Right there in its title, Straight Up promises helicopters in action, and that's exactly what it delivers. A young mother caught offguard by a sudden avalanche! Drug runners screaming across the Atlantic in a speed
boat! Rescuing one of the few remaining black rhinos on the planet! Repairing electrical wires at dizzying heights in a remote stretch of South America! Dropping a metal claw hundreds of feet to grab a fallen tree! Ferretting Marines on a covert reconnaissance mission! Bringing aid -- some glimmer of hope -- to one of the most desperately impoverished and malnourished countries on the globe! A sailboat collapsing under the weight of a devastating storm hundreds of miles from shore! Straight Up offers the visceral, immersively visual thrills you'd expect for a short film produced for IMAX's sprawling screens, but it's more than just a fifty foot tall Valentine to these amazing machines. There's some type of helicopter in front of the camera for nearly every last frame of its 41 minute runtime, yes, but Straight Up takes care to emphasize the human element too...how difficult these mighty aircraft are to control, how much they're an extension of the gifted pilots manning them, and the very real impact helicopters have on many, many lives.
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Straight Up is balancing two very different goals, and as luck would have it, the film juggles its educational elements with the thrill ride you'd expect remarkably well. It touches on the history of the helicopter and the mechanics of flight quickly and efficiently...not so short as to seem like a cursory shrug but not in such detail that kids' eyes will glaze over. Most of Straight Up's runtime is divided across a series of short segments, and the pacing is similarly flawless. Each segment is engaging and energetic, hitting all the right emotional beats in these very human stories while remaining a thrill to watch. Director David Douglas doubles as cinematographer, and it's clear that this is a film helmed by someone with an intensely visual eye. Straight Up is just amazing to look at, and I'd love to have a chance to catch it on a full-sized IMAX screen at some point. There's a definite speed and grace to the photography, and Douglas has a talent for uncovering very unique, compelling angles.
I really don't have any complaints at all about Straight Up as a film. The pace certainly never has a chance to drag, and though there are many different stories woven throughout this mini-doc, there's not a single weak one in the bunch. An exceptionally wide variety of helicopters are showcased, spanning many decades and many different types of technology. I love the deft balance of the human element with the emphasis on such heavy machinery. Straight Up knows what you wants to see and doesn't get distracted by talking head interviews, but there's a constant reminder of the people behind the helicopters and those that are being helped, and its use of narration furthers that. It's always terrific to hear Martin Sheen's voice, and he's the one connecting all of these different threads together. Some of the acting elsewhere in the film leaves a bit to be desired, but Straight Up doesn't get too caught up in that sort of thing. Even though I own this Blu-ray disc, obviously, I enjoyed the documentary enough that I'd cheerfully pay to watch it again in IMAX, and I can certainly see myself pulling this disc off the shelf to show to family when they come visit.
The downside, really, all comes down to Straight Up's lackluster release on Blu-ray. As much as I love the film, it's barely forty minutes long. Even after adding in the extras elsewhere on the disc, its sticker price of $24.95 seems awfully steep. Despite the Dolby TrueHD logo on the flipside of the case, the documentary is limited to lossy Dolby Digital audio only, and its high definition transfer leaves quite a lot to be desired. With a better presentation, I'd be writing a much more enthusiastic review, but considering the questionable value and disappointing presentation, I have to suggest sticking with a rental instead. Rent It.
Straight Up: Helicopters in Action was filmed right at a decade ago, and from the look of things, the transfer used for this Blu-ray disc is closing in on its tenth anniversary too. All the tell-tale signs of an aging transfer are disappointingly present: lackluster detail and clarity, a fair amount of speckling, and an overall digital look to it. Straight Up lacks the glossy sheen I've come to expect out of an IMAX production, and the level of detail would be substandard for a traditional 35mm shoot, let alone a considerably larger format like this. Pop open the screenshot below and tell me if this screams high definition to you:
What film grain is present has a tendency to clump together. Detail is passable in tighter shots but completely forgettable otherwise, especially the backgrounds that seemingly always devolve into a muddy smudge. On the upside, the image is appealingly bright and colorful when appropriate, but that's about as much praise as I can muster. I'd love to be writing a rave review right now, but watching Straight Up, it feels as if I'm tuned into one of the HD channels I get on cable rather than a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc.
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Given the very short length of the film, I'm sure it goes without saying that Straight Up is presented on a single layer Blu-ray disc with plenty of room to spare. The 1080p24 video has been encoded with AVC at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
The great news...? The sound design in Straight Up: Helicopters in Action is phenomenal. Don't settle for the tinny stereo speakers built into your
TV; this is an endlessly immersive mix that is clearly designed with multichannel sound in mind. The downside is that this Blu-ray disc doesn't bother with the lossless audio that's become standard on the format, sticking instead with a lossy Dolby Digital track. Its 640kbps bitrate is higher than what DVD can deliver, and it certainly outclasses anything you're likely to hear on cable, but audiophiles are sure to wince that the DTS-HD Master Audio or TrueHD icons on their receivers aren't lighting up. The other disappointment is that the narration is buried far too low in the mix, and there are some brief stretches where I couldn't really discern what was being said at all.
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If you can overlook those two admittedly very significant missteps, Straight Up otherwise sounds terrific, thanks to Peter Thillaye's accomplished sound design. Whirring blades pan from one speaker to the next, and sprays of gunfire whiz from the right rear channel to the front. The roars of all this heavy machinery certainly give the subwoofer plenty to do, and the low-end is also nicely reinforced with such effects as a massive log plummeting to the ground below. The score is also rendered nicely and takes advantage of the many speakers at its fingertips as well. The narration, despite being dialed so low in the mix, is almost without exception reproduced cleanly, although there are some flickers of distortion in the Sierra Leone voiceover. Again, I'd love to be scoring the audio much higher, but the narration imbalance and the lack of lossless or uncompressed audio definitely subtract a couple of stars.
There are no dubs or alternate mixes. Subtitles are limited to English only.
The navigation of the extras is a bit clumsy. After you finish watching one, the Extras submenu closes and navigates over to 'Play Movie' again. It's obviously not an overwhelmingly huge deal to clack on the buttons on the remote a few times to go back to the Extras menu, but it does strike me as poor design.
- Audio Commentary: Director/cinematographer David Douglas dispenses with any introductions or chatter about the background of this project: he dives in headfirst with his audio commentary and doesn't let up
until it's over. Douglas has a lot to say and only forty minutes in which to say it, and he doesn't let any of that time go to waste. He delves into much greater depth about the helicopters featured throughout Straight Up and noting why he chose to showcase each of them. There are a lot of really neat notes about the film itself, such as who you turn to if you wanna stage an avalanche, accidentally drowning an IMAX camera during the Marine extraction shoot, and attaching a very pricey camera directly to a gigantic log that was being airlifted out of a forest. Along with speaking at length about Straight Up in particular, Douglas also delves into helicopters in general, such as explaining why he believes this is where the action in aviation really is and how he thinks tilt rotors could completely revolutionize commercial air travel as we know it. This is a terrific track and is well worth setting aside the time to give a listen.
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- Taking Off: Behind the Scenes of Straight Up: Helicopters in Action (22 min.; SD): The first of Straight Up's two featurettes is disappointingly promotional, touting how much of a ride the film is on a massive IMAX screen and with so many people marveling at their favorite sequences. Some additional information on these specific helicopters is offered, yes, but there's little here that hasn't already been covered in David Douglas' audio commentary. It's similarly nice to see some of the helicopters on the other side of the camera, including peeks at the specific mounts that were used, but again, many of the notes about the difficulty and complexity of the cinematography have already been addressed in the commentary. It just feels as if "Taking Off" is meant more for people who haven't watched the movie rather than those who have and would like to learn more.
- Careers in Action (17 min.; SD): I have to admit that "Careers in Action" feels like I'm watching a series of recruitment videos, although hopefully it's just because the people showcased here are so deeply passionate about their jobs and want to share that with everyone who's watching. This featurette introduces us to a pair of customs officers, a Marine, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, and a large animal veterinarian, and we also get to spend a little more time palling around with the high voltage power line tech from Straight Up. The six of them speak about the education and training that helped get them where they are today, explain the integral role that helicopters play in their careers, and chat a bit about what a typical day on the job is like.
- Trailer (1 min.; HD): The only high-def extra on this Blu-ray disc is a minute-long theatrical trailer.
The Final Word
C'mon, who doesn't love helicopters? Equal parts educational, energetic, and entertaining, Straight Up: Helicopters in Action is a blast to watch, and it should appeal every bit as much to adults as it does to their wide-eyed kids. As a movie, Straight Up comes enthusiastically recommended. As a Blu-ray disc, though...? Not as much. The dated presentation fails to impress, the lack of lossless audio is a definite disappointment, and the asking price at Amazon as I write this is twice what the DVD costs. There's just nothing here to justify that kind of premium. A better presentation would've scored a much more enthused review. As it is, though, I'd suggest sticking with a rental or fishing Straight Up out of a bargain bin a year or two down the road. Rent It.