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

John Adams (Blu-ray Disc)

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John Adams
2008 (2009) - Playtone (HBO)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 16th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

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

I confess I haven't read the David McCullough book upon which this production is based, but I have read McCullough's 1776. I found that work to be an exceptionally detailed and insightful historical account, and it's one I recommend to anyone interested in the early history of the United States.

So when I learned that Tom Hanks and HBO intended to produce McCullough's John Adams as a seven-episode miniseries, I was eager for its arrival. Then I forgot about the production for months, until one day I happened to see the poster announcing its debut in the post office of all places. I ordered HBO high-definition service just to view John Adams in the highest possible quality, and I'm glad I did. Each Sunday night for a month I was simply riveted by this miniseries.

John Adams, as you should know, was the second President of the United States. The larger significance of his role in history is often overshadowed by his peers however, particularly George Washington and his friends Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But a closer examination of history reveals that Adams (along with Jefferson) was very much the intellectual father of American independence, and his efforts were the glue that held the early States together. Though he was the first President to actually inhabit the White House, his term was terribly unpopular at the time. Nevertheless, he was able to keep his country from becoming embroiled in a war with France in 1798, which might have torn the nascent democracy apart.

The cast of this production is exceptional across the board, in particular Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his dear council and wife, Abigail. I've always liked Giamatti, but he truly shines here. Great care was taken towards historical accuracy, right down to the lack of make-up and the bad teeth, which makes this performance all the more brave and honest, especially in high-definition. When I reviewed this miniseries on DVD, I commented that if both Giamatti and Linney didn't win Emmys for these roles, it'd be a shame. Well, no shame here: Both DID win (for Best Actor and Actress in a Miniseries) along with the series itself. Also good are Tom Wilkinson as Franklin, the understated Stephen Dillane as Jefferson and especially David Morse, who embodies Washington so completely it's striking.

Also surprising here is the exceptional quality of the miniseries' visual effects work. Very often, you'll be seeing an effects shot without ever realizing it. For example, there's a scene in which Adams and Franklin are entering a palace in Europe, where they're walking up a set of stairs in a great hall. The hall itself is completely digital, but you'd never know that until you view the making-of featurette on this set. The blending of digital and practical elements here is just superb.

John Adams was intended to be seen in high-definition, and HBO's long-awaited Blu-ray edition delivers that in spades. Presented in full 1080p resolution (1.78:1 aspect ratio), the image offers terrific fine detail in everything from fabric textures (apparent on the waving flag right from the start) to skin blemishes. Color is excellent if subdued due to the production design (appropriate to the era) and contrast is also quite good. The sound mix has been upgraded to DTS-HD MA lossless, and it's a wonderfully smooth and natural mix, with great clarity and active use of the surrounds for ambient sound. As was the case with the DVD, I'm particularly pleased by the presentation of music in the mix. The score, by Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli, is at times both stirring and lovely. The series' theme, which I think of as Don't Tread on Me because you can hear those words quoted in the music, gives me chills every time I hear it. Any way you slice it, the Blu-ray is a significant improvement over the previous DVD edition in terms of A/V quality.

The Blu-ray version retains all of the DVD bonus material. You get all the Previously on John Adams episode recaps, a BD-Java updated version of the on-screen historical guide (Facts are Stubborn Things) that offers pop-up contextual information during each episode, and two short documentaries (David McCullough: Painting with Words and The Making of John Adams), both now in full HD. The former runs about 40 minutes, and is a profile of McCullough's life and work. I think you'll enjoy watching it - it's real a charmer. The latter is about 30 minutes long, and is a more straightforward look behind the scenes at the making of this miniseries (the special effects segment in particular will surprise you, I think). Available exclusively on the Blu-ray is an additional BD-Java viewing option (Who's Who in History), which offers additional pop-up biographical details. As was the case with the DVD, the packaging for the set is an embossed metallic foil box containing the three Blu-rays. The menus feature tasteful program footage, with music and sound effects from the series.

Though it arrives fully a year after the DVD version, this Blu-ray set was well worth the wait. I'll tell you, every time I pop in these discs to check one thing or another, I end up getting sucked in and watching the whole episode. This miniseries really is that good. John Adams is exceptional television, finally presented the way it was meant to be seen on Blu-ray. It's simply not to be missed. Very highly recommended.

Gran Torino (Blu-ray Disc)

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Gran Torino
2008 (2009) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 9th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

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

Clint Eastwood's film work has been a bit hit or miss in recent years (Million Dollar Baby was outstanding, though if you missed Blood Work you can be forgiven), but Gran Torino is without question his finest effort in some time, both in front of and behind the camera.

Here, Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a retired Korean War veteran and Michigan auto worker who's just suffered the loss of his beloved wife. Walt's remaining family - his kids and grand kids - are about as unlikable and unworthy a bunch as ever you'll see, so it's a wonder that he's such a sourpuss. To make matters worse (in Walt's opinion anyway), his formerly pleasant middle-class neighborhood has been overrun by thugs and immigrants, including Hmong families from overseas, brought to the U.S. by the Lutheran church.

It's quickly apparent that Walt doesn't have much patience for, or like of, his Hmong neighbors, especially when the quiet boy next door tries to steel his vintage and lovingly-preserved Gran Torino. But after he saves the boy's sister from harassment by gang members, and the young man himself seeks to make amends for his offense, Walt strikes up an unlikely bond of friendship with both of them, and discovers that it's often life's surprises that truly make it worth living.

The 1080p video quality here is generally good, if less than impressive. Gran Torino was shot on film, but you'll see nothing of grain here. Detail is, as you'd expect, somewhat lacking, giving the image an overall slightly too soft look. Colors are good, however, and contrast is excellent. The Dolby TrueHD audio mix is about on par with the image. It's as good as it needs to be without dazzling you. Clarity and fidelity are fine, ambience is nice - all that a dialogue-driven film requires.

Sadly, there's not much in the way of extras here. All you get is a trio of featurettes (all in HD), including a 20-minute look at the making of the film (The Eastwood Way), a 9-minute look at adolescence and car culture (Manning the Wheel) and a 4-minute piece on the car itself (Gran Torino: More Than a Car). That's it. Well, other than a Digital Copy version on disc, if you care about such things. Digital Copy is a nice convenience feature, and I know there are those who really make use of it, so hats off to Warner for including it. As for me, however... when you've got a good Blu-ray driven home theatre, you aren't likely ever to watch a movie on an iPod, you know?

The lack of bonus material aside, Gran Torino is a really wonderful film. Some of the language is a bit salty, but once you get used to Walt's rough edges, he really grows on you. This is a truly delightful performance by Eastwood, and I think it's one he'll be remembered for. Warner's Blu-ray is unremarkable, but it's still the best way to experience the film outside of a theatre. Gran Torino is definitely recommended. Just get the disc on sale.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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