"The Hunger Games"

August 2012

The Hunger GamesSuspenseful Fantasy Adventure Receives Excellent Blu-ray Treatment

Lionsgate
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****1/2

Extras
****

The nation of Panem rose from what used to be North America, which war has all but destroyed. The new government, in a massive crowd-control effort, seeks to distract citizens with an annual Hunger Games ceremony in which a male and female teenager from each of the nation's 12 districts compete to the death. The last remaining contestant will be the victor. The others will be mourned.

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"Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax"

August 2012

The LoraxSeuss Story Expanded for a Colorful Blu-ray Experience

Universal 61120933
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
*****

Sound Quality
****1/2

Extras
***1/2

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better. It’s not.
-- Dr. Seuss

The Lorax is one of Dr. Seuss's more somber stories, a cautionary tale that pits corporate greed against nature. It's green to the core, so much so that it has caused quite a bit of controversy since it was published in 1972. The story places the Once-ler against the Lorax (voiced in the movie by Danny DeVito). The latter is a small orange creature with a huge yellow moustache. He's the spirit of the forests who speaks for the trees, whereas the Once-ler is a guy who sees a profit in selling Truffula Tree foliage. The Once-ler ignores the Lorax's warning, only to remember it when the trees are all gone and there is only one seedling left.

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"High Fidelity"

July 2012

High FidelityA Tale of Vinyl and Requited Love Looking Sharp on Blu-ray

Touchstone 109815
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
***

John Cusack has made many an awful movie tolerable by displaying a winning personality and contributing an impeccable performance. Hot Tub Time Machine comes to mind. But in 2000 he fronted this charming comedy and first-rate film as a most appealing leading man. Cusack plays Rob Gordon, the owner of a dingy, dirty, yet dynamic record shop. Rob is a likable guy, but he has trouble with women and relationships. Laura, girlfriend number six (Danish blonde Iben Hjejle), is in the process of breaking up with him to go live with Ian "Ray" Raymond (Tim Robbins with a pony tail!).

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"Down by Law"

July 2012

Down by LawA Loveable, Offbeat Film with Heart and Perfect Widescreen Picture Composition

The Criterion Collection 166
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
****

Extras
****

Down by Law has stood the test of time to become an offbeat masterpiece. Director Jim Jarmusch pulled it off by casting two musicians (John Lurie and Tom Waits) and an Italian comedian then unknown in America (Roberto Benigni), using black-and-white photography by Robby Müller, and location shooting in New Orleans with its surrounding swamps. Though it has a plot, Down by Law is more of a character and mood study than a narrative film.

Three eccentrics, Zack, Jack, and Roberto (Waits, Lurie, and Benigni), end up in a New Orleans jail. After a long period of getting to know each other, they decide to escape together and they take off across the Louisiana swamps, where one of them finds the American Dream. The three are oddballs in spades. Zack is an alcoholic ex-disc jockey who is conned into driving a stolen car across town and parking it in a new location, not knowing there's a dead man in the trunk. Jack is a pimp, but an unusual one who never hits his girls. Roberto is a lost Italian tourist who carries a notebook of American slang phrases in his pocket, and he's prone to using the wrong phrase at the wrong time.

The casting couldn't be better. Musicians Waits and Lurie were well known at the time, but not for their acting abilities. A musician himself, Jarmusch enjoys this type of potentially risky casting. This movie also marked the first American appearance of Roberto Benigni, whose shtick was still fresh and had yet to become a tiresome parody of itself. Taken as a trio, the stars are charismatic and appealing.

Cinematographer Müller films everything with flair and assurance. A lot of movies have used the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but only a handful seem to have really needed widescreen. In shot after shot, Müller’s work fully justifies that choice. This movie might well serve as a model on scene composition.

Criterion already had a very good DVD of this movie in its catalog, but the Blu-ray improves on it with a virtually pristine black-and-white picture containing great detail and perfect contrast. The mono audio soundtrack is alive and clear with lots of presence, and the music and dialogue are perfectly balanced. About 25 minutes from the end I remembered that the movie isn't in stereo, much less surround, and I didn't miss those elements at all. The extras are carried over from the DVD release, which includes, most importantly, an in-depth interview with Müller. There's also a Jarmusch-directed music video for Tom Waits's cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me." If anyone gets this, let me know. It left me scratching my head.

Down by Law is off the beaten track, but just about anyone can enjoy it. Its fugitive-escape narrative is tempered at heart with a kind humor that's more gray than black. Everyone in the technical departments, both the original artists and the transfer team, proves that an indie film doesn't have to look and sound bad to be successful. Rent first, but I have a feeling you'll want to buy it soon after, as Down by Law holds up well to repeated viewing.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 4 finds Zack on a trash-littered street corner with a poster on the right and the connecting street on the left. Look at the depth of field and the composition, which make the best possible use of the widescreen aspect ratio. The shadow composition and detail are also impressive.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Yellow Submarine"

July 2012

Yellow SubmarineThis Blu-ray Restoration Is a Resounding Success

Apple 50999621 46098
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2

Picture Quality
****1/2

Sound Quality
*****

Extras
****

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea
And he told us of his life
In the land of submarines
So we sailed up to the sun
Till we found a sea of green
And we lived beneath the waves
In our yellow submarine

The famous Beatles song conjures visions of colors both intense and unexpected. We all know that submarines aren't supposed to be yellow, but the one in this animated classic is, in different shades too, and with red piping. The new 4K Blu-ray transfer, meticulously cleaned up by hand, frame by frame, abounds with vivid, eye-catching colors that pop in HD.

The plot is simple. The Blue Meanies have invaded Pepperland, home of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and brought a monochrome look to a once colorful world. Since they bear an uncanny resemblance to the members of the band (being really one and the same), the Beatles are brought to Pepperland aboard a yellow submarine in order to save the day. On the way to their destination, they pass through various seas and undertake different adventures. These mostly serve to set up performances of some of the Beatles' best songs.

Everything is colorful, even the villains. The Blue Meanies have dark blue bodies; stockings that are striped red, orange, and yellow; and blue faces with prominent red lips, yellow teeth, and lolling red tongues! We learn in the extras that these nasty folks were originally meant to be red, but a copyist accidentally colored them blue and the look stuck. Overall the movie paid tribute to the psychedelic craze of the '60s and broke new ground for animation. It now stands as a milestone in the history of animation, a rock-solid production that's just as entertaining today as when it was released.

Yellow SubmarineThe restoration is a revelation in many ways. The picture is free from any dirt or grit, except for two brief moments of shimmer during part of the "Sea of Holes" sequence. It is beyond reproach, state of the art, a real knockout. The sound, which is just as impressive, is presented in the original mono, PCM stereo, and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. In the DTS-HD mix the voices are crystal clear, the instruments solid, and the imaging exceptionally imaginative. Sounds emanate not only from the rear but also from different places on the side of the soundfield, where there are no speakers in my 5.1 system! In fact the vocals, dialogue, and sound effects never seemed to be coming from any speaker at all, but from pinpointed locations spread around the 360-degree field.

The extras include an in-depth commentary with production supervisor John Coates, with an ending bit by designer Heinz Edelmann; a period featurette; the original trailer; storyboard sequences; original pencil drawings; and more. Also included are reproductions of transparent animation cells of each of the four Beatles, collectible stickers, and a beautifully designed booklet with a forward by Pixar's John Lasseter.

Yellow Submarine on Blu-ray is a disc that can be enjoyed over and over for its entertainment value, but for those with serious home-theater systems it is a must as a demonstration disc. Play "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" or "Eleanor Rigby" and watch everyone's eyes light up as they're seduced into rapt attention. It's destined to be one of the discs of the year when awards time rolls around.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 5: Sunrise in London reveals more and more shadow detail as the sun rises. Loud toots from factory whistles and we're into "Eleanor Rigby" in the best mix I've ever heard, even better than that on the newly mastered CDs.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"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

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