"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

"The American"

January 2011

201101_americanSuspenseful Film Provides a Superb Role for George Clooney

Universal 62112874
Format: Blu-ray

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

The American opened to a tepid box office and general public neglect, yet I feel it was one of the best films of 2010. Perhaps it was the trailers that propped the title up as an action-adventure movie, while word of mouth belied that opinion with claims that it was "artsy." Potential audience members were understandably perplexed, and they avoided the film. The American played for only a week or two in my local multiplex to smallish audiences of mostly older women who were clearly fans of its star, George Clooney.

That reception is a shame, as The American is a most worthwhile movie. Yes, it has a European feel to it, and Clooney really is the American interloper in an otherwise European cast. But what's wrong with that? It only serves to set up his character as an outsider. The American tells the story of Jack (Clooney), a hit man who begins to rethink his life after being forced to shoot his girlfriend to eliminate witnesses to his latest kill. Jack's current assignment is to construct a super rifle, an assassin's special, for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a voluptuous but cold assassin. Colder yet is Jack's boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), who becomes an increasingly ominous figure as the film plays out. Jack wants out of the game, but will Pavel let him go?

The film is taut and suspenseful, as well constructed as the weapon Jack is assembling. Clooney is perfect in his role, and he fully and subtly conveys the extreme paranoia and loneliness that are part of a hit man's work. But as much as I admire the portrait of Jack by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, I didn't like the ending of the movie. Perhaps it was inevitable, but Clooney convinced me that Jack deserved another go at a different kind of life, and I wanted to see him receive that reward.

Martin Ruhe's splendid photography of the Italian countryside, stark yet not drained of color, is a main feature of this movie and has traveled well to the Blu-ray. Colors are full and true without turning into Kodak moments, and the detail is impressive. My only complaint is that the subtitles haven't been redone for home viewing and are a bit small. Since there are never any huge washes of sound, the audio tracks don't command as much immediate attention as the picture, but when examined in retrospect they stand out as refined and singularly clean. The music often uses the surround channels in subtle ways, and some of the action sequences place sound effects there as well, but 85 percent of the film's soundtrack is up front, perfectly balanced and clear.

The extras, which are a little skimpy, include a director's commentary track, a few deleted scenes, and a brief production featurette. The splendid film is the thing here, and I'd recommend that you at least rent it, though I'd consider purchasing it, as it plays so well on repeated viewings. The American deserves much more interest and respect than it received theatrically, and hopefully brisk sales and rentals of the Blu-ray Disc (and DVD) will correct that oversight.

Be sure to watch for: At the end of the first chapter, Jack is looking over a body of icy water from a ferry as he leaves Sweden. He walks toward the camera as we see bright-red and white railings in the foreground, along with red and blue signals. Across the white-blue water we see land, dotted with steely, blue-green evergreen trees and rust-red farm buildings. Though there are warm colors in the shot, the overall feeling is cold, typical of the movie’s design.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Backdraft: Anniversary Edition"

January 2011

201101_backdraftFire Seems Very Real in This Action-Adventure Film 

Universal Studios Home Entertainment 61106275
Format: Blu-ray

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

Though the cast listing is strong, with Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, and Robert De Niro as headliners, the real star of this action film is fire. The human cast does as well as could be expected acting out the somewhat shopworn story of sibling rivalry in the Chicago Fire Department ranks, but it's when the guys go out to meet their adversary that things really pop and sizzle. The fire department personifies fire, and director Ron Howard follows suit.

The Blu-ray edition of the 1991 movie is welcome, then, not so much as a dramatic film, but as a movie that can provide some very good demonstration-quality material for a state-of-the-art home-theater system. The picture is finely detailed and rich in color. The special-effects team went to great lengths to get the color of fire exactly right, and their success is carried over to the Blu-ray, where the flames are never too red or too orange, but are just right. To make sure, we're given the bright, deep red of the fire engines as a contrasting measuring stick. I can’t say if this is a new video master or the same one used for the previously released HD DVD, but I'd guess the latter, as that one looked very fine and I can't see any difference here.

The sound for the HD DVD was only Dolby Digital Plus, whereas here it's DTS-HD Master Audio, which makes a noticeable difference. The sound in the firefighting scenes is downright terrifying, surrounding the viewer with rushing and crackling sounds, peppered with explosions and the groaning and whistling of structures as they die. Fortunately, I've never been in the middle of a burning building, but I can imagine that this is very much the way things sound, and I hope I never get to experience that sound firsthand. This Blu-ray is quite close enough!

The extras on the disc are the same as on the HD DVD, with one exception. This new Blu-ray sports a limited picture-in-picture feature called "Scene Companion," which enhances your experience by showing pertinent behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.

Backdraft isn't a bad movie; if you've never seen it, this Blu-ray is worth renting. But as a demonstration disc, it's worth a lot more, especially if you own a high-end system that can fully reproduce it.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 7 begins with the team arriving at a fire in an apartment building. The contrast between the shiny-red fire engines, the flat-red bricks, and the fire is impressive, as is the detail when the hose team applies cascading water to the blaze.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Disappearance of Alice Creed"

December 2010

201012_alicecreedBrit Low-Budget Thriller Delivers 

Anchor Bay BD21744
Format: Blu-ray

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

You might expect me to wrap up the year with a review of some last-minute blockbuster, like Salt. To tell the truth, that movie was scheduled, but the review copy never arrived. So I picked up a title that was on hand and discovered a marvelous sleeper. This is how it usually happens: sleepers are discovered, not planned. They are those little movies no one has heard of because they failed to receive the kind of promotion afforded an A-list movie. Sometimes you can find one in the local mall eightplex. Say you are planning to see a big blockbuster and get to the theater a little late to find out that the film is sold out. Not wanting to waste the trip, you look to see what else might be interesting and pick an unknown film, go in to see it, and emerge having discovered a little masterpiece. Or it can be that DVD you pick up when all the copies of something like Salt are already rented.

Though I saw Salt in the theater and think it is a darned-good action-adventure film, I am sort of happy the Blu-ray didn’t show up, because The Disappearance of Alice Creed turned out to be a terrific little sleeper, a first-time feature film by director J Blakeson, that turned out to be a mesmerizing crime thriller. I can’t tell you much more than the setup or I will spoil your fun. Two men (Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston) set up an abduction, donning ski masks to brutally kidnap a young woman, Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), who is heiress to a large fortune. They tie her up to a bed in an undisclosed, soundproofed location and begin to negotiate a ransom. All seems to be going well until there’s one little slip up and from that turn the plot careens through intricate twists and turns to an unexpected ending. Double crosses become the rule of the game, always surprising the audience and keeping it from being too comfortable.

In a three-character movie such as this, the actors must all be first-rate on their own and play well with each other. That is certainly the case here. If one character ends up being a bit stronger than the other two, it is because that’s written in the script, not because anyone has less talent. The three young actors here are absolutely outstanding, making even the implausible sections of the plot acceptable. Blakeson also wrote the taut script and that, superb acting, and his astute direction make this little movie absorbing from beginning to end, all without a big budget.

The Blu-ray Disc displays stark colors, though this is partly because the film was shot in locations that are intrinsically drab. When there are bright colors they really pop but since the colors are so highly contrasted, the overall picture seems somewhat cold. There are no artifacts, shadow detail is good, and blacks are solid. The atmospheric music score by Marc Canham is splendidly reproduced, as are the voices up front. There’s not much surround, but just enough to keep the front soundstage from sounding flat. Extras include an interesting director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a storyboard featurette, and a gag reel.

This movie probably didn’t play at your local theater complex, but that’s no reason to keep you from seeking out the Blu-ray (or DVD). The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a superbly crafted, well-acted little thriller that delivers. It’s worth a rental for sure.

Be sure to watch for: The opening scenes are clever, showing the two men shopping for the items they will need for their kidnapping. The shots are angled so that they involve the audience as coconspirators while showing off a lot of minute detail.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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