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HTF HD-DVD Review: The Fountain


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#1 of 6 OFFLINE   PatWahlquist

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Posted May 24 2007 - 02:48 PM


The Fountain (HD-DVD)

Studio: Warner Home Video
Rated: PG13 (Some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Video Codec: VC-1
Audio: English, French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; English SDH
Time: 96 minutes
Disc Format: 1 HD-DVD/ DVD combo disc
Case Style: Keep case
Theatrical Release Date:2006
HD-DVD Release Date: May 15, 2007

Note: The HD-DVD was released in the HD-DVD/DVD combo format. This review is only covering the HD-DVD side of the disc. Please refer to Ken McAlinden’s review of the SD DVD.


My first interaction with Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain came in the form of a brief blurb in an Entertainment Weekly several years ago. In it, the magazine was talking about Aronofsky’s then current picture, Requiem for a Dream and his plans for a love story set across 1000 years and containing historical and science fiction elements. Being a bit (okay, a huge) sci-fi geek, I was excited. But as the months rolled on, the movie went into what could best be called “development hell”: Brad Pitt was attached, then he wasn’t; the budget was huge, then it wasn’t; the picture would be out in time for Oscar season, then it wasn’t; then, it was simply gone.

Finally, the Pitt-less Aronofsky passion picture was set to be released, in a scaled back form with a new leading man, Hugh Jackman. This is what we are presented with here, and after viewing the picture I can only say I’m glad the fates stepped in, sent Pitt away and tightened the purse strings. In the meantime, DC’s Comics Vertigo label announced it was releasing a graphic novel of The Fountain written by and based on Aronofsky’s script, with art by Kent Williams. The graphic novel came out with little fanfare or splash, but I devoured it immediately. Since my fair city is not very friendly to smaller films, The Fountain played for exactly six days at a theater 22 miles from my house, and thus, I missed it.

The story goes something like this: in 16th century Spain, a queen (Rachel Weisz) sends a Conquistador, Tomas (Jackman) on a mission to retrieve sap from the biblical Tree of Life, sap that will supposedly give those who drink it eternal life. If Tomas returns to Spain with the sap, the queen will be his, forever. Tomas and a priest find the tree to be heavily defended, and a great battle ensues, with Tomas facing numerous adversaries…

In 2000, Tommy (Jackman) is desperately searching for a cure to his wife, Izzi’s (Weisz) cancerous brain tumor. He is using the tree bark from a South American tree on a tumor in the brain of a monkey. The monkey miraculously responds to the treatment, much to everyone’s surprise. As Tommy races against time to find a cure for his wife’s ailment, she is busy writing a historical drama set in 16th century Spain, called “The Fountain”. Izzi tasks Tommy with writing the last chapter of the book…

In 2500, Tom (Jackman) travels with a tree on a ship to a dying star/ nebula. He seeks to quiet his mind and save the tree. He is haunted by images of Izzi, aware of her fate and who he is. He tastes the bark; he concocts the elixir, hoping to live, forever.

The story in the graphic novel is told in a very linear style in chronological order. As Aronofsky worked on the movie, he jumbled each of the individual stories to emphasize their distinct themes and how they fit in to the whole. While many people find this type of storytelling annoying, it works very well in this picture. The Fountain demands a lot from its viewer: you must pay attention and you must go into it with an open mind. I can see how the picture got criticized for its abstractness, but I did not find this to be the case. I went into it eagerly, with an open mind and I was greatly rewarded. Even though I had read the graphic novel, I found the movie to be far more passionate and personal. You could compare it to the difference of reading a script and seeing the final picture. Aronofsky uses visuals to enhance his story, and there are numerous reoccurring motifs throughout the picture. There is a subtle transition from dark to light, where light suddenly blinds and startles us. Careful viewers will be rewarded as they are sucked into the story. Jackman and Weisz present passionate characters that never make you feel sorry for them or their plight; you are left with a hopeful feeling for them, regardless of their destinies.

Video:
Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 12-S4 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 720p. I am using a Toshiba HD-A1 for a player and utilizing the HDMI capabilities of both units.

The picture is correctly framed at 1.85:1, and it is encoded in VC-1 at 1080p. The color palate tends to stay bathed in aspects of gold, with lots of light and warm moods. We are also presented with several dark scenes (specifically the New Spain scenes), and while black levels are good, shadow detail tends to blend together. Across all three stories, Aronofsky uses spotlights to emphasize elements of the story and his characters. When these scenes come up, exceptional detail is seen on screen. Flesh tones tend to skewer towards the ambient or direct light shone on them. Otherwise, while the picture looks good, detail tends to be just a little soft. Edge enhancement is minimal. I did not notice any compression artifacts or video noise, nor was there any film dirt.


Audio:
The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack was attained by a 5.1 analog connection.

I watched the disc with the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track engaged. I was expecting much more from this soundtrack based on previews, but it turned out to be fairly quiet and subdued. This is perfect for this picture as it contains many quiet moments: there a scenes where all you hear are footsteps or whispers. The mix is very front forward, and the surrounds come up infrequently. When they do, they make for a good soundstage: I was specifically impressed with the ship scenes where you felt like you were in the sphere with Tom. There was a sense of presence and airiness. The score is accurately presented with a good, warm soundstage. LFE’s have a similar presentation and they are never overbearing. It seems as if a good amount of thought went into the sound design for this picture as there are repeating sounds across the three stories, further emphasizing the connectedness of the whole story.


Bonus Material:
With the advent of HD-DVD, we are faced with several different audio and video codecs being used on each disc. Due to this, I have begun adding the encoding details as part of the explanation of bonus features when applicable and relevant. For this release, the extras are in MPEG-2 encoding unless otherwise noted.

Inside the Fountain: Death and Rebirth (50:36): this documentary is done by Niko Tavernise. It is divided into six parts: "Australia", "The 21st Century", "Spain - 16th Century", "New Spain", "The Endless Field", and "The Future". You can watch them all separately or together. Tavernise takes his handheld video camera and documents the production from the aborted first attempt to make the picture up through the end of shooting. This is an interesting doc and a great way to see Aronofsky in action, including watching his beard grow! I would have liked to have more information on why the initial production stopped.

The Interview (13:08): Weisz interviews Jackman as he’s getting his arm tattoo makeup applied on the last day of the shoot. The two talk about the story and their character in a very informal piece. A candid, engrossing interview that I wish lasted longer.

VFX: Step by Step (8:37): six of the primary visual effects shots are broken down in their individual components and we are shown the process of how they come together. Storyboards, pre-viz, animatics, miniatures, underwater live action shots, CG, it all comes together here. The process is set to the score, and I would like to see more of the VFX docs on DVD’s to do them like this instead of having the crew talk us through the process. We’ve seen enough of these now to understand how it’s done, now, I’d just rather see it.

Inside the Director’s Mind: Scene to Storyboard Comparison: a few minutes of just what the title tells you.

Peter Parks Bonus- macro photography loop (In HD): while this is kind of cool in a screen saver sort of way, I got the point after a couple minutes.

Theatrical Trailer

Conclusions:
The Fountain provides a stunning vision of a personal quest, both that of the characters and the director. It is very gratifying to see this picture make it out as it showcases a director who is quickly coming into his own. The HD-DVD looks good and we get a nice set of extras.
ISO "Lost" ARG prints from Kevin Tong, Olly Moss, Eric Tan and Methane Studios.  PM me if you want to sell!

All reviews done on a Marantz VP11S1 1080p DLP projector.

Displays professionally calibrated by Gregg Loewen of Lion AV.

#2 of 6 OFFLINE   Jeff Adkins

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Posted May 24 2007 - 03:25 PM

Those are pretty much my thoughts as well. Although I watched it on Blu-Ray, they are identical encodes. I thought it looked soft and the soundtrack was adequate at best. It will be interesting to see if it's just the master or the way it was encoded. This version comes out in Europe next week and I will be looking forward to reviews on the DTS soundtrack and the video encoding which most likely will be AVC or MPEG2.

I loved the film, though.

#3 of 6 OFFLINE   Dome Vongvises

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Posted May 27 2007 - 03:33 AM

Loved the film, and purchased this on HDDVD. Looking forward to watching it again. One of the best soundtracks ever.

#4 of 6 OFFLINE   ClaytonMG

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Posted May 27 2007 - 08:54 AM

I thought the surrounds were fairly active. The spain scenes used them quite a bit. Also people opening and closing doors came from behind you and so did some dialogue. Anytime you hear her say "Finish it" it's ussually in a rear channel. But it is too bad we didn't get a PCM or a Dolby TrueHD track though. The score would've been even more amazing then Posted Image I almost forgot, towards the beginning, did anyone else think there were some compression blocks on Hugh's face and his hands? I thought I saw some but I can't remember at what times.

#5 of 6 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted May 28 2007 - 02:37 AM

I watched this last night and was extremely impressed. I second your thoughts, Pat, on the fates stepping in and placing Hugh Jackman as the leading man. Hugh delivers what I found to be a career defining performance. The Clint Mansell soundtrack was a delight as well, especially the piano track over the end credits.

I can see me watching this film again and again and drawing new meaning from its story.
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#6 of 6 OFFLINE   Mark Bendiksen

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Posted May 28 2007 - 03:49 PM

I'm reallly looking forward to this one....can't wait until my copy arrives from NetFlix!