"Captain America: The First Avenger"

October 2011

Captain AmericaThe Best Superhero Movie Yet!

Paramount 15383
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
****1/2
Extras
***1/2

I was skinny as a kid, and I always related to those bodybuilding ads where a big bully kicks sand in the little guy's face. Of course, in the ad the kid buys Charles Atlas's bodybuilding products and becomes a big bully himself. I tried to gain weight, drinking a milkshake every day with an egg in it and eating lots of food, but I didn't gain an ounce. Watching this film brought back a lot those memories and let me know that what I needed all along was Dr. Abraham Erskine (the always wonderful Stanley Tucci) and his explosive serum, which does wonders for Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in this movie. Rogers is a skinny kid (probably 110 pounds dripping wet) who, at the height of World War II, wants to sign up for the army. He signs up at different recruiting centers but is always rejected.

That all changes when Rogers meets Dr. Erskine, who admires the young man's persistence and rewards Steve by picking him as the subject of an experiment. To make things short, Steve gets a shot of the serum and becomes Captain America, a hunky all-American hero. While Steve's story is unfolding, over in Germany Johann Schmidt, an evil Nazi military officer, is finding a substance that turns him into Red Skull, one of the baddest-assed villains in movies. It's inevitable that good should meet evil in a standoff, with the future of the world hanging in the balance. The way to the final battle is full of thrilling fights, escapes, chases, and a glimmer of romance.

Captain America succeeds, both as a character and a man, because he's forthright and true. You'd never catch him in a lie or find him smoking a cigarette; he's totally for good. He resembles Superman in those qualities, though he lacks Superman's supernatural powers. The transformation makes Captain America strong and agile; he can jump far and run fast, but he can't see through walls or stop a speeding bullet without his shield. As a comic book character, Captain America was a hero for Americans dealing with the nightmares of World War II, and he still emerges as the kind of leader we painfully need to believe in today. The movie is delightfully retro; you'll feel placed firmly in the 1940s, and all of the fantastic machines and contraptions could have been made only with the imagination of that age. Take, for instance, the massive flying-wing bomber, which is powered by multiple props rather than jet propulsion. And Captain America's round American-flag shield is made of material that simply can't be breached. It's used in a number of ways and becomes an iconic trademark for Rogers.

The filmmakers used a fairly heavy filter when shooting in order to achieve a sort of sepia Technicolor effect. This technique, which is faithfully conveyed on the Blu-ray, doesn't affect the reds and whites so much, but it makes the overall film seem like a period piece from World War II. The soundtrack is more modern with a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that's one of the best of the year. It's very transparent, allowing every detail to be heard, but it kicks butt when it needs too (use duct tape to hold down your valuable collectibles). Alan Silvestri's heroic music score gets mixed at just the right levels.

The extras continue the upbeat nature of the movie. There's a zippy, entertaining commentary track with director Joe Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson, and editor Jeffrey Ford, and there are some very good featurettes dealing with different aspects of the production, along with a few surprises.

Marvel superheroes have done well recently. We've had excellent movies about Iron Man and Thor, and only The Green Lantern failed, falling on its green face with a disastrous thud. Marvel's next ploy is to join its most important superheroes together for The Avengers, due in May of 2012. Fans are eagerly anticipating the film's release, and if it delivers as much excitement as Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger, the wait will have been worthwhile!

Be sure to watch for: There are a lot of eye-popping images in the movie itself, but in the first extra featurette, which is about the making of Captain America's terrific costume, there are some shots of the original comic book pages what will drop your jaw.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Lion King: Diamond Edition"

October 2011

The Lion KingSimba Roars on Blu-ray

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 107428
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
****
Extras
****

The Lion King has become one of Disney's most beloved animated feature films. I personally don't think it ranks at the very top, like Dumbo, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or Beauty and the Beast, but it's solid second-tier Disney. Still, "second tier" when talking about Disney means it's better than most animated titles from other studios. It has arrived on Blu-ray and DVD with loving care, displaying often spectacular results.

The film, set in Africa, is inspired by both Hamlet and the poem "Epic of Sundiata," and it's neatly divided into three acts. In the first we meet the adult lion Mufasa (majestically voiced by James Earl Jones), king of the jungle. His new lion cub, Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas), has been presented to all the jungle animals as the next monarch in the line of succession. This angers his uncle, Scar (voiced with delicious malevolence by Jeremy Irons), who wants to be king. When Mufasa is killed in a wildebeest stampede while trying to rescue Simba, Scar insidiously plants guilt for Mufasa's death in Simba's mind, telling him to run away as far as he can. Scar, supported by his army of hyenas, then realizes his desire and usurps the role of king.

The second act finds Simba about to die in the desert, but he receives help from Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and Timon (Nathan Lane), an appealing comedy team consisting of a warthog and a meerkat. They take Simba to a lush, green jungle far from the drier climate he called home, and over time the three become comrades and live a bucolic life summed up by their infectious "no worries" song ("Hakuna Matata"). But eventually Simba's childhood pal, Nala (Moira Kelly), comes to find him and convinces the now adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) that he must return home. Under Scar's rule, their land has become barren. Before Simba agrees to return, he and Nala find time to sing the loveliest song in the score, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"

The third act finds the prodigal lion returning home, where he fights for his position of leadership and gives his uncle a dramatic payback.

The songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and the orchestral score by Hans Zimmer (perhaps his best to date) move the story along, and the animation is for the most part excellent. Computer assist is evident in the group animal scenes, including the aforementioned stampede. Maybe we can blame it on the exceptionally high Blu-ray resolution (and the passage of 17 years since the original release), but those scenes seem "digital" to me (the grapevine has it that the stampede is much more cohesive and exciting in the 3D version, but I didn't have it on hand for comparison). The colors on the disc transfer are varied and accurate. A few scenes seemed a bit washed out, but I think that was the original intent. The sound is robust and clean, but it doesn't have too many lease-breaking low frequencies. The emphasis is more on clear dialogue and ambient sound, the latter serving to successfully draw the viewer into the picture.

There's a sometimes-entertaining commentary track with the two directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Of interest to me was their discussion of the use of color, explaining why one scene might be washed in yellow while another is red and orange. There are also two handfuls of featurettes on the making of the film. The best ones are found innocuously nesting under the "Vintage Disney" button. I couldn't get this to pop up with any of my players other than the Sony PlayStation 3, but finding those featurettes was worth the effort. And I can't forget the outstanding still-frame galleries, which include hundreds of stills presented in HD that's often dazzling.

Another feature bears a little discussion. It's called "Disney Second Screen." You install a free app from the Internet that lets you link your computer or iPad with the movie. Then, as you watch the film, you can eyeball the smaller screen and learn backstage facts and trivia. This is apparently meant to replace the usual screen-in-screen presentation, which provides basically the same information. I found it very irritating to have to follow two separate screens at once, and screen-in-screen seems much easier to comprehend. Others might find "Disney Second Screen" useful. I hated it.

A DVD is included for those who don't yet have a Blu-ray player, and there's also a different box, not reviewed here, which includes a 3D Blu-ray, 2D Blu-ray, the DVD, and a digital copy. The Lion King features good storytelling and some outstanding voice characterizations. It would surely be a good investment that's family friendly and can be viewed many times.

Be sure to watch for: The bright orange and red final confrontation scene is memorable, as are the deep forest greens in the middle scenes. But my favorite is a night scene at chapter 19, which finds Simba pondering his destiny. He checks his reflection in a stream. The blues and greens are almost palpable, and then there's a drop of water that spreads a ripple. Real magic. These scenes are simply beautiful.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition"

September 2011

DumboOne of Disney's Favorites on Blu-ray Disc

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 103022
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
*****
Picture Quality
*****
Sound Quality
***1/2
Extras
****

Walt Disney's Dumbo is as close to a perfect film as I ever expect to see. It has clear and impressive storytelling; likable, well-developed characters; humor; brilliant animation; appealing music with imaginative lyrics; and a simple message that's played just right. As if that's not enough, it has Casey Jr., the locomotive with the greatest personality in the history of animated railroading, and "Pink Elephants on Parade," which is, no contest, the most impressive and imaginative surrealist animated segment ever made. Dumbo was Disney's favorite film, and according to one of the shorts in the extras section, it was Leonard Maltin's, too.

Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, made good money and put the Disney studio on the map. But Pinocchio (which shares top honors with Dumbo on my personal Disney rating list) and Fantasia weren't huge financial successes, and going into 1941 Disney's operation was facing serious money troubles. Dumbo became the breakthrough that would pull the studio out of the financial abyss. 

Dumbo remains Disney's most emotional film. The little elephant (who never speaks, by the way) is bullied because of his big ears. His mother stands up for him and is jailed in a trailer with bars on the windows and a sign warning everyone that she's a "Mad Elephant." Enter Timothy Q. Mouse (voiced by Edward Brophy), dressed in a bright red and gold circus uniform, who doesn't see anything wrong with Dumbo and becomes his champion. By the end of this short film, Dumbo finds that he can fly, and he soars over all of the bullies who once tormented him.

As usual, Disney has brushed up this movie so that it looks like they made it yesterday, not 70 years ago. The colors are bright and bold, and the detail is as good as one could hope. The original mono soundtrack has been mixed into DTS-HD Master Audio 7.0, with a restored original soundtrack in 2.0 mono for purists. I'm always amazed at how Disney can take tinny, mono optical elements and create a natural-sounding soundtrack. The goal in using all the channels isn't directionality (you're aware of the surrounds in only one or two instances); rather, it's to open up the audio so that it doesn't sound thin, flat, or lacking in presence. It works.

The extras contain one of my favorite featurettes: a short on the sound effects for Dumbo in which Robert Benchley wanders into the sound-effects studio and observes a dry-run rehearsal for the Casey Jr. sequence. The whole number is played with shots from the movie alternating with fascinating shots of the effects being created. There are two other production featurettes and an extensive section of still shots. The stills are sharp and clear, produced with greater care than most photo galleries, and they cover all aspects of production, including the research photos taken when Disney animators observed real elephants and other circus scenes to more accurately draw them.

The case includes a DVD in case you don't have a Blu-ray player yet, but this little movie shows its full splendor only in the HD presentation. Whether you've seen it before or not, the eye-popping Blu-ray should be welcome.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 13, "Pink Elephants on Parade." This is the most imaginative animated sequence ever made, with supernatural elephants morphing into ice-skating elephants and a belly dancer who morphs into a cobra. Then there are the striped and plaid elephants, which are constantly morphing and changing. All of this mirthful and mock-sinister mayhem is played against an inky, solid black background.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Hanna"

August 2011

HannaA Thoroughly Original Thriller

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
****1/2
Extras
***1/2

Joe Wright has directed three hits: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and now after a semi slip from grace with The Soloist (a film I liked better than most critics), the remarkable Hanna. This latest success brands Wright as a director to watch and follow; he’s young and he no doubt has a lot of important films left in him. His next is to be Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I’ll certainly catch it as soon as it hits my local multiplex. Wright’s films are both entertaining and boundary pushing. They're visual enough to keep me glued to the screen, but they extend far beneath the surface gloss. He's also able to encourage dynamic performances from his actors; you sense that they're giving their all -- and then some.

Then there's the camera work. Many directors use Steadicam, dolly shots, tracking shots, and other techniques, often at jarring places in the film, and they can become bothersome and take away from the drama. Wright uses many daring creative shots (such as the long tracking shot on the Beach of Normandy in Atonement), but they always heighten the action. There's a sequence in Hanna where the heroine is having an intimate conversation with another young girl after they've both been out on the town, and there are moments when the close-ups are so close that we see only an actor's single eye. The trick is to establish the normal distances and cut back to them to keep us rooted in a sort of cinematic reality. It all flows without a hitch and heightens the intimacy of the scene without ever seeming abnormal. What a gift! Wright also admits to a fascination with circles in this movie, not just as visual anchors but also as plot devices. Hanna's opening and closing lines are the same.

Critics lauded the performances in this film when it was first out in theaters. I can only echo those praises. Saoirse Ronan is amazing as Hanna, a teenage girl raised by her father in the wild country of Finland to be an assassin. Eric Bana plays her father, a former CIA agent, ruggedly but with feeling. The villain in the story is Cate Blanchett, an agent trying to tie up loose ends of a failed experiment by killing the father and daughter. Wright says that in a way this film is a modern fairytale: Ronan is Little Red Riding Hood / Snow White, while Bana is the kind but gruff woodsman, and Blanchett is the wicked witch. It works for me, especially since the last part of the movie takes place in an abandoned amusement park where the central building is a gingerbread cookie cottage.

The Blu-ray is a good demonstration disc to have around. It covers just about any type of scene you can imagine, starting in a virtual snow wipeout in Finland (look for the seemingly tangible snow on the branches of the trees), and throughout Europe with pristine city shots, warmer gypsy campfire shots, and the creepy sight of destroyed dinosaurs in the amusement park. The Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) wrote the score, and their electronic music is carefully integrated with the sound effects. The approach is so smooth that it becomes difficult at times to say what is music and what is effect. The music and effects are spread completely around the 360-degree soundstage in tracks that are singularly transparent.

Wright provides a commentary track that's useful and humble. There's also an alternate ending (boo to that -- they did right to toss it out) and a few deleted scenes, as well as a handful of production featurettes dealing with different aspects of the movie. Hanna is a thrill ride with tremendous substance. You'll enjoy all of the pulse-pounding action, but later you'll reflect on the father-daughter tale of a teenager's transition to adulthood. You'd be wrong to miss it.

Be sure to watch for: I mentioned the camera work of Joe Wright, who uses Steadicam for a big fight sequence in an underground parking lot. The scene is carefully choreographed to keep the main fighter framed throughout the swirling motion, and the result is both impressive and exciting.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Cul-de-sac"

August 2011

Cul-de-SacPolanski’s One-of-a-Kind Black Comedy on Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 577
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
***
Extras
**

Having given us a remarkable Blu-ray edition of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Criterion has now set its sights on the director's second film made in London. As with Polanski's two other British films, Polanski and Gérard Brach scripted Cul-de-sac. It's one of the oddest movies ever made, one that no one has tried to imitate. Who could? The quirky film is pure Polanski, and it's made with such skill that it seems like pure cinema. Polanski's shots are never fussy, yet they're always perfect. When deciding where to shoot and how to frame a scene, the Polish-born director always makes the right choice.

The plot of Cul-de-sac sounds like that of a thriller. Richard (Lionel Stander), a gangster on the run, and his dying partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), come across a castle on a bleak and unfriendly island off the coast of Northumbria. There's a road to and from when the tide is low, but it's submerged when the tide returns. Living in the castle are George (Donald Pleasence), a retired businessman, and his wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), a much younger French woman whom George lets dress him in drag. You'd think this would be a setup for the perfect thriller, and part of the film is just that. But Polanski veers off track into perhaps the darkest black comedy ever filmed. For one thing, there are all the chickens. They live in a garage that's been turned into a henhouse, but they wander everywhere. I'd say they show up randomly in at least 45 percent of the movie. No wonder Pleasence plays George as an eccentric waiting to go over the edge. Stander's gravelly voice and tough-guy actions offer a caricature of the typical mob killer, while MacGowran makes dying an amusing event, in a black-comedy way.

Polanski shot the movie in black and white, and the Blu-ray transfer is offered at the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The bright scenes come off with ideal contrast and admirable sharpness, but the indoor scenes are very dark and often a little murky. The transfer is still good; it's just not quite up to Criterion's usual standards. This was no doubt due, in part, to the condition of the original film. The sound is perfectly serviceable for both the dialogue and Krzysztof Komeda's stark jazz score. Cul-de-sac doesn't have constant music, but it arrives at perfectly chosen places in the drama. You can tell Criterion has cleaned it up a lot to get rid of background noise, and it does the job. There's not a lot on the soundtrack that would need more modern sound.

The extras are lean for a Criterion title, but they include two original trailers, a 1967 television interview with Polanski, and a 2003 documentary about the filming of the movie that details the horrible working conditions and the problems among the actors on set. Cul-de-sac is a remarkable little film that will entertain you a lot if you just surrender and go with it. Criterion has done a good job on its transfer to Blu-ray Disc, but has skimped on extras.

Be sure to watch for: Needing a place to hide his getaway car, Richard orders all the chicken coops removed from the garage so he can stow his vehicle. The scene, shot from the back, shows all the coops being smashed in the foreground, and you can see out the door to the car's headlights, which light the scene, in the background. It's a shot that's weird and wonderful at the same time, and it's certainly memorable.  

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Jane Eyre"

August 2011

Jane EyreA Young Filmmaker's Vision Breathes Life into Brontë's Classic Novel

Universal Home Entertainment 62115447
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
****
Extras
***

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s brooding, groundbreaking novel, has shown up in so many film adaptations that you might be wondering whether another is needed. But after seeing this version on Blu-ray, you'll be grateful that young filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga set all doubts aside and steamed ahead with an interpretation that's bursting with the exuberance of youth.

The basic plot, lest you've forgotten your high school literature class, follows an orphan who's reared in a cruel finishing school, which she leaves to become a governess. She falls in love, but the revelation of a shocking family secret drives her away. She then happens on a position as a schoolteacher, but she can't forget her time as a governess, nor the man who betrayed her trust.

In the novel, Jane Eyre is just 18 when she becomes governess to the ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester, and the actress who portrays her, Mia Wasikowska, was only 21 during filming. Rochester is described as somewhat older, so the casting of 34-year-old Michael Fassbender proves ideal. The two share a chemistry that perfectly conveys the restrained and repressed sexual energy of the 18th century, and their scenes together forge a passionate course for the film. To let us know that his adaptation will be more than PBS posturing, Fukunaga tells the story from the middle, as Jane is crossing the inhospitable moor to escape her duplicitous lover.

Wasikowska is a remarkable actress in the way that she internalizes her feelings. Her face can be as waxen as that of a TV news anchor, yet something in her eyes, or perhaps just the faintest curl of her lips, betrays deep emotion. She's much better as Eyre than as Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, where she seemed detached and cold. Fassbender is the solid stud that he was in Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds. He has an animal-like magnetism that perfectly suits characters who are gentlemen at heart but careless and impetuous in the moment. Rascals, you might call them. Dame Judi Dench is on hand as Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper of Thornfield Hall. We get the feeling that she knows absolutely everything yet delivers her information without interpretation. It's a small yet important role that Dench handles perfectly.

Movies like Jane Eyre, with sweeping vistas of the countryside and detailed interiors and costumes, seem ideal for HD reproduction. This one has many dark interior shots using available light, and the exteriors are brown scenes of late winter vegetation mixed with the more usual green shots of spring and summer that we expect in a film of this genre. The ornate costumes, tapestries, and carpets look lived in thanks to Blu-ray's meticulous detail. The sound is mostly up front for clear dialogue, though in some scenes the music and ambient sound effects come from the sides and rear.

The extras are rather pale. There's a large group of deleted scenes that are reasonably interesting -- I'd suggest two of them should have made the final cut -- but they're presented with no commentary or explanation. There's also an earnest but surprisingly boring commentary from director Fukunaga and three pitifully short, dispensable production featurettes.

Jane Eyre is an epic love story that the young Fukunaga has made into a most appealing and assertive film. It deserves to be seen. If you missed it in the theater, the Blu-ray Disc fills in the gap very well.

Be sure to watch for: There are many gorgeous interiors in this movie, particularly the one that begins chapter 10. It might be a music room, shot from above and lighted through a large window. The foreground shows a chandelier, and as the camera moves we can see in the room a harpsichord, a small table perhaps used for games, and a long table that could host a banquet, all in excellent detail.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Source Code"

August 2011

201108_sourcecodeJake Gyllenhaal Lends His Star Power to an Edgy Sci-Fi Thriller

Summit Entertainment 2017124
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
****1/2
Extras
***

This is the second feature film from director Duncan Jones. His first, Moon, was a brilliant sci-fi flick that too few people saw. Grouping Moon and Source Code together, you'll be tempted to embrace Jones as a new master of intelligent cinematic science fiction. Fantasy and sci-fi are his apparent strengths, and he seems equally interested in focusing his films primarily on the main player, keeping him in the spotlight for 98 percent of the story. In Moon it was Sam Rockwell; in Source Code it's Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal has done some splendid work, particularly in Brothers and Brokeback Mountain. But aside from an Oscar nomination for his role in Brokeback, he's received less critical recognition than his co-stars in those films. In Source Code Gyllenhaal has finally developed into leading-man material. He carries the film, and all of the other characters, good as they might be, are supplemental. When he meets Christina (Michelle Monaghan) on a train, you remember him falling in love with her, not the other way around. Gyllenhaal's acting in Source Code has more edge than anything he's done. His star rating should bring in large audiences, but his talent in this film will have you forgiving and forgetting The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Reviewing this movie without spoiling the plot is a difficult task, but let's just say that Gyllenhaal's character, a serviceman named Colter Stevens, suddenly finds himself on a speeding passenger train that explodes eight minutes later, killing everyone. Scientists have developed a chamber, the source code, where they can recapture the last eight minutes of a person's life. They keep sending Stevens back so he can find the bomber, as their information warns that the train explosion is simply a warm-up for a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago.

Plot details aside, the film's suspense stems from the fact that the audience's learning curve matches that of Stevens. When we're surprised by a twist, he's just as shocked. The concept makes for neat filmmaking, but I think the ending will be a little controversial. All I'll say is that Jones shouldn't have, but I'm happy as all heck that he did.

The picture is reference material most of the time. The stubble that covers Gyllenhaal’s jaw, the lines etched in faces, and the woven texture of clothing are all revealed in the highest definition. Blacks are dark and shadow detail is fine. The sound is exceptionally rousing but not without good definition and transparency. The surrounds, of course, play a big part in the train explosion that we see so many times, but they're also used for smaller location sounds. Every time Gyllenhaal gets sucked into the source code, there's an effective "swooshing" noise that draws us in too.

The extras are a mixed bag -- not bad but hardly exhaustive. There's a commentary track with Jones, Gyllenhaal, and writer Ben Ripley that's modestly entertaining, and there's something like Universal's U-Control feature in "Access Source Code," which lets you see background material, cast comments, and trivia while watching the movie.

Be sure to watch for: Since so much of the story involves the train, there are lots of very high overhead shots as we watch it wind its way through the countryside. These scenes are postcard-like wow events that make you grateful for your HDTV, especially if it's 60" or larger.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Insidious"

July 2011

InsidiousScary "Insidious" Lives Up to Its Title

Sony Home Entertainment/Alliance 38152
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
***1/2
Sound Quality
****1/2
Extras
***

Haunted houses seem to bring out the best in genre directors. James Wan, who directed the first (and best) in the Saw series, seems super energized this time around. He's determined that you won't leave your home-theater room without being scared half to death.

The setup appears quite ordinary (for a horror film) for the first part of the movie. A photogenic, pleasant young couple, Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), move into a house without noticing, as we do, that it has haunted written all over it. True to the genre, things soon start levitating and strange visions manifest for Renai when she's home alone. After her son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), goes into an unexplained coma, she begs Josh to get her out, so he buys a new house and they move. This dwelling is just as cheerful as the last was gloomy, but the strange happenings start again and seem more malevolent than before. It turns out that a demon hopped a ride with comatose Dalton when they moved, and the boy has, through astral projection, entered a realm far from reality.

The parents call in a medium (Lin Shaye), the inevitable séance takes place (though with several effective twists), and everyone dedicates their energy to getting Dalton back home. Yes, Insidious has bits of Poltergeist peppered in with a little of The Exorcist; but it treats all the familiar elements with either respect or new vision. There are plenty of scares to go around, but the difference in this film is that when we get to the buildup, complete with telltale music, there's a payoff -- something scary actually happens, unlike the tired scenarios in films that tempt characters to open cabinets only to find them empty. Insidious delivers shocks and scares by establishing that the Lamberts are nice, normal folks. We care what happens to them because it might happen to us! And Insidious, true to its title, revs up the horror slowly but surely.

You wouldn't expect the production values of a genre film like Insidious to be high, but they are. Daylight scenes are as good as they get, with superb definition, natural color, and excellent contrast. The night scenes, of which there are many, aren't quite as good, but they're certainly better than a lot of other low-budget horror movies. Perhaps most important, the sound is demonstration quality. A movie like this really depends on music and sound effects to help provide the scares, and the audio track for Insidious surely does its job. Weird little sounds come from all around the room, and every so often there's a loud subterranean thud that will test your subwoofer, not to mention your nerves.

The extras are three featurettes about the filming of Insidious. I'd usually pass these by, but all three offer extensive and interesting interview footage with Wan. If you're in the mood for some solid scares, Insidious delivers the goods. The Haunting (1963) is still the granddaddy of all haunted-house movies, but Insidious can be added to an enviable runner-up list that includes The Legend of Hell House, The Innocents, and Monster House (animated).

Be sure to watch for: The opening credits will give you chills. The movie starts with a long tracking shot in a dark place that lets your imagination run wild. The credits then appear in red against razor-sharp black-and-white photos. Each title has a faint shadow that appears and then vanishes in smoke. The clever attention to detail sets a proper mood for this seriously frightening film.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Beauty and the Beast" (1946)

July 2011

Beauty and the BeastClassic Cocteau with an Unexpected Opera on Criterion Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 6
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
***1/2
Sound Quality
***
Extras
****

Among film connoisseurs, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is regarded as a masterpiece of fantasy film. Its timeless story is simple and direct, with great tenderness and slightly subdued passion. In the Cocteau-directed version, based on the story by Mme Leprince de Beaumont, Beast (Jean Marais) is a sympathetic character. His eyes seem to emerge from the amazing makeup to beg for help, and his gravelly voice betrays pain and longing. Belle (Josette Day) is a strong woman who resists her feelings for Beast until it's almost too late for him. The famous fantasy effects, from the outstretched bodiless arms holding candelabras to light the hall of Beast’s chateau to the living statues (which must have inspired parts of the Disney animated version), all seem to be extensions of reality rather than entities from a different world.

I've always been impressed with Criterion black-and-white transfers. Beauty and the Beast is one of their oldest catalog items; you can tell by the early catalog number of 6. I believe this version is the third time around, and the results are certainly fine. If they pale in comparison to Criterion’s The Third Man or The Seventh Seal, you can't really blame Criterion, especially after viewing the short featurette on restoration that's in the extras section. Cocteau made Beauty and the Beast in 1946, so there were simply no pristine prints available. The one that Criterion used for its Blu-ray comes from a 1995 restoration of the film. Almost all of the noise, video, and audio have been removed, but the contrast isn't as high as it might be and the focus occasionally shifts so that the picture, though never really soft, isn't always sharp. What we're left with is a final product that's very good but hardly cutting edge.

There are plentiful extras including two commentaries, one by film historian Arthur Knight and one by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling. There's a 1995 featurette, "Screening at the Majestic," which contains interviews of the still-living cast and crew members. There's a section devoted to an interview with Henri Alekan, the film's cinematographer, and as usual the disc comes with a handsome booklet featuring interesting essays (one by Cocteau himself) and a complete listing of the cast and anyone who participated in the Blu-ray release.

The most intriguing extra for me was an opera by Philip Glass that was not only inspired by the film but also created to be synched with it. Criterion presents the opera as an extra soundtrack (with a DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack). If you select it, Glass's opera replaces the original soundtrack. I assumed I'd hate this feature, but after experiencing it I've decided it's not bad at all. The singing and sound are both excellent, and for the most part the opera is perfectly synched to the images onscreen so you can use the same English subtitles as you would when viewing the movie with the original soundtrack. The notes by Philip Glass disclose that there have been many successful live performances where the movie is screened and the "soundtrack" is supplied by live musicians.

I'd probably sill watch the original if I wanted to see Beauty and the Beast, but it’s good to know that Criterion continues to produce challenging extras. The overall effect of this Blu-ray is close to excellent at times. If you've never seen it, treat yourself.

Be sure to watch for: Don't miss the still-frame section in the extras. All the shots are good, but the still of Beast against a black background and the three French posters at the end are breathtaking. I wish the movie itself always had the spot-on contrast of these stills.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kiss Me Deadly"

June 2011

Kiss Me DeadlyClassic Film Noir Has Hard-Hitting Impact in a New Criterion Blu-ray Edition

The Criterion Collection 568
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
***1/2
Extras
****

The MacGuffin in Kiss Me Deadly is a mysterious box that adds a science-fiction topping to the noir film. It contains something that glows, kills, and acts like a radioactive substance, though we're never told or shown exactly what it is. Years later director Quentin Tarantino used a similar prop, a briefcase with unseen glowing contents, in Pulp Fiction, yet he denied it was a direct tribute.

Kiss Me Deadly was based on the novel by Mickey Spillane and featured one of the author's favorite characters, hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Spillane redefined the paperback book industry with his fast-moving, hard-hitting crime novels; in 1980 he had penned seven of the 15 top-selling novels. Spillane also acted in the movies, playing himself in 1955's Ring of Fear, shot at the Clyde Beatty Circus, and as Mike Hammer himself in 1963's rugged version of The Girl Hunters. He was unhappy with the many cinematic alterations made to Kiss Me Deadly, as evidenced in one of the interviews in the supplements section of this disc.

Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer seems an ideal choice. He's an almost handsome tough guy with a little bit of softness at his core and a moral compass that's rapidly losing its bearing. The action kicks off when he runs into a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman, making her big-screen debut) who has escaped from an asylum and some nasty villains. Hammer's encounter with Christina plunges him into a world of darkness and deceit, and after some red herrings and a few killings we finally learn that everything has been about that mysterious box.

Director Robert Aldrich and his ace photographer Ernest Laszlo used strange but effective camera angles that every viewer will find intriguing, and the movie has an almost breathless pace that grabs the audience and doesn't let go. One prop, on the wall of Hammer's apartment, will jump out at audiophiles: a reel-to-reel answering machine!

The folks at The Criterion Collection are masters at resurrecting black-and-white films, and they've done a good job on Kiss Me Deadly. There's fairly heavy grain throughout, but good focus and contrast prove that it was in the original. All the shadow and light contrasts of film noir are correctly realized, and there's good shadow definition. The monaural soundtrack sounded a lot better than I expected, even doing near justice to Frank De Vol's hard-edged score.

Possibly the best extra is a feature-length commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini. They shed much light on Kiss Me Deadly and on the film noir genre. Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane is a 1998 documentary about the controversial author, and there's a short, droll video tribute from director Alex Cox. There are a few other featurettes as well as a shortened ending not sanctioned by director Robert Aldrich that serves up an entirely different conclusion for the main characters. And though we're never told for sure what the substance in the box is, the extras disclose how the comma went missing from the title.

Be sure to watch for: Near the beginning of the movie, Hammer and Christina are captured by thugs who knock him out and start to torture her. The scene opens with just Christina's dangling legs visible, while her loud screams let us imagine the worst. Shift the scene to Hammer stretched out on a bed without a mattress and the well-defined shadows on the floor and wall. When Hammer is rolled off the bed, he falls into his shadow. Perfect noir.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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