Erin Brockovich (HD DVD)
Universal // R // $29.98 // August 14, 2007
Review by Don Houston | posted August 27, 2007
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Background: To pretty much everyone that hasn't been living in an isolated shack in the hills, lawsuit abuse is accepted as a huge problem these days. No one is willing to accept that life has consequences beyond their immediate control and the so-called "blame game" allows ambulance chasing lawyers to reap huge awards based not on scientifically based facts but the fear that exists in all of us about modern living. Junk science is employed by those on the margin to make big dollar legal awards, often forcing defendants to settle in order to avoid bankruptcy or prohibitive expenses thanks to the cost of mounting a credible legal defense (regardless of the merits of the case). The perception of lawyers as scumbag bottom feeders goes back a very long time, though modern day lawyers seem driven to outdo each other as best they can in a race to the bottom of the barrel. Often taking 40% of any award as well as any fees or expenses incurred, the profit motive seems to be what drives their best efforts at getting "more" rather than arriving at a just conclusion. On the other side of the equation are companies that routinely endanger the lives of those in the community, discharging toxic substances routinely; often claiming that the scientific community has not "proven" said substances harm others (to this day, there are some hold outs that think smoking causes no ailments, freely ignoring the mountains of evidence and millions of dead consumers as inconsequential). When irresponsible corporations and shyster lawyers meet, it's tough to decide who to route for which is why movies like Erin Brockovich HD-DVD are so easy to swallow.

Movie: Erin Brockovich HD-DVD is a movie about a low level legal assistant that ended up triggering one of the largest legal cases in history, making substantial waves in the legal community as well as the regulatory environment. The movie stars Oscar winner Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, a tough, headstrong woman with few prospects to feed her small children. Bouncing from job to job and having been divorced twice, she gets in a car accident with a doctor. Desperate for financial relief, she hires a generic ambulance chaser, Ed Masry (excellently played by Albert Finney) who takes the case on a pro bono basis; if he doesn't win her any money, he won't make any himself. Needless to say, the pair loses the case and she yells and screams until he hires her to work at his small firm. Dressing like a hooker and acting like trailer trash, Erin alienates all those in the office who see her as exactly what she tries to be. This drives her crazy, the thought that other people require her to earn their respect instead of handing it to her gift wrapped on a silver platter, causing friction in the office. One day, she comes across a case that appears to be a mix up of the files but when she asks about it, the answer she gets ticks her off, wondering why medical files are attached to the case. She investigates and uncovers what appears to be a case of corporate negligence, the company having used a form of chromium in an industrial process for decades before changing the practice for something safer by EPA standards.

Erin soon finds out that a lot of people in the small town of Hinkley have been sick through the years, seemingly related to their proximity to the large power plant that employs a large portion of the population. The severity and frequency of certain ailments is disproportional to the expected number of cases that should be occurring, raising the question of how the power plant's industrial techniques might have impacted the health of the citizens. As with many modern processes and chemicals, the research into cause and effect is scant, opposing viewpoints in the scientific community feeding the uncertainty of whom to blame. Thankfully, the power plant has been trying to buy up the land around the plant from those getting sick, offering them above market value after admitting to discharging harmful chemicals. That provides Erin the impetus to dig a little deeper, soon getting her employer to rev up the legal engines based on her belief that the company wronged the townsfolk.

The movie goes into greater detail of course; spending significant time on Erin's failing personal life and need to provide for her children, but also showing the human portion of the above equation that people in need of medical help are in trouble. The movie is another of those that is "based on a true story" and a little research shows that like most Hollywood efforts, the characters and situations are portrayed in a polarized manner to spice up the dramatic aspects of the situation. It leaves out a lot of the discontent the townspeople had with the lawyers in real life (from Ed to those he partnered with in order to handle the case) or how friendly the arbitrators were with the plaintiff's attorney's, or even how the folks that went to actual trials lost their cases since there was not enough evidence to tie the plant to the causes of illness but as I've been told lately, the basic truths of the situation outweigh the mere facts as dramatized. This is the kind of movie Hollywood loves to make, awarding Julia Roberts for her role as the investigator that helped build the case with an Oscar for her efforts. Forget about the real life aspects of the case (it is easily searchable online and like Erin, the more you dig, the less you will simply accept as accurate) and simply enjoy the movie as a movie for the best benefit and you will see why I rate it as Recommended. Yeah, it has all the melodrama of the usual movie of the week and the amount of manipulation is apparent from the very beginning but the way the elements were combined made for the kind of tearjerker many people like to recognize as important to them so unless you simply have to have truth in your movies, kick back with some popcorn and a loved one to appreciate Julia Roberts prancing about in low cut dresses and short skirts while she saves the world.

Picture: Erin Brockovich HD-DVD was presented in 1080p with the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 as originally shot by director Steven Soderbergh for Universal Pictures. The disc was encoded with the standard VC-1 codec and looked substantially better than the original release from years ago. The level of clarity and detail was such that it provided marked improvement (I pulled out the original disc and compared it at varying spots) but the movie was always a little too grainy and soft on focus with some shimmer, particularly on some of the night scenes although it looked better in each case compared to the SD version. The deleted scenes were presented in SD using 480i so for a quick idea of the improvement, you can use these scenes for comparison purposes to give you a head's up about the differences.

Sound: The audio was presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital + English offering, with a corresponding track in French for those who care. The subtitles were the usual English SDH and French for those who care but the English ones seemed to accurately reflect the spoken word when I spot checked it. The vocals were suitably handled with a moderate amount of separation in the front channels. The rears and subwoofer kicked in during a few points, including some sound effects like George's motorcycle being revved up or some of the music playing in the background but the headspace was not used to full advantage and unlike most action movies; it wasn't a big deal here most of the time. I liked the soundtrack, it was a shame an isolated score wasn't included as a bonus here, with the music mixed in quite well most of the time.

Extras: The main extra here was a feature called Spotlight on Location: The Making of Erin Brokovich that amounted to a behind the scenes look at the making of the movie. A typical fluff piece, it showed the cast and crew at work, giving the real life Erin a chance to shine in her bit role as a waitress at the local diner but also Julia and the director a chance to explain what they felt was the importance of the movie. It was clear that they believed their screen written version of what happened to the people of Hinkley but considering the time and money they had invested in the project, this is no surprise. There was also a short interview with the real Erin Brokovich, a woman that looked & acted very much like Julia portrayed her in the movie. Personally, I liked the handful of deleted scenes included the most. They helped flesh out a few points from the movie better though they were not presented in an enhanced format as I would have appreciated.

Final Thoughts: Erin Brockovich HD-DVD was a title that legal buffs might enjoy more than the everyday folks but for all the later flack the movie drew from the people of Hinkley and legal analysts, it provided an interesting drama regardless of historical accuracy. Julia has provided more interesting roles since this came out seven years ago but Albert Finney stole virtually every scene he was in, especially those including the drab townsfolk that could have phoned in their roles. In that sense, Erin Brockovich HD-DVD might be the type of high definition movie you can show your anti-corporate, tree hugging friends, the kind that avails themselves of all the modern conveniences while blaming every ailment they get on others. As far as whether it might be worth a double dip for those of you that already own a copy, my SD version cleaned up a bit when up converted but it was a nice enough difference if you truly love the movie as some have claimed to me over the years.

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