Reign of Fire Reign of Fire on Blu-ray Disc

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause

by Jim Bray

The concept of dragons in the here and now may sound silly - and it could be silly if not handled well - but in Reign of Fire, they deal with the issue in a most entertaining way.

British workers in "today's" England are digging their job - well, they're digging literally - when they open a passage into a big underground chamber, unwittingly unleashing the mother of all beasts - the father of all dragons!

Then, almost overnight, an ancient race of dragons is reborn and humanity is powerless against their fiery assault on human civilization. Soon, all that's left is rag tag bands of frightened humanity, huddled where they hope to be safe from the flying flame throwers.

And this is where the movie gets going. In the year 2022, Quinn (Christian Bale) leads one of these rag tag bands. And he's being reasonably successful at keeping out of the dragons' way.

Then an American militia unit led by a guy named Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) shows up, determined to take the fight to the dragons, and asks for Quinn's help. The Yanks say they've found a way to kill dragons - a way that opens up opportunities for some nifty special effects and action - and they've also figured out that all the dragons keeping humanity down are female except for the single male who fertilizes their eggs, a giant beast who makes the girl dragons look like children and who's as smart as he is big.

Van Zan and his gang need Quinn's help to find the dragon's lair - but Quinn is scared; he remembers something he'd rather forget and, besides, he's responsible for his packet of people.

Will the Brits and the Yanks work together to end the dragons' scourge and free humanity to once more live on the surface?

Well of course I'm not going to give that away, but you can probably guess anyway.

Reign of Fire is flawed in that it's a concept for which it's a bit hard to suspend your disbelief, but if you can manage to do that, you're in for a pretty nifty ride.

Bale and McConaughey are good actors - and it's interesting to see Bale not putting on an American accent here - and they're backed up by a journeyman cast that includes Izabella Scorupco and Gerard Butler. The production values are first rate and, though there aren't enough of them, the dragon shots are pulled off beautifully. These are arguably the best dragons since Dragonslayer in 1981.

So how's the Blu-ray disc? For the most part, it's excellent.

The film is presented in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It has a gritty, realistic look that combines sets with CG enhancement, and the seams are, well, pretty well seamless. This is good, of course. I love the fact that the days of matte lines are gone for the most part. Colors are the film's weak link: most things are gray and smoky outside, with interiors that are more colorful but mostly quite dark. But despite that, what color there is is pure and rich, and the image is razor sharp for most of the scenes, with deep blacks and very good depth that often looks three dimensional.

Alas, there's noise in many scenes as well, particularly when you can see the sky, but it isn't enough to ruin the movie for you - and the good parts of the video transfer are so good (and far more numerous) that they outweigh the flaws easily.

Ditto for the audio. The English uncompressed 5.1 PCM track is big and loud, as it should be in a movie such as this. It's very dynamic, using the whole frequency range I can still hear after years of rock 'n' roll, yet not at the expense of the quieter, more subtle sounds or the dialog.  Dragon roars and explosions pack great punch, and the surrounds add their presence beautifully.

Extras, which are in 1080p and 480i, include "Backstage info" which is basically a couple of featurettes (one of which, "Breathing Life into the Terror" is more promo than "bonus info") and an interview with director Rob Bowman, of "X-files" fame. He comes across well, and his bit is welcome, but why wouldn't they have paid him to do a commentary track as well?

You also get the trailer in 1080p, which you don't really need since you have the movie.

Disney also throws in another of its "movie showcases," which is a mini-chapter selection menu that takes you directly to scenes the producers think are the best showcases for the Blu-ray technology - ways to impress your friends and family.

The Santa Clause 3 The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause on Blu-ray disc

by Jim Bray

This movie is proof that reference quality audio and video do not a good movie make. And it's too bad: the first two Santa Clause movies were enjoyable Christmas adventures.

The third installment is set 12 years after Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) first donned Santa's coat and became the symbol of Christmas for so many children worldwide. He's still married to his second wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) and she's now extremely pregnant and nearly ready to download.

But it's almost Christmas and Scott's as busy as you'd expect him to be, so he doesn't have time to be the doting husband and new father he needs to be. He, and especially she, need family around.

So he invites her parents (Alan Arkin and an amazingly well aged Ann-Marget) to the North Pole for a visit. Except that he can't let them know who he is really and where they are, so he gets all his elves to pretend they and their home are really part of Canada so the in-laws won't find out. They comply, wearing headgear to hide their pointed ears and ending their sentences in "eh" the way Canadians are supposed to but usually don't.

To complicate things further, Scott's ex-wife (Wendy Crewson) and her second husband (Judge Reinhold) and their kids also show up at the North Pole. They know Santa's secret, and are cool with it, but they also tend to get under foot at a time when Scott needs more complications like he needs another head.

Of course a drama of any stripe needs a villain, and this time it's Jack Frost (Martin Short) who, jealous of Santa and the other mythical figures of the series (Mother Nature, the Sandman, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc.), wants his share of the adulation. So he schemes to get Scott/Santa to invoke the Escape Clause that will send him back to where he was when Santa first came into his life, allowing him (Frost) to put on the coat instead.

The film is much darker than its predecessors, and that works against it. It also doesn't have the same sense of wonder as the first two, or its humor. Instead, we have tired situations you can see coming and we never really get drawn into them. Ditto for the performances, which seem to be some very good actors just going through the motions.  

Kids may get a kick out of it, though the first two (especially the original) are much better experiences.

But Santa Clause 3 looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. The 1080p widescreen picture (1.85:1) looks magnificent, with excellent depth and beautiful color and detail. This comes in particularly handy in a movie that uses so much great color as this one does. Christmas is a time of reds and greens and the like, and they sparkle here. The movie looks good enough to hang on your Christmas tree as a decoration, if such a thing were possible.

The audio is also very good. Disney's presentation is in uncompressed 5.1 channel PCM. It isn't quite up to the quality of the video, but it's still nice. And while there isn't a lot of work for the surround channels here, when they do fire up they sound great.

There are plenty of extras, too, probably more than the movie deserves.

First up is a commentary from director Michael Lembeck, a not particularly funny blooper reel and an alternate opening (What? No alternate ending?).  There's also an indulgent and not particularly funny segment showcasing the comedic talents of Tim Allen and Martin Short, except that their comedic talents are wasted in it, while "Creating Movie Magic" is a very short look at a couple of effects scenes.

There's also a non-HD music video set to clips from the film, a "virtual holiday decorator" a high def feature that lets you decorate a virtual tree, hang stockings, etc., and Christmas Carol-oke, which is obviously a sing-along of holiday classics.  

And, finally, another Disney Movie Showcase of selected demo scenes.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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