Chinatown (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits one of history's perfect films on nearly perfect Blu-ray disc...
Chinatown is often cited as an example of a ‘perfect’ movie. It’s not my personal favourite film, but I can’t find a single kink in its armor, even when exhausting my highest-powered critical microscope. Everyone involved with the film spins perfection upon perfection like a demented, unblemished machine. It’s just unfortunate for all of them that another ‘perfect’ movie called The Godfather Part II was released the same year and stole such a lion’s share of the attention. Plenty of critics glom onto Roman Polanski’s most popular film, Rosemary’s Baby, as his best, while hardened fans tend to prefer his earlier work, like Repulsion or Cul-De-Sac, and perhaps some more anti-establishment viewers would lean towards Macbeth or The Fearless Vampire Killers, but I think most can agree Chinatown represents his creative apex. This film sees the master filmmaker mixing his singular and stark visions into one of Hollywood’s most time-honored genres to create layered imagery and subtle subtext. Polanski attempted to revisit the themes and styles of Chinatown later in his career, most notably while directing an absolutely terrible film called The Ninth Gate, but even with his eventual Oscar win for The Pianist in 2001 he never quite touched these levels of achievement again. In turn it’s even harder to specify Jack Nicholson’s best performance. Five Easy Pieces was a big step, as was The Last Detail, which saw his first of many Academy Award nominations for best actor, but he didn’t become Hollywood royalty and a pop culture poster boy until Chinatown was unleashed. The one indisputable piece of perfection here is Robert Towne’s screenplay, which is often marked as one of the best ever written. Looking at a rundown of Towne’s other solo projects (he’s most defined by his script doctor work) it seems that Chinatown was the alpha and omega of his creative output, but all the disappointing sequels and squandered talent in the world can’t erase the fact that Towne wrote such a perfectly efficient story, with perfectly balanced characters, and perfectly memorable dialogue.
The fear of excessive digital tinkering is always wafting through the air when a classic film is released on Blu-ray disc, but Paramount has a really good track record going for them in terms of DNR enhancement and colour timing (I don’t blame the studio for what Friedkin did to The French Connection), and this stunning 2.35:1, 1080p remaster doesn’t buck the trend. I’m most surprised how generally crisp the image is, though I really shouldn’t based on the solid treatment of the material over the years, and the fact that Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo created such a clean and precise film. Close-up textures and patterns are sizably sharper than the DVD release without more than a hint of digital noise, but it’s the wide angle shots that stand out, especially outdoor daylight scenes, where background details are now clear enough to count the blades of grass on the Mulwray’s lawn. I’ve, of course, always noticed that Chinatown is a generally brown and tan feature, but I’ve never noticed exactly how controlled the pallet was. There’s a wonderful consistency to the basic colours here, especially ruby reds, warm browns, charcoal blues, warm golds and the occasional ripe greens. Occasionally the vibrant hues appear slightly sullied by chromatic aberration effects, but these are normally inherit in the source material, not a digital production artefact, so I’m not counting it against the transfer. The dynamic colours are supported with perfectly deep and pure black levels, and generally clean white levels that help offset details, and create depth and mood. The contrast created by Faye Dunaway’s black wardrobe is especially luscious, though there’s also a case or two of heavy daylight contrasts creating a bit of white level blowout. In the place of MGM and Fox’s beloved DNR are a few signs CRT scanning, and a handful of soft-ish shots, but there’s also plenty of fine grain, adding the expected and appropriate texture to the print. The darkest dark shots (and when Chinatown goes dark, it goes dark) show the most wear, and smudge up some of the detail, but even at its mushiest edges are still pretty sharp, with deep blacks and only the occasional hint of edge enhancement.
Paramount goes for Dolby TrueHD instead of DTS-HD with this release, which always means a lower volume level on my particular set-up (encoding issues I’m told), but most viewers won’t have too many other complaints concerning this Blu-ray’s uncompressed 5.1 or 2.0 original mono tracks. From what my ears can hear the 5.1 mix is the same mix that accompanied the DVD release, including the same stereo and surround effect enhancements, some successful and natural, others awkward and unnatural. Generally speaking the 5.1 remix is not all the different from the mono mix outside of a few enhancements (directionally moving vehicles, a small amount of natural atmospheric sound in the rear channels). The sequence where Jake is shot at and nearly drowned by a flash flood of water is a good example of the 5.1 track sounding overstated and artificial. Both tracks are generally pretty thin in terms of layers of noise or ambience, and again, most of this comes from the front without stereo effects in most cases, so there’s really only one reason to pick 5.1 over mono – Jerry Goldsmith’s avant garde, jazz-infused score. Despite not rearing its aural head all too often, the music gets the biggest bump from the remix treatment. The music sounds so sharp and rich it might as well have been digitally recorded just yesterday. There isn’t a lot of obvious LFE support, but the bass isn’t noticeably lacking either.
Chinatown in HD is enough reason to throw down the cash for this disc, but Chinatown with substantial extras is enough to make a fan do a little dance. Okay, okay, these were all previously available on the Centennial Collection DVD release, but I never bothered double dipping on that one, so I’m still doing my jig. First up is a commentary track featuring screenwriter Robert Towne and director/fan David Fincher. Yes that David Fincher. Based on his performance on his own film’s commentary tracks it’s not too surprisingly Fincher acts as the expert interviewer, and is actually the most consistent voice on the track. He spends a lot of time pointing to his favourite moments, which sounds like a colossal waste of time, but he approaches his fandom with such intelligence, and ends up weaving a sort of lesson plan into his cheerful recollections. All the while he’s also sure to ask Towne a bevy of questions, and Towne does his best to answer. Amusingly Towne himself is often unaware of Polanski’s layered visual subtexts, and his writing choices don’t match Fincher’s assumptions. All in all this is a wonderful track, with little downtime, full of behind-the-scenes context and a personable touch.
Next up is Water and Power (77:50, SD), a three-part historical documentary on the Los Angeles aqueduct featuring interviews with Towne, waterworks engineer Fred Barker, project lead William Mulholland’s granddaughter Catherine, environmental activists Mike Prather and Harry Williams, author John Walton, ranchers Stan Matlick and Mark Lacy, LA water and power CEO and general manager H. David Nahai, water and power public relations manager Chris Plakos, environmental journalist Jenny Price, Owens Valley Committee president Carla Scheildlinger, and councilman Tom LaBonge. It’s a bit dry at times, with a bizarrely persistent soundtrack, but offers important real world historical context to the plot of Chinatown, including the meat of the rather theatrical story, comparisons to Polanski’s film, environmental impact and concerns, era photographs, and plenty of maps and charts. Chinatown: An Appreciation (26:20, SD) features directors Steven Soderbergh ( Traffic, Oceans 11) and Kimberly Peirce ( Boys Don’t Cry), cinematographer Roger Deakins ( No Country for Old Men), and composer James Newton Howard ( The Sixth Sense) oozing affection for the film in a most relatable and intelligent manner. Peirce’s reading on Jake’s inner character is perhaps the most valuable bit of insight.
From here the extras become more familiar to those of us that didn’t buy the Centennial Collection release, but did own the earlier DVD version of the film. Chinatown: The Beginning and the End (19:30, SD) features Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne and Robert Evans discussing their time on the film from mostly a pre-production standpoint. Chinatown: Filming (25:40, SD) is more of the same with a greater focus on the production and post-production process. Chinatown: The Legacy (9:40, SD) finishes things off with a look at the post-release of the film, and its effect on the interviewees’ careers. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer.
Once again, Chinatown isn’t just a great film, it isn’t just one of the best films ever made, it’s a perfect film, seeing every participant at their best, or at least awful close to it. This Blu-ray release isn’t quite as perfect, I suppose, but it’s awful close as well, featuring a gorgeous and natural 1080p transfer, solid 5.1 and mono Dolby TrueHD audio options, and a decent collection of extras, including everything from previous DVD releases, the best of which is an entertaining and educational commentary track featuring David Fincher and Robert Towne.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blu-ray screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 3rd April 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and 2.0 Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono French, Spanish and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Commentary with Robert Towne and David Fincher, Water and Power Documentary, Chinatown: An Appreciation, Chinatown: The Beginning and the End, Chinatown: Filming, Chinatown: The Legacy, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery and Thriller
Length: 131 minutes
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