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Hi-Def Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt, Editor of The Digital Bits

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

Blu-ray Disc Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDTS-HD
Dolby True HD

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition - 1977-2001 (2007) - Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 13th, 2007

Films (Original/SE/DC): A/B+/A+
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20 - DTS HD/Dolby TrueHD): 18/17
Extras: A-

Specs and Features:
135/132/137 mins (Original/Special Edition/Director's Cut - via seamless branching), PG, AVC 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), 2 discs - BD-50 DL/BD-25 SL, Regions A/B/C, dual-disc Digipack packaging with slipcase, Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters featurette, The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind documentary, 1977 Watch the Skies featurette, 9 deleted scenes, 9 photo and artwork galleries, 3 trailers (Original/Special Edition/Ultimate Edition), BD-Java A View from Above in-movie Editor's fact track, 32-page commemorative booklet, A View from Above fold-out feature comparison poster, animated film-themed root menu with audio/"in-film" menu overlay, scene access (20 chapters - all versions), languages: DTS HD 5.1 (English), Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English, French, Spanish), subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean and Arabic

Close Encounters is a film I'll always remember fondly, if for no other reason than because it was one of the first experiences I ever had in a movie theater with a film that concerned itself with - and fully embraced - high concept ideas. I was eleven years old back in the fall of 1977, and I was still coming down off the high of seeing Star Wars that summer. As such, I was hypersensitive to the storytelling possibilities of film - to the power of the cinema to open your eyes to greater possibilities. And growing up in North Dakota in the 1970s, damn near everything had greater potential compared to my decidedly humdrum reality. So I liken my first viewing of CE3K to the kind of experience older audiences had nearly a decade earlier with Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film I still wouldn't see for a couple of years yet.

What I love most about Close Encounters is that while director Steven Spielberg was really beginning to show his full talent as a filmmaker, he was still young and brash enough to be unconcerned with the business realities of film. He also wasn't yet changed by family concerns and age, so he was still open to possibility. As such, I think Close Encounters represents Spielberg during his most brash, most unashamed period of storytelling. The film is utterly uncompromising. Its protagonist, Roy Neary (a terrific early performance by Richard Dreyfuss) sees something he doesn't understand... something alien... and he becomes completely obsessed with trying to understand it, even to the point of giving up his own family to do so. He doesn't do this for lack of love. He does it because he must. Talk about strong character and conflict!

I walked out of that theater just dazzled back in '77, and the first thing I did was to look up at the night sky with my imagination racing. And then a funny thing happened... as I got older, the film just got better. A few years later, the Special Edition version came back to theaters and I eagerly went again, only to see new scenes and new moments. Better still, I soon learned that the film's other major character was played by François Truffaut, who was himself a filmmaker. So when I got my first job in college, as a projectionist at the University of Wisconsin's film department, I simply devoured Truffaut's work - The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Day for Night! Soon I moved on to the work of Kurosawa and Kubrick, Leone and Eisenstein, and so many others. The long and the short of it is, Close Encounters was the film that first opened that door for me to a wider world of cinema. And like little Barry in CE3K, who opens the door to his home as alien lights surround it, I was only too eager to walk through.

As for the rest of it, you all know what Close Encounters is about by now. If you don't, I don't want to spoil it for you. You can always read Doogan's review of the previously released Collector's Edition DVD release from back in 2001. Just know that Close Encounters is a great film experience. Every time I see it, it brings me back to the first time I saw it in a theater. And I'm happy to say, I've never gotten closer to recapturing that original experience than I have while watching Sony's new Blu-ray release.

Disc One took about 90 seconds to load in my Panasonic BD10A, during which time you see a Devil's Tower load/progress icon. Once the disc loads, you'll see an animated menu themed to the light board used at the end of the film, with various scenes from the film playing over it. This disc contains all three versions of Close Encounters, thanks to the wonders of seamless branching - a technology carried over to Blu-ray from the DVD format. Each is presented in stunning 1080p video via AVC compression, personally approved by Spielberg himself. Sony has really done a wonderful job here. I should note that when watching Close Encounters, you are going to see the artifacts of age. This film doesn't look as pristine as a new high-def release circa 2007. The grain structure of the original film elements ranges from fine to coarse, and varies from shot to shot and from scene to scene. You'll also notice occasionally that not all areas of the frame are fully in focus at the same time - an artifact of the anamorphic process employed in making the film. But the detail and clarity are excellent overall, and the colors are perfectly saturated. This is exactly how a film shot in the late 1970s should look in high-definition. Not perfect.. just perfectly RIGHT.

The audio quality delivers as well, with Sony's first DTS HD track on Blu-ray. The mix is smooth and enveloping, with subtle and nuanced staging and placement. The dynamic range is impressive too, with thunderous LFE support when the visuals call for it. The rumble of energy when Roy has his first encounter with the aliens out on a dark country road is just as intense as you'd expect, and the blast of the mothership's audio signals at the end of the film is deep and eerily disturbing - just as it should be. The accompanying Dolby TrueHD mix is also quite good. To my taste, the DTS is just slightly more natural sounding, but those without DTS capability aren't going to miss it.

Disc One offers one BD-Java enhancement that wasn't advertised: an interactive text/information track called A View from Above. This serves as a sort of "editor's" guide to the differences between the various versions of the film. Depending on which version you choose to watch, icons appear in the upper right corner of the frame to indicate scenes and moments in this version that differ from the others, accompanied by explanatory text that reveals exactly what was changed, added or may be missing. It works exceptionally well, and I was surprised by just how many subtle changes Spielberg made to his final director's cut. Fans will really enjoy this feature I think.

Fans will also be delighted to know that Disc Two of this set contains virtually everything that's ever been released on DVD before in terms of special features, along with new material as well. First up, you get DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau's excellent The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind documentary from the original DVD release, which runs close to 100 minutes. It's presented in the original standard-definition, full frame format, but looks very good here. Also available from the previous DVD release is the vintage 1997 Watch the Skies featurette. It's only 6 minutes long, but it's actually in high-definition, which is a nice touch. In addition, all of the deleted scenes and trailers from the previous DVD release are carried over here as well.

Newly-produced for this set is a 20-minute retrospective featurette, entitled Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters, which is basically just Spielberg himself talking about the film, intercut with vintage footage, photographs and artwork. It's also in full HD on the Blu-ray. Spielberg discusses such things as the ideas behind the film, his interest in UFOs back in the 70s, the casting and the production itself. Particularly interesting is Spielberg's comment that the last 30 minutes of Close Encounters was the most difficult editing challenge he's ever faced. Also newly-produced for Blu-ray is an extensive gallery of photos and artwork from all stages of the production, along with storyboard-to-film comparisons for five scenes from the film. I would guess there's close to two hours worth of material here, and all of it is presented in full HD resolution, so you'll get to see every little detail and nuance in the images. And oh, by the way... Disc Two features subtitles as well - another nice touch.

The discs are held in a Digipack that also contains a fold-out poster, which serves as an additional road map/guide to the three different versions of the film. In addition to this, you get a very nice 32-page booklet with more photographs and liner notes. All of this is enclosed in a gorgeous slipcase. Really about the only thing that's missing in this set is a Spielberg audio commentary track, and as most of you know by now, Spielberg doesn't believe in doing them. I'm sure that someone, someday, will create a still more elaborate special edition of Close Encounters, but this'll do just fine for me in the meantime. I would even go so far as to say that this Blu-ray Disc is one of the very best special editions we've seen yet in either high-definition format.

For my money, Close Encounters is Steven Spielberg's most interesting work. It's certainly my personal favorite of his films. As such, it's gratifying to see that Sony has finally released it in a truly comprehensive special edition. If you're as much a fan of the film as I am, whether you buy the DVD version or this Blu-ray Disc, this ultimate edition is worth every penny. It deserves a place in the collection of every serious film enthusiast.

Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray Disc)

Blu-ray Disc Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionUncompressed PCMDolby Digital

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Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1
1986-2007 (2007) - Pixar/Disney (Buena Vista)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 6th, 2007

Shorts (collectively): B
Video (1-20): 10/20 (early/later)
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: C

Specs and Features:
54 mins total, G, AVC 1080p, various aspect ratios, BD-25 SL, Regions A/B/C, Elite Blue HD packaging, 13 shorts (The Adventures of André & Wally B., Luxo Jr., Red's Dream, Tin Toy, Knick Knack, Geri's Game, For the Birds, Mike's New Car, Jack-Jack Attack, One Man Band, Mater and the Ghostlight and Lifted), audio commentary by John Lasseter and others, The Pixar Shorts: A Short History featurette, 4 Sesame Street segments produced by Pixar, animated Pixar-themed root menus, short access (13 shorts), languages: Uncompressed PCM 5.1 & 2.0 (English - 48 kHz/24-bit), Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0 (English, French, Spanish), subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish

Anyone who loves CG animation, and Pixar animation in particular, will thoroughly enjoy the new Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 on Blu-ray. Think of it as a sort of prologue or bonus disc to the new Ratatouille and Cars releases. Not only is it a collection of all of the company's ground-breaking short films, it serves as a defacto early history of Pixar Animation Studios.

All thirteen shorts produced by the company are included here, in their original aspect ratios. Unfortunately, the best masters available for the earlier shorts - The Adventures of André & Wally B., Luxo Jr., Red's Dream and Tin Toy - are of lesser resolution and quality, so don't expect to be blown away by the picture and sound. They're included here in the best quality possible. All of the other shorts, however, are presented in stunning high-def transfers mastered directly from the digital animation files. As such, they look and sound spectacular - every bit as good as you'd hope. There's a little bit of duplication here with the Ratatouille and Cars discs, as Mater and the Ghostlight, One Man Band and Lifted are available on those releases as well. Still, this is a nice compilation.

Each short is accompanied by audio commentary with John Lasseter and/or other original Pixar staffers. You also get a cute, 20-minute retrospective featurette, The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, which looks at the creation of many of the early shorts and offers a glimpse back at the early days of the company. You'll see behind-the-scenes photos and video from back in the day, and hear from many of those who created the shorts in new interviews. Given how simplistic they seem today, it's easy to forget just how cutting-edge many of these early shorts were back in the 80s. I really got a kick out of hearing Lasseter and others talk about what it was like to preview them to early attendees of SIGGRAPH, who simply exploded in delight upon seeing the then-new and stunning techniques of CG animation. Anyone who knows what a TRS-80 or Commodore 64 is will appreciate and enjoy this piece. This disc also includes several very short segments produced by Pixar for inclusion in Sesame Street episodes (featuring Luxo and Luxo Jr.).

Unfortunately, the only thing that's missing is the original version of Knick Knack, which some of you might recall featured a slightly (okay, significantly) more buxom bathing beauty and mermaid. See these images (found here online)...

Original Knick Knack

Original Knick Knack

It's no wonder the little Snowman was trying so hard to break out of his globe. As the story goes, when this short was released in theaters attached to Finding Nemo, the MPAA demanded the change in order to receive a G rating. It would have been nice to have the original version included here for completeness sake, but unless it's hidden as an Easter egg, it doesn't seem to be here. I believe the original version WAS released previously on disc on the Toy Story laserdisc box set, and it might be available on DVD elsewhere as well. If anyone knows of a disc that includes it, please let me know and I'll update this review.

While I wouldn't call the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 on Blu-ray (or DVD) a must-have, it IS a fun release and it does make a nice complement to the other new Pixar titles on disc. Fans will certainly want a copy in their collections. As for the rest of you, if you can get it for a nice sale price, it's worth a look.

Bill Hunt
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