"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

"The Wolfman: Two-Disc Unrated Director’s Cut"

June 2010

201006_wolfmanRemake of the Iconic Universal Horror Film Has Bigger Fangs, More Blood, but Less Heart

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

The best thing about this double-disc Blu-ray set is one of its extras, George Waggner's original 1941 film The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. Though the remake has shortened the original three-word title to The Wolfman, it has expanded the story at every turn, often gratuitously.

Chaney's performance in the original shows great depth and heart, and the black-and-white-era star was supported by a handful of A-list actors, including Claude Rains and Ralph Bellamy. Underpinning the fine acting is Curt Siodmak's screenplay, which worked around censorship issues of the day to create a compelling psychological subtext that raised the movie far above the usual slice-and-dice monster flick.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of the original film as an extra presented quite a few problems -- at least for me. Instead of including the extra on a third disc, Universal offered it as a BD Live streaming download. I have four Blu-ray players, and each reacted in a different manner despite being connected through the same basic Ethernet system. The Sony PS3 aced it, loading the movie quickly and streaming it smoothly in crisp, well-defined video. The Oppo BDP-83 produced a splendid picture, but it occasionally froze for three or four seconds. The Panasonic DMP-BD55 streamed the feature without issue, but its picture was soft and marred with squiggly video noise. The picture was so distressing, in fact, that I decided to pick up a Sony BDP-S270 to replace it, only to find that my new player didn't show the extra as a clickable option! I'll be making some calls to Oppo and Sony, as I imagine the firmware needs updating.

The new movie isn't as bad as many would have you believe. It boasts stunning photography and meticulous period detail, and it adds some interesting ideas to the plot. For one, Lawrence Talbot's father is also a werewolf, which allows for a grand final battle between father and son. Benicio Del Toro isn't as deep as Chaney in his portrayal of Talbot, but he nails the crucial pivot point and makes us care about the character. Though he's undeniably a monster, he's also the hero of the movie, and we root for him, hoping he'll find a cure for his affliction. Anthony Hopkins is fascinating as Talbot's father, and he gives a performance so sly and layered that you'll wonder about his real motives. Rick Baker's special makeup is beyond reproach, and the special effects blending live action and CGI are smooth and seamless. The Blu-ray presents a director's cut that's 16 minutes longer than the theatrical version, which is also on the disc. You might assume it has more blood and gore, but it actually adds more dialog, which creates better character depth.

The Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous most of the time. The ever-present shadows are always alive with detail, and the inky blacks are perfect for a large display, especially a plasma. Daylight scenes are filtered toward blue, but the colors still seem natural. The picture occasionally goes soft or grainy, and this inconsistency is the only factor keeping the picture quality from a higher rating. The sound is aggressive during action scenes, and it wraps around the viewer. And though the dialog is often soft, I had no trouble understanding it. It's a good test to see if your center speaker is properly balanced. There are some decent production featurettes, and the Universal U-Control disc offers some interesting picture-in-picture commentaries for the theatrical version. One set of commentaries features Rick Baker and others explaining the special effects, while the more interesting "Legacy, Legend, and Lore" compares the new and old versions of the film and discusses werewolf facts and fiction. And for those who would like to take The Wolfman wherever they go, there’s a digital copy included. There are also two alternate endings, each so bad that I almost forgot them. The director made the right final choice, and the Blu-ray offers proof.

Be sure to watch for: One of the best things about the new version is its moody action-adventure sequences. The best of these occurs in chapter 14 as Talbot changes into the monster and escapes from the asylum where he was imprisoned and tortured. He races across the rooftops of London and climbs on top of a griffin statue to howl at the moon, creating a memorable iconic image. This scene is extended in the director's cut.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Road"

May 2010

201005_br_roadA Gritty View of Perpetual Winter Frames a Furtive Search for Humanity

Sony Home Entertainment 35287
Format: Blu-ray

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

Last winter, as the record-breaking snow piled up, it seemed that we might never see the sun again. Of course, we knew it would return, and the world would once again turn green. But what if the miracle of spring never happened and every gray day was followed by another? Would hope vanish?

The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, offers an idea of what life without spring might be like. We never learn the cause, but the earth has plunged into a dim, cloudy winter. The planet is dying, the skies are gray, and the vegetation is brown and rotting. A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) plod down a lifeless road, pushing a shopping cart filled with meager supplies as they head for the coast. The situation is so grim, we’re told, that starving survivors have turned to cannibalism, and the man carries a gun with two bullets -- one for him and the other for his son. They won’t be eaten, nor will they eat people. The man tries to teach the boy that cannibalism is wrong and that they must maintain their humanity.

It’s hard to judge the video transfer for this Blu-ray. Director John Hillcoat has aimed for a limited color palette of gray, brown, and yellow, with an occasional orange glow provided by fire. Given that, the transfer is probably a very accurate representation of the theatrical release, though it seems soft in places, more like newsreel footage than feature film. The soundtrack, however, is very robust. The dialogue is often quiet and you'll need to turn up the volume, but the groaning of earthquakes and cracking of falling trees have a great deal of presence, and they accentuate the horrible events on screen.

Extras include an off-the-cuff commentary from Hillcoat, five deleted scenes, a typical back-patting production featurette, trailers that prove no one knew how to market this movie, and five trailers for other films.

This isn't a movie you'll want to rent or purchase for its technical wonders. It is worth seeing, however, for its disturbing, realistic message, as well as for the acting of Mortensen, who skillfully underplays the story. Smit-McPhee is also good, and he and Mortensen are a believable father and son.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 10, the man and the boy encounter an old man (Robert Duvall). The ensuing ten-minute conversation showcases some of the best ensemble acting I’ve ever seen. Three generations, five-star acting.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Tombstone"

May 2010

201005_br_tombstoneKurt Russell and Val Kilmer Are Better Than Ever on Blu-ray

Hollywood Pictures 053489
Format: Blu-ray

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

If you can set historical accuracy aside and just go along for the ride, Tombstone, released in 1993, is a satisfying western that strays only slightly from history through a bit of embellishment and speculation. Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, starring as legends Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, give performances full of depth and nuance, and Kilmer's turn as the consumptive, alcoholic Holliday is possibly the best of his career. The bad guys are bigger than life, with Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn memorable as Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo. Though the legendary fight at the O.K. Corral stands at the center of the movie, the screenplay takes us to events that followed the famous shootout. Wyatt's younger brother, Morgan (Bill Paxton), is murdered and avenged in a series of grisly killings culminating in the deaths of Brocius and Ringo. Wyatt reconnects with the love of his life, actress Josephine Marcus (in reality they married and lived together in Hollywood until Wyatt's death in 1929), and the movie closes with them dancing in the snow.

The film is full of exhilarating action, and its meticulous period detail paints a picture of the west in the late 19th century. I was particularly fascinated by the manner and method in which a touring theatrical group played to a raucous audience of cowboys. Every detail is easily seen in this glorious transfer, which trumps all prior DVD releases. The picture has rich color, solid blacks, excellent shadow detail, and such a "movie look" that you might think about selling popcorn at the door. There's so much focus that in panoramas of the town streets you can see a character up front and a building half a mile away with equal clarity, resulting in scenes with great depth and a three-dimensional feel. The DTS-HD Master Audio sound goes hand-in-glove with the outstanding picture. Bruce Broughton's stirring score is solidly reproduced, and the gunfights spread the sound of gunfire around the room.

But while picture and sound score big on this release, the extras are lame. There's a 27-minute production featurette in which the director and actors talk about their characters and their effort to adhere to the historical facts. It starts well but quickly degenerates into fluff. The only other extras include a brief look at the storyboards for the famous gunfight and some trailers and TV spots. A first-rate action movie like Tombstone deserves better, especially one with such satisfying video and audio transfers.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 16 there's a violent electrical storm on the night Morgan is killed, and the brilliant lightning illuminates the darkness, providing brief glimpses of glaring reality that quickly fade to shadow and then to dark. The scene showcases Blu-ray's ability to provide an outstandingly detailed picture, whether dark, light, or in between.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series"

May 2010

201005_br_ryanSteven Spielberg's Graphic War Movie Retains Its Great Impact on Blu-ray 

Paramount 07484
Format: Blu-ray

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

Almost everyone has seen this Academy Award–winning film by now. But for those who haven't, it tells the story of a division under the leadership of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), small-town English teacher turned soldier. Miller is ordered to pick his best men for a mission to go behind enemy lines and rescue a young private (Matt Damon) so that he may be returned to his grieving mother, who has already lost her other three sons to the war. This epic movie sums up almost every other war film, and it emerges as one of the two or three best in its genre.

Saving Private Ryan has come to Blu-ray looking almost as good as you could hope. The colors seem true to life, unlike in the earlier DVD version. Spielberg's idea was to make the film -- particularly its opening sequence -- resemble newsreel footage. And every detail in the Blu-ray image is so clean and clear that the director's plan results in gripping, gritty footage that showcases the reality of war. I was particularly struck by the opening scene's rough water, which is so detailed that I felt immersed in the heady aroma of beach and ocean.

The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Sound, has been transferred to Blu-ray in perfect DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. All of the channels are in use throughout almost the entire movie, yet there's never any clutter or coarseness. The dialogue is clear, and the surround effects contribute to the action up front without any missteps. John Williams's score is expertly mixed, never overshadowing dialogue but also not fading into the mix. The extras, which are on a separate disc, include a handful of intelligent production featurettes as well as a theatrical trailer and re-release trailer, both in HD. The most important extra, however, is a lengthy documentary on war photography, hosted by Tom Hanks.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 9 the men take refuge at night in a bombed-out church, which is lit only by candles. There are many wonderful shadows in this scene, along with plenty of shadow detail. Faces are often lit only on one side, but the original photography is so excellent and the transfer so close to perfect that there's never any doubt as to who or what we're seeing.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"M"

May 2010

201005_br_mCriterion Releases the Ultimate HD Edition of Fritz Lang’s 1931 Classic 

The Criterion Collection 30
Format: Blu-ray

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

Child-molestation cases and sex offenders are blasted at us so often by the press, that we’re liable to assume that they are exclusive 21st-century issues. All we have to do is look back to 1931 and Austrian-born director Fritz Lang to realize our mistake. Unfortunately, child molesters and serial killers have been around a long time. M was the first film to show the killer as a sick person who couldn’t control his compulsive actions. In his dramatic monologue at the conclusion of the film, killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) cries out that he blacks out and then later will see a poster telling of the horrible things he’s done, things he is unable to stop. Lang’s film is about the investigation and chase to find a murderer but is also a multilayered study of class distinction in Germany at that time. Beckert is not discovered and captured by the police, but by a vigilante army of “good” criminals who find it difficult to pursue their thievery when the streets are being flooded by police officers searching for the child killer. They agree that the crimes are monstrous, but they also know they are bad for business. Some consider Lang to be to be the father of film noir, and M can easily be seen as representative of that genre. It has the right look, complete with shadows on the walls hovering over glistening wet streets and the high contrast of dark and light for the interiors, all visuals that feature a main character driven to destruction by forces beyond his control.

Criterion has done a superb new restoration. I’ve said it before and will say it again: others might come close these days, but no one does black-and-white like the Criterion team. Other than the odd aspect ratio (1.19:1, a skinnier image necessitated in early German sound films by the addition of an optical soundtrack to a standard film strip) you might swear this movie was made much later, say the '50s. The flicker that so often plagues transfers of 1930s films is almost completely absent; for 97 percent of the film’s110 minutes, the image is rock solid. If you avoid black-and-white movies as rule, try this one; it might well convert you to being a fan.

This was Lang’s first movie with sound (no matter what soundtrack you’ve seen Lang’s 1928 Metropolis with, it was originally a silent film!), and it’s truly remarkable that Lang immediately mastered the new cinematic tool. Most often, of course, the sound serves the image onscreen but at other times the partnership reverses. After the murder of Elsie Beckmann at the beginning of the movie, the screen goes to black, and in the blackness, after several seconds of silence, we hear the cry of “Extra! Extra!” The scene opens and we see that it is has been a newsboy shouting those ominous words. The scene accelerates in tension as other newsboys and townspeople fill the street. We might remember the visual impact of neighbor against neighbor in this violent scene, but it is the sound that first gets our attention. This is only one example of many, and Criterion has taken great pains to make the 79-year-old optical track sound better than anyone could hope.

Before you ask, let me say that this new edition of M is quite a bit better than the company’s first release of the movie. The extras come partly from that older edition and some are new. The most significant in the latter category is a recently discovered English version of the movie, for which some scenes were shot over and edited in with the original material, which was dubbed. Peter Lorre’s final speech is actually Lorre speaking and acting in English, but though it is quite effective, one misses Lang’s trusty hand behind the camera, for he apparently had nothing to do with the English or French versions. In addition to this feature, there’s William Friedkin’s 50-minute film of conversations with Fritz Lang in the 1970s, French director Claude Chabrol’s ten-minute remake, several video interviews, and a documentary on the film detailing its first release to its new digital restoration. A detailed and informative historical commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler is one of the best of its kind. Once again Criterion has given new life to a deserving landmark of cinema. The message comes across in every exquisite detail that this company really loves film.

Be sure to watch for: In the middle of chapter 7, Beckert, while roaming the streets of Berlin, stops in front of a store that has geometrically arranged displays of knives in its show window. The camera catches him framed by a reflected knife display, and then switches to his point of view as he sees the reflection of his next victim framed by the same display. Beckert pauses before pursuing his prey, and the camera catches his reflection and bug-eyed expression in a most menacing way. It’s an unforgettable scene. 

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Avatar"

April 2010

201004_avatarJames Cameron's Green-Message Masterpiece Comes to Blu-ray, Bringing New Standards for Reference Video and Audio

20th Century Fox 2265613
Formats: Blu-ray, DVD

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

I’m not going to discuss the plot or analyze the environmental themes embedded in James Cameron's latest science fiction picture, except to say that I think the movie succeeds both in its message and as an epic adventure. What's important here is how Avatar holds up on Blu-ray. And just as the movie set new standards for visuals, you can now include Avatar among Baraka, Up, and WALL-E as one of the few contenders for the "best reference disc" title. If you want to wow your friends and family with your large-screen monitor and multichannel sound system, you won't find a better choice.

The movie has been transferred to Blu-ray in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so it will fill your entire HD widescreen display. I found this very satisfactory, and I didn't feel like I was missing anything from the different aspect ratio used in regular theaters, where the 3D version was 2.35:1. The incredible range of colors is just as eye-popping as it was in the theater, and every scene is packed with impressive HD detail. Moreover, shadow detail is perfect, black level is ideal, and there are no artifacts. The DTS-HD Master Audio sound is also just as good as the picture. The entire 360-degree listening circle is used most of the time, and the sound, whether it’s from quiet wildlife or noisy battles, has wonderful presence. The dialogue is always clear, and scenes with firepower offer some lease-breaking bass without sounding too "bass heavy," as is often the case with SFX films.

There are no extras, but the disc's producers have been quick to point out that there will be a four-disc set down the road, one that will probably contain a slightly longer version of the movie and lots of production featurettes. And though it hasn't been announced, it seems inevitable that there will be a 3D disc set as well -- after all, Avatar was at the center of the theatrical 3D revolution. That's all well and good, but if you need a new state-of-the-art demo disc for your system now, you can't go wrong with this release. A DVD disc is also included, and it's equally impressive -- for DVD. But it's the Blu-ray that raises the bar for audio and video quality. The lack of extras has allowed the entire disc to be dedicated to obtaining ultimate clarity for the film, and that decision has made Avatar the new reference disc on the block.

Be sure to watch for: Avatar is loaded with colors both familiar and not so familiar. And nowhere is this better demonstrated than in chapter 11, when the native woman Neytiri saves avatar Jake from a pack of fierce viperwolves. As the scene begins, it's lit with the angry orange glow of Jake's torch. But after a moment of darkness when Neytiri throws the torch in the water, the scene ends with the more peaceful yet vivid phosphorescent aqua, blue, pink, and purple of Pandora's nighttime forest. Regardless of the color scheme, the shadow detail is reference-level.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"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