The SmarK HD-DVD Roundup Rant

The SmarK DVD Rant – HD-DVD Roundup! (Comedy Edition)

– So of course I finally took the plunge and picked a side in the ongoing HD format war JUST before the whole thing fell apart and went Blu-ray’s way, likely for good.

Just as a quick primer for those who are wondering what the difference between regular DVD and the HD formats are, here’s the basics. In the beginning, people had DVD players, and they were pretty cool. They produced 480 lines of resolution and TVs at the time could only do 480 lines at a time, so everyone was happy. Then TVs got better, with the ability to draw from 720 lines to 1080 lines, and suddenly plain old DVD didn’t look that impressive anymore, so in stepped the hardware manufacturers with high definition DVD. Toshiba championed a format called HD-DVD, which was an offshoot of regular DVD, while Sony created an entirely new format called Blu Ray, and it was VHS v. Beta all over again. Then studios started flip-flopping, with Dreamworks/Paramount going HD-DVD exclusive just in time for the release of Shrek 3 and Transformers, and everyone thought that was a big deal. Then Warner signed on exclusively with Blu-ray, and that pretty much signaled the downfall of HD-DVD, as it hasn’t really pulled out of the downward trend yet. But I like an underdog, and the player was cheap, so I made my choice and I’m sticking with it.

By the way, for those who have asked, I’m using the Toshiba HD-A20 player with a Sony 32S3000 LCD TV and a Kenwood receiver for my surround sound.

So with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s see what the movie studios were nice enough to send my way for review this month…

Contender #1: Balls of Fury

Balls of Fury HD cover art
Available at Amazon.com

First up is a somewhat-overlooked sports comedy from the guys behind Reno 911, although it’s probably overlooked because it’s lacking Will Ferrell in the lead role, not because it’s any better or worse than the last few underdog sports comedies. The concept here is a clever one, to be sure: Enter the Dragon turned into a ping-pong spoof. And it has a lot of the tools to be successful, not the least of which is Christopher Walken doing a rather understated turn (for him) as Feng, the leader of an underground ping pong death tournament. While the concept is funny, Dan Fogler doing what seems to be a movie-long Jack Black impression is an annoyance and I don’t buy him as the hero. And I don’t think the movie studio did either, because he’s barely featured on the DVD cover and not even mentioned in the summary on the back! That being said, there’s some pretty big laughs here, especially with Thomas Lennon trying to outdo Walken with his East German ping pong champion role, but they’re stretched too thin as they try to pad the running time with a D-grade “FBI investigator” story. Mainly, the movie starts funny and then you’re just sitting there waiting for the inevitable arrival of Walken to sends things into the crazy again, but it just kind of limps along and the laughs get smaller as they spend more time trying to carry on the story that no one cares about. The “romance” between hero Randy Daytona and his instructor’s daughter is totally unbelievable, although maybe that’s the point, I don’t know. The movie kind of slides around from spoof to satire and you’re never really sure whether they’re going for the cheap laugh or making fun of themselves for going for the cheap laugh.

The Video & Audio: It’s actually a combo format disc, which means that one side is HD and the other is standard DVD, so it makes comparing them pretty easy. Honestly, the standard DVD transfer was pretty darn good as it is, and I couldn’t find a whole lot of difference to warrant the $40 price tag for that alone. Everything is sharp and clear and the colors are good. The audio is a total waste of the Dolby 5.1 format even on the regular disc, as there’s some action with the ping pong balls flying around the room and not much else.

The Extras: Extras are not terribly inspiring, featuring the usual deleted scenes and fluff piece from the studio. The “web enhanced extras” that the HD-DVD version boasts are two 30-second “features” about the movie and a few Universal trailers. Definitely not worth the time to download them onto your player.

The Verdict: A funny concept and a few good lines (Hardly any of which come from Walken, oddly enough) aren’t enough to justify the hefty HD-DVD price tag. Rent it on standard DVD.

Contender #2: Hot Rod

Hot Rod HD cover
Available at Amazon.com

A movie in the same vein but with a much more likable hero, Hot Rod stars SNL’s Andy Samberg as Rod Kimble, a wannabe stuntman with a stepfather who’s into REALLY tough love. So to make his ailing stepdaddy proud and carry on his dead father’s tradition of stuntmen with spectacular mustaches, Rod endures a series of painful stunts in order to raise money for his stepdad’s heart transplant. What I liked about this movie as compared to Balls of Fury is that this one is a much more astute spoof of ’80s underdog hero movies while at the same time having a cast of characters who actually inspire you to empathize with them instead of just laughing at the bad stunts. Although the truly hilarious bits are already in the trailers, there’s lots of great little character moments showing what a socially backwards klutz Rod is, which really make this one watchable over 90 minutes without losing too much steam. And what would a comedy be without Will Arnett playing a sleazy jerk in some form? NOTHING, that’s what. Sure, by the time it gets to the big finale it’s already fallen into the trap of commenting on itself (via Chris Parnell, as usual) but it never feels heavy-handed and Samberg is at least a guy you can cheer for and buy as a possible love interest for someone as hot as Isla Fisher. Heck, there was a time when people would have thought you were crazy for pitching a movie with Will Ferrell in a leading role, so I don’t think it’s much more of a stretch to think Samberg could follow in the same path with the right role.

The Video & Audio: Again, made for cheap like Balls of Fury means that either format is going to give you roughly the same transfer. This is definitely not a DVD you’re going to want to use to show off your home theatre or anything, as colors are good and contrast is as it should be, but nothing pops off the screen compared to the standard DVD. I’ve seen both DVD and HD-DVD versions shown side-by-side at work and I was hard-pressed to tell the difference. Audio is pretty much center-channel exclusive, although the 80s hard rock soundtrack kicks in impressively at the right time. It’s not a very aggressive soundtrack, but then it doesn’t need to be.

The Extras: Exactly the same as the standard disc, except some are in HD. Whoopee. You get creator commentary, a behind-the-scenes feature, some lame deleted scenes and outtakes and the trailer. None of this is enhanced by being on an HD-DVD disc in any way.

The Verdict: Definitely rent it if you’re a fan of Will Ferrell-style movies, but I’d stick with the standard DVD format.

Contender #3: Shrek the Third

Shrek 3 HD cover
Available at Amazon.com

Now this is more like it. I’m sure I’ll hear it from many people after this, but although I was lukewarm to the third entry in the Shrek series after I saw it in theatre, I really enjoyed it on HD-DVD. There I said it: Shrek the Third is a pretty darn good animated movie. It’s not Ratatouille, but I think part of the problem was that Shrek was being compared against that movie, which is just unfair to anything short of another Pixar/Brad Bird movie. And I think the small screen serves Shrek well in this case, as it didn’t feel epic and sprawling enough to justify the big-screen treatment in the summer, but as a movie to watch on a weekend when there’s nothing on TV, it more than entertains and fills that void. Not high praise, to be sure, but it’s the third movie in a series with already-diminishing creative returns (even as the box office receipts grow) so it’s hard to expect too much anyway. The storyline with Shrek being put in the position of King of Far Far Away and fighting his “destiny” every step of the way is a good one, I think, even if it doesn’t have the big-bang appeal of Lord Farquaad’s kingdom takeover bid in the first movie. That being said, Prince Charming’s takeover bid feels like it should have been Farquaad here, as Lithgow’s character had more of a menace to it than the effeminate Prince does, but maybe that’s supposed to be the point, I dunno. There’s some really good laughs here past the obvious pop culture gags and fart jokes, even if they’re not the biggest ones. The high school stuff is a thread they could have pulled on for longer than the 10 minutes or so it gets, as is burned-out magic teacher Merlin (instead of just going with the body-swap gag and leaving it at that). Cramming in the princesses and third-tier heroes like the Gingerbread Man and Three Little Pigs definitely gives this one a bloat that could have been trimmed out, especially since the focus is supposed to be Shrek, which is why I’m still not ready to give it a glowing recommendation or anything. But Donkey and Puss still amuse, Mike Myers and his world-weary ogre still deliver lines effectively, and even Justin Timberlake gets some good lines in (“Help! A monster is trying to relate to me!”). Parents with obsessive kids who need to watch movies over and over could do far worse than this one.

The Video & Audio: OK, this is where my praise really ramps up. This is what you call reference quality, as the picture is PERFECT on this bad boy. You can literally see every detail programmed into the CGI, from the tiny hairs on Shrek’s head to the wrinkles on his nose, and if you’re a tech geek like me it get a little distracting watching the fur detail of Puss in Boots at times. The movie is stunningly colorful as well, making this the perfect choice for showing off your new TV. Audio is equally impressive, boasting a wide range of music and fight scene effects blended seamlessly together in Dolby Digital 5.1 Plus. The only scene I’d say is impressive enough as a standalone for use as a demo would be Snow White’s assault on the castle (with Snow’s bird call song suddenly shifting into “The Immigrant Song” and then into “Barracuda” as the princesses attack, with surround effects kicking in the whole way as the animals storm in) but there wasn’t any point where I was frantically cranking up the volume to hear the dialogue or turning it way down because of over-mixed effects. This is definitely AV quality you’re not going to get on the standard DVD, making it worth the upgrade for that alone.

The Extras: Mostly the same stuff as on the regular DVD, but there’s a few added bonuses that HD gives you. Namely, a trivia track that is downloaded directly to the player via the web, which I’d assume will allow them to update it later with new fun facts. That’s a really neat idea and one which I hope they explore and exploit more extensively in the future. The trivia track itself kind of veers wildly between in-character lame jokes and a few legitimately interesting production notes, but mostly it’s fluff. You also get a picture-in-picture storyboard-to-screen comparison running the length of the movie, which is a bit more in-depth than the usual multi-angle stuff on regular DVDs. I like HD-DVD’s use of the visual commentary (like in The Fast & the Furious 3 and Batman Begins) and this is in the same vein. Finally, the HD-DVD pop-up menus can be customized to several different Shrek characters, which is pretty lame but it’s a kid’s movie at heart so it’s understandable. The other extras were already on the regular DVD, and I’m not going over them here because most of them are only a couple of minutes long and given the intended audience I couldn’t take more than 20 seconds of each anyway. I did enjoy the one showing the voices behind the characters, even if it felt like yet another EPK piece, but your mileage may vary.

The Verdict: It got a bad rap in theatres because people were so disappointed with the third Spider-Man and Pirates movies, I think. It’s no Shrek or even Shrek 2, but if you need a disc to make your friends envious, this is one of them to go with. Buy it.

The winner:  Shrek!

 

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