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Featured Blu-ray Review: Chinatown

April 2nd, 2012

Chinatown - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Chinatown came out in 1974, the year I was born. Despite being made before I was born, it instantly became one of my favorite films when I first saw it and remains so to this day. When this Blu-ray was announced, it was absolutely something I wanted. But, does it make the transition to high definition? The movie is closing in on its 40th anniversary, after all. And are there any new extras?

The Movie

The plot... yeah. Ummm... Here's the problem. Chinatown has a very complicated plot that is, in my estimation, 99% spoiler. Maybe I'm overstating things a little bit, but even giving a cast listing presents some spoilers. I'll try my best, but this will likely be very short.

The film begins with Curly looking through some photos of a man and a woman in some compromising positions. The woman is his wife and the man is not not him. The photographs were taken by Jake J. Gittes, a private investigator. After Curly leaves the office, Jake meets with his next potential client, a Mrs. Mulwray. She suspects her husband is cheating on her and while Jake tries to convince her not to look into it, she insists. The case immediately becomes more complicated when she tells him who her husband is. She's married to Hollis Mulwray, who is the Chief Engineer at Water and Power. Normally this would be an important position, especially for a large city like Los Angeles, but mostly a nameless one. He would be just one of many bureaucrats working to keep the city going. However, he's been in the news lately because of his opposition to the Alto Vallejo Dam, a project that would bring much needed water to Los Angeles. His objection is simple, the geological survey shows a dam won't hold, but a lot of people would stand to make a lot of money if it went through anyway.

Jake and his two associates, Duffy and Walsh, get right on the case and follow Hollis Mulwray as the man continues his work. All they get for the first day's work is proof he's dedicated to his job. The next day they hit the jackpot and Jake snaps a photograph of Hollis with a young lady. Before he knows it, the photo is in the papers. He didn't leak the photo to the papers, but he's happy for the publicity, that is until he gets to his office and learns...

And that's when we run into spoilers that are just too large to divulge. We are less than 20 minutes into the movie and we are already too deep into spoiler territory.

This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite films of all time. It is nearly perfect from the script, to the casting, to the acting, to the directing. The script is full of twists, but the world and characters are so consistent that you never get the impression that the screenwriter, Robert Towne, was making it up as he went along. He also understood the Film Noir genre so well that he was able to recreate the feel of these films without ever making it feel outdated. In fact, it still has the same impact nearly 40 years after it was made. As for the acting, this is arguably the best performance done by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. And if you don't think it is their best, it's at least in the top five for each actor. I'm not surprised the two lead actors earned Oscar nominations for their performance. I am a little surprised the film didn't win more than one Oscar (Robert Towne for Best Original Screenplay) but then again, it was against The Godfather: Part II. I do prefer this movie, but that's a matter of personal taste.

The Extras

Extras begin with an audio commentary with Robert Towne, the screenwriter, and David Fincher, whose career was heavily influenced by this film. Up next is a three part, 78-minute long featurette on the Los Angeles Aqueduct. That's not a typo. This is not a 7-minute featurette and I accidentally mashed two keys while typing that. This featurette has a running time of one hour and eighteen minutes. It discusses the Los Angeles Aqueduct and its importance to the history of the city and how its story and the story of Chinatown merge. Chinatown: An Appreciation is a 26-minute long featurette with a lot of filmmakers singing praise for the movie. The 19-minute The Beginning and the End has Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Robert Towne, and Robert Evans discussing the movie from the first draft to the planned trilogy. Chinatown: Filming is a 25-minute making of featurette. Finally, there's Chinatown: The Legacy, a ten-minute look at the film's lasting impact.

The technical presentation is excellent, when you consider its age. There are almost no signs of print damage, while the detail level is sharp, colors are amazing, shadows are deep without swallowing detail. There are no compression issues or signs of digital manipulation. It is not as visually striking as a movie made today would be, but you can't fault the transfer for that. The audio is good, great if you consider the film was originally in mono. There's some separation, but not a lot of sound comes from the rear speakers, and there's not much in terms of directional effects.

The Blu-ray costs $19, which is a good deal for a release of this caliber. It is shovelware, sadly, but the upgrade in the video and the audio is worth it.

The Verdict

Chinatown is easily one of the best movies ever made and while the Blu-ray is the The Centennial Collection DVD release, but in high definition, it is worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, Chinatown