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Blu-ray Reviews

HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Dances with Wolves



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#1 of 2 Cameron Yee

Cameron Yee

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Posted January 21 2011 - 04:48 PM

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Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Extended Cut
Release Date: Available now
Studio: MGM Home Entertainment
Packaging/Materials: Two-disc Blu-ray "ECO-BOX" with slipcover
Year: 1990
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 3:53:49
MSRP: $29.99

  THE FEATURE SPECIAL FEATURES
Video 1080p high definition 16x9 2.35:1 Standard definition
Audio DTS-HD Master Audio: English 7.1 / Dolby Digital: English 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles English SDH, Spanish, French None

The Feature: 4.5/5

To recognize his bravery on a Civil War battlefield, the Union Army grants Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) the post of his choosing. Hoping to see the American frontier before it disappears, he opts for Fort Sedgwick, an isolated outpost in the plains of Colorado. Upon his arrival he finds the location abandoned, the environment riddled with signs of madness and disharmony. But ever the faithful soldier, Dunbar sets to a schedule of repairs and duties, cleaning up the outpost in preparation for the Army's eventual return. Though he comes to appreciate the solitude of his work, he also relies on the company of his animal companions - namely his horse Cisco, who faithfully carried him in battle, and a lone wolf who regularly visits the camp and whom Dunbar comes to name Two Socks. Eventually Dunbar also gets some human visitors in the form of Sioux Indians, who have been tasked by their chief to find out more about this lone soldier and what he represents for their future.

But Dunbar is an obvious anomaly. Where most of his military compatriots would shoot first and ask questions later, he is keenly interested in developing a relationship with his Plains Indian neighbors. But all the pantomime and gesturing only gets their dialogue so far, and ultimately words must be exchanged to be truly understood. So Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), the tribe's holy man whom Dunbar has been interacting with the most, persuades Stands with A Fist (Mary McDonnell) - a white woman who was adopted by the tribe after her family was slaughtered by Pawnee - to help. Though she hasn't spoken English for most of her life, she is able to remember enough to facilitate conversation between the two men. Yet it's not until Dunbar brings word of the return of buffalo to the plains that the tribe fully accepts and welcomes him, letting him join their hunt and ceremonies. Though some of their customs and beliefs remain foreign to him, Dunbar begins to find his place among them - begins to find himself among them - in a way he never did when he lived with his own people. Eventually Dunbar - named Dances with Wolves by his new friends - will make his home with the Sioux, but coming from an institution and society that views such a thing as treason, what does that mean for his future and the fate of the tribe that has adopted him?

In describing James Cameron's "Avatar" as "Dances with Smurfs," critics seemed to be commenting as much on Cameron's 3D ground breaker as Costner's ambitious directorial debut. Sure, it's easy to dismiss "Dances with Wolves" as a "going native" cinematic trope, but for the less cynical it's hard not to be moved by Dunbar's journey of self discovery in an environment that has long since disappeared. Seeing it again as a somewhat more observant adult, I was a little frustrated by the lack of background information on Dunbar's character - what he did before the military, where he was from, and why he was so inherently fascinated by the frontier. But by the final act it becomes clear that prior to his encounter with the Sioux, Dunbar had no identity, no sense of self. It's only through meeting them and becoming part of their society that he becomes a whole person, finds harmony after being surrounded by so much insanity. In some respects Dunbar remains a cipher - much of his internal development gets truncated through his romance with Stands with A Fist - but seeing such a contrast between the Sioux culture and the one of the Union Army, we can more than understand his motivation to defect. And ultimately that's also the film's primary weakness - the broadness of the strokes with which the antagonists are painted. With a little more even handed treatment, the story would ultimately be as gracefully powerful as some of its breathtaking visuals.


The 20th Anniversary Edition includes only the extended cut of the film, which adds about an hour to the overall run time. While the additional footage has some value, it's unfortunate that there isn't the additional option to view the original theatrical cut.


Video Quality: 4/5

The film is accurately framed at 2.35:1 and presented in 1080p with the AVC codec. The image is subject to some haziness in wide shots and mild haloing along high contrast edges. Contrast can be inconsistent, struggling more in the darker scenes, which also fail to have the deepest of blacks. Outside of those more challenging scenes, black level and color depth are quite solid and contrast shows the full range of values with no signs of compression. Fine object detail is decent, but the most consistently problematic aspect of the image is overall sharpness, as with the aforementioned wider compositions. Softness in close ups seems to be more a result of source-originated focusing errors; otherwise skin and clothing show a respectable amount of detail. Finally, grain structure is visible - as is a light amount of noise in shadow areas - with no indications of overused noise reduction tools. 

Audio Quality: 4/5
Dialogue in the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is consistently clear and intelligible. Surround activity is minimal, with only some very light support for the film score and some mild localized effects. Low end frequencies never seem to quite reach LFE status - even with the buffalo stampede and thunder claps - but the track has sufficient depth and fullness, along with some very good detail in the upper frequencies, as evidenced by the film's orchestral score.


Special Features: 5/5
The extras include all the disc-based items from the previous two-disc DVD edition, along with a handful of behind-the-scenes vignettes that I assume are from other releases (unless they are on the DVD somewhere as an easter egg). Historical trivia tracks providing background on the time period are also a nice addition, giving the contents an impressive depth. However the standard definition video pieces look uniformly poor, mostly due to some very heavy combing artifacts. Watching the previous DVD edition shows no such problems, so I'm not sure what was done (or not done) to cause the problems.


Audio Commentaries

Though time only allowed for a sampling of the two commentary tracks, there seemed to be plenty of information to keep listeners engaged. Given the length of the feature, listeners shouldn't be surprised by some quiet spots.

  • Kevin Costner and Producer Jim Wilson
  • Director of Photography Dean Semler and Editor Neil Travis
Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide: Pop-up guide runs alongside the feature and includes various facts and trivia about the military and societal values of the time period.


Real History or Movie Make-Believe?: Pop-up trivia runs alongside the feature and includes true-or-false questions about what took place during the depicted time period. Each question is timed; the more quickly the question is answered, the more points awarded.


(Disc Two)


A Day in the Life On the Western Frontier (14:18, HD): Writers and historians talk about the frontier experience and its various challenges.


The Original Making of Dances with Wolves (20:58, SD): Shorter form making-of documentary was produced shortly after the production and includes on-set interviews with the cast and crew as they describe their production experiences. As Costner describes his disdain for characters "shooting more than six shots," I can't help but think of his film "Open Range"...


The Creation of an Epic - A Retrospective Documentary (1:14:39, SD): Thorough and in-depth documentary produced in 2003 covers the film's production from development to public reception. Of particular interest will be how the filmmakers staged the buffalo hunting scene, without a doubt the film's most incredible set piece.


Original Music Video Featuring the Music of John Barry (3:52, SD): Popularized version of the film score's main theme, set to behind the scenes footage.


Second Wind (5:18, SD): Editor Neil Travis's presentation reel highlighting key moments from the film.


Confederate March and Music (2:13, SD): Footage of extras getting into character.


Getting the Point (3:58, SD): Behind the scenes logistics of getting shot with arrows.


Burying the Hatchet (1:12, SD): Behind the scenes logistics of getting axed.


Animatronic Buffalo (2:18, SD): Making a mechanical buffalo move realistically.


Theatrical Trailer (2:33, HD)


TV Spot: Courage and Passion (:32, SD): Focuses on the film's love story.


TV Spot: Academy Campaign (:32, SD): Focuses on the film's 12 Academy Award nominations.


Poster Gallery: Consists of four poster images sized for high definition display.


Dances Photo Montage with Introduction by Ben Glass (9:21, SD): Images by photographer Ben Glass, who was hired as the set photographer for the production. "Dances with Wolves" was actually his first such assignment!


Recap
The Feature: 4.5/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 4/5
Special Features: 5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4/5

MGM Home Entertainment turns in a fine technical presentation of Kevin Costner's Academy Award-winning directorial debut, though it would have been nice to have the original theatrical cut included in the package. The special features include the major items from the last DVD special edition, along with some additional items that provide even greater depth to the package. Despite the limited choice in versions, owners of the DVD will likely appreciate the upgrade in audio and video quality and it's an obvious choice for first time purchasers of the title.


One thing leads to another at cameronyee.com

#2 of 2 Cees Alons

Cees Alons

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Posted January 23 2011 - 10:39 AM

Cameron,


Thanks for another fine review!


It's a "logistical" pity, that a somewhat intense discussion of this release on BD is already going on in the original announcement thread, while several of the points and considerations posted there would be perfectly in place here.


I do hope people take the trouble to switch over here, because this will be the place where internetters coming in through Google and the like will arrive first.



Cees