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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt, Adam Jahnke & Tim Salmons of The Digital Bits

Dune (Blu-ray Disc)

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Dune
1984 (2010) - Universal
Released on Blu-ray on April 27th, 2010
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

Film Rating: C+
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: D+


[Note: The film portions of this review are by Adam Jahnke. The disc comments are by Bill Hunt.]

The first and last time I saw Dune in its entirety was upon its theatrical release back around Christmas of 1984. In retrospect, that trip to the movies may have been a key formative experience in my decision to write about them.


It was the first time I can remember people getting mad at me for not liking a movie. I had gone to the movie with some friends and as the lights came up I said, "Well, that wasn't too good, was it?" My friends had found much to appreciate about Dune and while I'm not sure if their opinions have changed over the years, I stand by that 15-year-old's snarky comment. Dune isn't too good.

In its defense, Dune is also not a complete disaster. It isn't nearly as confusing as some of its harshest critics make it out to be. True, you do have to pay attention and also true, the stilted, beyond-Shakespearean style of the performances and the dialogue may make paying close attention difficult for some. Fans of Frank Herbert's novel complain, and justifiably so, that the film omits major chunks of the book. Also true enough, but try to find a movie based on a complex book that doesn't do the same thing. And while Herbert's Dune is a very good book, it isn't such a sacred text that filmmakers shouldn't be allowed to adapt it as they see fit.

Technically, the film is very impressive. Whether you're enjoying the movie or not, it's easy to become mesmerized by the work of production designer Anthony Masters, costume designer Bob Ringwood, creature designer Carlo Rambaldi and director of photography Freddie Francis. In some respects, the sumptuous look of the film may be a contributor to Dune's reputation as a confusing mess. The first time you see the movie, you're almost hypnotized by the images on screen. By the time your mind switches back to concentrate on the dialogue and the story, you may well be totally lost.

But for all it has going for it, to call Dune a misunderstood, underappreciated masterpiece is to overstate the case by a lot. The film appears to be well cast if you just look at the credits and production stills. But almost all the actors seem to be lost amid the overwhelming design elements and the formalized, unnatural dialogue. If some feel that Kyle MacLachlan owes his career to Lynch casting him in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, MacLachlan probably thinks Lynch owed it to him after making his film debut in Dune. In retrospect, his isn't a bad performance. But as an introduction to film audiences, it could have been crippling. Lynch relies on voice-over narration in a comic book/thought-bubble style, forcing actors like Max Von Sydow to endure overlong shots of them looking pensive while their thoughts are read over the soundtrack. Other actors who either had already worked with Lynch or would go on to work with him again, such as Jack Nance, Brad Dourif and Dean Stockwell, give very entertaining and eccentric performances, but all seem to be in a different movie from the rest of the cast. Only Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen comes through the other end of the movie unscathed, creating a truly impressive and memorable character.

[Editor's Note: For the record, I'm with Jahnke. I admire what Lynch tried to accomplish here, but the technical and financial limitations of the time conspired against him. The film is a visual and production design marvel, but it's also terribly flawed. And I personally just don't think it's possible to boil down Herbert's novel into a two hour version that serves either the book or a film experience well.]

From an A/V standpoint, Universal's new Blu-ray is good but not great. Quality-wise, it's about on par with the recent HD-DVD version. The 1080p transfer (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is generally very solid, but the film itself conspires against high-quality presentation. It was shot with anamorphic lenses in low light situations, so the edges of the frame are occasionally in soft focus. Grain is light in live-action scenes but more heavy in effects shots due to compositing. It's the effects shots that suffer most, exhibiting serious contrast issues. Some are washed out looking (often a deliberate effort by the filmmakers to create a sense of scale and the look of atmospheric sand) while others feature crushed blacks. In both cases, a notable lack of fine detail is the result. Live action footage features very nice looking textures and only light to moderate DNR. The result is a highly uneven presentation, but it still represents the film itself fairly well. Audio is the usual DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless. The soundstage is nicely wide and less directional that you might expect of a film of this vintage. Dialogue is generally clear, there's decent LFE in the mix. The score (by Brian Eno and Toto) sounds quite good.

The Blu-ray includes the theatrical cut of the film only - the longer "Alan Smithee" TV cut from the previous Extended Edition DVD has been omitted. Also missing from the DVD (and HD-DVD) is the gallery of production artwork and photos. Aside from that, everything else from the DVD has carried over, including all 5 featurettes (Deleted Dune, Designing Dune, Dune FX, Dune Models and Dune Wardrobe). If you want to keep the TV cut and gallery (and if you're a fan, why wouldn't you?) you should put the DVD in a paper disc sleeve and tuck it into the Blu-ray case. It's not a perfect solution, but it works.

Given Universal's slow pace of releasing catalog titles in high-def, this is probably the best presentation of David Lynch's Dune that we're likely to get on Blu-ray for some time to come. It's a shame that the TV cut and gallery have been omitted, and yes... the HD video quality isn't as good as some other catalog BD titles. But let's face it: Dune is a cult movie, not the major mainstream sci-fi success that Universal wanted. If it had been a huge hit, we'd undoubtedly get a packed special edition on Blu-ray. So fans will just have to settle for this.

Adam Jahnke and Bill Hunt
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Hurt Locker (Blu-ray Disc)

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District 9
2009 (2009) - Wingnut Films/TriStar (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray on December 22nd, 2009
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 19
Extras: A


Sci-fi has been covered from every conceivable angle that you can possibly think of, particularly over the last couple of decades. So it's refreshing to know that there are still some relatively original and thought-provoking ideas left in a system that is currently remaking and re-milking everything to death


District 9 is probably the best science fiction film of the last 20 years, and I would go so far as to put it in the same class as Blade Runner, RoboCop, Aliens and Predator. Based on Neill Blomkamp's original short film Alive in Joburg, it was optioned by Peter Jackson for a big screen adaptation after their proposed film based on the Halo game franchise caved in. Taking place in modern-day Johannesburg, it follows the story of the South African community after an alien ship comes to Earth and hovers over the area for 28 years. Unable to leave Earth without rescue, the aliens (known derogatorily as "Prawns") are forced to live in slums in an area known as District 9. The bureaucratic Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is sent in to evict and move them to a new location, District 10. The Corporate giant M.N.U. (Multinational United), which has taken direct control of the area, is soon on the hunt for Wikus when it's discovered that he's learned secrets to the alien technology that have unwittingly changed him forever. By doing so, he suddenly becomes embroiled in the seedy underground and back alleys of District 9, doomed like the Prawns to fight for his own survival.

Being a big fan of the original RoboCop, you can clearly see that film's influence here. District 9 is more or less is a gritty throwback to the blood-soaked action-oriented movies of the 80's. Xenophobia, corporate take-over and racial segregation are just a few of the themes that the film conjures up. It also deals with the humanity of its characters, played out most obviously by Wikus, who is on a harrowing journey of self-discovery. Downbeat to the core, this film is by no means a product of modern-day Hollywood. It's almost documentary-like, using interviews and news footage to give the story its backdrop. The film is a metaphor for the very real tensions taking place in South Africa and other parts of the world, only with extraterrestrials mixed in.

The video presentation on this Blu-ray is extremely detail-oriented. Featuring one of the dirtiest and most interesting milieus ever captured on film, the HD video reveals all of the fine details in a glorious digital transfer. The only thing at odds with such a gorgeous picture is the news footage interweaved throughout the movie. Some of the footage is extremely soft and disorienting, which took me out of the moment at times. It's a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, but one I wish they had opted out of. In the sound department, you get two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, one in English and one in French. The English track really kicks out the decibels and is very well mixed, so it's nothing you'll be complaining about. You also get two Dolby Digital English tracks in 5.1 and 2.0, as well as a set of subtitles in English SDH, French and Hindi. The most interesting addition in the subtitles here is a subtitle track for the audio commentary, which is pretty darned cool, if you ask me.

In the extras category, the disc opens with previews for Moon, Michael Jackson's This Is It, 2012, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day and Zombieland (you can also access these through the main menu). After the previews, you get a choice of two different menu options, one for humans and one for Prawns. The layout of each menu isn't really different, but the footage that plays over each menu is, giving each menu scheme the point of view of whichever race you've selected. The audio commentary by Neill Blonkamp is perhaps the most interesting feature you'll find on the disc. I loved hearing this level-headed and confident first-time director talk about the film and his experiences with it. He hardly takes a breath for the entire two hours, but never gets boring. Next, you get a multitude of deleted scenes (23 in all), most of which are scene extensions and additional interviews with the characters. There's nothing here that really should have been left in, but it's nice to see them included. There's also several behind-the-scenes featurettes here to whet your appetite: The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log - Three Part Documentary (which is a little over 30 minutes long), Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus, Innovation: Acting and Improvisation, Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9 and Alien Generation: Visual Effects. There's a lot of great stuff here to explore, including hearing Sharlto Copley talking about his part in the film and Neill Blonkamp's allusions to a possible sequel.

If you buy the BD instead of the DVD, you get a couple of additional, exclusive extras. Joburg from Above: Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9 is an interactive map that lets you explore the alien ship, the District 9 compound and the M.N.U. Headquarters. It's a pretty nifty little feature, giving things a little more depth and explaining some of the things that the film didn't have time to. There's also some great BD-Live content, including MovieIQ (which lets you get information about the movie in real time) and Cinechat (which allows you to connect with other people and chat with them while you watch the movie). Rounding it all out is a Digital Copy of the movie and a God of War III playable demo for PS3 owners.

The bottom line is that this is fantastic release for a top of the line action/sci-fi film. It will take you hours to sort through the wealth of material here and it's definitely worth the effort to do so. If District 9 gets an additional release down the road, I can't imagine what else they could do with it, except perhaps add a larger documentary and include some outtakes or a gag reel. Who knows? For now though, this BD is more than satisfactory and I think it's a must-buy.

Tim Salmons
timsalmons@thedigitalbits.com
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