Controversial Blus: The Informant (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I haven't really considered myself a fan of Steven Soderbergh in a long time. I remember liking Sex, Lies & Videotape (I need to go back to and revisit that one), Kafka was at least an interesting effort and Schizopolis was quite good. But after that, his films seem to range from the decent (Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich) to the poor (The Girlfriend Experience, anyone?) fairly adrift in a sea of unwanted remakes (Ocean's 11, Solaris, Traffic). So The Informant really took me by surprise. It's brilliant, like all of the strengths he showed in his past work combined with none of the flaws to make this movie. Unfortunately, the DVD for it was a little disappointing.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Whatacre, the real life informant of an international price-fixing conspiracy of lysine that happened in the mid 90s. It's a true story, an involving human drama, and a comedy. It's a constant neck-and-neck race between the writing and the performances, including Scott Bakula as Damon's FBI contact who's connection is more crooked and crazy than the people he's investigating. There's actually lots of great comic actors in the supporting roles, including Rick Overton, Patton Oswalt and even The Smothers Brothers. But it's way of staying right on the edge of being a straight-forward depiction of actual events vs. an out and out comedy that makes it so effective on multiple levels at once.

So now, what I've got here is the single disc version of the US blu-ray from Warner Bros. Initial pressings of The Informant were a blu-ray/ DVD combo pack; but this is one of the later copies, where it's just the blu-ray by itself. So then I've got the stand-alone DVD release - rather than the other half of the combo pack - to compare it to.
I remember this blu-ray getting a lot of flack when it came out, and I can see why. But I'm not sure I agree with all of it. Certainly the fact that this is a single layer disc is a red flag. This film was shot digitally, and Soderbergh has definitely made some choices to make the film look less than perfectly beautiful. So reviewing this disc can be a frustrating game of 'But Is It Supposed To Look Like That?'  This film tends to blow out the contrast, for example, which is surely a deliberate part of the film's look, as opposed to an instance like Sony's recent rash of discs with black crush. For this review, I've gone back and read all of the Informant reviews I could find online, and I have to say I can't locate all the flaws I've seen referenced. A couple of reviews mention aliasing or macroblocking that, stepping through this frame by frame, I just can't pinpoint.
But that said, it's not like I don't see anything to criticize. There's some weird juttering when Damon makes his initial walk through the office, on both the DVD and blu. Something is definitely going on there. One review I read refers to it as aliasing, but I don't see any actual aliasing. The scene is full of little lines - horizontal blinds, cubicles, squares in the ceiling - and they never split. There's some standard motion blur since it's a tracking shot of a character walking swiftly through, but the real issue can't be captured in a still frame because it's about the relation of one frame to the next. I suspect some digital retooling happened in the post-production process (of the filmmaking, not anything that would be the fault of people putting together the blu-ray), possibly where the camera wasn't as steady as they wanted, so they did something to "lock" the shot onto Damon, which makes the background shift around behind him or something.  That's just one guess, mind you; I couldn't know without having been there as they edited the film. But it's a scene that'll immediately stand out to anyone watching the blu critically. But it's not constant - Damon makes a similar walk through the same location later in the film and no juttering. So maybe it's a problem with the shot they just left in. Or maybe it's one of those 'It's Supposed To Be There' moments, and Soderbergh put in the juttering to make the audience feel uneasy or who knows what. Personally I doubt that, but it does look more like a problem with the original film, than a problem with the home video release.
Warner Bros' blu-ray n top; DVD on bottom.
Comparing it now to the DVD, since they were concurrent releases of a brand new release, you can expect them to look pretty much the same, and they do. The 1.78:1 framing, colors, brightness, etc are of course all the same. But this film was shot in 4k, so we should definitely see a distinct difference between the DVD and blu when we get up close.
blu-ray left; DVD right.
Increasing the picture size on a bit of detail makes it pretty clear. It may be fuzzy, but on the blu-ray side (left), you can actually read the sign. But you can only guess at what it says on the DVD. So that's a pretty good look at the degree to which the resolution is superior.
Also controversial about these releases, specifically the disparity between them, are the extras. The blu-ray opens with two stupid, forced ads: one for blu-rays, one for digital copies. The DVD opens with the same ad for blu-rays, but then has forced trailers for Invictus, The Book of Eli, Sherlock Holmes, The Invention of Lying and The Box. But that's not what's controversial - those are just annoying. The controversy lies in the real extras for the film. While both versions feature four deleted scenes (which are good and worth watching if you enjoyed the movie), only the blu-ray has the audio commentary with Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. Now there's no disc space issue as to why the commentary isn't on the DVD; it was just part of Warner Bros' push to compel consumers to switch to blu-ray. It's not the first time they did that - Soderbergh's previous film, Ocean's 13, pulled the same trick. Even as a blu-ray supporter, I feel that move was pretty shady. People should make the change because they want the upgrade to HD, not because the studios are sabotaging their DVD releases. The newer move from physical media to streaming has probably killed this practice off, it's not exactly restoring discs that are already out there in the wild. So yeah, if you want the commentary, you've gotta go blu. And it's a rather good - fun and informative, getting into the book the film is based and the filmmaking - commentary, too. And since this film is based on a true story, there's a lot to take away from the discussion.
So I absolutely recommend this film, even for people who don't generally consider themselves very big fans of Soderbergh. And if you're going to get it, you've pretty much gotta go for the blu-ray, if only because you're going to feel ripped off missing out on that commentary otherwise. But once you've got it, you should be happy with it, because I think the disc is actually better than its reputation.

No comments:

Post a Comment