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

Iron Man: Ultimate 2-Disc Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

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Iron Man: Ultimate 2-Disc Edition
2008 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 30th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

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

Every once in a while the pundits get it wrong. An Iron Man movie? Really? The red-(shell)-headed stepchild of the Marvel Superhero B-list given a $100 million budget? No one ever thought it could succeed. Maybe that was what gave director Jon Favreau the freedom he needed to throw in some unorthodox casting and craft a script that contemporizes the character without destroying its essence.

In that script, billionaire arms manufacturer Tony Stark gets a moral reality check after being mortally wounded by one of his company's own weapons used against him. So Stark uses his knowledge of weapons systems not only to save his own life, but to create technology that will protect the lives of others and make amends for the mistakes of his past.

Visually, Iron Man is just on this side of stunning. The mountain ranges in the missile demonstration scene have some of the most vivid HD pop and detail I've seen on the format yet. Later shots of actual armor hold up amazingly well - it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between the CG and practical suits. While there is definitely some DNR present in the mastering process, by my recollection this was also present in the DLP theater showings I saw of the film back in May (likely to help with consistency between the Super35 and anamorphic processes used in production). Fortunately this intentional processing was not accompanied by the even more dreaded edge-enhancement that often follows, so no edge halos are present. Thanks to a top notch job by the compressionists, Iron Man is perfect eye candy for those of you looking for great Blu-ray demo material to pair with a new TV this Christmas.

At first, my experience with the audio was problematic. On my first play through the movie, I had to bump the volume 7db over my normal calibrated settings, and still the sound was compressed, as if I had “midnight mode” engaged on my receiver (tinny, subdued sound). After checking that Dynamic Range Compression (DRC) was still disabled after a recent firmware update of my player (it was), I restarted the film. Shockingly, it sounded 100% better. After confirming similar observations from several other Blu-ray reviewers, Ive reached the conclusion that this track (in addition to being mastered at lower volume) has the DRC flag present in the audio stream. So those who are bit-streaming the audio will want to watch for the DRC light on their receiver, and re-disable it manually. Those of you using internal decoding on your player will also want to make sure that DRC is disabled in the players setup menu.

When the True HD track is playing back correctly, its wonderfully tight. The sound is natural, with deep bass, and no crazy ping-pong audio FX. Too many times in action movies these days, the sound engineer has too many toys to play with and so fills the surround channels with unnatural audio cues. Its a credit to Favreaus vision, and the talent of the audio design crew, that they've realized less can be more. That's not to say that the mix doesn't deliver when it needs to. When things go boom, the track is tight and punchy. It's a great surround track.

In terms of bonus material, Paramount's Iron Man Blu-ray has set the benchmark for comic book films. On Disc One, you can follow up the feature film with The Invincible Iron Man, a 50-minute look into the history of the character and the men who wrote and drew the key moments of his career. Stan Lee himself delves into great detail about his unorthodox intentions in creating the character (which was intended to be the anti-Marvel superhero), as well as and the difficulties Gerry Conway had creating the artistic style (How does a featureless mask express emotion?). I hope this is just the first of many more such documentaries to come about the history of Marvel Comics. A collection of 11 deleted scenes is also included. These expand some scenes and add a few interesting character moments, but there's nothing particularly revelatory. Rounding up Disc One is a gallery of the different armors from the movie that you can zoom, rotate and examine more closely. There's also an interactive BD-Life trivia game, Iron Man IQ, that plays during the movie if you so choose.

After Disc One's helps you discover more about who Iron Man is, Disc Two is devoted to the production of the film itself. Iron Man is the first production that Marvel Studios has financed itself, so the first part of the almost 2-hour I Am Iron Man features both the studio and the crew finding their sea legs. This is probably the best off-the-cuff documentary in years. A better title for the documentary would probably be Jon Favreaus Follow-Along Blog, because hes always there, always around, but never actually hogs the spotlight. If you're a fan, it's absolutely required viewing. Next up, Wired: The Effects of Iron Man features an extensive look at the design and evolution - both real-life and fictional - of such things as Tony Starks computer interface. A lot of Sci-Fi fans take such things for granted, but making the visuals intuitive both to a prospective user, and to the audience whos experiencing them, takes a lot of time and talent. The remainder of the excellent bonus material includes a collection of rehearsal footage, a hilariously tongue-in-cheek clip from OnionTV, Robert Downey Jr.s original screen test, multiple trailers and another extensive still gallery.

Iron Man is one of those rare superhero movies that just really works. It's solid from beginning to end. On Blu-ray Disc, not only is the movie great fun, the supplement package is outstanding – something Paramount can be proud of. After the success of Iron Man, Marvel now claims that they want to make a Giant/Ant Man movie, something I would have previously thrown into the category of an April Fool's joke. Still, if Iron Man is indicative of the quality of Marvel movies to come, sign me up. Let me dust off my Merry Marvel Marching Society card and I'll join the rest of the True Believers. Whether youre new to Blu-ray or an old hat, I can think of no better title than this one to stick in your stockings this holiday season.

Jeff Kleist
[email protected]

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (Blu-ray Disc)

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When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions
2008 (2008) - Discovery Channel (Image)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 30th, 2008

Dolby Digital

Program Rating: A
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B-

If you're a fan of history in general, and manned spaceflight in particular, Discovery and Image's new Blu-ray Disc release of the six-part When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions documentary series is very welcome indeed. The cool thing about this is that Discovery has worked with NASA to transfer, remaster and restore all of the old film footage taken by NASA astronauts during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions in full 1080p high-definition. So you're going to be seeing things like you've NEVER seen them before.

The episodes themselves are presented 2 per disc, over the first three discs of the set. They include Ordinary Superman, which covers the original Mercury Seven astronauts, Friends and Rivals, which looks at the Gemini Program, Landing the Eagle, which details the early Apollo moon landings, The Explorers, which features Apollo 13, the later moon landings and Skylab, The Shuttle, which examines the early years of the shuttle program as well as both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, and A Home in Space, which features the Hubble repair flight, later shuttle missions and the early construction of the International Space Station. The original footage is interspersed with new HD interviews of the many participants, including the likes of Gene Kranz, John Young, Neil Armstrong (it's very rare indeed to have him involved!) and many others.

The video quality is quite good in general. You have to keep in mind that much of this material is 30-40 years old and it comes in a variety of film formats. The very best material here is transferred and restored 16mm film footage. You're going to see a lot of grain, but it's been cleaned up nicely. Footage of Mission Control personnel wringing their hands is rife with grain and other issues, but some of the actual spaceflight footage is extraordinary. Film of Ed White's spacewalk during the Gemini program is just breathtaking, and you're seeing it here looking better than it's ever looked. Once the program gets into the shuttle era, much of the footage is analog standard-def video, so the quality actually drops a little until later HDTV footage is presented. Still, the real advantage of this set is the ability to watch the Moonwalking astronauts in stunning quality and clarity. It's very, very cool. Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that fairly standard for documentary material. It supports the visuals well, but don't expect a lot of surround play. A 2.0 stereo track is also available.

Extras on the 4-disc set include nearly four hours worth of vintage film footage and archival interviews. Most of it is standard-definition. Included is original mission footage, standard-def video interviews with astronauts and NASA film highlights. The 4th disc in the set is also a Blu-ray and includes nothing but original NASA films, presented in high-definition. The films included are Freedom 7, Friendship 7: John Glenn, Proud Conquest: Gemini 7 & 6, Apollo 8 Debrief and The Flight of Apollo 11. None of it is going to really dazzle you, and the quality isn't as good as the actual episodes, but it's cool to have this material nonetheless.

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions is a very welcome addition to the scant body of documentary material on Blu-ray Disc. I'd love to see more recent NASA material - footage actually shot natively on HD video - released on Blu-ray at some point. In the meantime, however, this is a great way to spend a few days immersed in the triumphs and tragedies of American human spaceflight. Watch this with your kids if you can - they'll thank you for it someday.

Bill Hunt, Editor
[email protected]
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