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Knight's Tale, A
Before his transformative performance in Brokeback Mountain earned him an Oscar nomination, Heath Ledger was primarily known as the dreamboat Australian hunk with a perfect smile and soulful brown eyes. That image sure seems to work with the ladies. My wife still makes it a point to watch 10 Things I Hate About You or A Knight's Tale in full whenever she runs across them on cable, which tends to be at least once a month each. You'd think she might get sick of watching the same two movies over and over again, but no she really doesn't. When I made the mistake of mentioning that Knight's Tale would be released on the Blu-ray format, she insisted that I request a copy for review so that she could fawn over her pretty boy idol in High Definition.
Truth be told, Ledger has always been a good actor with natural leading-man charisma. Even when indulging the Hollywood studios intent on marketing him as a teen heartthrob, the actor chose some better than average starring vehicles. Both 10 Things and Knight's Tale are witty, breezy, light-hearted entertainment. Though I've seen the latter too many times to really appreciate its freshness anymore, it still remains enjoyable despite familiarity. That's a testament to both its stars and writer/director Brian Helgeland, who managed to bring a unique spin to the old sword & armor genre.
In A Knight's Tale, Ledger stars as William Thatcher, squire to a has-been knight we find dead in a ditch as the movie starts. Destitute and starving, William puts on his liege's armor and enters a jousting competition under false identity hoping to win a few pence and eat for the day. Miraculously surviving the event, he determines to train himself and, with the help of his reluctant but cunning friends, crafts the persona of Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland, soon to be the toast of the festival circuit.
The movie's plot is pure fluff. The hero has to woo the pretty girl and win the big competition, his chances of doing either compromised when his true identity is discovered by a dastardly rival. You can predict every story machination in advance and know how it will end practically as soon as it starts. What makes the movie entertaining is its playfulness. Helgeland has loaded the film with likable characters and clever dialogue. The supporting cast (Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, Rufus Sewell) are game, and Paul Bettany outright steals the movie as Geoffrey Chaucer (yes, the Chaucer who authored The Canterbury Tales), played as a hapless gambler who becomes Sir Ulrich's scribe (read: forger) and ringside announcer. Historical accuracy is far from anyone's mind here, you can tell. The movie mutilates history for a laugh and throws out a constant stream of amusing anachronisms: crowds at the festival games wear face paint like football fans and chant the lyrics to "We Will Rock You"; classic rock dominates the soundtrack, and a formal ball turns into a Saturday Night Fever dance-off.
Only his second film as director, Helgeland (screenwriter of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) keeps things moving at a brisk pace, deftly balancing comedy and action. His tournament scenes showcase the sheer brutality of the jousting event, each slam of the lance almost painful to watch. A Knight's Tale is completely frivolous, lightweight entertainment, extremely silly but fun to watch (those who enjoy fart jokes are advised to stick around through the end credits). It could never be mistaken for art, but my wife will certainly testify that it holds up well to repeat viewings.
The Blu-ray Disc:
A Knight's Tale debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Despite recycling the cover art last seen on their "Extended Cut" DVD edition (which ran 144 minutes), the Blu-ray contains only the film's 132-minute theatrical cut.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Knight's Tale Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 (it measures closer to 2.30:1 on my screen) with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
Unfortunately, this is yet another mediocre Blu-ray offering from Sony. On the plus side, the movie's basic color transfer is bright, sharp, and fairly vibrant. Edge enhancement is present (it wouldn't be a Sony disc without it), but generally not too obscene. Black level seems a little shallow, though, and white detail is noticeably clipped. The colors also seem a bit overcranked in some scenes, with flesh tones that run toward orange or red. I'm sure that this is the same transfer used for the studio's Superbit DVD edition, and overall these basic attributes of picture quality look reasonably good in spite of their flaws.
The problem is that the movie's photography is mildly grainy throughout, and in its present state the Blu-ray format doesn't handle grain very well. Although sometimes it's rendered well enough to look like actual film grain, for most of the movie the grain is poorly compressed and looks like electronic video noise. You can see this layer of noise in the background of almost every single scene for the first 3/4 of the movie, and at its worst it manifests as visible pixelation in details such as the leaves on trees behind the actors. The movie dramatically improves in its last 1/4, as though the studio were saving all the important bits for the big finale. The film's climax looks really good, and if demoed on its own makes for some impressive High Definition video. It's just too bad that the rest of the disc leading up to it couldn't maintain that same level of quality.
The Knight's Tale Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a very active mix with a convincing sense of envelopment, active use of directional surround effects, and a satisfying amount of bass in the jousting matches and swordplay. Dialogue is a little buried in the mix, unfortunately. The fidelity of the songs on the soundtrack is just OK, some coming across rather stridently. The space-hogging PCM in this case does seem to offer some mild improvement over the basic Dolby Digital, but neither is truly reference quality, and the minor audio boost hardly seems worth the hit to picture quality that it causes.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, or Thai.
Alternate language tracks - French DD 5.1.
Nada. Zip. Zilch.
The movie was released three times previously on the DVD format, one of them with a commentary and several featurettes. I suppose you could argue that Sony is trying to replicate their feature-less Superbit edition with this Blu-ray, but it's especially irritating that they couldn't have at least dropped the useless French dub to squeeze in the commentary. Thanks for nothing.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns. Please note that due to an error in the Sony encoder used to author the disc, blacker-than-black and whiter-than-white portions of the video signal have been clipped, essentially rendering the Brightness and Contrast calibration patterns useless.
A Knight's Tale is a fun movie but, considering its constant rotation on cable, not one that I foresee a great need to own another new copy of, unless (like my wife) you think Heath Ledger is totally dreamy and are salivating at the chance to stare at his pretty face in High Definition. To that end, unfortunately the Blu-ray edition's quality is nothing to get excited about. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh; if the disc quality were better I might be inclined to recommend a purchase, but at the present time I'd reserve this one for a rental.