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

Transfomers: Two-Disc Special Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

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Transformers: Two-Disc Special Edition
2007 (2008) - DreamWorks (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 2nd, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

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

Michael Bay... you were right, brother. Back when only a few were willing to stand up and say that Blu-ray would win this format war, and that it was a superior format to HD-DVD (which Paramount and DreamWorks had then exclusively endorsed), you said that Transformers would ultimately shine best and brightest on Blu-ray. You were right, and you've delivered the proof. Transformers on Blu-ray Disc is simply outstanding.

As most of you know, Transformers is essentially a giant, 2-hour Hasbro toy commercial - toys (and also a cartoon) younger members of Generation X will recall fondly from their youth. The film's plot is based on the premise that there exists a race of robots from outer space have the ability to transform into different vehicles. Some are good, some are evil, and they all end up waging their war on Earth. In short... it's a film tailor made for the directorial sensibilities of Michael Bay. And you know what? If you suspend any kind of sense of reality or subtlety, it's actually surprisingly fun... especially on Blu-ray.

Let's not mince words... this film looks and sounds spectacular on Blu-ray. The 1080p video clarity is just stunning, with incredibly vibrant color and deep blacks. Fine detail is exquisite. The advantages of Blu-ray's greater disc space (the film is on a BD-50 disc all by itself) become obvious here - the studio has taken the original 1080p master used for the previous HD-DVD version and has optimized the compression for Blu-ray. So yes, this disc DOES look better than the HD-DVD. Best of all, it looks like a FILM. Paramount and DreamWorks haven't digitally scrubbed all the film grain from the image, so this is the perfect replication of the best theatrical experience of Transformers you'll ever have. On the audio side, the added disc space on the BD-50 makes it possible for the studio to include the lossless Dolby TrueHD audio mix that was missing from the HD-DVD. The mix is thunderous, dynamic and natural - a completely immersive experience - with razor sharp sonic clarity and bone-rattling LFE. You'll be glad to know that the studio has fixed the LFE problem that was apparent on the HD-DVD and DVD release.

In terms of bonus material, everything that was on the previous HD-DVD version has been included here. On Disc One, you get the Bay commentary, you get Heads-Up Display, and you get the BD-Live online features too (the Intelligence Mode with GPS Tracker, the Profiler, etc). Disc Two, on the other hand, delivers all of the video-based content, including all of the Our World, Their War and More Than Meets the Eye featurettes, and the Transformers Tech Inspector. All of it looks and works great, and every bit of it is presented in full high-definition video. Like the film itself, if you start watching it I think you'll enjoy it all more than you would have expected.

I can't say that I've ever really been a huge fan of Transformers. Both the toys and the original cartoon debuted a little after my interest in such things had moved on. (Now, if someone ever makes a Micronauts movie, I'm there.) Nevertheless, this CG work here is superb, the action is clever and Bay has more than fully delivered on the premise. As a result, Transformers is better than it has any right to be. What's more, this Blu-ray Disc currently sits at the top of a VERY short list of contenders for Blu-ray of the Year. For its sheer A/V demo quality alone, if for no other reason, absolutely don't miss it.

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition
1993 (2008) - Disney (Buena Vista)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on August 28th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

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

I should be up front about this right at the start: I love this movie. In fact, I think all of us here at The Bits have a fond place in our hearts for this inspired little holiday mix-mash classic. Nightmare is pure Tim Burton in its style and inspiration... even if Burton only produced the film.

We've actually reviewed the film on DVD before here at The Bits, and fans will no doubt already know everything there is to know about it. Plus, if you haven't seen Nightmare Before Christmas, I don't want to spoil it for you. Just rest assured, it's wildly creative and a delight from start to finish. So let's focus instead on the presentation quality of Disney's new Blu-ray Disc release.

The 1080p video quality is, overall, excellent. The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ration, so you're going to see thin black bars on the sides of your screen - that's by design and as it should be, so you'll hear no complaints about it from us. Color is incredibly vibrant and accurate, with deep, dark blacks and excellent shadow detailing - all very important to this particular film. I should note that the film does appear to have undergone a bit of digital scrubbing to reduce film grain. That said, you needn't worry that the use of DNR has negatively impacted the quality in this case. Fine detail is still excellent, and the grain hasn't been completely removed - you can still see it if you look very closely. What you get is a very smooth looking image, with an only very occasional too-digital appearance. Since this is a stop-motion film, without live action, the image never looks unnatural. (If there WERE live actors here, you might notice the lack of skin detailing, for example, but there aren't... so you don't.) On the audio front, you get a very lively and musical Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix - one that delivers both a natural soundfield and also an engaging sonic experience. I don't think it's not quite as good as the video, but it more than does the job.

In terms of bonus material, you get virtually everything that was available on the previous special edition DVD release, with one key exception. The previous DVD included an audio commentary with director Henry Selick and D.P. Pete Kozachik. The new Blu-ray Disc features a completely new commentary, featuring Selick, composer Danny Elfman and producer Tim Burton. The new track is excellent, but some of you might still want to keep your previous DVD to keep the old commentary too. (I just ticked the DVD into the Blu-ray packaging in a paper sleeve.) All of the other video-based extras from the DVD are here, PLUS you get a number of new items. Among them are a new introduction to the film by Burton, a video tour of Disney's Haunted Mansion (as transformed at Christmas into Jack's world), a all-new making of documentary, featurettes on Halloween Town and Christmas Town, Burton's original poem narrated by actor Christopher Lee and more. You also get a 'Disney File' digital copy version of the film on a second disc. All in all, this is a great collection of material that should satisfy any fan.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is well worth your time and money on Blu-ray Disc, and we can't say enough about how great (and how much fun) the film is. This is a title that should appear on the Christmas lists of every Blu-ray fan. Don't miss it.

The Hunt for Red October (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Hunt for Red October
1990 (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+

As the first of author Tom Clancy's military/political novels to be adapted in to a film, The Hunt for Red October SHOULD feel a helluva lot more dated than it does. It also stars Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan... a role with which Harrison Ford has since become synonymous. And yet, it's aged surprisingly well. It remains not only a great film, but also a highly effective naval thriller.

The plot is fairly straightforward: The Soviet Union has developed a new kind of submarine propulsion - a super-quiet 'caterpillar' drive, that could shift the international balance of power. The honor of taking the first boomer equipped with the drive, the Red October, has fallen to veteran Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). But Ramius has an agenda of his own - he plans to defect, and deliver the Red October to the West. Realizing this, the Russians send their entire naval fleet to stop him, alarming the U.S. and NATO forces. Tensions are high, and war appears imminent... but Jack Ryan (Baldwin) alone suspects Ramius' real intentions. So Ryan is sent out on an edge-of-his-seat mission to intercept Ramius first, and help him achieve his goals.

In terms of A/V quality, The Hunt for Red October features a very respectable high-def transfer on Blu-ray. Given that this is a catalog title, and given the age of the film, it looks surprisingly good. It's a little soft, and fine detail isn't quite as sharp as on newer titles, but color and contrast are very good overall. There's also less compression artifacting than is visible on a couple of Paramount's other Tom Clancy titles on Blu-ray (specifically Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears). Audio-wise, this disc fares even better. It's been my experience over the years that Paramount usually delivers a superior surround sound experience with their titles, and this disc is no exception. The Dolby TrueHD mix here is smooth, natural and delightfully immersive - just what you'd want from a submarine film. There's good use of the rear channels and excellent bass.

In terms of extras, you don't get much, but you DO get everything that was included on the previous DVD special edition, specifically audio commentary with director John McTiernan, the Beneath the Surface featurette and the film's trailer. As was the case on the DVD, the featurette is standard-definition only, but the trailer is presented in HD. And it's worth noting that NONE of this material was offered on the previous HD-DVD release.

The Hunt for Red October on Blu-ray will certainly win no awards, but fans of the film should be fairly happy with it. I wouldn't pay full retail price for it, but if you can pick it up on sale, this disc is a nice upgrade to your existing DVD.

The Sum of All Fears (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Sum of All Fears
2002 (2008) - Paramount
Released on Blu-ray Disc on July 29th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: C

Now, here's film I have mixed feelings about. I really liked the book, and when it was announced that Ben Affleck was taking over the role of Jack Ryan from Harrison Ford, I had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, there hasn't been another film in the series since.

The Sum of All Fears was intended as a reboot of the Jack Ryan film franchise, with the character newly depicted as a fresh young and upcoming CIA analyst. As an advisor to the CIA Director (Morgan Freeman), he's thrust into the middle of a terrorist plot to smuggle a nuclear weapon onto American soil and detonate it, in the hopes of sparking an all-out nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Russia. The film itself is actually quite good - certainly, it's the most under-appreciated of the Ryan films. Although, I'm sure I'm not the only one in the audience felt a cold chill down my spine upon seeing... well, you can guess what I'm talking about. Given that this film was released so soon after 9/11, perhaps that more than anything is what killed the franchise.

I wish this film looked better on Blu-ray Disc, because it certainly should. Unfortunately, Paramount has simply recycled the previous HD-DVD transfer and they don't appear to have optimized the compression for Blu-ray. You can tell this is what happened, because there's a wash of noticeable compression artifacting visible throughout the entire film. It's never distracting, fortunately, but if you look for it, it's definitely there. Color and contrast, at least, are excellent, and there's good fine detail visible. As with the other Tom Clancy Blu-rays, the Dolby TrueHD surround mix is terrific, with a big wide soundstage, smooth and natural surround play, and solid LFE.

The Sum of All Fears was previously released on HD-DVD with no extras, but the Blu-ray edition includes everything that was on the previous special edition DVD... which is actually the most extras on any Jack Ryan title. You get an audio commentary with director Phil Alden Robinson and D.P. John Lindley, as well as a second commentary with Robinson and author Tom Clancy himself. Two behind-the-scenes featurettes are available, The Making of The Sum of All Fears and Creating Reality: The Visual Effects of The Sum of All Fears, again in standard-definition. Also included here is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in full HD.

As with Paramount's other Jack Ryan titles on Blu-ray Disc, I wouldn't pay the full retail price for The Sum of All Fears, but it's still worth the upgrade if you liked the movie and you can find a good sale price. I just wish a little more effort had gone into re-compressing the video for Blu-ray.

Bill Hunt, Editor

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