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

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion)

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2008 (2009) - Paramount (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 5th, 2009
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD

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


If there's one constant in life, it's that we're born, we grow old, and we die... often lamenting that the lessons learned over a long life could have been better applied during our youth. So what if we were given that chance? Benjamin Button was born an old man and has aged in reverse, living life with that experience we all crave. But can love overcome the hardship of experience not shared?


The new Blu-ray release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a rare Paramount title licensed to (and produced by) The Criterion Collection. As such, the film looks and sounds as good as you'd expect. Shot using a hybrid system of VIPER FilmStream digital cameras the Sony F23, Benjamin Button has never left the digital realm. An early enthusiast of digital color grading, director David Fincher has chosen an intentionally muted color palette, except when he wants something to pop out at you, and then the contrast is striking. Simple objects like a bottle, or the greens of the natural world, progress in richness throughout the movie. The sepia tone relaxes as Benjamin gets younger, but the same superior detail and contrast is maintained throughout the presentation. On the audio end, while many such dramas have less than stellar sound mixes, the huge variety of environments present in this film lets the sound designer play with a gigantic pallet of flavors and colors that the DTS Master Audio track captures with excellent precision. Whether it's the subtle relaxation of Louisiana, or a hail of bullets bouncing around your speakers in scenes set during World War II, the audio always keeps you immersed in the story and never pulls you out of the action.

As the creators of the special edition, and having established a long relationship with Fincher, Criterion has gone above and beyond the call (in partnership with Paramount) to create the definitive special edition of this film. First among the extras is the next in a long line of great Fincher commentaries, bolstered by an on-screen index. Fincher is direct and to the point in his thoughts, and manages to stay interesting for the almost the entire three hour runtime. The highlight of the set is a nearly three-hour documentary by longtime Fincher DVD producer, David Prior. It's broken up into four segments. First Trimester talks about the film's long road to the screen through the many casting choices, production teams, location scouting and technology choices required to create the film they wanted to make. The Second Trimester covers the actual making of the film, while the Third concentrates on the post production, scoring and visual effects. It should be noted that selecting “Play All” does not play everything, as there are side documentaries on location scouting and costume design (and also still galleries) that should not be overlooked. Finally, Birth covers the film's release.

Though it failed to win all but three of the ten Oscars it was nominated for, few of even the best films these days manage to succeed in the ways that Benjamin Button does. A unique film with an odd concept, it still manages to connect with its everyman audience through universal themes and desires, a compelling performance by Brad Pitt and the supporting cast, and some incredible cinematography. A real chance was taken here to create something different, and both the studio and the audience reap the end rewards. On Blu-ray, Criterion's attention to detail on this package is second to none. And it's worth noting that, since their return to Blu-ray, Paramount has consistently put their money where their mouth is. I can't help but give this film, and this Blu-ray, the highest possible grade.


Grease: Rockin' Rydell Edition

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Grease: Rockin' Rydell Edition
1978 (2009) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 5th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B-


Grease is one of those classic "rights of passage" movies. Year after year, new teens discover the film and memorize every note and word. A tale of 1950's California greaser culture, and a summer romance that blooms into an unexpected high school reunion.


As so often happens in these films, the young lovers are separated by their respective cliques. Will they transcend peer pressure and come together once more?

Let me say right up front, "greased lightning" has never looked this good. The film exhibits a much improved color palette and level of detail on Blu-ray than was seen in the previous DVD edition. Gone are the muddy skin tones and overly soft detail. The real star of the Blu-ray show, however, is the lossless soundtrack. As a musical, Grease lives and dies by its audio presentation, and that's probably the biggest upgrade here. The new Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix is a bit stereo heavy, and attempts to steer the vocals into the center channel aren't always successful. Those little issues aside, there's wonderful extension of the highs and lows in the music here that weren't present in the DVD's Dolby Digital compression. The added resolution really lifts the soundtrack to the next level.

All of the extras from the 2006 DVD have made the upgrade to Blu-ray, including the Rydell Sing-a-Long with on screen lyrics, The Time, The Place, The Motion (an almost 30 minute retrospective documentary), a dozen deleted and extended scenes, and footage from the DVD launch party that includes an Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta duet. More material on the cars, choreography and enduring kitsch of Grease finishes out the package, along with some photo galleries and the trailer. The only thing not included, from the very original DVD release, is the VH1 retrospective documentary.

Grease has been an enduring classic for 30 years now, and I hope (in the face of the looming threat of High School Musical) that this far superior product continues to stay relevant to a generation whose parents were born long after the Happy Days were over. Either way, this Blu-ray is the definitive edition of a classic, and you can be sure it's the one that you'll want for a long time to come.


Saturday Night Fever: 30th Anniversary Edition

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Saturday Night Fever: 30th Anniversary Edition
1977 (2009) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 5th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B-


Many people will say that Saturday Night Fever represents both the birth and death of disco in one fell swoop, instantly bringing the musical genre into the mainstream while also killing the underground scene that made discotheques so appealing in the first place.


What's ironic is that Saturday Night Fever is less about the dancing, and more about how we build walls to escape the humdrum of everyday life. Such is the lot of Tony Manero (John Travolta) who spends his days at a paint store and his nights as king of the dance floor at a Brooklyn nightclub. Sometimes, Tony's reality has a nasty habit of penetrating his fantasy life.

Saturday Night Fever hits Blu-ray with a surprisingly good looking image, well above expectations. Despite the soft filters, muted colors and generally cruddy film stock of the time, Fever transcends its limitations to deliver a lot of fine detail in a picture that - frankly - has no right to look this good. All of the video noise and bleed of the DVD is gone, and the colors of the dance floor are nice and strong. Like Grease, the Blu-ray's lossless audio track offers great extension of the lows and highs. The improvement hits you immediately during Stayin' Alive. The Bee Gees have seldom sounded this good.

All of the 30th Anniversary DVD extras are here on Blu-ray, many of which get an upgrade to 1080p. You get the audio commentary, an hour-long documentary (split into multiple featurettes), a trivia track and a handful of deleted scenes - it's all here for you to enjoy. Missing from the very original DVD (again, like Grease) is the VH1 documentary.

Saturday Night Fever is the film that defined a whole generation back in the 70s. Whatever kind of mistake white leisure suits were, this is the original "dance and dream" flick upon which countless lesser imitators are based. The Blu-ray delivers - I honestly don't think the film has presented so well since Day One in the theater. Recommended.

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com


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