"Ride with the Devil"

April 2010

201004_br_ridedevilCriterion Gives a Second Chance to Ang Lee’s Revisionist Civil War Film

The Criterion Collection 514
Format: Blu-ray

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

Ride with the Devil was the third English-language film for Taiwanese director Ang Lee, and it was released in 1999, one year before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made him a household name. Ride with the Devil had a limited theatrical release, making little money despite being favorably reviewed. The studio asked Lee to cut the movie's length before its release, and he agreed, as he was busy working on Crouching Tiger. Now the Criterion Collection has given everyone a chance to see Lee's original version, with the missing footage reinstated.

Based on Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On, the film is set in Missouri, a northern state that allowed slavery, where gangs of southern bushwhackers and Union soldiers engaged in guerilla warfare. It was one of the bloodiest episodes of the war, culminating in a shameful raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which most of the town's men were slaughtered with little warning. Tobey Maguire stars as Jake Roedel, a 19-year-old of German descent, who becomes friends with Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), another young raider, and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a freed black man. The story revolves around their friendship as they come of age during a tumultuous time in American history, and it's worth more than a passing glance.

Ride with the Devil was beautifully photographed by Frederick Elmes, and its look has been faithfully transferred to Blu-ray. The outdoor scenes have deeply saturated colors that look natural and realistic. Greens especially stand out, and the picture always has good definition. The sound is exceptionally robust, with battles audible from all directions. But even when the action gets frantic, dialogue is cleanly reproduced. Considering that this is a Criterion release, the extras feel a bit skimpy, but they include a retrospective interview with Jeffrey Wright, two commentaries, and essays in the 32-page booklet that shed light on the period.

Restored to its full length or not, I don't think the film is a masterpiece. Still, it's an engaging and faithful look at a time in American history that Hollywood has fictionalized beyond recognition. Criterion has brought it to Blu-ray with respect and care, providing picture and sound that will please anyone, especially those with a large video display.

Be sure to watch for: The opening of chapter 6 is a breathtaking shot of a bushwhacker encampment. The greens are intense and varied, with grass that's darker than the trees. The detail of distant horses, tents, and soldiers is impressive, as is the shadow detail of the creek bank.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call -- New Orleans"

April 2010

201004_br_badlieutenantWerner Herzog and Nicolas Cage Explore "The Bliss of Evil" 

First Look Studios FLP-12966
Format: Blu-ray

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

The opening shot of the neo-noir Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call -- New Orleans, shows a snake slithering through the foul flood waters left behind after Hurricane Katrina, and it lets us know that we’re in for something much darker than the New Orleans of Mardi Gras and jazz greats. When the flood has stranded a prisoner in his cell, detectives Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) watch from above and bet on how long he’ll last before drowning. But McDonagh then jumps into the water to save the drowning man, and for his heroism he gets formal recognition and a bad back that soon has him popping pain pills like popcorn. The prescribed drugs lead to crack, which eventually leads to heroin, and before long McDonagh is filching drugs from the evidence room and apprehending anyone who appears to be holding.

Cage’s performance is a tour de force that's both amazing and perplexing. His mind and body may be twisted, but we’re shown that McDonagh can be a good guy, and Cage channels enough Jimmy Stewart that we’re on his side despite his actions. The movie is a film noir doubling as one of the darkest comedies you’ll ever see, and in the production featurette, director Werner Herzog says it’s all about “the bliss of evil.” Herzog has also insisted that this film isn’t based on 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, directed by Abel Ferrara. Whether you believe him or not, this movie is engaging from beginning to end, and you won’t be able to take your eyes off of Cage.

The production featurette is the disc’s most substantial extra. It’s an entertaining and eye-opening look at an energetic Herzog at work. The other main extra contains a group of photos taken by Herzog’s wife, Lena, including stills from the movie as well as posed-for pictures that are some of the sharpest, cleanest still photos I’ve ever seen on disc.

The overall picture quality is excellent, but it fluctuates (as it did theatrically) with each scene. Garish colors, grain, and doubtful focus add edginess to the movie’s hallucinogenic moments, while natural tones and razor-sharp focus delineate outdoor shots. The soundtrack offers incredibly clear dialogue, and it successfully uses the surrounds for music and the occasional effect. And in case you’re wondering about the iguanas and alligators that this movie is famous for, you’ll notice them all right. There’s no point in stating the obvious, but let’s just say there are worse things than hitting a deer with your car.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 11, when McDonagh drives across a bridge. The car’s hood and windshield vividly reflect the bridge’s girders. It’s an old cinematographer’s trick, but it’s a good one. And it’s especially well presented on this Blu-ray.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Sherlock Holmes"

April 2010

201004_br_holmesRitchie the Ringmaster Dazzles with a Unique Look at the World's Most Famous Detective

Warner Home Video 3000029704
Format: Blu-ray

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

For 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Ritchie serves as ringmaster, corralling as much action as possible into the center ring. But despite Ritchie’s efforts to lift Watson (Jude Law) to the level of Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.), Downey turns in such a captivating performance that the action inevitably revolves around him. That said, Ritchie has given their relationship greater balance, making Sherlock Holmes a buddy movie in which Holmes and Watson show glimpses of Butch and Sundance. Purists may balk, but for my buck Ritchie offers an interesting interpretation that serves up a full 128 minutes of quality action-adventure entertainment.

Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes looks even better on Blu-ray than it did in the theater, and it’s a perfect transfer for boasting about what your system can do. The sets drip with detail, and the Blu-ray faithfully reproduces every speck of dirt from the streets of late 19th-century London. The palette is bluish-brown, similar to that of Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but the colors were clearly the director’s intent. The soundtrack is lively, and it completely encircles the viewer. The frequency range is also excellent, from the highest piccolo to the lowest thud. This mix will keep your whole speaker system, not to mention your ears, busy.

The extras are a bit unusual. At first there seems to be only one, called “Maximum Movie Mode,” which actually comprises many elements. Ritchie, again as ringmaster, presides over the effects, offering comments and ushering in various frames within the screen that range from talking-head comments to backstage filming sequences. He invites you back to the movie once in a while, but you’ll still see terraced PIPs of storyboard sketches. At several points you’re asked to press Enter to see still-frame galleries or featurettes about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or the filming process. At other times a timeline appears at the bottom of the screen, listing dates of events in Doyle’s life. There’s a ton of well organized information here, but don’t dig in until you’ve seen the film. You can also access the featurettes later on without having to experience the entire three-ring show.

The ending of Sherlock Holmes shamelessly sets up a sequel, and I can’t wait. If you haven’t seen this film yet, make sure you do. The Blu-ray version makes a good movie that much better.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 13, the shipyard chase scene. It’s an intricate mix of live action, CGI, and mattes, and it’s one of the best action-adventure set pieces around. All of the ship’s spars, rigging ropes, and chains stand out with amazing clarity, and the superb soundtrack enhances the action on the screen. Holmes’s take: “Watson, what have you done?”

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Broken Embraces"

April 2010

201004_br_brokenemb_280wPedro Almodóvar Adroitly Juggles Two Films Within a Film and Pulls an Engrossing, Sexually Charged Thriller Out of the Hat 

Sony Home Entertainment 33186
Format: Blu-ray

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

Pedro Almodóvar is a filmmaker’s director. Every frame he makes seems full of a knowing exuberance that’s in the same breath new and tribute. In this most recent film, he channels a bit of Alfred Hitchcock, while the voluptuous Penélope Cruz as Lena shows an occasional trace of Audrey Hepburn. Almodóvar even gives a nod to Orson Welles by giving his main character, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), the pseudonym "Harry Caine" (from Harry Lime and Citizen Kane). In Broken Embraces, a mystery tale of sex, love, and revenge, Almodóvar skillfully juggles several stories at once. In the present, director and screenplay writer Harry Caine spins out a story about the past, when he went by his real name and fell in love with Lena while making a movie called Girls and Suitcases. A young documentary filmmaker, Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), approaches Caine with the idea of making a film, one which turns out to be autobiographical. Ray is constantly filming everything and everyone with his handheld camera, both in the present and in flashbacks. So, with Girls and Suitcases and Ray’s constant documentary filming, we have two films within the main film, the latter told with a flashback storyline. Confused? Amazingly, Almodóvar makes it all clear and the stories cleverly converge in the last reel, with surprises that are more satisfying than shocking. The cast is perfect in every way, and Cruz is outstanding. She may be one of the most beautiful women in the world, but she doesn’t just rely on her looks. Her subtle characterization and ability to get under the skin of a character make her an entirely believable and consummate actor.

Almodóvar makes strong use of primary colors, particularly red. Looking at this vibrant, nearly perfect Blu-ray transfer, I was reminded of the days of laserdisc, when it would have been a miracle to achieve reds like these without severe bleeding. The Blu-ray also has a comforting light grain throughout that gives it a real movie look, and the level of detail ranges from adequate to outstanding, depending on the scene. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound is mostly up front (except on a few occasions when the rear channels provide atmosphere) and it’s kind to both the music and the dialog. Unfortunately, the extras, which include a short but interesting sequence where Almodóvar directs Cruz, are pretty lame. You can also see more of the Girls and Suitcases film by watching the first of three deleted scenes, which you can follow with "The Cannibalistic Councillor." The film is in Spanish, by the way, with easy-to-read subtitles.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 8, at 48 minutes and 50 seconds. An overview shot shows Lena chopping tomatoes, cucumber, and garlic for gazpacho. The vibrant wood tones of the chopping block, the brilliant reds of the tomatoes, and the greens of the cucumbers have incredible presence. Lena sheds a tear, and in an unforgettable moment of movie magic, we see a close-up of it striking the tomato’s surface.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Toy Story: Special Edition"

April 2010

201004_br_toystory_280wBlu-ray Gives Buzz and Woody HD Ignition to Soar “To Infinity and Beyond”

Disney 103234
Formats: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Toy Story, released in 1995, was a gamble for Disney and Pixar, much like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Snow White was the first animated feature film, and Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film. Both proved naysayers wrong by becoming monster hits. On the eve of the June release of Toy Story 3, and the double-feature theatrical release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3D, Disney and Pixar have released Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on separate Blu-rays, and the results are outstanding.

The stories, featuring toys that come to life when people leave the room, appeal to all ages. In Toy Story, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), a western sheriff marionette, is the toys’ leader, and he’s temporarily ousted after his owner, Andy (John Morris), receives a Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) action figure for his birthday. After some bad blood and a series of mishaps, Woody and Buzz become best friends, winning over all odds in a series of breathtaking chases.

Toy Story’s sparkling Blu-ray picture is as good as it gets. Transferred in the digital realm, it’s bright and colorful with spot-on detail from beginning to end. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has satisfying presence and full-range frequency response. The sound is anchored in the front channels but spreads around the room at appropriate moments. Extras are plentiful and include most of the extras from the 10th Anniversary DVD release (in SD) as well as a new HD set put together specifically for the Blu-ray. These include a chilling black-and-white storyboard look at the original pitch made to Disney, in which Woody was quarrelsome and mean. No kidding. We’re all happy that changed to make this one of the most endearing classics in the history of animated film and a Blu-ray must-have for your collection. And if you don’t have Blu-ray yet, there’s an excellent DVD disc included, so you can watch it until you get a BD player.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 12, “Lost at the Gas Station,” a perfect test for contrast and brightness settings. When Woody and Buzz scuffle under a vehicle, darks should be quite dark but there should be excellent shadow detail. And in Chapter 27, “The Chase,” the detail is so great that you should have a definite three-dimensional sense of the action. Without glasses.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com