It’s “we love Germany” day in the Land of Whimsy…
…well, not exactly, but everything I have to say in this post relates to Germany in some way.
First up, yesterday, I received a copy of The Lives of Others on Blu-ray from DVD Pacific. This German film, which won the Best Foreign Language film at the 2006 Academy Awards, is one of the few films I’ve picked up in high definition as a blind buy (so far, most of the HD DVD and Blu-ray releases I’ve received without having seen the films themselves beforehand have been free review copies), so I’m hoping the positive word of mouth doesn’t turn out to have been hot air.
I’ve had a brief look at the transfer, and it seems to be good without being exception. It’s AVC-encoded and comes on a BD-50, but, while detail is generally pretty good, there is some rather harsh edge enhancement on display, and also the tell-tale signs of noise reduction in the form of sluggish grain patterns. Don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means a bad transfer, but it certainly disproves the myth doing the rounds in certain circles that everything Sony is putting out these days is solid gold.
Luckily, I am considerably more impressed by the transfers of the German HD DVD releases of Silent Hill and the extended cut of Underworld, both of which arrived from Amazon.de today (huzzah for the Germans and their reputation for efficiency!). Actually, “more impressed” is putting it lightly because, pending a more thorough investigating during the process of watching both titles from beginning to end, both of these should be ending up in the “10/10” category on my HD Image Quality Rankings list (the most recent iteration of which can be viewed here).
Both films are VC1-encoded, and in both cases it turns out that the final releases were extremely accurately represented by the Concorde Home Entertainment promo disc that Lyris brought back from the IFA convention in Berlin. Silent Hill especially is just draw-dropping, having been minted from the same magnificent master that was used for Sony Pictures’ 2006 Blu-ray release, but, thanks to the increased efficiency of VC1 over MPEG2, exhibits none of the severe compression artefacts that plagued that release. Lyris has put up a couple of snapshots illustrating just how improved the compression is in the most problematic scenes, and, suffice to say, I urge anyone contemplating picking up this film in HD to abandon any thought of buying Sony’s version. Concorde are releasing their titles on both formats, so this improved version is also available to those restricted to Blu-ray.
Finally, Sony comes to HD DVD!
Underworld, meanwhile, doesn’t look quite as good, but that, I suspect, has more to do with the look of the film itself than the quality of the master or the encoding. Certainly, I can see no flaws at all that should prevent it from also attaining “10/10” status, and there are some moments in which the details are so pronounced, particularly in close-ups, that they practically leap off the screen. Oh, and I know it’s silly, but I did get a kick out of seeing the words “A Sony Pictures Entertainment Company” appearing on an HD DVD title, underneath the Screen Gems logo at the beginning of the film.
Audio-wise, German and English tracks are offered, the German variant in DTS-HD Master Audio, and the English in the lower bit rate DTS-HD Hi-Resoltion format (on Silent Hill, the German track is 6.1 discrete while the English track is plain old 5.1, while on Underworld, both tracks are 5.1). While it’s a little disappointing to see preferential treatment given to dubbed versions, it’s somewhat moot at the moment given the lack of hardware that can decode the high definition content of the DTS-HD audio codec (instead, current hardware falls back on a legacy DTS 1.5 Mbps stream). In any event, the English tracks on both films sound magnificent, although I’ll have to do a comparison between the Dolby Digital track on the Sony Pictures BD of Silent Hill and the DTS-HD variant on the Concorde HD DVD to see just how much of a difference there is. (It’s a real shame I don’t currently have the means to play the PCM 5.1 track on the BD, thanks to my PS3’s lack of analogue outputs and my audio receiver’s lack of HDMI support.)
Sprechen Sie Englisch?
As with Warner’s HD DVDs and BDs, these titles go straight to the film itself after playing the company logo and the usual copyright warnings. They default to German audio with no subtitles, but a quick press of the Menu button brings up the main menu, allowing you to switch to English audio. Doing so automatically turns on German subtitles, but worry not, for they can easily be disabled via the menu or using the Subtitles button on your remote.
As has been reported elsewhere, there are no extras on either title. In the case of Silent Hill, the same was true of Sony’s release, so this can’t exactly be considered a downgrade, but for Underworld, Sony’s standard definition DVD of the extended edition, plus their upcoming Blu-ray release, are quite feature-packed. Myself, I’m not too bothered as I’ll be hanging on to my standard definition copy anyway for the included comic and concept art booklet, but for others not in this situation, the Sony Blu-ray version will probably be a more attractive choice for those who can play it