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

Wall-E: 3-Disc (Blu-ray Disc)

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Wall-E: 3-Disc
2008 (2008) - Pixar/Disney (Buena Vista)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 18th, 2008
Also available as a 2-disc Blu-ray edition

DTS-HD

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


I know a lot of people really love Wall-E, but I have to admit that this is the first Pixar film in a while I have mixed feelings about. The story features a beat-up little robot, tasked with cleaning up a far future Earth that's buried skyline-deep in a sea of fast food trash, super-sized junk and abandoned convenience stores. Wall-E toils away day after day, alone save for his little cockroach pal... until the mysterious EVE appears one day from out of the dingy brown sky and excites his sub-routines but good.


On the one hand, I really loved this film when it was just bot, bot and bug doing their thing. The lack of dialogue absolutely worked for me, and as a result I found the story audacious and uniquely compelling. I mean, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, right? Well, it's also true that no one expects a Disney film set on an Earth that humans have long since screwed up, abandoned and/or become extinct upon. So you know... mad props from me right there. Unfortunately, humanity eventually DOES reappear in the film, and it's at that point that Wall-E becomes a lot more pedestrian and predictable. But hey, it's still miles better than... say, Robots, Shark Tale, Doogal or Shrek the Tenth.

The new Blu-ray release looks utterly stunning, as you might expect. This is high-definition crack for the eyes, featuring magnificent color and contrast. Details are refined and the textures are realistic enough to render a surprisingly dimensional image. The English audio is presented in an expansive DTS-HD MA surround track that offers tremendous clarity and dynamic range. The mix is more atmospheric than directional, but it fits the visuals well. Better still, the Tomas Newman score - not to mention the closing (and new!) track by Peter Gabriel - sounds fantastic.

Disney and Pixar have also cooked up a very nice batch of bonus material for this 2-disc Blu-ray, all of it in high-definition. (Note that Disc Three is a Digital File DVD.) First up on Disc One is a terrific Cine-Explore commentary with director Andrew Stanton, which features tons of behind-the-scenes artwork, graphics, photos and the like. I really love the way Disney is presenting these commentaries, showing behind-the-scenes material in a way that flows nicely with the film. Next, there's a second multimedia/trivia commentary with a "geek squad" from Pixar, done in a sort of MST3K way. Disc One also offers the Presto short seen in theatres with the film, a new short called Burn-E that weaves through the film's main story, and another version of Burn-E with PiP animatic "boards" in one corner of the screen (so you can compare the early version with the final short). It's all cool stuff. Finally, there's a sort of home theatre "optimizer" to help people make sure their display and sound system is set up properly - a nice touch.

Disc Two is all bonus material, geared toward both kids and more adult fans of the film. The Robots section features a little Vaudville-esue short of Wall-E going through various visual gags, an interactive storybook, a sneak peek of an online adventure at the official website, 3-D data files with more information on all the various robot models from the film, and the best feature: an arcade complete with fun mini games. There are 4 in all, each easy to learn and each quasi-inspired by a classic 80s (or maybe early NES) game you'll remember from years gone by. EVE's Bot Blaster will remind you of Asteroids, Wall-E's Dodge & Dock recalls Lunar Lander and Joust, M-0's Mop-Up Madness is vaguely Crush Roller-y and Burn-E's Break Thru plays like original Donkey Kong. I found all of them to be surprisingly fun, and they worked perfectly on my player. I certainly killed a LOT more time with them than I expected to. Older audience members will find more substance in the Humans section, which includes 4 deleted scenes with optional introduction (23 mins in all), 7 behind-the-scenes featurettes on various aspects of the making of the film (70 mins), 5 BnL shorts (9 mins) and 10 3-D environment fly-thru videos (11 mins), all in full HD. There's also a sort of hidden feature (not quite an Easter egg) that's VERY cool. It's an in-depth documentary called The Pixar Story (88 mins, also in HD). You'll find it in the Humans section on a second page of extras - go to the bottom arrow and press enter, and you find it. It's WELL worth buying the disc for all by itself. The extras even have optional English captions for the hearing impaired - a nice touch. All of the extras on this 2-disc Blu-ray worked smoothly for me, with load times that never exceeded 10 or 15 seconds on my Panasonic BD player. I should note that the disc also offers a few BD-Live options for those with Internet-connected players, including movie mail, live chat, additional games and more, though I haven't tried any of it. It's just not my thing. One of these days maybe.

As a film, Wall-E really tosses its hat over the wall there for a while, and I'd appreciate it for that reason alone, even if it doesn't finish as strongly as I'd hoped. As a Blu-ray Disc, on the other hand, Wall-E really tosses its hat over the wall... and delivers every bit of the quality, fun and depth of experience you'd hope for on a BD release from Disney and Pixar. The price for the 3-disc set is a little high, so I'd suggest either picking it up on sale or getting the 2-disc Blu-ray version instead (it has everything listed above, sans the Digital File). Either way, you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable Blu-ray to spin with the kids on a Saturday afternoon. Definitely recommended.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


Band of Brothers (Blu-ray Disc)

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Band of Brothers
2001 (2008) - Playtone/Dreamworks/HBO (HBO)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 11th, 2008

DTS-HD

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


Band of Brothers is the story of the men of Easy Company - the U.S. Army's 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Based on the book of the same name by historian Stephen Ambrose, and actual interviews with the surviving soldiers, this ten-part mini-series details (and humanizes) the experience of Easy Company during World War II, from their formation at Camp Tocca, Georgia in 1942 to their last days in Europe in November, 1945.


We follow these men through thick and thin, from the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day and the subsequent invasion of Holland, to the blistering Battle of the Bulge and Easy Company's eventual capture of Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" in the German Alps. The mini-series features a cast of largely unknown actors (save for David Schwimmer, Ron Livingston and Donnie Wahlberg) and a variety of different directors (including Tom Hanks). The scale is impressive and the budget is massive. And it is, quite simply, an amazing television experience - winner of the Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series and a very fitting tribute to the young men (many of them teenagers) who risked everything to save the world... simply because it was what they had to do.

The ten episodes of the series are (in order) Currahee, Day of Days, Carentan, Replacements, Crossroads, Bastogne, The Breaking Point, The Last Patrol, Why We Fight and Points. Each episode begins with the recollections of actual surviving members of Easy Company to ease you into that particular part of the story. And to be honest, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to say anything else about them. You really need to go into this with a clean slate. Suffice it to say that the overall experience is well worth the time it takes to view each episode.

HBO's previous DVD release delivered excellent video and audio quality to be sure, but this new Blu-ray edition improves the experience dramatically. The six-disc set includes all ten episodes in full 1080p high-definition, arranged two episodes per disc over the first five discs. The colors are muted - almost sepia toned - but accurate, with light grain visible, good contrast and excellent detail. Light compression artifacting is occasionally apparent in the most chaotic action sequences, but it never detracts from the experience. The audio is presented in a wonderfully immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, that features great clarity, smooth and natural panning, abundant bass and highly active surrounds, especially during combat.

Each of the episode discs include preview trailers for all ten episodes (in SD). During the episodes themselves, you can activate two features largely new to Blu-ray Disc. The first is a sort of BonusView PiP video commentary with the real-life soldiers, called In the Words of Easy Company. Some of this material appears in the documentary on Disc Six (more on that in a minute), but much is new here too. As you're watching, PiP windows will appear from time to time, featuring one of the soldiers talking about the events being depicted on screen. There are some really great stories here, so I definitely recommend checking it out. The other (sort of) new feature is the interactive In the Field with the Men of Easy Company. Much of this material was included in the extras disc of the original DVD release, but here it's been converted into a BonusView option you can view while watching the episode. When activated, a scrolling timeline appears at the bottom of the screen. At various points along the timeline, icons indicate the presence of photos, video clips, bios, historical information and more, which will pop-up for viewing upon selection. The video material includes footage from vintage U.S. Army training films from the period, which are very cool to see.

The rest of the extras are on Disc Six, and are recycled from the original DVD release. These include the 78-minute We Stand Alone Together documentary, the Premiere in Normandy and The Making of Band of Brothers featurettes, and all of actor Ron Livingston's Video Dairies from the set. All of this is standard-definition, with the exception that the interview portions of the documentary have been updated to high-def (the rest of the footage is upconverted SD). Missing from the DVD are the brief Who's Who: The Men of Easy Company spots, the photo gallery and the Message from Jeep promo, but you the good news is that you don't actually MISS any of this. (I should note that the original photo gallery contained but a production stills per episode, while better and more numerous shots are included in the interactive In the Field guide.) Other quick comments: The Blu-ray menus are elegant and functional, and the original DVD's fantastic stamped tin packaging has been recreated here, albeit in a more compact Blu-ray size.

As a life-long student of history, I've always been fascinated by the period of the Second World War. In my opinion, Band of Brothers is as good a retelling of some of the real experiences of WWII as you'll ever see. Executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have done a wonderful job in bringing the story of Easy Company to the small screen. This new Blu-ray edition is every bit as classy as the original DVD release, and its high-def presentation makes the small screen experience quite large indeed. Highly recommended.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


Kung Fu Panda (Blu-ray Disc)

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Kung Fu Panda
2008 (2008) - DreamWorks Animation (Paramount)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 8th, 2008

Dolby TrueHD

Film Rating: B-
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 17.5
Extras: B


As a general rule, at least since Shrek, I've avoided most non-Pixar theatrical CG animation. Too many of these efforts seem content with making variations on the bathroom joke-filled buddy picture, full of pop culture references enough to render the movie barely understandable 10-15 years down the line. With this in mind, not to mention my fondness for classic kung fu pictures, I approached Kung Fu Panda with trepidation. Now that I'm on the other side of this experience, however, I can say that I'm shocked I didn't hate it.


Kung Fu Panda was one of the real surprise hits of the past summer, not just because yet another CG comedy made a fortune in the U.S., but because it did so well in Asia. People came out in droves there to see the film, despite a thriving bootleg market, to experience what might be the first mainstream Hollywood film to really understand the kung fu genre and why it's so popular in many parts of the world.

Panda tells the story of Po (voiced by Jack Black), a panda and the son of a noodle maker, who is suddenly given his dream of training in the martial arts, though for mysterious reasons. Is Po really the legendary Dragon Warrior? Can he master kung fu in time to defeat a foe who seeks a treasure that will award him ultimate power?

As with most all CG animated features on Blu-ray, the video presentation on DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda is flawless, with bright colors and impressive definition on fine detail and textures like animal fur. While the characters and production design here don't have the flair of Ratatouille, Panda has its own unique style that's rendered to perfection here. Also good is the film's Dolby TrueHD track. The mix is lively, with good bass. Like many recent Paramount releases, however, it's presented at a fairly low volume, so end users should make sure that the Dynamic Range Control on their receivers (it may be called Night or Midnight mode) is disabled. Then you can bump the volume up 6-7db to appreciate the full experience.

While this disc's extras certainly contain the usual commentaries and featurettes with the cast and crew, I'd like to concentrate on what makes this title unique - it's educational value. Whoever produced this disc focused heavily on creating extras that don't talk down to the film's young audience. Once you get past the available BD-Java interactive games and activities, there's a rich amount of material on the origins of kung fu, including a documentary on Shaolin monks accessed through BD-Live (for a limited time only, though the end date is not yet determined). Talented child practitioners of Wushu demonstrate different kata for each discipline (monkey, snake, tiger, etc...), and encourage the viewer to try it themselves. Then there's a quick visit to an upscale Chinese restaurant for a demonstration of noodle making (incredible, I wish they'd had a high speed camera going), how to use chopsticks and much more. There's plenty here for your kids (or the kid within you) to discover. All of it is short and to the point, carefully structured not to outlast Junior's attention span, but long enough so as not to be superficial. Bravo!

If you have children, Kung Fu Panda is a great movie to offer them, and one that won't make you want to kill yourself after repeated viewings. For you older viewers, it's probably still worth a rental as a feel-good entertainment... just don't expect it to blow your socks off. Panda is definitely recommended for families and animation fans, and it's restored my faith that DreamWorks Animation can still produce quality work when it wants to. Maybe someday, they'll deliver a film that impresses me as much as Prince of Egypt again.

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com
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