L  e  n  s  V  i  e  w  s

A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

 

Introduction: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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Dexter - The First Season [Blu-ray]

 

(Developed for Television by James Manos, Jr., 2006)

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Showtime Entertainment

Blu-ray: Paramount/CBS Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: 'A'

Runtime: 10 hrs.

Chapters: 12

Size: 50 GB

Case: Standard Blu-ray case, w/ flip-page

Release date: January 6th, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: AVC

 

Audio:

English Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0

 

Subtitles:

English SDH

 

Extras:

• Audio Commentaries for episodes:

• BD-Live: The Academy of Blood – A Killer Curse

• BD-Live: Witnessed in Blood – A True Murder Investigation

• BD-Live: First Episode of Dexter, Season 3

• BD-Live: First 2 Episodes of United States of Tara

 

 

The Film:

Dexter is not the first Showtime series to come to Blu-ray. That honor went to Weeds, which has already seen three seasons on high def video. The Tudors was announced in more than one country but, as far as I know, is still on hold everywhere. Both Weeds and Dexter signaled a departure of sorts in that they both began their run on high definition video at the beginning and not with the most recent season. Suits me fine, since I am not a Showtime subscriber, but have wanted a chance to watch this particular series.

I can see the temptation for Michael C. Hall to channel John Malkovich: as Clint Eastwood's Line of Fire nemesis, Mitch Leary is a ruthless psychopath who snorts his nose after a killing in a vague registration of feigned contempt. We hear an echo of Leary in the opening episode of Dexter as the title character has his helpless victim at his mercy. Hall is letting us know something about the extent of Dexter's sociopathy, his disassociation from feeling, about which he confides to us a great deal in the following episodes. All the same, I was relieved when Hall backed off on his Malkovich impersonation. Dexter is a self-admitted sociopath but, in that rarefied place where distinctions are made for such things, he is no Leary. Exactly who and what Dexter is becomes our dilemma – and an intriguing, Escher-like moral problem it is.

By day, Dexter Morgan is a blood-spatter forensic analyst for the Miami Metro Police. By night, he "takes out the trash" as he refers to his decade long obsession as a vigilante serial killer. Dexter's fascination with the processes of death and killing began early but he's found a way to live with his peculiarities. He sees himself as an thirty-something adopted child with special needs. In one of Dexter's many flashbacks we find him in a close-up discussion with his adoptive father, a straight-arrow Miami cop (James Remar), about the morality of killing domestic animals and how such a propensity could lead to targets higher up the food chain if not checked.

 

 

 

Dexter is quick to point out the downside to his special gifts: he truly is disconnected from feeling. His sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) is a competitive, foul-mouthed undercover vice cop who longs to be homicide detective. Even while Dexter helps her in her work with his "hunches" about her various investigations, he goes to some pains to keep the truth about himself, even from her.

It is most important, if one is to pass among cops, to have a girlfriend. Besides the possibility of an accidental uncovering of his true nature in any relationship, he feels certain to be embarrassed for the lack of feeling which any self-respecting woman would notice. Thus: Rita (Julie Benz), a single mom with two really nice kids, recently having left a life as a victim of domestic violence. Her not quite ex-husband (Mark Pellegrino) is about to be released from prison, which augers badly for this vulnerable little family. The damage Rita suffered at his hands makes it impossible for her to connect intimately with a man, though (different from Dex) she longs to. She's the ideal girlfriend for our hero since intimacy is conveniently held at arm's length.

Like many men without his peculiar talent, Dexter gives a pretty good imitation of swimming along in the mainstream, thanks largely to the teachings of his ever-watchful father. Once, when Dex was about ten, dad noticed that the boy was not smiling for an informal family photo. "Why should I smile if I don't feel like it?" the boy asks. "Because it would make your mother happy. Because it's what normal people do. It's what people do to fit in." (Men: If you're interested: there is wisdom in Harry's observations.) In a season of darkly funny moments, few are more hysterical than when Dexter interrupts his death dealing slice to interview a married couple about how two such unfeeling people could have an apparently successful relationship.

Dexter is seen by his colleagues as having remarkable insights into both the killers and the killing of the victims. Near the start of the season opener, Dexter meets the leavings of the man who will become his personal and professional obsession for episodes to come: a body, sawed and wrapped neatly into several sections without a trace of blood. By the end of the second episode the killer (to whom we have not yet been introduced) leaves his calling card in Dexter's home refrigerator. Dexter is ecstatic about the challenge. He's just twisted enough to understand this new series of killings in terms of a dialogue between the killer and himself. Dexter sees in this new adversary, someone like himself: a blood brother, as it were.

The series is relentlessly fascinating, especially in how it slowly and insidiously reveals its main character and his antagonist. But some of what goes on at Miami Metro is routine, even a little clumsy. The police seem more interested in exploiting political infighting than investigating murders – so much so that they miss a not unimportant clue: one of the bodies they turn up had been completely infused with salt water, a finding which would have indicated where it had been lying in state before they found it. Funny how they overlooked that.

A final note about the cast, all of whom are spot on, whatever we may think of the characters themselves. A special nod, then, to James Remar who, noted for psychos in such movies as Cotton Club and 48 Hrs and his first important screen role as the all-too-ready-to-rumble Ajax, he comes to Dexter with just enough edge to play Dexter's understanding adoptive father – a cop who always plays by the rules – well, nearly always. And another nod to Julie Benz as Rita. Julie finds not only Rita's vulnerability, but also a growing strength, if not a little reckless at times. You may remember Julie from both the Buffy and Angel TV series as Darla. Passed over for the title character in favor of Sarah Michelle, Julie made her pilot episode character memorable enough to have her brought back again and again (you get to do that with vampires!) right through to the end.


 

Image: 6~9/8
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Shot on HD video, the image demonstrates what's good and less good about the medium. I don't really know how to judge its strange quirks are the result of how it was shot vs. how it was transferred. The high contrast, lurid, saturated color of the first episode gives way to a more natural color palette for the remainder of the season, though contrast is still higher than we would find with film.

There is an immediacy to HD video that is hard to beat. When compressed onto Blu-ray, some of that immediacy is exchanged for processing artifacts, however subtle. On the other hand, some things perceived as problems are an intended effect of the photographic medium (as in Christopher Doyle's work on Chungking Express.) There are scenes in Dexter, especially in the later episodes where the lighting, color, and contrast is just so, that display remarkable sharpness and resolution. But in more problematic backlit, low light, or shadowy scenes, the image can get dicey: noticeable, if not disturbing, amounts of noise and vague contrast make us wonder if what we see is actually intended.

I believe that other critics are more watchful in this regard than I am unless something leaps off the screen (as it does on occasion here in episodes 2 and 12). One example of a particularly troublesome spot lasts about ten seconds in the second episode, "Crocodile" (see sample - last capture.) This error isn't quite as glaring anywhere else, but it does reappear from time to time when an actor or strong edge stands against a colorless sky. We see it again to a lesser extent in the final episode as Dexter searches for the cargo container.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue halo anomaly (CLICK to ENLARGE)

 

 

Audio & Music: 8/8
Starting with its moody, spicy rhythms over the credits Daniel Licht sets the stage for sex and blood. Whenever this noirish music is projected into the surrounds with its warm, pulsing caress, we know that sex and death are not far away. I say "sex" but that is usually implied rather than portrayed. The music provides a kind of transitional cover on the way to the latest homicide scene or Dexter's more graphic forensic work. Dialogue is perfectly staged and focused in the center, while Dexter's inner monologue is just enough larger to distinguish it from the rest. This is a show without car chases, explosions and precious little gunfire, so effects are largely atmospheric and ambient. They seemed almost "invisible" until I turned off the surrounds and discovered what I would be missing.

 

 

 

Operations: 6
There's very little to the menu page, though what's there is a piece of cake to navigate. Extra Features appear on disc 2 (a commentary) and 3 (a commentary and access to BD –Live). Curiously, each episode has 7 chapters but there is no menu access.
 

Extras: 2
Few TV series cry out for supporting features (Was that a real goldfish? How about all those taxidermical items in Neil Perry's mobile home? How does Michael Hall think through and distinguish his narration from his on-screen dialogue?) There are two commentaries plus whatever treats you'll find on BD-Live. But conspicuously absent from the on-disc extras are its star, Michael C. Hall, and series creator, writer and ex-producer, James Manos, Jr., though the former makes his presence felt in a podcast on BD-Live.

The first commentary comes at the halfway point in the season, with four of the important supporting actors (Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas, Lauren Valez & Erik King.) However, if you aren't up to speed with the current season (3), as I am not, I'd recommend against this commentary altogether since one of the actors carelessly tells us more than we want to know about the fate of certain characters. (Isn't this against some sort of unwritten code!)

The second commentary accompanies the final episode, and a bloody good one it is, which is fortunate seeing as how it subs for we get in the way of a making-of piece. Three of its producers: Sara Colleton, Clyde Phillips & Daniel Cerrone – Cerrone & Phillips doubling as writers – discuss the nuts and bolts of putting the series together in the context of the final episode. Naturally, the writing and the casting are of most importance, especially in the selection of its lead, who pretty much carries the show. They also touch on production design and sets (shot mostly in L.A. sometimes using still shots taken in Miami as a backdrop), photography (color palette, perspective distortion) and music. There's still the occasional remark about what will happen in Seasons 2 and 3, but not as egregiously.

 

 

Bottom line: 7
This new Blu-ray sports an image of inconsistent quality – certainly nothing you want to take home to mother. But, then, the same is true for the series: Dexter is a show you want to savor in the privacy of your own dark ego. Or, id. The audio is very good, but despite its lean extra features, Dexter gets a recommended vote from this appreciative viewer.

Leonard Norwitz
December 27th, 2008

 

 

 

 

 


 

 





 

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