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The SpannerWorks!

Page updated April 8, 2004.                             Highly Recommended DVDs  

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The following is a small selection of DVDs I consider among the best available. Each is capable of showcasing any home theatre system's audio and video capabilities and of impressing even the most hardened home theatrephile.
     
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 :: Hit Picks ::

 
 

A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition

The first DVD to be produced entirely in the digital domain, Disney's initial release of A Bug's Life set a new standard for DVD picture and sound quality.

Unlike conventional DVDs, no celluloid film of any kind was used the create the disc's video transfer. Instead, the film was transferred directly from Pixar's computer system onto digital tape. The result was an image of unparalleled clarity, devoid of the hairs, nicks and scratches visible on even the best conventional transfers.

The disc's searing, razor-sharp images, incredible colour saturation and staggering fine detail reproduction were an eye-opening demonstration of DVD's capabilities, and an open challenge to all other DVD producers. In addition to exceptional picture quality, the disc also included a finely crafted Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, producing a unique, fully enveloping audio experience.
 



However, despite the disc's indisputable quality, there was a downside: the almost total lack of meaningful extras. Disappointingly, at least for owners of widescreen televisions, the disc also lacked an anamorphic transfer. The Collector's Edition makes up for these shortcomings, and then some. The Collector's Edition's anamorphic transfer retains the stunning picture quality of the first release, while adding extra vertical resolution for those equipped to take advantage of this feature (eg. owners of widescreen televisions). The result is a truly jaw-dropping, near three-dimensional presentation. This is one of the best-looking DVDs produced in the format's young existence, and is sure to impress even the most demanding of viewers.

In addition to a new anamorphic transfer, the Collector's Edition package includes a second disc packed with hours of background production material, trailers, story treatments, abandoned sequences and a multitude of other extras. More than enough to satisfy even the pickiest supplemental features addict. Also included are three isolated soundtracks: music (2.0), sound effects (5.1), and a commentary track featuring the film's director John Lasseter, co-director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, and supervising film editor Lee Unkrich. The film itself is presented in both 2.35:1 widescreen and re-composed full-screen.

This re-composing process is a first for any DVD. Using the original digital templates, the 2.35:1 image was selectively altered, with characters repositioned within the smaller 1.33:1 television aspect ratio. Although an interesting feature, I trust you will choose to use only the 2.35:1 version, as this is the aspect ratio in which A Bug's Life was presented theatrically, and the only version to offer the enhanced resolution of an anamorphic transfer. This package set a new benchmark, both in terms of Collector's Edition content and picture quality. A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition should be a part of every DVD owner's collection.

 


Pleasantville: Platinum Series

Pleasantville is an unusual comedy set in the imaginary sitcom world of Pleasantville, USA. Two '90s teens (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) find themselves transported through their television set to the fictional town of Pleasantville, in the heartland of 1950s white-bread America. Slowly, the teens' modern sensibilities begin to affect the lives of the local townspeople, with amusing and interesting results.

As usual, New Line have done a superb job with this disc. The transfer itself is flawless, with a very high level of detail and no visible compression artefacts. Much of the film is shot in black and white, with progressively more colour used as the film unfolds. By digitally removing all colour from black and white scenes, this disc offers a more accurate black and white picture than that possible from film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, while not of the pyrotechnic variety, is remarkably clean, with open dynamics and natural sounding dialogue. If only more soundtracks sounded this good!
 



The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen on an RSDL disc. Supplementary materials are abundant (naturally, this is a New Line Platinum edition) and include a running commentary track by writer and director Gary Ross, an isolated music score (featuring composer Randy Newman), a making-of featurette, trailers, a Fiona Apple music video and much more.

 

Star Trek First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact is the seventh Star Trek feature film, and the second to star the crew of The Next Generation.

Although among Paramount's first batch of DVDs, this disc offers truly superb picture and sound quality. The film itself revolves around the Enterprise crew's attempts to prevent the Borg (bad guys of choice in the Next Generation universe) from sabotaging the historic event (the maiden flight of a faster-than-light spacecraft) that led to the first human contact with an alien race (hence 'First Contact').

By altering the course of human development, the Borg hope to more easily conquer a technologically ill-equipped Earth of an altered 'future'. This requires that the Borg travel to the past (with the Enterprise close behind), another staple of the Star Trek universe.
 



The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on one side of a DVD-5 single-sided single-layer disc. This doesn't seem to have affected picture quality, which is excellent, showcasing the film's many impressive special effects. Colour-saturation is particularly good, with the film's abundant use of vibrant colours shown to good effect. Black levels are also excellent, with the blackness of space portrayed without any of the LaserDisc's unwanted brightness.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also excellent, with dramatic split-surround effects, solid bass and dialogue that is always intelligible, even during the loudest scenes. Star Trek films have a reputation for excellent soundtracks, and Star Trek: First Contact is no exception. My only complaint is the almost total lack of extras. A few theatrical trailers are included, but that's all. Other than that, in terms of video and audio performance, there's nothing much to complain about here.

 


The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant was one of 1999's biggest surprises. This animated film opened with little in the way of fanfare or hype, and quickly disappeared from cinema screens. Despite its short run in theatres, the film received unanimous acclaim from both film critics and viewers alike, and later became a breakout home video success. Set in small-town America at the peak of 1950s Cold War paranoia, The Iron Giant tells the story of an enormous (50 foot tall) robot that crashes to Earth just outside a sleepy coastal American town.

A young boy named Hogarth Hughes stumbles upon the robot one night and quickly develops a friendship with the seemingly innocent and friendly machine. Together with the town's resident beatnik/artist, Hogarth attempts to keep the robot's presence secret, both from the town and an FBI agent hot on the heels of this 'alien invader'.
 



The Iron Giant is presented in both 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-screen pan-and-scan on opposite sides of a dual-sided single-layer DVD-10 disc. Picture quality is excellent, with a sharp, natural-looking image. The film's combination of traditional hand-drawn cells and CGI effects shine through, showing that Warner Brothers are capable of beating Disney at their own game. The soundtrack is also excellent, with a very active Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, natural sounding dialogue and wall-shaking bass (when called upon).

The soundtrack's musical score is particularly well recorded, combining with the film's story to create a truly enchanting and uplifting movie experience. The disc's supplemental materials are rather sparse, including only a making-of featurette, music video and theatrical trailer (I wouldn't be surprised to see a feature-laden Special Edition of this film in the not-too-distant future, considering the film's new-found popularity on DVD). Despite this minor complaint, this disc's presentation of the film itself is outstanding and deserves to be seen. 

 


Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's gut-wrenching vision of war follows a small group of soldiers through the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy and their subsequent mission to find and retrieve a young Private (Ryan), the sole survivor of four sons sent to war. DreamWorks have released Saving Private Ryan in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen on a single DVD-9 RSDL dual-layered disc, allowing the highest picture quality possible. The result is a truly superb video transfer.

Much of the film was shot using low-definition 8mm cameras to mimic archival footage shot at the time by military cameramen, and as a result the picture often has a grainy, dark appearance, with extremely low colour saturation. In an attempt to produce a less theatrical, 'grittier' picture, Spielberg also added artificial light-halos, streaks, processing imperfections and blurs to the film. All of these elements combine to create an extremely difficult image to transfer to DVD. Despite this difficulty, the film looks remarkably good on DVD, with no visible artefacts. In fact, this is a suberbly cinematic-looking DVD, appearing more like film than video.
 



The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS soundtracks are truly awe-inspiring (the latter even more so), with incredibly aggressive sound effects, a precise soundfield, and full-range sound effects from all channels. The dynamic sound heard here set a new benchmark for movie soundtracks in 1998 that, over half a decade later, has yet to be beaten. This soundtrack should be considered positively dangerous to lesser quality home theatre systems. Bass is tight and deep, dialogue always clear and treble clean and undistorted. It's hard to describe just how good this soundtrack is: it truly has to be heard to be believed. The Dolby Digital disc's only supplemental extra is a 25 minute documentary on the 1944 landing at Normandy, including interviews with the film's cast and veterans of the actual campaign, but due to space constraints this documentary is not included on the DTS version.
 
 

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