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I simply have too many catalogue titles coming in the mail every day to keep up with all my Blu-ray reviews, so in interest of time I’m starting a series of catalogue release ‘Wrap Ups’ for each studio. I’m starting this process with Paramount, the studio that sends me the most discs per month, and one of the most consistent at releasing catalogue titles on the new format (along with Universal). These titles aren’t necessarily less important or valuable releases, but I figure most fans are already in the market since I’m so late on my writing, so I won’t devote as much time to the intricacies of criticism. Hopefully this will be a temporary fix, as I’ll keep caught up in the future.

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up

Enemy at the Gates


Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates is some respects a standout war film in a mess of post- Saving Private Ryan fodder, mostly thanks to the interesting fact-based script. The film opens with a fabulously shell shocking recreation of a section of the Battle of Stalingrad. The Stalingrad sequence isn’t as brutal as Spielberg’s attack on Normandy, but Annaud captures the utter terror of the situation better than many other technically adept filmmakers have over the years. Then the plot starts rolling, and things kind of get away from Annaud, though the editing of events works mostly quite well. Despite a solid performance from Rachel Weisz (not to mention a poignantly steamy clothed sex scene), the love triangle aspects sink the ship, which is otherwise buoyant with the mythical aspects of sniper warfare. Ed Harris excels as a James Bond villain inspired version of Erwin König, and Bob Hoskins chews scenery with relish as Khrushchev, but Ron Pearlman more or less steals the entire show in his brief mid-film appearance. One of the last decade’s more solid WWII efforts, but not entirely memorable either.

The Blu-ray isn’t quite as clean as I was expecting. The grain gets pretty thick in some parts, and because Annaud chooses more natural pallets and camera speeds throughout the film, I assume that these are more a shortcoming of the material than a stylistic choice. The world of WWII Russia is a dirty one for sure, but this 1080p transfer really isn’t that far beyond the old DVD. To the transfer’s credit highlight colours are fuller and brighter, and the DVD’s edge enhancement is all but gone. Sound-wise the Dolby TrueHD is effective as predicted, with the war scenes standing as the mixes high point. The surround aspects of the subtle sniper fire are another plus. Composer James Horner channels Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton score a bit, and his efforts run through the track like tidal waves. The extras are the same minimalist puff that accompanied the DVD release including a made for TV EPK called ‘Through the Crosshairs’ (19:30, SD), another EPK featuring more interviews called ‘Inside Enemy at the Gates’ (15:00, SD), nine deleted scenes (10:00, SD), and the original trailer (2:30, HD).

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of those cult films that has almost been ruined for me by its fans. Select quotes and scenes have been over-quoted and over-referenced to a deadly saturation point, and those particular gags are no longer funny—at all. It’s been something like a decade since I actually sat down to watch the film, and my current conception is largely wrong. Besides being a great marker of the era, and being one of the most referenced comedies in recent history, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a pretty impressive artistic achievement. Outside of the great lines, characters, and a huge emotional payoff, John Hughes makes some surprising choices concerning camera movement, composition and editing. It turns out the film actually earns its memorability. Whether Ferris actually has Cameron’s best interests in mind is a debate for the ages, though I have to admit that as an adult I don’t really like Ferris anymore as a person, and I feel extra sorry for Cameron. Minus Alan Ruck I have a feeling the film wouldn’t work half as well as it does.

On Blu-ray Bueller looks a bit sharper than it did on DVD, but overall this 1080p transfer is a little disappointing. The colours are rich, the blacks are deep and full, and the overall presentation is pretty consistent, but it has its fair share of problems. The print is pretty grainy, some of the colours bleed a smidgen, edge-enhancement is present throughout, and there is a fair share of print damage artefacts. The box art and my system call this sound mix Dolby TrueHD 5.1, but I’m pretty sure it’s just really effective Dolby Surround. I recall nary a single surround channel directional effect. Besides the occasional echo of the music the rear speakers could be turned off without anyone noticing. The stuff that counts is free of distortion, the stereo channels are lively, and the music is rich. The extras have all been ported from the DVD special edition, and include ‘Getting the Class Together’, concerning the casting process (27:45, SD), ‘The Making of erris Bueller’s Day Off’ (15:20, SD), a reasonably effective and encompassing retrospective, ‘Who is Ferris Bueller?’ (9:00, SD), ‘The World According to Ben Stein’ (9:00, SD), ‘The Lost Tapes’ (10:15, SD), and an image gallery.

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up

Grease


Grease is yet another cult item that is defined more by its fans and reputation than the actual production. It’s a movie I thought I’d seen a million times, but sitting through it here I realize so much of my conception is based on spoofs and replays of the big moments found in retrospective documentaries and the like. The brass tacks are just as shiny and perfectly fitted to the audience’s needs. The musical sequences are the most outstanding moments, but there’s more to it than many of us likely remember. I know I forgot how dirty it all was. Besides being one of filmdom’s most indelible musicals, Grease is also one of a handful of films that define high school by era, including American Graffiti, Carrie, and The Breakfast Club. Many of the genre’s clichés start right here.

This Blu-ray release is taken from the slightly digitally augmented version of the film (I couldn’t tell you the differences), and looks pretty fantastic for its vintage. The print is super clean, with only a few minor bits of noise, and some slight grain. The colours are bright and consistent, while the backs are much sharper and deeper than the TV cut I saw recently. Details aren’t particularly impressive, and some medium shots approach blurry, but edge-enhancement isn’t a problem. The Dolby TrueHD sound features some minor inconsistencies in clarity of dialogue, but this is likely due to ADR vs. set recording issues. The musical moments (i.e.: the important stuff) is sharp, finely separated throughout the front three channels, and features a hefty bass punch. The rear channels aren’t too active, but that’s alright considering the source material.

Extras ported from the DVD special edition include a rather drab but informative commentary with director Randal Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch, a Sing-Along mode, ‘The Time, the Place, The Motion: Remembering Grease’ (22:30, SD), a breezy retrospective featurette, 11 deleted and/or extended scenes with a director intro (10:15, SD B+W), footage from the DVD launch party (15:10, SD), ‘Grease Memories from John and Olivia’ (3:25, SD), taken from the post launch party, ‘The Moves Behind the Music’ (8:10, SD), a look at the choreography, ‘Thunder Roadsters’ (5:20, SD), a look at suping up hotrods, ‘ Grease Day Interviews’ (4:00, SD), a pair of period interviews with John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Allan Carr, and Robert Stigwood, image galleries, and the original theatrical trailer.

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up

A Mighty Heart


I avoided A Mighty Heart in the years since its initial release because of my hesitant preconceptions, preconceptions based on Angelina Jolie’s other passion projects, and the usual treatment of this kind of subject matter. I was excepting heavy handed musical cues, eruptive crying scenes, and a whole lot of hand-held camera work. My assumptions were mostly correct—director Michael Winterbottom doesn’t do a lot to separate his film from the pack, a pack which includes a whole lot of well acted films I don’t particularly like (including recently Babel and Things We Lost in the Fire, which cover different narrative subjects, but tell their stories in a similar fashion). Winterbottom isn’t a push-over though, and makes up for his lack of interesting camera work with impeccable pacing (though his cutting is this side of needlessly quick). The tone is more entertaining than I expected, finding a place between ‘just the facts’ documenting, and fictional political thriller hyperactivity. Jolie, for her part, does manage to disappear pretty effectively into the role, and doesn’t defer to a lot of Oscar-baiting histrionics. In fact, she exudes quite a bit of strength, in a situation that could have been dripping with tears and sobs (though there are a few of those too).

The film’s style is rough enough that high definition doesn’t smooth over all the bumps. The print is very grainy, but pretty evenly grainy, only noticeably increasing with the darkness of the frame. Details aren’t super-sharp, but better than a DVD could manage, and there’s no tinge of edge enhancement or jaggies. Colours are pretty dim, but not washed out, and when there is a hue that is meant to pop it pops cleanly, without bleeding or blooming. Contrast is pretty smooth, but the highest frequency blacks and whites are as strong as a set will allow. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack isn’t very impressive, but it isn’t really meant to be. The dialogue and effects are clean, consistent and natural. The stereo and surround channels are busy enough with chirping birds and such, but nothing stands out, and there isn’t a lot of directional influence. The disc’s extras are relatively disappointing, including ‘A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart’ (30:00, SD), a relatively inclusive featurette, a Public Service Announcement for the Daniel Pearl Foundation (2:08, SD), a ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’ message (8:40, SD), and the trailer in HD.

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up

Paycheck


Back in the early ‘90s any geek worth his salt would’ve peed his pants at the prospect of John Woo adapting a Philip K. Dick short story. Ten years after his American debut ( Hard Target) most of the director’s fans didn’t have it in them to care anymore, me included. Besides a few half-decent visual metaphors, and some relatively fun action scenes, Woo’s work on Paycheck is just as middling and disappointing as his other American work ( Face Off excepted, which can be nicely described as an exercise in entertaining idiocy). The overall film is so narratively and visually forgettable I didn’t recall anything while watching it this second time. Had I not the Netflix queue history to prove otherwise I’d almost swear this was the first time I’d seen the movie. This ‘new’ experience didn’t impact my mind much further. Even an impressive cast and relative lack of overt awfulness can’t save this one from obscurity. Watch Minority Report again instead.

This Blu-ray release is hit and miss across the board. Early on the transfer shows surprising clarity of image, and reasonably high detail levels. Later, and then peppered throughout, the transfer becomes rife with grain despite Woo’s attempts at a super-slick look. A much bigger issue is the level of edge-enhancement, which is a plague throughout, especially in any non-close up shot. The Dolby TrueHD track is nothing to balk at, but isn’t overly exciting either. Dialog is fine, and the maudlin score is crystal clear and warm, while the overall bass design is quite aggressive. Surround cues are mostly delegated to the film’s action sequences, but there aren’t too many exciting directionals either. The extras start with two commentaries. The first features director Woo, who talks a lot about his intensions on making a sexy film that recalled Hitchcock (there are shades of North by Northwest), while the second features screenwriter Dean Georgais, who mostly narrates the on-screen action, but occasionally divulges a behind the scenes fact. Other extras include ‘Paycheck: Designing the Future’(18:15, SD), a general behind the scenes EPK, ‘Tempting Fate’ (16:50, SD), which concerns the film’s stunts (including storyboards), and seven deleted scenes (12:30, SD).

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up

Strange Wilderness


Perhaps apt considering its complete lack of accomplishment, Strange Wilderness features every trope in the underachiever dictionary. One gets the feeling that there wasn’t any script written prior to filming, and that the cast was too busy with everything else on their plates to successfully give a crap about improvising anything worth watching. The director, for his part, seems to have taken a ‘single take only’ stance, because the performances are wildly uneven, disinterested, and 100% half-assed. Actions just sort of happen, and when a specific joke runs too thin the film cuts to the next set-up.

The one genuinely clever joke in the whole film is a bit where the team goes out of their way to spitefully eat the piranhas that ate their friend. I also give minor props for including (unaltered) footage from the original Faces of Death.

Strange Wilderness is made with the same eye for pleasant and colourful images most recent comedies are. This film features slightly stronger contrast levels, and this leads to some slightly sharper details, but we’re not talking a huge improvement. The night scenes, what few of them there are, are really dark—like, entirely black backgrounds against actors dark. Colours bleed a tiny bit, but nothing too bad, and are relatively natural. The only specific point of interest concerning this transfer is the amusing contrast between the film and the messy stock footage. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is almost entirely centred. There are some pop music moments that feature in the stereo channels, but the rear channels are pretty damn bare, save a couple of crickets. The centeredness of everything is dynamically uninteresting, but everything is clear and consistent. The LFE is limp throughout the entire track, even during the musical moments. The minimal extras include ‘Cooker’s Song’ (5:00, SD), behind the scenes on a campfire song, ‘The Turkey’ (6:00, SD), behind the scenes on the most graphic scene in the film, ‘What Do We Do’ (6:00, SD), ‘Reel Comedy: Strange Wilderness’ (21:00, SD), a made for TV featurette, and a collection of deleted scenes (22:00, SD).


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