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

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Blu-ray Disc)

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
2008 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on October 14th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B-
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 19
Extras: B+


I have to admit right up front, I have mixed feelings about this film. I really wanted to love it, but when I first saw the trailers for it earlier this year, I started getting this bad feeling. Some of you might know what I'm talking about: That first trailer had serious pacing problems. It just really lacked... something. Energy, charm, flair... something. So I had very low expectations when I finally went to see the film on opening weekend.


Fortunately, Indy IV turned out to be better than I was expecting. It wasn't amazing or anything, and it certainly wasn't as good as the previous films, but it was an enjoyable enough way to spend couple of hours in a movie theatre. I was glad I'd gone to see it. I'd enjoyed seeing Ford again as Indy. The film hit all the expected nostalgia beats. Then it was over. I left the theatre feeling content... and completely forgot about it. That's where the trouble begins.

You know how some films really stick with you? They get inside your head, so you keep thinking about them for days afterward? Yeah... this film isn't one of those. That fact really stuck me a few days ago, when I popped in Paramount's new Blu-ray version to watch the film again in high-def. About a half-way through, I realized I was bored with it. Not the disc - the disc is great. But I was so bored with the film itself, that I had a hard time sitting through it all again. I was actually glad when it was over. And, for the first time, I was disappointed.

I'm not going to get into the plot here, because you've either seen it already or you haven't, in which case I'd rather preserve what little suspense the film manages to scrounge up for you. You know the basic drill anyway: Indy stumbles across clues to an archeological mystery and gets drawn into a race against the bad guys to reach some exotic local first, and there must solve an ancient puzzle, etc. You know... this isn't rocket science, but it's usually a lot of fun. Usually.

To be sure, there's plenty here that's good. All of the classic Indy charm is on display, and Harrison Ford really delivers. I suspect he hasn't had this much fun working on a film in at LEAST a decade, and it shows on screen. What's more, Cate Blanchett chews up the scenery as the sinister Russian moll, Irina Spalko. She's the most purely perfect thing in the whole film. Her character would have been right at home in ANY of the Indy films, much less this one, so casting her turned out to be a real coup. For the entire first half of Indy IV, you're thinking, "Okay... I remember this" and it's a really good feeling, like putting on an old comfortable pair of jeans. You know the kind - they're worn out and they've got a couple of holes in them, but you just kind of smile fondly every time you put them on before you go about your business. The first half of this film is kinda like that. The thing I REALLY liked is that Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski not only shot this on film, the cameras and film stock they chose had the effect of perfectly recreating the vintage look that all the Indy films had. Indy IV looks like it could have been shot back in the 1980s, and the feel is perfect. I've heard that Lucas tried to get them to shoot this digitally, and thank god Spielberg had other plans. More on all that in a moment.

On the down-side, Indy IV does still have pacing issues that start to show up once the globe-trotting begins. The editing is off just enough to really suck some of the dramatic tension and energy out of even the most fast-paced action scenes. It becomes apparent after a while that what's missing in this film is a real sense of jeopardy, of genuine danger. In the previous films, it always felt like Indy was just a half-step away from disaster. Not so here. I don't know how old Indy is supposed to be in this film, but he's got to at least be in his late sixties, right? So once you see him survive his little refrigerator tumble without breaking a single bone, it's pretty hard to feel like he's EVER in much danger after that. The other problem is that this story has really been the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. Unless you're an Internet or movie geek newbie, there are absolutely no surprises in this film that you either A) didn't already know about or B) couldn't see coming from a mile away. About ten years ago, I read an early script for Indy IV by Jeb Stuart, subtitled The Saucer Men from Mars (it's a bit of a SPOILER - highlight the text with your mouse if you want to read it), and this film covers much the same ground. Bits of other infamous drafts appear as well, and the amalgam is at times clunky, with a little too much exposition weighing things down. The whole movie ends up feeling a bit like a victory lap after the big championship game... but taken years after the actual game has ended and the fans have moved on.

Anyway, let's talk about the Blu-ray. Disc One features the film in full 1080p widescreen high-definition, and it looks absolutely fantastic. I'm talking really terrific here. The colors are warm and inviting, the contrast is deep and true. There's a beautiful sense of atmosphere to the visuals. It's pretty stunning. And that's actually a bit of a problem. Remember how I said that Spielberg and Kaminski worked hard to ensure that this film looked exactly like the others? One of the things that meant, was that there was a certain specific grain texture visible when I saw this film in the theatre... and that texture is missing on the Blu-ray. It's not that you don't see light grain, because you do. But I remember being really struck and impressed by the grain texture during the theatrical presentation - by how well it matched the older films. That same effect is missing here. There's PLENTY of detail visible in the image, so it doesn't LOOK like the usual degraining process was applied. It's a little puzzling, but I've had to knock the video grade down a half point because of this issue. On the audio side, the sound is presented in a fantastic Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that delivers excellent clarity, rich and smoothly enveloping staging, supportive bass and very lively surround play. Paramount often manages to squeeze every last ounce of quality out of their surround mixes on disc, and this one is no exception.

Extras on Disc One include two of the film's theatrical trailers, and a pair of production featurettes, all in full HD. The first, The Return of a Legend (18 mins) features interviews with Spielberg, Lucas, Ford and all the major creative players talking about how the idea to reunite for a fourth film came about. The other, Pre-Production (12 mins), offers a look behind-the-scenes at the development of the project right up to the start of shooting. The disc also features an interactive Indiana Jones Timeline, organized into three categories: HIstory, Story and Production. You can navigate through each, learning more trivia and details that provide background to the film, and you can occasionally view video clips that illustrate the topic at hand. It's pretty cool actually.

Disc Two adds more than three hours worth of additional HD video bonus material, starting with the elaborate Production Diary: The Making of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull documentary. This is broken into segments that run from a few minutes to nearly a half-hour in length, and detail the actual shooting effort from beginning to end. The segments include Shooting Begins: New Mexico (14 mins), Back to School: New Haven, Connecticut (10 mins), Welcome to the Jungle: Hilo, Hawaii (7 mins), On-Set Action (28 mins), Exploring Akator (14 mins) and Wrapping Up! (7 mins). You get to see many key moments in the filming, you get to hear from virtually everyone involved. It's also very cool. Additional featurettes cover the post-production, props and other key aspects of the film. These include Warrior Makeup (5 mins), The Crystal Skulls (10 mins), Iconic Props (10 mins), Adventures in Post-Production (13 mins), The Effects of Indy (23 mins) and Closing: Team Indy (4 mins). Again, all of this material is in HD (with the occasional bit of SD footage mixed in). Rounding out the extras, you get to see a trio of the original pre-viz sequences in HD, and there are a series of extensive photo, portrait and artwork galleries spanning the entire production. It's worth noting that the special features were all produced by Spielberg's longtime documentarian, Laurent Bouzereau, and he's done a fine job of it. Fans should really enjoy going through all of this material. And I have to be honest: I got a special thrill out of seeing all the HD footage from the previous Indy films that's intercut throughout these documentaries and featurettes. To top things off, all of the extras are wrapped together with tastefully animated menus that fit right into the classic Indy canon, featuring vintage airplanes tracing lines of travel over world maps. There are even optional subtitles for these extras - a very nice touch that will be appreciated by those with hearing issues.

In the end, at least this much is true: The quality of this 2-disc Blu-ray release is really quite outstanding, though I'm still a little put off that the film actually looks TOO good here. For all its flaws, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an enjoyably familiar experience. Like warm milk on a sleepless night, it goes down easy and somehow manages to do the job. Perhaps our old pal Todd Doogan said it best, when he described the film thusly: "It's totally watchable." Exactly. Only not quite as much the second time around, for me at least.

If you really love this film, buy it without hesitation and you won't be disappointed. As for the rest of you, well... here's hoping the earlier (and far superior) Indy films arrive on Blu-ray sooner rather than later.


Rudy (Blu-ray Disc)

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Rudy
1993 (2008) - Columbia TriStar (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 9th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

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


For whatever reason, there have only been a handful of great football movies. In fact, there have only been a handful of great sports movies, period. There's Knute Rockne, All American and The Natural. And there's Hoosiers, Rocky and Bull Durham. But for every great movie, there's many more awful ones. Why can't Hollywood do better with sports films?


Well... they're tough to do, for one thing. They're emotionally pretty simple, so a lot of people tend to call them sappy or schmaltzy. And they're predictable - there's a formula to them that we all know and expect. How many of you would be disappointed in a sports movie if the characters didn't win the big game? You expect the big game win - so how do you make the film interesting? It's tough. But Rudy IS one of those great sports movies. The story is based on a real person and real events, the characters are interesting, the acting is good, and the plot isn't as predictable as you might think.

Rudy follows the life of a young man named Rudy Ruettiger (played by Sean Astin), who grows up in a working class family in Joliet, Illinois in the 1970s. Rudy's only dream in life is to play football for Notre Dame, but his family can't afford the tuition and he's a slow learner - his grades in high school wouldn't even get him onto the campus of a community college. So when he graduates, he ends up working in the local steel mill just like his father (Ned Beatty) and older brothers. The only person who believes in Rudy's dream is his friend Pete. But when Pete is killed in an accident at the mill, Rudy realizes that he's wasting his life - if he wants his dream, he's gonna have to go out an get it. So with little money and no place to stay, he gets on a bus for South Bend. There, he's befriended by a Catholic priest, who gets him into nearby Holy Cross Junior College. The plan is that if he can make the grades, maybe he can transfer into Notre Dame and then try out for the team's practice squad. In the meantime, Rudy is also befriended by a janitor (Charles Dutton) who gives him a job and a place to stay, and a fellow student (Jon Favreau), who helps him with his classwork. But just getting accepted to Notre Dame isn't going to be Rudy's only challenge. How do you win a spot on one of the country's best football teams when you stand five foot nothing and weigh a hundred and nothing?

I think the real beauty of Rudy is that it isn't just about football and it isn't really about winning the big game. It's about heart. It's about chasing a dream. It's about never giving in, even when people you love tell you that what you're trying to do is foolish. Some might call that crazy, but not me. Funny thing is, all those things I just mentioned - heart, hard work, determination, perseverance - that's not just what football is all about. That's what LIFE is all about. No wonder it makes for a great film. Add to all that a really great supporting cast (which also includes Lili Taylor, Vince Vaughn and Robert Prosky) and another moving score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, and you've got a real winner.

On Sony's new Blu-ray edition, the film looks and sounds quite good overall. There's great color and contrast, and light to moderate film grain visible. The image looks a little mottled occasionally due to age issues, but there's good detail at almost all times. The general result is a very film-like image. The transfer isn't up to those for more recent films, but it's satisfying nonetheless. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is solid, if unremarkable and largely front-biased. Dialogue and atmosphere are clear and natural sounding, and the surrounds fill in nicely with music and crowd noise at just the right times.

Sony's Blu-ray includes most of the extras that were on the previous DVD Deluxe Edition, except for the isolated score and the bonus CD soundtrack. So you still need to keep either the DVD or the CD or both if you want everything. Sadly, what you do get on the Blu-ray isn't much. Basically, the extras amount to a trio of behind-the-scenes featurettes. One (First Down with Sean Astin) is nothing more than a 1 minute interview with the film's lead. The second is a "making of" fluff piece of the kind that is typically put together by a studio's EPK team to promote a film. It's okay, but you're not going to learn anything new (and it only runs 3 minutes). By far the best thing on this disc is a 13-minute look at the real Rudy Ruettiger, who talks about his life and his achievements compared to what we see in the film. There's real emotion to be found here, and it's a very moving and interesting piece.

On a quick side note, I actually had the pleasure of meeting the real Rudy a few years back, on a flight from Las Vegas to Orange County. Turns out, he's just as nice in person as he is in real life. He was flattered that I'd recognized him, and we spoke for several minutes. When we were done, he asked for my business card, and a couple weeks later, he sent me a signed copy of his book. Talk about a decent human being, he's one.

Anyway, Rudy is a just great film and it really looks and sounds good on Blu-ray. There's not much substance to this disc beyond the film, but it's worth having if you're a fan and you can get a good discounted price. This is an inspiring true story, and it's a rare film you can enjoy with the whole family. If the ending doesn't move you, you probably can't be moved. So hang up your cynicism and your fear of the "heartwarming story" and give this disc a spin. I think you'll be very glad you did.


Outbreak (Blu-ray Disc)

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Outbreak
1995 (2008) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 30th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B-
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: F


Outbreak is a film I recall really enjoying in the theatre, more than I expected. And having just rewatched it on Blu-ray, I find that, not only does it hold up surprisingly well, it's still just enjoyable. Yeah, I know... a military, medical, quasi-action thriller with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role doesn't sound entirely compelling, but bear with me. It's still pretty damn good, and Wolfgang Peterson's deft direction, not to mention a first-rate supporting cast, has a lot to do with that.


If any of you have read The Hot Zone, you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect here. Hoffman plays Colonel Sam Daniels, an Army virologist at USAMRIID (the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases). When an outbreak of the mysterious and deadly Motaba virus (think Ebola on steroids) wipes out a village in Africa, Daniels and his team (including Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) are sent to investigate. It's scary, but it looks like the virus was do deadly that there's little chance of it spreading - everyone who was infected died VERY quickly, before they could contaminate anyone else. But Daniels is still concerned, because they failed to find the source of the infection. That concern turns out to be justified, when an illegal shipment of infected monkeys (intended to be sold as pets) turns up in California, and the disease escapes into the local population. Fearing the worst, the President and Daniels' Army superiors (Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland) prepare to contain this new outbreak the hard way - by destroying the affected town entirely before the virus has the chance to spread. So Daniels and his team must race against the clock to create a workable vaccine before the Army plays its final hand. But it's not going to be easy, and what Daniels doesn't know is that there's a lot more to the situation than he's been told.

The Blu-ray Disc version offers the film in solid video and audio quality. The transfer exhibits nice contrast and color, and detail is generally good. There's light grain visible, but in some shots it almost appears that grain reduction has been done - occasionally, faces seem a little too unnaturally smooth and soft looking. Still, fine image detail is usually adequate, so it's not distracting. A good audio mix is available in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and it supports the images well. Dialogue is clear, there's decent bass, and the surrounds are lively during action scenes. There's nothing particularly noteworthy here in terms of A/V quality, but there's nothing really objectionable either.

I should note that this disc, like the original DVD release before it, has absolutely nothing in the way of bonus features. That's disappointing to be sure, but the Blu-ray will only set you back $15 on Amazon, so it's not like you're paying through the nose. In any case, for most of you, Outbreak is probably best considered a good rental title. But it IS a darned good thriller in its way, so whether you buy it or rent it, it's definitely worth a spin.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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