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page added: 11/4/09

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

North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition

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North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition
1959 (2009) - MGM (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 3rd, 2009
Also available on DVD

Dolby TrueHD

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

It's not often that one can take an old friend that one has spent many pleasant hours with over the years and upon meeting him once again discover depths anew that one never dreamt were there. But that is indeed the case with Warners' new 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Alfred Hitchcock's memorable 1959 thriller North by Northwest.

It's not that one learns something new about the film content though somehow the story itself seems clearer than ever before, but that one is entranced by colours, textures, facial detail, the vividness of the 50-year time capsule that the film's locations provide, and indeed the excellence of the actors' performances - all things that were obscured to some extent by the more limited resolution that previous home video editions allowed. That's saying something indeed considering the high regard in which the previous DVD version was held.

If anyone ever questions the improvement that Blu-ray can manifest over DVD when it comes to classic films, North by Northwest may now be considered the poster child for what is possible, even overshadowing the admirable previous Blu-ray examples of The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca. It is no surprise that all of these releases have come from Warner Bros., for the company, despite the current unease generated by the nature and handling of the company's new Warner Archive program, has been the clear leader in bringing classic films to the DVD and now Blu-ray market. For North by Northwest, Warners has gone back to the film's VistaVision elements for an 8K scan eventually yielding a Blu-ray transfer that is spotless and richly detailed. The film's historically mild grain structure has been retained and there is absolutely no evidence of digital manipulation present. Colour fidelity is superb whether one considers skin tones or the film's rich location cinematography with its detailed depth of field. Both Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint have never looked better on home video than they do here. The sequences between them on the train positively glow with clarity and detail, heightening the strong sexual undertones in the conversations between the two.

The disc's visual excellence is almost matched by the very fine work that has gone into generating a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track from the original monaural sound. Subtlety is its hallmark - evident in the gently immersive nature of Bernard Herrmann's memorable score and some noteworthy ambient effects in the New York sequences. Yet at times, the mix is more striking as in the marked directionality present during the crop-dusting scenes. The film boasts a strong script from Ernest Lehman and it's good to be able to report that dialogue is strong and clear throughout, its volume appropriately balanced with the action and ambient sounds. Doubtless there will be some that lament the lack of the original mono mix, but it's a minor quibble given the excellence of what we have been given.

For supplements, the disc has carried over all those from the previous DVD release. Highlights from those are Ernest Lehman's informative and thoughtful audio commentary and the very fine 39-minute making-of documentary hosted by Eva Marie Saint. Three new supplements are all very worthwhile. One is a 57-minute documentary focusing on the Hitchcock style with comments from other directors and plenty of well-chosen clips. There is also the excellent PBS 2004 American Masters program Cary Grant: A Class Apart that is truly an in-depth portrait of the man, his life, and his films. Finally we get a 25-minute analysis of the film by directors such as William Friedkin, Curtis Hanson, and Guillermo Del Toro. The package of supplements is exhaustive and provides for a thorough evaluation of the film and all its components. It's pretty hard to ask for much more except perhaps deliverance of some of them in HD too.

Warners' 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release of North by Northwest is a must-have no matter how many other video incarnations you may own and gets my highest recommendation.

Barrie Maxwell
[email protected]

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

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G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
2009 (2009) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 3rd, 2009
Also available on DVD


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

During my youth, weekday afternoons after school were all about two shows: Transformers and G.I. Joe. Itself an expansion of the original 60's concept, the 1983 G.I. Joe cartoon introduced a mythology of good vs. evil that fit right in with the Reagan years like a hot dog in a bun. So it should be no surprise that after successful trips to the big screen for Transformers, it was Joe's turn at the theatrical plate.

In this new live-action version, a NATO super weapon is being delivered from a billionaire defense contractor when the convoy attacked by a terrorist organization sporting advanced weaponry. After a narrow escape, veteran combat soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are inducted into the elite G.I. Joe strike team, led by General Clayton Abernathy (a.k.a. Hawk, played by Dennis Quaid), and sent after the perpetrators. So begins a frantic fight for freedom, wherever there's trouble.

A mere 90 days after its theatrical premiere, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra arrives on Blu-ray with a nigh-flawless HD image, maintaining high levels of fine detail throughout the picture. Even the climactic underwater battle doesn't suffer from the banding issues that aren't uncommon (even) in the world of high definition, which is no small achievement for the compressionist. But like Fox's Wolverine, at times the image almost looks TOO good. Many of the visual effects in this film feel like they're missing that last 10% of attention required to blend it seamlessly with the live-action material, and that does occasionally pull you out of the movie. The disc's DTS HD Master Audio track is clear and concise throughout the picture, delivering the all BOOM you want without distortion. The sonic weapons that Cobra's Neo-Vipers sport during the early parts of the film are particularly impressive, starting off high and rolling quickly down to the lows, which rumble out of your speakers to deliver that great punch home theater enthusiasts love.

Unfortunately, General Abernathy must have been on his coffee break when they were working on the special edition materials for this Blu-ray. While the short window between the theatrical release date and BD street date was likely the culprit, virtually all of Joe's rather anemic bonus materials ship on the same standard-def DVD that houses the Digital Copy in this BD Combo edition. The good news is that once you get past the initial letdown, what's here isn't half bad. It kicks off with a hilarious bit of Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivering Hamlet's soliloquy to his Cobra Commander mask, and then finishing it with a cartoon-style "COBRAAAAA!!" The next piece, The Big Bang Theory, skirts EPK-land without ever actually crossing the line. It shows you on-set footage and some of the Snake Eyes stunts with Ray Park. I've actually seen Park do his movie stunt demonstrations live at comic conventions, and no one should ever doubt that he really is that good. The man can literally turn on a dime, and his exacting control is part of what makes G.I. Joe's fight scenes as spectacular as they are. There's also some good material here with the prop and costume makers, as well as interview comments by Larry Hama, creator of the 80's cartoon mythology upon which the film is based. Moving on, the Next-Gen Action featurette is the same 20 minutes of "this is how we do set extensions" that you've seen on summer blockbuster DVDs for the last ten years. Wrapping things up is a good commentary track with director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay. And, or course, you get the aforementioned Digital Copy version of the film.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a summer movie to the core. While it sticks closer to its source material than Transformers did, there's a certain lack of depth here (even on the summer movie scale) that might have been alleviated with some better writing and casting choices. As it is, it's just a popcorn movie - loud and brash, while probably accomplishing most of what the filmmakers set out to do. No one is going to confuse this film for Shakespeare, but Rise of Cobra just might give you nostalgic 30-somethings the itch to go pull your old Sky Striker toys out of the boxes in your parent's attic.

Jeff Kleist
[email protected]
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