Broken City DHD Review: Taut Noir Thriller Debuts in a New Format

This unlikely character-driven noir flick delivers a solid cast and production, and in an all new format.
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Broken City became available for purchase last week, even though the Blu-ray and DVD aren’t due out until closer to the end of the month.  No, it’s not an “available to pre-order” situation, but rather in a new format -- Digital HD (DHD).  Before you start groaning about having to rebuy all the movies you just replaced in moving from DVD to Blu-ray (or HD-DVD for those unlucky souls who banked on the loser of that fight), lets take a look at the pros and cons of this new medium to see if it’s right for you.

The DHD Format Review

The first obvious benefit is that you can buy movies on DHD format up to three weeks prior to the release of the physical-disc versions.  For those clamoring to get at that movie they missed in theaters or just have to own as soon as humanly possible, this will scratch that itch for you nicely.

The files can be rather large (Broken City with its extras was around 4GB), so if you don’t have a hefty hard drive or a spacious tablet, you might only be able to hang onto a few flicks at a time.  However, even if you delete it to make room for the next big thing, you can always re-download the movie later from the service you bought it from, be that Amazon.com, Cinema Now, Google Play, iTunes, Sony Entertainment Network, VUDU, XBox Video, or Barnes and Noble Nook HD.  It’s also possible on some devices to start playback while the movie is still downloading, allowing you to get watching even sooner.  I didn’t even have to sit through any unskippable trailers (they were available in the extras, though).

Price is another consideration.  With some new release Blu-rays going for between $30 and $40, paying less than $15 seems much easier to swallow.  Movies being stored in the cloud means that anywhere you have an Internet connection, you also have access to all the DHD movies you own.  This also means that you won’t have to buy new shelving to hold all the movies or to expand on what you already have.  You’ll just need a roomy hard drive if you want to keep them all offline.

There are some caveats to keep in mind.  First, when the wife and I watch things on Netflix or from Redbox, often times I’ll make it to the end while she passes out halfway through.  This isn’t uncommon, and standard practice is to just leave the movie in the queue (Netflix) or on the coffee table (Redbox) and she’ll finish it the next day.  DHD complicates this situation by tying the movies to a single user account and service, and if she doesn’t know I bought it through Sony instead of Apple, she won’t know where to go to find it for playback, assuming she knows my credentials for the service.  It can also be bound to a particular device.  If I had the movie stored on an iPad and took it to work with me, she would have to start downloading it on another Apple-friendly device, but can’t skip to the middle or toward the end where she nodded off until the download reaches that point.  Netflix and discs never posed this problem.  In a way, it reminds me of VHS, having to fast-forward through the entire movie (in this case, as it downloads) to figure out where you left off.  If you have kids or multiple roommates or friends you want to share the movie with, these restrictions are further exacerbated.

It’s worth arguing that even though Netflix is instant streaming and doesn’t require big downloads and ample storage space, you never really own anything with that service -- it’s just a subscription where everything goes away when you stop paying for it every month.  However, with DHD, you can keep the movie in digital form locally for playback whenever you want, but you must be logged into the service you purchased it through to play it, so if the user account the movie is tied to it is compromised or hacked or shuts down for some reason or you can’t log into it, you may have trouble watching your movies.  Granted, DHD doesn’t cost you a subscription fee every month, but being reliant on a proprietary, service-specific player to view the content feels restrictive, too, just in different ways.

It’s time to consider your playback environment options.  I’m one to throw in a disc or queue up Netflix on my PS3 on the big screen or projector, kick back, and watch.  The thought of watching an HD movie on a tablet or my phone seems contrary to the whole idea of HD.  Those of you sporting an Apple TV are in luck, as it will play back straight from iTunes that way.  As someone armed with an HDMI-out capable laptop, I felt I had a solution in using the TV as a second monitor for movie playback.  Windows 7 did a seamless job of finding the TV and outputting all sound and video to it.  It was a little clumsy reaching for the mouse to pause the movie, skip around, or change subtitles (speaking of, Closed Captioning and Spanish subtitles worked, but not English subtitles).  Wireless accessories, media servers, or even a wireless HDMI system would alleviate some of the headaches of this configuration, but I wasn’t prepared to spend that kind of time or money to watch a not even two-hour movie.

Your viewing results also could vary depending on the hardware rendering the playback.  A device or computer with more powerful video and audio components is sure to offer a more satisfying sensory experience than a low-end netbook.  Despite having a perfectly capable laptop for every other task I throw at it, about every 8 to 10 minutes while watching Broken City, the audio and video would fall so distractingly out of sync that I had to pause it and resume play to sync things back up.  That’s about six pauses per hour just to keep things together.  I’m going to give the video the benefit of the doubt and blame the computer for not holding things together or it being a misstep of a new format, but regardless, variations in performance -- including any choppiness resulting from weak video hardware, outdated drivers, or hard drive input/output bottlenecks -- can lead to an inconsistent and less satisfying experience for the viewer.

On the other hand, if you’re the type of user who wants to buy, download, and watch a movie on an iPad, PS3, or Android tablet, this type of service is going to give you an optimal, streamlined experience with a unified player and downloader on a compatible device.  Ultimately, the value of the DHD format is going to depend greatly on how you feel about price, immediacy of access, DRM/service/platform restrictions, and portability of your library.  If you have other questions that haven’t been covered, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll try to address them as best I can

The Movie Review

With all the technical analysis out of the way, Broken City is a good, character-driven, slow-burn noir drama where the twists unfold rather quietly.  Aside from a couple of brief chase scenes, the intensity comes from the dialogue and intrigue, and makes for a steadier viewing experience than those that oscillate between loud and soft, loud and soft.

New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) is running for re-election, and a week before the votes are cast, he hires Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a former cop with a checkered past turned private eye, to investigate the mayor’s wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to gather evidence that she’s having an affair.  Without giving too much away, Billy is soon given reason to question the true nature of his assignment and the motivations of all those involved.  Friends become enemies, blackmail is leveraged left and right, and the whole thing reeks of the sort of tabloid headlines and the political corruption we encounter on a near daily basis.

Alongside the primary players is a solid supporting cast.  The alluring Alona Tal plays Katy, Billy’s assistant at his struggling private investigation firm who chases down clients who don’t bother paying their bills.  Natalie Martinez plays Natalie, Billy’s girlfriend since childhood back in the old neighborhood, a series of housing projects that have recently been purchased at a cut-rate price for redevelopment -- by whom and to what end is one of the big questions to be answered before the credits roll.  Billy is very protective of Natalie because of his involvement in the unfortunate demise of Natalie’s sister nearly a decade earlier.  Because of this jealousy, it makes him very uncomfortable hanging around Natalie’s actor friends, especially when it comes time to watch her intimate scenes on film with another man.  Barry Pepper plays Jack Valliant, the incumbent mayor’s opponent in the upcoming election.  While well intended, he has trouble standing up to the charisma and charm of Hostetler, both on the street and at the debate podium.  Kyle Chandler continues a hot streak coming off roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Argo by stepping into the role of Paul Andrews, Valliant’s campaign manager and “friend” to Mrs. Hostetler.  Griffin Dunne and James Ransone play quarreling father-and-son real estate developers Sam and Todd Lancaster, who stand on very different sides of the ideological and ethical lines when it comes to the value of people versus things.  Add to that the roles of Jeffrey Wright and Michael Beach as District Attorney Carl Fairbanks and Officer Tony Jansen, each with a long history with both the Mayor and Taggart.

Everybody’s got dirt on everybody else here it seems, and in a sort of dramatic game of musical chairs, it boils down to who’s going to still be standing when the music stops.  Ultimately, Billy has to decide to make the easy choice or the right choice, which, as many of us know, are seldom the same thing.  The soundtrack is spot on, building tension and calm when needed, and aside from the audio/video syncing issue mentioned in the DHD discussion earlier, the video quality was sharp to the point that I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t a Blu-ray if I hadn’t spent an hour or two setting up to watch the flick.

There were a couple of extras, just trailers for other movies and two basic behind-the-scenes featurettes totalling about 14 minutes, nothing too outlandish.  The extras do come in a separate file from the standalone movie in the download.  As a newbie to the format, it took some poking around in iTunes to figure out which file did what exactly since the thumbnails in the interface are identical.

And in the End...

Overall, I enjoyed the movie.  I wouldn’t say that my first foray into DHD made the experience significantly better necessarily, except obviously seeing it at home weeks before it hits retail store shelves.  It’ll be potentially interesting to be able to watch it at a friend’s house without bringing any discs along, provided we can work out an A/V setup that doesn’t bog down the process too much.  As with any format transition, that first lonely movie is always a little awkward and isolated.  As the format grows, as long as publishers’ content shackles don’t become too unwieldy, cumbersome, or restrictive, I could see this medium catching on with a specific crowd who likes everything digitally and immediately.

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