Chinatown Blu-ray ReviewApril 07, 2012
Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 film Noir classic, is a seminal film for a number of reasons.
It wasn't the movie that introduced the world to Jack Nicholson by any means, but it was the movie where we all learned that he was one of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen. It single-handedly redefined the private-eye mystery. It provided profound depth and grit to the genre and left it irrevocably changed.
It is, in short, an absolute masterpiece.
The standard way to describe it would be to say that there has been no movie like it before or since, but I can think of two very unlikely films to which to compare Chinatown. In much the same way that Christopher Nolan's Batman films have a way of convincing an audience that the goings-on in the film are realistic despite being nothing remotely resembling reality, Chinatown pulls the same cinematic magic trick.
The things happening in this movie are, at best, remote possibilities. And yet the realism and grit with which the events unfold lend this fantastic Noir universe an extra element of credence.
It also shares an air of escapism with Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. Roger Ebert once described Sin City as the stuff of a Noir character's nightmares. In that way, Chinatown is a reflection of the way the Noir genre as a whole views itself in the mirror. It sees itself as gritty yet heroic; grimy yet majestic.
The bottom line is that this is a film that continues to inspire and influence, directly or otherwise.
The story, set in late-30's Los Angeles, focuses on Nicholson in his iconic performance as private detective Jake Gittes, a sleuth who specializes in uncovering incidences of marital infidelity. Early on in the film he's tasked with what he sees as a routine assignment of proving a woman's husband of being unfaithful. His eyebrows are raised, however, when he realizes his client's husband bureaucrat Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) who's been drawing headlines for his opposition for the construction of a dam to alleviate a crippling drought in the City of Angels.
The plot thickens when Jake is approached by Ellen Mulwray (Faye Dunaway in a great performance) - Hollis Mulwray's REAL wife. As one mystery after another begins to unravel, Jake soon finds himself trapped in an uphill battle through crime and corruption.
Chinatown is the very definition of "out of the frying pan, into the fryer," as every time Jake peels the onion back a bit further, another two layers appears in its place. It does what any great movie should do: It's constantly a minimum of one step ahead of the audience. If you've never seen it before (by the way: Why HAVEN'T you seen it before?), you'll find yourself playing catch-up from beginning to end; even better is that you'll never once be bothered by that.
The picture is an absolutely brilliant mixture of style and substance. The film is beautifully crafted, with each shot conveying a bevy of atmospheric and emotional delight. It's also an interesting study in looking at a familiar setting like Los Angeles in less-than-familiar circumstances. The sun is always shining, the colors are always bright, and yet the dingy, underhanded activities taking place keep the tension and mystery alive.
The construction of the story is also fantastic, taking the character of Jake Gittes on a genuine arc; he starts the story bored with his lot in life, and the next thing you know his nose is being sliced to pieces in one of the film's most visceral and iconic scenes.
Chinatown boasts a story that, in spite of its mid-30s setting, has a timeless quality about it. It's emblematic of art's ability to transcend time and space and still convey a relevant message years later. You might know nothing about post-Depression era Los Angeles, but themes of political corruption cross boundaries in profound ways and come across as fresh and vibrant.
And I can't say enough about the performances from bona fide legendary actors. As if it's not enough for Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway to be in the same picture, they're joined by the legendary John Huston in an understated performance as the enigmatic Noah Cross.
Chinatown is an absolute classic, and if you've never seen it you owe it to yourself (and humanity in general) to give it a look.
Chinatown boasts a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that, to be honest, isn't all that great. As with most films from this era, it looks as good as a 38-year-old movie is going to, but it's really not exactly a huge leap over the DVD transfer. It has more than its share of artifacting and noise, and blacks come across crushed and ill-defined in more than a few spots. By no means does it look bad, but a classic of this stature deserved a little extra work done to its visual presentation.
As for the audio, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless track is also fairly lukewarm. The film has certainly never sounded better, but, again, you won't find it to be a quantum leap from its DVD counterpart by any stretch of the imagination. The treatment of ambiance is fitting of the film's conspicuously subdued tone, but the bigger sound moments tend to fall flat in many instances.
Beyond the Feature
Paramount has released Chinatown with a great deal of bonus features. The bad news is that none of the features are new. The good news is that the features that have been ported over from the DVD release are just as awesome now as they were then.
The true treat among the bonus features is the audio commentary track with the film's screenwriter Robert Towne and modern-day auteur David Fincher. Both participants convey great reverence and appreciation for the piece, and their energy makes for a compelling listen.
The rest of the bonus features are as follows:
Aside from the trailer, all bonus features are presented in standard definition.
Chinatown's sheer status as a legendary cinematic achievement warrants its place in your Blu-ray collection. It isn't the best high-definition presentation on the market, but the greatness of the movie itself earns it a place on the shelf.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for Chinatown on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (April 3, 2012 release date).
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