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Ultra HD : Must Own
Ranking:
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Release Date: June 18th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1974

Chinatown 50th Anniversary - Paramount Presents 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Overview -

4K UHD Review By: David Krauss
Director Roman Polanski's riveting film noir about water, money, power, and murder in 1937 Los Angeles, Chinatown, at last comes to 4K UHD. A breathtaking Dolby Vision HDR transfer, excellent audio, and a hefty supplemental package including The Two Jakes on Blu-ray makes this the definitive edition of a bona fide classic. Must Own
 

OVERALL:
Must Own
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Two Discs 4K UHD + Blu-ray (Chinatown on 4K UHD & The Two Jakes on Blu-ray)
Video Resolution/Codec:
2160p HEVC/H.265, Dolby Vision HDR / HDR10
Length:
131
Aspect Ratio(s):
2.35:1
Audio Formats:
English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, French Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English, English SDH, French
Special Features:
NEW Featurette: ‘A State of Mind: Author Sam Wasson on Chinatown’, Featurette: ‘Chinatown’ Memories, Featurette: ‘The Trilogy That Never Was’, Documentary: ‘Water and Power’, Featurette: ‘Chinatown: An Appreciation’, Featurette: ‘Chinatown: The Beginning and the End’, Featurette: ‘Chinatown: Filming’, Featurette: ‘Chinatown: The Legacy’, Audio Commentary with screenwriter Robert Towne and director David Fincher
Release Date:
June 18th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Roman Polanski may be a controversial figure, but there's no denying his talent as a director, and Chinatown is one of his greatest films. This seething, complex detective drama takes a patented blueprint and turns it inside out, twisting archetypal elements into new forms and surprising viewers at every turn. "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but you don't," one character says, and no one line better describes this elegant exercise in mystery and suspense than that.

And therein lies the genius of Chinatown. Film noir is a marvelous genre, filled with texture and ambiguity, but it also can be predictable. Everything from the jaded, pugnacious, street-wise private investigator (who's also a lothario) to the ravishing, seductive, calculating, yet oh-so-vulnerable femme fatale has been ceaselessly copied and savagely lampooned since the bleak, shadowy style debuted in the 1940s. Chinatown salutes the genre's origins and core components, but tries its best to buck the trends and become an atypical noir. And its success in that regard - and many others - is unqualified.

Credit screenwriter Robert Towne, who justly won an Oscar for his work on the movie, with constructing not only an intriguing detective yarn replete with twists and revelations galore, but also linking the tale to a very real and historical issue - Los Angeles' thirst for fresh water, a commodity as precious and potentially valuable as gold, and one that inspires corruption and filthy deeds of the highest (or should I say lowest) order. The literate script, a model of hard-boiled poetry that contains a host of cryptic lines and deadpan quips, possesses more layers than an onion, and peeling them back to expose both subtle and monumental developments is one of the film's many great pleasures. Though it's a shame Towne's was the only Oscar Chinatown won out of 11 nominations, it's the most logical choice. Few scripts rivaled it then and even fewer do today.

The story begins like any garden variety noir. It's 1937 and a rich L.A. woman (Diane Ladd) asks J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a cocky private dick, to follow her husband, who she believes is having an affair. The woman turns out to be an imposter and when the husband is found dead, the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), becomes a target of Jake's investigation. Evelyn's late husband seems to have been involved in some shady dealings concerning the city's water supply, and as Jake investigates this disturbing development, the clues further implicate Evelyn's family, which sets in motion a string of events that will shatter all the lives involved.

Revealing any more would spoil the substantial fun of this glamorous yet gritty, atmospheric, and absorbing drama that's a feast for the eyes and brain. Towne puts Jake on a circuitous, convoluted path filled with potential pitfalls. Connecting all the dots isn't initially easy, but patience, a keen eye, and an agile brain allow one to fully appreciate the wealth of treasures that comprise this film. Despite methodical pacing, Chinatown never drags, as its story is supported by hypnotic imagery and a powerhouse cast of actors who play every role to the hilt.

Nicholson puts a modern spin on the cynical 1930s private eye, lacing his captivating portrayal with a hint of contemporary attitude that makes him a relatable figure. We've all been duped by beautiful dames, but Nicholson makes sure Jake stays in control or, at the very least, bounces back, especially after a horrific nostril-slitting incident that forces him to wear a prominent bandage on his proboscis for a good portion of the film. Despite the eyesore, rarely has the actor appeared more natural, and Polanski keeps any burgeoning Nicholson mannerisms in check.

Dunaway is equally striking, brandishing an imperious air that hides a tortured, tender, and frightened woman. Hard knocks have hardened Evelyn, but Dunaway's dimensional performance allows us to see the cracks in the character's veneer, enhancing her intriguing persona. Though from the opening frames we assume her to be a stereotypical femme fatale, Evelyn is really anything but, and seeing her become more human as the film progresses and her defenses melt is another of the film's myriad joys.

John Huston always makes a notable impression - his voice alone is worth the price of admission - and while he's far from a trained actor, he plays the pivotal role of a megalomaniac magnate well. John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, and a pre-Rocky Burt Young also assert themselves with aplomb, adding contrasting shades to an already colorful palette. Even Polanski himself gets in on the fun in a memorable cameo.

In addition to Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress nominations, Chinatown also received Oscar nods for John A. Alonzo's exquisite cinematography, the meticulous art direction/set decoration that makes the period detail sing, Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score, editing, costume design, sound, and, of course, Polanski's inspired direction, which raises Chinatown to a rarefied level among motion pictures of any genre. Rarely do I use the word masterpiece, but Chinatown is a masterful piece of filmmaking, a movie that grabs, challenges, and delights its audience with many small yet potent gifts. It doesn't just flirt with greatness, it takes greatness to bed.

Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Chinatown arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard clear case inside an attractive sleeve that features the Paramount Presents signature flip-up cover that reveals a two-panel reproduction of the movie's original poster art. A leaflet containing the code to access the digital copy is tucked inside, as well as a Blu-ray disc of the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and default audio is Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround. (The restored original mono track is also included for purists.) Upon insertion of the disc, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

Wow, wow, and wow! A practically perfect movie deserves a practically perfect transfer and that's just what Paramount delivers with this gobsmacking 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision HDR. Oozing lushness, bursting with crystalline clarity, excellent contrast, and palpable depth, and distinguished by pops of brilliant color, this spectacular rendering faithfully honors John A. Alonzo's gorgeous, Oscar-nominated cinematography and allows us to appreciate the artistry of every frame. I raved about the 2012 Blu-ray, and this 4K UHD transfer seems to be struck from the same top-quality master, but the enhancements of Ultra High-Def and Dolby Vision HDR raise this edition to another level.

Grain is absent, but the image still flaunts a distinct film-like feel as it immerses us in the period flavor of 1930s Los Angeles. The 4K picture looks more natural than its 1080p counterpart, a bit duller perhaps, but that better complements the tale's gritty, noirish nature. (Flesh tones especially appearing less rosy and yellow.) Fine details, like the pencil-thin lines in Jake's suits, wood grains, and facial pores, really shine, while razor-sharp close-ups showcase the light perspiration on Nicholson's face, the stitching on his nose, and Dunaway's striking features. Reflections in car mirrors, windows, and a camera lens are wonderfully crisp and shadow delineation is quite good, even in nocturnal scenes.

Chinatown isn't a particularly colorful film, but intermittent explosions of bold hues punch up its muted palette. Jake's creamy white suit and Evelyn's gleaming, cream-colored Packard exude Hollywood glamor and the red accents of Dunaway's lipstick, a lone carnation on a restaurant table, and the upholstery of a leather restaurant booth add vibrant touches to the picture. The verdant green grass and tree foliage and shimmering ocean blues also show up well and the varied browns of the desert, especially when bathed in yellow light, are breathtaking. Blacks are appropriately rich and deep, the bright whites never bloom, and the spotless source keeps us transfixed from beginning to end.

The Blu-ray still looks great, but if you're a Chinatown fan - and show me a movie buff who isn't - you'll definitely want to upgrade to this flawless 4K UHD edition. It's worth its weight in water.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The same Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack that graced the 2012 Blu-ray is once again employed here. This is what I wrote about it a dozen years ago, and I must say the track impressed me even more this time around:

"I'm usually not a big fan of Dolby TrueHD tracks, which I feel tend to lack the clarity and nuance of their DTS-HD counterparts, but the TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack for Chinatown just might change my mind. Bursting with fidelity and a marvelous depth of tone, this first-rate audio treatment breathes new life into Chinatown and further immerses us in its seductive atmosphere. Surround activity is confined to atmospherics, such as crickets peeping in the night, but it's surprisingly distinct, and noticeable stereo separation across the front channels supplies further aural interest. A wide dynamic scale handles the soaring highs of Jerry Goldsmith's music score well and...any surface noise, such as hiss, pops, or crackle, has been carefully erased, leaving a clean, well-balanced mix that belies the movie's advanced age.

Dialogue is well prioritized and always easy to understand, and accents such as gunfire and rushing water exhibit a nice crispness. While there isn't much bass to speak of, low end tones supply necessary warmth and weight, heightening this full-bodied, colorful, and involving soundscape. My expectations were low for this track, but this finely tuned mix far exceeded them and should surprise others with discriminating ears." 

Like the Blu-ray, this edition of Chinatown also includes a restored mono track for those hoping to recreate the original theatrical experience, but unlike the Blu-ray, it's presented here in lossy Dolby Digital, not Dolby TrueHD. I briefly sampled the track and it sounds just fine, but

Special Features

Ranking:

Paramount ports over all the extras from the 2012 Blu-ray and includes two brand new featurettes as well.

  • The Two Jakes on Blu-ray (HD, 137 minutes) - The not-so-popular, but increasingly well regarded 1990 sequel to Chinatown takes place 11 years after the original and focuses on oil instead of water. Nicholson not only reprises his role as detective Jake Gittes, but also directs the film, which features such esteemed actors as Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeleine Stowe, Eli Wallach, Rubén Blades, Frederic Forrest, David Keith, and Richard Farnsworth. Robert Towne once again supplies the screenplay. Excellent video and audio distinguish this Blu-ray, which was originally released in 2020, but there are no supplements on the disc.

  • NEW Featurette: "A State of Mind: Author Sam Wasson on Chinatown" (UHD, 16 minutes) - The author and film historian expresses his admiration for the movie, discusses the principals in front of and behind the camera, examines the evolution of the script and Polanski's influence on it, praises the performances of Nicholson and Dunaway, and looks at the brilliant casting of Huston in this interesting but not particularly enlightening featurette, which doubles as a plug for Wasson's book about Chinatown.

  • NEW Featurette: "The Trilogy That Never Was" (UHD, 2 minutes) - Wasson returns for this brief piece that looks at preliminary plans for a third Jake Gittes film that never came to fruition and includes the original trailer for The Two Jakes.

  • Audio Commentary – Screenwriter Robert Towne and director David Fincher sit down for an informative and interesting commentary that examines the many facets of this fascinating film. Topics include the simplicity and understated power of Polanski's direction, the movie's distinctive music, the choice of aspect ratio, the performances of Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston, and the myriad nuances and creative touches that distinguish the film and separate it from others in its class. The two possess strikingly similar vocal qualities, which often makes it difficult to determine who is speaking, but that's the only negative aspect of this probing discussion that's a must for fans of the movie.

  • Documentary: "Water and Power" (SD, 78 minutes) – Divided into three parts, which can be viewed separately or as a single entity, this lengthy documentary chronicles the historical events that shape Chinatown, namely the channeling of water - a precious commodity - into Los Angeles. You won't find much about Polanski's film here; what you will get, however, is a detailed examination of the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the political and social hurdles that had to be scaled to ensure its completion, as well as a look at the controversies and skullduggery surrounding the project and the environmental issues facing Los Angeles then, now, and into the future. When viewed in one sitting, the piece runs a little long, and for a film about water, it's ironically dry, but a lot of fascinating information is imparted that adds vital context to Chinatown, making it a worthwhile experience for those fascinated by the movie's underlying elements.

  • Featurette: "Chinatown: An Appreciation" (SD, 26 minutes) – A number of creative personalities, including directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard, express their fondness for Chinatown and dissect its structure and components in this elegant 2009 featurette. The movie's many layers and seamless intertwining of plot threads are discussed, as well as the Oscar-winning script, Polanski's filming style (Soderbergh calls the director the "master of motivated camera movements"), the lighting, score, and editing. The participants also analyze the complex story and its "inevitable flow toward doom."

  • Featurette: "Chinatown: The Beginning and the End" (SD, 19 minutes) – The first in a trilogy of 2007 featurettes, this absorbing piece includes reminiscences from Polanski, Nicholson, and Towne, who don't always share the same memories. (Unfortunately, Faye Dunaway is a notable absentee.) Towne recalls the genesis and evolution of the script, his collaboration with Polanski, and how he brought some of Nicholson's distinctive characteristics to Jake Gittes, while Polanski addresses his reluctance to return to Hollywood to make the picture in the wake of wife Sharon Tate's murder. The film's original ending is also revealed.

  • Featurette: "Chinatown: Filming" (SD, 26 minutes) – Nicholson terms Chinatown one of his "biggest learning experiences," and this in-depth featurette takes us into the production environment. Polanski talks about his meticulous attention to makeup and style, but his refusal to let the film seem stylized, and how he framed every shot of the picture. The director's cameo is also examined, as well as the unique contribution of John Huston, the support of producer Robert Evans, and some tiffs that occurred between Nicholson, Dunaway and Polanski during shooting.

  • Featurette: "Chinatown: The Legacy" (SD, 10 minutes) – This piece looks at the rave reviews, popular success, and multiple Oscar nominations Chinatown garnered, and how the original music score was scrapped after the first preview. (Composer Jerry Goldsmith was brought in at the eleventh hour and wrote a new score in a mere nine days so the film could be released on schedule.) Polanski also confesses that Chinatown ranks as his second favorite film after The Pianist.

  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) – The film's original preview completes the disc supplements.

I said it a dozen years ago and I'll say it again today. Chinatown is a dazzling cinematic experience that remains as intriguing, involving, and visually arresting today as it surely seemed 50 years ago upon its initial release. Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne meticulously evoke film noir and take the genre to new and unexpected heights, while Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway contribute iconic portrayals that brim with understated power. Paramount's stunning 4K UHD presentation with Dolby Vision HDR honors this masterwork and a sizable supplemental package that includes The Two Jakes on Blu-ray adds essential historical and analytical context to this movie classic. If you own the 2012 Blu-ray, an upgrade is mandatory, and if you don't, just go out and grab this disc. After all, "It's Chinatown." Must Own

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