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

Pitch Black: Unrated Director's Cut (Blu-ray Disc)

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Pitch Black: Unrated Director's Cut
2000 (2009) - Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 31st, 2009
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: C+


Pitch Black is one of those movies that sneaks in and out of theaters and no one much notices it, until the buzz starts to grow during its release on home video. After having a surprisingly profitable theatrical run in the phantom zone that is February movie season, our introduction to Richard B. Riddick made a bloody fortune on video, leading to a 2005 sequel that is also newly released on Blu-ray.


This first film tells the story of a deep space transport carrying people from all walks of life - pilgrims, children and even convicts - which crashes on a remote, seemingly lifeless planet after encountering a freak meteor storm. Unfortunately, the crash survivors quickly discover that the planet isn't so lifeless after all and, when the system's triple suns go into eclipse, the natives come out to play.

For a movie about darkness, Pitch Black is an incredibly stylized piece of work, utilizing strong primary colors as each of the triple suns lighting the world takes the stage before the lights go out. You really feel the heat of the alien desert, and the blown-out contrast only serves to emphasize that you're standing on a truly alien world. The Blu-ray looks every bit as good as the previous HD-DVD edition, and I would say it actually looks better than its sequel in terms of overall fidelity, at least for the daylight scenes. Once the lights go out, the usual problems of shooting in near-blackness rear their heads, but director David Twohy filmed most of these on stages, and was able to control his light and exposure really well, resulting in some of the best night footage I've seen on Blu-ray. When he's not as successful, the image can start to look a bit smeary, with a little more grain than you might be used to, but this is an actual print issue and not the digital compression. Still, Pitch Black is a low budget movie that doesn't look it most of the time, and most fans should be pleased with the video quality of this disc.

The DTS Master Audio track is certainly a step up from the Dolby Digital Plus on the HD-DVD, which in and of itself was a boost from the original DTS DVD. On the other hand, the sound field is more front-biased than some mixes, and has less true directionality in the mix that you might expect. Thankfully, the low end is tighter, especially during the pounding drums of the chase scenes, and the dialog is more clear and free of distortion than on previous releases. The overall mix is good, but it does sounds a lot more like an 80s film in terms of sound design than a modern day actioner - not that that's a BAD thing given the genre it's aping.

Universal has been gifting Blu-ray owners with extras upgrades on their recent releases, and such is the case here as well. New to Blu-ray edition is the welcome Pitch Black Raw Picture-in-Picture track, that shows the original, undoctored footage (including lots of bluescreen) in a PiP box. One thing that's missing (that Fox does with their BD profile 1.1 features and that I'd love to see other studios do more) is the ability to allow even profile 1.0 player owners to access the PiP material in full screen apart from the film. Also available is a more standard Universal-style PiP track, in which good documentary footage is cut up to make it interactive during the film. I've NEVER been a fan of this, much preferring the long-form features that Universal used to do on their collector's edition DVDs back in the day. Beyond that, you get commentaries and a number of EPK featurettes from the original DVD. None of it is particularly gripping - Pitch Black has never had really good extras on disc. Missing from the DVD is the Pitch Black Rave Party (I don't think anyone's going to cry over it) along with the film's theatrical trailer (the absence of which is more irritating). The disc also includes both the theatrical and director's cut versions of the film.

Pitch Black embraces all the things (particularly hiding the monster in the shadows, Alien-style) that make a great classic horror film, the character dynamics from a good slasher film, and an anti-hero that ends up being as charismatic as anyone else onscreen. Riddick acts almost as an amoral observer to the goings-on here, while never turning off the viewer, because you know that he knows what's right inside... even if he sometimes ignores it. Pitch Black is a modern classic that dares to be different, and succeeds.


The Chronicles of Riddick: Unrated Director's Cut (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Chronicles of Riddick: Unrated Director's Cut
2005 (2009) - Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 31st, 2009
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 19
Extras: C+


Given the success of Pitch Black, the gods at Universal decided to make all of David Twohy and Vin Diesel's dreams come true by offering them a sequel production budget many times what the first movie cost in the hopes of creating a new franchise.


For five years after the events of the first film, Riddick has been hiding out on a remote ball of ice. Unfortunately, mercenaries have finally found him, and it's one of the Pitch Black survivors who have ratted him out. But when Riddick confronts them, he learns that he has a unique destiny - he's meant to stop a plague-like army from succeeding in its crusade to wipe out all life in the Universe, so they can enter heaven.

When Riddick arrived on the now defunct HD-DVD format, a lot of fans claimed it was a reference disc. Frankly, I disagreed. This new Blu-ray version features a new compression of the same master used on the HD-DVD, that actually manages to come in at a LOWER average bitrate than its predecessor thanks to improved video compression technology. Like the HD-DVD before it, Chronicles of Riddick on Blu-ray suffers from a definite application of Digital Noise Reduction. Take a look at the characters' faces. You'll notice often that they're a lot more waxy looking then they should be. This looks suspiciously like something that was done to make home video compression easier. It's not bad looking - this is still a dramatic improvement over the DVD, but I just can't help feeling that the disc could look a little better.

Audio-wise, this Blu-ray is outstanding - Riddick's DTS Master Audio presentation doesn't disappoint. A huge upgrade over even the HD-DVD version, Riddick has all the window-busting sonic assault that home theater owners love, with a big brassy score, thrumming spaceships, and explosions that will rumble your subwoofers good. The surround channels never stop working throughout the entire picture. There is no question that this audio improvement alone is worth the Blu-ray upgrade price.

Most of the previous DVD extras have been included here, except for the Riddick Worlds featurettes and the Easter egg. New for the Blu-ray are a trio of featurettes that were originally on the Best Buy exclusive bonus disc, including The Creation of New Mecca (about building the set for the city), Keep what You Kill (which explores the history of the Necromongers) and Riddick Rises (a discussion of the character's origins). Oddly missing from that bonus disc is the cool Interactive Production Calendar. Why that stuff wasn't re-purposed for the Blu-ray's new PiP track I have no idea - it was one of those rare DVD extras where less well known members of the production team took center stage, and I really enjoyed it. All the rest of the DVD material is here for you to enjoy, including the surprisingly Vin Diesel-less commentary. As with Pitch Black, this Blu-ray also includes both the theatrical and director's cut versions of the film.

Chronicles of Riddick is an experiment that probably failed in terms of growing the franchise. A lot of the strength of the first movie lay in how it rose above its budget to creating truly memorable characters. Riddick goes for the grand scale, on the other hand, becoming the new Millennium's answer to cheese ball 80's classics like Krull. Still, on that level, the movie absolutely delights. Dame Judi Dench has a blast here, finally getting to share in the fun that her friends Maggie Smith and Ian McKellen have had in big budget fantasy films. Her performance alone adds to the quality of this film. Riddick is also surprisingly original and imaginative. I have no doubt in the passion of the filmmakers, but they probably overreached a bit. The director's cut definitely expands the mythology quite a bit, so if you've only ever seen the theatrical version, it's definitely worth checking out. While the Blu-ray is absolutely a worthwhile upgrade, I just wish the video presentation looked a little better.

Addendum

For the many readers among you who will be viewing these discs on a PlayStation 3, or who own a high-end PC or Xbox 360, I can't recommend the new Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena videogame more highly. This game contains two tales that are official Riddick canon, and were made with the full cooperation of the same crew that created the films. Not only does this new game contain the original upgraded Xbox game (that tells the story of how Riddick's eyes came to shine), but it also includes a brand new full-length game starring Lance Henrikson (Aliens) and Michelle Forbes (Star Trek: TNG). Having only played the first game, I can say that the writing, acting and gameplay are all terrific. This is one of the only (if not THE only) such movie adaptations to really stand alone as a superior game without relying on its license to drive sales. While the first game finds Riddick in the slam Johns took him to prior to Pitch Black, the new game sees Riddick's ship picked up by a mercenary carrier, and naturally he's not happy about it. Given the track record of developer Starbreeze, I have no doubt it'll be just as fun the second time around.


The Kite Runner (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Kite Runner
2007 (2009) - DreamWorks (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 24th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 16
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: C


Before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, kites were a cheap toy for the poor children living there to construct and play with. However, there is one aspect to their kite games that you never see in America.


These children would often coat the strings with jagged pieces of glass, and purposely fly them in aerial combat trying to cut the strings of each other's kites. Each kite flyer has a "runner" who races to capture fallen kites, which become the property of the winner. One team of kite battlers is made up of Amir, the son of a wealthy and powerful local man, and Hassan, who is the son of their head servant. The question is, when violence, brutality and half a world of separation come between Amir and Hassan, can their friendship survive?

Director Marc Forster really likes manipulate the contrast in his films, pushing the whites almost as far as they will go. As a result, in all honesty I feel the movie looks very over processed on the master digital intermediate. The Kite Runner was shot on a fairly low budget, and noise reduction appears to have been used for the purposes of consistency between shots - this isn't manipulation done to make Blu-ray compression easier. Unfortunately, this high level of processing really affects the CGI kites. While the overall animation and design is quite beautiful, the choices made in color grading and processing really made them feel like they often weren't actually part of the scene, breaking the fourth wall. If you can get past these factors, The Kite Runner Blu-ray offers a substantial upgrade over the DVD version.

Unlike the video, the audio suffers neither stylistic or budgetary hang-ups. The Dolby TrueHD soundscape is constantly alive with the sonic textures of Kabul, and the sounds of so many people crammed together. This is not a slam-bang mix, but I've always felt that painting a scene sonically is one of the most under appreciated arts there is, and The Kite Runner is the rare gem of a film that gets it right.

The Blu-ray extras replicate those of the DVD, with the exception that the trailer has been upgraded to high definition. Director Marc Foster, author Khaled Hosseini and screenwriter David Benioff all participate in a commentary track that I was positive would be dry, but actually contains a lot of solid information not only on the film but also the world in which it takes place. A short "making of" documentary is split into two parts, which cover first the novel and the screenplay adaptation and then the film's production. You've seen these sort of documentaries a thousand times, so you'd probably get more out of spending your time with the commentary.

The Kite Runner is a painful and poignant film, that certainly doesn't pull any punches and sticks closely to its source material. I'm glad to see that Paramount and DreamWorks are pushing more unlikely, but worthy, films out on Blu-ray Disc. Hopefully, those fans of Blu-ray who are tired of the usual action/adventure fare on the format will give it a try, and maybe learn something in the process.

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com


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