"Barbarella"

July 2012

BarbarellaJunk or Junque?

Paramount 14664
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
***1/2

Extras
1/2

There's junk and then there's junque. Some of us might call the latter a guilty pleasure, and for me 1968's Barbarella surely falls into that category. Objectively I'd use a string of derogatory adjectives to cite the movie's mistakes, missteps, and misalignments. But on a personal level, I love Barbarella. It pairs with Flash Gordon (the feature-length color movie) as one of the best brainless yet appealing space operas ever made. Roger Vadim was the director, and he attempted to do for his third wife, Jane Fonda, what he had done for his first wife, Brigitte Bardot, by reducing her to a blonde sex object. Barbarella was based on a French comic strip of the same name, created by Jean-Claude Forest in 1962.

The opening striptease aboard Barbarella's ship, greatly aided by zero gravity, is a soft-porn classic, and Vadim goes to great lengths to unclothe Barbarella (to call Jane Fonda's outfits skimpy would be an understatement) for the rest of the film. But despite his efforts, Fonda's wide-eyed innocence makes us like her as kitten just as much as sex kitten. She lights up the screen, so it's very fortunate that she's onscreen almost the entire time.

The only actor to steal equal time from Fonda is David Hemmings as Dildano, an impotent revolutionary. The ten-minute scene for Barbarella and Dildano is the best part of the movie. Milo O'Shea is also very effective as the villain, Dr. Durand-Durand, his character influencing rock band Duran Duran, who dropped the hyphen and changed the spelling.

Like Flash Gordon, Barbarella is a feast for the eyes as far as color is concerned. The design reminded me of early Technicolor with its bold colors and clashing palettes, often shot against a shag-carpet background. Shags were popular in the 1960s and also very inexpensive. Barbarella's ship is wall-to-wall shag, which no doubt helped the producers keep costs down. The outrageous colors of Barbarella have been successfully brought to the Blu-ray Disc, which boasts a rich and detailed picture belying the original's age. The soundtrack is perfectly adequate for dialogue and the outright cheesy music score. Paramount, by the way, remains one of the few producers to choose Dolby TrueHD over DTS-HD MA. The sole extra, a trailer for the film, is scarcely worth mentioning.

Since new generations have probably never seen Barbarella, I'd advise a rental rather than a purchase until you decide whether the campy movie is junk or junque.

Be sure to watch for: One of Barbarella's first big adventures happens on an ice planet, where she meets a group of bad children who remote-control even worse dolls. As the dolls approach, the camera gets closer and we clearly see their metallic, razor-sharp teeth. This is a genuinely frightening scene, and the only one in the movie that really scares.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Shallow Grave"

June 2012

Shallow GraveMoney Powers a Downhill Thrill Ride

The Criterion Collection 616
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
****

Extras
***1/2

In choosing scripts, director Danny Boyle has pursued several different paths, but one theme he returns to is money and what it does to those who acquire it. This idea drives Shallow Grave (1994), Boyle's impressive first film, and recurs in Millions (2004) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). The latter two aren't nearly as nasty as the first, which is a jolt of adrenaline administered with glee. It's a nasty, taut, thriller with a literate script, flawless ensemble acting, breathless pacing, and spooky camera angles. I remember surrendering totally when I first saw it, saying to myself (and others) -- that director is one to watch. Shallow Grave blew me away then, and Danny Boyle is still a director to watch.

Shallow Grave focuses on three 20-something roommates living in a spacious apartment in Glasgow. Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox) is a doctor, David Stephens (Christopher Eccleston) is an accountant, and Alex Law (Ewan McGregor in an impressive feature-film debut) is a somewhat sleazy journalist. At the beginning of the film, the three interview prospects to fill a spot as their fourth roommate. The nod goes to Hugo (Keith Allen) who dies right after moving in, leaving behind a mysterious suitcase full of money, no doubt procured through illegal activities.

The three spend very little time before deciding to do the next wrong thing -- they'll chop Hugo up, bury him, and keep the money. This decision starts the ball rolling downhill for the hapless trio, but to tell more would be to spoil the suspense and fun. Shallow Grave is a cruel black comedy with terribly acerbic jokes. The most memorable occurs as Juliet begins to think she can't go through with butchering Hugo and Alex quips, "But you're a doctor, you kill people every day." The three roomies are not terribly nice people, but they're interesting and their actions, interactions, and antics will hold you in rapt attention until the very last frame.

As expected, Criterion has done a bang-up transfer for Shallow Grave, providing a rich and colorful picture that has the sharpest detail and a soundtrack that is clarity itself. It's no wonder that many folks tried to buy the apartment, not realizing that it was actually a set. It looks that coherent and appealing.

Director Boyle narrates one commentary track, and producer Andrew MacDonald and writer John Hodge handle the other. Both tracks are amiable, enthusiastic, informative, and well worth hearing. Other extras include interviews with the principal actors, a 1993 documentary on making the film, a video diary from the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival, a trailer, and a written essay by critic Philip Kemp.

If you haven't seen Shallow Grave, put this Criterion edition on your "must see" list. If you've already seen it, you might very well have it at home already. It's one of those movies you can lose yourself in for many hours.

Be sure to watch for: As Hugo is going through the interview process, he's asked if he has killed anyone and we see a flashback to an ATM robbery in which someone was bludgeoned to death. We see it, though, from inside the ATM machine, with all the words on its screen properly backwards. Nowadays we know that these machines contain security cameras that film every transaction, but back then it was a novel idea to show the scene from this perspective.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Accident"

June 2012

AccidentA Stylish Thriller from Hong Kong

Shout! Factory SF 13263
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
*1/2

Hong Kong director Pou-Soi Cheang came to Accident with the highly regarded Shamo and Dog Bite Dog under his belt. He is credited simply as Soi Cheang for this film, which is a stylish, suspenseful, and twisting thriller that's marred only by its ending. That said, this 2009 movie is well worth seeing for its impressive build up and its clever, intricate set pieces.

Ho Kwok-fai (Louis Koo), "The Brain," is a professional hit man running a crew of hit men who create assassinations that look like accidents. Their hits are carefully choreographed in the manner of the Final Destination movies. Event one causes event two, which causes event three, which causes event four, which causes the murder, and no one can tie the final action back to the first. But when one of the assassinations goes wrong, Brain is convinced it's because someone else choreographed the failure. He becomes so paranoid that he identifies, for no particularly good reason, Chan Fong-chow (Richie Ren, listed in the film credits as Richie Jen) as the mastermind trying to flip his lucrative cat-and-mouse business on its back.

All the events are shot in state-of-the-art video that delineates every detail, even in shadows. Color is slightly desaturated but still warm enough with excellent skin tones. The sound is very precise, and the viewer is aware that every drop of rain, every screeching tire, each body thud, and every piece of shattered glass has been carefully placed within the 360-degree soundfield. The music, often dropped in favor of sound effects, is also precise in reinforcing the visuals.

Accident is presented in the original Cantonese DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack, with crisp, easy-to-read subtitles. There is no English-dubbed track, but since much of the mood is created without dialogue, strangers to subtitling will never feel like they're "reading a movie." The one extra, a short production featurette, isn't so bad, but for American audiences the inclusion of something more about the excellent actors and Hong Kong cinema in general would have been worthwhile.

With its amazing camera angles and its tight, rat-a-tat editing, Accident is long on style with content to match, until the end, which suddenly turns romantic and is almost apologetic in its denouement. But surely this was planned, too, or was it just meant to look like another accident?

Be sure to watch for: One of the biggest set pieces happens at midpoint in the film during a driving rainstorm. Though the rain is coming down in sheets, with sound helping to make it feel quite tangible, details of the action are perfectly clear. It's a very impressive scene, and one that sticks in the memory.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Secret World of Arrietty"

May 2012

The Secret World of ArriettyLyrical Animation from Studio Ghibli

Disney 108558
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
****1/2

Extras
**1/2

Studio Ghibli is to Japan as Disney is to America, so it seems entirely appropriate that Disney started releasing Ghibli animated films in the United States. Until now, most of the Japanese studio's films have been under the thumb of master animator Hayao Miyazaki. The Secret World of Arrietty marks the first time Ghibli has gone out of the gate with a largely different production crew. Hiromasa Yonebayashi directs well for his first feature-length assignment, no doubt tethered to the Ghibli tradition by Miyazaki's poetic screenplay.

Miyazaki and his partner Isao Takahata built a firm foundation for Studio Ghibli and added personnel who are devoted to the studio's style of animation and can execute it with thorough professionalism. The filmmakers do well enough with storytelling, but not on the masterful level of Pixar, or even Disney, for that matter. It is possible, then, that one might remember the look of a Ghibli film more than its characters or content. It's a look that beautifully shows off the HD video format when experienced through Blu-ray Disc.

The Secret World of Arrietty is very loosely based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Its focus is on little people who live beneath the floorboards of human houses. Their world looks very much like ours in many ways, and they are called "borrowers" because they borrow items from their unsuspecting human host family that will not be missed: a lump of sugar, spices, thread, needles -- almost any household item that they need. Arrietty (voiced by Mirai Shida in the native Japanese release and Bridgit Mendler in the English-language dub) is a young girl of the little people who lives in such a house with her mother and father. One day a human boy comes to stay in the house, and we learn that he has a heart condition and has been brought to the country to rest and gather energy for his operation. He sees Arrietty and, against convention (and a huge difference in size), the two become friends. Arrietty helps the boy gain emotional strength that will help him through his operation, while she and her family struggle to move to a new location (once seen by a human, the film tells us, the little people have to move on).

Disney has been reluctant to release Ghibli films in the US with their original Japanese soundtracks and subtitles, as we would expect a live-action film to be handled. The studio has instead opted to make English versions with well-known American stars. They have, however, provided the original soundtracks on their Ghibli DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases, as well as the English subtitles needed by most if they watch the movies with the Japanese soundtrack enabled (I am told that often these subtitles are translations of the English dub, not the original Japanese). I'm of a mind that the original Japanese is the way to go. Dearly as I love Carol Burnett and Amy Poehler, they just don't seem right as Japanese characters, and too much subtlety is lost in translation. Both the Japanese and English soundtracks are DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, so you can choose without sacrificing the overall sound format.

The video is luscious, with all the rich color shadings intact as well as magnificent shadow detail and perfect contrast. Ghibli artists perfectly capture all the subtle shades in one color; their movies are perfect for checking your color saturation. Whether reproducing the dulcet rustling of grass or the boom of thunder, the soundtrack handles everything well, with a good nod to 360-degree atmospheric sounds throughout most of the film. The somewhat curious yet appealing Japanese-Gaelic music sounds just fine. The extras are slim. There's a feature with the original Japanese storyboards, and there are a couple of entirely lame music videos along with the original Japanese trailers.

If you haven't seen a Ghibli Studios film, check this one out. Then hunt for the studio's real masterpieces: Howl's Moving Castle, Porco Rosso, and Spirited Away. These aren't available on Blu-ray yet, but they're pretty sure bets for future releases.

Be sure to watch for: There's a visually delightful scene at almost any point in this visually stimulating movie, but I was particularly taken with one at the end of the film. As Arrietty, her parents, and her friend Spiller are floating down the river in a teapot, Arrietty looks down and sees a fish swimming in unison with them beneath the water. For me that was a moment of pure magic.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Buck Privates"

April 2012

Buck PrivatesAn HD Version of the Classic That Launched Abbott and Costello's Career

Universal 61121092
Format: Blu-ray

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

Universal Studios is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year by restoring many of its classics and releasing them in handsome Blu-ray book editions. So far we've had Out of Africa, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Big Lebowski, and All Quiet on the Western Front. Now we have Buck Privates, the first movie about the draft and the film that shot Bud Abbott and Lou Costello into superstardom. Though the movie is a comedy, and much of it slapstick, at its core it's emphatically patriotic, and audiences craved a big dose of patriotism after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Mostly a series of vignettes that happen after Abbott and Costello are drafted into the army, Buck Privates was a social phenomenon, but taken overall as a movie it's merely very good. That said, it contains some five-star moments. Some of these have to do with Abbott and Costello's word-play classics, such as "Dice Game" and "You're Forty, She's Ten." Some of the slapstick is classic as well, such as the scene where Costello is being drilled with other recruits and can't remember left from right. Some of the biggest moments come from the Andrews Sisters, the popular singing trio that became voices from home during the darkest hours of World War II. The scenes filmed here are among the trio's best, particularly their harmonies in "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Apple Blossom Time."

Universal's restoration is most impressive. This Blu-ray ranks up there with Casablanca and Criterion's best black-and-white titles. The opening scenes predict what is to come. The movie opens on the street in front of an army recruiting center where there's a big crowd of men, mostly wearing suits (as was the fashion then). You see tweeds, plaids, stripes, and paisley patterns, not to mention the uniforms, both police and military. There's such high definition and perfect contrast that you can sense the texture of each piece of clothing. Throughout the movie you'll find that same excellent definition and contrast, though a few of the scenes in the army camp are a little blurred. The mono sound has been cleaned up so that the dialogue is easily heard without any hiss and the Andrews Sisters sound amazingly clean and clear.

Buck Privates bookNot all of the extras are interesting. "100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters" is a piece of promotional fluff, but "100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics" is worthwhile. We're told in general how the films are restored, and the extra contains the best explanation of grain that I've heard. There's also a pretty interesting, if not deep, extra on Carl Laemmle, the eccentric founder of Universal Studios. Last but not at all least, we find a curious little 1993 documentary (in color except for the film clips), Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld, which has a lot of scatter-shot snippets from Abbott and Costello classics, including their television show.

The Blu-ray book packaging is sturdy, attractive, and substantial, and its pages contain Abbott and Costello bios as well as those of the leading players. There’s also text of two of the famous routines -- "Dice Game" and "Drill." Many pages of the original press book are reproduced, as are a half-dozen or more original posters. You'll either view Buck Privates as dated or as a fascinating trip back to a different time, seen clearly in HD. Take the latter route and spend an enjoyable evening with two of the greatest comics of all time (OK, three if you include Seinfeld, who appears in the extras).

Be sure to watch for: During the opening scenes mentioned above, the camera discovers a large group of men being sold a bill of goods by huckster Abbott. Abbott is in the distance, with the men huddled around him toward the foreground. The Blu-ray definition is so good here that the scene has palpable three-dimensionality.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol"

April 2012

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost ProtocolEverything Falls into Place for the Best Mission Yet

Paramount 14626
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

The Mission: Impossible franchise, in which Tom Cruise has served as both star and producer, has had its up and downs. Each film has had a different high-profile director, with Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams helming the first three. For number four we have Brad Bird, and everything has finally clicked. But wait, you might have said (and might still if you didn't see this movie last summer in a theater), doesn't Brad Bird direct cartoons? Well, yes, he has directed some of Pixar Animation Studios' best movies, and this is his first live-action film. Then again, one of those animated features, The Incredibles, is one of the best action-adventure flicks of all time. It just happens to be animated.

With Bird on board and Cruise totally involved as usual, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol is an action movie that works on all levels. It has big set pieces featuring seemingly impossible daredevil stunts, tension and suspense, exotic locations, and an intense hand-to-hand fight for a finale. In its scope and precision it reminded me a bit of a Bond movie without all the froth, or a Bourne movie with a larger budget.

The plot is simple yet detailed. The team is trying to stop a madman from obtaining codes that will let him hijack a satellite and fire deadly missiles that will rid the earth (in his mind) of pesky human beings. Cruise once again plays Ethan Hunt, and his dynamic team consists of beautiful Jane Carter (Paula Patton), computer geek Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Pegg, who often adds levity at just the right moment, seems set to play for a while in this franchise as well as another one, Star Trek, in which he plays Scotty. The focus in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol is on Cruise, who certainly earns it with an impassioned, committed, and athletic performance, but Pegg also deserves special mention, as do Patton and Renner.

This movie was a huge hit on the big screen, and it's pretty magnificent on home video. Last week I saw War Horse, which was acclaimed as a demonstration disc, and this one's just about as good, with perhaps better video. Only a few soft interiors knock a half star off the picture rating, but most of the time, especially in outdoor scenes and flyover shots, the picture is incredibly sharp and clear. The sound is big with lots of things going on in the surrounds, though there are suspenseful moments where silence creates tension that's peppered with edgy noises. As a whole, the soundtrack is entirely appropriate for whatever scene it accompanies, as is the score by Michael Giacchino. Everything in this film works together hand in glove.

The extras are contained on a second Blu-ray Disc and divided into several categories: "Mission Accepted" (three featurettes about daily filming and SFX); "Impossible Missions" (shorter featurettes on various aspects of filming, including one on Giacchino and the music); and deleted scenes (with commentary from Bird). There's also a theatrical trailer.

If you have a big screen and a taste for action-adventure films, this Blu-ray is a must to own or rent. It will likely lose a lot on a small screen, so try to see it on a large one -- it's one of the best action films to come along in several years. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: watch it and enjoy.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 2, during the first big attempted heist of the movie, Carter is in a brick tunnel with a flashlight. Notice the detail of the bricks, the shadow detail, and the contrast, which are all A-plus. This ought to be a good scene for checking your system's resolution and contrast.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"War Horse"

April 2012

War HorseA Blockbuster Home-Theater Demo Disc for the Whole Family

Touchstone 109482
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

War Horse started as a novel for young people by Michael Morpurgo. Nick Stafford then adapted the story for the stage, and we now have this sweeping, romantic film, directed by Steven Spielberg with a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. With its sweeping vistas, large scope, and undiluted sentiment, it seems a tribute to John Ford, particularly the final scene.

As the movie opens we see a colt being born on a hillside in Devon, England. We are then introduced to Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), who names the horse Joey and quickly bonds with him. Times get hard for the Narracotts, and as the World War I begins Joey is sold to the army. The handsome horse starts a journey that takes him to France and the middle of the war, then back to England again. Along the way Joey meets memorable characters who take care of him in their own ways. War is the villain in War Horse, as we're shown good and likable people on both the English and German sides.

The movie is adroitly cast with actors who seem to have lived in their parts as much as their well-worn costumes. Emily Watson is perhaps the best known, but many faces might look familiar. Contributing to the film's authentic feel is the fact that English actors play English characters and Germans play Germans.

The amazing photography of Janusz Kaminski finds its way to Blu-ray Disc looking quite impressive. The opening scenes of the English countryside are colorful in a travel-bureau way; the fields, moors, and quaint cottages and towns look like places you'd want to visit. When the British army gets to Europe, the colors become more muted, and for the grim scenes of battle they become cold, gray, and brown, with little relief. It's a variable setup that suits the action and works magnificently well in underscoring different moods.

The audio is flawless. The surrounds add a lot of atmosphere, and the dialogue is clean and easy to understand. Near the end of the movie there's a battle scene in "no man's land" that has incredibly loud and accurate gunfire, especially that of the howitzers. It was so real that I could imagine acrid gunpowder hanging heavy in the air. My cat took off to his secret hiding place, and that might be a warning to parents with young children. This is a family film, but the intensity of some scenes should be screened in advance. Teens should have no problems.

That hurdle overcome, War Horse proves to be a blockbuster home-theater demonstration title for the whole family. Its anti-war stance can provide good family discussion material, while its sweeping vistas and incredible sound mix will draw everyone in as the story races to a joyous conclusion that will leave your heart in your throat. Experiencing this wonder will have you asking, as I did, why Hollywood stopped making feel-good films like this one.

The four-disc set, which I reviewed, puts the Blu-ray movie on the first disc, the extras on a second Blu-ray disc, a DVD version of the film on the third, and a digital copy on the fourth. The extras pertain to the making of the film, and they're professional in every way. I especially enjoyed the one that shows John Williams conducting his magnificent score.

Be sure to watch for: Scene 11 opens with marching shadows as the camera tilts up to show the soldiers casting them. Spielberg does that often in this film, focusing first on what you might not expect to see and then revealing it as part of something you were expecting.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"A Night to Remember"

March 2012

A Night to RememberA Stunning Video Transfer Graces This Criterion Release

The Criterion Collection 7
Format: Blu-ray

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

On April 15 of this year, we'll celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic, a catastrophic event that claimed 1517 lives and changed the way we look at safety on the high seas. Leading up to the anniversary, several major events are planned. James Cameron will host a National Geographic show on April 8 that purports to be the final word on the event. Cameron assembled a prestigious team and invested many man-hours into the effort. At the same time, Cameron will re-release his Academy Award-winning film from 1997 in 3D. On April 14, the anniversary of the Titanic's collision with the iceberg, and April 15, the day it sank, ABC will air a new miniseries.

First at the gate, however, is Criterion's new Blu-ray of the black-and-white classic, A Night to Remember, which will hit stores on March 27. It was first theatrically released in 1958 and is perhaps the most accurate and least romantic telling of the story (of course Cameron's findings might change a lot of that). That's not to say, however, that this film has no feeling -- there are poignant vignettes that stick in the memory, such as a father kissing his sleeping son as he places him in a lifeboat, knowing he himself will stay behind to drown.

The commentary by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall (author and artist of Titanic: An Illustrated History) helpfully points out which parts of the film are accurate and which combine events or rely on supposition. Marschall is a member of Cameron's team, so it will be interesting to see if he has to refute himself once the National Geographic special has aired. It seems clear from his Criterion commentary, recorded in 1994, that he and Lynch felt that much careful research went into making A Night to Remember, and that most sets looked exactly like the real thing.

I personally find it amazing that such an accurate portrayal could be presented without the tools of today. The Titanic used in the movie is a huge model, over 30' long, and there are high-quality special effects. There were no digital assists back then. The acting is superb with a cast taken mostly from a British pool of character actors, but you'll be able to put names to a few faces, such as soon-to-be-Bond-girl Honor Blackman, and David McCallum, who still enjoys a busy professional career playing on today's hit show NCIS. Roy Ward Baker's direction is crisp and well paced, and though we all know the inevitable ending, he builds a keen sense of suspense throughout the film.

Criterion's black-and-white picture for A Night to Remember is about as good as it gets. The picture is sharp and clear, damage has been banished from the frame, and contrast is spot on. Shadow detail is excellent, which is important as so much of the story happens at night (the real event would have been more frightening, as it was a moonless night). The sound has been cleaned up and restored to a clean monaural track that's clear for dialogue and satisfactory for sound effects as well as William Alwyn's music score.

In addition to the excellent commentary, there's a 1993 documentary on making the film, a lengthy interview with survivor Eva Hart, a 1962 Swedish documentary commemorating the 50-year anniversary, and a fascinating BBC documentary (in color) on the iceberg's journey from birth to shipping lanes. There's also a handsome booklet with period art, photos, and an essay by Michael Sragow, a writer for the Baltimore Sun.

James Cameron's film, with its fictional love story, is sweeping and romantic, but I feel that A Night to Remember better conveys the actual event. It makes a wonderful impression in Criterion's stunning edition.

Be sure to watch for: The opening shot of chapter 24 is a close-up of the Titanic’s hull with lifeboats lowering and rowing away. Look for the great moving shadow on the bottom right of the frame and the detail in the ropes lowering the boats.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"To Catch a Thief"

March 2012

To Catch a ThiefCary Grant and Grace Kelly Sizzle on the French Riviera

Paramount 14637
Format: Blu-ray

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

During the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock produced a cornucopia of classic films -- Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959), with Psycho and The Birds still to come in the '60s. All of these films are critically acclaimed masterpieces, and smack dab in the middle of this prestigious collection is To Catch a Thief (1955). Though not as great as the others, the movie has its following, largely, I think, because of its two stars: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

Grant was coaxed out of self-imposed retirement to play John Robie, a reformed jewel thief who had been a hero for France in World War II and who's now a suspect in a rash of burglaries. Kelly was on her third (and as it turned out, her last) outing with Hitchcock, who had cast her twice before as his ideal blonde heroine. After Kelly went off to become Princess Grace of Monaco, Hitchcock would work with Doris Day, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedren. They were all very good but never recreated the magic that Hitchcock found in Kelly.

Though Grant was nearly twice as old as Kelly, the two sizzle together in a debonair and elegant manner as a couple with instant chemistry. Since the censors were bent on making this film adhere to code standards, Hitchcock had his way by stuffing it full of sexual innuendos. A film made today will have more nudity and sex, but it will have to strain to be sexier than Grant, Kelly, and fireworks over the Mediterranean.

There are some fine character actors (such as Jessie Royce Landis and John Williams) in To Catch a Thief, but the third star, after Grant and Kelly, is the French Riviera, photographed with loving care by Robert Burks, who won an Oscar for his efforts. I remember this movie as one that justified the high-definition VistaVision process, and seeing the image on a 65" screen in an excellent Blu-ray transfer solidifies that impression. The sweeping outdoor photography is often breathtaking, and the loving close-ups of Kelly are just as impressive in a different way.

The first 20 minutes of this movie have given home video viewers fits because of the moiré patterns caused by Grant's shirt, with its closely spaced horizontal stripes. I'd like to be able to tell you the effect has been cleared up, but such is not the case. The distracting shimmer is still there, though not nearly as pronounced as in earlier VHS and DVD releases.

The sound is Dolby TrueHD in stereo, and it's clean and crisp. A great deal of the movie has no music and is devoted to the smart script by John Michael Hayes, so it's good that dialogue can be easily understood. There are quite a few extras, many of them featuring Hitchcock's daughter, Pat, who sheds light on the making of the movie as well as life at home with Hitchcock as a father. There are more featurettes, as well as a commentary with Hitchcock historian Dr. Drew Casper. My favorite is the 15-minute featurette on Edith Head, the greatest costume designer that Hollywood has ever known.

To Catch a Thief is not quite what you'd expect from "the master of suspense," but it's sassy and smart, always beautiful to look at, and worth seeing for Grant, Kelly, and the Riviera.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 5 opens with a high-perspective long shot of a huge flower market. The leaves on the trees are clear, a lamp in the foreground is sharply delineated, and a background building, perhaps a quarter mile away, is also well defined. The colorful, postcard-perfect scene has a great sense of depth and is most impressive.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Dangerous Liaisons"

February 2012

Dangerous LiaisonsA Literate Film Well Worth Seeing Again

Warner Home Video 21997-1
Format: Blu-ray

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

Returning to a film you haven't seen in 25 years can be interesting. Will you enjoy it as much as you once did? In my case, Dangerous Liaisons not only lived up to my expectations; it surpassed them. I remembered the somewhat glib surface, but I'd forgotten (or never noticed) the dark undertone of the script, which dissects the nature of cruelty.

Set in pre-revolutionary France, the movie is based on Christopher Hampton's play, which was in turn based on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. We're introduced to the two main characters at the beginning of the movie when we see their elaborate daily dressing ritual. The Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (John Malkovich) were once lovers but now bide their decadent time by destroying the relationships and lives of others. To them it is a game, but we soon learn that their actions are really more sinister and can produce unwarranted tragedy.

Close and Malkovich are ideal in their parts, savoring the delicious verbal barbs given to them, but there are many times when we need nothing more than a close-up of their faces to understand their characters. Michelle Pfeiffer is radiant as the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, who will not at first succumb to the Valmont's advances, and Uma Thurman, just starting in movies, is beguiling as Cécile, who not only gives in to Valmont’s instruction but also learns to enjoy seduction as a way to handle men.

The movie looks splendid in this Blu-ray transfer. Film fans will be happy to see grain and will note that Warner Brothers resisted the temptation to hone the picture with digital enhancement. The sharp detail in the costumes, wigs, lace, and embroidery doesn't need any help. The soundtrack is crisp and clear, involving mainly the front three channels, where dialogue is easy to understand. In the back you'll find only ambience for George Fenton's period-perfect music.

The only extras on this Blu-ray Disc are a trailer and commentary with director Stephen Frears and screenplay author Christopher Hampton. The latter is informative and surprisingly low key. Buy this Blu-ray not for the extras, but for the outstanding performances by Close and Malkovich and for the wickedly subtle script, all of which stand up to repeated viewings.

Be sure to watch for: There's one duel in the movie, but I won't tell you who wins in case you've never seen it. The fight takes place in the snow, and we see the loser from above with his attendant and opponent huddled around him. The flowing clothing is black, the snow is white, and the blood is red. It's an unforgettable scene, beautiful in its depiction of horror, like a death flower blooming in the snow.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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