Chinatown (Blu-ray)

March 19, 2012 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Quite possibly one of the most respected films to come around in the last 30 years, Chinatown holds up as well now as it did when it came out in 1974. Starring a then “star” on the rise, Jack Nicholson and an already established female lead, Faye Dunaway, Chinatown wasn’t exactly an ‘art house’ movie. Mostly it’s associated with director Roman Polanski who also helmed the critically acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski was banned from the United States after the Sharon Tate murders and has yet to return (despite winning the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003). Nevertheless, he plays a small part in this film and it’s probably the most memorable scene from this movie (when Nicholson’s Gittes’ gets his nose sliced). Among the other cast members is the great director John Huston (father to actress Angelica) who plays the villain or tycoon Noah Cross. Chinatown’s roots a movie aren’t new to Hollywood, as it deals with greed, power, money and corruption.

Set in the 1930′s, Chinatown focuses on the still growing town of Los Angeles. Small time private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired on by a “Mrs. Mulrae” to investigate if her husband is cheating on her. Of course, he finds more out than he wants to. It’s not long before another Mrs. Mulrae shows up, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) and things start to go from bad to worse. It seems that after a little more investigating, Jake starts finding out that there’s more to this whole ordeal than someone cheating on someone’s wife. The city of Los Angeles is between a desert and an ocean, so water is a problem. We learn that tycoon’s are buying up all the supposedly “worthless” land outside of Los Anglesey in the Valley…but why? The citizens of Los Angeles are voting on a bill to bring the water to Los Angeles, but this won’t happen. By bringing the water to the Valley instead, it will force the city to grow that way, hence all that once worthless land is now gold.

With great performances by nearly everyone in its cast, Chinatown is a movie that isn’t really made anymore. Even in the retrospective interviews, it’s said that if the movie were made today, it wouldn’t be the same. Maybe it’s the atypical Hollywood ending, maybe it’s the classic film noir attitude. One thing is, for sure, as Jake Gittes, this cemented Nicolson’s reputation for not only a movie star, but as a leading man as well. Faye Dunaway, as always puts in another great performance and it was interesting to hear Polanski’s comments about how methodical she was with her part (it was almost scary). Chinatown has certainly never looked and sounded better, so if you haven’t already treated yourself to one of the finer films around…this is the best way to experience it.

Video: How does it look?

I remember watching this movie when it came to DVD and being very impressed with the image quality.  Granted, I haven’t seen this since my review, but after popping in the Blu-ray I immediately recalled why I was so awestruck the first time.  Simply put, Chinatown looks gorgeous.  The brownish hues don’t suffer from aliasing, the contrast is strong and consistent and though there’s a bit of an issue with some banding – it doesn’t really detract from the overall image quality.  Detail has been improved ad this 2.35:1 AVC HD image showcases everything from the textures on clothes to the taped bandage on Nicholson’s nose.  Granted, the film is coming up on its 40th anniversary, so there’s a bit of “wear and tear” here and there, but the good far outweighs the bad in regard to how this appears on screen.

Audio: How does it sound?

Don’t let the back of the box fool you, though it says Dolby TrueHD, it’s a pretty thin-sounding 5.1 remix.  For purists, there’s a restored mono soundtrack as well.  And, to be totally honest, the mono is probably the way to go on this one.  While the 5.1 mix sounds a bit more spacious, it doesn’t really offer anything new in terms of sound or acoustics.  The film is about as dialogue-driven as they come and I don’t think viewers will miss out on the lack of surrounds.  Heck, maybe this is a good thing, listen to Robert Towne’s screenplay as opposed to craning your head around to see where the gun shots are coming from!

Supplements: What are the extras?

For those, like myself, who only own the previous DVD, this is a major step up in regard to supplements.  I don’t know if another version was released between the one I originally reviewed and this Blu-ray (I’d have to assume so, else they’d have plastered the case with these features).  Nevertheless, we start out with an audio commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne and David Fincher (yes, that one) as they laud their praise on the film.  There’s discussion about the title sequence, the script, the story and of course…Roman Polanski.  This is a must-listen for any fan of the film.  “Water and Power” is a three part segment featuring “The Aqueduct”, “The Aftermath” and “The River & Beyond.”  We get Robert Towne as he visits the aqueduct and get a bit of history on it, how it functions and its part in the film.  “Chinatown: An Appreciation” features filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, Roger Deakins and James Newton Howard as they discuss their initial impressions on the film, how it holds up with subsequent viewings and the overall film and how its stood the test of time.  “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End” features Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne and Robert Evans candidly discuss the story’s origins, the actual history and the process of writing the script.  “Chinatown: Filming” is just that, the shooting locations and the varying filming techniques used in the movie.  “Chinatown: The Legacy” has Roman Polanski, Robert Evans, Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne as they reflect on the film’s history, initial (and subsequent) success and the lasting impact as one of Hollywood’s greatest movies.  Finally the original theatrical trailer is included.

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