April 8, 2004.
Highly Recommended DVDs
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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