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page added: 2/23/09

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

Akira (Blu-ray Disc)

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1988 (2009) - Bandai Visual U.S.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on February 24th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

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

Twenty years ago, Japanese animation occupied a very small part of the American consciousness, isolated as it was to Saturday morning and after-school "cartoon block" hours. While a few very small direct-to-video companies like Best Video had put out anime titles, they mostly languished in toy store discount bins, making more money on volume than on sales.

All of this changed when Carl Macek's Streamline pictures acquired the distribution rights to Akira. All of a sudden Japanese animation was hot news, with stories appearing in publications like The New York Times and Time Magazine. And while the ups and downs of the anime industry since then have been well documented, one title has remained a constant: Akira.

Compared even to the 2000 Pioneer remaster, Bandai U.S.'s new Blu-ray version of Akira is a revelation to behold. The colors are stunning, and so much detail is visible that even the raw texture of the paper the backgrounds were painted on is visible. The trend today is always to make traditional hand-crafted animation on Blu-ray look as clean as modern-day CG movies, but while a film like Sleeping Beauty is certainly gorgeous in 1080p, I really miss the little things that give hand-painted animation its character. With Akira's transfer, slight imperfections in the ink lines and paint work have been left in and bring a wonderful analog warmth to the film. Some reviewers have claimed that there's excessive noise reduction and artificial sharpening halos in the image, but on closer inspection, what they're actually seeing is variations in focus and light refractions from the cels onto the background. (Often times anime production is done on such a tight schedule, that "good enough" has to be the standard.)

For home theatre enthusiasts, Akira on Blu-ray brings another true revelation to the table in the form of its soundtrack. For the first time ever, a digital movie soundtrack can be said to equal the very best the original master tapes have to offer. Recorded at an astounding 192khz/24-bit audio resolution - which is 4 times the sampling rate of a typical Blu-ray Disc - Akira's new Japanese TrueHD 5.1 audio takes up an astounding 12mbps of the BD's data rate all by itself! (For the record, that's almost as much as the video on Warner's Batman Begins Blu-ray). Without a doubt, this is THE audio Blu-ray demo disc for the foreseeable future. So for all those of you that received new speakers for Christmas... your holy grail BD has arrived. The English dubbed track was only created at 48Khz/16-bit, and retains that resolution in its own lossless TrueHD 5.1 presentation. Finally, the original Japanese theatrical mix is presented in LPCM, encoded as Dolby Surround. For longtime fans of the film, note that the Streamline dub is NOT included, quite possibly due to licensing issues, as MGM currently owns the Streamline assets through their acquisition of Orion. If getting the dub were even possible, it would likely be far more expensive than it's worth.

Supplementally, the Akira Blu-ray both shines and falters. The slipcase and 32- page booklet that accompany the first pressing of the disc is superb, detailing every aspect of the approach and procedure of the restoration, as well as the creation of its groundbreaking audio track. Thousands of stills contain the complete (unfortunately untranslated) storyboards, notes, promotional art, and other paper goods left from the production. Unfortunately, due to space constraints, Bandai was not able to include the excellent Akira Production Report from the 2-disc DVD, or any of the documentaries on the 2001 restoration and re-dubbing. Also missing is the excellent Capsule Mode, which translates many of the text-heavy signs into English in a Follow the White Rabbit-style presentation. As a result, the philosophy behind this Blu-ray is obvious: All the money and effort was applied to the single goal of creating the very best possible A/V presentation of the movie... and everything else was secondary.

Akira is a weird movie, and it's certainly not to everyone's taste. Once you get past that, however, you'll find a groundbreaking piece of animation that's now a new reference disc for high definition and home theatre aficionados. I personally hope that the new soundtrack will prompt more people to experience the film in Japanese, as it was originally intended. We spend so much time arguing about anime/Blu-ray sound mixes, framing, DNR and such, that virtually no attention is paid to retaining the original actors' performances. Be it live action or animated, taking away a creator-directed performance (by listening to the dubbed English track) is just as bad or worse than losing 40% of the picture to Pan and Scan. Give the Japanese track a try: you might like it.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Blu-ray Disc)

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Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
2004 (2009) - Bandai Entertainment
Released on Blu-ray Disc on January 13th, 2009

Dolby Digital

Film Rating: C-
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: C

Ghost in the Shell is one of the few anime titles outside of Akira to have penetrated (at least somewhat) into the mainstream American consciousness. First appearing in 1994 in the U.S. art house theatrical circuit, Ghost in the Shell eventually became the first non-kid-centric anime release to rise highly on the Nielsen VideoScan home video charts.

Though much more popular overseas, Ghost in the Shell has certainly pushed a lot of buttons here in the West, perhaps most notably through its influence on the Wachowski Brothers. Thanks at least in part to the renewed exposure to Ghost afforded by the popularity of the Matrix films, a sequel was commissioned and released in 2004 by DreamWorks' GoFish division - Innocence.

After not one but two high-definition releases in Japan, North American fans have clamored to share the wealth of Ghost in the Shell 2 on Blu-ray, and Bandai has given them their due. Mastered directly from the original digital files, Innocence stands head to head quality-wise with the latest BD version to hit Japanese shores (and at half the price). It should be noted that many stylistic choices are made in the film that might look at first like the result of a poor HD mastering job. These include deliberate moments of softness, focus "spotlights" and artificial grain, all of which are utilized to highlight story points, to generate director Mamoru Oshii's desired mood and to flavor the film's overall look.

For an "action" film, GitS2 is incredibly dialog-centric, so the lack of a lossless audio track on Blu-ray is not the deal breaker it would have been on another movie. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix's lengthy exposition is firmly rooted in the center channel, leaving the other four to mostly provide ambiance. There's some good booms here on occasion, but nothing that's going to rock your world. Not one but two English dubs are included, one featuring the voice actors from the Ghost in the Shell television series (Stand Alone Complex), and one that was done by Manga U.K. for the theatrical release there. That both are here makes it a safe bet that Bandai and Manga shared production costs on this disc, as they do on the TV series, so each party no doubt wanted to include the dub their particular viewers were familiar with.

Supplements on the Blu-ray are ported from the DVD edition, and include a commentary and a Japanese "making of" special. Both are rather dry affairs, but are still a step up from the usual lightweight Japanese EPK material. The themes and the general creative process are explored in each with many of the film's production staffers. I would have liked to see quite a bit more material comparing and contrasting the way computers have changed the animation process between the making of the original Ghost in the Shell and this film, but unfortunately that's not covered. Overall it's a solid, if rather pedestrian, effort.

Ghost in the Shell 2 is a Mamoru Oshii film in every sense of the word: beautiful, imaginative and philosophical in the extreme. The lack of lossless aside, Bandai has delivered a gorgeous disc that Is an extreme upgrade over the rather blurry DVD. Obviously, this is not a film that appeals to everyone, but if the Matrix makes you go "Whoa!" or if you appreciate excellence in animation, then this one's for you.

Friday the 13th: Uncut (Blu-ray Disc)

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Friday the 13th: Uncut
1980 (2009) - Paramount Home Entertainment
Released on Blu-ray Disc on February 24th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: C+
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B

While 1978's Halloween certainly birthed the modern slasher, Friday the 13th is the film that fully cemented the genre in cinema history. Nine sequels and a brand new remake later, Jason (the film's "hockey masked killer") has become an irreplaceable part of our shared popular culture.

Now presented in its endlessly requested uncut and unedited form for the first time, Friday the 13th has finally arrived on Blu-ray from Paramount.

Sporting what appears to be a newly color timed and graded transfer, Friday the 13th has simply never looked this good. The previous DVDs were dark and somewhat muddy, but thanks to the increased contrast here, a lot of new detail is visible. While the movie's visual quality will always be limited by its low budget and photography, it looks exceptional on Blu-ray for a film with that kind of pedigree. There's been some forum chatter in recent weeks regarding the framing of the image, but the best information I've been able to dig up is that you're simply seeing a European take on it, since that's where all the uncut versions originated from. Sonically, Friday has never been a winner, and the TrueHD 5.1 remix is so benign that it doesn't even deserve the label of gimmicky. The original mono mix is also here for purists, but sounds so muddy in comparison that I recommend you stick with the 5.1, regardless of your personal preferences.

Most of Friday the 13th's bonus materials seems pointed at the Chiller crowd, who attend the horror conventions, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. New to the Blu-ray edition are a trio of featurettes: Cast Reunion (shot at a convention a while back), Fresh Cuts: New Tales from Friday the 13th (which has new interviews with the writer, composer and cast members, as well as makeup effects legend Tom Savini) and my personal favorite, Secrets Galore Behind the Gore (in which Savini appears once again to describe his makeup techniques). I'd love to see this latter type of featurette on future makeup-heavy special edition titles. There's just something about classic, simple, meat and potatoes-style movie magic that gets me every time. One last thing here that kind of mystified me was Lost Tales from Camp Blood: Part 1. Basically, this is a short, amateur-looking piece shot in the Friday style. Parts 2 and 3 of this featurette are found on the following two sequel films on DVD, and one can assume they'll be on future Blu-ray editions of the same. (Note that they're already available in Europe, but are not officially announced for BD release in the States yet. More in a moment.)

Friday the 13th is the prototype for all the the 80s slasher films that came after it. While Nightmare on Elm Street managed to forge its own identity (and later battle for cinema supremacy), the essence of Friday still lies in punishing immorality and cruelty, and no other would one-up it until Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally came along (where that one pre-marital fling almost destroyed the world). While this first film contains little of what ultimately made Friday iconic (read: no hockey mask and the lack of Jason), it's probably the best of the lot when it comes to the quality of the actual film. Hopefully, the new remake will breathe some life and creativity back into the franchise.

Rumor has it that the other seven Friday the 13th films will follow in a Blu-ray box set later this year, when the new remake itself arrives on disc. (Here's hoping that they include the actual 3-D version of Part 3 that was missing on the European Blu-ray.) Fans no doubt already have this Blu-ray in their shopping carts. If you're on the fence, just know that this is a solid special edition worthy of adding to your collection.

Jeff Kleist
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