Seven Worlds One Planet, BBC Studios, Ultra HD 4K Disc, 2020
I’m a huge fan of the BBC Earth collection of nature films. Ever since I saw Planet Earth at the dawn of the 1080p era, I made it a point to add each new production to my collection. I’ve used the Ultra HD version of Planet Earth II as reference material for many of my recent display reviews. Now we have a new planet-wide presentation to enjoy as our intrepid camera teams travel through every continent on the globe in search of what makes that world unique.
Narrated as always by David Attenborough, Seven Worlds spends each of its seven hours on a single continent. First you get an overview of the land and its varied environments. Then the documentary focuses on a few specific animals, their behaviors, and the challenges they face. If you hadn’t already guessed, there is a conservation-heavy message here. And it is certainly warranted. You’ll see what I mean when you watch the final scene of the final episode, Africa.
Politics aside, the video quality is truly a sight to behold. I’ve attended many trade shows where premium demo material was showing on the various projectors and TVs on display. This footage is usually rented for thousands of dollars. But it doesn’t touch what you can buy for forty bucks online. And so far, I’ve only watched it in 1080p. Standard Blu-ray discs are included in the package with the 4K versions. I’ll have a chance to check those out soon when I get an Ultra HD projector in for review.
No matter what system you have, you’ll be enthralled at the lush color, deep contrast, and razor-sharp detail. The camera work is nothing short of perfect. And it should be as this series was literally years in the making. Only the best technology was employed, and camera crews sometimes spent months in a single spot to capture moments rarely seen by any human.
The narration is skillfully done and highly educational. Young and old viewers alike will be hard-pressed not to learn something. There are a few scenes of animals feeding that might disturb the youngest children, but everything is done in good taste. Audio comes in Dolby Atmos and TrueHD 7.1 and is spectacular. Ambient sounds happen all around the viewer to where you’ll believe you’re in the middle of a jungle, or that a chimpanzee is breaking a coconut in your living room. And a lush musical score underpins everything perfectly.
At the end of each episode is a short making-of featurette that details the more difficult shoots endured by the BBC Earth crews. It’s well worth investing the extra five minutes to see just how these iconic images were created. Seven Worlds One Planet is a must-see and for those seeking reference-quality video and sound, it’s a no-brainer.
What I’m Streaming: Is Netflix a Better Food Network Than The Food Network?
As much as I prefer to watch movies on Blu-ray disc, there is no escaping the fact that a lot of great TV shows are only available from streaming providers. I’ve been a Netflix subscriber since long before they ever imagined streaming video over the internet. I loved sending and receiving DVDs in those little red envelopes; sometimes 10 or 12 titles a month would hit my mailbox.
I also love to watch the Food Network on cable. I haven’t yet cut the cord because there is just enough programming in my package from Spectrum to keep me paying those exorbitant fees every month. The Food Network is a great place to watch cooking competitions and to learn about food. Alton Brown is truly a force of nature. But in the past year or so, I’ve discovered quite a few great food shows on Netflix. Some are imports like The Great British Baking Show. But many are Netflix originals like Chefs Table, Restaurants on the Edge, and The Chef Show. It’s not hard to compare them to Food Network shows like, well, Chef’s Table has no real competition from The Food Network, but Restaurants on the Edge is an awful lot like Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible.
I’ve watched Chef Irvine rescue over a hundred restaurants and the show is extremely entertaining. I’m still watching it to this day. But Restaurants on the Edge from Netflix takes the “restaurant remodel” formula to an entirely new level. It’s shot in some truly exotic locations. Watch the episode from Austria and you’ll see what I mean. And the three hosts, a designer, a chef, and a restauranteur, are super laid back; unlike Robert Irvine’s version of tough love, these people go out of their way to help their charges without fanfare or argument.
If you want to watch the ultimate in food photography, Chef’s Table will certainly satisfy even the most ardent foodie. A few of the episodes focus too much on the chef’s personal life but most feature some of the best food and travel imagery I’ve ever seen. Most episodes have me fantasizing about a trip to these far-flung restaurants just so I can see those gorgeous plates in person.
So, is Netflix a better food network than The Food Network? In terms of production quality, the answer is a resounding yes. The photography and overall formula are much more high-end than anything coming from The Food Network. What TFN has though is quantity. There is almost always a baking competition in the Monday night primetime slot and Tuesdays usually feature a new episode of Chopped, a show that has managed to stay fresh despite its more than 10 years on the air. And Guy Fieri will probably never run out of restaurants to visit on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. If you binge for a few months on Netflix’s food offerings, you’ll run out of content; although I’ve watched all the available seasons of British Baking twice now.
I’m not ready to give my cable subscription just yet. There is enough good content on The Food Network to keep me coming back. But Netflix manages to add more and more every month. If you’re looking for something truly quirky, give Cooked With Cannabis a try.
Here’s a list of Netflix food shows I’ve already watched or are currently watching:
The Great British Baking Show
The Big Family Cooking Showdown
The Chef’s Line
Restaurants on the Edge
Zumbo’s Just Desserts
The Final Table
The Chef Show
And there are plenty more I have yet to try. If you’ve cut the cord or are looking for an alternative to The Food Network, Netflix is better for foodies in many ways. And you can always go back to your favorites and watch them again; you can’t do that on cable!
To Catch A Thief, Paramount Presents, BluRay Disc, 2020
This month, Paramount Pictures sent me a few new releases that are classics from their extensive movie vaults. To Catch a Thief (1955) stars Carey Grant and Grace Kelly and was directed by one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock. The story is a pretty straightforward “who done it”, with Robie (Grant) being a retired cat burglar living on the French Riviera after WWII. Someone out there is stealing expensive jewelry and making it look like Robie has come out of retirement. With the help of Frances (Kelly), the two try to find the real thief and clear his name.
Of course, along the way they fall in love, so the title has a double meaning. Shot in VistaVision, the picture looks great as it was remastered from a 4K transfer.
Fatal Attraction, Paramount Presents, BluRay Disc, 2020
Fatal Attraction (1987) terrified moviegoers with a story about a casual weekend dalliance gone horribly awry. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Though a bit dated, it somehow fits in with the Me-Too movement, only scarier for the men. Starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, the story revolves around a family man who has a weekend fling with a gal who refuses to be the object of a one-night fling.
Close got the Best Actress award for her portrayal of a woman that takes a one-way ticket on the crazy train. Even after all these years, this film can make you squirm…and certainly, remind you to honor your marriage vows. Paramount is planning on doing a limited release in theaters this Fall, but with the pandemic, plans may change (even as I write this, my local theater has opened up again here in Texas, so keep your fingers crossed). Again, the picture quality looks very good as the Paramount Presents label uses 4K remasters of these new film releases.
Inspector Lewis (2006-2015) TV Crime Drama on PBS Masterpiece Theater
Starring: Kevin Whatley and Laurence Fox
Synopsis: Inspector Robert Lewis and Sergeant James Hathaway solve the tough cases that the learned inhabitants of Oxford throw at them.
My wife and I like to watch “who done it” mysteries and we have found over time that almost anything on PBS crushes anything on American TV these days. We blasted through the short-lived series of Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and loved the fact that British drama is more cerebral than the lame action-packed dramas here in the States. If I have any complaint about Inspector Lewis, it is that the crimes are fiendishly hard to solve, often with the murderer NOT being the one I guessed would be the culprit. Each episode runs about an hour and a half and the action is a bit slow-paced. The acting is exemplary, and the stories are often quite twisty, so you must pay attention! That said, the series is a worthwhile investment of your time, especially if you need some mental stimulation during your “COVID downtime”. The first few seasons are in standard definition and by season four they become refreshed in 1080p. Who knew so many people are getting murdered in an old college town?
Lately, I have been on a Cruise. Not a boat ride to the Caribbean, but a TOM Cruise. I recently received 3 films on 4K UHD Blu-ray from Paramount featuring Mr. Action himself, War of the Worlds, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder.
War of The Worlds, Paramount, Ultra HD 4K Disc, 2020
I found War of the Worlds (2005) to be somewhat long on visuals, but short on actual story. The 1953 version with Gene Barry had a more scientific approach as Barry played a scientist who gave insight throughout the film, instead of Cruise’s longshoreman jerk of a father who learns good parenting along the way to human extinction. I enjoyed the ’53 versions miniature set pieces and saucers on puppet strings approach. I remember seeing it as a kid and just being entranced with the visuals.
The sometimes-overwrought visuals of the new version didn’t always feel right to me. I also felt let down by the ending when the solemn voice of Morgan Freeman quickly announces that germs killed the Martians and the credits start to roll. It felt like they didn’t know how to end it, so they just tacked a quick five-sentence ending onto the film. Perhaps I expected a bit more from Spielberg. Still, there are some excellent surround sound effects and remarkably deep booms from the bombardment of the alien space crafts. My favorite surprise was noticing for the first time that Gene Barry was cast as the grandfather at the very end of the movie. That’s a nice “nod”, that. For what it is worth? The 1953 version is being readied for a 4K release later this year. (I hope they don’t digitally remove the strings holding the Martian ships from above. I still think they look cool!).
Top Gun, Paramount, Ultra HD 4K Disc, 2020
Top Gun (1986). The movie that forever cemented Cruise as a bad-to-the-bone, bona fide hero. The movie practically oozes testosterone and launched a dozen jet fighter, helicopter flicks, both on the big screen and TV. I was surprised by how well the story still holds up and the flight scenes were cutting edge, extraordinary back then, and still thrill today. Of course, after 30 years, we will soon be able to see the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. In that one, Cruise returns to the Top Gun training school as an instructor. I heard he tried to get the Navy to actually let him fly a fighter jet, but the Navy balked.
Hey, he learned how to fly a helicopter for a stunt in the last Mission Impossible movie! Tom is mad, I tell you, but I love his insanity on the big screen. The picture looks very good (much better than the BD version) and the Dolby Vision HDR is impressive. This was remastered in 4K with a 4K DI. If you are a fan of this movie, you will want the upgrade. The extras include some clips for the new film, and they are in UHD too. I feel the need for speed!
Days of Thunder, Paramount, Ultra HD 4K Disc, 2020
Days of Thunder (1990) has a by-the-numbers approach to Nascar racing. Tom plays Cole Trickle, a young driver with a lot to prove. A young Nicole Kidman plays a doctor that helps Cruise regain his nerve after a crash and the experienced crew boss played by the wonderful Robert Duvall. Again, great sound and a razor-sharp image, but the story for me was somewhat mediocre and predictable. Though this film isn’t in my top 5 Cruise films, if you are an avid collector, the upgrade may be worth your money.
D-Day/Normandy 1944, Shout Factory, Ultra HD 4K Disc, 2020
And lastly, in time for June 5th, SHOUT Factory sent me an excellent film narrated by Tom Brokaw, D-Day: Normandy 1944 (2020). The film is short at about 40 minutes, but it contains the very essence of the plan to land thousands of Allied troops on the shores of France during WWII. It is amazing to learn the “how and why” of this event. With a blend of cinematic techniques, all of which are in UHD with HDR, the film uses actual footage and digital animation that delves into the details that few people knew about back then. The sound is fantastic, too, with great use of the surrounds and your subwoofer.
This is presented in a way that educates and honors the thousands who fought and died on the beaches, without going Private Ryan on you. Exploring history, strategy, science, and technology, this film is a great tribute to those that changed the 20th century and answered the call to duty. Highly recommended for military buffs and patriots alike!
All the films above also come with a BD disc, so if you are stuck at home without 4K, you can still be entertained. But after all these weeks, aren’t you ready to up your viewing game?
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, The Criterion Collection, BluRay 9-Discs, 2018
If you are a fan of Akira Kurasawa’s classic Yojimbo and Sanjuro samurai movies then you are no doubt familiar with the long-running Zatoichi movie series. Starring the late Shintaro Katsu in the reoccurring title role of Zatoichi, a blind traveling masseur who has a checkered history as a former yakuza member/gambler and trained as a master swordsman.
The 25 feature films found in this set were released between 1962 and 1973. They find our troubled yet sympathetic protagonist wandering throughout Japan getting himself into all manner of situations with unsavory gangsters and he inevitably has to fight his way through using his lightning hidden cane-sword. Each film shares the same basic premise but has various story embellishments, twists, and guests that make every installment enjoyable. All the films are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with mono soundtracks. The first two movies, “The Tale of Zatoichi” and “The Tail of Zatoichi Continues” are in the original black and white with the other 23 films presented in color. The Supplements section includes a 1978 documentary on Shintaro Katsu called “The Blind Swordsman”, a couple of interviews, film trailers, and new English subtitles.
The Zatoichi film series (there was also a separate television series for a time) is a cultural phenomenon in Japan that spawned two new modern film takes on the character. Criterion has gone above and beyond with the presentation in this set. Each of the films has received Criterion’s typical scrupulous attention to detail in the 2K scanning and restoration from original 35mm prints and 24-bit audio remastering from the optical tracks. I’ve seen most of these films either on VHS or DVD in the past and these transfers obviously look and sound far-and-away better than they ever have. Contrast, color, and film grain look very natural and proper for films of their vintage. The packaging for the set is extravagant with a hardbound case that houses all 9 BluRay discs and a separate hardbound book that has a synopsis of each film, critical essays, and details about the transfers and restorations. Both these and set’s outer case are adorned with custom artwork throughout.
This isn’t an inexpensive set and various web searches show it to be hard to find. But if like me, you are a fan of this genre of film then you should seriously consider adding it to your collection.