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Blu-ray Reviews

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#1 of 6 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 05 2010 - 07:12 AM


The Natural

Studio: Sony/Tri-Star

Year: 1984

Rated: PG

Length: 138 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p

Languages: English, French, Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD MA; Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, French


The Program


Just in time for Opening Day, The Natural, regarded by many to be one of the finest baseball movies ever made, has been given the Blu-ray treatment by Sony. This Blu-ray edition contains only with the original theatrical version of the film. The longer Director’s Cut, which was released on DVD three years ago, is not included. It remains to be seen if and when there will be a Blu-ray release of the Director's Cut.


When this Blu-ray disc was announced there was some discussion about the running time. Most sources list the running time of the theatrical release as 134 minutes, and the running time of the Director's Cut is 144 minutes. This led to some consternation and speculation when Sony announced that the Blu-ray disc has a running time of 138 minutes. There was some concern that this might be a hybrid of both versions. I have confirmed that the actual running time of the Blu-ray disc is a few seconds shy of 138 minutes, but I have heard from someone who owns the DVD of the theatrical version who has confirmed that it too runs for 138 minutes. So what we have here is the original, unaltered theatrical version of The Natural.


Most readers of this review are undoubtedly familiar with this fable about Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a gifted baseball player who makes some serious mistakes in his life but then, as he approaches middle age is then given an opportunity for redemption. The stellar cast includes Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, Joe Don Baker, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth and Robert Proskey. Also appearing (unbilled) is Darren McGavin. The film is based upon the novel by Bernard Malamud, which in turn was inspired by a bizarre real-life tragedy involving a star baseball player from the 40s named Eddie Waitkus.


Director Barry Levinson has said that the Director’s Cut more closely approximates his original intent in making the film. He explained that time constraints forced him to abandon some of his ideas when the editing was being done in 1984. Without getting into spoiler specifics, I will say that the essential story remained unchanged, but the flow of the narrative did change. The theatrical version opens with a shot of an aging Roy Hobbs sitting at a railroad station, and he then reflects upon his life from childhood. The first act of the Director's Cut plays out more in flashbacks, with periodic cuts from the current man to the baseball player of his youth. Whether one version is better than the other is a matter of personal taste. It seems that there are viewers who always want the extended version (as exemplified by the current debate over the upcoming Blu-ray release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), but I believe that it also important to preserve the film as we first saw it in theaters.


In any event, those who like a good sports film will find The Natural to be immensely entertaining. Robert Redford and Joe Don Baker both look like real baseball players and many of the supporting roles are filled by men with professional baseball experience. Consequently, the game scenes have an air of authenticity which is missing from many baseball films. Baker's character is obviously based on Babe Ruth, and I can assure you that Baker is no William Bendix.


The Video


The 1.85:1 1080p Blu-ray transfer of The Natural is excellent in every respect. However, what really surprised me is how well the DVD of the Director's Cut looks when doing an A/B comparison. The Blu-ray of course is sharper and shows more fine detail, but the Director's Cut still looks very, very good. One difference is that the Director's cut was cropped slightly to fill the 16:9 screen, whereas the Blu-ray is presented in true 1.85:1, with very narrow black bands at the top and bottom. There are many dark scenes in the film, and shadow detail is quite good. The scenes of Roy playing ball with his father are quite vivid. Film grain has been left intact, as Sony once again has refused to apply excessive DNR to the image. The overall look is a bit on the soft side, but this appears to have been a deliberate stylistic choice which helps to convey the feeling of watching events which are supposed to have occurred more than seventy years ago.


I have not been able to compare this Blu-ray disc to the original DVD of the theatrical cut of The Natural.


The Audio


The original four-track soundtrack has been remixed into a very effective uncompressed 5.1 DTS-HD MA presentation. The dialogue is mostly confined to the center channel and is always clear and understandable. Randy Newman’s score is one of the strong points of this film, and the music is given an expansive soundstage which fills up the room at times. The film includes a couple of scenes involving lightning, and my sleeping cat jumped to attention at the realistic sound of the crack of thunder. The surround channels are used effectively to convey ambient sounds.


The Supplements


The extras on this Blu-ray release, which all are presented in standard definition and English stereo, have been ported over from the Director's Cut DVD.


First up is a three-part “making of” featurette entitled “When Lightning Strikes – Creating the Natural.” Part One provides a great deal of information about Bernard Malamud, the author who wrote the novel upon which this film is based. Malamud, a native of Brooklyn, grew up on baseball and "The Natural" was his first novel. He drew upon real-life baseball players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Waitkus. Some of the situations which occur in the story are based upon real events. Part Two covers how the cast was assembled. Redford was the first to come on board. Glenn Close had to be wooed by Redford and then almost dropped out because she was supposed to do a Merchant-Ivory film. Darren McGavin was the last star to sign on; he appears unbilled because he decided that it would be better for him to be unbilled rather than have his name appear below all the other actors. Part Three discusses the actual filming of the movie. The game scenes were filmed at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York because it was the only large baseball stadium in the country which still looked like it did prior to World War II. Redford and Close appear prominently and discuss the film in detail.


A four-part featurette entitled “Extra Innings” covers the use of slow motion photography, the problems involved in making the uniform colors appear to be authentic (almost all baseball photographs taken in the first half of the 20th century are in black and white), and a discussion about the motivations of Barbara Hershey’s character, Harriet Bird. Bob Costas and Ryne Sandberg (formerly with the Chicago Cubs) talk about a 1984 ballgame in which Sandberg’s late-innings heroics led to the contest being dubbed “The Sandberg Game.”


In “Clubhouse Conversations” baseball greats such as Don Mattingly talk about how difficult it is to play baseball, given that a hitter who fails 70% of the time is considered to be a great success. Mattingly makes the interesting point that in order to get a base hit 30% of the time, a hitter has to hit the ball solidly 60-70% of the time.


“Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural” is a discussion about the mythical aspects of baseball.


In “The Heart of The Natural” baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr. talks about how the relationship between Roy Hobbs and his father mirrors the relationship Ripken had with his own father. Ripken points out that there are players who are physically gifted but who fail to dedicate themselves sufficiently to reach their potential, and there are other players who work extremely hard but are not sufficiently talented to excel at the highest levels. The great players, he says, are those who are both gifted and hard-working.


Finally, there is an intriguing featurette entitled “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus.” Eddie Waitkus was an all-star first baseman for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. He served in the Pacific during World War II and was awarded multiple Bronze Stars. While he was playing for the Cubs, a young woman named Ruth Ann Steinhagen became obsessed with Waitkus and fantasized that he was in love with her. Waitkus was traded to Philadelphia after the 1948 season and Steinhagen went over the edge. When the Phillies came to Chicago to play the Cubs in June, 1949, Steinhagen lured Waitkus to her hotel room and shot him. Considered by his peers to be a natural ballplayer, Waitkus clearly was the person who was primarily on Bernard Malamud's mind when the created the Roy Hobbs character.


BD-Live features will be enabled on the release date.


The Packaging


The single disc comes in a standard Blu-ray keep case.


The Final Analysis


The Natural is a much-beloved baseball film, and what better way to celebrate Opening Day than by watching it again? Yes, it would have been nice if Sony had also included the Director's Cut, but that may come to pass at some point down the road. Upgrading from the original DVD is a no-brainer, but those who already own and prefer the Director's Cut will have to decide for themselves about whether to hold out for that version to be released on Blu-ray.


Buyers should be warned that Amazon has this release listed as the Director's Cut, which it most assuredly is not. However, the street price of under $20 is very enticing.


Equipment used for this review:


Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player DVD Player

Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen

Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver

BIC Acoustech speakers

Interconnects: Monster Cable


Release Date: April 6, 2010

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Rich Gallagher

#2 of 6 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted April 05 2010 - 07:31 AM

Thanks, Richard!

The Red Sox won on opening day (last night) and now The Natural is available on Blu-ray (tomorrow)!

Shaping up to be a good week! 

I'm especially glad to hear your report on the richness of the audio track. 

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#3 of 6 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted April 05 2010 - 07:58 AM

This movie is never quite the same after one reads the original novel.  :)

(FWIW, I don't think the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a good example of people who "always want the extended version," since IMO the extended versions of those films are significant improvements over the theatrical cuts. . .)

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#4 of 6 OFFLINE   Rachael B

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Posted April 05 2010 - 08:24 AM

I should be watching The Natural tomorrow eve. My copy shipped today. The review makes it sound good.....

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#5 of 6 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 07 2010 - 11:16 AM

Originally Posted by Aaron Silverman 

(FWIW, I don't think the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a good example of people who "always want the extended version," since IMO the extended versions of those films are significant improvements over the theatrical cuts. . .)
Fair enough. I mentioned it mainly because it's the most passionate original version v. extended version debate going on at the moment.

Rich Gallagher

#6 of 6 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 07 2010 - 11:16 AM

Originally Posted by Rachael B 

I should be watching The Natural tomorrow eve. My copy shipped today. The review makes it sound good.....
I'll be interested to hear how you like it.

Rich Gallagher