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K-19: The Widowmaker

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rated: PG-13 (For Disturbing Images)

Running Time: 137 minutes

Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sasrgaard

Screenplay by: Christopher Kyle
Story by: Louis Nowra

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Director Kathryn Bigelow and Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwrth, The Making Of "K-19: The Widowmaker", Exploring The Craft: Make-Up Techniques, Brechning The Hull, It's In The Details, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (16 Scenes)

Released: December 10th, 2002

 

 

Oh Harrison Ford... what happened? You still have box office clout, right? Even though your last film before this, "What Lies Beneath" was a smash summer 2000 success, your latest, "K-19: The Widowmaker" bombed with audiences and critics alike. You can go out there and push a film wherever and whenever you want, but the timing either might not be right (mid-July 2002 sounded good to me too) or the subject matter, even if marketed well, just might not appeal to audiences.

Okay, I'll stop going on like that. So yes, we have "K-19: The Widowmaker." The film, which was pretty costly to produce (rumor has it that it did cost a good 100 million), only raked in a disappointing final gross of about 35 million. Even if 2002 has been a competive year for movies, maybe some sensed that "K-19" wasn't a traditional action film for Harrison Ford (or maybe they didn't want to hear his Russian accent). Certainly, the film did not appeal to me but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

"Inspired" by a true story, "K-19: The Widowmaker" takes place during 1961, right around the peak of the Cold War. The focus is on a new Soviet submarine that's plagued with problems. Captain Mikhali Polenin (Liam Neeson) is aware of the problems and wants everything to be decent for the test run, so Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) comes aboard. Naturally, this causes tension since Vostrikov is a bit more qualified and successful than Polenin, and they are both quite stubborn. But while Polenin is more popular among the crew, the crew follows more orders from Vostrikov.

Besides the tension between the two captains, there are also problems with the submarine itself. The point of the voyage is to be seen to intimidate the United States, but when a nuclear reactor on board goes bad, the sub might explode and destroy the U.S. sub that's right nearby. If that happens, would it be considered an act against the United States? Of course, the man who has to fix the reactor is scared out of his mind and has no idea what he's doing, Vostrikov doesn't want the United States to get any piece of the Soviet technology and time is running out. What do you think will happen?

We know how much Hollywood loves to dramatize real-life events, and it seems they've gone the whole nine yards with "K-19." While I'm sure there's much truth within the film somewhere, I had no trouble pointing out what was probably fake and what conflicts were made larger than life. Still, it does make for some entertaining tension, even if survivors of the story gave their blessing to the film and later denounced it for portraying them all as drunks.

It took me a bit to get into "K-19," but it was much better than I anticipated. There are certainly some action-packed moments filled to the brim with arguing, action and tension, but I know what disappointed a lot of people was the film's structure in that there is a lot of talk and slow points. Certainly, I consider this the film's strength. While I felt the film as a whole went on a bit too much (running over two hours), I found a lot of the development and exposition to be welcome.

As I said, I'm sure a lot of what is featured is rather inaccurate, but it still makes for good drama. While the start of the film is a bit slow, it does pick up rather quickly. To be honest, I was surprised that I was riveted during the more major scenes when attempts to fix the reactor are made and when things start to become quite intense. Certainly, the film's submarine plot works very well and is even fascinating at times, but I also felt Christopher Kyle's screenplay also worked as a good contrasting character study between the two captains. Both have a love for their country, and Polenin does his best to cooperate with Vostrikov. But in the end and through the heated battles, I was intrigued in how both men were uncomprimising with themselves and their actions. Kyle polishes it all off with strong dialogue and a good balance in the microcosm of the two men and the macrocosm of the submarine problems.

Technically, the film is marvelous and top notch. Kathryn Bigelow shows off more of her filmmaking talent in "K-19" by making a solid attempt to make the film quite realistic (even if the story takes many liberties). Her pacing is slightly off, but she knows what she's doing and really makes everything worthwhile. The editing from Walter Murch captures the claustrophobic and frentic feel of what is going on, while the wonderful shots give off a majestic, epic sense that give you a clear view of what you should.

The performances are just as strong as the talent behind the camera. Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson don't have terrible fake Russian accents, as I got used to them quite quickly. Neither of them are miscast, as they play well off one another and definently deliver the tension the film is trying to offer. But are quite strong and yes, believable. Peter Sarsgaard also brings in a nice supporting performance, while on a different note, there's a great score from Klaus Badelt. In all, "K-19: The Widowmaker" was a pleasant surprise. It's flawed and could have been more well-rounded, but I had a pretty enjoyable time watching it and it definitely has more strengths than weakness. But hey, isn't enjoying yourself what counts anyway?

 

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, "K-19: The Widowmaker" sports a very nice transfer (as you'd probably expect from a recent film). The flaws I noticed are minor. There is some slight edge enhancment, there are some tiny blemishes here and there and there's way too much noise and halo edges. Still, the transfer is incredibly sharp and features great detail. The submarine scenes are a bit hazy and slightly soft, but I believe that's the intended look and I found it to work quite well. Fleshtones are flawless, while color saturation is bold and have much depth. The more pale and somewhat limited color scheme is reflected well. In all, the contrast seems to be up a bit too much but it's a solid transfer nonetheless.

 

The 5.1 Dolby Digital English mix included is very impressive. I certainly felt the tension throughout, and this is a fine example of strong sound mixing. Dialogue is clear and crisp throughout, while the powerful score certainly holds it own through the channels and even makes some good use of the subwoofer. Still, where this track shines is in its sound effects. And there are a lot of them, especially when everything goes beserk on the sub. The alerts, things breaking, yelling, buttons being turned on, pipes being fixed... the ambiance really does suck you in and give you a very strong experience. I certainly felt as if I was in the sub, and that's how I know this is a great track. None of the sound elements overlap each other either, so you can expect a fine balance between everything. Fidelity is quite high and dynamic range is very strong. Definitely one of the better 5.1 mixes I've heard lately. Also included are English and French Dolby surround tracks, English subtitles and English closed captions.

 

Even though the film didn't enjoy much success at the box office, Paramount has put together a few goodies for the DVD which should please fans of the flick. There is an Audio Commentary with Director Kathryn Bigelow and Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwrth which I really enjoyed. Both have pleasant speaking voices, and each offer a unique take on making the film. They also share some interesting background information in the events that transpired, what lighting techniques they used, camera movements and some interesting production stories. This track might not be for the casual fan of the movie since it deals with technical details, but it is even enough so if you really did like the film, you'll get a lot out of it. In all, this is a very well-rounded commentary that covers many different aspects of filming a more grand movie. It keeps your interest and is quite informative, just the way I like them. It might even be better than the film itself, and is certainly one of the most entertaining commentaries I've listened to in the past few months.

The Making Of "K-19: The Widowmaker" is your above-standard EPK piece filled with on-the-set footage, non-anamorphic clips from the movie, a cheesy announcer and a slew of interviews. Director Kathryn Bigelow, Harrison Ford, producer Edward S. Feldman, asst. marine coordinator Harry L. Julian, Peter Skarsgaard, Steve Nicolson, Christian Camargo, Arsenty Sydelnykov, producer Joni Sighavatsson, writer Christopher Kyle and Liam Neeson. It's not too promotional as a lot of ground is covered. Points such as why Bigelow is a strong director (does the whole gender thing though really need to be brought into light?), location shooting in Moscow, the importance of the story, working on the sub and some stuntwork is covered here in nice little doses. It's worth watching, lasting a solid twenty minutes.

Exploring The Craft: Make-Up Techniques focuses on creating make-up for the film with special effects make-up artist Gordon Smith. He discusses his own challenges of making people look injured and making Harrison Ford look older, all topped with the man and his team doing his work. Harison Ford talks about becoming old too and we see his make-up aritst, Michael Laudati, apply the stuff. Clips from the movie are also featured. It lasts a bit over five minutes.

Breaching The Hull lasts about five minutes and also has clips from the movie. This deals with the special effects work, with the focus on Steven Rosenbaum, the movie's visual effects supervisor. Director of photography for miniatures, Peter Field, also talks. Here, you see some of an action set piece come alive through the power of miniature models. You see it all filmed and how much work it takes to set up, all followed by the end result. Nicely done.

The longest of the three featurettes, lasting nearly twelve minutes, is It's In The Details. Also featuring clips from the film and interviews with Kathryn Bigelow, Harrison Ford, property master Deryck Blake, production designer Karl Juliusson, Peter Skarsgaard, Captain Seregi Aprelev (a technical advisor on the movie), art director Arvinder Grewal, producer Joni Sighvatsson and Peter Sebbings. Behind-the-scenes footage is inserted throughout, but this is probably the best of the three featurettes as we get a number of perspectives and talents who helped make the movie as authentic as possible. Be it the actors talking about learning how they should act, the interiors of the sub and the importance of being accurate (even if the story isn't), a lot of ground is covered but you get a good enough feel to recognize the importance of every small detail. This is nicely edited and put together to give you a feel of how many people it takes to make a movie and how that all the little things really do matter. Do watch this.

Rounding out the extras is the Theatrical Trailer in 5.1 English Dolby Digital and non-anamorphic widescreen. All the featurettes include English and French subtitles, as it is the usual Paramount touch.

 

"K-19: The Widowmaker" may not have been the box office wonder Paramount was hoping for, but I was surprised how much I liked the movie and this is a fine example of a DVD. The transfer is very good, the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is nicely tuned and the supplements give nice details about the making of the movie. If you were curious to see this one it's truly worth a rental, but for those of you who saw it and loved, this is worth buying.