A Back Catalog Gem From Kino: Ballast (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Man, the critics were right about 2008's Ballast; I just can't stop watching it. It's taken me three days to get screenshots for this post because every time I start to look at a scene, I let it play out and wind up watching the movie all the way through again. It's one of those film festival darlings that's won a lot of awards, but I tend not to pay attention to, since the press likes to hype those movies whether they deserve it or not. But when I finally saw it, I realized this one's the real deal. In fact, I was mid-way through casually streaming it on Netflix (younger readers will probably have no idea, but they used to have movies!) when I turned it off, because I knew I had to buy the disc and watch it properly.
It's a pretty relaxed story that concentrates on character rather than plot points, and I think that's a large part of what keeps drawing me back in. Particularly the second half, when you get past the set up and the characters really begin to bloom before you. A man commits suicide and his twin brother tries to follow in his footsteps, but survives. As he recovers, his estranged wife and son return to divide the property, including a small thrift store the brothers used to run together. They discover the best way to get by is if they re-open the store and run it together, and they slowly and realistically begin to rebuild a family out of the ashes of their former one and the ruins of a desolate economy.
This is the debut film by writer/ director Lance Hammer, and sadly, still his only one to date. It's an impressive combination of hand-held yet carefully designed cinematography, and long rehearsed improvised drama. The performances are exceptional, and really make a case for film spending more time developing scenes than the standard 3-4 week shooting schedule. And thank goodness he took on the expense of shooting this on 35mm, because the temptation for an indie 2008 film would surely have been not only to shoot on digital, but quite possibly even standard def like Inland Empire. And that would have really diminished this film's striking look, and I think ultimately compromised its emotional power.

Kino released Ballast on DVD and blu-ray in 2009 as a new release. And since I'm so taken with this movie, I thought I'd be thorough and take a look at both today.
Kino's 2009 DVD on top and their 2009 blu-ray beneath.
 So since it was a new film delivered simultaneously on both formats, it's unsurprising that they look very similar. The production company probably delivered finished digital masters to Kino directly, who didn't have to work on the transfer besides slapping them onto discs. Both have identical 2.35 aspect ratios, and yes the DVD's anamorphic. Neither release is interlaced or otherwise troubled, it's simply a question of two excellent transfers, one on SD and one in HD.
Which is not to say that there's no appreciable difference. Zoom in on the details, and you really see how much clearer and distinct the blu is to the more compressed DVD. Small print becomes legible and grain looks natural. Check out how the BC logo looks like a lemniscate (∞) on the DVD. That's  downright weird. So anyway, there's enough of an improvement that blu-ray collectors will be happy with their choice, while casual viewers who are less fussed with finer picture quality will be perfectly satisfied with the DVD.

Both discs have a strong 5.1 mix, though only the blu's is TrueHD. Both are clear, and there's not much music or fancy sound effects in either case. Both discs also offer optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.
There's no fancy, special edition of Ballast, unfortunately, but we do get one fairly substantial extra, on both the DVD and blu. It's a 38-minute collection of rehearsal footage, which you can watch straight through with a "Play All" button, or individually. There's no narration or talk with Hammer, which would've been great; but it is a pretty interesting look at the film's creation and the actors' process, which also works a bit like deleted scenes, as we hear dialogue which didn't make the final cut. There's also the theatrical trailer, and an insert featuring an essay by film critic Amy Taubin, but that's it.
Unless Lance Hammer becomes the next Martin Scorsese in the next decade, I don't think we'll ever see another edition of Ballast on home video, so even though it's light on extras, let's be thankful for what we got. In the UK, it was a DVD only release (and no, they didn't get any additional features), and if this film were released today, it would probably be digital download/ streaming only. So here's a highly recommended, lesser known title from Kino's back catalog. Get it and maybe we entice Hammer into making a second feature already. Or, given that he seems to take his time to create things the right way, maybe he's already eight years into the making of it. :)

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