HDTV, Check. Great Sound System, Check. Prepare to Show Off!
After you're lucky enough to pull together the moola to buy the components of a great home theater, you know you'll want to demonstrate its finer points to your buddies.
And let's face it--Goodfellas may be a great film, but it won't have people oohing and ahhing about the fantastic picture and booming surround sound.
I've put together ten titles with spectacular scenery, great action, and aggressive, sub-woofer-heavy surround sound--the perfect movies for showing off your HDTV, sound system, and (if you have one) new Blu-ray player. I've also recommended one or two scenes in each film that will really wow the audience.
The first three--"Baraka," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "The Dark Knight"--are all shot at least in part in large film formats and vividly show what Blu-ray can do. Consider these strictly BD-only demos.
The next four--"Casino Royale" (2006 version), "Live Free, Die Hard," "The Fifth Element," and "Wall-E"--will impress your friends even on DVD, although the Blu-ray versions will impress them considerably more.
The last three titles--"Chicken Run," "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "Richard III" (the 1995 version) aren't yet out in Blu-ray, but they show what a DVD can do on a widescreen TV and a good sound system.
Of course, you don't want to buy a disc for one great scene, so I've stuck to good movies--ones that have enjoyed either popular success or rave reviews. Several recent blockbusters are here, but also a cult favorite, a classic, a documentary, and even some Shakespeare. So after you've wowed them with a great scene, you can entertain them with the whole flick.
Related Stories and Slide Shows, Especially If You're Still Building Your Home Theater System
Just for Fun
One of the last films shot in the large Todd-AO 70 format, this 1992 tone-poem of a documentary contains some of the most beautiful images ever caught on film.
That extra-wide film was scanned at 8k (2k and 4k are the norms) to produce what Roger Ebert called "the finest video disc I have ever viewed or ever imagined." I agree. I have simply never seen anything on a TV set that looked as good as this film.
This won't entertain folks looking for fast and exciting action. Lacking a story, characters, or narration, Baraka simply presents and juxtaposes moving images of nature, humanity, and the relationship between the two. Not everyone's cup of tea, but worth watching if you can give yourself over to it.
Almost any scene will do, but I'll go with:
Chapter 1: After some stunning shots of mountains, the camera zeros in on a monkey sitting in a hot spring, surrounded by snow. I found myself looking at one hair wiggling in the wind.
Chapter 4: As the camera slowly moves across terraced gardens, you feel the movement. When it glides through a tunnel, people's voices seem to come from all around you. When it finds a large crowd of men performing a "monkey" chant, it just stuns you.
To fully enjoy the beautiful musical score, select the DTS-HD Master Audio option.
Blu-ray-Only Demo--"2001: A Space Odyssey"
Stanley Kubrick made his 1968 space epic with very large screens in mind. Shot in Super Panavision 70--a format where each frame is more than two and a half times the standard size--it's very much about big images and tiny details.
I refused to watch this film on VHS, LaserDisc, or DVD, but it was the first Blu-ray disc I rented, and then the first one I bought. It's not the sort of action-packed sci-fi we're used to, today. It's slow and stately, with an overture and an intermission. The movie changes plot twice and has an ambiguous ending that people still argue about. But there are reasons it's considered a classic.
Chapter 6: A space shuttle (from PanAm airlines, no less) docks with a space station to the musical strains of the Blue Danube. You've got the overwhelming size and spectacle of the rotating station (shown above), the dance between flying objects, the Earth below, and the sky. Then there's all the fine detail: a pen floating in zero gravity, a cockpit control panel, and even people in space station windows. And the last shot is a doozy.
If you've got an HDMI connection between your Blue-ray disc player and your amplifier, pick the PCM soundtrack. Otherwise, stick to Dolby Digital.
Chapter 2: If you want to impress your friends with the sheer power of your sound system, treat them to the huge, loud fanfare from Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," played over the opening credits.
Blu-ray-Only Demo--"The Dark Knight"
Most of the big action sequences in this Batman movie--fun, yet dark, as the title hints--were shot in IMAX; each frame on the camera negative is eight times the standard size, and contains eight times as much detail. It's easy to tell the IMAX sequences when you watch the Blu-ray version--not only do they contain a sharpness and clarity that's almost frightening. They also fill the entire screen while the rest of the movie is letterboxed.
Chapter 1: After nearly a minute of logos, you get an astonishingly clear and detailed IMAX cityscape, bringing you into a weirdly funny yet shockingly violent bank robbery. Shot entirely in bright daylight, it's crystal clear.
Chapter 20 and 21: A big chase, this one at night, shot in Imax and showing plenty of shadow detail. It also shows a big rig turning over. And the sounds, coming from all directions, show why Dolby 5.1 was invented. At 1 hour and 16 minutes into the film, gunshots fire all around you. Duck!
This movie's action scenes also make full use of your surround-sound setup. Pick the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack for the greatest impact.
Better in Blu-ray but Fine on DVD--"Casino Royale" (2006 version)
The James Bond franchise has had more reboots than a Vista PC, but none were as extreme, or as satisfying, as this deglamorized reworking of the first Bond novel. But more to the point for our purposes, it's a great Blu-ray transfer of a movie well-photographed in many exotic locations.
Chapter 2: The first big chase of the movie is set in Madagascar, and makes full use of the scenery. It starts with a large crowd, colorfully dressed, in bright sunlight, and travels to a building site (with a very high crane that Bond and his prey both climb, as shown above) and on to an embassy. Although the chase is fast, the editors wisely hold some shots long enough for us to admire the view.
Chapter 7: Another chase, this time at an airport at night. Early on (46 minutes into the movie), there's a terrific crane shot of an airliner in its hanger that shows off what Blu-ray can do. Once the chase moves out of doors, it's too dark to really show off your TV, but it's still a fun chase.
If you have an HDMI connection between your player and your sound system, pick the PCM soundtrack. Otherwise, stick to Dolby Digital.
Better in Blu-ray but Fine on DVD--"Live Free, Die Hard"
Bruce Willis' fourth go-around as working-class police hero John McClane isn't the best in the series, but it's fun. And it gives your sound system a real workout. Your friends will know how great theater sound in the home can be.
Chapter 33: Driving a trailer truck on the freeway is a loud experience in the best of conditions. Try doing it when a fighter plane is firing missiles at you. This is probably the most implausible scene in entire "Die Hard" franchise (and that's saying a lot), but that doesn't keep it from being fun--or an excuse for good action audio. There's not much surround sound beyond a little rumbling, but the front speakers and the subwoofer are kept busy with assorted crashes, explosions, and missile launchings. A THX spokesperson told me that the company used this scene to show off subwoofers.
If you really want to impress your friends and family, go with the DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Better in Blu-ray but Fine on DVD--"The Fifth Element"
This 1997 sci-fi adventure didn't break box office records, but it eventually acquired a cult following. It also became the demo disc for TV showrooms for a while, and with good reason.
"The Fifth Element" has dazzling visuals and great sound, and it's fun. (It's also one of the few futuristic movies that's neither utopian nor dystopian, making it seem more realistic and less preachy than most.)
Chapter 5: Another car chase in a crowded city, but with an interesting twist: The cars fly. Our taxi-driver hero (Bruce Willis), cops on his tail, dashes between seemingly thousands of little flying machines at different altitudes. It's not as fast-paced as most movie chases (the sequence slows down for dialog quite a bit), but that gives you more time to enjoy the scenery.
Chapter 13: A blue alien opera singer performs her heart out (above) while uglier and more evil aliens fight it out with just about everyone. Don't worry about the plot--just let your friends enjoy the audio. You've got full-throttle symphonic music going on onstage, an electric pop beat for a fight scene featuring the high-kicking heroine (Mila Jovovich), a merging of the two musical styles, and both dialog and gunfire on the surrounds.
If you have an HDMI connection between your player and your sound system, pick the PCM soundtrack. Otherwise, go with Dolby TrueHD.
Better in Blu-ray but Fine on DVD--"Wall-E"
Computer animation and digital video (like DVD, Blu-ray, and HDTV) go together like chocolate chips and vanilla ice cream. One is just a beautiful way to present the other.
"Wall-E" is one of the most technically advanced animated films ever made, filled with fine visual details and creative sound effects. It's also a lot of fun, appropriate for the entire family, and comes close to being a great motion picture.
Chapter 1: After 45 seconds of company logos (okay, the Pixar one is kind of cute), you're treated to a spectacular view of space, then a slow pan to the deserted, near-lifeless planet Earth. As you near the surface, a cityscape turns out to be great towers of compacted garbage (above). There's plenty of detail here to enjoy and admire.
Chapter 5: Our diminutive, robotic hero chases a strange, red light, which is only the harbinger of the giant spaceship that lands almost on his head. The visuals are great, but it's the sound that really dominates the scene. The subwoofer thunders has the rockets make their touchdown, and there's great surround as doors open around Wall-E. But the sound may be marred by your friends' laughter--it's a very funny scene.
Pick the DTS Master Audio track for best results.
Just on DVD--"Chicken Run"
Caption: This delightfully British family comedy (think "The Great Escape" with poultry protagonists) was made with old-fashioned stop-motion animation. Actual clay models were physically moved a tiny bit, photographed, then moved again.
Chapter 15: Our feathered heroine is placed into an automated chicken pie-making machine (above), and her rooster leaps in to save her. There are plenty of great surround sounds throughout this sequence, with one very special "wow" moment. When the rooster says "It's like an oven in here," about 52 minutes into the movie and 2.5 minutes into the scene, listen quickly. You'll be treated to the sound of gas jets turning on, one at a time, behind you.
"Chicken Run" features one great audio sequence that will show off your surround speakers while entertaining all ages. If your amplifier supports DTS, pick that audio option. Otherwise, pick Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. (The Dolby Surround 2.0 option is for people whose home theater sound system isn't worth showing off.)
Just on DVD--"Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark"
(Sold separately and as part of the "Indiana Jones--The Adventure Collection.")
Let's clear up the title confusion first. This movie was originally called "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Subsequently, "Indiana Jones and the..." was added, but the title on the film itself was not changed.
Whatever it's called, this is one of the greatest of all escapist action movies ever made. But you probably already know that.
Chapter 23: Your friends have probably already seen this long, very entertaining car, truck, and horse chase through the desert (above). But if they've never seen it on a large, widescreen HDTV, they don't know how effective it can be in a home environment (of course it's even more effective in a real theater). From the two rows of soldiers sitting in the truck to the constant horizontal action, this scene was made for a wide screen.
Warning: Although "Raiders" has a PG rating, the violence would probably earn it a PG-13 today.
Just on DVD--"Richard III" (1995 version)
Shakespeare's political melodrama gets updated to the 1930s (while keeping the Elizabethan language), turning it into a parable about the rise of fascism. It's one of the best Shakespeare films that have been made, but more important for our demo purposes, it contains one of the best uses of a low-frequency effects track (the .1 in 5.1) since the invention of the subwoofer.
Chapter 1: The nearly dialog-free pre-title sequence, which appears designed to say "This is not your father's Shakespeare movie," has some of the most effective use of a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack I've ever heard. After 30 seconds of silence, you hear the distant, soft noise of a teletype machine. For two minutes, the sounds are selective, quiet, and tension-building. Then a rumbling gets louder and louder. By the time the tank comes crashing through the brick fireplace, your floor may be quivering.
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