"Breathless"

September 2010

201009_breathlessGodard’s Masterpiece Emerges Alive and Fresh

The Criterion Collection 408
Format: Blu-ray

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

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is often credited as the movie that changed cinema and solidified the French New Wave. Some will say there’s before Breathless and after Breathless. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1960, and it seemed fresh, alive, and daring -- it was filmmaking unfettered by convention. Amazingly, it still feels that way today. Unlike many movies from that period, Breathless doesn’t seem dated. This is partially due to the timeless themes involved, but credit must also go to the effervescent performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Belmondo plays wannabe gangster Michel Poiccard, and Seberg plays Patricia Franchini, a young American girl working for an American newspaper in Paris. Poiccard is on the lam for killing a policeman and wants Patricia to escape with him, but she won’t budge. Spoiler alert: she rats him out and he’s caught. The plot is about that simple, but its characters are complex. Poiccard is a rounder but has such charisma that we can’t help liking him. Patricia is young and naive on the surface, but her subtle expressions indicate that there’s a lot going on underneath her gamine exterior. The bulk of the film is concerned with the two talking to each other, all while Poiccard is trying to avoid the police. The plot seems slight, but Breathless is a movie where style becomes substance.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is at the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As usual with Criterion, the black-and-white images are exceptionally clean and crisp. Contrast is fairly high and helps to highlight detail. The monaural soundtrack has been remastered, allowing every bit of dialogue to be heard clearly while providing enough dynamic range that Martial Solal’s jazzy music score has lots of punch. The movie is in French, with English subtitles that are easy to read unless there’s white at the bottom of the picture.

The extras provide valuable information that enhances the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie. There are archival interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville, the French New Wave director credited with starting the movement. There are some excellent featurettes, including a portrait of Jean Seberg that traces her career from age 17 to her tragic suicide at just 41. An 80-minute French documentary studies the making of the film and its shooting locations, and there’s a very good print of Godard’s 1959 short film, Charlotte et son Jules, the first meeting of Belmondo and Godard.

Breathless is an undeniably important film in the history of cinema. It paved the way for the use of techniques that are now commonplace, but, far from being dry film history, it’s a very appealing and entertaining movie that gets better with time. Criterion has put it on Blu-ray Disc with care and attention to detail.

Be sure to watch for: A little bit into chapter 15, Seberg puts a l’Oiseau-Lyre recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto on a turntable. The camera stays with that image for a long time. The vinyl is so detailed and realistic that I suddenly remembered not only the sound of those wonderful old discs but their aroma as well.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Eyeborgs"

August 2010

201009_eyeborgsAn Indie Sci-Fi Discovery from North Carolina

Image EYE6567BD
Format: Blu-ray

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

Eyeborgs is the kind of movie that most people won’t notice. But while many will pass it off as a schlocky science-fiction B movie without a second thought, I’ll say it isn’t so. Despite the film’s obviously low budget, its clever filmmaking tricks the audience into thinking it’s something more. The plot involves a not-too-distant future in which complete surveillance is the norm. Observation robots, called eyeborgs, have been created in various sizes and are linked to a central system that spies on everyone’s activities. The small, two-legged ones are actually pretty cute, until you realize what they can do to a human through electric shock. But there’s no question about the larger ones: they resemble giant spiders, and they have wicked built-in tools to harm. As the story unfolds, federal agent R.J. “Gunner” Reynolds (Adrian Paul) begins to realize that the eyeborgs are about much more than keeping the United States safe from terrorists, and he gradually uncovers an insidious plot for total domination. By whom? You’ll have to see the movie -- there will be no spoilers here.

The script, by Fran and Richard Clabaugh, is intelligent, and it’s acted with skill by a group of actors known for supporting roles on television shows. Richard Clabaugh is also the director, and because he teaches cinematography at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the production was centered in Winston-Salem, where the school is located. The eyeborg robots are CGI, though you can tell on only one or two occasions. The photography is solid, and the Blu-ray Disc reflects it with an honest, well-defined look and skin tones that are right on target. The dynamic soundtrack makes good use of surround possibilities, and the extras provide a clear and straightforward look at the film’s production and how the producers worked around the low budget.

Eyeborgs probably cost five percent of a Hollywood-budgeted CGI fest like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but it’s more effective in its simplicity (as opposed to Joe’s simple-mindedness), and whereas Joe had little dramatic impact, Eyeborgs scores as a solid science-fiction drama, too. Score one for Eyeborgs.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 10 places the viewer in the middle of a final shootout with the robots. Shadow detail is particularly good in these scenes, and it will let you know whether your brightness and contrast are adjusted correctly.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Black Orpheus"

August 2010

201008_blackorpheusCriterion’s Black Orpheus Is, in a Word, Irresistible 

The Criterion Collection 48
Format: Blu-ray

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

Rio de Janeiro! Carnival! Dancing in the streets! Insistent, incessant, irrepressible drum beats! The birth of bossa nova! Bright colors and lavish costumes! A love story for all time! Any of these exclamatory phrases could be used to describe Black Orpheus, the award-winning movie that took the world by storm in 1959. Made by French director Marcel Camus, the film explored Brazil while wrapping it up in an appealing, superficial toy box worthy of MGM or Disney. Residents of Rio’s poorer sections, who are portrayed as constantly happy and always singing and dancing, bear as much of a relationship to reality as Gershwin’s romanticized Catfish Row denizens in Porgy and Bess or, “Ol’ Man River” aside, the joyful riverbank dwellers in MGM’s Show Boat.

The love story in Black Orpheus is an updating of the Greek Orpheus and Eurydice tragedy, and was based on the revisionist South American play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes. In this film version of the play, Orfeo (Breno Mello) is a streetcar conductor and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is the new girl in town who steals his heart. But Eurydice is pursued by Death (Adhemar Ferreira da Silva in a slinky, death’s-head costume worthy of Carnival). The interesting truth underlying the romanticism is that all of the actors are of African descent. The American and European public had previously been exposed to South America via Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat, performers with Hispanic backgrounds, but Camus dared, in segregated 1959, to make it clear that Brazil also had a large black clear.

The Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá composed the film’s score, which shows the influence of the bossa nova beat on Brazilian music. But the drumming sequences just as clearly reveal African roots, and taken together, the two influences form a wonderful concoction that provides memorable melodies and rhythms, making it difficult to sit still while watching this movie. The Criterion mono soundtrack has been considerably cleaned up from the original optical version, and it’s offered uncompressed. The images on screen are as memorable as the sounds, and the almost overly bright colors of the costumes play very well on Blu-ray without any smearing or bleeding. The movie is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and in Portuguese with fairly easy-to-read English subtitles. There’s also an English-dubbed soundtrack, but you don’t want to go there. Stick with the original.

The extras include a full-length film, Looking for Black Orpheus, which offers a closer look at the racial makeup of Rio and the racism that has existed there. There are also archival interviews with Camus and Marpessa Dawn, as well as a contemporary interview with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam, jazz historian Gary Giddins, and Brazilian author Ruy Castro, who discuss the film’s musical roots in great depth.

Black Orpheus is an important film in the history of cinema, but it’s also a very entertaining movie that’s full of life and romantic vision. I’ve seen it many times, but never looking as gorgeous as it does in Criterion’s colorful Blu-ray edition. It is, in a word, irresistible.

Be sure to watch for: I was struck by the beginning of chapter 11, in which the hillside community prepares to go down the mountain to celebrate Carnival in metropolitan Rio. The scene is a riot of blues: Serafina (Léa Garcia) is in a turquoise top with a bluish purple skirt, behind her is a building painted in navy blue and white stripes, and yet another steely blue can be seen in Rio’s harbor. All of these blues are set against a background of green grass on the left, and to the right of the screen are banners and flags bearing every conceivable color. It’s just as demanding as any color test pattern, but much more enjoyable.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kalifornia"

August 2010

201008_kaliforniaKalifornia Is Propelled by Superb Acting

MGM M122542
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Kalifornia was released to a limited number of theaters in 1993, after which it was promptly forgotten. A few critics gave it favorable reviews, but by and large the thriller was ignored. It later resurfaced because members of its cast, including Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny (pre X-Files), and Michelle Forbes, went on to find fame. The film received a released in the early days of DVD, and it’s now one of the headliner titles in the recently launched Fox and MGM Blu-ray Plus DVD series.

This renewed interest is gratifying, because the movie really is top-drawer. Duchovny and Forbes play a yuppie couple who travel to California while gathering research for a book on serial killers, for which she’ll take photographs of sites where murders occurred and he’ll write text to accompany them. After placing a notice for someone to share the ride and expenses, they draw in Early Grayce (Pitt) and Adele Corners (Lewis), poor white trash and, in Early’s case, a killer. The rest of the movie depicts a road trip from hell as Early’s true nature slowly emerges. The script never descends into slasher-flick land, and the acting is as good as you’ll see anywhere, with all four principals fully embodying their characters. Lewis and Pitt are particularly good, turning in what might be the best performances of their careers. How they escaped award nomination is a mystery, as is the fact that the movie’s director, Dominic Sena, has gone on to make only two-star films like Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish, and Whiteout).

Bojan Bazelle’s cinematography is a major factor in Kalifornia, as he utilizes imaginative angles and focus points to generate just the right mood for each scene. These details come across very well on the Blu-ray. The audio is mostly up front, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks kick up a ruckus when required while always allowing for clear dialogue. There are no extras beyond a trailer, though we might consider the second disc to be one big extra. Using streaming video, it contains the film in both unrated and R-rated versions, in both widescreen and pan-and-scan. The Blu-ray contains only the unrated version, which adds about a minute of uncomfortable violence to the movie.

If you haven’t seen Kalifornia, you owe it to yourself to give this unheralded masterpiece a look. If you have seen it, have fun looking back at the early careers of the famous actors involved. You’ll easily see why they’ve been successful; these early efforts reveal superb talents.

Be sure to watch for: There are many shots in this movie that demonstrate Blu-ray’s ability to crisply reproduce backgrounds. At the beginning of chapter 20 there’s a helicopter flyover on a beach, with Michelle Forbes on the far left of the screen and a beach house on the right. As the helicopter fades in the distance, it keeps its shape and definition, giving the scene a three-dimensional depth.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Mother"

July 2010

201007_motherTo What Lengths Will a Mother Go to Protect Her Son?

Magnolia 10325
Format: Blu-ray

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

Korean director Joon-ho Bong previously made the highly regarded horror film The Host in 2006. His newest film, Mother, cleverly reveals an in-depth study of mother-and-son relationships inside a mystery-suspense tale.

When mentally challenged Bin Won (Yoon Do-joon) is arrested for the brutal murder of a young girl, his mother (Hye-ja Kim) doesn’t believe he’s capable of such a crime, and she starts her own investigation into the case. As the movie progresses, the audience is given lots of red herrings about the murder mystery, as well as some unsettling insights into the relationship between mother and son. The film is slow and thorough but never plods, and Hye-ja Kim’s performance is a marvel -- grim and determined, his single-minded purpose slowly spills over into obsession. Kim delivers an electrifying, in-depth, and Oscar-worthy performance.

The dialogue is entirely Korean, but there are English and Spanish subtitles for the main film and the extra features. The Blu-ray picture has rich color, great contrast, and fine detail. Skin tones seem particularly realistic, and blacks are truly black. Much of the movie takes place in the rain, which darkens the picture without obscuring the images. There are over two hours of extras, including a one-and-a-half-hour production featurette, plus short features on specific aspects of the filming, including music, cinematography, and design.

Don’t miss this stylish, absorbing mystery and dramatic showcase for Hye-ja Kim’s mesmerizing acting.

Be sure to watch for: During the opening credits, Hye-ja Kim is standing in what appears to be a wheat field. Looking straight at the camera with grim determination, she beings to dance and sway to soundtrack music that sounds curiously Brazilian. It’s one of those signature scenes you won’t easily forget.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Black Narcissus"

July 2010

201007_black_narcissusThe Archers’ Suppressed Eroticism Sears and Sizzles in Criterion’s New Blu-ray Release

The Criterion Collection 93
Format: Blu-ray

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

Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger forged one of the most important partnerships in the history of film by founding their production company, The Archers. From 1942 to 1957, they made 19 feature films, including the masterpieces Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffman. 1947’s Black Narcissus, based on Rumer Godden’s novel, tells the story of an order of nuns who are sent to run a school and establish a mission in a community perched high in the Himalayas. The spot they occupy was once a lavish brothel, and the walls still hold many murals that suit that sort of organization. The nuns, led by Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), believe they can conquer the past and give the community a different future, but they quickly learn that the location’s hedonist history won’t easily fade. Worldly sins are manifested in Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a swarthy man of the world. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) becomes so conflicted by this man’s presence that she leaves both the order and her senses.

For this movie, Powell and Pressburger worked with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar in 1947 for his opulent photography. The colors vary from rich to subdued, but they always have life and presence, and they’re indispensable in setting mood and suspense. The sharp Criterion transfer preserves the supercharged nature of the film, which, by the way, was shot entirely on sound lots in the UK! The audio tracks are quite good for the period, though they show age more than the video. Constant wind successfully suggests altitude, and Brian Easdale’s huge symphonic score is performed by no less than the London Symphony playing it. Powell considered the score so important that he shot many scenes to correspond to the music, rather than vice versa. The optical mono track seems inadequate to reproduce the score at times, but overall it works with the visuals to create atmosphere, and the dialogue is very well served. One can only imagine how awful this optical track must have sounded before Criterion restored it!

The extras seem a bit slight for a Criterion release, but they’re quite good. There’s a commentary track with Martin Scorsese and Powell, recorded shortly before Powell passed away. There’s also a video introduction by director Bernard Tavernier, who also contributes “The Audacious Adventure,” a video piece in which he discusses Powell and the film. “Profile of Black Narcissus” is a half-hour documentary on the making of the movie, and “Printing with Light,” perhaps the most interesting extra included, examines the luminous, award-winning work of Cardiff. There’s also a 24-page booklet with an in-depth essay by Kent Jones and superb color photos of the film’s main characters.

Black Narcissus is one of the most important films in cinema history, as well as one of the most entertaining. Though they were prohibited from showing much at the time, the filmmakers perfectly convey a supercharged sense of repressed sexuality, and they make delicious suspense and melodrama out of the havoc that feeling creates.

Be sure to watch for: There are many memorable images in this very visual movie, but the one that stands out for me is at the end when Sister Ruth, dressed in secular clothes, bursts from her room bent on killing Sister Superior Clodagh, who is ringing the assembly bell at the edge of a frightening cliff. Her hair is wet and disheveled, her look maniacal and menacing. No villainess in film has been scarier.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Brooklyn’s Finest"

July 2010

201007_brooklynsStrong Performances Make Fuqua’s Cop Film a Viewing Must 

Anchor Bay BD 21404
Format: Blu-ray

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

Brooklyn’s Finest is a gritty portrait of police life, and regardless of its authenticity, it seems real as can be. After discovering first-time screenwriter Michael C. Martin’s script, director Antoine Fuqua secured a quartet of first-rate actors from whom he wrestled performances beyond what audiences might expect. The movie shows the hardships, frustrations, and temptations that cops in Brooklyn (or anywhere) must face, telling three distinct stories that converge in the film’s final moments.

Ethan Hawke, always reliable, transcends his own abilities as Sal, a man with more children than he can support and two more on the way. His story is heartbreaking, and Hawke realistically portrays an intrinsically nice guy who is tempted to cross the line. Don Cheadle stars as undercover cop Tango, who gets close to drug kingpin Caz (Wesley Snipes) in an effort to entrap him, only to find that Caz isn’t such a bad guy after all. Richard Gere rounds out the main cast as Eddie, a burned-out officer on the verge of retirement. Though he finds some solace in the arms of a prostitute (Shannon Kane), his despair is so overwhelming that every morning he puts an unloaded gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Even after watching the extras, you’ll have a hard time figuring out how Fuqua wrings such realistic, emotional, and intense performances from the entire cast. Then again, he directed Training Day, for which Denzel Washington earned an Oscar.

The movie comes to Blu-ray looking close to perfect. Outdoor scenes have depth and amazing focus, while indoor scenes have dark shadows with good definition. Skin tone is excellent throughout, and the colors are potent. The sound has lots of dynamic and frequency range, including a pounding LFE track, but the surrounds could have been used with more imagination. The sound also has some inconsistency, as gunshots sometimes ricochet to the back, while other times they don’t. It’s a solid soundtrack that doesn’t detract from the visuals, but it could have added more.

The extras include a dry but informative commentary from Fuqua, a set of fairly fluffy production featurettes, and an interesting set of deleted and extended scenes that enhance the development and understanding of the film’s characters. These are presented as one command and are not available separately on the menu, though you can chapter-stop through them. And just to prove that Blu-ray has come a long way, all of the extras are in HD.

Brooklyn’s Finest is not a perfect film. Its strong acting is lavished on an occasionally clichéd plot, making its parts better than its sum. But those parts remain some of the best I’ve seen in a cop movie.

Be sure to watch for: The production featurettes are in HD, and the outdoor crowd scenes are astonishing. You’ll be looking at the detail in the close-up faces and then suddenly realize you can clearly read store signs across the street.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Leopard"

July 2010

201007_leopardCriterion’s Blu-ray of Visconti’s Masterpiece Provides Eye-Popping Color

The Criterion Collection 235
Format: Blu-ray

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

I’ve often proclaimed Criterion the master of black-and-white transfers. And after the Criterion release of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 movie, I’m tempted to add color transfers as well. The Leopard, based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, deals with the waning of the privileged classes in 19th-century Italy, and it focuses on the life of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster). Corbera represents the old nobility, whereas his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), stands for a new military order. The story opens just as Giuseppe Garibaldi has made his famous landing on Sicilian shores in 1860.

The production goes for ultimate opulence, and the picture is exceptionally deep and rich. The interior colors -- reds, golds, and browns -- would almost seem oversaturated if they weren’t so steady and the skin tones so natural. It’s as if an oil painting with colors a little deeper than life has suddenly come alive. The focus is also exceptional, and there are numerous shots in Corbera’s castle where the camera points down seemingly endless hallways and shows the near and far with equal detail. You can’t achieve this on DVD, even using the best upconverting player. The sound is optical mono of the period, and though it’s entirely serviceable, you’ll wish for stereo when you hear the lush Nino Rota score, which is among his most impassioned works. Criterion presents the restored feature at a Super Technirama aspect ratio of 2.21:1 and the American version at 2.35:1. There’s some debate over the first aspect ratio, but the transfer was done under the supervision of the movie’s original cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno. I’m inclined to go with Criterion.

As is often the case with Criterion, the extras illuminate and enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the film. Lancaster spoke in English while the rest of the cast used Italian. The original version, then, is in Italian with English subtitles and has Lancaster dubbed. The second disc presents the American version, which keeps Lancaster’s voice and dubs the rest of the cast. It’s also cut by 20 minutes, and Criterion hasn’t given it the same loving care and restoration as the original movie. A Dying Breed: The Making of "The Leopard" is an hour-long documentary containing interviews with lead actress Claudia Cardinale, formidable screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and many others. There are other interviews and period trailers, but the jewel among the extras is a full-length commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, who notes the differences between the novel and film, often using direct quotes. Overall, this Criterion Blu-ray stands head and shoulders above its own previous DVD release.

Be sure to watch for: Most of the movie takes place indoors, but there are exteriors that are simply breathtaking. Chapter 8 is a case in point, as it depicts a picnic that seems taken from a painting. Once the table cloth is spread in the shade, note how the characters move in and out of shadow in great detail. A properly adjusted monitor will show this scene with ideal contrast and no murkiness.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Green Zone"

June 2010

201007_greenzoneMatt Damon and Paul Greengrass are the Ideal Team for Topical Thriller 

Universal 61106212
Format: Blu-ray

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

Director Paul Greengrass has directed Matt Damon in the last two Jason Bourne films, and you might say the two practically breathe in synch. Though Green Zone drops the pair into a different theater of war, it has a lot in common with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. It puts Damon on camera for about 90 percent of the film, and he controls every bit of that percentage. The action is fast-paced and violent, and handheld camera moves and first-rate editing make it both exciting and intimate.

Damon portrays Roy Miller, a US Army officer in Iraq shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government. All of the military teams are bent on uncovering WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) to justify their invasion. But after coming up empty on a few raids, Miller suspects that he’s receiving false intelligence reports, and he sets out to find the truth. He’s aided by Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a rumpled veteran CIA man who knows the lay of the land and its politics, and he’s countered at every step by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear, playing beautifully against type), a government official who might have something to hide.

Baghdad at night is all shadows and mystery, a dark and scary place that Greengrass has filmed with authenticity. A lot of his camera work looks like news footage, which gives the images a sense of reality. Night scenes have lots of grain, and most daytime shots are bleached out to convey the arid nature of the terrain. The Blu-ray transfer is faithful to the original film every step of the way. The photography isn’t pretty, but it’s mightily effective. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a constant wonder. There’s a lot going on, and the entire soundfield is active without any detail getting lost in the shuffle. Dialogue is clean and clear, gunfire and explosions have a crackling presence, and atmosphere is ever present.

The U-Control extras are generally informative and entertaining. Damon and Greengrass pull off an intelligent commentary, not just for the feature but also for a selection of deleted scenes that, though good, were obviously cut to balance the film. You can see the two onscreen, picture-in-picture, and for the deleted scenes they’re joined by Greengrass’s son. There’s also a U-Control mode that features picture-in-picture explanations and technical information. Two short featurettes concentrate on the real-life soldiers who were employed both as actors and technical resources.

Green Zone is a gripping thriller that also offers an astute social commentary on recent events. With its superb acting and directing, I can’t imagine why it had such a short theatrical run, but Universal has made up for it with this rich and detailed video presentation. The package also includes a digital copy of the film.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 3: In a long shot, helicopters zoom into the frame from behind. You hear them an instant before you see them, and once they land the sound is plentiful but so carefully mixed that everything is clear. The Blu-ray also showcases incredible video detail in this outdoor sequence.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Flash Gordon"

June 2010

201006_flashgordonPathetic Earthlings, What Will You Do with Your DVDs of Flash Now That a Definitive Blu-ray Has Landed?

Universal 61112072
Format: Blu-ray

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

When Flash Gordon was first released in 1980, theatergoers were on a Star Wars rush, and the movie earned only a fraction of what producer Dino De Laurentiis had expected. Audiences scoffed at its score (by Queen), retro special effects, and lack of big-name actors, even though the music and elaborate sets and costumes made it clear that this film was a comic-book rock opera and a campy indictment of the ’30s. Meant as mere entertainment, the film was to be enjoyed rather than dissected.

But despite its disappointing theatrical sales, the movie gathered a large cult following, finally acknowledged by Universal several years ago when it released the Saviour of the Universe edition, which featured a new digital transfer to showcase the movie’s visual and aural delights. This Blu-ray seems to have been created from the same elements and has the same cover art, though “Saviour of the Universe” has been dropped from the title. The DVD was excellent, but the Blu-ray is outstanding.

I’d recommend watching the most useful extra, the initial episode of the 1934 Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe, before the feature. Then you can appreciate how the creators of the 1980 version paid homage to the original. Perhaps most enjoyable, after the incredible colors and Queen’s pulsing rock score, is Max von Sydow’s tour de force performance as Emperor Ming, Ruler of the Universe, a bad guy you’ll love to hate. The veteran actor delights with every word and campy action, and his voice alone is almost enough to carry the movie. We’re introduced to that sonorous instrument at the beginning of the film as we see Earth through the eyes of Ming. He unleashes winds, earthquakes, and hot hail on the planet in a sadistic cat-and-mouse game. “I like to play with things a while . . . before annihilation,” he says in one of many campy lines you’ll find yourself quoting.

As hinted, the video transfer is as close to perfect as we’ll probably ever see for this movie. The colors are unusually rich and deep, with no bleed or shimmer. The picture manages to be super sharp as well, without any application of edge enhancement. The dominant reds are hot throughout the movie, while flesh tones remain entirely natural. The DTS-HD Master Audio sound is robust and clean with more surround than you might expect from a film originally advertised as Dolby Stereo. Taken all together, the picture and sound are exceptionally appealing. Even if you don’t appreciate the camp on screen, you’ll have to admit that it looks drop-dead gorgeous. Flash Gordon could become a favorite demonstration disc for showing off your new monitor and sound system.

There’s not much in the way of extras beyond the already mentioned serial episode, just two ten-minute interviews with comic-book artist Alex Ross and screenplay author Lorenzo Semple Jr., and a trailer presented in very poor SD video. But at least it makes you realize the depths the restorers have gone to in providing the sparkling HD version of the entire film.

Be sure to watch for: Flash Gordon is rife with scenes that astound with eye-popping color and definition. At the beginning of scene 9, Flash is held captive in a wooden cage on Prince Barin’s (Timothy Dalton) planet. The natural wood tones set off Barin’s “ready to play Robin Hood” green tights and Flash’s red tank top and bleached-blond hair. The depth of field is so focused that this scene, in the company of most of the larger-scale portions of the film, has great depth.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com