DVD, but the results are superb and well worth the wait. The film has always been the finest film evocation of Formula One racing with its wonderful presentation of the races at each of the well-known European circuits tied together by an interesting if predictable back story. (Don't be discouraged by others whose quibbles in this regard just manage to allow that to spoil the immense entertainment value of the rest of the film for themselves.) For those unfamiliar with the 1966 film, director John Frankenheimer manages to blend together, virtually seamlessly, special racing footage shot of his principal actors doing their own driving with footage taken of nine actual Formula One races of the 1965 season. Using different photographic approaches for presenting each race and a memorable score by Maurice Jarre, the results are enthralling, frequently placing one right in the drivers seat and conveying the immense speed, excitement, and danger of Formula One racing. James Garner, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, and Antonio Sabato portray the principal drivers in the competition to determine the year's driving champion while Eva Marie Saint, Jessica Walter, Toshiro Mifune, and Francoise Hardy star with them in the framing story.

The new HD-DVD version appears only a couple of months after the two-disc 40th Anniversary DVD release. It provides a 2.20:1 transfer derived from restored 65mm elements that is even more enthralling than the standard definition version. The image looks vibrant and beautifully detailed throughout, regardless of whether it's racing footage or interiors, and the various European locations look like picture postcards, particularly the scenes of Monaco shown throughout the film's first racing sequences. The HD presentation of Grand Prix heightens one's appreciation for the medium's ability to accurately present the various textures in the image, be it clothing fabrics, metallic surfaces, facial topography, or even weather elements. Colours look natural and the image sharpness and detail are superb. The image is also spotless, reflecting the amount of clean-up effort that was invested in the release.

Included are the film's overture and entr'acte which along with a new Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix (based on the film's original multi-track sound) yield an impressive audio experience to support the visuals. There is good though subtle use of directionality, but lower frequency effects are much less noticeable. Still, the car engines scream effectively and I can't imagine anyone feeling short-changed on the audio side of things. French and Spanish mono tracks and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

The disc's supplements, all ported over from the recent two-disc Special edition DVD, include a new four-part documentary that is a model of its kind. The material has a great deal of depth and provides one with a detailed appreciation for the filmmaking efforts as well as the complexity of Formula One racing itself. Surviving cast and crew participate, as well as actual racing drivers of the time. The presentation concludes with a vintage making-of featurette (quite good itself) and the theatrical trailer. There is no supplementary content presented in HD.

Very highly recommended. (This is getting monotonous, but I sure won't complain.)

The Dirty Dozen (HD-DVD)

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The Dirty Dozen
1967 (2006) - MGM (Warner Bros.)
Released on HD-DVD on September 26th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: B+
Video (1-20): 14
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: A

Specs and Features:
149 mins, Not Rated, VC1 1080p widescreen (1.78:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all DVD features included in standard definition, audio: DD Plus 5.1 (English and French) and 1.0 (Spanish), Closed Captioned

The Dirty Dozen continues to stand the test of time as it still succeeds as both an action film and less overtly as a comment on the perception of war in the late 1960s tinged by the Vietnam experience. Both aspects owe much to the influence of the film's director, Robert Aldrich. The film's first two-thirds during which the dozen are trained seems somewhat hackneyed now, but that's only because so many films since have drawn inspiration from the original. The actual mission played out in the last third is still exciting and boasts impressive special effects even compared to today's CGI-inspired extravaganzas. The boys-own heroics of the film will be off-putting to some, but any action film that doesn't rely on the ridiculous stunts and staccato-editing that blights so many current efforts is welcome in my book. The film's real strength, however, continues to be its impressive cast headed by Lee Marvin who does some of his finest screen work, the always reliable Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, and the likes of Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, and Telly Savalas.

Warners' standard definition SE did the best it could with difficult source material and ended up with a quite respectable transfer. This HD-DVD version improves on it noticeably, but not to a high degree. There is a fair amount of variability in image quality. Some scenes look spectacular in clarity and depth, but others are very soft and drab. There is substantial grain in evidence throughout, courtesy of the original source material, but the HD transfer does as well with it as might be expected; it's there, but not overly intrusive as the transfer avoids much of the sparkly nature that can result.

The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound track is quite effective and for the most part, delivers much the same dynamic sound experience that was evident on the standard definition disc. LFE are a little more pronounced during the action sequences at the film's end. The music by Frank De Vol also struck me as just a bit more all-enveloping, thus drawing me even more fully into the story's embrace. French 5.1 and Spanish mono tracks along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.

The supplements are highlighted by a good audio commentary that edits together comments from a variety of cast and crew members (Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, producer Kenneth Hyman) as well as others (original novelist E.M. Nathanson, film historian David J. Schow, and veteran military-advisor-to-movies Capt. Dale Dye), a new 30-minute documentary that draws on interviews from many surviving cast and crew members, and a featurette on a real Dirty-Dozen-like group (The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines). Also included are an introduction by Ernest Borgnine, a vintage making-of featurette, a training film for the Marines hosted by Marvin, the theatrical trailer, and last and certainly least - the complete made-for-TV movie from 1985 - The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. The less said about it the better. Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Jaeckel recreated their roles for this poorly scripted and generally ill-advised endeavor, but Marvin particularly looks tired and bored with the whole thing. He would be dead barely two years later at age 63, thus sparing himself the temptation of the two later and even poorer subsequent TV follow-ups.

Recommended. But only if you don't already have the previous DVD SE version.

Reds: 25th Anniversay Edition (HD-DVD)

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Reds: 25th Anniversay Edition
1981 (2006) - Paramount
Released on HD-DVD on November 7th, 2006
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: B
Video (1-20): 16
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: B-

Specs and Features:
195 mins, PG, VC1 1080p widescreen (1.78:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all DVD features included in standard definition, audio: DD Plus 5.1 (English), DD 2.0 Mono (English, French and Spanish), English SDH

Reds has been an elusive commodity on home video. Although available in VHS and laserdisc in pan and scan versions, it never did make it to laserdisc in widescreen and has now taken ten years to reach DVD. Paramount's release has made the film available on HD-DVD and Blu-ray at the same time (just beaten out by Mission: Impossible III for the first film to be so released, I believe). The film is a sprawling recounting of the 1915-1920 era focusing on the writer John Reed and his role in the developing Communist movement both in America and Russia, all told from the standpoint of the romance between Reed and Louise Bryant, a progressive young woman of like socialist bent. It was very much the baby of Warren Beatty who both produced and directed as well as writing the script and starring as Reed.

If there is one area in which Reds is successful, it is the light it sheds on a not-widely-known aspect of 20th century history. The film's dramatic recreation of the era as well as its technique of using witnesses (real-life individuals) who actually knew Reed and Bryant to give narrative context to the on-screen events is very effectively done. Both Beatty and especially Diane Keaton play the two central roles persuasively. The supporting cast is also well chosen - Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Jerzy Kosinski all play real historical characters - but a few of them (Hackman and Herrmann) seem underutilized. Sorvino, Stapleton (as Emma Goldman), and Kosinski fare best, as their characters are sharply delineated and passionate.

Beyond that, however, Reds is an uneven achievement for the most part. At three and a quarter hours in length, the film has obvious aspirations of being an epic. Unfortunately it takes a long time to really gain our full attention (the initial months of Reed and Bryant's relationship seem interminable at times) and when it finally does, falters in delivering both the visual scope of the Bolshevik revolution and a clear picture of its issues and events. Several thousand extras were apparently used for some of those scenes, but that scale of human involvement seems diminished on the screen because the screen time devoted to it is insufficient in length and the script lacking in narrative clarity. As a result, none of the resulting scenes stick out in one's mind, unlike some in the most impressive epics by David Lean, to whom Beatty's efforts on Reds have been compared by some individuals.

Ironically, it's a return to a focus on the Reed/Bryant relationship as Bryant makes a difficult journey to Russia in an attempt to reunite with Reed that saves the film and ultimately tips the balance to make it worth viewing. Perhaps recognizing this, a key scene representing the culmination of Bryant's journey is the one utilized as the central element of the film's subsequent publicity campaign. The film was strongly hyped and received substantial though far from universal critical support upon its release. It later received 12 Academy Award nominations (winning Best Director for Warren Beatty, Best Supporting Actor for Maureen Stapleton, and Best Cinematography for Vittorio Storaro).

Paramount's presentation in HD-DVD is on two discs. The film is split at its intermission point (roughly an hour and three-quarters into it) with the second half appearing on the second disc where the supplements are also located. The film image looks very good, being virtually free of blemishes and scratches and reflecting some fine restoration work by Paramount. Much of the film's colour was subdued intentionally, but there were instances of vibrant colours interspersed. Both aspects are effectively rendered by an HD image that demonstrates exceptional sharpness and very fine levels of detail. The detail in the faces of the witnesses when they speak is particularly of note. I had a standard DVD copy for comparison and its image overall looked a bit softer and exhibited less colour vibrancy. It also had some edge effects whereas the HD version did not.

A new Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track has been provided (an original mono track is also included), but it's fairly unremarkable. Reds is a dialogue-driven film and much of the audio is centred in the front as one might expect. What use of the surrounds exists is minimal and has limited impact when it occurs, being mainly restricted to subtle ambient effects. Some LFE is evident, but barely worth mentioning. French and Spanish mono tracks and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

A seven-part documentary called Witness to Reds is the main supplement and is presented on the HD-DVD in standard definition (it's the same supplement that appears on the DVD). It runs about 65 minutes and was produced by Laurent Bouzereau. Fortunately, Warren Beatty was persuaded to participate (I say "persuaded" because his initial comments suggest he doesn't believe in DVD supplements), so that there is some insight to the making-of information that follows. Among the other participants are Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, editor Dede Allen, and composer Stephen Sondheim. The material is quite informative overall with Beatty being fairly forthcoming in his reflections on the filmmaking process. For me, it was more than adequate although I suspect if you really love Reds, you'll likely be left wanting more. The only other supplement is a DVD trailer for the film. I think Paramount must have lost the key to the theatrical trailer cabinet, for they so seldom manage to include such trailers on their catalog releases.

Since the standard DVD and HD versions are being released within a month of each other, you may well be being faced with deciding upon one or the other. There is enough improvement on the HD-DVD version to go with it if you already are or soon will be into HD. If by chance you already have the standard DVD version, however, there isn't a hugely compelling reason to upgrade.

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