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

Gladiator: Sapphire Series (Blu-ray Disc)

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Gladiator: Sapphire Series
2000/2005 (2009) - DreamWorks/Universal (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 1st, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating (Theatrical/Extended): A/A+
Video (1-20 - Theatrical/Extended Scenes): 15.5/17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A+

So here's a epic tale for you - a noble Roman army general named Maximus (Russell Crowe) has just won his greatest victory against the Barbarian hordes in the North, ensuring the continued security of Rome for ages to come. But the fight has taken years, and all Maximus wants now is return home, to farm his land and live in peace with his wife and son.

But his dying friend and Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, has one last task for Maximus. Corruption is running rampant in the Empire, and the Emperor's only son and heir, Commodus, is not an honorable man. Fearing the worst for Rome upon his death, the Emperor asks Maximus to succeed him, and to eventually return Rome to its people - to make it a democracy again. Commodus soon learns of this plan and, feeling betrayed, kills the Emperor, taking control before his father's plans for Maximus are widely known. Commodus then demands Maximus' pledge of loyalty. When the general refuses, he strips Maximus of his command and has him taken away to be executed. Maximus escapes, but Commodus' wrath falls heavily upon his family before he can save them. Bereft, Maximus soon finds himself sold into slavery as a gladiator. But in this seemingly desperate situation, Maximus finds an opportunity for vengeance. As it happens, the new Emperor is holding gladiatorial games in the Coliseum in Rome to engender the love of his subjects. And the very best gladiators are given an audience with the Emperor himself.

Director Ridley Scott's amazing attention to detail and his command of cinematic style and process have never served him better. The production design here is superb - the glory of Rome at the height of its power comes brilliantly to life on screen. Crowe is fully in his element and the cast supporting him is terrific, including the likes of Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Richard Harris as the Emperor, as well as Oliver Reed (who sadly died during this production), Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Connie Nielsen. The script is taut and well written, giving its characters just the right motivation needed to propel the story. And the gladiator action is intense and unrelenting, while still managing to leave a lot for your own imagination to fill in.

This new Blu-ray (like the last DVD edition) offers two versions of Gladiator... the original theatrical cut and a brand new extended edition prepared specifically by Scott. You can choose to watch one or the other via seamless branching. This is one of those rare cases where more really is better - the roughly 17 minutes of added footage actually improves upon an already great film. Much of the new material was included as deleted scenes on the previous DVD release (and is similarly presented if you choose the theatrical cut on the Blu-ray). It serves to round out and humanize the supporting characters, particularly Commodus and Lucilla, and to significantly flesh out their own motivations. Commodus is a much more effective villain as a result. There are also a number of new moments of conspiracy and intrigue in Rome that add welcome depth to the story. The extended cut also intensifies the combat slightly.

Now let's talk about the A/V quality. There have been reports in various Internet discussion groups in recent days, complete with screenshots (posted by those who have managed to obtain the disc from retailers breaking street date), that the HD video quality of Gladiator on Blu-ray is "awful" and a travesty, as bad as Fox's Patton, etc, etc. Let me first comment on the whole issue of screenshots. Judging a disc based on a few screenshots is, I think, silly. A screenshot represents 1/24 of a second of film. For a 2-hour film, that just 1/172,800th of the total visual information. You just can't properly judge a transfer based upon that little information. Screenshots CAN be illustrative of various kinds of image-related problems. But you really have to see the image in full motion to judge the complete context and impact of anything you see in a single frame grab. There's also the problem of potential alterations or artifacts that result from the frame-grabbing process itself, not to mention any changes resulting from image compression/editing software used by the poster - no matter how well intentioned - to present the frame-grab online. Finally, I've seen enough deliberately Photoshop doctored frame-grabs posted in discussion forums in my day that I just don't trust them. Ultimately, the only real way to judge these things properly is with your own eyes, first-hand, in context, in full motion, presented on proper equipment. Period.

With that in mind, I've obtained a copy of the release for detailed examination. Upon first glance, and as expected, the HD presentation quality of Gladiator isn't as bad as some online would have you believe. Color and contrast are fine at all times. The problem is with the level of detail. The vast majority of the film has a slightly digital-looking quality to it, and there's clear edge-enhancement "haloing" visible. The extended edition scenes, however, look fine - no halos, no digital patina - they're very natural looking. If the whole film looked like the extended scenes, we wouldn't be having this conversation. What it looks like to me (though it's impossible to be sure, obviously), is that someone at Universal (keep in mind, it's Universal that controls the Gladiator assets for DreamWorks - not Paramount), decided to reuse the digital master of older, sub-par HD transfer. Likely it was state of the art for its day, but obviously it's a far cry from the quality of new HD transfers done today. One of the biggest problems is that until fairly recently, video mastering engineers were still applying edge-enhancement to their digital masters knowing that they were going to be used ultimately for standard-definition DVD release, and also analog VHS and laserdisc. It took the mastering community a long time to break the habit. In this Gladiator transfer, you can see edge-enhancement in the image. It's also clear that the master has been digitally-filtered to reduce the haloing and other artifacts - the signs of DNR are not hard to miss. That's in contrast to the extended edition scenes, which were transferred in HD more recently and so look much better. They're still not quite up to the latest standards, but they look far superior to the rest of the film and there's no edge-enhancement or obvious filtering visible. The footage simply looks natural - as it should. There's been some talk of DNR being so excessive that, for example, arrows and fireballs disappear from one frame to the next. This IS an issue, but the fact is that when you watch the image in full motion it's not something you really notice. The arrow or fireball is highly visible in one frame, less so in the next, more so in the third, etc. You still detect the object in motion, so you don't go, "Oh my god, that fireball just disappeared!" DNR is a problem, but it's not as serious as the overall lack of quality of the master itself. The overall image just looks generally too digital and lacking in fine detail. Audio-wise, the DTS-HD MA track is excellent - the soundstage is big and wide, the clarity and bass are excellent, panning is smooth and natural. The sound is as good as you'd hope and expect.

So let me be clear: Gladiator on Blu-ray is watchable - especially if you have a smaller screen. On the comparative grading scale we use for Blu-ray, the very best DVD video and audio quality would be graded a 10, while top Blu-ray quality would be a 20. So at 15.5, this is definitely an improvement over the previous DVD releases. The problem is, most high-quality Blu-ray titles these days score in the 18-19 range. So while this disc is watchable, that's just not good enough, either for the format as a whole or for most fans and enthusiasts.

Ironically, as far as bonus material, this disc is absolutely first rate. This new Blu-ray edition contains EVERYTHING that was on the previous 2-disc DVD special editions, all of which was created by longtime Ridley Scott DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika. I'm not going to list the complete rundown of all the ported over content, because that would take all day. Just rest assured, it's all here - even the previous Easter egg material. Lauzirika was again involved in preparing this new Blu-ray edition's extras, and this has resulted in a couple of very cool new features that are exclusive to Blu-ray and take full advantage of the format's enhanced interactive capabilities. The first of these is The Scrolls of Knowledge interactive viewing option. When you select this, you're treated to a trio of on-screen windows as you watch the film. One features a series of video "pods" or featurettes that you can choose to watch at any time. There are a good 40 or 50 of them in all, each offering additional behind-the-scenes footage and information - most of it all new and never-before-seen. The second window treats you to onscreen text with background information and other trivia. The third window leads you to the other major new interactive option here - something called the Visions of Elysium Topic Portal. As you watch the film, a list of various topics related to the scene you're watching will appear in the third window. You can select each of these, and they'll be added to a build-able list of such selections - your player will remember them. Then, when you put Disc Two (containing all the documentary material) into your player, that list will come up again... and you'll be able to select a "play all" option that will result in your player presenting a custom documentary made up of the material you've selected. You can also go to a master listing of all the content on the disc, and select/deselect anything and everything, or you can just select the specific items you want to view. You can also access specific content via Disc Two's main menu - though be aware that the Topic Portal offers additional material not available in the regular documentary listing. I found it all to work quite well, and it's an interesting way to explore what amounts to MANY hours of bonus content.

In summary, Gladiator is a great film that deserves a great Blu-ray edition. Unfortunately, this isn't quite it. It could be - in terms of content and extras, this is truly an ultimate edition of this film. In every aspect other than the video, this edition is superb. However the disc's deficiencies in image quality are quite disappointing. I don't know who at Universal was responsible (for DreamWorks) for signing off on (and delivering to Paramount) the Gladiator HD master. They should be embarrassed -- though I'm WILLING to entertain the idea that this was some kind of simple oversight or mistake. I know for a fact that mistakes like this CAN and DO happen, though it's still absolutely no excuse.

The uneven video quality of Gladiator really damages the launch and reputation of Paramount's new Sapphire Series. As the disc is obviously going to street as planned, what I HOPE happens - what I STRONGLY encourage - is that Universal and Paramount immediately run a new HD transfer, and then either recall the disc or make it a running production change. Either way, they should arrange an exchange program for those fans who purchase the disc in the meantime. IF the studios take quick steps to correct the disc and make things right with fans who purchase it, that will go a very long way toward restoring confidence in the Sapphire line. IF that happens, the disc will have earned my highest recommendation. (Rest assured, I'll keep you up to date on this here on The Bits.) Until that time, just know that the video quality is disappointing and adjust your purchase plans accordingly.

Braveheart: Sapphire Series (Blu-ray Disc)

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Braveheart: Sapphire Series
1995 (2009) - Icon Productions/Ladd Co. (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 1st, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

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

"I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes..."

And so begins Mel Gibson's epic Braveheart, a story of love, tragedy, revenge and bravery, as the sons of 13th Century Scotland rally against English tyranny.

William Wallace (Gibson) is born a common highlander, the son of a lowly farmer, but he soon finds himself at the very eye of the storm. For Scotland suffers under the rule of the ruthless English king, Edward the Longshanks, and any attempt to resist his cruelty is met with the harshest punishment. When young Wallace's father and older brother are killed in a failed bid for freedom, Wallace is taken away by his uncle Argyle, who raises and educates him. Years later, Wallace returns home seeking a peaceful life as a farmer. He finds his childhood sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack), and secretly marries her, hoping to start a family. But in so doing, he's already broken the law. Longshanks, in a bid to strengthen his control in Scotland, has given his lords there the right of "Prima Nocta" - the right to sleep with any new bride on their wedding night. Wallace's defiance leads the local English lord to last out. In a rage, Wallace responds by leading a revolt that wipes out the English presence in his village entirely. When Longshanks attempts to crush this uprising, the situation quickly escalates. Soon, Wallace finds himself the leader of a massive rebellion determined to free Scotland from the English forever or die trying.

Braveheart become the Best Picture of 1995, sweeping the Academy Awards that year with a total of 10 nominations and 5 Oscar wins. The film's epic story has drawn comparisons to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, but it lacks the latter film's visual mastery and polish. But what Braveheart does right, it does very, very well. The storytelling is emotionally honest, exciting and even funny at times. It draws you in - every loss of these characters becomes your own, every victory a personal one. The film is unquestionably violent, but you never actually see as much violence as you think you do. Most of the carnage is suggested by quick cuts and skillful editing. The supporting cast simply shines, including Patrick McGoohan as the deliciously evil Longshanks, Brendan Gleeson as Wallace's childhood friend, Hamish, and Sophie Marceau as the Princess of Wales. Tie it all together with a stirring score by composer James Horner - in my opinion his best work to date - and you've got a great film experience.

The video quality of Braveheart on Blu-ray is... in a word... breathtaking. The colors are lush and accurate. Contrast is spot-on perfect. And the detail visible in the image is just wonderful. The quick flit of arrows, the glint of individual links of chainmail armor, the subtle textures of leather and cloth... it's all just delightful. By the time Wallace and his men ride onto the field of battle at Stirling, and you see the crumbled blues of the war paint on their faces, you will be absolutely won over by this presentation. I've simply never seen the film looking this good before. Not once, even in theatres. It's just perfectly nuanced and natural looking - absolutely first-rate for a catalog title of this relatively recent vintage. The Dolby TrueHD audio quality is a near-match to the video, with a very smooth and natural soundfield that impresses as much in quiet, atmospheric moments as it does in the midst of battle. If you're a fan, the A/V presentation quality of Braveheart on Blu-ray is just COMPLETELY pleasing - so much so that you're likely have a strong emotional response to the quality as you watch. And that's EXACTLY as it should be.

My only complaint about Braveheart on Blu-ray is that it doesn't include EVERYTHING that was available on the previous DVDs in terms of special features. While much of bonus material from the previous DVD Special Collector's Edition has carried over (including the commentary with Gibson, the two trailers and the Tales of William Wallace and A Writer's Journey featurettes), the photo montage, archival interviews and the hour-long Alba gu Brath! The Making of Braveheart documentary are all missing. Also missing from the very original DVD release is the 27-minute Mel Gibson's Braveheart: A Filmmaker's Passion featurette. So if you want all the available content, you need to keep both previous DVDs. Now, I would really like to have seen it ALL carry over, and the fact that stuff is missing keeps these extras from earning the highest marks. To be fair, though, the reason this material was left off, is that there's a new 3-part HD documentary included on the Blu-ray, the hour-long Braveheart: A Look Back, that treads much of the same ground.

What you DO get on the Blu-ray is very good - all of it wrapped in elegant and tasteful animated menus with music and images from the film. As I said, you get the commentary, the Tales of William Wallace and A Writer's Journey featurettes from previous editions. The new Braveheart: A Look Back documentary is excellent, featuring not only lots of archive video footage shot on set, but also lots of new interviews with members of the cast and crew, including Gibson. It's well done, and very entertaining from start to finish. There's also a 30-minute HD featurette called Smithfield: Medieval Killing Fields on a real historical location important in the film. Something else new that's very cool is the interactive Dimensional Battlefields of the Scottish Rebellion, which lets you look at the real historical battles as they played out at Falkirk Bridge and Bannockburn. Chess-like icons show you where the various military forces were positioned, and narration and animation reveals the tactics, moves and the results. It's pretty cool - cool enough, in fact, that I wish there was more. All of the above, save the commentary, is on Disc Two. Finally, Disc One offers a special Braveheart Timelines interactive mode, that examines the real historical events, the film's production and the fictional events seen in the film. Each timeline is illustrated with text, photos and video, including film clips and other archival video. It's pretty cool and is worth checking out.

Braveheart has earned a place in my Top Ten favorites list, and so I was very eager to get my hands on the Blu-ray. I'm pleased to say that it doesn't disappoint. In fact, this is one of those Blu-rays that will likely be thrilling you with its near reference A/V quality for a long time. Absolutely don't miss it.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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