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

Baraka (Blu-ray Disc)

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1992 (2008) - MPI Home Video
Released on Blu-ray Disc on October 28th, 2008


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

When it was released widely in theatres back in 1993, Baraka was hailed as a stunning visual achievement. The film is non-narrative, and plays like visual poetry or a cinematic dreamscape. There's no dialogue or plot - instead Baraka travels the world, offering a 97-minute river of imagery featuring breath-taking landscapes, wonders both natural and man-made, and various types of human activity. The visuals are undeniably striking as they appear one after the next, accompanied by music from the likes of Dead Can Dance, Inkuyo and Michael Stearns.

Baraka was the first film in many years to be shot on the 70mm Todd-AO format, previously used for such classics as The Sound of Music, Oklahoma and Patton. It was directed by Ron Fricke, who also served as the cinematographer for the similarly styled Koyaanisqatsi. The film employs a variety of cinematic techniques, including time-lapse photography, to present things beautiful and ugly, joyous and terrible, religiously or culturally interesting, and much more.

For this new Blu-ray Disc release, the original negatives were scanned frame-by-frame in 8K (a whopping 8192 pixels) by FotoKem Labs, using the only scanner capable of that resolution. (MPI claims that it's the first time a feature film has ever been scanned at that resolution.) The resulting digital file weighed in at a massive 30 terabytes. It was then digitally cleaned of dust, print damage and other age-related defects, and was color-timed to the director's specifications. The final 1080p Blu-ray version was created from this 8K master.

So how does it look? Quite simply, Baraka is the best looking live action Blu-ray release I have EVER seen. It's truly an extraordinary viewing experience. The detail present in the 2.21:1 aspect ratio image is just astonishing, almost to the level of what you'd experience in reality. It often feels as if you're actually there on location with the filmmakers. Everywhere you look, the textures and hues are absolutely superb. In the opening shots of Himalayan mountain peaks, you can see every crag and crevasse of rock and snow, not to mention the slight heat shimmer of sunlight as it beats upon the rocks. Images of South American shanty towns reveal every piece of tile and shingle, every smudge of dirt and damp on walls. The vibrant colors of African tribal dresses simply pop off the screen. Perhaps the most astonishing visuals feature the crystal laden ceilings of the Mausoleum of Shah-e-Cheragh in Shiraz, Iran. If your jaw doesn't drop at as every surface and facet glitters with reflected light, you've become too jaded. The eye candy in Baraka beats any CG creation Hollywood can produce by a wide margin. The disc is impressive sonically as well, with 5.1 surround audio available in 96kHz/24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. Again, there's no dialogue other than the occasional bit of chanting, so a mixture of environmental sounds and atmospheric music envelopes you at all times, reinforcing the hypnotic experience of the images. The clarity and staging are exquisite, with abundant bass. An excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also available.

This is a single-disc, BD-50 release, but there are a couple interesting special features. Included on the disc are two featurettes, which together run nearly 80 minutes in all. The first, Baraka: A Closer Look, is a nearly feature-length documentary that examines virtually every aspect of the film and its production. The other, Baraka: Restoration, offers a fascinating look at the scanning process and the creation of the 8K digital master. Both featurettes, I should note, were available on the previous DVD release as well, but they're presented here for the first time in full HD resolution. The only thing that isn't here, that I would really have appreciated, is some kind of subtitle text option that tells you what you're looking at as the film plays. I know that's probably contrary to the spirit of the film itself, but I think viewers might find it helpful, especially those who don't have time to watch A Closer Look. Still, it's a very small complaint.

I was really blown away by this film when I first saw it in theatres more than fifteen years ago, and I'm even more impressed now, after viewing it again on this disc. Simply put, MPI's Blu-ray release of Baraka is a landmark achievement for the format. It belongs in the collection of EVERY Blu-ray fan - something to play when you really want to dazzle your family and friends with the format's capabilities. This disc will ensure the film's legacy for years to come, and should expose a whole new audience to its delights. A sequel, entitled Samsara, is apparently set to be released next year. In the meantime, if you buy no other Blu-ray release this holiday season, make sure you get this one.

The Final Countdown (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Final Countdown
1980 (2008) - Blue Underground
Released on Blu-ray Disc on October 28th, 2008

DTS HDDolby TrueHD

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

The Final Countdown is a 1980 B-movie classic. The story is pretty straight-forward action, but with a cool sci-fi hook. The basic premise is this: What if a modern, U.S. Navy aircraft carrier were suddenly to find itself sent back in time to the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941? Now imagine you're the Captain of that ship. Do you honor your duty, and launch your fighters to wipe out the Japanese attack force and naval fleet, thus changing the course of history? Or do you let events play out as history says they must? Is it even possible to change history?

Matt Yelland (Kirk Douglas) is the captain of said aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered U.S.S. Nimitz. After waiting two days to take on civilian observer Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), the Nimitz departs from its home port in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on a routine cruise. Lasky has been sent by the mysterious Mr. Tideman, the head of a major defense contractor, to observe the ship's operations and report on efficiency. This doesn't sit too well with Yelland and his crew, especially the commander of the ship's F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron, Richard Owens (James Farentino). Things get more tense when the ship passes through a strange electrical storm at sea. All of a sudden, radio contact with their escort ships and Pearl is lost, and there's nothing but vintage broadcasts coming in over AM radio. Yelland and Owens suspect that it's all an exercise that's being staged for Lasky's benefit. But when their reconnaissance planes take pictures of WWII-era battleships moored back at Pearl Harbor - pictures that match those taken on December 6th, 1941 - they have to start facing the very real prospect that the storm might actually have been a time warp, and that the Nimitz is the only thing standing in the way of an all-out Japanese attack.

Three things make The Final Countdown an effective film. First of all, the sci-fi hook is simple, and yet highly clever. Other than the actual scenes in which the ship passes through the time warp, there's virtually none of the usual trappings of sci-fi in this film. That means The Final Countdown is mostly straightforward action/drama, as the characters react to the situation they're in. The second thing that works here, is that this film was shot ENTIRELY on location on the real Nimitz, and in and around the actual vintage and modern aircraft depicted in the film, with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. The ship's operations you'll see are very accurate - more so even than what was featured years later in Top Gun - because they're the real thing. There's a scene in this film in which a pair of F-14s plays tag with a pair of vintage Japanese Zeros, and you're watching the REAL F-14s and Zeros in the frame. There's almost no special effects involved. All of this gives The Final Countdown an immediacy and authenticity that most sci-fi films lack, particularly the B-grade ones. Finally, this is a first-rate cast of actors, each of whom is excellent in their respective rolls. In addition to the players listed above, you'll also find Charles Durning and Katharine Ross here, as a U.S. Senator and his assistant. Producer (and Troma legend) Lloyd Kaufman even makes a cameo. This flick is just damn good fun from start to finish.

As many of you long-time readers might recall, we crusaded for YEARS to get this film released on disc. Blue Underground finally obliged in 2004, rescuing the film from rights limbo and delivering an excellent 2-disc Limited Edition on DVD. This new Blu-ray Disc is basically an upgrade of that release. Its 1080p high-definition image quality is generally quite good. The optically produced opening titles are rather soft-looking and washed out, but after that, the quality and clarity improves significantly. Light to moderate grain is present throughout, but detail, color and contrast are, on the whole, impressive. The quality varies from shot to shot, and you'll notice focus problems here and there (specifically during a few shots on board the carrier), where the center of the image is crisp but the outer edges are blurry. But the quality gets better and better as you watch, and ultimately we were more than satisfied with the transfer, especially given the film's age, its indie status and its convoluted history of ownership. Audio is available in both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, and both mixes are excellent. The fidelity does tend to reveal the age of the materials, and this film has never exactly been a sonic achievement, but it's also certainly never sounded better. Bass is good, music and dialogue are clear at all times, and there's nice surround play during shots on the carrier deck as fighters take off and land, for example, and also during the F-14/Zero dogfight. The staging is more front-biased that you'll find on newer films, but the audio quality matches the visuals nicely.

Most, though not all, of the previous DVDs special features have been ported over, including the 14-minute Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood featurette and the 31-minute Starring the Jolly Rogers documentary. The former looks at the film's origins and production, while the latter features retrospective interviews with the original "Jolly Rogers" F-14 pilots who worked on the film. Both are worth your time and are presented in anamorphic widescreen (in standard-definition). The disc also features a full-length audio commentary with cinematographer Victor Kemper, along with a set of theatrical trailers and TV spots for the film. Missing from the DVD are the poster and still galleries, the Kirk Douglas bio and the Zero Pilot Journal DVD-ROM feature. So if you want any of that, you need to hang on to Disc Two of the original DVD release.

The Final Countdown is one of our favorite guilty pleasure films. This new Blu-ray version - like the DVD before it - makes us very, very happy. Sure, the disc is unlikely to win many awards, but being the pleasure of enjoying this film in high-definition is something we certainly never expected to have. It's abundantly clear that the team at Blue Underground loves this film as much as we do. I'll tell you: With this film and Capricorn One both now available on Blu-ray, well... we're pretty darned surprised. Dare we hope for The Last Chase or Hangar 18 next? Enjoy!

Bill Hunt, Editor
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