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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Tim Salmons of The Digital Bits

Paranormal Activity

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Paranormal Activity
2009 (2009) - DreamWorks (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on December 29th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: D

Movies about ghosts and the supernatural tend to be a bit of a gamble for moviegoers. If they're made with some originality and quality, nothing to worry about. If not, you've got a mess on your hands. If the audience isn't convinced by what they're seeing on the screen, the movie will more than likely fail from its own weaknesses (of course, the same could be said of films from all genres). But when it comes to movies about ghosts and demons, you really have to stay on your toes to make the audience ride the ride without distraction. You also have to genuinely creep them out along the way.

On the other hand, you also have to get your movie out there and get people to see it. In perhaps one of the most genius marketing schemes ever, Paranormal Activity found its audience by simply "allowing" them to decide whether or not to bring it to them. All you had to do was visit a web site, tell the studio you wanted to see the movie in your area and... PRESTO! The vast majority of moviegoers were suckered in to this campaign, and made a little independent $15,000 horror movie into a million dollar phenomenon, but enough with all of the hype.

The plot is very simple: A suburban couple spend three weeks trying to get evidence on video of the paranormal activities taking place in their home. It's a really simple idea of letting the characters in the movie walk around with their own camera equipment, allowing the story to unfold on its own and promote it as 'found footage.' That's nothing new, of course. The Blair Witch Project did the same thing ten years ago and was just as successful. Throw in some cheap special effects and creepy ambience in the audio and you've got yourself a hit horror film. (It's amazing what shaking a chandelier or even flipping a light switch on and off will do to keep you on the edge.) Paranormal Activity takes advantage of the classic Hitchcock notion that it's what you don't see that frightens you the most. There's hardly a drop of blood in the entire film. There's also no big CGI monsters and no violence or gore. It also plays very slowly and builds up the tension, which I like. More often than not, horror films today tend to rush through their story without building up any suspense, so that when the scares do kick in, you're already waiting for them. You should instead be caught completely off guard and have your wits scared out of you. This movie does that well.

Shot with a hand-held HD camera, the video quality is what you'd expect. It's like watching a high quality home movie. With a 1.85:1 ratio and a digital to digital transfer, there's little to complain about. We see a good 40% of the movie in black and white and the other 60% in color, and it all looks just fine to me. Director Oren Peli finds every way he can of using natural light in each scene. Even the light on the camera is put to use. On the audio side, the soundtrack is very well mixed for a film with such a meager budget. The subtlest of sounds (whispers, creaking, squeaking) draw you in to the story and the louder ones (bangs, screams) jump out to shake you up. It's a very well balanced soundtrack. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio format gives the ambience it's teeth, so to speak. There's also a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital track, and subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

To my disappointment, the disc is very sparse in the way of extras. You only get two: A digital copy of the movie and an alternate ending (with the option of watching it with the movie). I know that there was also another ending that was on the film before being bought by DreamWorks, but unfortunately that didn't make this release. (It can be found online quite easily if you're curious to see it - it's okay, but I'm happy that they changed it.) The ending that's actually on the film works really well, up until the last minute which is a bit of a "wink" at the audience. It's a solid ending, but that "wink" bothers me. My favorite is the alternate ending on the disc - not because of the blood, but more because of the build-up and the tragedy of it all. Check it out and you'll understand what I mean.

Paranormal Activity is definitely a crowd pleaser. I don't often get creeped out by a horror movie, mainly because once you've seen so many, and understand how they work, you tend to get desensitized. However, this movie did make me jump and did give me the creeps several times. It was definitely better than I thought it would be, and for that I'm grateful. There's no question that the viral marketing campaign and the word of mouth got this movie to where it is, but I'm glad to say that the hype is justified. This is a solid horror film and definitely worth a watch.

Tim Salmons

The Searchers

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The Searchers
1956 (2009) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on April 7th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby Digital

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 8
Extras: B

The behind-the-scenes marriage of John Wayne and John Ford produced some of cinema's most enduring time pieces. It's perhaps the greatest of all partnerships in the history of Hollywood, from Stagecoach and Rio Grande to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance. All of these films are masterpieces, but nothing the two ever did compares with the breathtaking scope and raw beauty of The Searchers.

Based on a story by Alan Le May that was later published into a novel, The Searchers was developed by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent specifically with Ford and Wayne in mind. Shot primarily on location in Monument Valley, Utah and released through Warner Bros. in 1956, the film received mostly good reviews from critics, but was ignored entirely when the awards season came around. It became a big money maker for the studio and has gone on to influence a plethora of talent within the industry. Wayne himself said that it was his favorite picture out of everything he made.

The story follows Civil War vet Ethan Edwards (Wayne), who is pursuing a band of Comanche that kidnapped his niece. With him is young Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter). Along their travels, Martin matures and Ethan develops a tolerance toward the Comanche. The textures and subtleties that are represented in the dialogue and on-screen were very irreverent for their time, particularly in a mainstream movie. The stunning visuals and the captivating storyline have made this film age tremendously well.

This Blu-ray release only enhances the film's reputation as one of the most visually striking ever committed to celluloid. The presentation is absolutely phenomenal. The clarity that comes through here is a real testament to the restoration team behind it. The colors are lush reds and oranges for the duration of the picture. (I particularly liked the dusk scenes.) Blacks are also deep and rich. There were moments when the film looked a little soft, but very few. The grain of the picture is solid, with only infrequent imperfections (mostly attributed to the actual negative or the lenses used to shoot it).

For you purists out there, you'll be happy to know that this release comes with the original mono soundtrack. The problem is, that's all that it comes with. Unfortunately, this film wasn't given a 5.1 treatment that could have complimented such a worthy visual presentation. However, seeing the film with its original soundtrack is still an utter delight. The dialogue, the score and the sound effects are pretty even and well laid out, making it easy to actually hear everything that's going on in the film. It would have been nice to hear Max Steiner's beautiful score leaping out of my rear speakers, but I'm still happy with what I have. English, Spanish and French subs are available, as well as alternate French audio.

The extras contain a nice healthy bit of material to comb through for enthusiasts of the film. They start off with an introduction to the film by Wayne's son Patrick. Next is an audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, the director of the excellent documentary Directed by John Ford and the early 70's classic The Last Picture Show. He gives some useful information, but sparingly. My only gripe is that he speaks so softly that it's difficult to discern what he's saying at times without cranking the volume up.

The best of the extras by far are the 3 featurettes. The Searchers: An Appreciation spends its time talking to directors like Martin Scorsese about the influence this film had on their work. A Turning of the Earth is perhaps the most interesting documentary of the bunch. Featuring still photographs, behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, home movies and quotes from cast and crew, it tells the story of the making of the film from a very unique perspective. Behind the Cameras features four segments (Meet Jeffery Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood and Setting Up Production) culled from the Warner Bros. archives that paint an interesting picture of how the studio kept tabs on the films it was producing at the time. The extras round out with a pair of trailers - one for the film itself and another for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The Searchers is a favorite of mine and is considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made. If you haven't seen this gem yet, don't hesitate to go out and get a copy of this release. It's well worth your money and it's a joy to behold on Blu-ray.

Tim Salmons
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