"Solaris"

June 2011

SolarisMoody, Metaphysical Science-Fiction Masterpiece Receives the Criterion Treatment

The Criterion Collection 164
Format: Blu-ray

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

This small-scale yet epic concept movie is probably the best-known film of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who is generally regarded, despite his small output, as one of Russia's greatest directors. Solaris, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, is nothing like the space operas we've come to regard as science fiction in the United States. There's not much action, there are no soaring spaceships, and the special effects are minimal and mundane. Instead, we get a lot of metaphysical talk about human consciousness and reality. The plot moves slowly and surely, but doesn't plod. It might prove rough going for the average movie lover, but I'd urge anyone to stick with it; most reluctant viewers will find themselves replaying it in their minds and realizing its strengths in retrospect.

The plot is very simple. Astronaut and philosopher Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to a space station orbiting around Solaris, an ocean planet where the seas seem to form the brain of a conscious being, a truly sentient planet. This living entity conjures up "guests" drawn from the consciousness of the station's crew, which has been whittled down to just two members, Kelvin making it three. After being on board briefly, Kelvin sees a woman who's the spitting image of Hari, his deceased wife (Natalya Bondarchuk). He knows it's not her, and he takes her to a launch pad, puts her on a rocket, and fires her into space. But she reappears several more times until Kelvin finds that he desires to stay with her rather than return to earth, even though he knows she isn't human.

Tarkovsky liked to shoot in long takes and let his camera slowly poke around a scene, discovering for us various items that have some relevance to a character or story. When we first meet Kelvin on Earth prior to launch, we're shown reeds in a stream, and the camera slow pans, picking up a shoe and then slowly panning up Kelvin's body to reveal his face. Many directors have used this technique, but it's usually just for effect. With Tarkovsky it becomes a tool of artistic identity and recognition.

I was living in Washington, DC, about the time this film was released, and we were blessed with several theaters that showed foreign films at a reduced ticket price. We didn't see too many Russian movies, and when did, their coarse, grainy prints made for barely tolerable viewing. I guess that impression has lingered more than I expected, because Criterion's work on Solaris was nothing short of astounding to me. The picture is clean and defined, with just enough grain for comfort, and its colors often pop, perhaps in a more pastel manner than most Hollywood films, but the images have great presence. Compare the feature presentation with the deleted scenes included in the extras. Those snippets represent the impression I had of Russian film. The soundtrack isn't as good, but there's only so much you can wring out of a mono optical track without re-recording it. Eduard Artemyev's score for Solaris ranges from a simple, electronically enhanced Bach chorale prelude to full orchestra and chorus plus electronics. There's some distortion in the loud places, but the more modest ones sound good and the dialog is easy to hear. It's in Russian, but Criterion has provided very clear subtitles.

Extras include an information-packed full-length commentary with Andrei Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, as well as several subtitled interviews with cast and crew. This is one of the few releases I've encountered where all the extras were in a foreign language.

Extras aside, if you give Solaris a chance, it will present you with memorable images and ideas that will last long after you've put the disc back in its case.

Be sure to watch for: To suggest a future city, chapter 8 presents a long, driver's-point-of-view journey on four-lane highways often through lighted tunnels. The definition is good enough that you feel drawn into the picture.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"American Graffiti"

May 2011

American GraffitiA Brilliant Blu-ray Portrait of a More Innocent Time

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Format: Blu-ray

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

A long time ago, 1973 to be exact, before he became rich and famous, fledgling director George Lucas made one of the best teen coming-of-age pictures of all time. He got everything right -- not just the costumes and hair, but the plot as well. Back in those innocent days, at the dawn of the 1960s, life was simpler and graduating teens really faced just one important choice: go to college or stay at home, get a job, and hang out on the strip. This is the decision Steve (Ron Howard, billed as "Ronny") and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) must make in one night as if their flight were leaving the next morning. One moves on, and the other changes his mind and stays.

The strip might have been a block, or a mile, or a particular road, but at that point in time there was always some place to drive your car (or your dad's car), show off, and be cool. My strip growing up was pretty much an oversized circle around the drive-in restaurant. If you didn't have a car, you wanted a friend who did so you could ride shotgun. The strip in American Graffiti is composed of a lot of city blocks, and Lucas gets all of this so right it's uncanny. Older viewers who've been there will think they've traveled through time; younger viewers can see things like they really were "back then." Some of the specifics: slicked-back hair, diner waitresses wearing bellhop caps carrying orders right to your car on roller skates, suped-up cars, a rock band that wears red blazers and ties, and waiting outside the liquor store when you're 17, looking for an adult who might buy booze for you. And oh yes, the mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a white T-Bird.

Lucas was initially unable to market the film, but Universal finally took a chance on it, and it made many, many times what it cost, giving Lucas enough bankroll to work on Star Wars. The cast included largely unknown young actors like Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, and Paul Le Mat, who have all gone on to have excellent careers.

The Blu-ray Disc shows all of the period details in a focused and detailed picture. At the beginning it's a little too detailed and exhibits some edge enhancement, but it quickly calms down to normal grain and definition. Fans won't be disappointed. The chrome on the cars and the neon on the buildings really sizzle and pop. The all-important period rock music sounds just great, and the new mix occasionally mixes some of it to the rear, as in the hop dance sequence. A nifty feature in the U-Control extras lets you click while a scene is playing and get an onscreen readout of the song, including its title and the artists performing it.

The rest of the extras include a moderately in-depth production featurette, a handful of screen tests, and a picture-in-picture commentary from Lucas. American Graffiti defines a time shortly before the assassination of John F. Kennedy when events in America were more innocent. American Graffiti conjures a longing to go back there, along with the realization that it has to remain a past dream.

Be sure to watch for: The opening credits appear over a daytime shot of Mel's Diner, which looks drab like any other burger joint. But at the beginning of chapter 3, accompanied by the Crests' "Sixteen Candles" and illuminated by several hundred feet of neon, it looks like the place you want to be at: a teen palace. It's a breathtaking shot and moment, well rendered on the Blu-ray.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Papillon"

May 2011

PapillonA Stoic Steve McQueen Carries This Prison Film

Warner Brothers 3000035175
Format: Blu-ray

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

It seems perversely pertinent that Warner would release Papillon just now, when there's talk of torture and imprisonment in the air again after Osama bin Laden's death. The film is as much an indictment of the inhumane treatment of prisoners on Devil's Island off the shore of French Guiana as it is an adventure-escape tale. It's based on a book (a supposed autobiography) of the same name by Frenchman Henri Charrière, nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattooed on his chest. Though many now doubt the veracity of Charrière's writing, one cannot deny the atrocities committed by the French officers at Devil's Island. It seems certain that Charrière tried to escape many times, but his exploits in the book are probably a summation of the adventures of many other prisoners.

The movie brings the darker elements of imprisonment at Devil's Island to the fore, and parts of it are difficult to watch because they seem all too realistic. Other than indicting the prison system of the day (Devil's Island closed in 1954), the movie provides a great star vehicle for Steve McQueen, who plays Charrière. Because McQueen died at the early age of 50, Papillon is the only chance we have to see him age beyond that half-century mark. It's all makeup of course, but it's very effective, as is his stoic performance as a man who must have freedom at any cost. Dustin Hoffman is less impressive as Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who became Papillon's friend, as he veers too close to caricature to be taken seriously.

The movie arrives on Blu-ray in one of Warner's handsome Blu-ray book editions, and the book contains around two dozen superbly reproduced still photographs of the cast and crew on slick paper that has a real quality look and feel. As for information, however, there are just a few very short essays; this is nothing like a Criterion information booklet.

The picture image is excellent once you're about 15 minutes into the movie, but the first portion is dirty and grainy and a bit soft. Hang on through that first stretch and you'll be rewarded with a superb picture that has true-to-situation colors (drab at the prison, bold and vibrant in the longing dreams of freedom) and sharp focus. The movie is a good test for a video system, since it ranges all the way from brightly lit outdoor scenes to the shadowy blackness of solitary-confinement quarters. The sound is robust and full, but except for Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score, it exists almost exclusively in the front three channels.

Aside from the film, there are only two short extras on the disc: a production featurette and a trailer. Both are period pieces, and they're interesting for being different from today's trailers and featurettes. The short production program, for instance, has the real-life Charrière giving the audience a tour of Devil's Island. Whether or not this is rental or purchase material will depend on how much you revere McQueen or director Franklin J. Schaffner. But whichever way you go, Papillon is well worth a look.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 16, shutters are put up over the windows in Charrière’s solitary cell. The light is gradually tuned out until only deep blackness remains. Out of that profound darkness, Charrière’s hand appears in a small shaft of light, then his face. It's an impressive scene for checking black levels. 

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Smiles of a Summer Night"

May 2011

Smiles of a Summer NightBergman’s Classic Comedy Brings Smiles on Criterion Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 237
Format: Blu-ray

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

Younger readers have likely never seen this 1955 comedy classic, but their lives have probably been touched by it, for Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night served as the basis of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, most recently revived with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in the cast. The Broadway musical includes the song "Send in the Clowns," which dozens of singers from around the world have recorded. It seems impossible that anyone has escaped hearing it.

If Sondheim's version of the story, with most of the music in three-quarter time, is elegant, Bergman's original is exquisite, a perfectly timed and acted ensemble piece that reminds me of the intricate threads heard in a Mozart or Rossini opera, as musical themes weave in and out with absolute perfection. It's interesting to note that later in his life, Bergman filmed a stage production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, a version that both drama and music critics lauded for its ensemble performances.

Smiles of a Summer Night, set near the end of the 19th century, focuses on four pairs of mismatched lovers who intermingle during a weekend at the country estate of Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand), mother of the famous actress Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). Her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), is there with his young trophy wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), and Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), his terminally romantic son from an earlier marriage. Henrik loves Anne (technically his stepmother), who, though married to Fredrik for two years, is still a virgin. There are other characters, liaisons, and trysts, with the humor largely crafted from one character's humiliation of another in order to "set things right." Though there are pratfalls and visual jokes, much of the humor comes from the rapid-fire dialogue, which is subtitled in easy-to-read English on Criterion's Blu-ray.

The Criterion Collection has done well by Bergman's movies: the Blu-rays of The Magician and The Seventh Seal display exemplary black-and-white transfers. Smiles of a Summer Night, presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.33:1, is good for the most part, but there are some scenes that contain a little video noise and a few outdoor shots that have some flicker. Overall the contrast is sharp with clean focus for a very detailed and appealing picture. The optical soundtrack has been restored, and it sounds much better than you might expect given the age of the release.

The extras, which are a little lame for Criterion, include an interesting but brief video introduction with Bergman; a discussion, again brief, between Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and writer Jörn Donner, who was also the executive producer of Fanny and Alexander; and the original Swedish trailer, which is subtitled in English. The handsome booklet included with the disc contains an interesting essay by John Simon as well as a 1961 review by Pauline Kael.

Smiles of a Summer Night is a delightful comedy of manners on the surface, but underneath that façade it makes some enlightening and wry comments about love, fidelity, marriage, sex, and humiliation. Ingmar Bergman directed it with pitch-perfect precision, and it's so skillfully and subtly shot that you can watch it many times over before noticing every detail.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 16 begins with a close-up of Anne standing next to a birdcage. The Blu-ray's high resolution reveals the tiniest detail and gives everything in the shot its own texture: Anne's hair, her dress, the metallic cage, the birds, and even their feeding dish have palpable presence.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Blow Out"

April 2011

Blow OutCriterion Gives Us a Quality Blu-ray Release of Brian De Palma's 1981 Masterpiece

The Criterion Collection 562
Format: Blu-ray

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

I've always felt that Blow Out was a great movie, though few critics, Pauline Kael excepted, seemed to agree with me. Perhaps this gorgeous Criterion Blu-ray will change its status. When the film was released in 1981, many complained that director Brian De Palma had sacrificed plot and clarity for exaggerated camera techniques. But now that we're constantly barraged with television commercials that use unending digital effects, De Palma's use of split screen, slow motion, and other visual effects seems quite natural and effective. We can now clearly see that the director's cinematic wizardry is indispensable in heightening the enjoyment of every scene.

John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound-effects man who works for a sleazy horror-film company. He's out in the park at night, searching for new wind sounds for Co-ed Frenzy, the bad flick he's currently working on, and his recorder captures the sound of an accident that results in a car plummeting off a bridge into the river. The accident is caused by a blow out, but Jack is convinced that he heard (and recorded) a gunshot right before the tire was punctured, meaning it was actually a murder. In fact, it would be a political assassination, since the car's driver was a presidential candidate. Jack rescues Sally (Nancy Allen), an unexpected passenger in the car, and pursues the truth while he and Sally are chased by a zealous killer (John Lithgow) who wants to leave no witnesses alive. Jack is one of Travolta's best performances, and he creates a nice-guy character who the audience can relate to and cheer on. In the last three scenes his acting is absolutely Oscar worthy.

De Palma approved this video transfer of Blow Out, and for the most part it looks excellent. But it's not perfect. One scene shot inside a car is loaded with video noise, and some of the night scenes are a little murky, but most of the images are crisp and clean, especially exteriors. Skin tones are good, blacks are deep, and shadow detail is always adequate and often excellent. People who remember reel-to-reel tape will appreciate the clean-as-a-whistle close-up shots of vintage tape recorders. The sound is mostly up front with a little bit of ambient sound distributed to the rear channels. Pino Donaggio's music is rich and full, and the dialogue is clear.

Even if you didn't care for the movie, you have to check out this disc for one of the extras. Cameraman Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam, demonstrates the fascinating device and talks about his work on Blow Out. He's an engaging, interesting guy who makes for a vigorously entertaining extra. Others include a long interview with De Palma and a shorter one with Nancy Allen. De Palma's 1967 Murder à la Mod is also included in its 80-minute entirety. It's a mixed bag, more interesting as an experiment than as drama, but it presents some of the best black-and-white images I've ever seen on a video screen.

Blow Out is an engrossing movie, part political thriller, part noir, and part murder mystery with all its pieces adding up to an entertaining, satisfying whole.

Be sure to watch for: A little bit into chapter 6 there's a scene at a newsstand that's so sharp you can read the magazine covers. Even the snack-food packets look tangible. And don't miss the supplement Murder à la Mod, which has undeniably crisp black-and-white images.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kes"

April 2011

KesKen Loach’s Social Commentary Receives First-Class Blu-ray Treatment from Criterion

The Criterion Collection 561
Format: Blu-ray

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

Since the fare here has been heavily weighted to superhero and SFX films for the past month, let's turn attention to dramas for a bit. Kes (1969) was the first big hit for director Ken Loach, and it remains one of the most lyrical expressions of social injustice ever committed to film. On the surface it's a touching, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad movie about a young boy who finds a young kestrel and trains it to fly and return to his gloved hand. The main theme, however, is about an educational system that dead-ends creative children and parcels them out as unskilled laborers. Most of Loach's films portray the poorer classes in England in a very personal and realistic manner, and Kes follows suit, exploring the coal miners and laborers of the northern part of the country.

Billy (David Bradley) lives with his mother and brother in a house so small that the two siblings must share a bed. Brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) works in the coal mines, and it's assumed that Billy will leave school early to do the same. At a show-and-tell in English class, Billy talks about training Kes. His eyes light up and he becomes galvanized and magnetic, so much so that we can sense that given a chance, this young boy could go on to be a success at whatever he chooses. But in a later scene we see Billy with a job-placement officer, who asks the boy what kind of work he'd like. Billy can't come up with an idea because the adults in his life, his English teacher (Colin Welland) excepted, have drilled into his head the idea that there's no chance for advancement. Billy has been trained for failure.

Loach believes in casting people who've had some experience with a script's subject matter. For Kes, he picked his cast of non-actors right out of a school and community in Yorkshire. Natural, affable, and authentic, Bradley is remarkable as Billy. The part of Kes was cast with three kestrels, and Bradley actually trained one of the birds so it would come to him. Today this might be done as a digital effect, and it probably wouldn't be nearly as effective as this pre-digital effort. The scenes of Kes in flight are thrilling and lyrical in a very realistic way.

But Kes is no Hollywood "boy and his hawk" movie. Though it has some funny spots, it's a gritty look at life that doesn't guarantee a Technicolor happy ending, and Loach filmed it in a somewhat grainy manner to underscore its true-to-life sincerity. Criterion has gone to great lengths to restore the movie (there's almost a whole page in the booklet describing the sources and difficulties), and since Loach is listed as one of the telecine supervisors, the result must be considered accurate. There are two soundtrack choices. One is the original director's version, which has Yorkshire accents so thick you might have to flip on the English subtitles. I did. The second track was created at the request of MGM/UA, the American distributor, and has the actors looping their dialogue over in an effort to make it more intelligible. Both tracks are monaural and do a decent job of reproducing John Cameron's intimate, small-scaled music score.

The extras include a 45-minute "making of" featurette with Loach and his long-time producer Tony Garnett, a segment of "The Southbank Show" devoted to Loach and his work through 1993, and the full-length black-and-white television film, Cathy Come Home, which decries the plight of the homeless in England and how government intervention broke up families and made the situation even worse than it was. By all means rent Kes; it's a beautiful and socially important movie, but it makes its point so firmly that you might not want to view it a second time. Watch and you'll understand. Thanks to Criterion for making it available in such a finely crafted edition.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 13 shows Jud on his way to work, walking through muted green fields and forests. And then there's the monolithic coal mine, rising like a monster out of the woods. It's a visually arresting contrast of fleeting hope dashed by inevitable despair.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Incredibles"

April 2011

201104_incrediblesBlu-ray Version of Pixar Classic Is Truly Incredible

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 105504
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

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

Pixar Animation Studios has racked up one hit after another, for a record that so far is unblemished. One of the factors that earns the studio accolades is impeccable storytelling. The writers, producers, and directors all have fertile imaginations, but they also have the uncanny knack of making the most fantastic plot and characters resonate with the average audience member, regardless of age or background. Brad Bird directed The Incredibles in 2004. It was his first feature for Pixar, but it wasn't his first film. That would be the highly regarded The Iron Giant, one of the few non-Pixar animated features worthy of mention in Pixar company.

In The Incredibles we're introduced to husband and wife superheroes who've perhaps done their jobs too well. Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) in particular has saved people from dying who didn't really want salvation. These malcontents sue, and society decides it doesn't need superheroes that have become such liabilities. Now he and his wife (the former superhero Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter) have become typical suburbanites as Bob and Helen Parr, complete with three children: Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews). Bob works in a government office, has gained too much weight, and is generally depressed by his sedate life, missing the excitement of his superhero days. Helen handles things a bit better, but the children are frustrated. They also have special powers (Violet can become invisible, and Dash can run faster than the speed of light), and they have a hard time keeping their abilities concealed.

Without telling Helen, Bob quits his job and starts hanging out with another has-been superhero, Lucius Best / Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The two friends listen to police calls and show up at fires, where they mask themselves and do what they did best in the past -- save people's lives. Bob, as Mr. Incredible, soon gets an offer he can't refuse: a caper to defeat a renegade robot that resides on a remote island. Off he goes, not realizing until later that the caper has been a ploy of an arch enemy, Syndrome (Jason Lee). Helen discovers Bob's deception and flies after him. Violet and Dash stow away on the jet, and soon the whole family is in peril on Syndrome's island.

Though the movie presents pulse-pounding chases and action sequences, it's also a deeper portrait of middle-age angst, the price of sedentary living, and the value of family. It has what all Pixar films have that make them so special -- heart. The Incredibles is also populated with exceptionally appealing characters, and it pits them against a villain we so love to hate. All of the film's ideas are presented in jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art animation and multichannel sound. Bird was almost 100 percent on target in guiding this huge project. My only problem is that at nearly two hours, the movie seems about 10 minutes too long.

I'm running out of superlatives for describing Pixar Blu-rays. Whether it's the brightly colored world of superheroes or the pale, washed-out picture of suburbia, the picture is simply perfect in all respects. The sound, ranging from quiet dialogue to earth-shattering chase effects, is equally outstanding. And for once, there's plenty of dynamic range, but not so much that if you turn your system up to hear the dialogue your home theater will be decimated by the blasts in action sequences. You can set the volume for The Incredibles and forget it, enjoying its terrific but unexaggerated dynamic range.

Disney seems to consistently release all of its major releases in multiple-disc sets so that anyone can play them on Blu-ray or DVD. This set has four discs. The two Blu-rays contain the feature and extras, the third disc is a DVD of the feature, and the fourth is a digital copy disc. The extras are extensive and contain many new HD featurettes as well as the entire set of SD featurettes from the previously released DVD. The best of these is a newly mastered HD of Boundin', the short that was originally shown in theaters with The Incredibles. The story of a tap-dancing sheep who finds his groove in spite of being shorn every year is one laugh-out-loud hysterical happening.

Be sure to watch for: As indicated, there are dazzling chase sequences scattered throughout the film. The best of these, "100 Mile Dash," occurs in chapter 23 when Dash runs through the jungle, pursued by whirring-disc-rotor pursuit ships. The foregrounds and backgrounds have equal focus during this high-speed chase, so much so that the picture has a near 3D sense of depth. The surround sound adds to the excitement to make this a memorable action-adventure sequence.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Tron: Legacy / Tron: The Original Classic"

April 2011

TronStyle over Substance Triumphs in This Demo-Quality Set

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 106534
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

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

In 1982 the original Tron seemed like nothing more than fanciful science fiction. Windows 1.0 was three years away, and no one's life revolved around laptops, cell phones, or iPads. Since home computers and gaming were only future visions, videogame arcades were at their peak. Tron drew on the immense popularity of those games, coupling them with science-fiction fantasy to ask a novel question: what if a human could be defragged and reconstructed as a game piece on a computer grid?

In the original film, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), creator of several top games, has his programs stolen by ENCOM, a corrupt and powerful corporation under the direction of Ed Dillinger (David Warner). Flynn and Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), a trustworthy program, must then fight the evil Master Computer (David Warner's voice) to clean up the grid and (back in reality) kick Dillinger out of power.

The 2010 sequel takes place several years later, with ENCOM under Flynn's direction. But he suddenly disappears from sight, leaving his young son, Sam, to be reared by grandparents. Flash-forward to the present, and Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has grown to be an impetuous 20-year-old genius just like his dad. But he shows little interest in ENCOM, which has again fallen into unfriendly hands. Summoned to his father's old arcade by a mysterious message, Sam is defragged onto the computer grid, where he finds his father held captive by the unfriendly, egocentric program Clu (also played by Bridges, with digital facial reconstruction to make him look like his young self). Flynn, Sam, and the program Quorra (Olivia Wilde) must make it to the portal between reality and the grid. Once back in the real world, Sam knows he can easily defeat Clu.

Neither of the films was a great success on dramatic terms, but both succeeded in a true triumph of style over substance by displaying stunning visual effects of a light-filled computer landscape and city, and by incorporating thrilling, derring-do chases on light cycles and other futuristic transports. In 1982 the original Tron was trendsetting. Though CGI is commonplace now, it was new back then. Tron showed what the technology could do, paving the way for everything CGI that followed. Tron: Legacy, using the same basic design for the grid, ups the quality of CGI effects to a breathtaking new high. The city, the light cycles, and the costumes all display more intricate, glittering neon than ever.

Both video transfers are excellent. If I were to separate the composite rating above, Tron would receive four stars, and Tron: Legacy would get a highly coveted five. Both movies present bright neon colors (particularly in the piping of the costumes) against inky-black fields and infinitely varied grayscale backgrounds, and each shows near-perfect contrast. Both movies, Tron: Legacy in particular, unfold such detailed images that it's like watching a great fireworks show. You can ooh and ah at every new wonder, each better than the last. The original movie reminds me just how far we've come in home theater. Twenty some years ago I sold laserdiscs for a while, and Tron was one of our demo discs, specifically the scene in which Kevin Flynn is defragged and sucked into the grid. Looking at the incredible graphic resolution of that scene now, it seems impossible that we could ever have regarded those laserdiscs so highly. This Blu-ray trounces anything that's come before. It also explains why I never warmed up to the laserdiscs or videocassettes, or even the earlier DVD. These movies are all about image, and unless the image elicits wonder by being perfectly crisp and clean, why bother?

Tron's sound is quite good and has been beefed up so that the Wendy Carlos score has both heft and clarity. The mix for Tron: Legacy is one of the best available on Blu-ray. It's been touched up and remixed from the original theatrical effort, and it offers totally immersive, 360-degree sound from beginning to end. But that's not to say the sound is confusing; it's totally clear, with important dialogue up front and ambient and directional screen-specific sound in the rear. The 360-degree soundfield is used to clarify rather than muddy the sound.

The set has five discs. The first is the 3D theatrical version of Tron: Legacy, which I didn't watch, as I'm not set up for 3D yet (but I have every reason to believe it would be at least as good as the 2D, which is sensational); the second disc is Tron: Legacy in 2D, which is so sharp and clean that at times it almost seems like 3D; the third disc presents Tron: The Original Classic on Blu-ray; the fourth offers Tron: Legacy on DVD; and the fifth disc is a digital-file copy of Tron: Legacy.

There are hours of extras about both films that will keep you thoroughly entertained. If you have an HD screen 50" or more, this set is a mandatory addition to your collection. Along with Avatar, The Ten Commandments, and any Pixar film, it will give you the most out of your display. Both movies are available separately in two-disc Blu-ray collections as well as on DVD. The five-disc set is available in a deluxe version that comes housed in a replica of an identity disc. You may think you've seen enough of these films, but trust me: you've never seen or heard their wonders like this!

Be sure to watch for: Almost any scene in Tron: Legacy is of demonstration quality, but the sound is just as amazing. Consider the scene near the beginning of the movie when Sam enters his Dad's boarded-up arcade and flips a coin into the jukebox. The rock music pounds away and changes perspective three or four times as Sam discovers the arcade's secret inner sanctum. You're not likely to find this level of audio-perspective detail in many films, but it's commonplace in this immaculately mixed soundtrack.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Ten Commandments"

March 2011

The Ten CommandmentsParamount Adds a Demonstration-Caliber Disc to the Blu-ray Bookshelf

Paramount 14350
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
*****
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Extras
***emptystaremptystar

Those looking for a Blu-ray title to test and show off their home-theater systems have had to settle for Pixar animated features, each of them gorgeous, or Avatar. There have been no live-action, color films that could equal those choices. But we now have Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, which Paramount Studios has thoroughly restored to provide a breathtaking picture worthy of the biggest screen you can throw at it. The colors are vibrant, and the detail fastidious. There's no flicker, edge enhancement, rip, pin hole, or tear in the master. It's nearly perfect, in no way looking its age. And since the film was made using VistaVision, it can be presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio that will fill the whole HDTV screen.

Though not quite as impressive as the picture, the sound is still better than average. Elmer Bernstein's lofty music score has a good frequency range, and there's actually a lot of bass, which isn't typical of other films of the period. The sound effects have bass, too. The chariots that chase the Israelites across the desert will test your subwoofer, as will a few other scenes. The voices Moses hears during his solitary vigil in the desert are skillfully panned around the room, and the parting of the Red Sea offers arresting sights and sounds, as the video and audio are perfectly balanced to provide thrilling entertainment.

The movie is deliberate and pageant-like in its delivery. Regardless of whether you consider it gospel, the narrative of Moses being reared in the royal Egyptian household and finding out he's really a Hebrew before leading his people out of bondage is interesting and absorbing. Charlton Heston (Moses) and Yul Brynner (Rameses) were at the top of their game when they made this film. Their scenes together crackle with excitement and tension as the two actors flex their magnificent voices and muscles to make their points. Anne Baxter might be a little over the top as voluptuous Nefretiri, but Edward G. Robinson rings surprisingly true as the lascivious Dathan.

This two-disc set presents the movie in two parts, one per disc, with the same intermission break from the original roadshow presentations. The overture, entr’acte, and exit music are all intact. Other than trailers and newsreels, there’s only one substantial extra, but it’s a superb one -- an enthusiastic and informative commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments. Orrison has devoted a large portion of her life to researching and chronicling the movie, and she discusses with authority the production and actors, as well as the film's authenticity and proximity to ancient Egyptian culture.

Paramount is also releasing a deluxe, boxed, multidisc "limited edition gift set" version of the film that includes DeMille's first version from 1923, more extras, and replicas of the tablets on which the commandments were written. This two-disc version will be grand enough for most viewers, and it gives owners of home-theater systems a tremendous reward in showing off their video-audio systems to the max.

Be sure to watch for: The numerous panoramas of breathtaking Egyptian exteriors cannot be missed. The scene that made me grateful to have tweaked my home theater using the Digital Video Essentials disc occurs at the end of chapter 27, which depicts the death of the pharaoh Seti I (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). The colors are rich and dark, while the shadow detail is exemplary. It’s a dark scene that will be neither murky nor overly bright if you've adjusted your system properly.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Topsy-Turvy"

March 2011

Topsy-TurvyMike Leigh Perfectly Captures the Creative Experience

The Criterion Collection 558
Format: Blu-ray

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

William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were 19th-century creators of exacting, magnificent musical trivia, and the pair became so famous that even while they were alive they were known simply as Gilbert and Sullivan. Moving forward a century we find Mike Leigh, a director known for his gritty, uncompromising, and extemporized film portraits of everyday Brits under stress, as evidenced in Secrets and Lies, Life Is Sweet, and most recently, Another Year. Leigh tackling a biography of Gilbert and Sullivan might seem unusual, but a glimpse into Leigh's background reveals another side to his artistic ambitions that follows from his extensive career in the theater. It’s obviously in his blood, and Topsy-Turvy, in addition to being a most entertaining period biography, is a seminal tribute to stage production.

This 1999 film is a dazzling, meticulous dissection of the creative process through which Gilbert and Sullivan create The Mikado, one their most beloved works. We're shown how Gilbert got the idea when his wife dragged him to a Japanese exposition and how the show was written, rehearsed, and produced, right down to scenes involving the costumes and cast salaries. Then we're given the triumphant opening night and, to complete the process, the feelings of the cast and crew after the curtain comes down. Leigh focuses on the familiar "Three Little Maids from School" sequence as an example of artistic evolution. We see it from rehearsal (where Gilbert brings in some actual Japanese women to give advice) to the finished production, allowing us to appreciate what went into achieving the desired result.

The Mikado takes up the second half of the movie. During the first, Leigh introduces the characters and sets up a conflict between Gilbert and Sullivan, with Sullivan deciding he's tired of writing theater music and wants to write great operas and symphonies. But Gilbert’s plot idea for The Mikado entices Sullivan back into the partnership. Throughout the film, Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are thoroughly convincing as Gilbert and Sullivan, and the rest of the players are impeccably cast.

You don't have to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan to fully enjoy this appealing story, but the more you know, the more you'll enjoy it. And for newcomers, Mike Leigh's commentary explains most of the subtleties, such as the fact that a small portrait of the real Gilbert is sitting on a table in the center of the frame as Gilbert and his wife talk on either side of it. The Blu-ray is sharp enough that an astute viewer can identify the portrait, and all the details of Victorian décor are reproduced with exemplary clarity in colors ranging from the austere tones of Gilbert's home to the vibrant colors featured in the stage excerpts.

The sound is excellent, with the all-important music receiving a much-better-than-usual treatment. The pit orchestra serves as source music in many scenes where there's extremely good stereo separation, with the winds on the left and strings on the right -- the reverse of what we usually experience today. Carl Davis has masterfully adapted various Gilbert and Sullivan works to fashion the remainder of the musical score, which is recorded with refreshing clarity.

In addition to the Leigh commentary, extras include an excellent and enlightening discussion between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon, Leigh's 1992 short film A Sense of History, four deleted scenes, a 1999 featurette, the theatrical trailer, and TV spots. Also worth noting is the Criterion cover, an example of an art form called joge-e, in which an image takes on a different meaning when turned upside down. The cover, created by Yuko Shimizu, depicts the more serious Gilbert and the more hedonistic Sullivan. It's all in how you look at it.

Be sure to watch for: At the beginning of chapter 5 we see Sullivan and his mistress at the piano. They're mid distance from us, with part of an ornate sofa in the foreground and a decorated vase behind them at the window. Thanks to the definition of Blu-ray, everything is crisp and clean, giving the scene a wonderful sense of depth.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

More SoundStage! Videos

  • Focal Shape 65 Active Speaker is a Winner for Both Audiophiles and Studios (Take 2, Ep:5)
  • Audio Research's 50th Anniversary Products, Celebration, and Future - SoundStage! Talks (July 2020)
  • Get Closer to Your Music with the HEDD Type 07 Active Speaker -- Literally. (Take 2, Ep:4) #AMTfi
  • Back to the
  • Details on the Bowers & Wilkins 700-Series Signature Speakers - SoundStage! Talks (June 2020)
  • Activities at Hi-Fi Super-Retailer Goodwin's High End - SoundStage! Talks (June 2020)
  • Totem Acoustic Skylight Speaker Review! Affordable Speakers with a Big Sound (Take 2, Ep:2)
  • The Long-Term Investment in a Bryston Amplifier - SoundStage! Talks (June 2020)
  • PMC and the Flagship Fenestria Loudspeaker - 2019 SoundStage! Product of the Year Winner (June 2020)
  • Hegel H120 Integrated Amplifier Review. Living With It for the Past 3 Months! (Take 2, Ep:1)
  • The Power, Purpose, and Appeal of Bluesound's Powernode 2i Amplifier - SoundStage! Talks (June 2020)
  • Buying Speakers for a Teenager - SoundStage! Talks (May 2020)
  • Buying Active, Powered, or Passive Speakers for the Studio - SoundStage! Encore (June 2020)
  • Focal's Speaker Driver-Cone Materials - SoundStage! Talks (May 2020)
  • Dutch & Dutch 8c Active Loudspeaker in Detail - SoundStage! InSight (June 2020)
  • Gryphon's Flagship CD Player and Yamaha's New Turntable in Australia - SoundStage! Talks (May 2020)
  • Gryphon's New Class-A Essence Amplifiers - SoundStage! Talks (May 2020)
  • Vivid Audio's Laurence Dickie, Designer of the B&W Nautilus - SoundStage! Icons (June 2020)
  • Rockport Speakers Now Come in Colors - SoundStage! Talks (May 2020)
  • Deep Inside Crystal Cable - SoundStage! InSight (May 2020)
  • High-Res and Multichannel for Music Playback - SoundStage! Encore (May 2020)
  • KEF's Dr. Jack Oclee-Brown on Speaker Design - SoundStage! Icons (May 2020)
  • Intro to Dutch & Dutch and the 8c Active Loudspeaker - SoundStage! InSight (April 2020)