"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

"Sweet Smell of Success"

March 2011

Sweet Smell of SuccessBurt Lancaster and Tony Curtis Excel in Fast-Paced Classic '50s Film

The Criterion Collection 555
Format: Blu-ray

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

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman scripted this dark 1957 masterpiece, whose principal character they based on Walter Winchell, the controversial gossip columnist. In the movie he becomes J.J. Hunsecker, played by a bespectacled Burt Lancaster. Hunsecker is a ruthless gossip-column writer who can make or break fortunes, keeping, like Winchell, a DDL (drop-dead list) of those who are permanently banished from his presence. He holds court in a restaurant where he has a special table, complete with private telephone. Lancaster, who usually played a hero, shows his acting versatility by perfectly capturing Hunsecker's vicious arrogance.

Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, an unprincipled, smarmy little man who works as a press agent while wanting to be a successful columnist like Hunsecker. He manipulates people, facts, and innuendo to try to get in Hunsecker's good graces, but all he achieves is public humiliation. It was a risk for Curtis to take such a role, as his previous good-guy parts had secured a large following of teenage girls. But the risk paid off, with Curtis showing that he had real acting chops.

The plot gets rolling when Hunsecker wants Falco to break up his sister's relationship with a jazz-guitar player (Martin Milner, playing in the film with the real-life Chico Hamilton Quintet). The rest of the film is cross and double cross, as Falco weasels his way into precarious situations and Hunsecker demonstrates his ruthlessness. The action is very fast, and I was struck by the crisp pacing of director Alexander Mackendrick, who never wastes a second. The dialogue is as priceless as it is merciless. Hunsecker's line after Falco offers a particularly unpleasant suggestion is my favorite: "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

Academy Award-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe lit the film in a realistic way that he discusses in one of the supplements. It looks as good as any of the other black-and-white masterpieces from Criterion, meaning it's excellent and at times breathtaking. Blacks are jet black, whites are bright, and there seems to be over 100 shades of gray in between. The focus is sharp and clean, with good shadow detail. Both the dialogue and Elmer Bernstein's jazzy music score come across clearly on an excellent uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

In addition to the piece on James Wong Howe and his interesting discussion of lighting, there's an extra devoted to the films of director Alexander Mackendrick, another in which filmmaker James Mangold talks about Mackendrick as an instructor and mentor, and still another that finds film critic Neal Gabler discussing Walter Winchell. The extensive booklet contains an enthusiastic if not always clear essay by critic Gary Giddins and two short stories by Ernest Lehmann that use Hunsecker and Falco as characters.

Be sure to watch for: The opening scene on the streets of New York, as the first edition of the Globe newspaper is being delivered, sets a bustling tempo and crisp visual style that lets you know you're in for something special.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Fish Tank"

March 2011

Fish TankGritty Film Finds Beauty and Heroism in an Unlikely Place

The Criterion Collection 553
Format: Blu-ray

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

Andrea Arnold's name can now join those of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh on the list of masters of British social cinema, with Fish Tank exploring the lower classes that are caught up in housing projects the Brits call "council estates." Arnold is a remarkable filmmaker who sees detailed beauty in squalor. To break up the action or set up a new scene, she's liable to show a close-up of a set of wind chimes made from sea shells, a cherished photograph in a zodiac-decorated frame, or a stack of favorite CDs, indicating that there can be moments of color and substance in a largely drab and faded world. The many outdoor scenes are gorgeous, even when they're shots of industrial facilities, as if to say that life in general is better than life in the estates. Arnold makes great use of the single wind turbine that dominates the neighborhood like a strange and unfriendly giant.

At the center of the movie is Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old girl entering womanhood. She's trapped in the estate, like a fish in bowl, with a younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and a boozed-up, chain-smoking mother (Kierston Wareing) who’s barely aware that her daughter is there. Mia’s horizons are finite and her life doesn’t look very rosy, but with the aid of a portable CD player she escapes into a private world of dance, creating moves to music, most notably Bobby Womack's version of "California Dreamin'." No one viewing her dancing would think she's destined for the stage. This isn't a movie where the ignored girl escapes her sleazy neighborhood and becomes a star. Mia leaves, but there's no indication that she won't be forced to return.

Mia’s mom brings new boyfriends home and stumbles on Connor (Michael Fassbender), who rocks Mia’s world and changes her situation. Connor is a thoroughly convincing opportunist whose name is a perfect fit. Aside from one other interesting character, Billy (Harry Treadaway), a teenage gypsy boy who befriends Mia, the film essentially belongs to Mia, and Jarvis gives one heck of a mesmerizing performance, especially when you consider that the untrained actress was discovered on a train platform shouting at her boyfriend! Director Arnold lets us know the characters deeply so that we care what happens to them, but she never intrudes with judgment or lessons. We see simply see Mia's world through her own eyes.

The Criterion Blu-ray looks wonderful. Colors are varied and true, contrast is fairly high, and focus is sharp and clear. Robbie Ryan, the film's director of photography, is credited, along with Arnold and editor Nicolas Chaudeurge, as having supervised and approved the Blu-ray transfer. His photography is on the highest level, and it's made it to home theaters looking as good as possible. The sound has received a fine transfer, too. The tracks are robust and sometimes immersive, though generally the sound is up front. The dialogue is sometimes hard to make out, but that’s due to the heavy accents, which are thick as a London fog. Thankfully, the closed-captioned English subtitles are easy to access and read. If you miss something the first time, you can back up and clarify it.

The main extras are three short films by Arnold: Milk (1998), Dog (2001), and the Academy Award-winning Wasp (2003), all enjoyable and worthwhile supplements. There's also a video interview with Kierston Wareing, an audio interview with Michael Fassbender, some audition footage, and an exquisite still-photo section by Holly Horner, the film’s set decorator. Unlike most stills, which seem to have been carelessly added as an afterthought, these are large reproductions with just as much detail as the film.

Fish Tank is a gritty, realistic drama, sumptuously photographed and directed by a woman who has a real eye for the cinematic. It won the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize, and it’s a must-rent title that many might wish to own.

Be sure to watch for: In the middle of chapter 9, a flock of birds flying against a pale blue and white sky changes direction so you can sense the feeling of the group but also pinpoint each individual bird. The BBC played a role in producing Fish Tank, so perhaps the shot came from one of its fabulous nature series. Whatever the source, it’s an astonishing sight.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Bambi"

March 2011

BambiDisney Scores Again with Another Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 106246
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Never mind that they eat crops (all of my hostas in the summertime), and cause vehicle accidents that cost insurance companies millions of dollars, as well as many lives. We all have a love/hate relationship with deer, for in spite of their faults, they are still the sweet and cuddly animals we remember from our youth. I can’t speak for the last two or so generations, but my positive childhood opinion of deer (and perhaps other animals) was clinched by seeing Walt Disney’s Bambi. In it, the animals are all gentle and peaceful (wolves, bears, foxes, and mountain lions are completely absent from Disney’s woodland; the only predators are men), and we feel like they are friends. It seems entirely natural that they talk to each other and we grow quite attached to them, so that the tension and fear are great when they are threatened by man (or a forest fire caused by man).

Disney was very careful about voice casting and how the animals of the forest were presented, insisting that they must be like real animals and not like humans in animal suits. This is one of the ideas thrown out in the story meetings that were held regularly during production. In one of the most fascinating extras included in this two-disc set (Blu-ray plus DVD), recreations of these sessions are presented in a full-length picture-in-picture commentary simply called "Inside Walt’s Story Meetings -- Enhanced Edition." There you will find all sorts of information about the creation and fulfillment of the images found in Bambi. You’ll also be given the opportunity to press Enter and be taken to another extra or an applicable animated short, and then returned to the main feature without missing a frame.

There are many other extras, many of them from the previous DVD release. One of these is the complete animated short, The Old Mill, which is unfortunately presented in SD, where it looks little like the masterpiece it is. There are deleted scenes, and then there’s a new feature called "Disney Second Screen." Presumably you will be able to use this after the March 1 release date; I couldn’t activate it when I was writing this. The gist is this: you download an app to your iPhone or iPad and then you can synchronize it with the movie on your Blu-play player and watch the movie and the extra screen together. Sounds a bit like picture-in-picture to me and possibly more a good stunt than anything really useful. Or it might turn out to be totally cool. I’ll try to find out when it is available.

In Bambi, Disney has once again created an astonishing video experience for today using 60-year-old material. As in Fantasia, one can’t help but marvel that such fluid animation was achieved entirely without the use of computers. Bambi broke ground in having backgrounds that were watercolor and impressionist, and the Blu-ray reveals some brush strokes in these, while crisply rendering the sharply outlined characters in the foreground. The sound has been refurbished to 7.1, which seems like overkill in print, but the proof is in the listening, and there it works very well. There’s not much surround, though a commanding thunderclap is made startling by coming from directly behind the listener. But the tracks for this movie were optical and monaural and the sound is largely kept up front, where it has good focus and an appealing glow.

Bambi is a timeless story, one of the five early, pioneering, animated features by Disney that changed the history of the genre (the others: Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Dumbo) and it has been given a fine transfer to the Blu-ray format that makes it viable not only as a historical gem, but as present-day entertainment.

Be sure to watch for: Disney was the first studio to really get the look of water right and chapter 7, "Little April Showers," is a showcase for water droplets. Each seems to have its own personality and looks exactly right, again wonders of hand-drawn animation. 

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Waiting for Superman"

February 2011

Waiting for SupermanThis Film Identifies the Problems with Our Public Education System and Tells Us What We Must Change

Paramount 14222
Format: Blu-ray

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

Documentaries used to be painful to watch, not just because their content might often hit on an issue close to home, but because their picture quality was more like that of 16mm home movies than a feature film. That has changed, as evidenced in this feature film, Waiting for Superman, with its bright, colorful, and well-focused images. Only when the director occasionally, deliberately dips into the past, as in utilizing excerpts from the George Reeves Superman episodes, do we see anything of lesser quality than your average contemporary first-run romantic comedy. That it was passed over by the Academy Award nominating process this year is a mystery.

The idea here, from director Davis Guggenheim, who brought us the Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth, is that our education system is broken, and though there are innovators who have found the answers to creating new and viable systems that would put the United States back near the top, old-style school unions have formed an almost impenetrable block to progress.

Guggenheim has structured his enlightening movie by focusing on five different students of different ages, from different cultural backgrounds. What they have in common is that they are underprivileged and must attend public schools in bad school districts. The film maintains that these institutions are merely failure factories and the facts back up an astonishingly large drop-out rate. The director then focuses on tenure issues, supported by the teachers' unions, which make it next to impossible to get rid of bad teachers and replace them with good ones.

Charter schools offer some hope. Guggenheim explores the success of the Harlem Success Academy, founded by Geoffrey Canada, KIPP LA Prep, and SEED in Washington, DC, an experimental boarding school. Students who manage to get into these schools thrive and almost all go on to college. But their enrollment is limited and filled by public lottery. It is painful to watch the lives of our five focus students end up as a game of chance. It’s more painful to realize that they are merely representative of hundreds relegated to failure in the name of education.

As mentioned above, the Blu-ray picture is excellent. So is the sound, though most of it is in the front channels. Still, the tracks do a handsome job of reproducing John Legend’s "Shine," an end-credit song written specifically for this movie. The extras include four success stories that didn’t make the final cut, as well as "The Making of Shine," the story of how John Legend came to write the song, and what education means to him.

The release includes a gift card from DonorsChoose.org. Go to their website and you can redeem the card for $25 worth of materials to be sent to the classroom you choose to support. It might seem a small effort, but Guggenheim pulls no punches in stating who can solve this crucial problem: you. We can’t wait for Superman to solve this dilemma. He never will. The DonorsChoose.org gift may not seem like much, but it’s a start.

Be sure to watch for: The third deleted sequence is about educator Bill Strickland and his efforts to present something better than the usual public school to the students of Pittsburgh. The differences between what has become the norm and what could be are dramatic.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Let Me In"

February 2011

201102_letmeinAmerican Version of Let the Right One In Is Almost as Good as the Swedish Original

Format: Blu-ray
Anchor Bay BD21464

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

Think of this film not so much as a remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In, but as another version of the creepy novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. To the credit of American director Matt Reeves, he has managed to transplant the story to Los Alamos without sacrificing much of its magic. Though he stayed devoted to the original plot, he added a few sequences that help tell the story.

The tale is of two misfits who find solace of a sort in each other’s company. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a small, thin kid who constantly has to fight off bullies at his school. At home he receives scant attention from his boozy mom, who is in the process of divorcing his dad. Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) has just moved in next door. She's a vampire in the guise of a little girl, who must have blood to live. She's accompanied by an older man (Richard Jenkins) referred to as the father, though he’s actually her familiar -- a human who procures blood for her from victims who he targets at random from the local community.

Owen and Abby find common ground in their loneliness, and they form a bond indicating that Owen will replace the father as her companion, until he too gets older and is no longer of use to the ageless girl. The story is a peculiar coming-of-age tale in which only one of the characters can make the full transition. The cast is convincing in telling the story, with Moretz a fascinating wonder as the conflicted (or is she?) Abby.

Reeves provides more gore than we see in the original, but he manages to make it work for the story, like adding bitter angst to heartfelt longing. Most of the overt horror is relegated to the background of a shot, with just the right number of intermittent close-ups. Though there's less restraint, this technique seems borrowed from the Swedish movie. The foreign film, which I still find the better of the two, is a model of clarity and precision, whereas the American version is willing to taint the clearness of vision with a cloud or two. A lot of the blurring is done through the use of Michael Giacchino’s music, which seems heavy-handed and obtrusive on more than one occasion.

The Blu-ray is quite good. Most of its picture is clear and has good definition, though once in a while it seems to go soft. This effect is most likely deliberate and has little or nothing to do with the transfer to disc. The surround sound is subtle yet effective, and the dialogue is always clean and clear. Extras include a better-than-usual production featurette, while two shorter segments focus on special effects and an eye-popping car crash, which serves as a pivotal point in the plot. Reeves provides an entertaining and informative commentary, and there are trailers and a still-photo gallery, which includes poster art. The package contains a digital-copy disc as well as a comic book, which gives some back story on the film.

Both Let the Right One In and Let Me In have taken their place as instant horror classics. If you haven’t seen either, I would recommend the four-star Swedish version first, with the latter as a follow-up. By all means, see at least one of them to experience the poignant, realistic twist that author Lindqvist brings to the overworked vampire genre.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 8, the father hides in a hapless student's car in order to strangle him while his friend is inside a convenience store. In the foreground we see the friend paying for gas, and through the window we see the struggle in the car. The audience knows the danger before most of the characters. This scene leads to the point-of-view auto crash, making the entire chapter a mesmerizing action-suspense sequence.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition"

January 2011

201101_aliceDisney’s Alice is Still a Wonder, and Better Than Ever on Blu-ray 

Walt Disney 105888
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

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

I initially saw Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland during its first run in 1951. I was ten years old and spending the summer at Ocean Drive Beach, which had one movie theater. There were no multiplexes back then -- it was a one-screen, one-auditorium emporium. The house was filled with kids and not too many parents. In the middle of the movie a thunderstorm came up and knocked out the town’s power for a half hour. Though boisterous and talkative during the blackout, no one left. We’d all been so enchanted with what we had seen that we wanted more and were willing to wait.

Sixty years later, Alice has the same pull over me. Though I have favorite scenes, it is unthinkable to view them without seeing the rest. I love this film, and believe it has been unfairly judged throughout the years as "minor Disney" simply because it is "different Disney." There’s no romance, no princess, and instead of having one delightfully eccentric subordinate character, the film is totally populated by them. It also has more songs than any other Disney title. Kids loved it, but critics distanced themselves. Now, the kids have grown up to be critics so opinions are changing.

In Kathryn Beaumont, Disney found the ideal Alice. The Blu-ray contains a recently discovered live-action study sequence in which Alice has a discourse with a door knob. Pert, petulant, and precocious, Beaumont is never mean-spirited, just an inquisitive little girl who has opinions of her own. She’s ideal. The oddball characters she runs into are just as perfectly voice cast and drawn, including Verna Felton’s commanding Queen of Hearts, Bill Thompson’s harried White Rabbit, and Jerry Colonna’s insane March Hare, though Sterling Holloway’s sly Cheshire Cat is no doubt the most memorable. He was our favorite grin as kids, and remains mine as an adult.

The new Blu-ray release is outstanding. The first thing you’ll notice are the colors, which stand out as bright, deep, and varied. There’s a clue to this in the opening scene when we’re shown a traditional green and yellow countryside. Suddenly a pink and purple butterfly flits into the scene, to be accompanied by an azure mate. Throughout the movie, unexpected colors pop up, yet none of them is ever garish. Rather, they seem to suit. And the Blu-ray shows all of them in a picture than often borders on intense. The source material has been cleaned up so well that no flaws are visible and the Blu-ray sharpness makes many scenes seem three-dimensional.

The soundtrack is offered in a cleaned-up two-channel version of the original and in DTS-HD Master Audio guise. I preferred the latter, as the Disney engineers have done a marvelous job in giving the tracks more presence, depth, and range without doing anything that would be uncharacteristically startling. The disc defaults to the original tracks, so to obtain the DTS ones you will need to go into the setup menu.

The picture is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which, on HD sets, will cause black bars to appear on the left and right of the image to frame it in. For those who simply don’t get what aspect ratio is all about and want their whole screen filled all the time, the disc offers Disney View, where the black bars are replaced with wallpaper paintings that match the main image as closely as possible. Though these are not really all that bad, I opted for the original 1.33:1 as the black areas ideally set off the feature’s bright colors.

There are a multitude of extras, including almost all of the ones from the DVD release, which are unfortunately almost all still in SD. There is a new HD color introduction from the1959 television broadcast (the show was broadcast back then only in black-and-white), and a marvelous feature-length picture-in-picture, Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland, which contains a lot of information about author Lewis Carroll and Disney’s production of his most famous story. The movie is included on a companion DVD for those who can’t play Blu-ray yet or want it to play the film in places other than the home theater, but I think that this Blu-ray is reason enough to invest in a new player if you don’t yet have one, especially since Walmart is now selling network-enabled Sony machines for under a hundred dollars.

Alice in Wonderland is an animated classic that should please children of all ages. The Blu-ray version is of demonstration caliber, offering a perfect picture and near-perfect sound. This is not one to rent, but to own, and Disney has made it quite affordable.

Be sure to watch for: There are so many astonishing scenes in this movie, it is hard to pick one, but I’ll go for chapter 25, "March of the Cards," in which two-dimensional playing cards are transformed into three-dimensional characters, in a pack that folds and unfolds and changes into psychedelic colors. To think that this complex scene was hand drawn without the assistance of computers is simply mindboggling.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Once Upon a Time in America"

January 2011

201101_americaSergio Leone's Opium Dream Weaves a Rich, if Uneven, Tapestry on Blu-ray 

Warner Home Entertainment 3000034753
Format: Blu-ray

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

Once Upon a Time in America turned out to be the last film by Italian director Sergio Leone, the man who put Clint Eastwood on the map with his spaghetti westerns. It's often described as a gangster movie, but I think of it more as a coming-of-age film and a movie about a friendship that also happens to be about gangsters. In this case not the usual Italian mob, but a Jewish one. But more importantly, the film's main character has an opium dream. This assumption makes more palatable the film's almost operatic scope, unhurried pacing, and its third act filled with implausible, unanswerable questions.

That main character is David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro), who has, through his partnership with his boyhood friend Max (James Woods), climbed to the top by selling illegal liquor during the days of Prohibition. Through the use of flashback and an occasional suspension of time, Noodles observes three different periods in American history. The 1920s are the best, when the pals are boys and their crimes are more or less amplified and expanded pranks. These sections of the sprawling movie have appealing intimacy and a sense of humor often missing in scenes taking place later in Noodles' life. The first half ends, for instance, with a violent rape scene that is anything but funny. I'd forgotten just how ugly it is; it's the kind of scene that makes you want to crank up the speed, get it over with, and get on with things.

That scene was shorter in the original American version, which was cut by an hour and a half, making for a disjointed movie that often made little sense. This Blu-ray is the complete 229-minute cut that was shown in Europe and everywhere else. It was released on DVD some years ago, and I have a feeling that this Blu-ray is just an HD update of that DVD.

The picture is at times close to five stars, especially during the 1920s scenes, where every piece of clothing, lock of hair, and piece of wooden furniture is so sharp that it has a distinct texture. But in the middle-period and present-day (1968) scenes, a softness creeps in and renders a picture that is merely very good. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks are used simply to expand a soundtrack that's basically monaural. The music has an appealing richness to it and the dialogue is easy to hear, but there's little in the way of 360-degree-soundfield directionality.

There are only three extras: a trailer, a brief documentary on Leone shot during the making of the movie, and a very entertaining and thorough commentary by film historian Richard Schickel. Once Upon a Time in America is a rhapsodic, passionate, and epic film, and its brilliant, enigmatic performance by Robert De Niro is certainly a better representation of his abilities than his recent Focker films. For about half its length it looks absolutely stunning, and the rest is never less than very good. It would provide a fine evening's escape on these cold winter nights that keep us close to home and hearth.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 29 opens with an astonishing nighttime street shot in the 1930s. The details of the buildings and shadows combine for a scene that has amazing depth and presence. You feel like you can go right into the scene, and that's exactly what the camera does.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

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