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

Forrest Gump: Sapphire Series

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Forrest Gump: Sapphire Series
1994 (2009) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 3rd, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A-

As most of you know by now, director Robert Zemeckis' Best Picture-winning tale tells the story of an unlikely hero: a seemingly dim-witted fellow named Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) who, while perhaps a little slow between the ears, is nonetheless a very wise man indeed. For while his physical and intellectual gifts might at first glance seem less than generous, he makes the most of them and so finds himself living a far fuller and richer life than most people.

Having seen Gump a few times now over the years since its initial release in theatres, I'm not quite sure it lives up to all its hype. And yet it's undeniably charming and it remains one of Zemeckis' best works. The film was famous (read: infamous) for its overused trick of using (then) state-of-the-art visual effects to insert the title character into the most unlikely of events, including much real historical footage. But the film features a number of superior performances, including those of including Robin Wright Penn, Gary Sinise (nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role), Mykelti Williamson and Sally Field. These, along with Hank's own Oscar-winning turn, have helped the film age quite well indeed - certainly better than I expected at the time.

Paramount's new 2-disc Sapphire Series Blu-ray upgrades the film with an excellent 1080p transfer. Colors are vibrant and accurate, with very good contrast, and there's terrific fine detail in the image. Subtle textures of skin, fabric and more just look wonderful. My only issue with the transfer is that the brighter scenes occasionally have a slightly 'digital' appearance to them. I don't think its an artifact of the original production (and the digital processing/effects used at the time), but it's hard to pin it down on anything related to the HD mastering either. It's not a big deal though - it's only noticeable occasionally and it's seldom distracting. The upgrade over the DVD image is still tremendous. Audio-wise, the new DTS-HD MA mix is wonderfully clean, clear and natural sounding, with active but smooth surround play and abundant bass. Best of all, Alan Silvestri's stirring score has rarely sounded better.

In terms of extras, both audio commentaries from the previous DVD edition are available, including one with Zemeckis himself. Several of the SD video extras have also carried over, including the Through the Ears of Forrest Gump: Sound Design, Building the World of Gump: Production Design, The Magic of Makeup and Seeing Is Believing: The Visual Effects of Forrest Gump featurettes. Sadly missing from the previous DVD are the photo gallery and the 30-minute Through the Eyes of Forrest Gump documentary. Fortunately, though, several new documentary featurettes (presented in full HD) are intended to cover much the same ground and more. These include Musical Signposts to History, the Greenbow Diary, The Art of Screenplay Adaptation, Getting Past Impossible: Forrest Gump and The Visual Effects Revolution, Little Forrest and An Evening with Forrest Gump. All are quite comprehensive and worth your time. There's also at least one Easter egg available on this set.

Forrest Gump is a classic feel-good story, featuring one of Tom Hanks' best performances. Thankfully, if you're a fan, it's a story well worth re-experiencing on Blu-ray. The set's audio and video improvements are substantial and, while it's missing a couple things from the DVD, on balance you're gaining a lot more than you're losing by the upgrade. So I would say that this makes Paramount 2 for 3 with their new Sapphire Series BD line. Now if only they'd go back and fix the Gladiator Blu-ray transfer, they'd really be in business.

Bill Hunt, Editor

Léon: The Professional

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Léon: The Professional
1994 (2009) - Gaumont (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 17th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating (U.S./International): A/A+
Video (1-20): 17.5
Audio (1-20): 17.5
Extras: B-

Léon (Jean Reno) is a simple man. He doesn't read or write. He's got few possessions. His only vice is watching Gene Kelly and John Wayne movies. But there's one thing he does better than anyone else: He's a cleaner. As in hitman. When it comes to killing, he's the best hands down. And it's in this capacity that Léon works for Tony (Danny Aiello) in New York City's Little Italy neighborhood.

Tony is one of those guys in the neighborhood who gets things done, you know what I mean? You got a problem, you go to Tony. And when Tony's got a problem, he goes to Léon. As it happens one day, after "cleaning" Tony's latest problem, Léon meets 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in her first film appearance). She's a latch-key kid, living with her white trash family in the apartment down the hall. He's nice to her, and it makes an impression - nobody is ever nice to Mathilda. While she's at the store one afternoon, her family is killed by a group of crooked D.E.A. agents led by the psychotic Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Mathilda returns while the agents are still there, quickly realizes what's happening and pretends to be a neighbor, knocking terrified on Léon's door instead. Against his better judgment, Léon opens the door to his apartment and, in that simple act, saves her life. But before long, he finds that he's opened the door to his heart as well. What follows is an unlikely and touching Beauty and the Beast-style love story, albeit a somewhat innocent one. Léon quickly realizes that the one thing Mathilda wants more than anything else is revenge, so he does the only thing he can... he teaches her to clean.

Léon: The Professional is as close to perfect as any film I've ever seen. It's a spin-off of sorts from director Luc Besson's previous La Femme Nikita, based on Jean Reno's character in that film (Victor the Cleaner). Léon plays right into Besson's strengths as a director and visual stylist - each killing, each action scene unfolds like a poetic dance. It is easily his best film, and it's the role Reno will always be remembered for. He brings tremendous depth to a character that we end up learning very little about. It's his nuances as an actor that flesh Léon out - we learn everything we need to from Reno's simple gestures and facial expressions. Meanwhile, Oldman plays on-edge maniacs better than anyone in the business, which is perfect because that's exactly what the pill-popping, on-the-edge Stansfield is. And it's hard to find words to describe Portman's performance. She simply steals the show. As if to ice the cake, composer Eric Serra provides the perfect musical score to accompany the visuals. How good is Léon? Just watch the introduction of Stansfield and his men as they appear to do their dirty work, slinking through the frame accompanied by music you'd expect to hear in a jungle film when a tiger is stalking its prey. Brilliant.

Sony's new HD presentation is definitely an improvement over the DVD transfer, though it's not quite up to the level of the best catalog releases on Blu-ray. Colors are warm but accurate, contrast is excellent and there's good fine detail visible - though the detail isn't quite as refined as one might hope. This may be due to a little bit of filtering or DNR. It's not a lot, but just enough to give the image a slightly digital appearance. The BD audio is also upgraded with this new DTS-HD lossless presentation, though the improvement is about on part with the video. The soundstage is a little too directional to sound completely natural, with only light surround play for atmosphere and the occasional shootout. But the front stage is nicely wide, clarity is refined and there's plenty of bass.

Perhaps the best thing about Sony's new Blu-ray release is that it includes BOTH the U.S. theatrical and much-loved International versions of this film - you simply select which you wish to see when you start the film. That's a huge improvement over all of Sony's previous DVD versions right there. As for other content, the Blu-ray carries over the extended version trivia track from the previous DVD, and also includes the 3 video features from that edition (all in standard-def but anamorphic). These include a 25-minute retrospective on the production (featuring interviews with most of the cast and crew including Reno and Portman, although neither Besson or Oldman appear), a 12-minute biographical piece on Reno and a 14-minute piece on Portman (it's less biographical in terms of her life, but she does talk quite a bit about how she got involved with this film). Unfortunately, the film's trailer is missing per Sony's BD usual, as are the international ad campaign gallery and isolated audio track (featuring Serra's score) from the very first DVD release, so you'll definitely want to keep that disc if you wish to retain them. Still, I have to give Sony a lot of credit for including both versions of the film - that's a nice and very much appreciated touch.

I love those calm little moments before the storm... and I really love this film. If you haven't seen Léon: The Professional yet, you don't know what you're missing. Sony's new Blu-ray delivers nice upgraded A/V quality and, though it's sadly STILL not comprehensive, it remains arguably the best special edition treatment the film has received on disc to date.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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