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page added: 1/26/09

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

Election (Blu-ray Disc)

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1999 (2009) - MTV Films (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on January 20th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B+
Video (1-20): 16
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: C

What better way to celebrate the inauguration of a new president than to look at film that was a harbinger of the old? Tracey Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is an egotistical power hungry girl, who has demanded everything be done her way her entire life, come hell or high water.

She gets herself into a pickle by sleeping with a teacher and then turning him in when it becomes obvious the relationship is no longer advantageous to her. It's Tracey's senior year, and she wants to be class President - not to enact meaningful change (which let's face it, no student government ever has), but because she holds the gavel, she makes the rules, and it looks good on her transcript for college. Mr. McCalister (Matthew Broderick) has been teaching for ten years. He likes teaching, and his students like him, but Tracey drives him up the wall... and it's not just because her ex-lover was his best friend. When it's obvious that she's going to win the election unopposed, he pushes new candidates into the mix to oppose her, and ends up caught in the middle of a vote-counting scandal for the ages.

Election is a very uneven Blu-ray in terms of quality. The first reel of the film appears to have been shot on a different stock than the rest of it, or they had to go to a different print or something, because it exhibits lower resolution and a different grain structure than the rest of the film. Then, when you hit about the 15-minute mark, everything improves dramatically. Election was a low budget movie, but the majority of it was shot in real houses and real schools. Black levels are all over the place, but they never hit that magical inky black that makes high-def typically look so great. The color palette is muted by design, appropriate for Nebraska in wintertime. For me the biggest upgrade on Blu-ray, aside form the general increase in clarity, is the lack of the artifacting that plagued the previous two DVD releases of the movie. This is as solid as Election is probably ever going to look. The TrueHD audio offers a similar upgrade - dialog is much more balanced than on previous Dolby Digital mixes on DVD, providing greater detail on the softer stretches of the movie.

The only extra included is the commentary track from the 1999 DVD, which was notable at the time because Election was one of the first Paramount DVDs to include any kind of bonus materials beyond an HBO First Look-style EPK. The track is as outstanding now as it was then, so if you haven't tuned in before, it's worth a listen. It's a shame, given that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the film, that they couldn't have shot some kind of new retrospective featurette.

Still, Election is a standout film because it came out of nowhere. It's a black comedy (made by MTV of all people) that relies first and foremost on its great performances, its intelligent script, and nuance to generate laughs. Witherspoon's Tracey is revealed as much in her tone of voice as in all of the wonderful little facial tics and lip purses. Together, it communicates far more than merely the words coming out of her mouth. Broderick is loveable as always, and it's exactly that fact that keeps Mr. McCalister just sympathetic enough that you can ignore when he's being a total jerk. The disc is solid if unexceptional, and the movie is as good as it was ten years ago. Pick Flick!

Without a Paddle: Nature's Calling (Blu-ray Disc)

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Without a Paddle: Nature's Calling
2009 (2009) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on January 13th, 2009

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: D
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: C+

Because someone apparently demanded it, the 2004 comedy Without a Paddle has earned itself this direct-to-video sequel, Nature's Calling. Zach and Ben are two goofy guys who have moved on into their adult lives, leaving high school and its crushes behind. Ten years later, Zach is working at a nursing home, where one of his patient's final wishes is to see her granddaughter again.

Surprise, surprise... said granddaughter is none other than his friend Ben's former crush, Elizabeth. Elizabeth happens to have moved to Oregon and become a flower child. So to do the right thing by Zach's patient, and to give his friend one more chance with his high school crush, the pair travels over the rivers and through the woods to find her. Naturally, predictable wackiness ensues.

There's at least one aspect in which Without a Paddle: Nature Calls doesn't fail utterly, it's in the video quality. There's plenty of eye candy to be seen in this transfer, given the lush green hues of the Pacific Northwest. While there is a bit of unevenness in the video, betraying its low budget production, when it's good, Nature Calls is really very nice looking. So if you can shut off your brain, you'll enjoy a decent visual ride at least. The standard Dolby TrueHD audio mix, on the other hand, is uninspired and missing a lot of the ambiance you'd expect from an outdoorsy movie.

The Blu-ray bonus features, almost all in HD, include a disposable EPK on the making of the film, a featurette on squirrel training, some bloopers and deleted scenes. The sole standout piece is a short extra on the building of the elaborate treehouse set for the film, so if you only have time to sample one thing before taking the disc back to Blockbuster, that's it.

Never having seen the original Without a Paddle, maybe this movie simply wasn't targeted at my particular demo. But I still feel safe enough saying that those who aren't fans of the original (or happen to be over the age of 18) should probably skip this one. It's a shame that Paramount spent their direct to video budget on this, when they have other great catalog films that scream for a sequel. Maybe it's nostalgia speaking to me as a child of the 80s, but what about a follow-up to something like Explorers or D.A.R.Y.L.? Both probably hit the core demographic of Blu-ray enthusiasts a little better the titles Paramount is working on, like a Travolta/Newton-John-less Grease 3 and Naked Gun 44 1/4. In any case, you might want to think twice before putting down your money for Without a Paddle: Nature's Calling.

Old School: Unrated (Blu-ray Disc)

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Old School: Unrated
2003 (2008) - DreamWorks (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on December 16th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: B

Old School is one of the more successful attempts an an heir apparent to the never-equaled Animal House, thanks largely to efforts of the talented Will Farrell, and the always under appreciated Luke Wilson.

When the bullying victim of their youth becomes Dean of the local college, and gets their house re-zoned into college property, Mitch Martin (Wilson) and his friends fight back by turning the place into a frat house in hopes of keeping the house standing.

Old School fares better than most comedies I've seen on Blu-ray. While the video image's colors and detail aren't that special, many shots exhibit an amazing depth of field when compared to the much flatter DVD image. Typical for a comedy, the audio improvements are far less noticeable. The front-heavy mix certainly does its job, and an A/B comparison of the lossy and lossless mixes does reveal a noticeable improvement, though it's nothing to get out the beer bong over.

The supplemental package is pretty standard, with the exception of the hilarious group commentary track with Vince Vaughn, Farrell, Wilson and director Todd Phillips. The disc offers a pretty standard collection of deleted scenes, bloopers, and trailers. The only other notable exception is a featurette spoof of Inside the Actors Studio. There's also an Easter egg of extra deleted material that can be reached by navigating left from the top of the extras popup on the main menu (look for the beer mug).

For many of my generation, Old School hit theatres right about the time we got out of college, and so it's become a major favorite for nostalgia's sake. This Blu-ray does at least deliver the goods for those looking for an upgrade over the DVD, and it's a solid value for new customers too.

Into the Wild (Blu-ray Disc)

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Into the Wild
2007 (2008) - Paramount Vantage (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on December 16th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B

Actor/director Sean Penn has a long standing reputation for eccentricity, so I guess it's only natural that he was drawn into making a film about the life of a free spirit like Christopher McCandless.

After living through a hellacious childhood, and doing everything that was expected of him by graduating from Emory College, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) abandoned his life, his money and even his identity, and took off on a personal spiritual journey that would lead him all over the western United States, and ultimately end in the wilds of Alaska.

Into the Wild has some of the best cinematography I've seen in a film in years. The gorgeous compositions and natural vistas take full advantage of the color, detail and depth of field that Blu-ray is capable of displaying. The transfer maintains a fine texture that renders a fantastically film-like image, and enhances the visual mood. There are occasional bouts of softness, but that's part of the reality of a film shot almost entirely on location. The Dolby TrueHD 48Khz/24-bit audio presents a nice step up from the previous HD-DVD's Dolby Digital Plus mix, and when compared to the on-disc vanilla Dolby Digital track, the difference is like night and day. Especially nice is the wide staging of Eddie Vedder's original songs. His voice and the instrumentations have a ton of nuance that the original Dolby track simply fails to capture. Pearl Jam fans take note.

Laurent Bouzereau turns in another great documentary here (albeit a short one), with his Into the Wild: The Story, the Characters. It focuses on all the principle players' connections to the original book and to the film, including Penn, Hirsch, Vedder, William Hurt and more. The only other extra is a featurette called The Experience , which documents the actual shooting of the film. I do wish there was more on this release, but maybe that will come in the inevitable double-dip in a few years.

Some may say that Emile Hirsch went slumming with Speed Racer after turning in a great performance here (though I would disagree - yes, I'm the other person who really liked that film) , and he's certainly back in form with the just-released Milk. Regardless, Hirsch is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actors. It's not easy to carry a film when you're the only person on screen for half of it, but he manages to pull it off. Into the Wild is highly recommended as both a great film, and a great showcase for Blu-ray.

Jeff Kleist
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