Lady Antebellum: "Live: On This Winter’s Night"

December 2013

Live: On This Winter's NightDown-Home Christmas from Nashville

Eagle Vision 334779
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
****

In a very short period of time, Lady Antebellum has become a huge success. Formed in 2006, the pop-country trio has won a slew of awards including several Grammy Awards. Country artists typically have a much closer relationship with their audiences, so they regard Live: On This Winter’s Night as a way of giving back to fans.

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Tchaikovsky: "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"

December 2013

The Nutcracker and the Mouse KingA Superb Nutcracker with a Dutch Twist or Two

Arthaus Musik 108 087
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
***

Tchaikovsky's suite from The Nutcracker was a big success initially, but the complete full-length ballet was something of a flop in its premiere performances. It took George Balanchine and his New York City Ballet to put it on the map. That version had its first performance in 1954, and it had such an influence that almost every town or city in the United States now has performances of The Nutcracker during the holiday season. The ballet is so popular that a few sources indicate that performances of it by major American ballet companies account for 40 percent of annual ticket sales of the genre.

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"Sherlock: Season Two"

May 2012

Sherlock: Season TwoSherlock Holmes Successfully Enters the 21st Century

BBC Worldwide Ltd.
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****

Picture Quality
****

Sound Quality
****

Extras
***

At the moment we have not one, but two updated versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective series vying for attention. Though they have a lot in common, there's one big difference. Guy Ritchie's movies with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law use 21st-century storytelling devices and style, while the actors are dressed in authentic period costumes. BBC's Sherlock often uses similar cinematic devices, but it has moved the stories to modern day. Both versions are snappy, witty, adventurous, and suspenseful, yet they exhibit great affection and respect for the originals. I wasn't surprised to find the trailer for Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on this two-disc BBC Blu-ray Disc set of the second season of Sherlock. They go together well.

Sherlock's stories are modern versions of the originals by Doyle, though in the first season several minor stories were incorporated into larger movies. Yes, movies. Each Sherlock episode is 90 minutes long and has the pacing of a theatrical film. The second season tackles three of the most famous stories and renames them: "A Scandal in Bohemia" becomes "A Scandal in Belgravia," The Hound of the Baskervilles becomes "The Hounds of Baskerville," and "The Final Problem" is presented as "The Reichenbach Fall."

Benedict Cumberbatch once again plays Sherlock as an icy egomaniac who isn't happy with life unless he can prove that he knows more about everything than anyone else. Yet we sense a gentle side of him that he keeps a secret, even from himself. Martin Freeman is an intelligent Dr. John Watson. Returning from the military, he ends up staying with Holmes at 221B Baker Street and assisting in his investigations. Both are refreshingly young, and neither is aware that they've started a friendship that will last a lifetime until The Reichenbach Fall.

Russell Tovey, the young man from Being Human with the terminally cute protruding ears, is on hand as Henry Knight in "The Hounds of Baskerville," and True Blood's sexy Lara Pulver is red hot as dominatrix Irene Adler, the only woman who proves to be Sherlock's equal. The script is full of rapid-fire dialogue; Holmes's virtuoso deductions are showstoppers, and in case we miss anything there's often a text overlay of their main points on the screen. Perhaps the biggest modernization is the cell phone. Wait until you hear Irene's voluptuous ringtone!

The three movie-length episodes have high production values and are perfect in their contrast, detail, skin tone, and shadow detail. Some darker scenes aren't pristine, but by and large the picture is above satisfactory. The audio tracks are clean, clear, and atmospheric; anything beyond what they are would no doubt be a distraction. The extras are a little lean, consisting of a short production featurette and two commentary tracks, which feature different mixes of cast and crew.

If you like Ritchie's theatrical movies about Sherlock Holmes, there's a 99.9 percent chance that you'll love Sherlock. In my estimation it's one of the most successful updating efforts ever achieved onscreen.

Be sure to watch for: All of Sherlock is demo material. I particularly like 17 minutes into chapter 2 of "The Hounds of Baskerville," when Holmes and Watson enter a local pub seeking information. The place is so tangible that you can almost smell the beer, and you can surely read the brands sold and revel in the detail of the barkeep's plaid shirt.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Frozen Planet"

April 2012

Frozen PlanetThe Latest, and Best, of BBC's Nature Series

BBC Earth
Format: Blu-ray

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

One of the supplements on this magnificent three-disc set is "Frozen Planet: The Epic Journey." You might want to call it "Frozen Planet Lite," since it shows highlights of the first six parts of the series. I found myself wishing I had watched it first, like a very long trailer, but others might prefer to watch it after, as a remembrance of favorite scenes.

And what memories! Penguins springing out of the water and onto the ice; narwhals, the unicorns of the sea, traversing small paths of water through the ice and showing their magical horns when they surface for air; the birth of polar bear cubs; a raven and a wolverine forming an unlikely alliance to find food; and much more. Those who are familiar with the BBC's Planet Earth and Life will need no urging to watch Frozen Planet, while those new to the series might well start with this one, the best edited and organized of them all. It devotes an episode to each season of the year bookended by episodes that serve as prologue and epilogue. Each episode is divided fairly evenly into footage of the Arctic and the Antarctic.

This time David Attenborough not only narrates the collection but also appears in a seventh episode devoted to global warming and the significant geographic changes occurring at the poles. It's quite impressive to see this robust octogenarian speaking at the South Pole, gesticulating emphatically with his hands. Be sure to buy the original UK edition, which includes Attenborough. BBC has been known to play down to American audiences by using Hollywood stars as narrators. They might do it satisfactorily, but no one does it like Attenborough!

"Winter" was the episode that really grabbed my attention, and it's perhaps the most dramatic segment of them all. It starts in the Arctic with blowing snow creating a near whiteout while the shrill wind wails around the listener thanks to some very excellent surround sound. This opening sets a chilly stage, leading you to wonder what in the world could live under such conditions. The episode answers by showing us tiny voles tunneling underground and the great grey owl that hunts them. We see a mother polar bear digging a burrow where she'll give birth to two cubs before trekking out on the frozen ocean in search of food. We meet the mighty bison, the largest mammals in North America, and we're treated to a thrilling aerial view of two wolves pursuing them. The herd thunders on like a stagecoach fleeing from Indians in the Old West until one young bison is separated from the group.

Things are bleaker at the South Pole. Above ground there are only the male emperor penguins, huddled together, holding their mates' precious eggs on top of their feet while the females are away at sea foraging for food. They return in the spring to take over the care and feeding of their chicks. Under the thick ice of the frozen sea is the Weddell seal, which must surface occasionally but lives mainly under the ice where the climate is as still as that above ground is turbulent. The Antarctic winter is the harshest on earth; it’s amazing that the emperor penguins and Weddell seal can tough it out.

There's a "Freeze Frame" supplement for each episode that shows how the cameramen obtained some of their amazing footage -- with consummate skill, and often great difficulty, while avoiding almost always present danger. One member of the crew seems truly moved by being close enough to killer whales to reach out and touch one. Better him than me! It reminds me that these brave cameramen have taken great risks so I can enjoy the sights on my 65" screen in a safe and secure home theater. The awesome HD footage has been transferred to Blu-ray with meticulous detail, and the surround sound engulfs the viewer with atmosphere and George Fenton's monumental music score.

If you own HD equipment and haven't seen any of the BBC nature-series films, or you've seen them only on broadcast TV, you owe it to yourself to see this new one. It's more exciting and better reproduced than 90 percent of the feature films out there.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 1 of "Winter" focuses on the spectacled eider (a sea duck), their flock hedging its bet against migration by finding an open spot in the ice. There are hundreds of thousands and the cameras capture them from many different angles. These breathtaking scenes perfectly showcase the sharpness and definition of the Blu-ray format.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall"

February 2012

The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom Done Justice on Blu-ray

Universal 61121260
Format: Blu-ray

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

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is one of the biggest crossover productions in the history of theater. When touring companies have come to nearby Washington, DC, I've seen friends who normally listen to rock music eagerly order prime seats right alongside typical fans of classical music or Broadway shows. Perhaps this crossover appeal explains its 25-year run in London; its record-breaking 24-year run on Broadway, which will surpass 10,000 performances on February 12, 2012; and an original cast recording that has gone platinum four times in the US. Everyone seems to enjoy the story of a rising soprano coached by a disfigured madman who haunts the shadows of the Paris Opera and lives in its underground waterways.

Most of the millions who love this work were extremely dissatisfied with Joel Schumacher's 2004 movie, in which he made a succession of disastrous decisions, not the least of which was casting a non-singer (Gerard Butler) in the lead. Those enthusiasts can rest assured that this 25th-anniversary production is almost totally satisfying. Its few deficiencies are trifles considering the strength of its cast and the overall production.

Canadian Ramin Karimloo plays the Phantom, and he's simply terrific, bringing all the pathos and scattershot rage of the character to life. His Phantom isn't just a dangerous psychopath; he's a wronged man who became a monster. His last cry of anguish at the end of Act II left me breathless.

The rest of the cast is just fine, too. Sierra Boggess is a pretty Christine, who evolves believably from chorus-line status to super diva. Hadley Fraser is dashing and steadfast as Raoul, the other man who loves Christine. The scene with Christine, the Phantom, and Raoul near the end of Act II really strikes sparks and catches fire.

To put this show on at the Royal Albert Hall, the crew had to construct a stage. And since the venue had no overhead space to fly scrims in and out, they used video projections on gigantic panels that could slide sideways or rise out of the stage. This technique presents my only real gripe with this handsome production: these panels kick ass when seen from even a short distance, but when a camera goes in close to catch a performer, you can often see the pixels. Thankfully, the camera work is so skillful that you'll rarely notice, and the drama is so captivating that you won't be overly bothered. The Blu-ray picture is also sharp as a tack, with good contrast and shadow resolution, and the audio is full bodied and has excellent presence. The thumping electric bass that accompanies some of the Phantom's music is focused, forceful, and clean.

At the end of the production, after the initial curtain calls, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber comes out to introduce the original Christine, his ex-wife Sarah Brightman, as well as a handful of significant singers who have played the Phantom, including the original one, Michael Crawford. I wish this had been added as an extra, as it takes away from the dynamic ending of the show. You might want to use your pause button and come back to it later. As for planned extras, there's an entertaining production featurette that details, among other things, the creation of the Phantom's iconic mask, and a trailer for the show's sequel, Love Never Dies, which Universal promises on Blu-ray and DVD sometime in 2012.

The Phantom of the Opera has broken records all around the world, and this production sums up 25 years of success. It arrives on Blu-ray with excellent picture and sound that reveal a production rich in both dramatic flair and nuance. Don't miss it.

Be sure to watch for: The costumes for the show are eye-popping, and just about the whole chorus is on stage in the ball scene at the beginning of Act II. The colors are so outrageous that they reminded me of early Technicolor movies where hues were contrasted in almost garish ways -- red against burgundy against magenta against strawberry blond -- just to show off. It's a true riot of color, which my DLP set displayed with ease.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Fringe: The Complete Third Season"

September 2011

FringeThe Best Science-Fiction Show on Television Gets Blu-ray Treatment

Warner Bros. Entertainment
Format: Blu-ray

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

Fringe, though popular with fans, was teetering on the brink of extinction as it neared the end of its second season. But Fox gave it more time, and both the network and the fans have been richly rewarded. Fringe is the best science fiction procedural since The X-Files, and (sorry, Mulder and Scully) in many ways it's even better.

The plot involves a parallel universe and a slew of problems that start in a flashback when super-scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) visits the other universe to bring back the double of his deceased son. Walternate, Bishop's alternate-universe guy, is an often vicious, always ambitious political leader bent on revenge. And when both worlds begin to experience wormholes and start to shatter, Walternate declares war with the alternate world and it becomes a case of "them or us."

Both sides have a division of the FBI called Fringe Division, and each employs a heroine agent. In our world it's Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), and to keep things clear her counterpart is named Fauxlivia. This richly layered third season starts off with the Olivias mixed up. Our Olivia is a captive in the alternate world, while Fauxlivia is a spy who passes for Olivia in this world, where she even successfully seduces Walter's now grown son and Fringe agent, Peter (Joshua Jackson).

I've always been a sucker for parallel-universe plots, and Fringe is the best of them all, eclipsing Sliders, which used to be my standard. Parallel worlds usually fall into the "what if" category; you know, What if John F. Kennedy had survived the attempt on his life? or What if the South had won the Civil War?

Fringe uses icons to let us know where we are -- the Statue of Liberty is gold, there are still two towers in lower Manhattan (though not copies of the familiar twin towers), and dirigibles cruise over the city and dock at the Empire State Building (because apparently the Hindenburg tragedy never occurred). If you look quickly (or stop the Blu-ray Disc to study), you'll see many small differences like unusual road signs, currency, and posters. Of course the biggest difference is that the Fringe Division of our world is in Boston, while the other one is in New York.

Many science-fiction television shows put SFX first and coast on the characters, but not this one. Fringe presents award-caliber performances week after week. Anna Torv is a marvel. She not only plays Olivia and Fauxlivia but also gets a crack at imitating Leonard Nimoy when Walter's former partner, William Bell, becomes embedded in her consciousness. Also right on the money is John Noble, who makes the eccentric Walter a lovable and fascinating character. The other parts, including guest spots, are immaculately cast characters you'll grow to love and look forward to in each episode.

The show is still shot on film, and the picture's richness and definition are top quality. But as good as the broadcasts have been, these 1080p discs are even better. A lot of the action shots occur in dark places that are beautifully rendered with inky blacks and good shadow detail. The sound is also movie quality, with excellent frequency response and a clever use of the surround channels.

The extras, which are a little on the weak side, include some featurettes on parallel existence that never stray beyond the show itself to let us know about other works on the same topic. There's also a gag reel, and two of the episodes have commentary. One of them comfortably uses animation, and there's another featurette dealing with that aspect of production. If you haven't seen Fringe, you've missed the best that television has to offer -- a perfectly executed show that's challenging, provocative, and always evolving, with each episode richer than the last.

Be sure to watch for: All of the show's establishing shots are impressive. Typical is a city overview at the beginning of chapter 4 in the first episode. The camera pans down, showing teeny-tiny vehicles and people in detail even though they seem a mile away. Upconversion can't do that. Blu-ray can.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Ring of Fire"

July 2011

Ring of FireThe Feature Is Good, but the Extras Are Better

Inception Media Group IMG1010BD
Format: Blu-ray

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

I've always been fond of Ring of Fire, which is one of the earlier IMAX films, having been released in 1991. Several different companies released it on DVD with disastrous results, and due to substandard transfers it received low ratings from consumers and critics, indicating that IMAX images are apparently hard to transfer to disc. I've seen several that were genuinely disappointing, but lately more effort seems to be going into their Blu-ray transfers. Ring of Fire looks many times better than those awful DVDs. That's not to say it's the best-looking Blu-ray around, but it's quite good.

The "ring of fire" relates to a line of volcanoes girdling the globe. The documentary crew visits several of the mountains on the ring, including Mount St. Helens in the United States. There are some spectacular shots throughout Ring of Fire, especially those of the clouds of ash that are spewed heavenward to amazing heights when a volcano erupts. There's almost equally fine footage of lava flowing like a red-hot river, but Ring of Fire isn't just about eruptions and magma. It examines various cultures that live in close proximity to volcanoes. Miners in Chile dig sulfur from ash in the heart of a volcano, knowing it's unlikely they'll live longer than 30 years after being exposed to the fumes. Japanese snow monkeys lounge in hot springs created by a volcano with faces resembling humans at the spa, bored and just soaking it in. All of these scenes are presented in sharp, colorful video that's just short of reference quality. If you like low rumbling to show off your woofers and subwoofers, you'll find that effect in about half of the film's 38 minutes. In addition to having commanding bass, the sound is wonderfully immersive; there's something going on in the surrounds throughout almost the entire disc.

That's all well and good, but this disc stands apart for another reason: the supplement section comprises a baker’s dozen of trailers for other IMAX films, most of them of demonstration caliber. When friends come over and you want to show off your big screen (and let's face it -- we all want to do that), rather than tying up two hours of their time, you can pop on one of these trailers, and then if your guest wants more, you can pull out Avatar (still one of the very best HD transfers) and spend three hours with it. The trailers all have good video and surround sound. The latter is regular DTS 5.1, but it still registers a sampling rate of 48kHz on my processor's readout, and it sounds virtually indistinguishable from the feature's DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. 

Be sure to watch for: The trailer for The Alps ends with an avalanche coming right at the camera. It's a cool scene, greatly aided by the excellent surround sound.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

Tchaikovsky: "The Nutcracker"

December 2010

201012_nutcrackerThe Royal Ballet Provides a Brilliant yet Traditional Production of Tchaikovsky's Masterpiece

BBC Opus Arte BD 707820
Format: Blu-Ray

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

Momentum has built ever since the New York City Ballet premiered its full-length version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, in 1954. Before then, only the ballet suite was well known. Productions of the complete ballet were rare, and there were no recordings. That has changed to the point where any conductor worth his salt has recorded the work, and amateur productions in countless communities have become a holiday tradition. There are now even competing versions in the semi-rural area where I live.

There have been many video recordings of The Nutcracker in the past dozen years, some of them, such as the one by the American Ballet Theater, quite good. There have even been two previous releases on Blu-ray, a visually stunning version from the San Francisco Ballet, in which the story was updated to the San Francisco World’s Fair of 1915, and the drab, dutiful, often ugly production from the Marinsky Theatre, which omits the all-important Christmas tree, among other things, in trying to be "different." Both versions are revisionist in some way, but the San Francisco performance is more successful in changing things around a bit.

There was room, then, for an HD production that preserves more of the original plot and setting of the ballet, and this one fills the bill. The only big change here is that Clara (Iohna Loots), and the Nutcracker transformed into Hans-Peter (Ricardo Cervera), participate in the Act 2 dances, where often they merely sit off to the side as spectators. To my mind, this participation is very successful, especially since it affords one of the most exciting dances of the performance when Cervera and Loots join the two Cossack dancers (Paul Kay and Michael Stojko) in the "Russian Dance." As exciting and enjoyable as all the dances are, the real star of the production is Miyako Yoshida, whose mercurial Sugar Plum Fairy is full of elegance, grace, and élan.

The production values throughout are very high. The Christmas tree in Act 1 grows to an alarming size, as do the toy boxes and wrapped presents; the snow at the end of Act 1 almost becomes a blizzard; and the costumes are bright and chipper. The Blu-ray picture transfer has excellent color, and for the most part it's well focused, sharp, and clean. Though recorded live, the sound is pretty amazing; it's what you might expect from a high-quality studio recording. The extended harp solo that introduces the "Waltz of the Flowers" has amazing presence, the woodwind solos are easily heard, and the full orchestra has a very solid sound.  The Royal Opera Orchestra, by the way, plays for young conductor Koen Kessels with authority, virtuosity, and lovely tone.

For once there are some extras on a ballet video. They're slight, but they include a series of still photos of the cast, choreographer Peter Wright telling the story, and a series of rehearsals involving the children in the cast, with Wright as a demanding but rewarding teacher. It's fascinating to watch.

Be sure to watch for: The way in which various dances end in tableaux that are so precisely done, you could swear they were still photographs. The "Russian Dance" and "Waltz of the Flowers" are the best examples.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Twilight Zone -- Season 1"

September 2010

201009_twilightImage Entertainment Scores with Breathtaking Video Transfers for the First Season of "The Twilight Zone"

Image ID6421CUBD
Format: Blu-ray

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

A little over 50 years ago, in the waning days of the Golden Age of Television, The Twilight Zone took the country by storm. Far from the typical hit show, it was an anthology series with a different story, different actors, and a different director for each half-hour episode. Holding it together was Rod Serling, the man who had envisioned the series and helmed it through five successful seasons. Serling had proven himself as a writer and penned most of the first season’s scripts. He attracted the best writers from the science-fiction community, including Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison, but he crafted around two-thirds of the scripts himself. The original series spawned two revival series, a feature film, and a radio series, and it became ingrained in the public consciousness. Actors such as Dan Duryea, Gig Young, Richard Conte, and Burgess Meredith would be remembered as much, if not more, for their appearances on The Twilight Zone as for their many feature films.

While I was watching this new super-duper Blu-ray set of the first season, it struck me that 50 years ago I watched these shows on a 20-something-inch television set that exhibited pronounced scan lines. I was now seeing it on a state-of-the-art 58" plasma set. My conclusion from this comparison is that, though the shows were first and foremost storytelling and drama of the first rank, the visionaries who brought them to life treated them exactly like feature cinema. How else could you explain the jaw-dropping video beauty of this set, which reaffirmed titles like “Time Enough at Last,” “Perchance to Dream,” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” and “The Big Tall Wish” as major masterpieces in the history of television -- heck, in the history of entertainment!

Did I mention that the video transfers were outstanding? It can’t be reiterated too often. The only reason they’re not getting the coveted five-star rating is that not all of the source material is perfect. Most of it is, however, and many of the episodes of this first season match the quality of Warner’s Casablanca or Criterion’s The Third Man. The contrast is high, but not too high, so shadow detail is superb (no crushed blacks here) and detail is astounding, with focused backgrounds often giving these episodes a sense of three-dimensionality missing in many newer releases. Image has previously issued DVD versions that were called “definitive editions.” Not compared to these Blu-rays. Junk your DVDs and upgrade, and I don’t say that very often.

The sound is uncompressed PCM mono, and it’s an outstanding achievement in its own right. The dialogue is clean, and the music is rich and full with more presence than I had thought possible. Then there are the extras! You know how I praise the Criterion Collection for its extras, and rightly so. This Twilight Zone set tops any Criterion edition thus far. Every episode but one (“Judgment Night”) features at least one bonus feature, and there are usually more. These vary, sometimes including the show with a different audio mix, an audio commentary or two from a film historian or one of the actors, a radio-show version of the episode, one of Rod Serling’s lectures, or a music-only track; there are 34 of them, to be exact. The latter are most important, as The Twilight Zone attracted and hired the best composers of its day, including Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman, and Franz Waxman. The alternate, unaired version of the first episode (“Where Is Everybody?”) is here as well as the Desilu Westinghouse Playhouse production of Serling’s “The Time Element,” starring William Bendix and Martin Balsam, narrated and introduced by Desi Arnaz.

The Twilight Zone was a major achievement in its day, and this Image presentation of the first season on Blu-ray is just as important for our era. It’s exceptionally thorough, and it boasts drop-dead-gorgeous, downright astounding black-and-white video images. My guess is that when we ring out 2010, this four-disc set is going to be on the top-ten list of every video critic, and at the very top of many of those. Look for the other seasons to follow; the second season is scheduled for November 16.

Be sure to watch for: "What You Need," one of my personal favorites of the series, consists of both exterior and interior shots. On the Blu-ray, there’s an impressive sense of three-dimensionality for both, thanks to the resolution of foreground and background objects.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Blood Ties -- The Complete Series"

April 2010

201004_br_bloodtiesCanadian Vamps Have Appealing HD Bite in Neglected Series

Eagle Vision EMBRD33350
Format: Blu-ray

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

In case you haven’t been out at night lately, vampires are everywhere. The latest chapter in the Twilight series has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray, and television viewers are satiating themselves with The Vampire Diaries while awaiting the third season of True Blood. But the vampire-as-normal-citizen craze can be traced back to a source that has yet to receive recognition. Canada’s Forever Knight, in which 500-year-old Nick Knight sought redemption as a detective, first aired in 1989, before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, both of which borrowed from Knight’s odyssey.

Blood Ties (2007) continues the Canadian vampire tradition with a crime drama filmed in Vancouver (as a stand-in for Toronto). The show is based on a series of novels by Tanya Huff, one of Canada’s most celebrated fantasy writers, and it stars Christina Cox as Vicki Nelson, a detective who has recently retired from the department due to disability and who’s set up her own agency. She meets handsome vampire Henry Fitzroy (Kyle Schmid) while on assignment, and the two become friends as they investigate supernatural cases that have baffled police. Vicki’s old police-force flame, Mike Celluci, regularly pops up at crime scenes, and the three develop an intriguing love triangle as they work cases involving voodoo priests, mummies, demons, and, of course, other vampires. The series hits its stride after a shaky first episode, and the narrative remains solid until the last episode, which smacks of a quickly written wrap caused by cancellation, much like the final episodes of The 4400 and Jericho.

Eagle Vision has already released Blood Ties on DVD, but the set was riddled with problems, including the fact that it was windowboxed, which compromised the video quality. Not so with this spiffy-looking Blu-ray, in which the crisp picture, with its rich colors and natural skin tone, fills the screen. Because the show was shot in digital, the backgrounds are occasionally noisy, but the appealing picture quality makes up for the noise. The sound-quality rating is low mostly because the soundtrack offers little beyond clear dialogue and mediocre music, which might explain why it’s merely Dolby Digital stereo. The soundtrack is passable, but you’ll be left wondering how surround might have been effectively used. The extras, which include a production featurette, two trailers, and a still-frame gallery, are on the light side.

Be sure to watch for: In the opening of episode 16, Bugged, two leather-clad men stumble out of a bar and into an alley. One leaves and the other downs some ecstasy, at which point cockroaches begin to attack him. All the details of the dirty alley stand out, and the director wisely chose to leave the scene with an army of advancing roaches encircling the passed-out man.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Paradigm's Perforated Phase Alignment (PPA) Lenses (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Persona 9H Loudspeaker (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Contrasts: Dynaudio's Contour and Focus XD Speaker Lines (February 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - New Technologies in MartinLogan's Masterpiece Series
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Dynaudio/Volkswagen Car Audio (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Gryphon Philosophy and the Kodo and Mojo S Speakers (January 2017)
KEF Mobile LS50 Black