Perception rules the day when it comes to movies -- one man's 'Godfather' is another man's 'House of the Dead.' Your individual cinematic taste is relative to your experiences, background, and lifestyle and it's impossible to disown a guilty-pleasure-flick that strikes all the right chords in your brain. Every film fan has at least one movie they enjoy despite the fact that it's reviled by a majority of audiences and critics. For me, 'Meet Joe Black' is just such a film.
A remake of a remake (the original 1934 flick was called 'Death Takes a Holiday' and it was remade under the same title in 1971), 'Meet Joe Black' tells the story of William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy businessman at the twilight of his life. During a near heart attack, Death visits William and offers to allow him to live. The catch is that William must serve as a tour guide of sorts and show Death what it's like to live as a human being. Taking the form of a man that William names Joe Black (Brad Pitt), Death discovers a world of the senses for the first time. At the same time, William must keep his family from falling apart, save his company from a greedy employee (Jake Weber), and prevent Death from falling in love with his daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani).
A box office disappointment upon its original release in 1998, the film was equally unpopular among critics and audiences alike. Everyone seems to point to the same problems -- its slow pacing, its three hour runtime, its romantic subplot, and what one critic called director Martin Brest's "self-infatuation with his own material."
The most common criticism of 'Meet Joe Black' has to do with the film's plotting. But while many have described it as unbearable, I personally find the pacing to be akin to Robert DeNiro's 'The Good Shepherd' or Terrence Malick's 'A New World.' Yes, each of these films could have been shorter, but that would lessen their ability to portray a certain sense of normalcy. Life isn't always an exciting whirlwind of events and experiences -- it's often a trite and mundane affair with family drama and problematic emotional issues springing up casually as time goes by.
In the case of 'Meet Joe Black' in particular, the performances are so rich and convincing that I was happy to follow the characters through the ups and downs of their lives. Anthony Hopkins is sobering as a man who knows his time is coming and the screen crackles with his inner-turmoil. He makes William the kind of man that everyone would wish they knew. Brad Pitt is also top notch in another performance that keeps the material varied and fresh. Over the course of his career, he could've easily settled into pretty-boy roles that the industry so seems to want him in, but films like 'Meet Joe Black' showcase a vast and quirky talent that lies beneath his Hollywood exterior.
To be clear, I don't think this is a perfect film, but I do think it's well structured with a surreal and poetic script that packs real lyrical punch. To be fair, I should disclose that I'm a sucker for two of the major themes in 'Meet Joe Black' -- love dangling just out of reach and the looming death of a father trying to reconcile his life. This flick taps into everything that gets my man-tears flowing and I fall for it every time. My wife calls it a chick-flick, but I think it's too dark and focuses on too many male-centric issues (falling for a girl for the first time, the passing of a father, the loss of control, being stripped of power) to be lumped into that category.
In the end, my higher-than-average rating for 'Meet Joe Black' comes with a warning -- as a fan of this film, I'm part of a very small minority. Simply put, this is a film that most people don't seem to enjoy. That being said, if (like me) you're the type of person who enjoys a slower character study, then you should certainly give this one a try.
Now this is what I expect from a high definition catalogue title. For anyone who doubts the average video ratings we've been handing out for some of Universal's other recent catalogue HD DVD releases, just watch those films immediately after watching 'Meet Joe Black.' It's a night and day difference.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'Meet Joe Black' looks great and if I didn't know better, I would think it was a newer film. To be fair, the standard DVD already looked very good, but the move to high-def has upped the impact of this print to new heights. Colors are lush and gorgeous, blacks are deep and stable, and fine object detail is extremely well rendered for a film that's nearly ten years old. Textures, skin, and hair pop off the screen and shadow delineation is excellent. Even better, sharp edges and a vivid contrast give the picture a welcome depth and dimension. There's a light cloud of grain atop the entire film, but it's not intrusive. More importantly, I didn't detect any artifacting, noise, or crush issues.
There are a couple of minor problems. While skintones are generally dead on, faces do occasionally drift slightly pink (watch when Parrish confronts Drew in his office at the end of the film). I also noticed some edge enhancement left over from the original transfer to DVD -- it isn't too distracting, but viewers with larger-than-average screens will certainly notice the effect in some key shots. Luckily, both of these issues aren't enough to rob the image of its impact and I remained thoroughly impressed by the prowess of this high-def transfer.
'Meet Joe Black' is an extremely quiet film with soft conversations and even softer piano music lingering in the background of most scenes. As such, while the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) on this HD DVD sounds quite good, there really isn't much here that will turn any heads or catch anyone's attention.
To be sure, there's nothing wrong with the technical quality of this mix. Featuring nice dynamics, crisp dialogue, and subtle channel movements, every room and hall has distinctly different acoustics and there are a number of scenes that take advantage of the rear speakers for some nifty surround effects. And on the few occasions where the mix needs to spring to life, it does -- listen to the moments when Pitt is hit by a car, scenes with the helicopter, and the argument between the Parrishes at dinner. Even better, jump to the end of the film and listen to the fireworks and the mingling crowd. In each of these cases, the soundscape is well prioritized, each of the channels receive a solid workout, and the ambiance is both authentic and immersive.
Again, nothing to write home about here, but this mix handles what it's given with great confidence.
In yet another head-scratcher for Universal, this HD DVD edition of 'Meet Joe Black' ports over some -- but not all -- of the features from the 2001 Ultimate Edition DVD. Included are a dry "Spotlight on Location" (9 minutes) featurette, a "Photo Montage," and the film's theatrical trailer, all presented in 480i/p only.
Previously included in the Ultimate Edition DVD, but inexplicably missing from this HD DVD edition are the original 'Death Takes a Holiday' feature film from 1934, an online script-to-scene comparison, and some more minor material like bios and production notes. Color me disappointed.
'Meet Joe Black' has more than its fair share of detractors, but I've always had a sweet spot for the film, and I think fans of films like 'The Good Shepherd' or 'A New World' might feel the same way. As an HD DVD release, this one certainly delivers on the bottom line, boasting a beautiful video presentation and a solid audio package, although unfortunately it drops several of the supplements from the previous Ultimate Edition DVD release.