Oppenheimer

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $325.37 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for some sexuality, nudity and language.
Stars Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Dylan Arnold, Tom Conti, James D’Arcy, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Jefferson Hall, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, Scott Grimes, Jack Quaid, Christopher Denham, Olivia Thirlby, Gary Oldman.

Director Christopher Nolan’s meticulously crafted Oppenheimer is a bit of a throwback to the kinds of epics stocked with all-star casts Hollywood used to pump out in the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet this biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, labeled by history as the “father of the atomic bomb,” is also distinctly Nolan, marked by his penchant for nonlinear storytelling and pushing the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. It’s a testament to Nolan’s skill as a director that he’s able to craft a riveting character drama from what is essentially three hours of people just talking to each other.

Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer frames the story of its title subject through the proceedings of two political hearings. One, set in 1954, finds Oppenheimer (longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy) attempting to restore his security clearance in the face of efforts to silence him from influencing nuclear policy. The other, set in 1959, focuses on the Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a former member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who sheds light on Oppenheimer’s ouster.

Nolan uses similar points of discussion from the testimony given at both events to explore Oppenheimer’s life through flashbacks depicting the young scientist’s study of physics in Europe and his efforts to expand the field of quantum mechanics research in the United States.

Oppenheimer is poised to pioneer the study of black holes when World War II breaks out, and he is recruited by Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to head the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany.

Scenes stemming from Strauss’ point of view are presented in black and white and meant to convey a more objective reality, while scenes in color represent Oppenheimer’s perspective and a more subjective interpretation of events.

The highlight of the three-hour film is obviously the middle section depicting the creation of the atomic bomb, with Oppenheimer and Groves bringing many of America’s top minds to a makeshift town in the New Mexico desert in order to turn theory into reality, culminating in the Trinity test.

Oppenheimer, however, is constantly dogged by earlier associations with left-wing causes, and friendships with a number of Communist Party members and Soviet sympathizers, that will ultimately be used as a sledgehammer against him.

Nolan in the Blu-ray bonus features describes the film’s structure as moving from the beginning of the hero’s journey, to a heist movie (the recruiting of a team for a caper of sorts), to a courtroom drama.

Through Murphy’s transformative performance, Oppenheimer comes to life as a man constantly struggling to balance the accolades of his historic achievements with the moral weight of their implications.

The last hour of the film depicts this sort of tug-of-war between America’s efforts to maintain nuclear superiority in the face of Russia developing the technology, and Oppenheimer’s desire to pursue international policies to contain the genie he helped escape from the bottle.

Nolan famously shot the film using large-format Imax cameras, and the results are evident in a pristine 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation. The 4K and Blu-ray disc versions of the film take advantage of this with a variable aspect ratio that shifts between a letterboxed 2.20:1 image and an immersive 1.78:1 that occupies the entirety of a big-screen TV. The DVD and digital presentations are locked at a consistent 2.20:1 ratio.

Sound is booming but dialogue is easy to understand despite most scenes taking place in a conversational tone.

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The 4K and Blu-ray combo packs include a bonus disc containing nearly three-and-a-half hours of supplemental material, led by the seven-part “The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer” behind-the-scenes documentary.

Clocking in at more than 72 minutes, the program offers a comprehensive look at the making of the film and the exquisite level of detail employed by Nolan in re-creating the period settings, for the most part. Of note, the set of Oppenheimer’s office includes the actual clock he had in his real office, and scenes taking place at the Oppenheimers’ home were filmed at their actual house in Los Alamos. Nolan was also keen on using practical in-camera effects as opposed to CGI, which lends to the film’s air of authenticity.

The seven featurettes are also available with digital copies of the film. The remaining extras are exclusive to the Blu-ray.

The eight-minute “Innovations in Film” focuses on the use of 65mm to shoot the picture, delving into the cinematography and editing challenges presented. Of note, the production had to invent black-and-white 65mm film stock to achieve the film’s visual style. There’s also a segment on how the film was prepared for digital projection and home video, with the digital version of the film being carefully rendered to match the look and feel of the 70mm Imax presentation.

For some comparisons of the different presentation styles of the film, there’s a full package of the film’s trailers, including an Imax trailer that displays footage from the film in the square Imax ratio, plus the five-minute promo video that played during the early summer. The footage in these trailers isn’t as refined as the film presentation, which demonstrates how much care went into making the film look the best it can be.

A 35-minute “Meet the Press” episode features a Q&A from July 15, 2023, featuring Nolan, author Bird, physicist and Nolan science advisor Dr. Kip Thorne, current Los Alamos director Dr. Thom Mason, and physicist Dr. Carlo Rovelli. It’s an interesting discussion about the relationship between science and policy, and includes some tidbits about how Nolan the screenwriter went a bit deeper than the book in depicting the Strauss confirmation hearing by digging up the actual transcripts.

Rounding out the extras is the hour-and-a-half To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb, a great biographical documentary about the real Oppenheimer that gives a better context to the events depicted in the film. Seeing the copious footage of the soft-spoken Oppenheimer — he comes across as a bit of a professorial Mr. Rogers — really crystalizes how much Murphy was able to embody him in his performance. This is the kind of bonus feature more movies about real events should include on home video but just don’t anymore.

Lionsgate Acquires ‘Silk Road’ for U.S. Theatrical, Digital, VOD Release Feb. 19, Disc Release Feb. 23

Lionsgate has acquired the crime thriller Silk Road for U.S. theatrical, digital and VOD release Feb. 19 and Blu-ray and DVD release Feb. 23.

Written for the screen and directed by Tiller Russell, the film stars Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp, Jimmi Simpson, Katie Aselton, Lexi Rabe, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Daniel Stewart and Paul Walter Hauser.

Based on true events, Silk Road focuses on the young, affluent, and highly motivated entrepreneur Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), whose ambitious goal is to launch the Internet’s first completely anonymous and unregulated marketplace. With Ulbricht’s passion for the possibilities his invention offers the world, his site — the Silk Road — becomes the world’s fastest-growing drug market, catching the focus of disgraced DEA agent Rick Bowden (Clarke). A dinosaur with a habit for substance abuse and blowing cases, Bowden once had street savvy in dark corners but is unprepared for the dark web as he struggles through tutorials on how to use the Internet. As both men’s private lives erode, with Bowden in over his head and Ross’s growing paranoia driving unthinkable choices, they cling to their jobs in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse that have both men asking how far their idealism can take them.

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Silk Road is based on the Rolling Stone article “Dead End On Silk Road” by David Kushner. Years after the legal conclusion of the investigation, the Silk Road saga continues to make headlines, as it was recently reported that $1 billion in bitcoin connected to the site was recently moved for the first time in years — a signal that the criminals who operate in the darkest corners of the internet have not gone away.

Silk Road is a thrilling story with the kind of stranger-than-fiction details that can only come from a true story,” Lionsgate VP of acquisitions Lauren Bixby said in a statement. “This movie will keep audiences riveted by its cat and mouse game of a criminal mastermind being tracked by a hot-headed narc.”

First Man

(Review) Director Damien Chazelle’s visually impressive biopic about the first man to walk on the surface of the moon challenges viewers’ expectations about what a film about the space program is supposed to be by focusing on the man instead of the mission, presenting an intimate and not always flattering portrait of an American hero that most Americans actually know very little about.

 

 

 

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 1/22/19;
Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $44.94 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.
Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbot, Ciarán Hinds, Lucas Haas, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit.

Space program enthusiasts thinking this biopic about Neil Armstrong would be as awe-inspiring treatment as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 might want to temper their expectations.

Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not altogether about the Apollo 11 moon landing. Strictly speaking, it’s not even about the space program. As the title would imply, it’s a film about Neil Armstrong the man, what drove him to join NASA, and what motivated his efforts to become the first man to walk on the moon. Depictions of spaceflight achievements take a backseat to the character study of the most famous of astronauts that, ironically, most of the public really knew nothing about.

Chazelle’s re-creations of various missions are dazzling visually, but his aim is not to celebrate the achievements of the space program the way other portrayals have. That disconnect between filmmaker objective and audience expectation may be the primary reason the film underperformed at the box office despite massive critical buzz (though, really, how much of the acclaim was simply drafting from the aura of Chazelle’s Best Director Oscar for La La Land is anybody’s guess).

First Man is moody. It’s gritty. It’s lyrical and often plays like a dream, a tone set by a haunting musical score from Justin Hurwitz that often shifts between elegant and droning. And sometimes it’s just depressing. The first two-thirds of the movie feels like a 1970s independent film rather than what one might expect from a big-budget outer space blockbuster.

First Man

Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a sullen family man who takes on risk as a means of distracting himself from the grief over the death of his young daughter in the early 1960s. This is a portrait of a man constantly confronted with death, with several of his astronaut friends killed training for missions. Yet Armstrong presses on, despite questions about whether going to the moon is even worth it. As an engineer and pilot, Armstrong is absorbed by the challenges of spaceflight to the seeming detriment of his personal life and relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and two sons. He even conducts a discussion with his children over his chances of surviving the moon mission with the cold stoicism of a press conference.

The depicted missions are presented mostly from the point-of-view of Armstrong, with the final part of the film taken up with Apollo 11. Most of the major events were covered much more comprehensively in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, and anyone familiar with that miniseries will be struck by just how much is missing from the depictions here.

That’s not necessarily to the movie’s detriment, since it needs to portray the missions just enough to show how they fit into Armstrong’s story, not America’s. The result of this narrative direction, however, seems to be a choice to portray the missions in a matter-of-fact way more akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar, as opposed to an inspirational achievement the way most audiences would be used to.

The film is less interested in technical details and glosses over several of them, such as an alarm that went off several times during the lunar landing that indicated the navigational computer was being overwhelmed with data (which doesn’t get explained until the bonus materials, for anyone who isn’t otherwise aware of what happened). The film flubs a few details, too, but only the hardcore enthusiasts are likely to notice.

Once viewers can get past such challenges, it’s easy enough to appreciate the film for its technical and artistic merits, which may take several viewings to fully take in.

Notably, First Man was the first big-screen dramatization of an actual Gemini mission, with the depiction of Armstrong and Dave Scott performing the first orbital docking during Gemini VIII. The mission was cut short when a stuck thruster sent the capsule spinning out of control before Armstrong could stabilize the craft. But here’s a prime example of how the decision to stick with Armstrong’s perspective could hamper the audience’s understanding of what was really going on, aside from a colossal malfunction taking place.

Personally, the knowledge I already had of the incident helped me follow what the scene was trying to portray, so I’d recommend checking out the first episode of From the Earth to the Moon for a more omnipresent look at what happened (aside from actual research on it, of course).

Likewise, with the way the film rushes through the lunar landing sequence, the way it’s handled in From the Earth to the Moon’s sixth episode will probably be more to a lot of viewers’ tastes. (HBO would be wise to re-release the From the Earth to the Moon DVD boxed set, assuming they aren’t willing to remaster the visual effects for high-definition to finally release it on Blu-ray).

First Man

Judging by an otherwise excellent audio commentary track of Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer and editor Tom Cross, the filmmakers weren’t really interested in how their movie would be compared to previous examples of the genre, other than stylistically. That’s kind of a shame, as the decision to present the Gemini VIII launch from the viewpoint of within the capsule the whole time works well to simulate Armstrong’s experience for viewers, but robs us of what could have been a glorious external view of the rocket launching that hasn’t really been dramatized yet.

Instead, Chazelle saves the inspirational launch for the liftoff of Apollo 11, and while a fully fueled Saturn V rocket is a sight to behold, and First Man manages to craft a solid launch with some good shots of the spacecraft, the filmmakers were going to be hard-pressed to top what we’ve already seen from the Apollo 13 depiction of a Saturn launch, which is the standard-bearer for such sequences.

In addition, the remarkable shot from the trailers of a Saturn launch that’s reflected in a window as Armstrong watches was cut out of the movie. It’s available as one of the two deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, while the film’s trailers haven’t been included with the disc.

The other deleted scene is a sequence of the Armstrong house burning down, which really happened in 1964.

The Blu-ray also includes about 34 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which in conjunction with the commentary provide a lot of insights into the process of adapting the film from James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.

What’s particularly fascinating is the level of practical visual effects employed with models and in-camera opticals rather than an abundance of CGI. In fact, it’s almost as if the filmmakers used technological advancements to improve upon old-school methods, filming models and cockpits in front of a giant LED screen that displays images at a resolution high enough to look like the real deal in the final product (with some digital enhancements).

This results in several visually stunning sequences that look great on the high-definition presentation of the disc. Scenes on Earth were shot with different grain levels to give the film a retro feel that serves its tone well. Of course, Chazelle is saving most of the razzle-dazzle for the final lunar sequence, which was shot with Imax cameras and appropriately shifts aspect ratios to capture the grandeur of it on home video.

To re-create the moon, filmmakers built a giant lunar set at a quarry, filmed at night with an actual full-sized lunar lander mock-up and a giant light in the distance to stimulate the sun (as opposed to the greenscreen and CGI approach most films would likely take today). The results pay off in a visually impressive lunar sequence that provides a real stylistic contrast with how such scenes have been handled before.

First Man