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Doogan's Views at The Digital Bits
page added: 7/25/07

All Quiet on the Western Front

Doogan's Views - Main Page

Well kids... I'm in Cal-i-forn-i-a, just about finishing up my annual trip to the West Coast. This has been one for the record books so far. As Bill wrote on Friday last, the high point was Jahnke, Bill and my road trip to Meteor Crater in Arizona (a high point within a high point - on the way back to L.A., standing in the middle of the Mohave Desert at 2 o'clock in the morning staring up in the sky and realizing I hate city light pollution for the first time in my life. It was truly one of the most beautiful sights I've had in my adult life; it was the perfect night to see the stars lit up so brilliantly). The first third of this trip was spent in Vegas with the EMA crowd as part of the Home Theater Forum/Digital Bits 10 Year Anniversary, where we were met by some really great studio execs and industry professionals. Even better than that was; I got to meet and hang with the Home Theater Forum guys and gals and the TV Shows on DVD crew - super fine folks all. Everyone was sweet, fun and down to Earth. We talked about our set-ups, favorite films and of course our opinion on the so-called Format War.

And boy, did I get to see it for myself.

I knew if I came out here to the EMA that I'd see some of the spectacle first hand, but I didn't really think I'd SEE it. It all came in a flash, while sitting at our final planned event - the Universal sponsored HD-DVD discussion panel, starring Universal senior VP Ken Graffeo, HD-DVD evangelist Kevin Collins, Robert Zohn (a very nice man who has a high-end home theater retail company but really had no reason to be sitting on the panel except that he prefers HD-DVD even though he's "format neutral") and a Louie Anderson look-a-like named Michael Greeson who heads up a think tank dedicated to understanding the consumer mindset during this battle between seemingly identical formats and pretends to be some lame "technology Every Joe" but when pushed into a corner whips out enough real world home theater experience to make his posturing before that much more apparent and ends up coming off like SNL's Frozen Caveman Lawyer ("Now, I know nothing about his DVD thing - all this technology scares and confuses me, BUT...").

Don't get me wrong... I REALLY don't give a shit where this "war" takes us or which side wins - it makes no difference to me - so turning this panel into the cast of a cartoon program isn't meant to poke fun at HD-DVD or try and make Blu-ray seem cooler. The problem I had with the panel I watched, is the people on it didn't seem to really want to be there and, as nice as they were as people, you could tell they held a little bit of contempt for the audience. Or maybe they knew Bill Hunt was there, locked on and waiting to fire. Bill, apparently thanks to a bit of devil's advocacy on my part before the panel, was wound pretty tight and ready to spring. Sadly, aside from a few well placed comments and good points made, Bill wasn't really allowed to talk. But that's okay - that's not the problem I had.

The HD-DVD camp seems to think that the Home Theater crowd, the early adopters, are the reason there's a format war. That's really a load. The Home Theater Forum are simply a group of enthusiasts who love cinema so much that they either built theaters into their home or they have a really good set-up. I talked to several people who were there and, after 12 years in this business, I can tell you the people who were at these panels are a far cry from the people I knew as "early adopters" back in the days of laserdisc and the early days of DVD. And that's a very good thing, by the way. For the studios to dismiss these people because they don't represent the "mainstream consumer" is a mistake, because frankly these people ARE the mainstream consumer. At least, they represent what the mainstream consumer will evolve into in a few years. Most of the people I met are people who had no idea what pink noise, luminance or absorption were four or five years ago, but they could now school me on the benefits of direct fire versus dipole surround speakers or how four subwoofers can be properly placed in a room to create the perfect bass sound experience. The point is, studios should want people to know more about this stuff, because you can't reap the benefit of hi-def DVD without proper, or at least qualified, sound and video hardware. The Home Theater Forum membership is the overall future of DVD consumerism and the studios shouldn't simply consider them a niche group. To their benefit, the studios have been great to the members of HTF over the years, so don't take this tirade as an attack on the studios - just a message to them that better care should be taken when looking at consumers versus enthusiasts.

Anyway, after all of this Bill asked me to finally post the opinion I have on the two formats; the opinion I've been prattling on about behind the scenes. Well, here it goes: Blu-ray is going to win. Using science, market trend and consumer insight, it's very easy to make that leap. But you have to look at the whole thing. HD-DVD is, right at this moment, the more interactively robust format. When you see 300 on HD-DVD, you will be tempted to choose right there because the coolest thing that HD-DVD does that Blu-ray doesn't right now is picture-in-picture viewing. Watching 300 with a video feed of the original bluescreen video is quite frankly a badass experience. But starting later this year and moving into next year, many new Blu-ray players will be able to do the same thing - but will do so with a hi-def feed. Something HD-DVD can't and won't do. [Editor's note: Standard definition PiP capability is mandatory in the new BD spec, which all BD players after 11/07 must comply with, however high-def PiP capability is optional - this capability, and how widespread it becomes, will depend on the individual player manufacturers] All around, next year, Blu-ray will be better, stronger and faster than HD-DVD is; but HD-DVD got into the market with more features first, so you'll see a lot of ads and reports and web stories luring you in. Don't be fooled. Please.

More than anything I'm a consumer advocate. I have no stake in either format. Contrary to what's been said, The Bits isn't in anyone's pocket. We have simply looked at things the way they are, the way that they've moved in the past, and I'm saying that jumping into the fray at this point for you is a waste. Trust me: stay away from hi-def DVD for about a year. Both formats will be ready to impress you come Summer of 2008. Then you'll have piles of discs available to choose from, fully interactive experiences on both sides and audio/video to die for. I've been fully immersed in the glory of BOTH formats over the last week and I can tell you, it'll be worth the wait. Eventually.

That's all I have for now. I'm about to hop into a car and head down to Comic-Con. Anyone who's there should come to our panel on Thursday at 11 AM. We only have an hour, but if you're a fan of, oh, I dunno... Blade Runner, Twin Peaks, Bryan Singer and Hellboy, you'll want to be there to hear from our panel of DVD producers. Then, when it's all over, come on up and say hey to me and Bill.

To make this column even more worthwhile, here are three reviews for some discs I've watched in Bill's theater while "on vacation" - see what happens when Bill has me captive? He makes me work.


2007 (2007) - Paramount

Everyone who reads this site or even Googles my name, knows I'm one of the biggest David Fincher fans on the planet. I always have been, and it looks like I always will be. Fincher's newest film Zødiac is just a solid piece of work.

Slow and methodic, the film, when it ends, comes off in the perfect way to tell the story of a crime with no solution, yet it doesn't come up with any "out of left field" theoretics. It shows the facts, as they happened with the people that found them and then brings everything to a solid conclusion with an ending statement fortifying the reality that there are no answers, but we saw all there is to see. It ends up being the greatest episode of Law & Order ever made.

Zødiac follows the long journey the investigation of the eponymous central California serial killer took. From seeing the murders take place to following the separate investigations taken within the neighboring towns the murders took place in by police and newspapermen, to the personal investigation undertaken by newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played with an overeager charm by Jake Gyllenhaal) whose involvement lasted from the moment the first Zødiac letter arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle and whose must-own book (by true crime buffs at least) serves as the basis for this film. Fincher uses his strong but understated digital filmmaking techniques to pull some incredible stuff off, including a camera following a taxi as it drives through San Francisco and a trick to show how much time has gone by in the investigation which is as novel as it is brilliant. When the film is all done, I felt like I saw everything there is to see and ended up really enjoying the entire ride Fincher took me on.

But apparently I'm full of it, 'cause the only extra on this disc is a moody commercial letting everyone know that a DVD and high-def special edition is in the works for release in 2008 with additional footage and special edition material that, if it's what I think it is, may be legendary in the annals of true-life crime reporting. So apparently there IS more to see and I for one can't wait until this disc streets.

In terms of video and sound quality, both are as good as you can get without a hi-def disc. The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen and provides a very enjoyable picture. There are times some of Fincher's digital work is a bit more apparent than others - a problem that I can see being "fixed" once the hi-def version comes out next year - but in the end, I was quite pleased. The audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds great, with nice play in all the speakers giving a moody sound design that will have you looking over your shoulder here and there throughout.

It's kinda lame that we have to wait for the bigger better edition, but at least Paramount is being up front about it. That makes this edition a great candidate for a rental or a purchase for those, like me, can't get enough of Fincher.

The Monster Squad: 20th Anniversary Edition

The Monster Squad: 20th Anniversary Edition
1987 (2007) - Lionsgate

I was working at a movie theater when this film came out back in 1987. As a fan of all things monsters, I thought it was cute, fun and inspired. But I haven't given the film much thought since being bombarded by it as I walked up and down the aisles four or five shows a day for a couple of weeks. Still, when Bill handed it to me the other day and said, "You like monsters, you want to review this?" I was all like, "Cooooooool."

Well, I popped it in and guess what? It's actually as good as I remember it being 20 years ago. It's aged a bit, thanks mostly to the music (ugh... the end credit rap is awful) and its use of the cliche 80's montage; but the early Stan Winston monster designs, the fun dialogue courtesy of Shane Black and the tongue-in-cheek direction by Fred Dekker all holds up quite nicely.

The story is simple; all of the copyright-free designed Universal Monsters gather with a plan to use an ancient amulet to shift the balance of Good and Evil to their side. Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolfman and Gill Man (a.k.a. Creature from the Public Domain) only have one chance every hundred years to act. The last time Van Helsing screwed up their party - now it's up to a group of genre kids (the cool nerd with leadership qualities, the funny sidekick, the badass with a heart of gold, the fat kid and the little kid and his faithful dog - oh, and the precocious little sister) who love monster movies and, in their heart of hearts, believe in them. Well... when they find out monsters are real, they join forces with the creepy neighbor (who's really a sweet old man) and get ready for battle. Monster Squad is very much a film made possible by the success of The Goonies, but it has a charm all its own. Fred Dekker has gone on record saying his inspiration was merging the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein mode with the Little Rascals, and by golly that's exactly what this is. It's fast, fun and sure to be enjoyed by kids of all ages.

The video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic and looks pretty darn good. It retains its cinematic look with a good color palette, solid blacks and no digital compression. It's no where near a hi-def presentation, but serves the film nicely. Sound is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 & the original stereo. The 5.1 is nicely expanded, but there is little to no play with the surrounds - most is front and center, but it's obviously fuller than the 2.0 track, which also sounds good if that's the way you want to go.

In terms of extras, this special edition from Lionsgate really goes balls out. And I'm a bit on the fence as to whether the special edition works or not. The big piece here is a five-part documentary called Monster Squad Forever!, which goes on and on and on and ends up being very boring, sadly. There's a lot of information presented here, with tons of behind the scenes pictures and new interviews with surviving cast and crew, but it peters out several times and lost me. The best news is Phoebe (the little sister played by Ashley Bank) grew up to be a fox and a half. Who would've guessed?

I love this little flick as much as the next guy, but after a while, enough is enough. Better are the twin commentaries. One is Dekker with three grown up kids (Bank, the leader, Andre Gower, and the badass, Ryan Lambert) where a lot of the same ground from the doc is covered, but it's much more spontaneous and fun. It's a lot like listening to some old friends talk about a landmark trip they took in their youth which, all obviousness aside, is exactly what this was. The other commentary is with Dekker and his Director of Photography, Bradford May. This one is a bit stuffier, not as fun, but very informative with a lot of focus on the behind-the-scenes politicing between producer Peter Hyams and Dekker. Other extras include the trailer, some TV spots, a selection of deleted scenes (nothing much really, trims actually), a storyboard sequence, stills and a vintage interview with Frankenstein (Tom Noonan in character). It's a lot of stuff, but mostly it all comes off as over-inflated and tiring. But the movie is still good enough that it doesn't matter.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society (Limited Edition)
2007 (2007) - Manga (Bandai)

I have no idea if this is a good thing or not; but I have no idea what the hell is going on in this movie. I couldn't tell you a damn thing actually. But MAN, do I love the Ghost in the Shell series. Mainly because it doesn't cater to me. It doesn't give a shit if I get it or not, it just keeps plowing ahead and my only hope is, maybe I'll catch up. Ultimately, I have to watch the show two or three times and then, maybe... I'll have a better idea of what's going on.

What I think this one is about about is this: It takes place a few years after the conclusion of the last Stand Alone Complex series. The Major has left the group and, after Batou turned the job down, Togusa is now in charge. The investigation of a series of mysterious suicides leads to an intricate child abduction conspiracy that has, at its center, something to do with the state's elderly care network and somehow, someway the Major is involved. Maybe.

It's interesting that the Stand Alone Complex series has been said to be unconnected to the movie series, yet in a way, this movie serves as a sort of prequel to the movie or at least a way of setting up the ideas from the film as being part of the series. Maybe in the future we'll see the Stand Alone Complex "remake" the film and take it in a new direction; judging by the really cool stuff in the series and this film, I'd say that would be quite cool. The only complaint everyone seems to have about the original film is that anti-climatic feeling so many of us had after its completion. That could very easily be rectified by revisiting it with a larger canvas like the one this series runs on.

Solid State Society looks great on DVD. The anamorphic widescreen video holds solid black, bright colors and no distortion. Audio is available with Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, in both Japanese and English, and both sound nice and robust.

This review is of the special three-disc edition. Disc One is the film and it has a very neat faked hi-def interactive feature: the film's storyboards available as a subtitle track sort of like a picture-in-picture. They give you an idea of what will be available to you in the future with hi-def's interactivity. It's pretty cool. Also on Disc One is a short called Uchikomatic Days which is in the vein of the Tachikoma Days series on the Stand Alone Complex episode discs.

Disc Two holds the World Work File, a neat feature that sums up the episode (proving to me that more people that I were confused by the story) with interviews from the crew about why the choices that were made were made. It's a great supplement and worth watching once you're done with the film. The next feature is a piece called Making of Tachikoma Robot and focuses on Tomotaka Takahasi from world acclaimed Robo Garage, who was commissioned to create a small promotional version of the Tachikomo robot. It's a nice look at the real world thought process that went into creating a scaled down working version of an anime designed robot. Next up is Anime + Car Design: Designing the Future Car which is a featurette about the announcement that Nissan and Production I.G. were joining forces to put Nissan concept cars in the anime. Finally, there is a behind-the-scenes interview with cast and crew from the English dub, an interview with the head of Production I.G.; Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, separate trailers for the English and Japanese versions and promos for other Bandai and Manga Video projects.

Disc Three of the set is nothing more than the film's soundtrack, but it's cool to have.

If you're a fan of the Ghost series, you'll love this film. Do check it out.

Alright, I'm on my way to San Diego. If you spot Bill, me, Jahnke or Sarah, please do come on up and say hey.

I'll check in again very soon, but until then, keep spinning those discs.

Irvine, CA - 7/25/07

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