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The Killing Fields (Blu-ray Review)

Killing-FieldsIn time for its 30th anniversary, Warner Bros is releasing one-time Best Picture hopeful The Killing Fields.  The film did win 3 Academy Awards that year, all of them in what are considered “major” categories (Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography).  It did  win big with the British Academy Awards including Best Film and 7 other categories which seems like it cleaned house.  When it comes to the Best Picture nominees every year, I always wonder how revered and well remembered many of them will be years down the road.  Even for the winners.  I think it’s a tough enough challenge to recall the nominees from before your time and when you were a child.  And these are supposed to be the BEST movies that represent a given year.  With The Killing Fields, I had never seen it, and only the title came of any familiarity to me.  It never came up as required viewing or studying for me in film classes or in my own personal adventure in learning.  But, I always welcome the opportunity to go back and learn more.  So here we are.

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Film 

The film takes place during a conflict between Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge as a result of the Vietnam War spilling over into Cambodian borders.  Its focus is on the relationship of a Cambodian journalist (Dith Pran) and translator for the New York Times and an American reporter (Sydney Schanberg).  Together they uncover an American bombing of a city called Neak Leung and years later experience the evacuation and takeover of the capital Phnom Penh.  The two, along with some fellow reporters are captured a couple times and Pran eventually has to be turned over to the Khmer Rouge.  Schanberg while safely escorted home, never gives up his search for Pran.

Many great films have come from telling us stories of Vietnam.  And The Killing Fields is very much in that fold.  I was completely unfamiliar with this story, so it made for an exciting and surprise watch.  The film did a fantastic job with creating a sense of uncertainty and danger.  Accurate or not, I really enjoyed the balls some of these reporters had to deliver “battle” for their own cause.  The film also was not afraid to travel into some “grim reality” moments and the Pran’s journey to freedom in the 3rd act is not a pleasant one.  It features some disturbingly real and haunting imagery complete with those emotionally gut punching moments.

I had never seen Sam Waterston in anything other than Law & Order (still need to see Heaven’s Gate one of these days), and it was quite interesting to see the chops this guy had back in the day.  Haing S. Ngor took home an Oscar for this movie and in the early goings I was kind of wondering how he even got nominated, but by the end I was convinced.  This was his first movie too AND he had been a captive of the Khmer Rouge in real life too.  I was also really impressed with a young John Malkovich, albeit in a small role.  The guy just nailed his role and came off as so damn natural and effortless (in a good way) that I’m surprised he wasn’t nominated as well.

This film won for Best Cinematography and I really can’t argue.  It looks terrific.  There are lots of really well framed and thought out imagery throughout.  The film definitely has that Vietnam “feel” to it that we’ve sort of been accustomed to with films of this ilk.  I’m pretty sure it was filmed that, but it does a pretty convincing job of making the locations and events look incredibly authentic.  You are buying what you’re seeing onscreen and then some, for sure.

The Killing Fields definitely lives up to its rep for being one of the best films of 1984.  In some other dimension, maybe it won Best Picture.  One thought that crossed my mind when watching it, was the final scene of the movie being set to John Lennon’s “Imagine”.  Back when this film came out, it was probably a really novel and grand idea.  If this had been done today (and even somewhat watching the film in the present), it would seem sort of “easy” and a gimmick to force some sense of preset emotion by assimilating the scene with a song of that one’s worth.  But that’s just one brief aside, the film is pretty darn terrific and earns its right to use the tune.

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Video 

The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded picture is for the most part solid.  Details are good and any sort of weakness of color is intended and all in the source.  There are instances of highly detailed clarity and brilliance ever so often.  However, there are also moments of the picture looking very flat.  Overall I think the balance equates to a good picture.  The presentation is able to evoke the sort of hot, humid sweaty feeling of the environment our characters find themselves in.  Also for fun, due to the advent of high definition, there’s a moment where a guy is shot point blank in the head and you can totally tell someone just took a red marker to a few frames of the film cells to get the effect to work.  Most might not notice and something that blink and you’ll miss it but I wound it back and got kind of a kick out of it.

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Audio 

The Blu-ray only supplies a 2.0 DTS-HD MA track.  I’m quite all right with that instead of them trying to force or cheaply do an unnatural 5.1 track that doesn’t work.  The track itself is rather on the serviceable side of things.  Its set at an average volume, all the vocal work is clean and clear.  Some of Haing S. Ngor’s dialogue’s ADR becomes a little more present but its not really any sort of distraction or bother and is kind of expected.  Action and effects are to a surprisingly good degree and provide a bit of enhancement to your viewing pleasure.

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Extras 

Warner Bros releases this in their Digibook format.  The booklet inside contains some nice photos, quotes and bios regarding the film.  The disc itself is rather light in comparison.

Commentary By Roland Joffe – The director talks about production on his first film and how reading the book this was based off of really struck him and opened up a full picture about the war in Vietnam.

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:29)

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Summary 

The film itself is good enough to garner a recommendation.  Its presented with a solid audio and video presentation.  The extras are lacking quite a bit though, for a film that had the prestige and best picture aspirations as this one did.  There are no retrospective interviews, no archived clips or no Oscar speeches present.  It tries to make up for the minimalist approach with a booklet that is kind of minimalist itself.  Based on the film itself, The Killing Fields does garner a recommendation from this discredited reviewer that can’t be taken seriously 😉

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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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