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

The Sopranos (The Complete First Season) [Blu-ray]

 

(Created, Written & Produced by David Chase, 1999)

 

   

Entire Series on Blu-ray:

   

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: HBO

Blu-ray: Home Box Office

 

Disc:

Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Episode Runtime: 0:49:43.647

Disc One Size: 46,026,527,071 bytes

Sample Episode Size: 17,305,460,736 bytes

Video Bitrate: 31.78 Mbps

Chapters: 8

Case: Gatefold w/ slipcase

Release date: November 24th, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

 

Audio:

DTS-HD Master Audio English 1928 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1928 kbps / 16-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 16-bit)
DTS Audio English 512 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 512 kbps / 16-bit
DTS Audio French 512 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 512 kbps / 16-bit
DTS Audio German 512 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 512 kbps / 16-bit
DTS Audio Spanish 512 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 512 kbps / 16-bit
DTS Audio Spanish 512 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 512 kbps / 16-bit

 

Subtitles:

English (SDH), English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, none

 

Extras:

• Audio Commentary with Creator & Executive Producer David Chase and Peter Bogdanovich

• Interview with David Chase & Peter Bogdanovich – in SD (1:17:34)

• Meet Tony Soprano – in SD (3:32)

• Family Life – in SD (4:11)

 

 

The Film:

As Babe Ruth was to Yankee Stadium, so Tony Soprano was to Home Box Office, for surely it was the six-season crime/family drama The Sopranos, capitalizing on HBO's popular and critical success of their prison series, Oz, that put HBO on the map and set the stage for what HBO is today: the leader in original television series. The Sopranos paved the way for other intelligent, non-frantic, long-arced dramas that would eventually beget Deadwood and The Wire, arguably the three best television drama series of the past ten years.

The Sopranos hit the ground running with an idea that brought together elements of The Godfather – namely the business of running a crime syndicate in the context of a family drama – and that staple of Western Civilization: the psychiatrist's office. It is here that Tony comes to confront aspects of his life – most importantly, loss of control - that would have been impossible to work into a story like The Godfather . True, Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone both come face to face with loss of one sort or another, but Michael, like James Kirk, always changes the playing field to suit. Michael Corleone never accepts death or loss – he simply works around it, making him that much more vulnerable to jealous rages and paranoiac rationalizations for murder – even of his own brother.

 

 

Tony has to face his share of loss and threats to his turf, but thanks to David Chase's invention of the therapist we get to see how Tony addresses them at all sorts of levels: At one moment, he faints away in a panic attack, at another he leaves the therapy hour before his time is up and later sexualizes his relationship with his therapist to avoid facing what bothers him. Outside the doctor's office, he has to worry about how others in the family with designs on power within the organization will view his going to a psychiatrist. Will they fear their secrets will get out, and will that knowledge comprise their ability to control and extort? Does it mean that Tony is too weak to run the organization; is he a ready target for a takeover? And speaking of weakness, we haven't even begun to consider, nor will we but scratch the surface of how his mother fits into all this. There is a reason she is named Livia, that once most potent and dangerous of powers behind the Julian emperors – she meanders through this season like a wounded bear, and Tony is just as vulnerable to her methods as anyone else.

But Dr. Melfi serves another fascinating dramatic purpose. The psychiatrist is our surrogate. Once she accepts Tony Soprano as her patient, her life enters a new and uncertain future. She no longer can assume the automatic protection of disinterested voyeur she was accustomed to. Ethical questions arise that make her relationship with her patient difficult. And so it is with us. We are invited into a world where vice and murder are part of doing business, where children know and yet don't know what's going on, or who their fathers really are. We warm to Tony and his people; but we, like Dr. Melfi, will be made to feel uncomfortable for our affection. There will be a price to pay to take an interest in the lives of the Sopranos.

The Score Card
The Season : 10

Cast:
James Gandolfini: Tony Soprano
Edie Falco: Carmela Soprano
Lorraine Bracco: Dr. Jennifer Melfi
Nancy Marchand: Livia Soprano
Michael Imperioli: Christopher Moltisanti
Tony Sirico: Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri
Steve Van Zandt: Silvio Dante
Dominic Chianese: Junior Soprano
Jamie-Lynn Sigler: Meadow Soprano
Robert Iler: A.J. Soprano
Vincent Pastore: Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero


 

Image: 9/9  NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.
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.

It's not like HBO's DVD from nearly ten years ago was particularly troublesome. It was crisp - perhaps a little too much so in the pilot episode - with good color and contrast for the medium. Sharpness was inconsistent, but not troubling. Altogether, very watchable. Once we enter the world of high definition – that is, once we leave the title sequence and get on with the featured episode – we are in a different space altogether. What was once acceptable can now easily be seen as just so many bits that happen to come together to fool us into thinking we are watching people moving about in various sets and natural locales.

The Blu-ray is like watching an Ektachrome slide show in perfect continuous motion. Resolution is so good that we are aware of no pixels, just substance. And there's a good reason for this – besides the obvious one of higher resolution: The Sopranos is very directly filmed, without massive quantities of post-production filtering and manipulation. We are just that much closer to the source here than many of today's movies. The Sopranos has more in common with a motion picture feature than a television series, so it makes sense that it should look like film, despite that it's undergone transition and compression with a digital interface presented through a digital medium. Grain is very tight, but image resolution is tighter; impression is voyeuristic, which, I am certain is the intention.

One last observation, as you can see from the comparative caps, the DVD image is slightly narrower than 1.78:1 (I measured it at 1.747:1), which has a thinning effect on people and objects that would hardly be noticeable unless placed side by side with the Blu-ray. Average bit rates from the DVD came in at just under 5 Mbps (this for Disc 1, which squeezes in a fourth episode) but the Blu-ray does not exceed three episodes per disc, thus permitting very hefty bit rates in the mid-30s for each 50 GB disc. Nice.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION
 

DVD TOP vs. Blu-ray BOTTOM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 7/8
The Sopranos is a drama first and an effects vehicle last and, as such, benefits from clear, sensibly sized and placed dialogue. The DTS HD-MA mix permits a bit more clarity in the dialogue, but also presents better ambience in just about every location: when actors speak in a restaurant or alongside a road they now seem part of the soundscape instead of plastered on top of it. Background effects and conversations outside the frame are faintly heard in the restaurant. Distant traffic makes for a more believable context in which action occurs. As for the occasional firing of weapons, they now have an envelope that approximates the expected change of timbre with each locale. Subtle and effective. Don't expect much in the way of pans through the surrounds, however. The Sopranos is not a series where cars chase or gangs shoot it out at the local saloon.

One final note: Played through my system there is a fascinating difference, I might even say: discrepancy, between pop songs on the DVD and the Blu-ray. Most noticeable is the title sequence music "Woke Up This Morning" by the British band Alabama. On the DVD the bass is rip and plumy – it's the thing that makes its mark on our consciousness; but on the Blu-ray the bass is crisp and well inside the mix. It's almost non-existent by comparison. At first we miss it – a lot, and then we begin to notice how much more of the music we can hear. This effect, perhaps not as strongly, persists with other material throughout the season.
 

Operations: 4
HBO's design for the box is old school: a sturdy gatefold that permits individual access for each of its five discs. Unfortunately, also old school - and I would have thought by this time, discredited - it uses one of those flimsy outer sleeves that opens only from the bottom. How smart is that, I ask you? The chances of the entire gatefold operation slipping right out the bottom as you lift the box off the shelf is quite high, unless you remember to lift it with two hands.

Perhaps most unexpected, considering the Blu-ray duplicates the content of the DVD set from 2000, is that the 13 episodes and extra features are spread over 5 discs instead of four. Usually it's the other way around. As for the menu design, unlike the DVD, we are not directed to an intermediate page with synopses fore and aft, instead we have a "Play All" function right off the bat, which makes for one or two fewer pages to load and to find your way about. Good idea. On the other hand you can't access the episode simply by clicking on its thumbnail, you have to scroll down to the "Play" button. Bad idea.

 

Extras: 3
Let's call a Soprano a Soprano here – in other words, (I really can't resist this) a plain pizza with cheese and a little sauce. The Blu-ray uses the same near bare-bones approach to extra features as the DVD set – the same features, in fact. Back in its day, these would have been enough to satisfy your average video collector, but we have long since come to expect more. That was part of the draw for Blu-ray to start with. So just to recap, first up is the one and only audio commentary for the first (or pilot) episode, which is more like an interview with David Chase and Peter Bogdanovich that listlessly looks at filming locations and other areas of production. On Disc five, Bogdanovich reappears in an isolated interview of Mr. Chase, now both in front of the camera. For about an hour and a quarter Bogdanovich lobs easy pitches at Chase who seems detached from the process. All the same I found it interesting if I closed my eyes.

There are also two four-minute EPK promo pieces: the one that focuses on the character of Tony Soprano and the other is more of a behind the scenes segment with brief interviews of cast and crew. All the extra features remain in 4:3 standard definition.

 

Bottom line: 8
So, if HBO's Blu-ray for the first season of The Sopranos is the same as the DVD, only more so in the ways that high definition has to offer in terms of picture and sound, does it make sense to upgrade?

Nine years ago in 2000 when the DVD first came out, no one was thinking maybe they should hold off for the high definition set. It wasn't until the last 21-episode season when HBO issued their first Blu-rays (initially on HD-DVD – remember those!) and this in two parts of four discs each. The price tag was high considering, but we were used to that from HBO (You might recall that the DVD of Season One retailed for a steep $100.) It's nice to have uncompressed audio, which makes dialogue and ambience that much clearer, but the real upgrade is the image, which makes watching The Sopranos effortless and where we can fall into their lives without concern for the mechanics of video.

Despite the lack of new features, the beautiful new video transfer makes this a necessary upgrade for fans of the series. The price is reasonable, and you can always introduce your friends to the series by giving them your DVD. Thumbs Up.

Leonard Norwitz
December 14th, 2009

   

Entire Series on Blu-ray:

   

About the Reviewer: 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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