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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Top Ten DVDs and BDs of 2008

With the elimination of a competing format, 2008 saw the establishment of the backwards compatible Blu-ray (BD) system as the high-end subset of the DVD format. While it is less flexible and does not offer significant improvements in supplementary features (except enhanced interactivity and an ability to connect with other fans of a title online), the BD’s sound and picture advantages are spectacular. For enthusiasts who have more than two speakers in their living rooms or a monitor that exceeds 45 diagonal inches, the improvements offered by the format are well worth the investment (although, beware-most newcomers will end up wanting to upgrade their receivers/amplifiers in tandem with obtaining a player). 2008 also saw the proliferation of the dissemination of copies of a title (within DVD and BD sets) that can be downloaded onto computers, iPods, cell phones and so on, thereby expanding one aspect of the format’s flexibility at the same time it is being constricted on the other end. Hence, DVDs themselves are by no means dead and will not be so for some time to come. In order to achieve the improvements of picture and sound, a BD platter cannot hold much more of a film than a DVD already holds (although movies that had to be split onto two DVD platters do, comfortably, fit onto one BD platter; so far, however, the releases of TV episodes have mirrored the four-to-a-platter DVD design). As the BD penetration increases, some producers will undoubtedly decide to compromise image quality in favor of squeezing more titles onto one platter, just as there are sets of DVDs now that offer scores of public domain genre titles in moderately sized and priced boxed sets. The economic logic behind manufacturing or purchasing a BD title that does not attract viewers in part because of its picture or sound components, however, remains questionable. While classic movies with a strong artistic component, such as The Third Man, are unquestionably worth upgrading to BD, popular but ordinary movies, like Dumb and Dumber, are not so much so.

Hence, in assessing the best DVD releases of 2008, the BD format has been singled out only if it offers a significant programming or playback improvement over its DVD counterpart. When both formats are cited, the BD is preferable, but the DVD still offers essentially the same value and quality, particularly if you just want to watch the movie in your bedroom at night without disturbing the rest of the house. DVDs and BDs may well end up existing side by side until a scheme to download high-end video playback replaces them both.

The following represent the most exciting releases and trends of 2008:

1. The Dark Knight (Blu-ray, Warner)

Only the Blu-ray presentation incorporates the film’s extensive IMAX footage in its playback (the DVD presents the IMAX material as a separate special feature), with the aspect ratio shifting between the dazzling action scenes that utilize the enhanced IMAX focal detail and the standard widescreen images to keep a viewer’s adrenaline pumping. Although the release has a collection of decent but still primarily token supplementary features, the quality of the BD’s picture and sound transfer is so thrilling, and dovetails so well with movie’s own intelligent exposition, that if sales of the Blu-ray system have not exploded in tandem with the blockbuster’s release, then they never will.


2. How the West Was Won (Blu-ray, Warner)

The previous releases of the classic 1962 Cinerama western combined the three Cinerama panels to present the image with awkward lines dividing it, sometimes unevenly, in thirds. The new transfer makes the image looks seamless, and has also sharpened the colors and strengthened the sound, enhancing the entertainment significantly. Along with the film, there are retrospective documentaries, a commentary track and an excellent history of the Cinerama process. Unique to the BD release, there is an additional presentation of the film in what is called ‘SmileBox’ format, ostensibly designed for curved screens, in which the edges of the image are taller than the middle. You don’t need a curved screen however, because with the resolution solidity of the Blu-ray format, you can sit very close to a regular widescreen monitor and the curved image will accommodate your peripheral vision anyway, conveying a remarkable sense of depth, without distortion. Hence, it is actually called ‘SmileBox’ because as it plays, you cannot help but to grin from ear to ear for the movie watching experience it brings you.


3. Hellboy II The Golden Army (DVD and Blu-ray, Universal)

Many movies, and particularly movies based on comic books, are full of elaborate special effects, but that’s what they look like, elaborate special effects. Guillermo Del Toro’s fully entertaining Hellboy comic book sequel, however, is so adeptly scripted and executed that the special effects deliver the pleasures they are intended to deliver without taking the viewer out of the movie. The images are creative and the action is witty, and the film is ideally suited for DVD and especially Blu-ray, where the audio detail is extensively engaging. Del Toro is also enthusiastic about the home video concept, and so the supplementary features are exhaustive, including two commentary tracks and about three hours of behind-the-scenes footage.


4. The Godfather The Coppola Restoration (DVD and Blu-ray, Paramount)

Although The Godfather (and the rest of the trilogy) was released previously-and except for some token retrospective documentaries, the bulk of the supplementary features are simply carried forward from that earlier release-the picture and sound transfer on the new release is so exquisite that the previous release must be tossed away immediately in favor of this replacement. It isn’t just that the colors are more accurate and the sound is better detailed. Each scene has been enhanced emotionally by the improvements, so that the already classic film becomes that much richer and more captivating. The DVD looks and sounds fantastic, but the BD is definitive.


5. Vampyr (DVD, Criterion)

Every year The Criterion Collection releases two-dozen or more outstanding DVDs and the only challenge here is to pick out the one that is the best of the best. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s mesmerizing 1932 horror film has in the past been compromised by video transfers that were so bad, fans had to guess at the film’s true appeal through a haze of deterioration and neglect. The fabulous two-platter presentation, however, redresses those flaws and presents the movie in its true light-that it is as great as the Universal horror films being produced during the same era and is less impacted by age than any of them. Along with a commentary, there is an excellent deconstruction of the film’s images, a profile of Dreyer and other features.

6. El Cid (DVD, Weinstein)

Most fans will forgive the narrative and emotional flaws in epic movies because the experience of viewing a big-budget extravaganza is in itself a rare and memorable experience. There are not that many times in the history of the cinema that talented producers have managed to gather a great enough investment to create a widescreen, costumed adventure full of action, passion and at least a nod to real historical events. The release of Samuel Bronston’s grand production directed by Anthony Mann, which was shot in Spain in the early 1960s (as well as Weinstein’s parallel release of Bronston and Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire), has been long awaited, and the DVD lives up to the event of its release. The transfer is outstanding, and emphasizes the film’s ‘movieness,’ which is central to its appeal. The film is also accompanied by excellent supplements that chronicle the production and profile Bronston, who, as a corollary to his filmmaking efforts, almost single handedly brought Spain out of post-War political and economic isolation.


7. Budd Boetticher Collection (DVD, Sony)

Every DVD company puts out collections of some sort. The best collections are not simply repackaged bundles of individual DVDs undergoing a clearance sale. They are, instead, a grouping of titles that have a common appeal and are more attractive as a group than they might be individually. Even Criterion has gotten into the act with their superb ‘Eclipse’ series, resurrecting films of Yasujiro Ozu, Ernst Lubitsch, Samuel Fuller and others that would not so readily attract collectors if they were issued separately, and Fox followed its 2007 release of John Ford movies with a similarly gargantuan gathering of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage films. The Boetticher collection, however, provides a unique opportunity to present five westerns that the director made with the magnificently aged Randolph Scott during a brief explosion of incredibly competent creativity in the late 1950s. Not one of the films-The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Buchanan Rides Alone and Decision at Sundown-runs longer than 80 minutes, so they can be comfortably viewed in a single day, although each one is so utterly entertaining that it is probably better to stretch out the viewing schedule, in order to savor the memory of every adventure after it is concluded. Three of the films are accompanied by commentaries, all have retrospective featurettes, and The Tall Tplatter also includes an excellent biographical portrait of Boetticher. For movie collectors and fans, it is a stampede of delights, and the sheer pleasure awaiting those who have never seen the movies before is enviable.


8. George Méliès First Wizard of Cinema 1896-1913 (DVD, Flicker Alley)

The contributions DVDs have made to cinema have been many-faceted, and one great breakthrough they have enabled is the ability to gather and disseminate comprehensive selections of a single type of film, so that even enthusiasts who are not dedicated scholars can immerse themselves in a set of movies that will not only provide basic entertainment, but will instill an awareness of how the art of motion pictures developed and advanced-an awareness that increases the viewer’s appreciation of the ways movies manipulate emotions. Méliès was a stage magician and the innovations he brought to motion pictures (film was being used, universally by other filmmakers at the time, as a documentary tool) were the natural applications of stagecraft and sleights-of-hand to film, with the added trickery that film enabled-editing, and superimposition, such as in his masterpiece, the joyful A Trip to the Moon. The outstanding five-platter set, containing 173 of the still existing 202 films created by Méliès (as well as a half-hour biographical portrait), and will enable any fan with a passing interest in the birth of cinema to understand and enjoy the works of one of its most important founding artists.


9. Battlestar Gallactica The Complete Third Season (DVD, Universal)

It becomes more tempting every year to construct a secondary ‘Ten Best’ list consisting only of television programs, and more challenging every year to keep up with all of the outstanding collections that have become available. Even when a TV series is issued without embellishments, it seems that the DVD format is better suited than the broadcast format for its presentation if it is at all decently produced (it is only shows that have redundant plots or other shortcomings that will work better when you have to take a week’s break between each episode). The best TV collections combine unique character explorations and narrative flexibility (which, because of the length of presentation and the economics of production, the best television shows can do better than theatrical films), with exhaustive supplementary features that also take advantage of the extended programming scope.Battlestar Gallactica also has the advantage of being a splashy, effects-heavy sci-fi show, which looks and sounds terrific on DVD, while delivering penetrating stories about sympathetic terrorists and other only slightly veiled parables of contemporary life. Each episode has an informative commentary, the DVD is loaded with more than an hour of deleted scenes, and a key episode is presented with extensive and rewarding footage that could not be squeezed into its broadcast time slot. In effect, the series broadcast was just the teaser for the DVD.


10. Cloverfield (DVD and Blu-ray, Paramount)

A film that is, by design, more palatable on the confines of a TV screen than in the expanse of a theatrical screen, the nightmare dreamscape the ingenious makers of Cloverfield created is ideally suited for DVD playback (the BD playback is preferable, but not obligatory). There is just enough dimensionality to the audio track that it can tweak the viewer’s nerves without spoiling the film’s central conceit, that it is all being recorded, basically in real time, by its characters, as a monster destroys Manhattan. There is also some interesting alternate footage, and an excellent commentary by director Matt Reeves, who essentially explains that the film is about the necessity of focusing on the important people in your life, because you never know when an unexpected event will take them away from you, whether that event has four legs or just four wheels.
December 30, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon