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page added: 11/24/08



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

Chungking Express (Blu-ray Disc)

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Chungking Express
1994 (2008) - Miramax (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on December 16th, 2008

DTS-HD

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 19.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B-


Okay... first things's first. Chungking Express is quite possibly director Wong Kar-wai's best film. Set in Hong Kong on the verge of the Chinese government takeover from the British, this evocative, neo-noirish tale presents not one but two unique love stories in dream-like fashion, each interesting and emotionally affecting in its way.


Our own Rob Hale reviewed this film when it was released on DVD back in 2003, so I'll let his review speak for itself. Suffice it to say that I love and appreciate Chunking Express now every bit as much as Rob did then. It's just a wonderful and unexpectedly captivating little film. What you guys really want to know is: Is this first Blu-ray Disc release from The Criterion Collection worth the wait? The answer, I'm delighted to say, is absolutely!

Simply put, this is one of the most deliciously film-like images I've seen on Blu-ray to date. Criterion clearly took their time getting this transfer right, and the color, contrast and image detail all benefit tremendously from their efforts. That's not to say that this looks like... say, Wall-E on Blu-ray... but it's not meant to. You'll see light to moderate grain, for one thing, as you'd expect from an art house film. But the transfer has been so carefully prepared, I actually forgot I was looking at a Blu-ray Disc. The presentation is almost transparent - I felt as if I were watching actual film projection in a theatre. The little nuances and subtleties visible in this image are just really satisfying, right down to the optional English subtitles, which have such a soft, natural-looking quality to the text that you'd almost think they were part of the film image itself. I should note that the image is slightly pillar-boxed, with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The audio mix is also well presented, benefiting from a lively and immersive DTS-HD mix of excellent clarity. I have absolutely no complaints - this is a wonderful A/V experience from start to finish.

There isn't a lot in terms of extras, but all of the DVD bonus material is here and it's all good. Included is a thoughtful (and indexed) audio commentary track featuring Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns, the 12-minute Moving Pictures interview with the director and cinematographer (in SD) and the film's theatrical trailer (in full HD). The menus are elegant, as you'd expect from Criterion, and the load icon is the Criterion logo itself. The disc also includes a nice booklet with photos and an essay by critic Amy Taubin, and the packaging is a tasteful Digipack with a simple cardboard slipcase. It features the artwork pictured above with a quality matte finish, and is of similar size to a standard Blu-ray plastic case. Best of all, you get all of this for the SAME price as the DVD version, making the purchase decision delightfully easy to justify.

I'll tell you... this is one of the most pleasing Blu-ray experiences I've had this year. If Chungking Express is an indication of the kind of picture and sound quality we can expect on future Blu-rays from Criterion, then I can't wait to see the next one. BRAVO!

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Universe: The Complete Season One (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Universe: The Complete Season One
2007 (2008) - History Channel (New Video)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 11th, 2008

Dolby Digital

Program Rating: B
Video (1-20): 15.5
Audio (1-20): 8
Extras: C-


Here's a documentary series that should thrill anyone who enjoys having their minds - and their horizons - expanded, not to mention all those who crave a good journey through the realms science in general and cutting-edge astronomy in particular. History's The Universe is now entering its third season, but it's best to start here at the beginning.


New Video's 3-disc Blu-ray release includes all 13 episodes of the series, covering a wide variety of space and astronomy-related topics: Secrets of the Sun, Mars: The Red Planet, The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to Our Planet, Jupiter: The Giant Planet, The Moon, Spaceship Earth, The Inner Planets: Mercury & Venus, Saturn: Lord of the Rings, Alien Galaxies, Life and Death of a Star, The Outer Planets, The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe and Search for E.T.. Each is presented in full 1080p high-definition, though the image is a little more compressed looking than you'll find on most feature film Blu-rays these days, and the program also includes some standard-definition material. Regardless, the video here is still better looking that even the best HD cable or satellite broadcasts, so if you're a fan of the show this is definitely the best way to enjoy it.

I should explain the audio grade briefly: The Blu-ray features audio in a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo format, rather than TrueHD or any kind of advanced lossless audio codec, let alone surround. So while it's certainly good, and it matches the visuals well, it's not up to the quality level you're used to on most Blu-rays. It's plenty fine, just don't expect to be blown away. In terms of bonus material, all you get is a feature-length documentary called Beyond the Big Bang. It runs 90 minutes in length, so you can sort of think of it as a bonus double-length episode.

The Universe: The Complete Season One isn't a Blu-ray Disc that you'll want to purchase for its dazzling eye candy, though high-def is certainly the preferable way to view the series. I wouldn't pay full retail price for this set, but if you're as fascinated by the subject matter as I am, it's well worth picking up at a discount. The Universe is a great series, and it's one that might get your kids excited about science too. Here's hoping that Season Two (now available on DVD) is released on Blu-ray soon.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Firefly: The Complete Series (Blu-ray Disc)

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Firefly: The Complete Series
2002 (2008) - 20th Century Fox
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 11th, 2008

DTS-HD MA

Program Rating: A
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B+


Fox TV is well known in fanboy circles for creating incredible genre television, and then quickly abandoning it. After The X-Files completed its run on the network, common sense seemed to leave the building. They scheduled Space Above and Beyond (whose tapes were accidently sent to Ron Moore - he later remade the wrong show!) in a Sunday time slot against ratings behemoth 60 Minutes, where it fell victim to football overruns and was quickly killed.


Millennium soon followed, as did Harsh Realm, Dark Angel, The Lone Gunmen and others. So by the time Joss Whedon's science fiction/western fusion, Firefly, arrived on the scene in 2002, Fox had killing genre programming down to a science.

First, the network advertised Firefly's pilot episode, but then didn't show it. Then, they pre-empted the series three weeks for baseball, during which they advertised the show heavily to people who couldn't care less about it. Having failed accordingly to gain much of an audience, the show languished with poor ratings and was finally cancelled, leaving three episodes completely unaired. As a result of all this, Whedon's brilliant take on the aftermath of a civil war in space, told through the unlikely eyes of smugglers, rogues, a preacher and a whore, wouldn't really find its true audience until it was eventually released on DVD. And now, Fox Home Entertainment has released Firefly in an HD-upgraded Blu-ray version that's easily the best way to enjoy the series, bar none.

All 14 episodes of the series are included here. At the time the show was made, Fox was airing "enhanced widescreen" 480p content on their digital feed rather than full high-definition material, so when finishing the effects for a show like this one, they often cut production costs. As a result, Firefly isn't going to stand up well in comparison to the video quality of genre shows produced today in high-definition. But compared to the original DVD release, the Blu-ray looks terrific. Gone is the crushed-looking video, the banding and heavy artifacting, and the general lack of detail. As a result of the budget-cutting mentioned above, all of the show's visual effects were produced in 480p and have been upconverted for high-definition. That one issue aside, what you get on Blu-ray is a soft and grainy image to be sure, but one that's still well defined and warm looking. It's very pleasing and is far and away the best Firefly has ever looked. The audio mix is DTS-HD MA, and I'm happy to report that the show's theme sounds absolutely glorious. While it's certainly not a whiz banger, this a great surround mix for a TV show, particularly when it comes to the score, with its yearning fiddle play. It's a genuine sonic upgrade from the DVD on fidelity and warmth alone.

I'm pleased to report that all of the DVD special features have been included here, including the How It Was: The Making of Firefly, The Tenth Character, Joss Tours the Ship and Joss Sings the Firefly Theme featurettes. You also get the gag reel (the 3-minute version, not the 10-minute one due to music rights), the deleted scenes, the audition tape and the ever-classic Easter egg, featuring Adam Baldwin's rendition of Hero of Canton. All of the original audio commentaries with the cast and crew are here as well, and you get a new commentary (for Our Mrs. Reynolds) that was recorded exclusively for the Blu-ray. There's one other new Blu-ray extra - the Dinner for Four (or as they call it on the disc, Firefly Reunion) featurette, which reunites three of our Big Damn Heroes (Fillion, Glass and Tudyk) with Joss for a half hour of hilarity. It culminates in tales of petty sock larceny, and even a quickly improved new episode of the series too. I won't spoil any of this, but fans will cherish every second.

Six years and (reportedly) a half a million DVD units later, Firefly remains an evergreen catalog title for Fox - one that continues to grow its fanbase every day. Short-lived though it was, Firefly was the Star Trek for Generation Y, a little show that dared to be different and "done the impossible." Hopefully, the millions of copies Firefly's feature film follow-up, Serenity, moved on DVD will convince Universal that a sequel might not be such a bad idea. (Serenity is set for Blu-ray release on 12/30, I should add.) In the meantime, Joss has a new Fox genre show, Dollhouse, coming in January. It was originally planned to be the lead-in for the return of 24, but it's now set to air on Friday nights... in the so-called death slot. Surely those fans who have already registered 'savedollhouse.com' are just being overly pessimistic. Right?

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com
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