Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blu-ray Review: The Bourne Identity

Robert Ludlum's Bourne franchise has certainly been around the block a few times. The original book, Identity, was released in 1980 and since then seven books total have been released with the Bourne name attached. Sadly, most people undoubtedly associate the character to the trilogy of films that began in 2002.

Over-budgeted and oft-delayed, The Bourne Identity became a box office success story that went on to spawn the sequels, Supremacy and Ultimatum. Matt Damon instantly became an action star with that role and I dare say that he made the Bourne character his own. He fit the bill perfectly and there wasn't another actor out there that could have done a better job. Then again, that's just my opinion. But if the success of the franchise is a barometer of what the masses think, then I'm pleased to say that I'm not the only one.

Directed by Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity, begins with Bourne floating in the middle of the ocean. He's picked up by a rust-bucket of a fishing boat and after a little surgery to remove two bullets they discover a metallic cylinder within his skin. The object contains information about a bank in Germany and an account, but it's the least mysterious thing about Bourne. He simply has no clue who he is, where he's from, what he's doing, or where he's going. He has total amnesia, but retains his motor skills and abilities (such as the ability to kung fu chop two cops and render them unconscious in less than 10 seconds).

Upon getting ashore Bourne makes his way to Germany to find his bank account and unravel some of the secrets his mind is blocking. Along the way he gets in a scuffle at the US embassy and winds up hitching a ride with random stranger Marie (Franka Potente). Soon enough the two are on the run for their lives as an organization of assassins known as Treadstone begins closing in. Throughout Europe and in and around Paris Bourne and Marie scurry to fend off would-be killers and find out what's going on.

There are a few reveals as far as what happened along the way, but these are more or less breadcrumbs to keep viewers strung along. You begin to feel the frustration that Bourne's character feels and the film does a very good job of making you sympathize with him. The combination of the direction, script, and acting draws you in and takes you along for the ride. It's a white-knuckled experience that doesn't let up to the end, and even that's left open for the sequel Supremacy.

The bottom line is that the Bourne films are a blast and Identity is every bit as fun today was it was seven years ago when it was originally released. The brisk pacing helps the film's action, but it's the way all of these sequences were edited together that make the experience more visceral. If you haven't seen the movie yet for whatever reason then consider it highly recommended.

Now, if you have seen the film and are approaching this latest release, there are a few things you should know. First of all is that Universal's latest Blu-ray release marks the sixth time this film has hit store shelves. Two individual releases were on Standard Definition DVD, there was a trilogy repack, a release on HD-DVD, and last year a Blu-ray trilogy was released. So why release the films again one year later on the same format? Apparently there's a market for Blu-ray/DVD combo packs with high-def on one side and standard on the other. Who knew!

Bourne Identity's latest Blu-ray release receives a transfer that is identical to the trilogy release from last year. The film is presented in 1080p with an original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and comes with VC-1 encoding and hovers around 34 Mbps (the DVD features 480p resolution and similar aspect ratio). The fact that this transfer is like the previous means the picture quality is very solid, but not entirely perfect. On the bad side of things there is some grain present in many scenes and some scratches are still present from the original print. Otherwise the quality is razor sharp with loads of crystal clarity and nice definition all around. The black levels are rich and the contrast is kept in check. One quick flip of the disc highlights the differences between the high definition transfer and the standard (again, this is the most up to date standard definition transfer). All around this is the superior picture and if you own the previous DVD release then it's definitely worth the upgrade.

As far as sound is concerned this latest release for Identity presents the film with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 as its main source of output. Options are also available for French and Spanish DTS 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0. The DTS-HD track is simply incredible. The sound hits you from all directions with great force and intelligent uses for every channel. The film comes to life and sucks you in, emphasizing the bombastic score and powerful sound effects with great effect. On the DVD side of the disc the film comes with English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are included for English, French, and Spanish as well.

This latest release of Bourne Identity includes a laundry list of bonus features. Perusing these is a daunting task and if you're new to them you'll want to take the extra time to see what they all have to offer. However, if you're coming to this release from one of the prior ones then you should know there are three supplemental features that were only available on the HD-DVD release and some additional content on U-Control and BD-Live.

As far as the list of bonus features is concerned there is an alternate opening and closing that were changed in response to 9/11. "The Bourne Mastermind: Robert Ludlum" (6:37) takes a look at the author, "Access Granted: An Interview with Tony Gilroy" (4:04) features Tony talking about writing the script for the film, "From Identity to Supremacy: Jason & Marie" (3:38) bridges the gap between this film and the next with some talk between Potente and Damon, and "The Bourne Diagnosis" (3:26) is a corny bit with a psychiatrist talking about amnesia. "Cloak and Dagger: Covert Ops" (5:32) looks at some undercover agent stuff, "Inside a Fight Sequence" (4:43) examines how one of the more intense fight scenes was put together, and "The Birth of The Bourne Identity" (14:32) is an overview of the film with some commentary from the cast.

There's still plenty of other bonus content to sift through with a handful of deleted scenes, an extended version of the farmhouse sequence, and a music video by Moby. Included here once again is the fantastic commentary by Director Doug Liman which is truly a must watch/listen for anyone watching this film. New to this release are three features: "The Ludlum Identity" (12:49), "The Ludlum Supremacy" (12:41), and "The Ludlum Ultimatum" (23:57). All three of these are documentary style features with people who knew, or were influenced by, Ludlum talking about the man and his work.

The Blu-ray exclusive features included U-Control and BD-Live. The U-Control content is interactive and appears when this option is activated and prompted. Basically there's "Picture in Picture", "Treadstone Files", and "Bourne Orientation"; all of which are worth turning on for additional views on the picture and information about the characters and film. The BD-Live content is kind of lame with mostly trailers and a card strategy game to waste some time with. (Note: The "Speed of Sound" feature that was present on other releases does not make the cut here.)

All in all this release of The Bourne Identity is certainly worth the upgrade over the standard definition. The A/V presentation of the film may not be "perfect" but it is spectacular without a doubt and should be experienced by fans of the film to truly be appreciated. Whether or not you pick this release up depends entirely on you and what's already in your collection. Whatever the case may be this release is highly recommended based on its own merits.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side

Few television series have as checkered a history as Family Guy. I mean, the show was canceled twice and resurrected via DVD sales. Since its return, however, the quality has been gradually declining with recycled gags and the writers opting for so-stupid-it’s-funny humor. Then again, this review isn’t for the series of Family Guy, it’s for the latest Star Wars homage, Something, Something, Something Dark Side. Unfortunately the follow-up to the very successful, very funny Blue Harvest falls prey to the same pitfalls the series is experiencing.

Let me be perfectly clear before we get on with this review. Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is a scene by scene tribute to Empire Strikes Back. It was lovingly put together by a crew who obviously have a deep passion for Star Wars. Painstaking detail went into just about every scene here and so many are faithful representations of the Lucas original, just in Family Guy animated form. Kudos must go to the team for that effort. Seriously, this is an amazing release in that sense. If you love Star Wars and like Family Guy then you’ll want to check this release out on that point alone. The disappointment sets in when you come to this release hoping for something as fresh and fun as Blue Harvest. Dark Side just is not as funny and doesn’t pop as well, despite the effort.

It all begins deep in space with an Imperial ship launching some probe droids while looking for the rebels. Luke Skywalker (Chris) is searching the planet called Hoth when he sees one of the probes, but is attacked by the Cookie Monster, er...I mean wampa. Meanwhile Captain Spicy Weiner (AKA Han Solo – played by Peter) is making to get off the icy rock, but he winds up getting roped into saving Luke. Soon enough Vader (Stewie) and the Empire find their way to Hoth, Luke leaves to find Yoda (played weakly by Chris’ old boss), and we all end up in Cloud City to watch Han frozen in carbonite.

If there was any doubt in your mind, rest assured that Something, Something, Something Dark Side indeed rips nearly every scene from Empire Strikes Back. The only real difference is that this version is condensed to be bones of the story and Family Guy’s brand of humor is infused throughout. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

If you’ve seen Family Guy at all then you should know what to expect. There’s the old banged knee gag, Peter versus the Chicken (Boba Fett), and all manner of random things that really have no place being there. For instance, early on in the film Peter breaks into a spoof of a Juicy Fruit commercial. Then there’s a guy who walks around the rebel base asking if anyone wants some ice, and Chris’ training with Yoda turns into a montage from Rocky IV. Again, this is atypical of what we’ve come to expect from the show, but there were far too many moments that I’m sure sounded funnier on paper than they actually were after production.

With the bad part out of the way I’m pleased to say that there are some truly inspired moments here that will cause viewers to burst out laughing and spit beverages from your nose, should they happen to be drinking at the time. There’s a maniacal genius to the script here at some points, and many of Dark Side’s better jokes are pulled off quite deftly. It’s just a shame that the breakdown between what’s hilarious and not is about 60/40.

Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is presented on blu-ray with a 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. That’s right, you read that correctly. Despite the fact that this is a direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray release MacFarlane and company went with full-screen. Still, this is about as good as Family Guy has ever looked in all honestly.

The disc features a full 1080p and comes with AVC encoding. As one would expect, the picture quality is razor sharp, the colors are ultra bright, and the contrast holds up very well. Black levels are rich and all around the designs are top notch with fantastic recreations of the source Star Wars film. Despite the near flawless presentation there are some light shimmer and very minor compression artifacts at a few points. By comparison, however, the Blu-ray is decidedly better than the standard definition DVD so if you have the option definitely go for this one.

The audio for Something, Something, Something Dark Side comes in the form of a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track. The quality of the sound for this Blu-ray is decidedly better than anything we’ve heard from Family Guy before. The track is clean, robust, and uses all channels quite well, though to be fair the front channels shoulder most of the weight. John William’s epic score rings through loud and clear, sounding almost as good as the Star Wars DVDs themselves. If I were to fault this disc for anything it would only be that the dialogue was a smidge out of balance compared to the sound effects and music. Voices rang through louder than they probably should have, but that’s an extremely minor grievance. A slew of subtitle tracks are included for this release as well.

The extra features on this Blu-ray release of Dark Side are definitely worth digging through. For starters there is a second disc included here with a digital copy of the film to download to your PC. Beyond that the main disc offers an audio commentary which includes Executive Producers Seth MacFarlane, Mark Hentemann and David A. Goodman, Director Dominic Polcino, Writer Kirker Butler, and Actor Seth Green. Going into this commentary I was hoping it would be full of insight into the production of the film and maybe a discussion loaded with references to Star Wars. While some of that exists here, the majority of this commentary is the guys poking fun at each other and laughing at their own jokes. It grated on the nerves after a while and I dare say that only the most stalwart Family Guy fans will want to listen through to the end.

Beyond the commentary there’s a “Fact-up” track that runs the course of the movie as well. With this feature enable pop-up like snippets of information appear on the screen at random times. The content is split between those that deal with Family Guy and those that focus on Star Wars. This track was far more informative and interesting than the supplied audio commentary. “The Dark Side of the Poster Art” (9:18) features Character Designer Mick Cassidy and Painter Joe Vaux talking about how they created the poster cover art for Dark Side. It’s pretty interesting to see the evolution of the sketch to final product, but the fact that they are shirtless for most of the feature is a little disconcerting.

“Animatic Scene-to-Scene with Commentary by Director Dominic Polcino” (6:36) was a nice storyboard piece that compared black and white pencil sketches to the final product. It really gives one a strong impression for how the film and many of the scenes came together. After the animatics there are two table readings of both Dark Side and the upcoming conclusion to the trilogy, We Have a Bad Feeling About This. The Dark Side reading takes both acts and squishes them together with a runtime shortly less than the final product. In case you don’t know what a table reading is, basically picture a smallish conference room with about 70 people packed into it with scripts, reading along as the voice cast does their thing. It’s entertaining for a while, but it’s a little drier than watching the animated version. As far as what we see of Episode VI, well, maybe it will be better with animation as well.

All in all Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is a worthy addition to the libraries of fans of Family Guy and Star Wars alike. It’s downright hilarious at times and the production crew’s hard work with recapturing the smallest details from Empire Strikes Back simply has to be seen to be believed. With that being said a great portion of this release’s humor falls flat on its face with many jokes that barely go so far as to elicit a chuckle. Expect to laugh really hard and then stare at the TV with a blank expression. Despite the lack of balance this release is still recommended and the Blu-ray is by far the edition of choice.