"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

"The Lion King: Diamond Edition"

October 2011

The Lion KingSimba Roars on Blu-ray

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 107428
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

The Lion King has become one of Disney's most beloved animated feature films. I personally don't think it ranks at the very top, like Dumbo, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or Beauty and the Beast, but it's solid second-tier Disney. Still, "second tier" when talking about Disney means it's better than most animated titles from other studios. It has arrived on Blu-ray and DVD with loving care, displaying often spectacular results.

The film, set in Africa, is inspired by both Hamlet and the poem "Epic of Sundiata," and it's neatly divided into three acts. In the first we meet the adult lion Mufasa (majestically voiced by James Earl Jones), king of the jungle. His new lion cub, Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas), has been presented to all the jungle animals as the next monarch in the line of succession. This angers his uncle, Scar (voiced with delicious malevolence by Jeremy Irons), who wants to be king. When Mufasa is killed in a wildebeest stampede while trying to rescue Simba, Scar insidiously plants guilt for Mufasa's death in Simba's mind, telling him to run away as far as he can. Scar, supported by his army of hyenas, then realizes his desire and usurps the role of king.

The second act finds Simba about to die in the desert, but he receives help from Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and Timon (Nathan Lane), an appealing comedy team consisting of a warthog and a meerkat. They take Simba to a lush, green jungle far from the drier climate he called home, and over time the three become comrades and live a bucolic life summed up by their infectious "no worries" song ("Hakuna Matata"). But eventually Simba's childhood pal, Nala (Moira Kelly), comes to find him and convinces the now adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) that he must return home. Under Scar's rule, their land has become barren. Before Simba agrees to return, he and Nala find time to sing the loveliest song in the score, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"

The third act finds the prodigal lion returning home, where he fights for his position of leadership and gives his uncle a dramatic payback.

The songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and the orchestral score by Hans Zimmer (perhaps his best to date) move the story along, and the animation is for the most part excellent. Computer assist is evident in the group animal scenes, including the aforementioned stampede. Maybe we can blame it on the exceptionally high Blu-ray resolution (and the passage of 17 years since the original release), but those scenes seem "digital" to me (the grapevine has it that the stampede is much more cohesive and exciting in the 3D version, but I didn't have it on hand for comparison). The colors on the disc transfer are varied and accurate. A few scenes seemed a bit washed out, but I think that was the original intent. The sound is robust and clean, but it doesn't have too many lease-breaking low frequencies. The emphasis is more on clear dialogue and ambient sound, the latter serving to successfully draw the viewer into the picture.

There's a sometimes-entertaining commentary track with the two directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Of interest to me was their discussion of the use of color, explaining why one scene might be washed in yellow while another is red and orange. There are also two handfuls of featurettes on the making of the film. The best ones are found innocuously nesting under the "Vintage Disney" button. I couldn't get this to pop up with any of my players other than the Sony PlayStation 3, but finding those featurettes was worth the effort. And I can't forget the outstanding still-frame galleries, which include hundreds of stills presented in HD that's often dazzling.

Another feature bears a little discussion. It's called "Disney Second Screen." You install a free app from the Internet that lets you link your computer or iPad with the movie. Then, as you watch the film, you can eyeball the smaller screen and learn backstage facts and trivia. This is apparently meant to replace the usual screen-in-screen presentation, which provides basically the same information. I found it very irritating to have to follow two separate screens at once, and screen-in-screen seems much easier to comprehend. Others might find "Disney Second Screen" useful. I hated it.

A DVD is included for those who don't yet have a Blu-ray player, and there's also a different box, not reviewed here, which includes a 3D Blu-ray, 2D Blu-ray, the DVD, and a digital copy. The Lion King features good storytelling and some outstanding voice characterizations. It would surely be a good investment that's family friendly and can be viewed many times.

Be sure to watch for: The bright orange and red final confrontation scene is memorable, as are the deep forest greens in the middle scenes. But my favorite is a night scene at chapter 19, which finds Simba pondering his destiny. He checks his reflection in a stream. The blues and greens are almost palpable, and then there's a drop of water that spreads a ripple. Real magic. These scenes are simply beautiful.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition"

September 2011

DumboOne of Disney's Favorites on Blu-ray Disc

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 103022
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Walt Disney's Dumbo is as close to a perfect film as I ever expect to see. It has clear and impressive storytelling; likable, well-developed characters; humor; brilliant animation; appealing music with imaginative lyrics; and a simple message that's played just right. As if that's not enough, it has Casey Jr., the locomotive with the greatest personality in the history of animated railroading, and "Pink Elephants on Parade," which is, no contest, the most impressive and imaginative surrealist animated segment ever made. Dumbo was Disney's favorite film, and according to one of the shorts in the extras section, it was Leonard Maltin's, too.

Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, made good money and put the Disney studio on the map. But Pinocchio (which shares top honors with Dumbo on my personal Disney rating list) and Fantasia weren't huge financial successes, and going into 1941 Disney's operation was facing serious money troubles. Dumbo became the breakthrough that would pull the studio out of the financial abyss. 

Dumbo remains Disney's most emotional film. The little elephant (who never speaks, by the way) is bullied because of his big ears. His mother stands up for him and is jailed in a trailer with bars on the windows and a sign warning everyone that she's a "Mad Elephant." Enter Timothy Q. Mouse (voiced by Edward Brophy), dressed in a bright red and gold circus uniform, who doesn't see anything wrong with Dumbo and becomes his champion. By the end of this short film, Dumbo finds that he can fly, and he soars over all of the bullies who once tormented him.

As usual, Disney has brushed up this movie so that it looks like they made it yesterday, not 70 years ago. The colors are bright and bold, and the detail is as good as one could hope. The original mono soundtrack has been mixed into DTS-HD Master Audio 7.0, with a restored original soundtrack in 2.0 mono for purists. I'm always amazed at how Disney can take tinny, mono optical elements and create a natural-sounding soundtrack. The goal in using all the channels isn't directionality (you're aware of the surrounds in only one or two instances); rather, it's to open up the audio so that it doesn't sound thin, flat, or lacking in presence. It works.

The extras contain one of my favorite featurettes: a short on the sound effects for Dumbo in which Robert Benchley wanders into the sound-effects studio and observes a dry-run rehearsal for the Casey Jr. sequence. The whole number is played with shots from the movie alternating with fascinating shots of the effects being created. There are two other production featurettes and an extensive section of still shots. The stills are sharp and clear, produced with greater care than most photo galleries, and they cover all aspects of production, including the research photos taken when Disney animators observed real elephants and other circus scenes to more accurately draw them.

The case includes a DVD in case you don't have a Blu-ray player yet, but this little movie shows its full splendor only in the HD presentation. Whether you've seen it before or not, the eye-popping Blu-ray should be welcome.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 13, "Pink Elephants on Parade." This is the most imaginative animated sequence ever made, with supernatural elephants morphing into ice-skating elephants and a belly dancer who morphs into a cobra. Then there are the striped and plaid elephants, which are constantly morphing and changing. All of this mirthful and mock-sinister mayhem is played against an inky, solid black background.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Hanna"

August 2011

HannaA Thoroughly Original Thriller

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Format: Blu-ray

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

Joe Wright has directed three hits: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and now after a semi slip from grace with The Soloist (a film I liked better than most critics), the remarkable Hanna. This latest success brands Wright as a director to watch and follow; he’s young and he no doubt has a lot of important films left in him. His next is to be Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I’ll certainly catch it as soon as it hits my local multiplex. Wright’s films are both entertaining and boundary pushing. They're visual enough to keep me glued to the screen, but they extend far beneath the surface gloss. He's also able to encourage dynamic performances from his actors; you sense that they're giving their all -- and then some.

Then there's the camera work. Many directors use Steadicam, dolly shots, tracking shots, and other techniques, often at jarring places in the film, and they can become bothersome and take away from the drama. Wright uses many daring creative shots (such as the long tracking shot on the Beach of Normandy in Atonement), but they always heighten the action. There's a sequence in Hanna where the heroine is having an intimate conversation with another young girl after they've both been out on the town, and there are moments when the close-ups are so close that we see only an actor's single eye. The trick is to establish the normal distances and cut back to them to keep us rooted in a sort of cinematic reality. It all flows without a hitch and heightens the intimacy of the scene without ever seeming abnormal. What a gift! Wright also admits to a fascination with circles in this movie, not just as visual anchors but also as plot devices. Hanna's opening and closing lines are the same.

Critics lauded the performances in this film when it was first out in theaters. I can only echo those praises. Saoirse Ronan is amazing as Hanna, a teenage girl raised by her father in the wild country of Finland to be an assassin. Eric Bana plays her father, a former CIA agent, ruggedly but with feeling. The villain in the story is Cate Blanchett, an agent trying to tie up loose ends of a failed experiment by killing the father and daughter. Wright says that in a way this film is a modern fairytale: Ronan is Little Red Riding Hood / Snow White, while Bana is the kind but gruff woodsman, and Blanchett is the wicked witch. It works for me, especially since the last part of the movie takes place in an abandoned amusement park where the central building is a gingerbread cookie cottage.

The Blu-ray is a good demonstration disc to have around. It covers just about any type of scene you can imagine, starting in a virtual snow wipeout in Finland (look for the seemingly tangible snow on the branches of the trees), and throughout Europe with pristine city shots, warmer gypsy campfire shots, and the creepy sight of destroyed dinosaurs in the amusement park. The Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) wrote the score, and their electronic music is carefully integrated with the sound effects. The approach is so smooth that it becomes difficult at times to say what is music and what is effect. The music and effects are spread completely around the 360-degree soundstage in tracks that are singularly transparent.

Wright provides a commentary track that's useful and humble. There's also an alternate ending (boo to that -- they did right to toss it out) and a few deleted scenes, as well as a handful of production featurettes dealing with different aspects of the movie. Hanna is a thrill ride with tremendous substance. You'll enjoy all of the pulse-pounding action, but later you'll reflect on the father-daughter tale of a teenager's transition to adulthood. You'd be wrong to miss it.

Be sure to watch for: I mentioned the camera work of Joe Wright, who uses Steadicam for a big fight sequence in an underground parking lot. The scene is carefully choreographed to keep the main fighter framed throughout the swirling motion, and the result is both impressive and exciting.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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