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Paramount // R // January 20, 2009
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 16, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Election may swirl
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around who gets the nod as student body president in a sleepy, suburban high school, but just another teen movie it's not. Alexander Payne's razor-sharp satire -- nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay -- is aimed more towards adults who still cringe when they think back to those dark days of high school and not so much towards the She's All That crowd. There isn't some giddy romance or cameras swooping around a heartfelt confession on the prom dance floor. No, this is an unflinchingly scathing film about deceit, betrayal, manipulation, vaporating ideals, and self-interest -- y'know, politics -- and it's a flawlessly cast and smirkingly brilliant comedy to boot.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a real go-getter, alright. After several years straight of heading up just about every last club and committee at Carver High, this type-A overachiever has her eyes set squarely on a new prize: the office of student body president. As perky and hyperenthusiastic as she is, Tracy doesn't exactly have any friends to turn to for support, but hey: she's running unopposed. Tracy's not the type to lean back and relax even though she is a lock to win. With a couple hundred dead trees' worth of posters and a fishbowl filled to the brim with Juicy Fruit at her fingertips, Tracy hits the campaign trail -- or, well, a desk nudged against a wall in the lobby -- bright, early, and hard.

This sort of overcaffeinated enthusiasm might impress most teachers, but Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick)...? Not so much. Mr. M can't stomach the thought of watching Tracy steamroll her way to victory, and it sure doesn't help that her fling with another teacher left one of his best friends ousted from the school. Mr. McAllister prods Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) -- a dim but ridiculously likeable jock hobbling around on a broken leg -- to toss his hat into the ring. You can practically see the steam bursting out of Tracy's ears. She spends hours poring over banners with poster paint while Paul scrawls his name with a marker on a shredded cardboard box. Tracy quotes Thoreau in a polished, over-rehearsed speech in an assembly; he mumbles his way through it in a single rambling, incoherent run-on sentence. She slavishly devotes hours and hours and hours to this campaign, and who looks like he's about snatch victory away from her...? A
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pampered rich kid whose jersey number's probably higher than his SAT score.

Oh, and to heap on the headaches, Paul's bratty younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) gives the presidency a shot too as a bit of revenge against the gal who dumped her, and all she does is stand up in front of the school and rant about how pointless this election is anyway. She's...she's demeaning the entire political process! There's a lot of that going around, though. Tracy is desperate enough to clinch the nod as student body president that she tosses ethics (or is it morals?) out the driver's side window to steal the election. Meanwhile, Mr. McAllister is every bit as determined to keep her from plowing her way into office, although a little extramarital thing he's sparking keeps him from giving that his undivided attention...

Election evenhandedly skewers all of its characters, and there really isn't anyone to root for: every last one of them is fundamentally flawed in some way. Of course, this all translates awfully well to poking fun at the election process as a whole too. With a choice between an obnoxious overachiever who's just out to succeed for the sake of success and an endlessly charismatic but dim-witted jock, does it really matter who wins? Since we're saddled with one lousy choice or another in the end, the rest of us lose out no matter who scores the most votes. Although all of its characters take their share of abuse, Election is too smart to just lazily line up a bunch of easy targets. Mr. McAllister, Paul, Tammy, and Tracy are a little cartoonishly skewed in the way characters in most satires are, but they're surprisingly relatable, not to mention equal parts charming and repulsive in their own ways. Everyone's known people like them, both in those dark days of high school and in the years since.
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Alexander Payne goes to great lengths to make this high school feel real, and grounding these exaggerated characters in such a believeable world gives them that much more of an impact.

This is a movie that can be surprisingly dark -- statutory rape and infidelity are key plot points -- and it's startlingly frank about sex. Porky's it's not, though; Election treats sex as something that's frequently kind of awkward and embarrassing, scoring a steady stream of uncomfortable laughs in the process. Election juggles all of that with a spry, playful sense of humor, from goofball Italian cinema fantasies to an epiphany sparked by a can of Pepsi to a Walgreens trip for a night of extramarital bliss. The movie doesn't play it safe, steering clear of stock formulas or mugging for big laughs, and that unpredictability is an enormous part of its charm. Election is one delicate balancing act after another, but steered by the confident, uncompromising hand of Alexander Payne, this sharp, clever satire never stumbles.

Paramount opted not to ring in Election's tenth anniversary with much of a special edition. This Blu-ray disc is really just the 1999 DVD with a high definition version of that old, dusty master and a low-key lossless soundtrack. That may make this Blu-ray disc tougher for even longtime fans of the movie to want to shell out another twentysomething bucks. Election is a movie that's worth discovering on Blu-ray, though, even if it's as a rental or after the price eases back a few months down the road. Recommended.

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kind of disappointing to see that this Blu-ray disc warms over the same master as the nearly decade-old DVD. This transfer is dusty and speckled, and with the movie's cinematography leaning heavily on not-so-embellished fluorescent lighting, the scope image is also a good bit grainier than usual. Clarity and detail can vary wildly from one scene to the next, and some stretches are so soft that they really don't look all that much different than what I'd expect out of a well-mastered DVD. Quite a few other moments -- particularly tight close-ups -- are remarkably crisp, though, revealing a strong sense of detail and texture. It's erratic, and although I'm sure some of this inconsistency is owed to its deliberately rough-hewn photography, I can't help but wonder what kind of difference a more recent transfer would've made. A good bit of Election looks terrific, but overall, I wouldn't rank the quality of the presentation on this Blu-ray disc much higher than okay.

On the other hand, Paramount did go to the trouble of ensuring that Election's AVC encode has all of the headroom it needs. The Blu-ray disc has just over 27 gigs of data on it, and rather than cram it down to fit on a BD-25, Paramount went to the extra expense of letting the encode spill over into a second layer. It's also very much worth mentioning that there's no comparison whatsoever between this 1080p presentation of Election and the original DVD, despite being culled from the same master. Soft and muddy, that DVD really doesn't hold up at all these days. While I do think there's a fair amount of room for improvement on this Blu-ray disc, Election is still very much worth the upgrade.

Election sports a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and depending on if you want to lean on the packaging or the display on your receiver, it's either a 5.0 or a 5.1 mix. It's not all that tough to believe that there isn't a discrete LFE channel, though, considering that next to nothing is churning around in the lower frequencies. Bass response is modest, largely stemming from the thundering toms in the score. The surround channels don't draw all that much attention to themselves either. Buzzing bees and a rowdy gaggle of kids in an assembly add a little color to a handful of scenes, but for the most part, the rears are reserved for light atmosphere and reinforcing the music. None of this is really all that unexpected, though. Election is a dialogue-driven film, after all, and the lossless audio does what it needs to well enough.

Traditional Dolby Digital tracks are offered in French and Spanish alongside subtitles in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

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in advertising! Election lists an "Extra" menu, and it's singular for a reason: its one and only feature is an audio commentary with director/co-writer Alexander Payne. Originally recorded in 1999, this commentary is a little subdued by today's standards, but it's well-worth setting aside an hour and a half to give a listen. Payne devotes quite a bit of time to striving for a sense of authenticity in his old stomping grounds of Omaha, filming in a bustling high school during the school year with a small army of actual students. He's also keen on pointing out some of the more subtle visual hints scattered throughout the film, from apples to a running theme of garbage, as well as noting his preference for classic filmmaking techniques rather than leaning too heavily on digital compositing and the like. Payne's also prone to tearing off on rants about stock Hollywood conventions and occasionally will lob out something completely out of left field, such as a quick mention that Matthew Broderick really is peeing against a tree in one shot and that Neanderthal dongs aren't kosher at 20,000 feet. Even though there can be fairly long gaps between comments, Payne is a wonderfully engaging speaker, and this commentary is an essential listen for anyone buying or renting this disc.

Even though the sole extra from the DVD is carried over, it's a shame that Paramount didn't track down anything else for this Blu-ray disc. Payne mentions several deleted scenes in the commentary that disappointingly aren't offered here, for instance.

The Final Word
None of Election's characters stroll away unscathed from its sharp, skewering sense of humor, and even right at a full decade later, this very adult high school comedy still ranks as my favorite of Alexander Payne's films. It's kind of a letdown that Paramount shrugged off the movie's tenth anniversary and opted not to revisit it with any new extras, and both its 1080p video and lossless soundtrack are fairly unremarkable. Even though its high-def presentation doesn't exactly dazzle, this Blu-ray disc is visually a hefty step up over the DVD. Still, more casual fans of the film may want to wait for the price to ease back a bit more before upgrading. Recommended.
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