First bout in the HD DVD tournament: Man vs. Baby. (This is a fair fight, so all ratings are relative to other HD discs, not to standard-definition DVDs.)
The story of Cinderella Man (Universal; Movie ••½, Picture/Sound •••) delivers a one-two punch: The Depression was, well, depressing, and in a fight it's probably better to win. Director Ron "subtlety ain't my middle name" Howard, whose boxer is a "beacon of hope for the little guy," makes the usual moves in evoking the 1930s - a time that, apparently, was always dark, grainy, and soft-focused, with lots of orange and green tinting. The wider contrast of HD DVD delivers deeper blacks (Russell Crowe's dyed hair), more intense colors (Renée Zellweger's oh-so-scarlet frock), and a vast range of tones. This, combined with a mighty increase in detail (get used to seeing a lot more skin blemishes and craters), delivers curvaceous surfaces and weighty-looking bodies. That's true of every HD DVD reviewed here - but with Cinderella Man's picture, the result isn't all that impressive.
The soundtrack - in Dolby Digital Plus, which my player's readout registers as uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM (as with all these discs) - has a crisp blend across the front. As the film builds toward the final fight, the surround channels are kept in reserve. In the last two rounds, though, when the crowd goes wild, you're suddenly there in the stadium - with bassy, dramatic music and spectator noise all around, cut through by the sharp, clear clang of the bell.
Cinderella Man's standard-def DVD, watched on the same bigscreen TV, now seems flat and soft, with swarms of butterfly artifacts around characters' faces. I expected the same from the DVD of Man's opponent here, but it actually looked almost as good as Man's high-def disc!
And putting on the HD DVD of Million Dollar Baby (Warner; Movie •••½, Picture/Sound ••••½) proved a real revelation. Things suddenly sprang into three dimensions, with solid, rounded figures and extremely vibrant colors. Relative to Man's gloom, Baby's images are brighter, without any sacrifice in richness of tones. Differences are particularly noticeable in the ring scenes, where the sweat and goosebumps of Baby's fighters are clearly visible. The sea of lines now visible in Clint Eastwood's craggy face adds a thousand backstories to this more ambiguous and complex tall tale.
Shots are composed with great depth and width, and background posters and photos are readable from 20 feet away. The frequent chiaroscuro lighting creates inky silhouettes and areas of blackness so deep that you could fall into them. Textures on the walls and tiles, even in the shadows, have a tactile quality, and when the camera moves forward, it feels like you're going through real space past actual objects. I found my eyes straying around each image, as they would in front of a painting.
Music is full and dynamic, and the punching-bag pounding from all around helps make the gym a convincing environment. Baby packs more weight than Man, while voices resonate with crystalline clarity.
First fight: an easy win for Million Dollar Baby and Warner.
Extras on all these titles are identical to those on their reviewed DVD sets, so I won't repeat the information. What I will say is that immediately after seeing a movie in HD, I found it painful to watch the old featurettes in sub-DVD fuzz-o-vision. The only extras that hold their ground are the venerable commentaries. (As for HD DVD's promised interactivity, we'll have to wait for The Bourne Supremacy and Constantine.)
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