Meerkats. Of all the things that could have stayed with me after my first viewing of Phil Morrison's quietly engaging Junebug, it was the meerkats. Not the animals themselves, mind you, but their role in an impeccably judged moment of character revelation.
A brief bit of scene setting. On a trip to check out a potential new client, city-girl outsider art dealer Madeline and her country born boyfriend George decide to drop in or George's family to give them a chance to meet their boy's new lady. Brother Johnny appears sourly indifferent to the new girl's presence and everything else that happens in the family home, while his heavily pregnant wife Ashley is all wide-eyed and fascinated by everything Madeline says or does. George's mother and father are politely accepting but don't completely understand this girl and her modern city attitudes.
For the first third, Junebug brings a welcome indie freshness to its Meet the Family setup and invites us to make surface judgements on characters we will then get to know and understand a little better. Easiest of all to form an instant opinion about is Johnny, whose gruff refusal to communicate with just about anyone suggests a man unhappy with his home life and even his enthusiastic wife. It's a view enhanced by the brief glimpse provided of him in his production line workplace, where a cheerful and openly communicative man emerges from beneath the gloom, the one that we can assume Ashley first fell for.
But in one simple but elegantly handled scene, Johnny's still-strong devotion to his wife unexpectedly emerges. Early in the film we've been clued into Ashley's fascination with meerkats through one of her conversations with Madeline, a seemingly throwaway character moment that lays the foundations for this later sequence. As Ashley and her friends indulge in the girlie horror of a baby shower, Johnny (understandably in my book) hides in their basement flat with the TV and a few beers. He's flicking between channels and stumbles by chance on a programme about meerkats and his reaction is instantaneous – he urgently calls out for Ashley, who cannot hear him above the upstairs hubbub, then scrabbles frantically with the video recorder in a desperate attempt to record the programme for her, exploding in frustration when the technology and his own clumsiness conspire to sabotage his efforts. That Ashley sees only Johnny's anger at his own failed attempts and never realises the heartfelt intentions that led to it proves surprisingly touching.
Seeing the film again after near two-year gap I see no reason to atherwise augment the original review, which you can find here.
Junebug strikes me as a somewhat surprising choice for an HD upgrade, particularly in the form in which it has appeared. Content-wise this is no different from Eureka's August 2006 DVD release, the only changes being the HD picture and new soundtrack options. Given the film's low budget and low-key approach, neither are likely to offer a persuasive reason for owners of the DVD to upgrade, unless they're big fans of the film, of course, when only the best version will really do.
Certainly the picture shows a clear improvement over its DVD incarnation, particularly in the level of visible detail, most evident in the texture of materials and in shots busy with objects. The contrast is well balanced and the colours pleasingly natural, with the shadow detail good even in low light or backlit shots. There's definitely some variance in these elements, though – the shot of George and his father silently eating a meal in a roadside diner is a showcase for the virtues of the HD transfer, but the image it cuts to of Ashley and her friends at home is noticeably softer in detail and contrast. Grain is visible throughout, but the film was shot on Super-16 rather than 35mm, and even this smaller film frame displays a filmic richness here that HD still hasn't managed to reproduce.
There are three soundtrack options but the results might surprise you. Both DTS HD Master 5.1 and Dolby True HD 5.1 have been added to the original Dolby stereo 2.0 track, which is also included and on a regular amp frankly has the edge on both of the new tracks, being noticeably clearer on all counts if a tad less subtle. The new tracks occasionally sound a tad muffled by comparison – whether they need a true HD amp to properly flex their muscles I can't swear to, but usually even a half-decent non-HD amp will give at least a flavour of what you'd get on HD. The surrounds are pretty much inactive on both.
Re-release update: With the advantage of now having a true HD amp to run the HD soundtracks through I was ready to revise the above, but the comments stand. I'd genuinely go with the stereo over either the Dolby or the DTS HD tracks.
The extra features are exactly the same as those on the previous DVD release, which you'll find detailed in that review. All are at 480p resolution, so no upgrades here.
A slightly odd one, this, as it's the sort of Blu-ray disc you usually see released alongside the DVD equivalent, offering potential purchasers a choice over which format they'd prefer. Of course, Eureka weren't releasing films on Blu-ray at all back in 2006, but arriving almost two years after the DVD release with the same set of extras, the disc would represent for many a re-purchase rather than an alternative to the DVD edition, and whether you think that's justified on the basis of the improved picture quality will depend on how fond you are of the film. For newcomers the choice is more straightforward – the DVD is cheaper but the Blu-ray definitely looks better, and both have the same extra features. Your call.
Re-release update: Re-examining the film and the disc two years on for its 2011 re-release, I stand by the above comments on the Blu-ray and my original review of the film here. This is essentially the same Blu-ray release as before, but I've added an HD amp to my set-up since the original release and have thus updated that portion of the technical review.