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

Bleak House (Blu-ray Disc)

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Bleak House
2005 (2009) - BBC Video (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 5th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Program Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B

Charles Dickens' Bleak House is certainly well known among his novels for its evocative title, but one that has received less attention over the years than such frequently-studied and adapted-for-other-media efforts as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield.

Bleak House contains Dickens' usual brew of well-delineated characters with their many gradually-revealed inter-relationships, set against the richly-defined background of Victorian England. The driving force in the story is the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, an issue concerning the determination of the rightful heirs to a fortune and a case that has dragged through the Chancery court for generations, seemingly only to the benefit of the lawyers involved. Two young potential heirs (Richard and Ada) and Ada's companion Esther come to live at Bleak House, the home of John Jarndyce who is rich in his own right and has long since distanced himself from any interest in the Jarndyce court proceedings and any potential resolution of them. Another interested party is Lady Dedlock, who in the course of discussing some related legal documents with her lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, recognizes some handwriting that sets in motion a plot that draws all the characters together into a spiraling chain of events. There is murder and deceit, comedy and tragedy, love and hate - all revolving around a strong indictment of the almost criminal ineffectiveness of the 19th century English Court of Chancery (a component of the English court system in which decisions on mainly civil matters were supposedly rendered according to fairness or equity rather than the strict due process of law).

The BBC previously adapted Bleak House for television in 1959 and 1985 (the latter featuring Diana Rigg) and revisited it in 2005. This most recent version was skillfully written by Andrew Davies who has become well known for his excellent work in adapting the classics for television (also Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit during the past ten years). With 8 hours of screen time spread over 15 episodes at his disposal, Davies manages to include virtually every major character in Dickens' novel and create an enthralling narrative that draws the viewer in quickly and holds one' attention throughout. Bleak House purists may complain that Dickens' condemnation of the Chancery process is watered down, but that is a small price to pay for such compelling and otherwise true-to-Dickens entertainment.

The production certainly benefits from a uniformly excellent cast headed by Gillian Anderson (Lady Dedlock), Charles Dance (Tulkinghorn), Denis Lawson (John Jarndyce), and Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther). Each of the lesser characters has also been evocatively brought to life with all the their mental and physical eccentricities warmly intact and viewers will see many familiar British players portraying them (including the likes of Pauline Collins and Timothy West). The players and script also benefit from the handsomely mounted production with its obvious attention to period detail in the city and country locations, costuming, and make-up. The only misstep in the production is the presumably directors' decision to resort to some un-necessarily jerky hand-held camera work and some annoyingly abrupt and pointless cuts (with silly whoosh-whoosh sound effects accompanying them) that accompany every switch to a new location such as Bleak House itself or the Dedlock country house.

BBC's Blu-ray presentation (on 1 BD-50 and 2 BD-25 discs) benefits substantially from the fact that Bleak House was the first British drama series to be filmed in high definition. The 1.78:1 1080i video offers a very sharp image with noticeably fine depth of field. The image doesn't perhaps jump off the screen as some high definition transfers do, but that is more of a result of the subdued colour palette than any deficiency in the transfer. There are many close-ups and facial features are beautifully detailed without evidence of digital scrubbing. Textures on clothing and vegetation are notably good. Black levels appear to be spot on. The image is very clean, as one should expect from such a recent production.

The audio features an LPCM stereo mix that delivers the goods in terms of crisp, clear dialogue and a good balance with the limited sound effects that the production offers. There is an effective sense of atmosphere created and even some limited directionality. Basically, the mix does its job unobtrusively, but well.

There are three supplements. One is a set of three audio commentaries, one for each of episodes 1, 11, and 15. Writer Andrew Davies and producer Nigel Stafford-Clark participate in each and are joined by Justin Chadwick (director of episodes 1-10) on the first and by Susanna White (director of episodes 11-15) on the other two. These commentaries together (about 2 hours in total) provide a reasonably complete and entertaining summary of the pertinent production details so that the lack of a formal making-of documentary is not really missed. The second supplement is a set of three interviews (almost 1 hour in all) with Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, and Charles Dance. The actors speak well and impart a lot of good information about how they came to get their parts and their approach to them. A photo gallery in the form of a short montage of photos and production stills rounds out the extras.

BBC's 2005 Bleak House production is an extremely entertaining and handsomely-mounted effort that will keep you thoroughly engaged throughout. The attention to detail and impressive characterizations offer plenty of scope for repeat viewings even once you know the basics of the plot. The Blu-ray presentation is superior on the video side and is easily recommended as a purchase.

Barrie Maxwell
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The Class (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Class (Entre les murs)
2008 (2009) - Haut et Court and France 2 Cinéma (Sony Classics)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 11th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B+
Video (1-20): 15
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B

Films about the classroom whether they focus on the efforts of a dedicated teacher to reach students often indifferent to education or upon a particular student's efforts to overcome personal or environmental obstacles threatening their chance at learning have long been a popular genre both in North America and abroad. There are only so many ways you can spin the story, but a 2008 French film, The Class (originally Entre les murs), truly does have a unique approach.

Using real students and teachers and based on one of those teacher's autobiographical novel, director Laurent Cantet has reconstructed one school year at a middle school in Paris for a class comprising a melting pot of modern-day French society.

Cantet's approach was to stage a number of workshops designed to shape the dialogue and physical interactions for a series of situations and incidents that occur as the school year progresses. The final version of the screenplay was informed by those workshops. The film that we then see recreates those incidents and situations and as they progress, we get a very intimate view of a group of students, their French teacher, and the relationship that develops between them. The view is not necessarily a progressive one in the manner we often think of in regard to such films. It is more matter-of-fact in the sense that students and teacher come to know each other better personally but do not necessarily make any breakthroughs from a learning point of view or in terms of mutual respect. In fact, the film's final sequence in which the students tell their teacher the most notable things they learned at school during the year reveals that none arose from his particular class. That's not hard to believe based on the lack of discipline that the teacher maintained.

The performances by teacher (and writer) François Bégaudeau and his students are all appealing, even though faced with a script that can't help including some aspects of the usual stereotype student characters (the rebel, the know-it-all, the geek, etc.). At 130 minutes in length, though, the film is a bit too long to convey its subject matter effectively with the somewhat repetitive approach used. The lack of a conventional narrative structure results in a school year that just seems to happen without any breaks or high and low points, and the film is somewhat flat accordingly.

Does The Class catch the reality of the modern classroom? For a non-teacher such as myself, that's hard thing to be able to judge. While the film has a definite ring of truth in terms of the portrayals of the students, their personal interactions, and the nature of their classroom actions, it is less persuasive when it comes to its characterization of the level of discipline maintained by the teacher and the school itself. If what we see is close to reality, it's a strong indictment of the French approach to education, at least in inner-city Paris. For example, we're privy to a meeting of teachers discussing student evaluations - one at which two students acting as class reps are also present. The two students are allowed to laugh and interrupt the meeting constantly with no reaction from the teachers and no apparent consequences. No educational facility with even a pretense of doing a proper job would allow that sort of situation to occur. Nor would any responsible parent with a child at such a school find it acceptable.

Sony's 2.35:1 Blu-ray version of the film (shot in HD originally) provides a nicely detailed and clean image, but one that lacks any great sense of depth and has some inconsistency in sharpness. Due to its rather antiseptic look also, it has the feel of a documentary. It does improve on the DVD version in respect to the detail apparent in facial features and clothing textures.

The disc offers a rather uncommon 3.0 Dolby TrueHD audio mix, but it does the job quite adequately for the dialogue driven film. The French dialogue is strongly centred with only occasional directionality. English subtitling is well done (also in Spanish), but Sony's placement (half on the image and half in the letter-boxing bars) will spoil the presentation for those with constant image height projection capabilities. An English 3.0 TrueHD dub and a Spanish Dolby 5.1 dub are also provided.

The best of the extras are a low-key but lengthy making-of documentary and audio commentary on three specific scenes by Cantet and Bégaudeau. These total about 80 minutes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc are an Actors' Workshop (extended scenes of the improvisational workshops discussed in the making-of documentary and which informed the screenplay) and Actors' Self-portraits in which the students provide some background on themselves. The workshop scenes are rather overkill after seeing the documentary, but the actors' self-portraits are interesting.

The Class is certainly different from other films about schools and inspirational teachers. It utilizes a different approach to both how it was developed and how it gets across its message. Excessive length and a lack of a conventional narrative structure compromise its effectiveness, however. I suspect schools may find the film to be a useful educational tool and thus of repeat value, but individuals are more likely to enjoy a single viewing at most and thus the release is recommended as a rental.

Barrie Maxwell
[email protected]

I Love You, Man (Blu-ray Disc)

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I Love You, Man
2009 (2009) - Paramount Home Entertainment
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 11th , 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

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

Peter and Zooey are getting married, but one important element is missing: The best man. You see… Peter doesn't have any male friends of the quality that one would traditionally consider for the job. So he's set up on a series of "bro-mantic" man-dates to find that special friend. When he does, though, his new close bond threatens the marriage it was supposed to help launch.

I Love You, Man delivers pretty much exactly what you'd expect out of a low-brow romantic/buddy comedy in 2009. On Blu-ray, the transfer offers a somewhat muted color palette, with a lot of grays, browns and blues, and a consistently sharp picture throughout. The film is well represented and the disc is definitely a solid performer in the video department. The same goes for the audio side of things. The mix is clear, concise and front heavy. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but is still technically solid.

Comedy special features are typically fairly cut and paste these days. This Blu-ray offers a mild commentary track from the directors and stars, which manages to stay lively for most of its runtime. Extras collects a bunch of improvisational moments that were left out of the final cut. Add to that some deleted scenes, a standard EPK-style featurette and the now-ubiquitous gag reel, and you've got a Cookie Cutter 101 disc for the RomCom crowd. The only real standout among the extras is the oft-overlooked "red band" trailer for the film. These are only shown in front of R rated features, and aren't very common to begin with except with slasher style movies. So kudos to Paramount for including it.

I'm not going to lie: This movie wasn't my thing, in any way, shape or form. I don't dislike romantic or buddy comedies, but raunchy/stupid humor of the type featured here has gotten pretty old in recent years. When a filmmaker tries a fresh approach to the genre, I'm usually willing to give it a go, but this just didn't do it for me at all. However, you (and/or your significant other) might get a kick out of it, so give it a spin if you're tempted.

Jeff Kleist
[email protected]

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