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

Ghostbusters (Blu-ray Disc)

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1984 (2009) - Columbia (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 16th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

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

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Sigourney Weaver star in this hit 1984 comedy about a motley team of paranormal investigators who make big bucks by ridding NYC residents of their ghosts, spooks and specters. Murray plays Dr. Peter Venkman, a university psychology researcher who spends as much of his time "testing" his female students as he does dabbling in para-psychology.

When he and his partners, Doctors Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis), get booted from their university gravy train, they decide to use their newly-developed ghost-hunting equipment to go into business as professional Ghostbusters ("We're ready to believe you," their TVs ads say). Enter one Dana Barrett (Weaver), an upscale New York musician whose apartment is becoming the epicenter of spook central, who quickly leads the Ghostbusters onto BIG things... you know, cosmically speaking.

Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis are absolutely in their element here, delivering a constant stream of glib one-liners and funny, off-hand comments. Aykroyd and Ramis, who also wrote the script, set Murray up time and again for perfect punchlines. And sight gags and physical humor abound here - just try not to laugh as Murray tries to wipe ectoplasm off his hand... and ends up flicking it in his eye. Rick Moranis even manages to pull off a very funny subplot, as Mrs. Barrett's geeky, health-conscious neighbor who gets possessed by the spirit of the "Keymaster" and runs around looking for the mysterious "Gatekeeper". This is just great stuff - absolutely classic big-screen comedy.

In terms of image quality, I was quite pleased by Sony's new 1080p presentation. Due to the varying shelf-life of the film stocks used in the early 80s, a number of films from that period have suffered from significant image problems. Thankfully, Sony's work here is top-notch. Let's make no mistake: You're going to see film grain here and it's sometimes more than light, but overall image detail and contrast rarely suffers for it. Color saturation and accuracy is quite good. This can't be called reference quality to be sure, but I've seen this film in recent theatrical projection, and for my dime this is as good as I've ever seen the film looking. [Editor's Note: I've confirmed with Sony's head of mastering that cinematographer László Kovács personally supervised and approved the new Blu-ray transfer and color timing before his death last year. The transfer was also approved by director Ivan Reitman. Note that Kovács was NOT involved in the transfers for the previous DVD releases, including the original 1999 DVD.] The audio has also been upgraded to 5.1 Dolby TrueHD lossless, and the quality is about on part with the picture. Clarity is much improved, with excellent LFE, but the film's dialogue and some of the audio effects tend to sound very front-and-center - more flat and lacking in that smooth, natural ambience that newer film mixes posses. Still, when the action heats up, the surrounds become very lively (listen to the electric-hum proton packs being turned on, for example) and the film's score is wonderfully full and balanced. While not perfect, the overall A/V quality here marks a very nice improvement over standard DVD.

As for the extras, there's good news, more good news and some bad news. The good news is that most of the video-based extras from the original DVD release have been carried over to Blu-ray, including all of the previous SD featurettes, the deleted scenes and the storyboard comparison videos. The previous audio commentary (featuring director Ivan Reitman, Ramis and producer Joe Medjuck) is also included here, though the MST3K video component of it isn't. You probably won't really miss that, even though the feature WAS groundbreaking for its day. The more good news is that Sony has created new bonus material exclusively for this Blu-ray edition, including the terrific Slimer Mode PiP viewing option (which features TONS of new interview clips, behind-the-scenes video and bits of graphic/text trivia), a new HD featurette on the restoration of the Ecto-1, a gallery of Ecto-1 photos and a look at the forthcoming Ghostbusters video game. (I have to confess, it looks pretty cool. I'm clearly going to have to give the Xbox 360 version a try.) There will also be new BD-Live options (including CineChat and more), though none of the online functionality has yet been activated at the time of this writing. But here's the bad news: Much good content from the original DVD release has simply been left behind here, including the terrific Don Shay production notes text track and all of the previous image gallery material - all the production photos, all the conceptual artwork and all of the storyboard/script sequences. As is Sony's current practice, the original theatrical trailer for this film is also missing (to be fair, there wasn't one on the DVD version, though the previous Ghostbusters 2 DVD did have trailers for both films). Naturally, you DO get promotional trailers for other Sony Blu-ray titles. This continues to be ENORMOUSLY frustrating. It means those of you who love the film and already own the previous DVD have a tough choice to make: Keep both discs, or sell the DVD and lose good content.

There is no technical reason why this material couldn't have been included - image galleries and text tracks take up almost NO space on a BD disc. This is a decision driven by marketing people, who no doubt looked at all the previous bonus material, and then looked at their marketing research and came to the conclusion that "people just don't care about image galleries and trailers" so just leave them off. What these people at Sony CONTINUE TO FAIL TO GRASP is that fans and collectors, who are the core audience for these catalog Blu-ray upgrades, DO care about such things. They DO care about trailers and galleries. They actually enjoy such things! They want everything from the previous DVD to carry over to Blu-ray, so they can sell the DVDs to help offset the BD upgrade cost and to save shelf space. And the fact that Sony continues to make this mistake tells me that the people making these decisions in home video there just don't fully understand their best customers - the serious film enthusiasts and collectors. When just about every other major studio in town has figured these things out with their catalog Blu-ray upgrades, yet Sony continues to omit trailers and drop good DVD extras, that's the only conclusion I can draw. Somebody there just doesn't GET IT. And no, making this stuff available for download via BD-Live won't cut it, guys. Put it on the disc.

In any case... I don't think I've ever laughed harder in a movie theatre than I did back in '84, when I first saw Ghostbusters. The new Blu-ray version is generally very good, but a few omissions from the previously available DVD extras are likely to prove a frustration for fans and collectors, and prevent the Blu-ray from being called truly great, which is too bad. Still, the improvements in video and audio quality here are very welcome, and the new bonus material (created exclusively for Blu-ray) is quite good. On the whole, the Blu-ray upgrade is still recommended... but at the right price.

Dr. Strangelove (Blu-ray Disc)

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - 45th Anniversary Special Edition
1963 (2009) - Columbia (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 16th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: B

In case you haven't guessed by its title, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is black comedy at its finest. The film wraps itself smartly in the trappings of the Cold War, and cleverly reveals just how truly absurd it all was.

But when this Stanley Kubrick classic first premiered in 1963, it took an unsuspecting public by surprise. The arms race was in high gear. People took those silly "duck, cover and don't look at the flash" civil defense films seriously, and home bomb shelter construction was considered a growth industry. So it goes without saying that folks didn't quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it was many years before the film came to be widely appreciated. The more we've come to understand the sheer magnitude of the military and political folly of the time however, the more brilliant Strangelove seems to become.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force maintained an around-the-clock airborne strike force of B-52 bombers, poised to deliver nuclear annihilation upon the Soviet Union at a moment's notice. Aboard one of these bombers, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew receive the unthinkable - the "go" code to initiate Wing Attack Plan R. It seems that, back at good old Burpelson AFB, their wing commander, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), has gone stark raving mad. Believing that the government is ignoring a Communist plot to poison the water supply with fluoridation, Ripper sets out to "protect our precious bodily fluids" by launching a nuclear first strike. This, he hopes, will force ineffectual President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) into action. When Muffley learns that he can't recall the bombers, he'll have to order an even bigger strike to overcome the inevitable Soviet counter-attack. Of course, when confronted with this news, Muffley does nothing of the sort, preferring instead to inform a drunken Soviet Premier that one of his commanders "went and did a silly thing". He even invites the Soviet Ambassador into the top secret War Room, much to the chagrin of his gung-ho military advisor, General "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott). The Ambassador soon reveals that the Soviets have developed a Doomsday Machine, that will automatically destroy all life on Earth if it detects an American attack. As things unravel in Washington, back at Burpelson, a British exchange officer (Captain Mandrake - also Sellers) attempts to reason with Ripper, knowing that he's the only person with a prayer of stopping this insanity. Meanwhile, aboard his B-52, the no-nonsense Kong is determined to complete his mission, come hell or high water. And in the end, it's up to the film's infamous Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) to devise a last clever plan for "preserving a nucleus of human specimens"...

Sellers is terrific here as Muffley and Mandrake, but it's as the off-kilter Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair bound ex-Nazi scientist, that he really shines. With his lop-sided hair, Strangelove is an obsessive, maniacal figure, for whom Heil-Hitlering is an involuntary response. Scott's blustering performance is equally entertaining as the gum-chewing Turgidson. Fans of classic Disney live-action films will quickly recognize Keenan Wynn as Colonel "Bat" Guano. And yes… that is James Earl Jones among the bomber crew (in his first feature film role). But it's for Slim Pickens' goofy turn here that I really love this film. He's absolutely hilarious as cowboy-turned-pilot Kong: "If this thing turns out to be half as important is I figure it just might be, I'd say that you're all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing's over with. And that goes for every last one of ya, regardless of yer race, color or yer creed!"

It's also worth noting that Dr. Strangelove is loaded with sly, tongue-in-cheek jokes. Almost every character name is the film is some kind of clever sexual innuendo or pun. You'll smile at the "Peace is our Profession" signs around Burpelson AFB... as American soldiers engage in a firefight across the base. You might spot that the pin-up girl in Kong's Playboy is Turgidson's secretary. Among the books in front of Turgidson in the War Room is one labeled World Targets in Megadeaths. Even the Soviet Premier's name is a joke... Dimitri Kissoff.

Some might be surprised by just how well black and white films upgrade to high-definition, but the improved resolution of Blu-ray (in this case based on a 4K restoration) really makes all the difference. Detail here is excellent from start to finish. The image exhibits great contrast, with outstanding blacks. Grain has always been an important part of the visual texture to this film - it's preserved here nicely without becoming a distraction. This is a great B&W, 1080p presentation. [Editor's Note: The film is presented here in a steady 1.66:1 aspect ratio. (So yes, those slight black bars are supposed to be there.) The original theatrical presentation varied between 1.33 and 1.66. In recent years however, we're told that Kubrick's associates (who manage his estate) have become more comfortable with the 16x9/1.78:1 aspect ratio of HD displays, and they believe that Kubrick himself - if he'd really had the chance to look into it - would have preferred his full frame films to be presented on home video (in HD) at a steady 1.66 to take better advantage of the 1.78:1 frame. So that's the reasoning for the decision.] The new TrueHD 5.1 audio mix is also quite good, offering the expected improvements in clarity and resolution. For those who prefer it, however, the original mono audio is here too.

Most of the extras from the previous single-disc DVD and 2-disc DVD special edition have carried over to Blu-ray, including all of the previous documentaries, the interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the split-screen piece with Sellers and Scott. Sadly missing are the advertising gallery and (as expected) the film's theatrical trailer. The latter omission is particularly frustrating, because the original trailer for Dr. Strangelove is one of the more fascinating you'll ever see - it's very Kubrick and very in keeping with the style of the film. Many Kubrick fans will want to keep the DVD in order to retain it. Thankfully, the Blu-ray makes up for this (a little) by offering an interesting new PiP viewing mode called The Cold War, which features on-screen trivia and video interview clips with historians and defense experts, including Thomas Schelling (formerly of RAND, who wrote the original article that sparked Kubrick's interest in the subject), Richard Clarke (a counter-terrorist expert for the Clinton administration), Daniel Ellsberg (also formerly of RAND and consultant to the Kennedy administration), George Quester (a University of Maryland professor and expert on nuclear proliferation) and David Alan Rosenberg (a "nuclear strategy" historian, Temple professor and ex-military). In addition, the disc will connect to the Net via BD-Live, with specific features TBA. It also comes packaged in a Digibook featuring 32 pages of photos and film essays by Richard Tanne and Travis Baker. (Unfortunately, the excellent Roger Ebert essay from the 2-disc DVD is nowhere to be found.) On balance, the Blu-ray extras are more sidewaysgrade than upgrade (from the DVD), but the new material is still welcome.

Dr. Strangelove is a supremely funny film and is definitely one of my all time favorites. It's probably not to everyone's tastes, but if you like dark comedies and biting satire, absolutely don't miss it. It's arguably one of Kubrick's best works, so it's worth seeing for that reason alone. Sony's new Blu-ray is worth having, though as always I do miss that trailer. (I continue to hope that, one day, Sony will get the message.) But the Blu-ray at a good sale price, slip your old DVD into a paper CD sleeve and tuck it into the BD book, and you'll be fine. Just be sure to pack your survival kit and watch out for deviated pre-verts. And don't forget... there's no fighting in the War Room.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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