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Paramount Home Video presents
John Book: How do I look? I mean, do I look Amish?
DVD ReviewIn 1986, Witness earned a handful of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Score), well deserved nods for a film that in lesser hands could have been either a guns-ablazing action piece or a smarmy "opposites attract" romance. Directed by Peter Weir (Master and Commander, The Truman Show) and featuring the often breathtaking cinematography by John Seale, Witness has done what a lot of films from the mid-1980s just couldn't do, which is to actually hold up over time.
Witness finds Harrison Ford in one of his better roles, aside from the likes of Indy, Han, and Deckard. Philadelphia detective John Book goes undercover in the alien world of Amish country to protect a young boy (pie-eyed Lucas Haas) who has witnessed a brutal murder. The obligatory culture clash ensues—as well as the development of a forbidden love with Amish hottie Kelly McGillis—but Weir avoids dabbling too heavily in unwarranted bursts of trite clichés or predictable gunplay, instead offering up a film that is equal parts smart, taut, and gentle.
Ford is really on his game here, moving beyond the one-dimensional nature of broader caricatures like the aforementioned Han Solo into a character that has some measurable depth. Though he had already been in some of the most successful films on record, this was something of a breakout role for Ford, showing that it didn't take grand action set pieces to make his mark as a performer. The role of John Book really fit him well, and one can see his transformation from being simply a lead in big action films to a genuine actor. In his long career, Ford has been in a lot of popular action-themed films, but Witness gave him the chance to show his chops without a ton of special effects behind him.
The only bone of convenient contention I ever really had with Witness, on a very superficial level, was the straw-chewing sexiness of Kelly McGillis as Amish mom Rachel Lapp; but an appealing leading lady is to be expected in a Hollywood feature. What are the odds the mother of the boy Book is sent to protect is something of a babe? No discredit to McGillis, who does a fine job dishing out alternating dose of wide-eyed simplicity and repressed sexuality, but the convenience factor of the cop-and-Amish relationship really could have mired Witness in a bad place had Weir not steered this one properly. McGillis, in what was essentially her first big role just a year or two before she fell into Top Gun, plays well off of Ford, nicely soft-selling a character that truly could have sank this film if it had been overplayed in either direction.
All of the Oscar-related accolades Witness earned during its theatrical run still seem relevant, and it has indeed aged gracefully, remaining as the kind of film Hollywood could truly stand to make more of.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer treats the work of cinematographer John Seale (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Perfect Storm) with respect—especially the outdoor scenes in Amish country—offering up a 20-year-old film that looks like it could have been shot last week. Those outdoor moments come across beautifully—colors are bright and black levels really hold their own—though some of the indoor scenes are plagued by minor grain and edge enhancement issues that barely detract from an otherwise solid transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Audio choices are split between a modest Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and a rather compressed 2.0 surround mix. Both deliver clean, discernible dialogue, but the subtle expansiveness of the 5.1 track allows mood-enhancing moments like swells from the lovely Maurice Jarre score to rise in the all the right places. Rears get used to good effect in small doses, but the bottom end is a bit diminished. A nice, and appropriately simple, presentation that makes the 2.0 track appear downright flat, though on its own it provides clear sound quality.
A French language 2.0 surround track is also included.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Airplane: Don't Call Me Shirley Edition, Tommy Boy: Holy Schnike Edition, The John Wayne Collection, Macgyver: The Complete First Season
1 Deleted Scenes
Extras Review: I've become a bit jaded to the obligatory commentary track, and for whatever reason I was sort of glad that this special edition release of Witness didn't have one, to say nothing of being pleasantly surprised.
The absence of a commentary is filled in by a new five part documentary entitled The Making of Witness, split into the segments Origins (20m:35s), Amish Country (14m:36s), The Artistic Process (09m:49s), The Heart of the Matter (08m:22s) and Denouement (10m:32s). This is a step above most DVD featurettes, and Ford, McGillis, Haas, and others offer recollections on the project, but it is Weir who connects all the pieces, providing the most consistently interesting look at the entire process, from script procurement to cinematography. I would gladly look forward to more docs of this caliber versus yet another tedious commentary track.
There is one deleted scene (04m:10s), culled from the network airing of the film, and it features Rachel, Samuel, and the temptation of Donkey Kong.
Also included is a theatrical trailer, three TV spots, and a quartet of other trailers for assorted Paramount products. The disc is cut into 17 chapters, with optional subtitles in English or French.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThe inclusion of a new five-part documentary on the making of Witness is what ratchets this into special edition territory, but the film itself remains a great balancing act between gentle fish-out-of-water drama and tense police thriller.
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