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

Valkyrie (Blu-ray Disc)

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Valkyrie
2008 (2009) - MGM/UA (20th Century Fox)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 16th, 2009
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

Film Rating: C+
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 18.5
Extras: B-


Based on real-life events, Bryan Singer's Valkyrie tells the story of a Nazi Colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), and a group of his fellow German Army officers, who realize the folly of Hitler's ambitions in the waning days of WWII and decide to save what's left of their country by assassinating The Führer.

When I first heard about this film, I have to confess that two things really turned me off about it before I'd even seen a frame of footage. The first was Cruise himself, as this was shortly after an interesting bit of Scientology crazy featuring the actor hit the Net. The other, was the fact that Singer chose to have mostly English actors (among them Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Eddie Izzard) playing the Nazi conspirators... all speaking English using their own native accents. This was common back in the 1950s and 60s in Hollywood of course, but after seeing more recent films which strove for far greater authenticity (Das Boot and Downfall come to mind immediately), it's just hard to take the older approach seriously.

Upon actually seeing the film, however, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone but Cruise manages to largely disappear into their roles, or at least serve effectively in them, and even Cruise's performance is entertaining. The film is largely dialogue-driven, but what action there is here is well staged. The English accents, however, pulled me out of the drama time and again. And in the end, that was just enough to prevent me from really becoming truly invested in the characters, their plot and the danger they faced. I still can't help thinking that there was a great film to be made here, because the actual historical events are riveting, but it would have required making tougher choices along the way.

MGM's Blu-ray version delivers absolutely fantastic picture and sound quality. Excellent fine detail is visible throughout the presentation, revealing wonderful texture with very slight visible grain. Contrast is excellent, and the color is accurate and lovely. On the audio front, the DTS-HD MA lossless mix matches the images nicely, offering smooth, natural immersion. This isn't a particularly wide or lively soundstage, given the fact that the film is mostly a dialogue drama. But when the action heats up, the mix delivers with excellent clarity and thunderous bass.

A nice batch of bonus material complements the A/V quality, including two feature-length audio commentaries (one with Cruise, Singer and co-writer/producer Christopher McQuarrie, and another with McQuarrie and co-writer Nathan Alexander), the 2-hour The Valkyrie Legacy documentary (HD), 5 behind-the-scenes featurettes (The Journey to Valkyrie, The Road to Resistance, The African Front Sequence, Taking to the Air and Recreating Berlin - all in HD) and the Reel Pieces with Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer featurette (a 40-minute recording of their discussion at the 92nd Street Y in New York - in SD). You also get a Digital Copy version of the film on a second disc in the packaging.

Valkyrie is far from the greatest war film you ever see, but it's also not a bad bit of entertainment on the whole. Whatever you think of the film itself, this Blu-ray Disc delivers it in very fine quality, and the extras are nothing to shake your remote at. I'm sure there will be many who'll choose to add this film to their collections, and be happy to do so. For everyone else, Valkyrie at the very least makes a great rental.



Miracle (Blu-ray Disc)

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Miracle
2004 (2009) - Walt Disney Studios
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 16th, 2009
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD MA

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


Do you believe in miracles? Well... anyone who watched the 1980 Miracle on Ice does. In the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic games, the underdog U.S. Hockey team took on the heavily favored Soviets. And I mean HEAVILY favored. No one thought the U.S. skaters, a ragtag bunch of college kids from places like Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin, could match up with them.


A year before, the Soviets had crushed a team of NHL All Stars in the World Championships 6-0. Only a week earlier, the same Soviet team had destroyed the Americans 10-3. But on this cold night in February 1980, something remarkable happened. Miracle is the story of how those 20 young, non-professional players came together to believe in themselves and in the impossible. Miracle is also the story of Coach Herb Brooks - the man who didn't put the greatness in his skaters, but pulled it out of them when they needed it most.

The thing that really makes Miracle work for me is its authenticity. I grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota, and went to college at Wisconsin. I'll tell you, the guys you see on this team in this film are hockey players through and through. I grew up with guys like these so believe me, their accents are the real deal. Better still, Kurt Russell is simply amazing as Coach Brooks, right down to his very mannerisms and attitude. I really think it's one of his best performances on film. The overall effort to achieve accuracy here is extremely impressive. If the player on the real 1980 team was left-handed, so too is the guy playing him in this film. The uniforms are right, the skates are right. When you compare the film footage of the games to the original ABC broadcast, every movement of the players is correct. It's extraordinary.

What's also impressive here is the way the film places the 1980 Olympic games in historical context. You understand why the Miracle was so important to so many Americans. It was a pretty dark and depressing time in a lot of ways, and this game gave a lot of people hope. The cinematography in this film is superb too, placing you right in the thick of the action. I don't think this sport as ever been captured as accurately in a film as this. You've even got the game's original announcer, Al Michaels, recreating the play by play for the film. Let me tell you, hockey is sacred cow stuff back where I come from. So if you're making a movie about the Miracle on Ice, you damned well better get it right. Director Gavin O'Connor and his team did that beautifully. Every bit of Miracle rings true, and you've gotta love that.

I must say... in terms of picture and sound quality, Disney's new Blu-ray edition really surprised and impressed me. This film was shot to look like a product of the period, so you're going to see moderate grain throughout the whole film. It also means that the color has been processed to look just slightly desaturated - much like an old magazine cover from the late 1970s or early 80s. But having seen Miracle in the theatre, I can tell you that this is a perfect recreation of that experience. Color is accurate to the intent, contrast is excellent and there's very nice fine detail in the image - facial textures, skin tones... even detail on the surface of the ice. Disney's DTS-HD lossless audio mix is even more impressive. The sound design for Miracle is meant to put you right into the middle of the action on the ice, and that effect is achieved superbly on Blu-ray. The clarity and resolution here is stunning. The soundstage is big, wide and always completely natural sounding. Just listen to a few minutes of the final game - you're surrounded by crowd noise, music, the slap of hockey sticks. You can hear the hissing of skates panning all around you, as Michaels' play by play cements the sense of authenticity. This is a great, great sound mix on Blu-ray, and a rare one that really dazzles you without gunplay, explosions or car chases.

All of the extras from the previous 2-disc DVD release have carried over here (all in SD), starting with the 18-minute The Making of Miracle featurette, which includes footage of the real game, interviews with the real players and footage of Coach Herb Brooks (who sadly died in a car crash shortly after the filming of Miracle) working with Kurt Russell and the crew. There's also a decent audio commentary with the director, editor and DP, a 28-minute piece on how the skaters for the film were found among the ranks of real hockey players, and a 41-minute ESPN Classic roundtable discussion with Kurt Russell and three of the real players - Mike Erzione, Buzz Schneider and Jim Craig. My favorite piece is a 20-minute video of the real Coach Brooks telling stories to Russell and the filmmakers in pre-production meetings, as they're all trying to get a feel for the material. Brooks talks about having been cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team, his philosophies of coaching, how he motivated the players, etc. Finally, there's a 10-minute featurette on the sound design for the film, and a short video of outtakes and bloopers. I REALLY wish Disney had included the complete 1980 broadcast of the original game, but what you do get here is still quite good and worth your time.

Miracle is just a great sports film - one that ranks highly among the likes of such classics of the genre as Hoosiers, Rudy, Field of Dreams and The Natural. About the only strike against it is that, well... pretty much everyone already knows how it ends. But who cares? It's the journey that counts, and Disney's new Blu-ray edition makes that journey very pleasant indeed. Better still, it's one you can take with the whole family. Very highly recommended... for anyone who believes.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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