Blu-ray Review “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One”

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, LeVar Burton, Marina Spirtis
Number of discs: 6
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distributed by: Paramount Home Entertainment
Release Date: July 24, 2012
Running Time: 1184 minutes

Season One: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Extras: 4 out of 5 stars

I have to first admit that I am new to the whole “Star Trek” universe. Earlier this year, I have completed watching the Original Series, the Animated Series and currently I am halfway through Season Six of “The Next Generation”. Let me tell you I am completely immersed in this series and I feel like I have been living and breathing “Star Trek” over the last few months. I have purchased shirts, iPhone cases and even baby onesies to only enhance my trek into becoming a full on “Trekkie”. I feel that my review would actually provide a unique perspective to this release, especially since I am not your typical hardcore fan. When I recently watched the first season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, courtesy of Netflix, I couldn’t help by thinking how terrible this series looked and it really needed an HD upgrade bad! Well, all of our prayers have been answered because this release brings the first season re-mastered beautifully in high-definition and just in time for the show’s 25th anniversary.

Firstly, when they say that this season has been restored, they are not saying that lightly. This show looks like it was ran through the cleaners and it is super pristine with proven before/after results. It is also is presented in the original 4:3 ratio, which should be a must for fans. Those who think that it would be better widescreen should know that this show was specifically shot for full screen ratio and wouldn’t even be able to be converted to widescreen without distorting the picture. Even though the first season isn’t the most highly regarded in the series it is still a great start and only a sample of what we can expect for future seasons. One thing that I was hoping for though was a better case presentation, the season’s 25 episodes are spread out among six discs delivered in a slim BD case with a slipcover. I liked “The Original Series” Blu-ray packaging way more than this but nonetheless fans of “Star Trek” couldn’t have asked for a better high definition jump to warp speed for this classic sci-fi series.

Let’s talk a little bit about the video presentation for season one of “The Next Generation”. These episodes haven’t been just remastered from the existing film masters, they actually went back to the original 35mm camera negatives and redone all the visual effects, all in high definition. The special effects are completely updated and revised, sort of what Lucas did with the “Star Wars” trilogy. The 1080p transfers of each episode are extremely sharp and are very impressive, summing up a really excellent restoration. There are two audio tracks included on this release. There is a mind-blowing DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track and a retro Dolby Digital 2.0 track as well. Personally the 7.1 track completely trumps the 2.0 track, the clarity of the sound is super clear and also completely restored. You honestly feel like the action is happening all around you and you are flying through space with the USS Enterprise.

Click play to watch the incredible side-by-side look at the transformation of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” into high-definition.

This release also includes a bunch of exclusive special features including never-before-seen archival footage, many brand new interviews and much more! Honestly the special features are worth the purchase alone for any true “Star Trek” fan. The extras are split over the 1st and 6th discs. Disc 1 starts off with a promo for Season Two of “The Next Generation” on Blu-ray, which I was very pleased to see that they are planning these seasons back-to-back. It is even more exciting since it revealed that it will contain a brand new, high definition 75-minute roundtable with the cast of “The Next Generation”. You can really tell that they are looking to please their series fans and not just cash in on a high-def release. There is the retro 1987 series introduction trailer, a season one vintage promo, three more launch promos as well as three episode promos. The real draw for this disc though is a brand-new 25-minute documentary titled “Energized: Taking The Next Generation to the Next Level”, which focusing on the remastering process and how they went to the original camera negatives and restored the visual effects in HD.

The rest of the special features are included on disc six, mostly vintage extras from past DVD releases but still worth checking out. Included are four production featurettes, “The Beginning”, “Selected Cast and Crew Analysis”, “The Making of a Legend” and “Memorable Missions”. It covers quite a bit of ground. Next up is a great three-part 95-minute documentary called “Stardate Revisited: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It provides some really comprehensive information about the series. The first part is called “Inception” , the second is “Launch” and last is “The Continuing Mission”. Don’t miss this for sure! Lastly there is a great 8-minute gag reel. “Star Trek: TNG” has always had a great sense of humor and this shows it. There is also another teaser for season two on this disc as well. I really am looking forward to what they are planning next, especially after this already amazing release.

Blu-ray Review “Phil Collins: Live at Montreux 2004”

Starring: Phil Collins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distributed by: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Blu-ray (1 disc) & DVD (2-disc set)
Total Running Time: 231 minutes

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In the beginning…there was Genesis. And they had a drummer. And he was a good drummer.

Yes…it’s easy to forget that the drummer for Genesis – throughout their Peter Gabriel-fronted early progressive rock era and the subsequent trio-based years – was Phil Collins. In fact, it’s easy to completely forget that he’s a drummer at all, given the incredible number of pop hits he managed to dish out over the course of his decades-long solo career in which he was primarily known for his singing voice and the slew of MTV-era music videos that rarely showed him behind a kit.

“Phil Collins: Live at Montreux 2004” immediately seizes the opportunity to remind us that the guy is a powerhouse percussionist. Instead of starting the show by jumping into the role of the chart-topping solo vocalist, he takes a seat on the drummer’s throne and bashes away at a solo that’s impressive in its own right. But wait…there’s more! Another drummer joins in to make things more rhythmically complex.  And by the time a third drummer joins in, the whole affair has become a joyous bombastic escapade that leaves Phil covered with sweat and a beaming smile.  And he hasn’t even sung a single note yet.

As soon as the drumming circle concludes, Collins takes center stage and the journey through his greatest hits begins. Even though his solo career often produced some corny clunkers (you know the wer-HERRRRD: sus-sus-sudio!) and sappy ballads, it’s undeniable that so many of his hits are damn good songs. (Go ahead. Just try to not get into the groove of “I Missed Again” and “Easy Lover”. I dare you.)

Of course, the delivery of the 24-song live set has a lot to do with a 16-member backing band that is comprised of some truly amazing musicians – some of whom have been with Collins for quite some time. They’re quite a versatile lot that knows how to propel energetic songs and recede during quieter ballads such as “A Groovy Kind of Love” and “Against All Odds”. Collins has a little trouble hitting the highest of highs that were present on the original studio tracks, but he and his musical crew have such a command of solidly delivering the material that it doesn’t matter. Phil’s dynamic energy is invigorating and his ability to jump from being a smooth crooner to a jump and jiver is so effortless that it’s hard not to get engrossed in his performance. But, above all else, it seems like he’s still having a grand time singing songs that he’s performed countless times over the decades.

Even though the 2-hour plus 2004 show easily provides more than enough material to satisfy, a 13-song 1996 show that was also recorded at Montreux is also included. Looking at the track list, it seems that the vast majority of the tracks from this gig are redundant with the ones that are included in the 2004 concert.  This immediately begs the question “Why even bother including it at all?” But, from note one, it becomes quite clear why it has been added: all of the songs are big band-style reinterpretations of Phil’s solo songs along with some Genesis and classic jazz covers thrown in for good measure. As a result, many songs are performed sans vocals and, because it’s a Montreux Jazz Festival show, special guest appearances by legendary performers happen throughout. David Sanborn lends his supreme saxophone skills to handle the vocal line of “In the Air Tonight”, Quincy Jones conducts a group of orchestral musicians and the one-and-only Tony Bennett adds his unmistakable swagger to the jazz standard “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”. Sure, some of the instrumental versions of the slower ballads might better suited for the confines of an elevator, but everybody onstage – including drummer Phil – seems to be having such a blast transforming Collins’ songs, that the program manages to be a lot of fun even during its sleepiest moments.  The audio quality of the entire 1996 show, however, has some MAJOR problems.  But we’ll cover that soon enough…

“Phil Collins: Live at Montreux” is available as a one-disc Blu-ray and a two-disc DVD set. The 2004 show was filmed in high-definition (1080i), so the Blu’s image quality is far superior to the DVD’s. The 1996 show was recorded in standard definition and, as such, there’s not much of an appreciable visual difference between the two editions for this segment of the program. Unfortunately, even though the big band show should be presented in 4:3, it defaults to 16:9 during playback which makes Phil and his cohorts appear short and wide. Be sure to pop your TV/monitor into 4:3 to correct this technical error: those “annoying black bars” on the left and right of the screen help to make the show look more like a concert and less like an Oompa Loompa outtake from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”.

The audio options for the Blu-ray and the DVD are pretty much what we’ve come to expect from live concert discs: Dolby Digital 5.1 for both, DTS-HD for the Blu and standard DTS for the DVD. All are sufficient for the 2004 show, although the drum track (especially the low-end of the kick drum) seems a little less defined and present in the mix than one would hope for and expect and the bass track is rather heavy and is frequently somewhat muddy. On the whole, it’s quite listenable and will probably only bug audiophile listeners. The audio for the 1996 show,  for any set of ears, leaves a lot to be desired as it gets jarringly compressed and distorted – even on the Blu-ray – when the band’s dynamics reach a loud fever pitch.  Just because Phil himself states at the beginning of the 1996 show that “We’re going to play my shit…but differently” doesn’t mean that it should sound like shit. How a glitch this major made it past Eagle Rock Entertainment’s mastering engineers and quality control department is beyond comprehension.

Despite these technical shortcomings, the 2004 part of “Phil Collins: Live at Montreaux 2004” is easily the best Phil Collins greatest hits collection on the market and should please long-time fans as well as those two or three living beings in the animal kingdom who aren’t familiar with his music. Given that Collins retired from performing soon after this show, it’s great to have a most-filling (although not always aurally satisfying) retrospective that showcases a truly talented singer and – lest we forget – one hell of a drummer.

 

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Blu-ray Review “Owl City: Live from Los Angeles”

Starring: Owl City (Adam Young et al)
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Run Time: 110 minutes

Our Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

“Owl City: Live from Los Angeles” is like finding the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka bar. With a single plop of a disc and a click of a play button, we get transported to a land in which each sugary song gets devoured by all of the assembled ‘tweeny masses that have gathered in the City of Angels to see the Owlies. Adam Young, the 20-something geeky goliath behind Owl City, clearly loves holding the keys to the chocolate factory and is all smiles while delivering his candy-coated concoctions all of which have been baked using one musical recipe: take one batch of simplistic lyrics flavored with overly-enunciated nasally vocals, knead in a repetitive keyboard sample sequence and baste with standard electronica big beats. Initially, it’s a pretty tasty snack but, after a couple of helpings, you start wishing that you had opted for the Whitman’s sampler.

As easy as it is to immediately like Young’s genuine enthusiasm for what he’s doing and his “aww…shucks” emo-impishness when he’s bantering with his audience, the music that results doesn’t show any real tonal variety. It’s all sing-songy la-la-la type of stuff that would work well in a live-action Care Bears movie (trust me…one will happen). He’s also got a long way to go before his lyrics become compelling in any way. They’re always so cheery and peppy, it makes you wonder if the worst day in his life was when a toy failed to make its way into his McDonald’s Happy Meal. And it’s pretty easy to guess that when he introduces a song by saying “here’s one about angels”, the one he’s probably going to launch into is called…you guessed it…”Angels”.

For the one-trick pony that is Owl City, the number of musicians in the band is staggeringly large. In addition to Young, who serves as the group’s guitarist, keyboardist and lead vocalist, there are at least five other people onstage playing a wide array of instruments such as violin, cello and xylophone. At one point, there’s even a second drummer. Why such an arsenal is needed to produce music so banal is unclear as the whole show basically plays as one song in eternal-loop. The only exception to this is when Shawn Chrystopher video-screens in his guest rap during “Alligator Sky”. Even though Chrystopher’s not going to go down in hip-hop history as a flashy grandmaster, the addition of his vocal makes you fully aware of the monotony that you’ve had to endure up to that point.

“Live from Los Angeles” is the first live concert DVD/Blu-ray release from Owl City.  One could guess given their immense popularity that it’ll move truckloads when it is released.  However, it’s possible that very few members of their fan base will actually plunk down the dollars to buy it as many of the frequent audience shots show so many of the gathered Youngins capturing the Owls with their iPhones rather than actually watching the live show. For those that do make the purchase, though, the disc has enough sonic clarity to most likely satisfy any Owlhead audiophiles. And while the Blu-ray’s 1080i presentation does show some artifacting during full-stage shots when the backstage hands have pumped up the smoke machines, close-ups of the band are consistently sharp and clear. Bonus interview segments with Young can be sandwiched in between live tracks or played as one contiguous extended interview.

So, if you’re one who frequents the sparkly Pleasantville that is Owl City, “Live from Los Angeles” will probably be worth the trip. As for me, I prefer to drive through musical landscapes which occasionally have seedy urban boroughs that make me check to see if my doors are locked.

Blu-ray Review “The Richard Thompson Band: Live at Celtic Connections”

Starring: The Richard Thompson Band
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Release Date: January 31, 2012
Run Time: 148 minutes (including extras)

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Richard Thompson’s fourth foray into the live concert home video arena is one that truly shines and serves as a testament to his distinctive guitar-playing virtuosity, astute songwriting talents and dynamic bass-laden vocals. Lauded by critics worldwide, Thompson’s 40-year career includes being a member of the iconic pioneering folk-rock group Fairport Convention, milestone albums recorded while married to wife Linda, and over 12 solo albums in his back catalog. Filmed in January 2011 at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, “Live at Celtic Connections” captures Thompson and his band mates in peak form.

The 2+ hour concert splits itself into two halves.  The first features 11 of the 13 tracks from his most recent CD release, “Dream Attic”. The second half is a romp through his – as the ever self-effacing Thompson states at the show’s beginning – “greatest hits…with a small ‘h’.” The group demonstrates within the first two songs that they can run the gamut between straight-up rockers (“The Money Shuffle”) and hushed somber ballads (“Among the Gorse, Among the Grey”). This alternating upbeat/downbeat pattern persists throughout the “Dream Attic” portion of the show. Very few bands could pull this off but Thompson’s intricate fretwork (which once placed him at #19 in Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 100 Guitarists of All-Time’ list) and his collection of consummate musical companions do it with seamless fluidity. And Thompson’s innate ability to pen lucid and razor-sharp lyrics are consistently balanced by his in-between song stage banter in which his distinctly British sophistication and wit comes to the forefront. He’s a genuinely smart and likeable chap – one you could probably down a few pints with whilst discussing the pentameter of Renaissance-era motets. He’d probably even insist on paying the tab, too.

While “Celtic Connections” thoroughly documents Thompson’s capability as a Fender Strat-wielding electric guitar wizard that can shred a solo in a way that would cause musicians a third of his age to concede defeat, it really fails to showcase his talents as an acoustic guitarist. We only see Thompson playing his Lowden a few times during the entire 20-song performance and they’re essentially numbers in which he’s a backing player. Adding the epic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to the set list would have been most welcome.

Luckily, the two bonus tracks included as the sole extras on the disc, “Uninhabited Man” and “Johnny’s Far Away”, do just that and, as in much of the Celtic Connections concert, demonstrate his ability as a solo acoustic artist to effortlessly move from melancholy to merriment – all within the span of two songs. It’s such a satisfying sampler that it makes one hope that Eagle Vision will add the full 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival concert into their DVD/Blu-ray pipeline.

As one would expect from the 1080i Blu-ray edition of “Celtic Connections”, the picture quality is consistently top-notch and allows us to see all of RT’s string bends and other nimble finger work with startling clarity. The camera work captures all of the band members creating their magic, but the editing of the concert almost exclusively employs sharp cuts from one vantage point to another. This works for the giddier songs but the slower ballads and dirges would have been better served with the occasional dissolve.

Not enough can be said about the sound quality of the Blu-ray. Three options are available to the viewer: DTS-HD surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital stereo. In all cases, the uncompressed audio is superbly mixed and allows RT’s silver strings to resonate with maximum clarity without impeding upon the strength of the low-end bass tracks. This is a demonstration-quality disc and it raises the aural standard for all concert Blu-rays.

 

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