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

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Blu-ray Disc)

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Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
1980 (2009) - DreamWorks Animation (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on February 6th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: C+
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B

If you buy it, they will come (and make more). Thus is the motto of modern CG animation franchises, to which Madagascar is no exception. Arriving three years after its half-billion dollar grossing sibling, Madagascar 2 managed to do the unusual and actually out-earn its predecessor. With a plethora of pop culture references and wacky situations, it's the usual fun time for children of all ages.

As is typical for CG features, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa looks flawless in 1080p. Sourced directly from the digital master files, its short running time means that no compromises had to be made with the compression. Fur, water and environmental textures are all perfectly rendered. What else can be said? It's flawless. On the audio side, the 48khz/24-bit Dolby TrueHD track is a near reference-quality mix. Its expansive holosonic soundfield will give your surrounds more action than they've seen in most recent films. This is definitely a Blu-ray release that'll make you happy you didn't cheap out on your rear speakers.

DreamWorks always goes all out on the bonus material, and this disc is no exception. It starts off with a picture-in-picture commentary track by the directors and producers, paired with a text commentary to boot. Along with the now-standard cast and "making-of” featurettes that you've seen on every other CG movie, DreamWorks continues to provide a good selection of educational featurettes. Swahili Speak gives over half an hour of movie-related words and phrases in the native African tongue. Alex's Dance-Off teaches you some hip moves. The Bronx Zoo introduces you to the real animals featured in the film. Rounding things out is the flash-style BD-J game Test Flight of Air Penguin, and two episodes from the upcoming Nickelodeon series starring the penguins from Madagascar.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a movie you're probably only going to watch with your kids. There's enough entertainment value here that you won't be gouging your frontal lobe out, but I don't think there's enough (outside of the family experience) to justify a purchase unless your kids really love the film, or you're looking for a good piece of A/V demo material. If you do have elementary school-age kids, however, they're going to absolutely love this.

Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

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Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition
1996 (2009) - Paramount Home Entertainment
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 10th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

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

Back in 1996, the closest I got to a serious legal drama was The People vs. Larry Flynt. I was just too busy watching ID4 and Star Trek: First Contact, or being seemingly the only person to think Mars Attacks was (and still is) hilarious. So even though he had a supporting role in Flynt, I missed Edward Norton's Academy Award-nominated debut in Primal Fear.

Focusing on a homeless altar boy who seemingly murders the Archbishop of Chicago, Primal Fear is an exploration of split personalities with an ending that will hit you like a ton of bricks.

Seeing it for the first time on Blu-ray, I'm pleased to say that Primal Fear has a really good amount of detail for a mid-90s film. The best way to put it is that it's solid. The film is very consistent in its presentation, and exhibits a good amount of high-level detail and dimensionality for a film of its style and vintage. This is definitely a "cleaned your glasses" disc, where any existing fan of the film will definitely notice and appreciate the upgrade. The Dolby TrueHD track simply is what it is. Courtroom dramas will always specialize in ambient effects and that's about it. It's not demo-worthy, but Primal Fear on Blu-ray sounds as good as anyone could have hoped for.

New to this special edition is one extra you will see almost nowhere else: Edward Norton being happy about doing DVD extras. This is the first and only time I've ever seen him where he seems eager to share his thoughts and is glad to be there. It's really too bad that he wasn't on the commentary, because he's done quite well on them in the past. Instead we get two documentaries, The Final Verdict and The Star Witness, totaling about 35 minutes of running time. While the first is a fairly fast overview of the film's development, casting and shooting, the second concentrates on Norton's approach to performing his character. It's a shame that this couldn't have been longer and more in-depth, because the best thing I really got out of the first documentary was some photographs of a long deleted subplot that the filmmakers felt telegraphed the ending too much. The final piece of the features puzzle is a quickie documentary on the science of the mental disorders depicted in the film, and a trailer.

Primal Fear is an excellent film and, viewing it as a first timer, I was quickly engrossed in its excellent performances and engaging courtroom drama. Coupled with Edward Norton's amazing performance, recommending the movie as at least a rental is a no-brainer. Even knowing the ending before-hand, I know I'll pop this disc in my player again six months down the line and catch a whole new level of the performances. Recommended.

South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season (Blu-ray Disc)

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South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season
2004 (2009) - Comedy Central (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 17th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

Program Rating: B
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: C

Who would have ever thought South Park would last for twelve seasons, with lots more to come? South Park continues its unique brand of off-color, topical humor and biting satire that's somehow given it more staying power than M*A*S*H. From riffing on Britney's breakdown to raking phenomena like High School Musical and Cloverfield over the coals, this show is probably going to age poorly, but it sure is funny.

Probably the most shocking event of this particular season is when series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone use the show to express their dissatisfaction with a certain whip-laden summer blockbuster... and almost certainly become the most banned people ever from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in the process.

This Blu-ray release is the first ever widescreen presentation of episodes of South Park, and the tried and true center framing technique is fairly evident, with the action centered in the 4x3 zone and the rest of the 16x9 frame acting as an extension. Because South Park is often finished at the last minute for broadcast, the show is created from beginning to end in 1080i resolution, and this is maintained on the Blu-ray. Despite the occasional interlacing artifacts on fences, microphones and other objects with fine detail, the end user should never notice the difference. Compression artifacting is virtually non-existent, sourced as it is from a completely digital source. From what I'm told, the very occasional banding and (what appear to be) edge halos are actually present on the masters themselves. There is some controversy here, as the show went from 4x3 production in the middle of the season to 16x9, but given the control Trey and Matt have over South Park, and their extensive film backgrounds, I would be shocked if this was done without their full participation and approval. The sound mix for the episodes is pretty much the last thing that's done on the series' rushed schedule, but it's clear, exact and not all that exciting on Blu-ray. You'll probably be too busy laughing to go for nuance anyway.

When I saw (on the back of the box) that there was going to be a breakdown of the production cycle for South Park on this set, I was really excited. What I actually experienced wasn't all that special. Essentially, it's an exhaustive group commentary over storyboards from different stages of the design process for several episodes. While I liked it for awhile, by the time the end of the first hour rolls around, you're definitely ready for it to end. Much more effective would have been a 30 to 45-minute fly-on-the-wall piece, in the style of the documentary done for The Phantom Menace, where you just get to observe the production process as it happens. Maybe the producers also felt that, after 12 seasons, they've spent enough time running around the studio with cameras. Either way, much more interesting here are the mini commentaries on each episode. Typically, Trey and Matt talk through the first 5 minutes of the episode about what inspired them or what they found challenging. I wish there was more commentary, but given that getting more from these two usually involves several bottles of scotch, maybe less IS more.

So South Park's twelfth season is available on Blu-ray (and DVD). You fans already know you're buying this set, but if the rest of you haven't seen the show by now, you can certainly jump in here without worrying too much about past seasons. The upgrade to high definition is substantial, especially when it comes to reducing compression artifacts, solidifying the look of the show and enhancing the color palette, but it isn't likely to blow anyone away. Regardless, this show is still funny, and if you've come this far, the price to add this set to your collection isn't likely a deal-breaker. My only real complaint with the Blu-ray is the use of Digipack fold-out packaging. While I'm sure this was intended to keep things consistent with the previous DVDs, conforming to the Blu-ray form factor already ruined that one, so I would have preferred Paramount go for the standard 3-pack BD keep cases, like the ones used for Dexter on Blu-ray. Yeah, I know. That's a nitpick. So be it.

Jeff Kleist
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