Friday, March 20, 2009

Blu Ray Review: Tales Of The Black Freighter and Under The Hood (2009)

Watchmen: Tales Of The Black Freighter and Under The Hood
Available of DVD and Blu Ray on March 24th from Warner Home Video.

by Scott Mendelson

I mentioned a few weeks back that, as I watched the theatrical adaptation of Watchmen, I found myself going back to the original source material, and using my memory of it to fill in the contextual blanks that the film, by virtue of its length, had to leave out. Even at 161 minutes, the film seemed to occasionally only skim the surface of the rich tapestry that Moore and Gibbons laid out back in 1987. Warner Bros. seemed to sense this even before the film was screened and released. Because they have now released two separate spin-off DVD/Blu Ray releases to coincide with the film. The first, reviewed a few weeks ago, was a animated audio book version of the entire Watchmen comic book text. This second bit, released on Tuesday, is something a bit different. This direct-to-DVD release is comprised of two short features, both of which replicate large chunks of the contextual material that was (understandably) edited out of the Watchmen feature.

Tales Of The Black Freighter
24 minutes
Rated R

Tales Of The Black Freighter
was originally a comic book pirate adventure entitled 'Marooned', the narrative of which was spliced into several Watchmen chapters as a form of running commentary to coincide with the present tense storyline. The story was by itself relatively unessential, so its absence from the feature is logical. It works only as a counterpoint to the story that we are already following. Thus, as a stand-alone animated short, its potency as a story is limited.

The tale simply involves the single surviving mariner captain (voiced by Gerald Butler) who struggles to return home to warn his family of an oncoming attack by seemingly supernatural pirates who wrecked his ship and slaughtered every one of his men. The plot unfolds with rich animation and some genuinely shocking violence and gore (the feature film, which was attacked for amping up the grisly imagery, pales in comparison to the icky carnage on display here).

But, in the end, it lacks context on its own, since its primary purpose was originally to provide context to another, longer narrative. I won't say much more than that, because to divulge the 'deeper meaning' behind this story would be to reveal climactic plot spoilers in the Watchmen comic and feature film. It is visually gorgeous and it's well worth watching at least once, but it lacks a stand-alone purpose that would justify its (for now) stand-alone purchase.

Grade: C+

Under The Hood
38 minutes
Rated PG

The other major exclusion from the Watchmen feature comprised of plain text pages from the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl who roamed the streets meting out justice in the 1940s. Around this narrative the filmmakers have fashioned a surprisingly entertaining faux documentary. This is shot in full-screen and looking every bit as worn and faded as something that was aired on television in 1985. It fills in all kinds of contextual blanks and allows actors who appeared in mere cameos in the feature to take starring roles as they pontificate on their earlier glory days. Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason/Nite Owl) and Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre) are the main interview subjects and they wax in depth about subjects of the past that were hinted at in the film's lovely opening credit sequence.

As I mentioned in my review of the live-action feature, the most potent elements of the film were the sad, mournful ruminations on past glory days and times gone by, highlighted by Patrick Wilson and Carla Gugino. These painful memories take the spotlight and thus this fake television program is more effective than you'd expect. All of the characters who appear in the film are played by the same actors here (even Jeffrey Dean Morgan appears briefly). This also looks and feels far more genuine and authentic than the countless fake documentaries that litter the supplemental sections of various DVDs (think Saw II). Again, this may not warrant repeat viewing, but this featurette of sorts actually exists as its own thing, outside of the context of the original work that it supplements.

Grade: B

The Blu Ray -
The image for Tales Of The Black Freighter is stunning and vivid, with bold, dark colors and detailed animation (the red stains of blood are especially potent). Due to its nature, Under The Hood looks much less impressive, but its worn, scratched up appearance only adds to its appeal. Due to my mere English 2.0 DLP television, I can only vouch for the clarity and crispness of the audio tracks and cannot make any claims about the surround. The few extras are a 25-minute making of documentary, a ten-minute preview of Green Lantern (the next DCAU animated feature), a digital copy of the main two features, and the first chapter (25-minutes) of Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic.

Kudos to Warner Bros. for taking the time and money to make these supplemental features to add further context and depth to the theatrical world of Watchmen. Whether these features, which are short enough to merit inclusion on an eventual DVD/Blu Ray set, are worth paying full price for is an open question. Die-hard fans will want to watch these as soon as possible. All others can wait until their inevitable inclusion on the various DVD/Blu Ray sets of the feature film.

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