Amistad (1997)

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Released 24-Jan-2001

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Theatrical Trailer
Featurette-Behind The Scenes
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1997
Running Time 148:20
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (91:39) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Steven Spielberg
Studio
Distributor

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Morgan Freeman
Nigel Hawthorne
Anthony Hopkins
Djimon Hounsou
Matthew McConaughey
David Paymer
Pete Postlethwaite
Stellan Skarsgard
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $29.95 Music John Williams


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Auto Pan & Scan Encoded English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
German
Dutch
Swedish
Norwegian
Danish
Finnish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

     In 1839, a Spanish slave trading vessel, The Amistad, is carrying African slaves from Cuba to Spain for sale. Refusing to meekly submit, the slaves rebel and take control of the vessel. The leader of this rebellion is a slave called Cinque (superbly played by Djimon Hounsou) a proud, strong and yet vulnerable man who only wants to return to his family and his home. Due to their inability to speak Spanish and the treachery of the imprisoned Captain, The Amistad does not return to Africa and instead strays into U.S waters where it is detained by a U.S Navy vessel and taken to port. The confused Africans are imprisoned and a legal battle begins where several parties, most significantly the Spanish Monarchy, argue over who owns these slaves. Opposing these claims is the abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a former slave himself, who wants the Africans released and returned to their homeland. He and his partner need a lawyer to represent their position and into this mess comes Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a property lawyer who believes  he can help. The trial begins and despite some fraught moments, Baldwin wins the case. Unfortunately, the case has drawn to the surface a number serious problems within the U.S and so President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) forces the case to the Supreme Court, a court at that time made up by a significant percentage of slave owners. Facing defeat, Joadson and Baldwin turn to a former president and lawyer in John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) for help.

   This film is more complex than implied by the above synopsis, but to reveal more will spoil the film. Please seek this film out as it is a powerful drama fuelled by some excellent acting. If you need convincing, this film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and has a solid 7.3  rating on the  Internet Movie Database.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    This DVD contains a good 1.85:1 (measured), 16x9 enhanced video transfer although one that is slightly less impressive than some of the other Dreamworks disc that have been reviewed by the team at Michael D's.

    The sharpness of this transfer is variable. At times, the level of detail on screen is brilliant, as good as any disc yet released. See 04:42-05:03, 18:08-18:49 and 71:20-72:07 for some excellent examples. At other times it is downright disappointing.  For example, 13:31-13:38 is a semi-long shot of the ship's dingy as it is rowed to shore. In this example, the name of the ship isn't clear. Also, 18:50-19:18 features a shot of the Spanish Queen at a dinner table. This scene just isn't sharp. Another example can be found at 19:19-19:34. In this shot the American President is featured at a rally for the upcoming election and again, the scene is just not sharp. Edge enhancement has been used and is noticeable at times. I've noted a couple of examples for you. One is at 11:56-12:01 and the other is at 89:11-89:13. The black level in this film is excellent and scenes set at night or in shaded areas show a very good level of detail.

    Colour saturation is very good, with lovely skin tones on both the white and black actors. The accuracy of the skin tones can be seen at 41:07-41:45.

    MPEG artefacts are a problem at times. For example, during the scene in which Theodore Joadson is searching the hold of The Amistad, noticeable posterization and macro-blocking occurs in the bottom right of the frame. See 49:13-49:47. Also, at 55:49-56:08 the level of detail on the bottom right of the frame is very poor and some odd, unnatural shearing and jumping of that portion of the screen occurs.

    I found  no occurrences of film-to-video artefacts and film artefacts were quite rare. I've noted one example of film artefacts for you, see 06:34-06:40.

    This is an RSDL disc with the layer change occurring at 91:39. It is placed during a quiet scene and on my DVD player, is negotiated within 1/4 of a second. I didn't find it disruptive at all.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two audio tracks present on this disc. One is in English and the other German. Both are Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks encoded at the maximum Dolby Digital bit rate of 448 Kb/s. I listened to the main English track.

    It's all good news for this audio transfer. This is one the best tracks you will ever hear and while not perfect, it close to reference quality. Firstly, thank you Dreamworks for giving us an audio track encoded at the highest Dolby Digital bit rate. There are a disturbingly large number of discs released in Region 4 that have a lower audio bit rate than their cousins in Region 1. This always annoys me as the extra information encoded on 448 Kb/s soundtracks almost always improves the listening experience.

    The majority of the dialogue from the African slaves is in their native tongue and is also spoken at heightened emotional levels and yet their dialogue can always be distinguished from the other sounds present at the time. While I can't speak whatever African language was used, I could still hear what the actors were saying. Audio sync was spot on and there were no pops, clicks or dropouts present.

    The score on this film is by John Williams, and a beauty it is too. This score was nominated for an Academy Award in 1997 and it is easy to hear why. It matches the on-screen action perfectly and is also very interesting. There are traditional African themes present as well as the traditional Western orchestral sounds that we are all used to. Massed voices are used to great effect at times, bolstered, in my opinion, by the extra fidelity offered by the high bit rate audio.

    The one minor failing of this track is in the patchy use of the surrounds. When they are used, the result is sensational, such as during the opening sequence aboard The Amistad. Listen between 00:50-05:07 to hear what I mean. However, once these effects-rich passages pass, the soundfield collapses to the centre only despite the scene offering opportunities for greater surround activity. Still, this is a very well-designed soundscape that has excellent imaging and great fidelity. For example 16:24-16:29 provides horse noises that are not localized in a particular channel, rather they are heard somewhere to the left of your listening position. Split channel effects are used in many places such as at 14:04-14:10 where a bike moves from the centre to left front channel. Another example can be found at 16:08-16:12 when Cinque is pulled from the ocean.

   The subwoofer is used sparingly but effectively at various points. Its use is totally appropriate and well balanced so as to add impact to the on-screen action without overpowering it. Good examples of this can be found at 00:50-05:07 and 138:50-139:06.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    There are two extras on this disc, a making-of featurette and the original theatrical trailer.

Featurette - The Making Of Amistad (28:33)

    Presented in Full Frame video with Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound, this featurette is very well done and quite interesting. It features interview snippets, taken both during production and at arranged studio sessions with the Producer Debbie Allen, Director Seven Spielberg and the main cast members. There is also behind-the-scenes footage from production of the film. This footage shows Spielberg and his actors working on scenes as well as discussing acting issues and so on. It is certainly not your usual 5 to 10 minute over-produced and worthless featurette.

    The quality of this featurette is only adequate as a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage is a little soft as well as suffering from video noise and pixelization. It is, however, still worth watching because of the genuine behind-the-scenes footage and interview segments.

Original Theatrical Trailer (02:28)

        The release trailer is NOT 16x9 enhanced and has an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0. The video quality is quite good with only minor edge enhancement and film artefacts present. The sound quality is also good. I did notice a brief moment of distortion when an actor makes a brief but forceful exclamation during a courtroom scene.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    There are two versions of this film available in Region 1. One contains a Dolby Digital audio track and the other a DTS audio track. Both receive high marks from a number of our trusted review sites. Neither review that I read noted any examples of macro blocking or posterization and both reviews gave high marks for the both the video and audio transfers. The inconsistent use of the surround channels was noted by one of the reviews.

   The Region 1 Dolby Digital version of this disc misses out on:

    The Region 1 DTS version of this disc misses out on:     The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on:      The availability of full bit rate Dolby Digital and DTS audio transfers makes the Region 1 offerings tough to pass up.

Summary

     Amistad is a powerful film based on real events. It contains some superb acting and excellent cinematography as well as high production values in the areas of set design and costume.

    The video transfer is excellent at times but marred by flaws which I found distracting and disappointing.

    The audio transfer is excellent and of near reference quality.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© John Richardson (read my bio)
Wednesday, January 17, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDLoewe Xemix 5006DD, using RGB output
DisplayGrundig MW82-50/8. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationSherwood 8090R
SpeakersMains and Rears: Tannoy Mercury M1. Centre: Tannoy Mercury MC. Subwoofer: Aaton SUB-120.

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