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Witness (Blu-ray Review)

WitnessWitness is finally making its debut in the US on Blu-ray.  Its been available in other countries for quite some time now.  Another one of those films that just seems so surprising that its taken so long to put out.  Not only is it a Harrison Ford film, but Peter Weir is no slouch in the director chair.  But, then again, time passes, things change.  Ford is no longer the starpower force he once was and Weir has only directed one film in the last twelve years, but with Master & Commander being his late noteworthy output.  This was a big film back when it was release and was nominated for quite a few big Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Harrison Ford’s sole Best Actor nomination.  The screenplay for this film is also highly celebrated and used as an example in plenty of film classes and books.  Be it Warner Bros celebrating its 30th anniversary or maybe even The Force Awakens bumping this one up the catalog chain to get to Blu-ray, its a win and a relief that this film has made it to the format.

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Film 

Rachel Lapp, a young Amish widow, and her 8-year-old son Samuel are traveling by train to visit Rachel’s sister. Samuel is amazed by the sights in the outside world, but at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, he witnesses two men attack and murder a third. Detective John Book is assigned to the case and he and his partner, Sergeant Elton Carter, question Samuel. Samuel is unable to identify the perpetrator from mug shots or a police lineup, but notices a newspaper clipping with a picture of narcotics officer James McFee and recognizes him as one of the killers.  Through a chain of corruption and an attempt on his life, John must go into hiding at Rachel’s home under the guise of an Amish, while trying to figure a way to reveal the dirty cops to the proper authorities.

Movies about Amish, there aren’t too many of them.  And also, we can’t really get much of their opinion on how they’re represented, ay?  Doing my research, Witness looks like it was the third film about the culture and one of two in the 80s (Wes Craven’s fun oddity Deadly Blessing being the other).   There wouldn’t be another film about them until 1996’s incredibly underrated Farrelly Brothers comedy Kingpin.  Which, that movie may just feature some parody of this one in it.  However, of the best, you’re looking at it right here.  As mentioned, Witness was highly decorated in nominations from the Academy for the 1986 Academy Awards.

In all honesty, this film still works in spades.  Its a very tense thriller, one that has the feeling of the world being against our protagonists and nowhere to go for safety.  The film also becomes a fish out of water tale with Ford’s John Book having to accustom himself to the Amish lifestyle.  There is also good drama within the Amish community regarding his character’s presence as well as a romance that burdens between Rachel and Book during the stay.

Peter Weir is a heck of a director and his movie do evoke a bit of a feel that is very unique to him.  His earlier films choose to use synthetic scores that evoke a kind of sensation that change just a regular scene into a weirder or more interesting one.  It can also bring about some unease and dread.  The opening kill in the bathroom at the base of why this plot is happening is an absolute nail biter.  We know the kid will survive because the title of the movie is Witness, but you forget that and clinch to your seat and hope for the best.  With the help of a terrific turn by Ford, the paranoia and urgency of an escape is sold and you’re checking out every corner of a scene’s frame to make sure everyone is safe.

While the film whiffed on most of the major categories at the Academy Awards, it did win for Best Original Screenplay.  Its such a good screenplay that the film’s legacy has carried on through film education.  I had more than one book during my classes on screenwriting that made reference to Witness and constantly used it for reference and examples.  Even in one of my classes that didn’t incorporate it, we watched the film for good measure.  Personally, its my favorite of the films nominated in major categories that year.  And I have to say, I’ve gone back to this one much more than I have Out of Africa, but maybe that’s just me.  If you’ve never seen Witness and you claim to be a film buff/lover/maker/writer, you should sit back and check it out.  Oh, and its also got Alexander Godunuv pre-Die Hard (The loveable blonde goon, Karl)!
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Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail:  Witness goes a bit back and forth from looking great to looking as good as the lighting will allow it.  Darker scenes fill with grain and there is a bit of softness to the picture during those moments.  Others will feature nice solid characters and find plenty of detail.  Yes, this is the best the film has ever looked, but in areas its not a pretty looking transfer.

Depth:  Its a little bit above average here with some minimal flat moments.  Movements are cinematic with some slight blur.  Background imagery renders decent when in focus.

Black Levels:  Blacks are deep and during darkly lit scenes bring some grain and minimal crushing.  Detail is definitely hidden on clothing, surfaces and darker hair.

Color Reproduction:  Greens looks pretty good throughout the film and blood looks solid.  This is film that deals in almost color free Amish life, so don’t expect too much vibrancy.

Flesh Tones:  Skin tones are natural a lot of the time, but there are moments where they can appear a little too red.  Detail on facial features is very good in close-ups but medium and further out shots can bring a bit of smoothness too them.

Noise/Artifacts:  Heavy grain at times, some aliasing and compression issues in the darker scenes and toward the beginning.

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Audio 

Audio Format(s): English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, German 2.0 Dolby Digital, Spanish (Latin) 2.0 Dolby Digital, Spanish (Castillian) 2.0 Dolby Digital, French 2.0 Dolby Digital, Italian 2.0 Dolby Digital, Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital, Portuguese 2.0 Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Japanese, German, Cantonese, Czech, Danish, Greek, Italian, Korean, Mandarin (Traditional), Mandarin (Simplified), Norwegian, Russian, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish

Dynamics:  Witness brings together a solid 5.1 mix that gets the job done.  An early shoot out impresses as well as some minor action beats in the film.  Its tad mushy, but excels in sound effects where the vocals and score may blend.  I’m a fan of the score for the film and I feel it could have sounded a tad better, but what we get is pretty solid enough.  To note, the track’s volume seems to be at a tad lower setting, so you’ll need to kick it up a little more than normal.

Low Frequency Extension:  Gun fire, crashing and horse feet clip clopping get a nice subwoofer thump.

Surround Sound Presentation:  Sound travels back and forth with a solid interpretation from the front channel speakers.  Environments feel a bit more whole with the rear speakers display of ambiance.

Dialogue Reproduction:  Dialogue is a tad muffly, though clear and clean enough.  The volume is rather low to start so you’ll want to crank this track up.

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Extras 

Witness contains no supplemental materials.  “Play”, “Scenes” and “Languages” are the only menu options.

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Summary 

I’m happy that Witness has found a Blu-ray home in the US.  Its a terrific dramatic thriller featuring one of Harrison Ford’s best performances.  It also features a pretty underrated score.  This Blu-ray is just fine, by the way, I just feel that the transfer could have been better.  Then again, maybe this was in the source materials.  The audio is also just fine.  However, void are the special features for this movie.  I’m not sure if previous releases had them, but dang is it a disappointing absence.  What isn’t disappointing is the price.  Its a terrific movie, well enough to recommend this release on its own.

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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