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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt and Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

The English Patient (Blu-ray Disc)

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The English Patient
1996 (2009) - Miramax (Alliance Atlantis)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 5th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 15
Audio (1-20): 17.5
Extras: F

If you haven't yet seen this film, perhaps the best way for me to introduce it, is simply to describe its beginning. To the sound of a woman's haunted singing, we see a canvas, as someone slowly paints the dark silhouette of a swimming figure. The image gradually dissolves into the desert as seen from the air, shadowy dunes passing slowly beneath us so that the figure seems to be gliding over them until it finally disappears.

We hear the low drone of an engine, and an old bi-plane drifts into view. On board, we see the peaceful face of a woman, who seems to be sleeping. In the seat behind her, a man pilots the plane, his face hidden by a leather flying helmet and goggles. As they pass over a ridge, they're spotted by the crew of a Nazi anti-aircraft battery, which opens fire. The shells rip through the aircraft and puncture its fuel tank. The plane and its occupants are consumed by fire.

The pilot, horribly burned, is found and rescued by Bedouin tribesmen near the wreckage of the plane. Months later, the man finds himself in Italy, under the care of Hanna (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse in the Allied army. She's been emotionally devastated by the horrors of the war and is, in this way, as wounded as her patient. As their hospital convoy drives across the Tuscany countryside, she finds an abandoned monastery and decides to stay there to care for her patient in peace until he dies. But others soon arrive - a young Sikh named Kip (Naveen Andrews), who is working for the Allies as part of a bomb disposal unit, and Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a haggard thief and spy with a mysterious agenda. As these four damaged lives converge for a short time amid the chaos of World War II, the "English" patient slowly remembers his life before - a tragic story of love, adventure, intrigue and betrayal.

There is so much to like about this film. Fiennes gives his best performance since Schindler's List, evoking a complex character whose cold exterior subtly betrays the emotional turmoil underneath. Kristen Scott Thomas is truly radiant here, skillfully portraying a strong-minded, independent woman, completely different from any of her previous roles. Juliette Binoche eventually won an Oscar for her part here. The screenplay is itself a work of art, with some of the best dialogue you'll ever find in a film. It's worthy of note that the original shooting script is very different that the film's final form. Following Minghella's deft direction, The English Patient was reshaped greatly by acclaimed editor Walter Murch (who also took home a statue for his work here). John Seale's cinematography is striking, with lush, vibrant color and fascinating contrasts. Even the score, by composer Gabriel Yared, is impressive, creating an evocative mood of passion and mystery.

As a fan of this film, it came as a surprise to learn that a Blu-ray version was available. Disney and Miramax haven't yet released it on the format here in the States. But while having drinks with my old friend Robert Meyer Burnett at Comic-Con last month, he fortunately brought this Canadian release from Alliance Atlantis to my attention. (Thanks, Robert!)

The film is presented in full 1080p, but the transfer isn't quite up to par with that of most catalog films on Blu-ray. It's good, but not great. You'll see plenty of print artifacts - dust, dirt, etc - and the occasional bit of digital compression artifacting. The image is also a bit soft looking. My guess is that this is an older HD transfer of the film - perhaps done for the last DVD release - and a newer one would clear some of these issues up. Still, the Blu-ray is significantly better than the DVD in detail, color accuracy and saturation, as well as overall contrast. I am VERY glad to have it. Audio fares better, presented in full 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless format. Clarity is wonderful, with a nicely large soundstage, smooth panning and natural bass. This is a highly atmospheric mix, as you'd expect for a largely dialogue-driven film, and it's quite pleasing.

Unfortunately, there are no extras to speak of on this disc. So if you're a fan of the film, you'll still want to keep your 2-disc collector's edition DVD from Miramax. Presumably, when Disney finally releases their own Blu-ray version here in the States, all the DVD extras will get ported over.

In any case, The English Patient is an exceptional piece of filmmaking. This is not a movie that you approach lightly - there's no quick laughs, no adrenaline thrills and no tidy ending to be found here. This is a film that you wade into a bit at a time, letting the story unravel slowly around you. That said, you're not likely to be disappointed. The English Patient is rich, multi-layered and complex enough to really sink your teeth into. And the ending is powerful and poignant, closing the film as it began and leaving behind a lingering sense of hope. Hollywood rarely makes them like this anymore. If you're a fan, this Canadian Blu-ray edition is worth a look.

Bill Hunt, Editor

The Uninvited (Blu-ray Disc)

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Dollhouse: Season One
2009 (2009) - 20th Century Fox
Released on Blu-ray Disc on July 28th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Program Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B-

What if you could trade away five years of your life, in order to be set for the rest and make all your problems go away? Conversely, what do you get the man or woman who has everything? What if you could get anyone you want, anytime?

The Dollhouse can answer these questions for you... so long as you're willing or have the cash. People known as "Dolls" give up their lives and individuality for a period or time, to be imprinted with new identities according to a client's needs. Anything from the ideal sex partner to a highly trained assassin is possible. Of course, this is all very illegal. Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, recently of Battlestar Galactica) is the Government agent assigned to investigate claims of the Dollhouse's existence, but he's not had a lot of luck. His superiors think it's a joke, and he's hitting walls at every turn. Echo (Eliza Dushku) is one of the top Dolls lent out of the house, but she's started behaving oddly, seemingly retaining some individuality between assignments. What will happen when their paths finally cross?

The debut season of Dollhouse arrives Blu-ray from Fox with a very uneven transfer. Bit rates are all over the place, even dipping down below 10mbps for huge stretches. This, combined with black crush and a slightly unnatural softness, says to me that the set probably could have used a 4th disc (it has just 3), and that trying to shoehorn 5 hour-long episodes onto each disc probably wasn't the best idea. While the result is certainly better than Warner's usual 7-episode per disc sets, the level of compression here keeps the HD image from reaching top quality. When Dollhouse is good, it's great, exhibiting all of the detail one has come to expect from a film-based program, but excessive compression and the highly uneven quality of the original source material hold it back. The lossless audio mix is similarly uninspiring, mostly staying flat across the front. It carries the vibe of a show from the 1990s instead of 2009.

As for extras, they start with commentary by series creator Joss Whedon and Dushku on the episode Ghost. Sadly, it's far and away the worst commentary Whedon's ever participated in. Dushku just isn't particularly compelling, so her banter with Whedon is a bit of a waste. A whole cast track would have generated much more energy and interest. Whedon (alone) chimes in with commentary on Man on the Street, and his wife (and writer) Maurissa Tancharoen joins him on the previously-unseen Epitaph One as well. In terms of featurettes, Making Dollhouse thankfully fills in the gaps left by the commentary tracks. Running a compact 20 minutes, it leaves you wanting to know more while still satisfying. The more throwaway "EPK" style featurettes include Coming Home (that covers getting the Whedon band back together after the cancellation of Angel), A Private Engagement (a "What if the Dollhouse really existed?" fluff piece) and Designing the Perfect Dollhouse (a rather fun set tour).

The best extras on this set are the unaired pilot... and a game-changing 13th episode, Epitaph One, that went unaired in the States. Like every genre show on Fox, Dollhouse was doomed to the Friday death slot and delivered predictably poor ratings (the show was originally scheduled to run after American Idol until Fox changed their minds). By all rights, the show probably should have been canceled. Only the fact that Whedon's previous Firefly blew up after Fox similarly exiled and canned really saved the show for a second season. I really hope more people will check out the show's complete 13 episode run on DVD and Blu-ray, so it stands a chance of catching on with audiences. Dollhouse deserves a chance... and isn't it about time a show Fox "death-slots" finally beats the odds?

The new season of Dollhouse starts at the end of September, so be sure to check it out. Forget your DVR - this show needs some "live" viewers to boost the ratings. Worst case, check it out on Hulu the next day. Last year, Dollhouse was the most DVR-ed show on TV, but Fox can only sell ads based on live viewers (3 million compared to 8 million DVRs). So the more eyeballs see the show the first time around, the better chance it has to survive.

Jeff Kleist

Mutant Chronicles (Blu-ray Disc)

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Mutant Chronicles
2009 (2009) - Magnolia
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 4th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: B-
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: A

Eight hundred years in the future, an ice age has dissolved nation states and corporations rule all, endlessly battling for the limited resources remaining on our planet. That is, until they're forced to unite by the re-emergence of an ancient enemy bent on destruction. As most of humanity tries to get off the planet before they're slaughtered, a motley team of soldiers undertakes a suicide mission to save the day.

Mutant Chronicles was shot digitally, almost entirely on a greenscreen stage at the U.K.'s Shepperton Studios. It's filled with smoke, fog, rain and other environmental effects, resulting in a stylized look and feel. The film takes place almost entirely at night, so the bleak blues and greys in this Blu-ray transfer are only broken by the warmth of flame, the red of a priest's cloak and, of course, a healthy spray of arterial blood. On the whole, this 1080p presentation is near perfect - though what keeps the Chronicles from getting a perfect score is probably a master issue, given that it was present at the Comic-Con screening I saw a year ago. During very busy scenes like the opening battle, you'll occasionally see banding problems in the image. It's far from a deal breaker, but it IS occasionally noticeable if you're looking for flaws. That aside, this disc is a great HD eye-popper that really shows off all the great traditional physical model work in the film. The Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound is slightly less impressive than I thought it would be. There's certainly tons of boom and play, but my issues are more with the sound design. At many points, machinery overwhelms the dialog too much. I actually thought I blew my center channel until I realized it was a mix issue.

Bonus material is where Mutant Chronicles really shines. First up is a guerilla-style documentary (shot in standard definition) that seems to be mostly pieced together by an enthusiastic crew member running around with a DV camera. The end result is a great piece that never gets boring and has a real "you are there" feel to it. The original test/pitch film is included too, along with its own "making-of" piece and commentary track. You also get a ton of webisodes, an edited version of the 2008 Comic-Con Q&A panel after the screening (where director Simon Hunter cheekily concludes the entire audience pirated it from the net, but showed up anyway), a bunch of deleted scenes (many of which contain fairly important background information), audio commentary, trailers and more. Honestly the only thing missing here is the way-cool cover art I've seen on the foreign Steelbook releases, and maybe a piece on the original RPG game. By the way, BD-Live users will be seeing (on or around August 7th) the ability to change the entire menu system to match one of the original game's corporate factions and the Mutants. I should also let you know that Chronicles debuts a long-requested feature on Blu-ray - the ability to resume a BD-J disc from where you left off automatically. If you power down your machine or hit stop, upon loading the main menu again the disc will ask you whether you want to start from the beginning, or where you left off. Upon selecting the latter option, a quick 2 or 3 seconds later, you'll be right back into the film where stopped. Kudos to the programmer who finally solved this problem! Let's hope it appears on other Blu-ray titles too.

It's been a long, hard road for Mutant Chronicles to see a U.S. release. Originally completed in 2007, the film was leaked to the Internet and slowly dribbled out internationally over time, pretty much in the reverse order a film normally spreads. That's just not right, as the film deserved (and has finally received here) better treatment. Is Chronicles a fantastic and deep film? Hell no. But it IS a fun genre piece with a good number of unique plot and design elements that make it surprisingly fresh. I don't know how much of a future minimalist, greenscreen created movies have, but I've seen enough promise and creativity in movies like Mutant Chronicles, 300 and Sky Captain to hope that they stick around and keep evolving.

Jeff Kleist

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