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

Starship Troopers (Blu-ray Disc)

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Starship Troopers
1997 (2008) - Sony
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 5th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A

Starship Troopers is an absolutely fascinating movie. Based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, director Paul Verhoeven's big screen adaptation (adapted by screenwriter Ed Neumeier) would seem to be an exercise in over-the-top excess. And it is. But there's a LOT more going on beneath the surface here, if you care to look for it. Here's a bit from Adam Jahnke's excellent DVD review of the film...

"Verhoeven and Neumeier draw inspiration from the propaganda films of both sides of World War II, the American Why We Fight series and Leni Riefenstahl's bone chilling Nazi classic Triumph of the Will. Sure, the enemy is literally dehumanized in Starship Troopers, but so are the humans. This is conveyed through the perfect casting of living Ken and Barbies like Van Dien and Richards. The FedNet News Feeds that pop up throughout the film are hilarious and serve to deepen our understanding of how this brutal utopia really works. And just in case you've somehow still managed to miss the point, Verhoeven has the audacity to dress Doogie Howser himself in full SS regalia for the movie's third act. Back in '97, a lot of critics condemned Verhoeven for making a "pro-fascist" movie, a charge I simply didn't understand at all. It seems clear to me that the audience is meant to enjoy and cheer on all the carnage and bloodshed in Starship Troopers, but by the end of the movie, if you've been paying any attention at all, you should be asking yourself, "What the hell was I doing and who are these creeps I've been rooting for?"

Sony's new Blu-ray Disc version of Starship Troopers is available by itself, and also in a Starship Troopers High-Definition Trilogy 3-pack with both sequels on Blu-ray. The high-definition transfer looks, in my opinion, nothing short of spectacular. Color is incredibly vibrant and accurate, and contrast is excellent throughout. Very light (to occasionally moderate) grain is visible, rendering a very film-like image. Even better, the print is clean and excellent fine image detail is visible from start to finish. It's not going to compare to a new film shot in high-definition digital video, but for a photochemical film that's over ten years old, it looks just as it should... and that's damn nice to me. Audio is included in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and the mix is the perfect match to the visuals, with a big, wide front soundstage, excellent bass and first-rate clarity. The rear channels aren't quite as active as they are in some newer surround mixes, but they're still lively and offer nice a nice sense of immersion. And the bass is appropriately thunderous.

In terms of extras, nearly everything that was on Sony's previous 2-disc DVD special edition is available here, but there are a couple things missing. First, you don't get the isolated music score (with commentary by composer Basil Poledouris) that was on Disc One of the DVD. You also don't get the extensive conceptual artwork galleries that were on Disc Two of the DVD. What that means is that you can't get rid of EITHER disc if you really want all the available extras. (You can, however, ditch the previous movie-only SuperBit DVD edition if you have it.) On the other hand, the Blu-ray Disc does give you a few new items exclusive to this edition, including an interactive Recruitment Test trivia challenge, the FedNet Mode picture-in-picture viewing option (that seems to include significant new video-based interviews and other behind-the-scenes material), a Blu-Wizard access option that allows you to create a custom playlist of all the extras you wish to experience, and also BD-Live enhancement. The main BD-Live feature currently being promoted by the studio is a Join the Fight option, that allows you to upload your photo and insert it into the movie in key scenes (the BD-Live functionality will be enabled on street date, so I haven't tried it yet).

I do wish everything from the DVD had been included, but what you get here - particularly the video and audio quality - is so good that picking up this new Blu-ray should be a no-brainer for fans. Would you like to know more? (Hint: Yes, you would!)

Batman Begins: Limited Edition Giftset (Blu-ray Disc)

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Batman Begins: Limited Edition Giftset
2005 (2008) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on July 8th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

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

It's been a long dark time for Gotham City. Sagging under the burden of economic depression, the teeming metropolis is rife with corruption. The populace increasingly lives in fear, at the almost total mercy of the criminal underworld. The good people of Gotham, even those among the rich and powerful, are afraid to change things. In fact, not since billionaire industrialist Thomas Wayne and his wife were murdered years ago, has there really been anyone willing to give back to the city - to stand up for what's right, and act as a champion for the working class... the everyman.

Wayne's son, Bruce, was traumatized as a child by the murder of his parents, which occurred right before his very eyes. Twenty years later, he's abandoned his college studies in disillusionment and has wandered aimlessly through the seedy underworld, in an attempt to understand the events that shaped him. But it's not until a mysterious patron, Ra's Al Ghul, rescues him from his downward spiral that Bruce begins to find the answers he needs. Al Ghul's major domo, Henri Ducard, shows him a better way... a way to fight Evil on its own terms. Armed with this knowledge, Bruce will soon return to Gotham with a new calling... to protect the good citizens of his city, and to strike fear into the hearts of those who would prey upon the weak.

I'm happy to say that I quite enjoyed Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It's significantly better than I was expecting, definitely an improvement on the previous live-action films. This film is dark and atmospheric, and I particularly liked the build up of the Bruce Wayne character - the classic origin mythos is handled with respect and care, and is well presented here. You see how Wayne becomes the Dark Knight, and it's entirely believable. As all the pieces of his character fall into place, you're never asked to make a leap of logic that isn't easy to make. Christian Bale is quite good as the title character. He's able to perfectly convey the uneasy sense of intensity and rage that lies just beneath Wayne's controlled exterior. Meanwhile, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman lend tremendous gravitas to their roles as Alfred and a Wayne Enterprises scientist who provides Bruce with all his crime-fighting toys. It's also great to see Gary Oldman playing a genuinely wholesome good guy for a change. I really liked him as Police Sergeant Gordon (it's nice to know that as the franchise continues, we'll see Gordon move up in the ranks). He even LOOKS like the Gordon I recall from the comics. Both Liam Neeson and Rutger Hauer contribute admirably to the film as well. Better still, the mood, look and production design is pitch perfect.

Batman Begins, however, isn't a perfect film. For one thing, it could easily be trimmed by 15 or 20 minutes and you'd never miss them. While the casting overall is excellent, there's one major bit of miscasting. Katie Holmes is certainly adequate in her role as Rachel Dawes (Bruce's childhood friend turned Gotham Assistant District Attorney), but she also brings nothing particularly unique to the part. And as good as the first half of the film is, the plot gets a little bit too paint-by-numbers in the second half. The build-up we see here gives this Batman its own unique style, separating it from the rest of the big-screen superhero pack nicely, but the action later is pretty pedestrian. There's also a twist in the last act that's entirely too predictable - it's basically given away by a line of dialogue about halfway through the film.

Still, one of my favorite things about this film is that it seldom feels as if it was shot on a soundstage. This is particularly helped by the Himalayan setting of much of the first half of the film (actually, it's Iceland, but it passes as Tibet nicely). I also think the stunt work here is exceptional. Most of the car chase footage involving the Tumbler (a.k.a. the new Batmobile) was shot with real vehicles, full scale and at genuinely high speeds, giving it an authenticity that similar scenes in previous superhero films have lacked. And I loved the use of Arkham Asylum in the story. Tied as he is to Arkham, The Scarecrow is also nicely creepy (he's clearly destined to return at some point). Better still, the film's final act wonderfully sets up the potential emergence of a number of the signature villains in future sequels, including (in a nifty little touch) The Joker. And that's the key, I think. How the sequels handle The Joker, in particular, will be the REAL test for this remodeled franchise. [Editor's note: The film portion of this review was written back when Batman Begins was first released on DVD, well before The Dark Knight's debut. So the answer to this mystery is now well known: Nolan's Joker, as played by the late Heath Ledger, is simply extraordinary, erasing any doubts about this now exceptionally well-rebooted franchise.]

Warner's new Blu-ray Disc version of Batman Begins includes the same bonus material that was on the previous DVD and HD-DVD versions, and then some. Virtually all of the extras on those editions has carried over, including the In-Movie Experience PiP commentary from the HD-DVD. Newly added for the Blu-ray is a stunning high-definition preview of The Dark Knight, featuring IMAX footage from the film's opening sequence, which introduces the Joker. About the only thing you don't get here is the Inner Demons comic book menus from Disc Two of the DVD (although all of the actual extras on that disc are included). You also don't get the 72-page comic book that was part of the original DVD release, though the new Blu-ray (if you buy the Limited Edition Giftset) does include a new comic book, as well as a booklet with storyboard artwork, mini posters/postcards and a lenticular hologram.

The new Blu-ray Disc unfortunately seems to offer the same high-def video encode (or at least the original digital master) that was used for the HD-DVD version. The problem with that is that the encode doesn't take full advantage of the added space on the BD-50 disc to maximize the compression, resulting in an image that's just a little too soft looking and somewhat lacking in detail. I suspect that too much Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) has been used here as well, given that there's a noticeable lack of film grain and that fine image detail is less than optimal. In any case, color is muted but accurate to the theatrical presentation, and contrast is excellent. The image isn't bad looking in any way. In fact, it's quite good - certainly an improvement over the DVD. But this film could have looked significantly better on Blu-ray, and it's a shame that it doesn't. Let's hope that Warner abandons the overuse of DNR soon, so that The Dark Knight looks better on Blu when it arrives later this year. The audio, at least, is excellent, presented in full Dolby TrueHD lossless. The mix is nicely active and immersive, with smooth, natural staging and excellent bass.

On the whole, this Blu-ray is well worth an upgrade over the previous DVD release, though if you already own the HD-DVD, there's little reason to replace it. The 1080p video quality is good, but remains disappointing compared to other new release titles on Blu-ray. I hope that Warner eventually re-issues this disc with less compression and DNR at some point down the line.

Top Gun: Special Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

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Top Gun: Special Collector's Edition
1986 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on July 29th, 2008

Dolby TrueHDDTS HD Master Audio

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

Anybody out there feelin' a little need for speed? Come on, admit it. Most of you have wanted to climb into an F-14 and rocket above the clouds ever since Tom Cruise first did it on the big screen back in '86. You can almost hear Danger Zone playing in the back of your minds, can't you?

Navy fighter ace Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise) flies his Tomcat right on the edge. In the cockpit, no one can touch him. Unfortunately, Maverick sometimes flies too aggressively, often crossing a very dangerous line. This recklessness aside, when the lead flyer in his carrier squadron loses his edge and washes out, Maverick and his RIO "Goose" (Anthony Edwards) get the chance of a lifetime - the opportunity to fly against the best of the best at the Navy's TOP GUN fighter combat school. When the competition gets fierce, there's only one question to be answered: Can Maverick reign in his personal demons enough to beat these elite pilots... or will he beat himself instead?

Paramount's new Blu-ray Disc edition of Top Gun is well worth the wait. Presented in 1080p high-definition, almost certainly repurposed from the previous HD-DVD release, the film looks very good overall. Color and contrast are outstanding, with very good fine detail evident throughout the film. There's light to very light film grain visible, as there should be, and the print is generally quite clean. The only thing that works against the video quality is a bit of occasional compression artifacting (visible mostly in clouds - 1.49:35 is a good example - contrails and gouts steam on the carrier deck). Despite this, the image is overall very pleasing given the age of the film, and should satisfy all but the pickiest enthusiasts. Audio-wise, you get 5.1 'lossless' high-resolution audio in BOTH Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA formats. Both options are excellent, with a very smooth, immersive and lively mix. The soundstage is big and wide, with good bass on the low end and precise, natural imaging. I'm not sure I have a preference between the two - I think whichever mix you choose, you'll be happy with the result.

Unlike the HD-DVD release, the Blu-ray is a true Special Collector's Edition, featuring substantial, high-quality bonus material. Nearly everything from the outstanding SCE DVD release has been ported over, right down to the animated menus. The bad news is that one previous extra hasn't been included: the extensive photo galleries included on Disc Two of the DVD release. So if you want those, you'll have to at least keep Disc Two. On the other hand, the good news is that the Blu-ray actually adds a new feature - a 29-minute featurette, entitled Best of the Best: Inside the Real Top Gun. This was actually produced for the original DVD release, so it's of the same high quality as the rest of the extras, but it had to be excluded for disc space reasons. It was, however, available on a Best Buy-exclusive bonus disc, packaged with the Top Gun: Special Collector's Edition DVD, for a limited time.

Given the overall quality, and the fact that nearly all of the DVD features have been ported over (not to mention the new featurette), Paramount's new Blu-ray edition of Top Gun is well worth the upgrade price. Fans of the film should be very happy with it.

Patriot Games (Blu-ray Disc)

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Patriot Games
1992 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on July 29th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 17.5
Extras: D

Is it just me, or does it seem strange that Harrison Ford only played CIA analyst Jack Ryan twice on the big screen? Maybe it's because four of author Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels have been turned into movies that it seems like there's more of Ford as this character than there really is.

It could also be that Sony's Air Force One seems to fit with these movies (Ryan actually became President in one of Clancy's unfilmed novels). Or maybe it's just that Ford seems to so completely embody the character. In any case, Patriot Games is the first of two Clancy films starring Ford, and it's a good one.

Jack Ryan has retired from the CIA, and is a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. As such, he's been invited to give a guest lecture to British military officers in London, and he's brought along his family for a little sight-seeing. While there, he thwarts an IRA splinter group's attempt to assassinate members of the British royal family, killing the brother of one of the assassins (played by Sean Bean) in the process. Said assassin swears revenge against Ryan, then escapes British custody and goes after Ryan and his family back in the States.

The video quality of Paramount's Blu-ray Disc is generally good, though not in the league of the best the format has to offer. There's good color and contrast, adequate fine detail and light grain visible throughout, resulting in a nicely film-like image. There's a little more dust and dirt visible than you'd like, however, and there's mild compression artifacting visible throughout the film as well. It's not distracting, but it does occasionally distract. Audio-wise, you get an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix of good quality, that matches the image quality well. It's not a first rate surround mix, but it more than does the job given the nature of the film.

Patriot Games was previously released on HD-DVD with no extras, but the Blu-ray edition includes everything that was on the previous DVD... which is admittedly not much. You get a 25-minute featurette, Patriot Games Up Close, in pretty low, standard-definition quality, as well as the film's theatrical trailer in high-definition. Again, it's not much, but it's more than the HD-DVD had, so it's hard to complain.

Given that all four of Paramount's Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan films are being released on Blu-ray Disc, fans should be pleased. This disc isn't going to win any awards, but the film is worth having. I'd say if you can get these Tom Clancy Blu-rays on sale at a decent price, go for it.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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