"Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy"

December 2011

Jurassic Park Ultimate TriologySpielberg’s Dinosaur Classics Look and Sound Spectacular on Blu-ray

Universal 61117081
Format: Blu-ray

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

Dinosaurs have always fascinated us. They were a big part of my world as a kid, though at that time we could only see dino skeletons and drawings. In the movies they were usually just lizards with fins, and they seemed atrociously fake. There was Ray Harryhausen, who used stop-motion techniques to great effect, but as meticulous and time consuming as his work was, he couldn't be in charge of every B movie made.

Steven Spielberg no doubt experienced many of these bad movies while retaining his natural curiosity about the huge beasts that were, we're now told, wiped out of existence when a large meteor collided with the Earth. Spielberg wanted his dinosaurs to look real, and since CGI was just picking up in quality, it unlocked many opportunities to present dinosaurs as they lived in the wild. His team did a great job. The special effects in these movies still look impressive, and sometimes awesome, as in the first dinosaur sighting of the original movie.

The film finds a corporation about to open a dinosaur-based theme park on a far-flung island. Unlike other exhibits, this one is stocked with live dinosaurs courtesy of scientists who've figured out how to extract dino DNA and resurrect the extinct reptiles. Dedicated paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, who stars in the first and third films) urges caution, but others think might makes right and that they are the mighty. The dinosaurs quickly prove them wrong, causing catastrophic damage when every failsafe crashes and burns. The second and third movies take up the story but focus more on special effects than on character development. The action sequences are so good, however, that they get away with it.

Many viewers have trashed the transfers of Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy in reviews on Amazon.com, mainly with complaints of a grainy picture. But those criticisms simply aren't true: these fantasy-adventure movies look very fine on Blu-ray. I'd assume those unhappy viewers have their contrast or sharpness controls set too high. The original movie has its own great contrast and excellent shadow detail, and though the first sequel (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) doesn't quite measure up, the third installment (Jurassic Park III), often considered the worst of the movies, has a picture of demonstration caliber, sometimes displaying astonishing detail that adds perceptible depth to almost every scene. The soundtracks for all three movies are as good as it gets. Dialogue is clear and well placed within the sound design, and the surrounds are on most of the time (especially in Jurassic Park III), providing atmospheric sounds that really draw you into the picture. Of course, there are crunching dinosaur sounds that will give your entire sound system an exhaustive workout, including the subwoofer for those T. rex stomps.

The extras are plentiful and generally good. Commentaries, deleted scenes, production featurettes, behind-the-scenes shorts, and theatrical trailers all abound. This would be a good set to have on hand in case you become snowbound this winter, as it can provide hours, maybe days, of enjoyment while your local road crews are digging you out.

Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy lives up to its name on Blu-ray, providing three nights of first-rate entertainment followed by seemingly hours of extras perfect for a rainy or snowy day.

Be sure to watch for: There are hundreds of scenes in these three movies that you could pick as examples of Blu-ray excellence. Some of them are of quite ordinary events. Take chapter 5 of Jurassic Park III for instance. A small airplane sits on a runway that extends into the distance and is bordered on the right by a thick forest. A tattered windsock is in the foreground. There's shadow definition and detail at the bottom of the trees that holds solid into the distance, giving the picture a real feeling of depth. Even with good upsampling, a DVD cannot compare.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

December 2011

Rise of the Planet of the ApesSuperb Acting and Special Effects Make Rise of the Planet of the Apes a Must-See Blu-ray

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment 74987 2
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

I was unable to see this latest reboot of the Planet of the Apes series in a theater and had heard so-so press about it. But after experiencing it in my home theater, I have nothing but praise. It's one of the best science-fiction/action films I've seen in a long time. The film is well cast and acted, it's paced just right, and it has state-of-the-art special effects that aid in telling the story rather than being mere eye candy.

Most readers will remember the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, which found astronaut Charlton Heston going forward in time to discover an Earth ruled by apes that talked and behaved just like men. Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes us back to a time long before that to show how the apes started to transform and gain power. A young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco) is desperate to cure his father (John Lithgow), who has Alzheimer's. Experimenting on apes, he isolates a virus that heightens the apes' intelligence. Will's chief chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, goes on a rampage and the research is ended, but Bright Eyes has just given birth to a baby chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and Will takes him home. Will uses a variant of the virus on his father, who regains his memory but still succumbs to his disease. The virus appears to make apes smarter, but it can kill humans.

The rest of the film shows Caesar's increasing intelligence, his rise to leadership, and his marshalling of other apes to present a force that will challenge humans for control of the Earth. The special effects are stunning, and the filmmakers have brought motion capture to a new level. But it's actor Andy Serkis who brings Caesar to emotional life. Though his subtle expressions are fed through the motion-capture process, there's nothing mechanical about his performance. His interpretation of Caesar is what makes this movie so special; it's not unthinkable that he might be nominated for an Oscar. Serkis must be gymnast, stuntman, and actor at the same time, and he accomplishes all with seeming ease in a tour de force performance.

The picture is close to perfect with amazing detail that makes the computerized fur look absolutely real. Whether outdoors or inside, every shot resonates with true color and infallible contrast. The sound supports the picture all the way, with a sweeping, rhythmic score from Patrick Doyle, crisp and clear dialogue, and lots of atmospheric surround.

The extras are fun and enlightening, especially the one on Andy Serkis that shows how he looks in his motion-capture suit while playing Caesar. In fact, using spilt screen and actual shots from the movie, I learned more about motion capture from these the extras than from any others I've seen. Serkis retains his motion-capture suit for several deleted scenes, and there's a wonderful featurette on the music that shows how Patrick Doyle used a most unusual trick to create a dynamic rhythmic sequence. There are two commentary tracks, one from director Rupert Wyatt and one from producers/writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Both are worth your time.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't just another creature movie. It smacks of excellence in every sense and boasts an Oscar-worthy performance from Andy Serkis. The script is tight, the pace is just perfect, and the character development is deep and probing. The Blu-ray edition, which preserves every aspect of the film's quality, won't disappoint.

Be sure to watch for: One of the extras is called The Great Apes. It contains profiles of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans and offers facts and observations that will deepen your understanding of our closest primate relatives.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Lady Vanishes" (1938)

December 2011

The Lady VanishesBritish Hitchcock Thriller a Blu-ray Gem

The Criterion Collection 3
Format: Blu-ray

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

The Lady Vanishes is one of the last British movies Alfred Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood, and it's considered to be among his best. Part espionage thriller and part romantic comedy, it's a feat that perhaps only Hitchcock could have pulled off. Like many classic films, it involves a train and its passengers, which is always a good formula. Those closed-off compartments (and baggage car) could be hiding anything.

The hidden element in this film is an elderly woman named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who has mysteriously disappeared but must still be on the train. The last person to have seen her is Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a young woman traveling to England for her impending wedding. She convinces a dashing passenger named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to help her, and before you can yell "Look out!" the two are falling in love and getting involved in international skullduggery.

Hitchcock plans his scenes with economy and precision (the set was only 90 feet long!) and gets the most out of his talented cast. The comedy here isn't the roll-in-aisles sort, but if you're familiar with Hitchcock's droll, deliberately stiff introductions to his TV episodes you'll know what to expect. The two characters responsible for the most titters are bachelor-buddies Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), who hang the success of their lives on being able to get back to England for a special cricket tournament. The pair was so popular with audiences that Wayne and Radford appeared as the same characters in several additional movies, including Crook's Tour, which is included as an extra on this Blu-ray.

Criterion developed a new print for this movie a few years back for a DVD release, and this appears to be the same one. It gains depth from the greater definition that Blu-ray provides, and all those British tweeds look appropriately spiffy, as do the details of the train's interior. But it's the sound that's most improved from the DVD release. The uncompressed mono track easily reproduces all the dialogue and the important train sounds that make us feel like we're "all aboard." This movie is 73 years old, so I imagine this is the best we'll ever see it.

The extras include a 1962 interview with François Truffaut; "Mystery Train," a video essay on the movie and its characters' actions and motives; and a handsome gallery of still photos. The entire film is supplied with a running commentary from Bruce Eder, which is not always screen-specific but contains a staggering amount of information.

The Lady Vanishes is a tidy little thriller that represents Hitchcock at his best. It contains delightful characters put in precarious situations with exciting results, and Criterion has given us an edition that's second to none.

Be sure to watch for: Hitchcock knew that telling the audience a secret before the characters discover it is a great way to heighten suspense. In chapter 18, the villain (a very sinister and suave Paul Lukas) sits across a table from Iris and Gilbert in the dining car. He has ordered poisoned drinks for the hapless duo. When they arrive, Hitchcock emphasizes the attempted poisoning by shooting part of the scene through the glasses. Will the targeted couple pick up the drinks or not? It's a tense moment that’s absolutely Hitchcockian.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Debt"

December 2011

The DebtA Suspenseful and Thrilling Espionage Tale 

Universal 62119711
Format: Blu-ray

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

Espionage thrillers that are both intelligent and exciting aren't too common, but we can now add The Debt to this short list. The film, based on Ha-Hov, a 2007 Israeli movie, explores the wages of sin and deceit using high-level dialogue and, for the most part, superb acting. It's also heavy on action, which occurs in short, intense bursts that resonate like electric shocks.

The always-marvelous Helen Mirren is on hand, and she plays no small part in helping this film achieve excellence. We see her in 1997, playing Rachel Singer, who has just become famous (thanks to a book her daughter wrote) for her past exploits as a Mossad agent. Flash back to 1966 when she was 25 and was partnered with two male agents in East Berlin to capture a suspected Nazi war criminal who tortured and executed thousands of Jews during World War II. Rachel (played in flashback scenes by the immensely talented Jessica Chastain) joins David (a wooden Sam Worthington), and Stephan (Marton Csokas), the team's erstwhile leader.

A love triangle almost develops, but the team's focus on the mission nips it in bud. When their plan goes wrong, the three agents face a choice: botch the mission or invent a story that will make them heroes. The course they take makes for exciting action in 1997, like a poison that's been cooking for 31 years. The shifts in time are easy to follow, and you'll have no trouble believing Chastain as a younger Mirren, as she perfectly mirrors Mirren's mannerisms and attitudes. The two men are a bit of a stretch, but since Rachel's character holds events together, they don't distract from the central conflict.

Universal has brought The Debt to home video with a solid Blu-ray presentation. The film uses muted colors (perhaps to represent the Cold War setting), but they manage to seem lively, rich, and never drab. Shadow detail is good, sometimes at the expense of securing a really solid black, and skin tones are fine. The soundtrack is excellent. Softer sounds, such as dripping water, heighten the suspense, while action sounds, which will call on your subwoofer, have visceral impact and focus. The dialogue, often spoken in whispers, is always perfectly intelligible.

The disappointing extras amount to almost nothing. There are three featurettes that are just publicity fluff, and there's a staid commentary by director John Madden and producer Kris Thykier, but that's it. Universal is counting on the film itself to carry this release, and fortunately it does. Despite the lack of extras, The Debt is still highly recommended.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 6, in which the team abducts Vogel, is set at a railroad crossover point between East and West Germany. There are a lot of architectural details and shifts in lighting that the Blu-ray transfer handles superbly, just as it nails the sound of speeding trains and, later, crackling gunfire.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Super 8"

November 2011

Super 8Even Overused Lens-Flare Effects Can’t Scuttle This Charming Film

Paramount 14544
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Super 8 is a monstrously enjoyable film on multiple levels. Part era-defining monster movie, part tribute to Steven Spielberg, the film, directed by J.J Abrams, is ultimately devoted to the art of Super 8 filmmaking.

Back in the day, before every smartphone housed a digital video camera, people used 8mm cameras to document the important events in their lives. After you shot the film, you'd send it off for developing, and a week later you'd be able to relive the captured moment. Many kids latched on to the 8mm, and later the Super 8, for a very different reason. These young artists, bitten by the movie bug, set out to make their own films. Abrams started this way, as did Spielberg, and in an unusually interesting set of extras we learn that Michael Giacchino, composer of Super 8’s super music score, did as well. With Super 8, Abrams pays tribute to all the creative kids who helmed a camera, and he captures the thrill of making those early 8mm films.

The story finds a group of kids filming at a railroad station that becomes rubble after a passing train is derailed by a pickup truck on the tracks, and the plot solidifies Abrams's reputation as a first-rate storyteller. The train in question was transporting an alien (not the cute E.T. kind), which escapes to terrorize the town. Suspense swells as the film slowly reveals the hunted alien -- until the final five minutes, which seem rather unlikely and perhaps a little too "feel good."

The Blu-ray is demonstration caliber in all respects. The picture is sharp as a tack, with items in the background as focused as those in front, but the lens-flare effects that Abrams loves are more objectionable on this Blu-ray than they were in the theater. A lens flare now and then can be effective, but here Abrams goes overboard and the Blu-ray's images are so detailed that they stand out too much. If the overall film wasn't so mesmerizing, they would severely detract; as it is they knock half a star off my rating.

The sound is, to use an overworked but appropriate word, awesome. Surrounds accentuate specific effects, such as falling debris from the train wreck, but they also establish location and atmosphere. The overall effect is totally immersive and helps pull you into the movie. The documentary featurette is much better than average, and you can play the chapters individually or as one long hour-and-a-half film. There's also a set of deleted scenes that are more like scene extensions. The one extra that doesn't work deals with the train crash. It's an interactive piece that's chopped up into small bits that just aren't satisfying. A linear featurette would have been better.

The package includes a DVD and digital copy in addition to the Blu-ray. Overall, this is a Blu-ray to own rather than rent. You'll want to demo that train crash many times to show off your home theater, and you'll catch nuances in the remarkable acting every time. You might even get used to the lens flares. And make sure you sit through the end credits to see the finished Super 8 movie the kids shot from their wild experiences.

Be sure to watch for: By all means, pay close attention to the train crash that occurs early in the film. I've seen a lot of crashes of all types in various movies, but this one set me on edge from beginning to end through its superlative camera work, perfect editing, and a sound design that just can't be beat for impact and clarity. Oscar, anyone?

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Beginners"

November 2011

BeginnersMcGregor and Plummer Shine in One of the Best Films of 2010

Universal 62117654
Format: Blu-ray

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

Beginners was one of the best films of 2010, but it received rather haphazard theatrical distribution. It didn't play in my local multiplex, and unless you live in a metropolitan area you probably didn't get to see it in a theatre. The plot is simple: Oliver, a late-30s graphic artist (Ewan McGregor) meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party and begins a relationship — one that, based on his past, is doomed to fail. Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has passed away just months before. Hal had come out as a gay man at age 75 and embraced a full and active life with new definitions and parameters. Oliver draws strength from remembering his father's bravery in being a "beginner" to bolster his own newness at a serious relationship.

The basics can't begin to describe the charm of this little film. It has a most unusual structure, using flashbacks and narrated time capsules. In these, Oliver tells the audience what was going on during a certain year while the screen displays a slide show of still images. These sections mesh with the film's overall style and never seem intrusive. Though time jumps back and forth, the editing is so skillful that there's absolutely no confusion. And despite dealing with death, the overall film is quite upbeat and amusing.

McGregor and Plummer deliver Oscar-worthy performances that are subtle and moving. The highest points of the movie are their scenes together, which just barely sidestep sentimentality to seem very realistic. In the spirit of beginnings, Plummer, in his later years, has suddenly emerged as one of the great actors of this age.

The Blu-ray of the movie is excellent. Presented mostly in muted colors, the picture doesn't always pop, but it's clean, well defined, and certainly as good as most average contemporary films. Likewise, the soundtrack isn't spectacular but it's always reliable. Whispering characters are easily heard, and the music fares well, too. The extras are skimpy, consisting only of a director's commentary from Mike Mills and a short production featurette. I would suggest a Criterion edition down the road so that this fine film can offer the extras it merits.

Be sure to watch for: There are a lot of long hallway and street shots in the movie, and they have good depth thanks to Blu-ray's high definition. One at the beginning of chapter 10 shows Oliver and his dog walking down an outside hallway. The definition holds steady as they get farther away.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Island of Lost Souls"

November 2011

Island of Lost SoulsCriterion Blu-ray Release Restores the Status of a Classic Horror Film

The Criterion Collection 586
Format: Blu-ray

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

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! seemed an odd title for Devo's debut rock album in 1978, but one of the extras on this disc clears up the matter, as Devo members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh recall their love and reverence for Island of Lost Souls. Now Criterion has made it possible for everyone to experience it as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Though it's been remade several times (catastrophically in 1996 with Marlon Brando in the lead role), this is the best version despite its nearly 79-year-old status. The plot, adapted from the The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (who was very much alive in 1932 and went on record as hating the movie) concerns a crazy, egomaniac scientist, Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton), who operates on animals in an attempt to turn them into humans. The pitiful (and frightening) half-and-half creatures seem like mere playthings to Moreau. His casual attitude toward them makes him one of the most sinister and cruel cinema villains (he operates on a screaming creature as if he was simply slicing a loaf of bread). Laughton excels in this wickedness, creating an unforgettable character.

Eventually the beings rebel, led by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), who in a climactic scene shouts the phrase that Devo so admired. Director Erle C. Kenton and cinematographer Karl Struss film this scene and most of the others with an impressive and eerie exhibition of shadow and light techniques. Criterion's transfer came from three different sources, each detailed in the disc's accompanying booklet, and though not perfect, it looks better than you might expect from a movie from the early 1930s. Detail is excellent, though much of the movie is shot deliberately soft, and contrast is right on. The mono soundtrack also comes from different sources, and it's clear enough to reveal the subtle verbal nastiness of Laughton's performance.

In addition to the Devo recollection, extras include interviews with film historian David J. Skal and filmmaker Richard Stanley, the director of the ill-fated 1996 version. There's also an entertaining conversation with John Landis, Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, and horror film enthusiast Bob Burns. It says a lot that Baker, the ultimate makeup man of our time, speaks so reverently of Wally Westmore's makeup work. To cap things off, there's a commentary track with film historian Gregory Mank that's crammed with info, including details of the contest that Universal ran to cast Lota, the Panther Woman (the role finally awarded to Kathleen Burke). Island of Lost Souls was steamy and controversial in its day, and Mank points out all of the scenes that were censored for presentation in one country or another.

Island of Lost Souls is one of the greats of the horror film genre. Thanks to Criterion for making it viable for a 21st-century audience.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 6 contains many shots involving shadow and light. As characters move away from the doorway to the House of Pain (Moreau's operating theater), their shadows become larger, creating impressive and creepy images.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Four Feathers" (1939)

November 2011

The Four FeathersAlexander Korda's Large-Scale Adventure Story Succeeds on Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 583
Format: Blu-ray

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

A.E.W. Mason's adventure novel had been filmed many times before Alexander Korda produced his 1939 Technicolor version with his brother Zoltan directing. It's arguably the best rendering of the story, though according to Charles Drazin's commentary on this disc, it strays furthest from the original. It strays from its letter, I think, but not its spirit. And that spirit is British to the core. This film passes no judgment on the oft-criticized British Empire of the late 1800s; instead, it praises the valor of British soldiers fighting in the Sudan. Honor is all, even if it defies common sense, and cowardice is a crime seemingly second only to murder.

Cowardice and redemption are the themes treated well in this large-scale movie. On the night before his regiment is to leave England for the Sudan, Harry Faversham (John Clements), who comes from a long line of military leaders, resigns his commission. His fellow soldiers declare him a coward and send him three feathers, a sign of cowardice, to which Harry adds a fourth, representing his fiancée Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez). After some soul searching, Harry decides to enter the Sudan, disguised as a Sangali tribe member, complete with a branded forehead. He rescues his friend, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), who is blind from the desert sun, and in so doing rids himself of one feather. Richardson's portrayal of a newly blinded officer displays the honor-before-common-sense idea. Though he cannot see, he won't admit it, and he uses ruses and bull-headed stoicism in a futile attempt to fool the men under his command.

The battle scenes in this movie are considered classic, and I will surely agree to that. How thrilling it is to see an army of a few thousand extras battling without CGI enhancement. I don't think I've ever seen so many camels in one place or have known how fast they can gallop. The desert is distressingly drab in direct contrast to the opulent drawing rooms and green fields of England. Criterion's transfer is not perfect (though I really think it's an issue with the print they used); there's a problem in the first part of the movie that makes white-wing collars appear to be edged in red, and some scenes aren't as sharp as others, but most of the film is displayed in the gorgeous Technicolor of the early days when filmmakers seemed to be trying to cram the whole palette of a rainbow into one scene.

The sound is serviceable. Dialogue is crisp and clean, sound effects are effective, and Miklós Rózsa's score for the film is one of his best. It sounds sufficient here, but you can imagine what it might sound like in a state-of-the-art digital recording. The extras are skimpy for a Criterion release. As mentioned, there's a good, if slightly irritating, film commentary by film historian Charles Drazin. Sometimes he's screen-specific in his comments; at other times he isn't, so the scene you might want to know something about could be ignored. In addition to the commentary, there's a recent, energetic interview with David Korda, son of director Zoltan Korda, as well as a curious little featurette made in 1939 that amounts to a tour of the London Films operation run by the three Korda brothers (Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent). There's also a trailer.

Dealing in the attitudes and actions of the late 1800s, The Four Feathers vividly depicts that era and gives us a very pro-British look at the military of the day. You can study that, or take it as a simply smashing good adventure story, one that holds up remarkably well today.

Be sure to watch for: There are some genuine spectacular Technicolor exteriors, such as the garden and mansion house at the beginning of chapter 12. What impressed me as much were some of the photos and poster shots used in the David Korda interview. Many of them are aged and scratched, but some are breathtaking in their detail. They're among the best still frames I've seen on any Blu-ray.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Tree of Life"

October 2011

The Tree of LifeTerrence Malick’s Magnum Opus

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment 2274934
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Viewing a Terrence Malick film without having strong feelings about the experience is nearly impossible. Some find his work maddeningly abstract and pretentious, while others will find themselves mesmerized by the gorgeous cinematography and signature voiceovers. The Tree of Life will divide opinion more than any of Malick's previous works, but one thing is certain: there is no other film like it.

The story's fulcrum lies in 1950s Waco, Texas. The plot follows the struggles of Jack (Hunter McCracken), a young boy who attempts to wrestle with his father's (Brad Pitt) authoritarian nature, as contrasted with his mother's (Jessica Chastain) more nurturing approach to parenting. Jack also explores his beliefs about death, faith, and personhood. Woven into this primary narrative are two complementary asides: a semi-CGI sequence that illustrates the birth of existence, both universal as well as here on Earth, and another track in which adult Jack (Sean Penn) continues to struggle with his identity.

Preconceptions about traditional filmmaking must be discarded at the door if one is to appreciate this film. For those that have trouble with non-linear plots, The Tree of Life may drive them mad, or worse, to sleep. The film doesn't entertain in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it demands a thoughtful, open-minded, active viewer, one willing to embrace the decidedly abstract in concert with the literal, for as often as the dialogue carries the story's progression, so too does the film's imagery. The viewer is left to infer a great deal from the onscreen happenings, which often hint at the profound without ever being so vulgar as to actually voice it.

Divorced from the story, The Tree of Life is arguably one of the prettiest films you're likely to see or hear, and it finds cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at his very best. Colors are vibrant yet natural, with special care taken to preserve the organic, unfiltered qualities of the sets, actors, and landscapes. While it would be easy to point out a few single examples of the image quality on tap, the fact is that almost the entire film is worthy of a screenshot. It’s that beautiful.

The audio track is also noteworthy. Two audio tracks are available: a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track, and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Unfortunately, I was limited to the latter, but the original score by Alexandre Desplat sounded fabulous, ranging from simple piano cues to larger orchestral ones. When allied with the properly deep, crushing bass lines that appear throughout, this Blu-ray will be a good workout for stereo / surround sound systems everywhere, especially if you take the advice of the producers who advise at the outset that you should play the film "loud."

The only extra feature is a 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece, which includes interviews with directors David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, as well as the film's producers and stars. It yields some insight into the film's genesis, as well as its actual making.

The Tree of Life, itself, will divide opinion. The Blu-ray, however, is one of the best I have seen. Terrence Malick imparts the majesty of life with characteristic verve and grace, and it's an experience that shouldn't be missed.

Be sure to watch for: The sequence involving the birth of the universe is spellbinding, and resonates more in the world of documentaries than proper cinema. The rich reds offset the inky, cosmic blacks, while the thunderous bass line serves to underline the spectacle of it all. Stellar.

. . . Hans Wetzel
hansw@soundstagenetwork.com

"Captain America: The First Avenger"

October 2011

Captain AmericaThe Best Superhero Movie Yet!

Paramount 15383
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

I was skinny as a kid, and I always related to those bodybuilding ads where a big bully kicks sand in the little guy's face. Of course, in the ad the kid buys Charles Atlas's bodybuilding products and becomes a big bully himself. I tried to gain weight, drinking a milkshake every day with an egg in it and eating lots of food, but I didn't gain an ounce. Watching this film brought back a lot those memories and let me know that what I needed all along was Dr. Abraham Erskine (the always wonderful Stanley Tucci) and his explosive serum, which does wonders for Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in this movie. Rogers is a skinny kid (probably 110 pounds dripping wet) who, at the height of World War II, wants to sign up for the army. He signs up at different recruiting centers but is always rejected.

That all changes when Rogers meets Dr. Erskine, who admires the young man's persistence and rewards Steve by picking him as the subject of an experiment. To make things short, Steve gets a shot of the serum and becomes Captain America, a hunky all-American hero. While Steve's story is unfolding, over in Germany Johann Schmidt, an evil Nazi military officer, is finding a substance that turns him into Red Skull, one of the baddest-assed villains in movies. It's inevitable that good should meet evil in a standoff, with the future of the world hanging in the balance. The way to the final battle is full of thrilling fights, escapes, chases, and a glimmer of romance.

Captain America succeeds, both as a character and a man, because he's forthright and true. You'd never catch him in a lie or find him smoking a cigarette; he's totally for good. He resembles Superman in those qualities, though he lacks Superman's supernatural powers. The transformation makes Captain America strong and agile; he can jump far and run fast, but he can't see through walls or stop a speeding bullet without his shield. As a comic book character, Captain America was a hero for Americans dealing with the nightmares of World War II, and he still emerges as the kind of leader we painfully need to believe in today. The movie is delightfully retro; you'll feel placed firmly in the 1940s, and all of the fantastic machines and contraptions could have been made only with the imagination of that age. Take, for instance, the massive flying-wing bomber, which is powered by multiple props rather than jet propulsion. And Captain America's round American-flag shield is made of material that simply can't be breached. It's used in a number of ways and becomes an iconic trademark for Rogers.

The filmmakers used a fairly heavy filter when shooting in order to achieve a sort of sepia Technicolor effect. This technique, which is faithfully conveyed on the Blu-ray, doesn't affect the reds and whites so much, but it makes the overall film seem like a period piece from World War II. The soundtrack is more modern with a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that's one of the best of the year. It's very transparent, allowing every detail to be heard, but it kicks butt when it needs too (use duct tape to hold down your valuable collectibles). Alan Silvestri's heroic music score gets mixed at just the right levels.

The extras continue the upbeat nature of the movie. There's a zippy, entertaining commentary track with director Joe Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson, and editor Jeffrey Ford, and there are some very good featurettes dealing with different aspects of the production, along with a few surprises.

Marvel superheroes have done well recently. We've had excellent movies about Iron Man and Thor, and only The Green Lantern failed, falling on its green face with a disastrous thud. Marvel's next ploy is to join its most important superheroes together for The Avengers, due in May of 2012. Fans are eagerly anticipating the film's release, and if it delivers as much excitement as Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger, the wait will have been worthwhile!

Be sure to watch for: There are a lot of eye-popping images in the movie itself, but in the first extra featurette, which is about the making of Captain America's terrific costume, there are some shots of the original comic book pages what will drop your jaw.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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