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

Fringe: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray Disc)

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Fringe: The Complete First Season
2009 (2009) - Bad Robot/Fox TV (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 8th, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby Digital

Program Rating: B
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 16.5
Extras: B

I have to be honest - Fringe is one of those shows that I really wanted to like, but almost didn't. My TV viewing tastes are pretty eclectic. The pedestrian doctor, lawyer and cop formula that dominates television drama these days generally bores the heck out of me, so the subject matter here was right up my alley.

But the obvious comparisons to The X-Files, not to mention the fact that the show was broadcast on FOX - not a network that's been known to stand by its genre material - made me a little suspicious of Fringe.

Still, I tuned in and was quite intrigued by the pilot episode, and by the show's style and tone. A few episodes in, however, I almost stopped watching. The problem was that the two leads, Olivia and Peter (Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson) weren't easy to warm up to in those first few episodes, and the show hadn't really revealed enough about them yet. It also didn't help that there was a run of what I'd call "monster of the week" episodes early on. On The X-Files, these were generally episodes I didn't much care for. You know - the "fluke man" eps. It was clear that the creators of Fringe had an elaborate mythology planned, but they weren't showing their hand much yet. What kept me watching however, was John Noble as Walter Bishop, Peter's literally mad scientist father. Noble is just fantastic - one of those actors who are too good for TV, but makes any show instantly better. So I kept watching for Walter... and then the show's mythology started to kick in. BIG time. Toward the end of its first season, it was clear that major events were afoot. In addition, the more you learned about Olivia and Peter, the more you started to really like them. They're no Mulder and Scully... but that's a good thing. And by the time you got to the season finale, well... if that cliffhanger didn't snag your interest, I'm not sure what would.

Warner's 5-disc set includes all 20 first season episodes, plus bonus content. The video quality is very good for TV material on Blu-ray. Contrast is outstanding with deep, dark blacks, and the colors are rich looking and accurate. Fine detail is crisp and refined without appearing edgy. Subtle textures are well rendered, including everything from skin and cloth to image grain. The audio is also quite good, but it's only Dolby Digital 5.1. (That's how the video is able to look so good - the lack of lossless audio leaves more data space on the discs for the HD image.) It's higher bit rate Dolby Digital, however, so even though it's not as good as true lossless it still matches the images well. The mix is nicely wide across the forward portion of the soundstage - most of the action occurs there as in most TV soundtracks - but there's very nice ambience from the rear channels. My comparative grade for the audio is lower than most BDs we review here at The Bits because of the lack of lossless, but don't let that detract from your enjoyment. The sound is still plenty satisfying.

The extras available on these discs aren't plentiful, but they're still surprisingly good. There are audio commentaries with the creators (and other crew) on three episodes. There's also a bonus commentary for the finale that's available via BD-Live connection. (Although it takes so long to access that it's almost not worth the effort.) Deleted scenes from a few episodes are included in 4x3 letterboxed SD format - about 11 minutes worth in all. Something I particularly liked is the fact that there are 2-minute featurettes that take you behind the scenes of the filming of a specific scene in each episode. They're called Deciphering the Scene clips and there are 20 in all (about 40 minutes worth of material). They're short, but the fact that you get behind-the-scenes glimpses throughout the season gives the set a nice running continuity. You feel like you're getting more than you actually are. Also available are 4 more generic behind-the-scenes featurettes, called Massive Undertaking clips (20 minutes in all). Then there are additional featurettes on specific aspects of the production, including the origins of the series, the science, the casting and the visual effects. My only complaint about these is with the casting piece - there's nothing on Peter Bishop, yet virtually every other character is covered. I suspect there was a clearance issue or actor conflict or something - it's just too strange for him to have been cut out otherwise. Added to this is a gag reel, a short piece on Gene the Cow, and Roberto Orci's Production Diary. All in all, it's about an hour of additional video material. Finally, there's a BD-Java interactive feature called Pattern Analysis. Topics from 6 different episodes are addressed by scientific consultants and the show's producers though multimedia use of the video interviews and clips, on-screen text, graphics and other artwork. This adds up to about another 30-minutes of content. Everything but the deleted scenes is presented in full (but compressed looking) HD - a nice touch. None of the extras is particularly long or in-depth, but it's all worth checking out. Like I said, you feel like you're getting a lot more than you actually do, and fans should enjoy it.

I wish there were actor commentaries, but maybe on future seasons. I also wish that these discs booted up to a root menu, rather than just automatically starting into the first episode on the disc. Warner does this on all their Blu-rays, but while it's fine for film content, it's a little irritating with TV material, especially when you want to watch a later episode on the disc, or you just want to check out bonus content. Still, I was very pleased to see that the set includes a booklet listing all the contents, and the lenticular hologram on the slipcover is a nice touch too. (It alternates, as you move it side to side, from the cover image above to one of Olivia, Peter and Walter.)

The brainchild of J.J. Abrams (of Lost fame) and the writers of the recent (and fantastic) Star Trek feature film, Fringe is now one of those shows that I really look forward to each week, and the ratings have been good enough that Fox seems willing to stick with it... at least for another year. The Season Two opener just debuted last week, and you can easily catch it for free on Hulu if you missed it. Bottom line: Fringe is well worth your time, and there's no better way to catch up with the show's first 20 episodes than with this Blu-ray set. Recommended.

Away We Go (Blu-ray Disc)

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Away We Go
2009 (2009) - Focus Films (Universal)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 29th, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: C-

Burt and Verona are an unlikely and offbeat couple in their early 30s, who are about to have their first child. Burt (The Office's John Krasinski) is a well-meaning college drop-out who works at home selling insurance futures by phone. Verona (SNL's Maya Rudolph) is a grounded artist who draws illustrations for medical books.

They're not failures by any measure, but they're not particularly successful either. They are, in a word, average. Down to earth. In other words... normal. But with their new daughter soon to arrive, Verona worries that they're "fuck-ups" who have no roots and few friends. Burt's parents have decided to move to abroad, and Verona's died when she was young. So the pair sets out across the country to find a place to settle down and raise their family. As they travel from Phoenix to Tucson to Madison to Miami and even Montreal, they learn about themselves and each other... and we discover their charms. Burt and Verona aren't perfect or idealized partners. They have their differences and their lives probably haven't turned out the way either of them expected. But their love - and just as importantly, their friendship - holds them together. This film offers one of the most realistic portraits of a caring, healthy adult relationship I've seen in some time. Directed by Sam Mendes, Away We Go is unexpected, honest, funny and utterly delightful.

The high-definition video presentation on Universal's Blu-ray is clear and accurate to the theatrical experience. Color is a bit muted by design, and detail is fair on the whole, if not particularly refined. Contrast is a bit lacking, but the overall image is nicely film-like. Audio is available in English DTS-HD MA 5.1, along with standard DTS 5.1 in French and Spanish. The DTS-HA mix is natural sounding, with nice atmospheric shading and good clarity. It's not particularly dazzling or lively, but that's not required for a film of this type. The film's soundtrack, featuring music by Alexi Murdoch (who reminds me a lot of Nick Drake) and others sounds quite good. English SDH is available, as are subs in French and Spanish.

The extras included are fairly minimal. You get the usual audio commentary with the director and writers - which is fun but not required listening - as well as an EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette, The Making of Away We Go. It's in full HD and runs about 16 minutes, featuring on-camera interviews with Mendes and both leads. There's also a short piece on the "green filmmaking" effort employed in making Away We Go - again full HD and about 7 minutes. That's pretty much it, other than the usual BD-interactive My Scenes option and generic Universal BD-Live connectivity. It's not much on the whole, but then the film doesn't really need that much more, so it's not really an issue. The menus offers hand-drawn animation in the style of theatrical poster art.

Away We Go is a wonderful little film - one of the best I've seen so far this year, and one of the better films about a relationship in recent memory. Sam Mendes is a bit hit or miss for me (I loved Road to Perdition, but wasn't a big fan of Revolutionary Road), so I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. I think much of the credit has to go to the writing, by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, as well as fine performances by the cast. In any case, Away We Go is definitely worth renting, and I'm confident it'll leave a smile on your face. I think it's worth a purchase on Blu-ray too, just on the film's merits alone, but given the lack of extras be sure to look for a good sale price.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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