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

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - The Complete First Season (Blu-ray Disc)

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Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - The Complete First Season
2008 (2008) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 19th, 2008

Dolby Digital

Program Rating: B
Video (1-20): 17.5
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B-

When I first heard that a TV series based upon the popular Terminator films was in the works, my initial reaction was one of skepticism. Such efforts seldom hold up on their own merits, and all too often the resulting episodes just don't live up to the hype. So it was with that frame of mind that I tuned into the pilot of Sarah Connor Chronicles. To my great surprise, I wasn't disappointed.

The series begins some two years after the events in Terminator 2 (the series ignores the events of the third film, assuming that they never happened). Sarah and her teenaged son John are hiding from the authorities, having successfully prevented Judgment Day... or so they believe. Soon, however, another Terminator from the future locates and attempts to kill John at the high school he's attending under an assumed name - an attack that would have succeeded had yet another Terminator, posing as a female classmate named Cameron, not rescued him. Suddenly, John, Sarah and Cameron are on the run. To make matters worse, Cameron reveals that Judgment Day hasn't been stopped... only delayed from 1997 to 2011. So the trio goes on the offense, making a temporal jump with Cameron's help to present day (circa 2008) Los Angeles, in an effort to stop the development of Skynet once and for all.

What's surprising about this show, right from the start, is that Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker step almost effortlessly into the roles of Sarah and John Conner. They work well and, combined with Summer Glau's nuanced performance as a Terminator attempting to protect John while emulating and understanding human behavior, they successfully establish the core dynamic of the series right from the start. Richard T. Jones and Garret Dillahunt both make solid contributions over the course of the season, as an FBI agent and the hostile Terminator respectively, and Brian Austin Green is a surprising (and surprisingly excellent) addition to the cast in the season's latter half. It should be noted that while the first couple episodes are good, the next few aren't so strong. If you stick with it, however, the season really picks up about mid-way through, and it finishes very well dramatically.

As presented on Blu-ray Disc, this three-disc set offers very solid 1080p widescreen video quality. Color and contrast are excellent, though you will notice some compression artifacting on occasion. The series is shot on film, so the light grain you see is supposed to be there. The audio, unfortunately, is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 only, which is a shame. The sonic quality is certainly decent, and serves the images well, but it's unremarkable on the whole. A lossless audio option would have appreciated, though I'm sure it wasn't included for disc space reasons (these are BD-50s, but they include three episodes each plus extras - a tight fit).

What surprised me most about this Blu-ray release is the quality of the special features. Numerous deleted scenes are available (most in full HD, though a few are standard def), as is a gag reel and a trio of audio commentaries (on the Pilot, as well as the episodes The Turk and What He Beheld - each of the major cast members, as well as the show's creators, are represented). You also get an extended version of the episode The Demon Hand (52 mins), as well as video of cast member auditions, Glau's dance rehearsal and a storyboard sequence. Better than all of this, however, are a trio of great behind-the-scenes featurettes, that combine to form the 40-minute Creating the Chronicles documentary. It's presented in full HD, and features interviews with just about everyone involved in the series, both cast and crew. You get insights into the show's origins, the writing, the story, the actors, the characters, the stunts, the special effects... even a look at the making of a couple of the episodes. It's surprisingly comprehensive for just 40 minutes, and every bit of it is great material that fans will enjoy. I wish Universal would follow this example for future Blu-ray releases of the new Battlestar Galactica. My hats off to the folks who created this material. It's good stuff.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles earned my respect the hard way and, against all expectations, I'm actually very excited for its return. Thankfully, we don't have long to wait - the new season debuts on Fox this coming Monday night (9/8/08). The show is well worth your time, and this Blu-ray Disc set (or the cheaper standard-definition DVD version) is a great way to get caught up.

Clear and Present Danger (Blu-ray Disc)

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Clear and Present Danger
1994 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on July 29th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

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

Harrison Ford returns as ex-CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who gets drawn back into the muddy world of government espionage when his mentor, CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence James Greer (James Earl Jones) becomes gravely ill. Ryan accepts an offer to serve in Greer's place, and soon finds himself the fall guy in a White House sanctioned - but highly illegal - operation to take down Columbia drug lords.

The 1080p high-definition video presented on this Blu-ray Disc from Paramount is generally very good, though the film elements themselves are occasionally a bit soft looking. Colors are muted but accurate, and contrast is good overall. There's also noticeably less digital compression artifacting than there is on, say, the Blu-ray version of The Sum of All Fears. Audio is presented in very good Dolby TrueHD surround. The soundstage is big, wide and dynamic with excellent bass. I have no complaints on that score.

As far as extras, you get a short "making of" featurette called Behind the Danger in standard definition as well as the film's trailer in full HD - basically, everything that was on the previous DVD edition. I should also note that the film-themed, animated menus here (and on all of these Tom Clancy Blu-rays from Paramount) are excellent.

Overall, the disc isn't worth the full retail price, but on sale it makes a decent (if unremarkable) upgrade of the previous DVD release.

U-571 (Blu-ray Disc)

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2000 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 26th, 2008

DTS HD Master Audio

Film Rating: C+
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18.5
Extras: D

Okay, I kind of like this film. Sure... it's not great, and sure... it pales in comparison to far better sub-mariner films like Das Boot, Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October. And sure, writer/director Jonathan Mostow has butchered the actual World War II history of the recovery of the German Enigma machine. But U-571 remains an enjoyable enough way to spend a couple hours, if you can overlook its flaws.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi as crew members aboard an aging U.S. Navy sub assigned with a secret mission in the midst of the Second World War: The capture of a critical Enigma code machine from a disabled German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic. When the mission goes south however, the survivors must struggle to survive in... and beneath... decidedly hostile waters.

This film has been released previously on both DVD and HD-DVD. Unfortunately, Universal has decided to rush this new Blu-ray version, and the disc suffers from it. The 1080p high-definition master is the same one that was used for the HD-DVD release, but it appears to be somewhat more compressed here than it was on the HD-DVD. (I also own the D-VHS version, and that sadly looks better than the Blu-ray too.) Color and contrast are good, but detail is a little lacking... probably due to the use of noticeable DNR. The added compression was required because, while the film was released on a 30GB HD-DVD disc, this is only a BD-25. Thankfully, the DTS-HD surround sound is excellent. The presentation is big and wide, with lively surround channels, great dynamic range, smooth panning and excellent bass. There's a scene about 32:56 in, where the crew is eating dinner as the sub rocks back and forth. You hear tableware slide across the table from left to right, and then a spoon drops off the table and hits the deck in the right rear channel. It's outstanding, and that doesn't even begin to mention the blast of depth charges and battle audio effects later in the film.

Unfortunately, the fact that this was released on a BD-25 also means that there's little room left for extras. You do get the original director's commentary from the previous DVD. The DVD and HD-DVD releases also included a number of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and none of them are offered here, though it's worth noting that a U-Control/BonusView picture-in-picture viewing option is available here that seems to include at least SOME of the footage from the missing featurettes. Still, if you're a fan and you want all the extras, you'll either have to keep one of the previous discs or wait for a better Blu-ray edition.

Given the corners that have been cut here by the studio, I can't really recommend U-571 on Blu-ray, unless you really love the film or you can get it for an awesome sale price. Let's hope Universal puts a little more effort into their future catalog releases on the format.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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