"Insidious"

July 2011

InsidiousScary "Insidious" Lives Up to Its Title

Sony Home Entertainment/Alliance 38152
Format: Blu-ray

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

Haunted houses seem to bring out the best in genre directors. James Wan, who directed the first (and best) in the Saw series, seems super energized this time around. He's determined that you won't leave your home-theater room without being scared half to death.

The setup appears quite ordinary (for a horror film) for the first part of the movie. A photogenic, pleasant young couple, Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), move into a house without noticing, as we do, that it has haunted written all over it. True to the genre, things soon start levitating and strange visions manifest for Renai when she's home alone. After her son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), goes into an unexplained coma, she begs Josh to get her out, so he buys a new house and they move. This dwelling is just as cheerful as the last was gloomy, but the strange happenings start again and seem more malevolent than before. It turns out that a demon hopped a ride with comatose Dalton when they moved, and the boy has, through astral projection, entered a realm far from reality.

The parents call in a medium (Lin Shaye), the inevitable séance takes place (though with several effective twists), and everyone dedicates their energy to getting Dalton back home. Yes, Insidious has bits of Poltergeist peppered in with a little of The Exorcist; but it treats all the familiar elements with either respect or new vision. There are plenty of scares to go around, but the difference in this film is that when we get to the buildup, complete with telltale music, there's a payoff -- something scary actually happens, unlike the tired scenarios in films that tempt characters to open cabinets only to find them empty. Insidious delivers shocks and scares by establishing that the Lamberts are nice, normal folks. We care what happens to them because it might happen to us! And Insidious, true to its title, revs up the horror slowly but surely.

You wouldn't expect the production values of a genre film like Insidious to be high, but they are. Daylight scenes are as good as they get, with superb definition, natural color, and excellent contrast. The night scenes, of which there are many, aren't quite as good, but they're certainly better than a lot of other low-budget horror movies. Perhaps most important, the sound is demonstration quality. A movie like this really depends on music and sound effects to help provide the scares, and the audio track for Insidious surely does its job. Weird little sounds come from all around the room, and every so often there's a loud subterranean thud that will test your subwoofer, not to mention your nerves.

The extras are three featurettes about the filming of Insidious. I'd usually pass these by, but all three offer extensive and interesting interview footage with Wan. If you're in the mood for some solid scares, Insidious delivers the goods. The Haunting (1963) is still the granddaddy of all haunted-house movies, but Insidious can be added to an enviable runner-up list that includes The Legend of Hell House, The Innocents, and Monster House (animated).

Be sure to watch for: The opening credits will give you chills. The movie starts with a long tracking shot in a dark place that lets your imagination run wild. The credits then appear in red against razor-sharp black-and-white photos. Each title has a faint shadow that appears and then vanishes in smoke. The clever attention to detail sets a proper mood for this seriously frightening film.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Beauty and the Beast" (1946)

July 2011

Beauty and the BeastClassic Cocteau with an Unexpected Opera on Criterion Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 6
Format: Blu-ray

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

Among film connoisseurs, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is regarded as a masterpiece of fantasy film. Its timeless story is simple and direct, with great tenderness and slightly subdued passion. In the Cocteau-directed version, based on the story by Mme Leprince de Beaumont, Beast (Jean Marais) is a sympathetic character. His eyes seem to emerge from the amazing makeup to beg for help, and his gravelly voice betrays pain and longing. Belle (Josette Day) is a strong woman who resists her feelings for Beast until it's almost too late for him. The famous fantasy effects, from the outstretched bodiless arms holding candelabras to light the hall of Beast’s chateau to the living statues (which must have inspired parts of the Disney animated version), all seem to be extensions of reality rather than entities from a different world.

I've always been impressed with Criterion black-and-white transfers. Beauty and the Beast is one of their oldest catalog items; you can tell by the early catalog number of 6. I believe this version is the third time around, and the results are certainly fine. If they pale in comparison to Criterion’s The Third Man or The Seventh Seal, you can't really blame Criterion, especially after viewing the short featurette on restoration that's in the extras section. Cocteau made Beauty and the Beast in 1946, so there were simply no pristine prints available. The one that Criterion used for its Blu-ray comes from a 1995 restoration of the film. Almost all of the noise, video, and audio have been removed, but the contrast isn't as high as it might be and the focus occasionally shifts so that the picture, though never really soft, isn't always sharp. What we're left with is a final product that's very good but hardly cutting edge.

There are plentiful extras including two commentaries, one by film historian Arthur Knight and one by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling. There's a 1995 featurette, "Screening at the Majestic," which contains interviews of the still-living cast and crew members. There's a section devoted to an interview with Henri Alekan, the film's cinematographer, and as usual the disc comes with a handsome booklet featuring interesting essays (one by Cocteau himself) and a complete listing of the cast and anyone who participated in the Blu-ray release.

The most intriguing extra for me was an opera by Philip Glass that was not only inspired by the film but also created to be synched with it. Criterion presents the opera as an extra soundtrack (with a DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack). If you select it, Glass's opera replaces the original soundtrack. I assumed I'd hate this feature, but after experiencing it I've decided it's not bad at all. The singing and sound are both excellent, and for the most part the opera is perfectly synched to the images onscreen so you can use the same English subtitles as you would when viewing the movie with the original soundtrack. The notes by Philip Glass disclose that there have been many successful live performances where the movie is screened and the "soundtrack" is supplied by live musicians.

I'd probably sill watch the original if I wanted to see Beauty and the Beast, but it’s good to know that Criterion continues to produce challenging extras. The overall effect of this Blu-ray is close to excellent at times. If you've never seen it, treat yourself.

Be sure to watch for: Don't miss the still-frame section in the extras. All the shots are good, but the still of Beast against a black background and the three French posters at the end are breathtaking. I wish the movie itself always had the spot-on contrast of these stills.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kiss Me Deadly"

June 2011

Kiss Me DeadlyClassic Film Noir Has Hard-Hitting Impact in a New Criterion Blu-ray Edition

The Criterion Collection 568
Format: Blu-ray

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

The MacGuffin in Kiss Me Deadly is a mysterious box that adds a science-fiction topping to the noir film. It contains something that glows, kills, and acts like a radioactive substance, though we're never told or shown exactly what it is. Years later director Quentin Tarantino used a similar prop, a briefcase with unseen glowing contents, in Pulp Fiction, yet he denied it was a direct tribute.

Kiss Me Deadly was based on the novel by Mickey Spillane and featured one of the author's favorite characters, hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). Spillane redefined the paperback book industry with his fast-moving, hard-hitting crime novels; in 1980 he had penned seven of the 15 top-selling novels. Spillane also acted in the movies, playing himself in 1955's Ring of Fear, shot at the Clyde Beatty Circus, and as Mike Hammer himself in 1963's rugged version of The Girl Hunters. He was unhappy with the many cinematic alterations made to Kiss Me Deadly, as evidenced in one of the interviews in the supplements section of this disc.

Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer seems an ideal choice. He's an almost handsome tough guy with a little bit of softness at his core and a moral compass that's rapidly losing its bearing. The action kicks off when he runs into a woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman, making her big-screen debut) who has escaped from an asylum and some nasty villains. Hammer's encounter with Christina plunges him into a world of darkness and deceit, and after some red herrings and a few killings we finally learn that everything has been about that mysterious box.

Director Robert Aldrich and his ace photographer Ernest Laszlo used strange but effective camera angles that every viewer will find intriguing, and the movie has an almost breathless pace that grabs the audience and doesn't let go. One prop, on the wall of Hammer's apartment, will jump out at audiophiles: a reel-to-reel answering machine!

The folks at The Criterion Collection are masters at resurrecting black-and-white films, and they've done a good job on Kiss Me Deadly. There's fairly heavy grain throughout, but good focus and contrast prove that it was in the original. All the shadow and light contrasts of film noir are correctly realized, and there's good shadow definition. The monaural soundtrack sounded a lot better than I expected, even doing near justice to Frank De Vol's hard-edged score.

Possibly the best extra is a feature-length commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini. They shed much light on Kiss Me Deadly and on the film noir genre. Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane is a 1998 documentary about the controversial author, and there's a short, droll video tribute from director Alex Cox. There are a few other featurettes as well as a shortened ending not sanctioned by director Robert Aldrich that serves up an entirely different conclusion for the main characters. And though we're never told for sure what the substance in the box is, the extras disclose how the comma went missing from the title.

Be sure to watch for: Near the beginning of the movie, Hammer and Christina are captured by thugs who knock him out and start to torture her. The scene opens with just Christina's dangling legs visible, while her loud screams let us imagine the worst. Shift the scene to Hammer stretched out on a bed without a mattress and the well-defined shadows on the floor and wall. When Hammer is rolled off the bed, he falls into his shadow. Perfect noir.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Solaris"

June 2011

SolarisMoody, Metaphysical Science-Fiction Masterpiece Receives the Criterion Treatment

The Criterion Collection 164
Format: Blu-ray

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

This small-scale yet epic concept movie is probably the best-known film of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who is generally regarded, despite his small output, as one of Russia's greatest directors. Solaris, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, is nothing like the space operas we've come to regard as science fiction in the United States. There's not much action, there are no soaring spaceships, and the special effects are minimal and mundane. Instead, we get a lot of metaphysical talk about human consciousness and reality. The plot moves slowly and surely, but doesn't plod. It might prove rough going for the average movie lover, but I'd urge anyone to stick with it; most reluctant viewers will find themselves replaying it in their minds and realizing its strengths in retrospect.

The plot is very simple. Astronaut and philosopher Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to a space station orbiting around Solaris, an ocean planet where the seas seem to form the brain of a conscious being, a truly sentient planet. This living entity conjures up "guests" drawn from the consciousness of the station's crew, which has been whittled down to just two members, Kelvin making it three. After being on board briefly, Kelvin sees a woman who's the spitting image of Hari, his deceased wife (Natalya Bondarchuk). He knows it's not her, and he takes her to a launch pad, puts her on a rocket, and fires her into space. But she reappears several more times until Kelvin finds that he desires to stay with her rather than return to earth, even though he knows she isn't human.

Tarkovsky liked to shoot in long takes and let his camera slowly poke around a scene, discovering for us various items that have some relevance to a character or story. When we first meet Kelvin on Earth prior to launch, we're shown reeds in a stream, and the camera slow pans, picking up a shoe and then slowly panning up Kelvin's body to reveal his face. Many directors have used this technique, but it's usually just for effect. With Tarkovsky it becomes a tool of artistic identity and recognition.

I was living in Washington, DC, about the time this film was released, and we were blessed with several theaters that showed foreign films at a reduced ticket price. We didn't see too many Russian movies, and when did, their coarse, grainy prints made for barely tolerable viewing. I guess that impression has lingered more than I expected, because Criterion's work on Solaris was nothing short of astounding to me. The picture is clean and defined, with just enough grain for comfort, and its colors often pop, perhaps in a more pastel manner than most Hollywood films, but the images have great presence. Compare the feature presentation with the deleted scenes included in the extras. Those snippets represent the impression I had of Russian film. The soundtrack isn't as good, but there's only so much you can wring out of a mono optical track without re-recording it. Eduard Artemyev's score for Solaris ranges from a simple, electronically enhanced Bach chorale prelude to full orchestra and chorus plus electronics. There's some distortion in the loud places, but the more modest ones sound good and the dialog is easy to hear. It's in Russian, but Criterion has provided very clear subtitles.

Extras include an information-packed full-length commentary with Andrei Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, as well as several subtitled interviews with cast and crew. This is one of the few releases I've encountered where all the extras were in a foreign language.

Extras aside, if you give Solaris a chance, it will present you with memorable images and ideas that will last long after you've put the disc back in its case.

Be sure to watch for: To suggest a future city, chapter 8 presents a long, driver's-point-of-view journey on four-lane highways often through lighted tunnels. The definition is good enough that you feel drawn into the picture.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"American Graffiti"

May 2011

American GraffitiA Brilliant Blu-ray Portrait of a More Innocent Time

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Format: Blu-ray

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

A long time ago, 1973 to be exact, before he became rich and famous, fledgling director George Lucas made one of the best teen coming-of-age pictures of all time. He got everything right -- not just the costumes and hair, but the plot as well. Back in those innocent days, at the dawn of the 1960s, life was simpler and graduating teens really faced just one important choice: go to college or stay at home, get a job, and hang out on the strip. This is the decision Steve (Ron Howard, billed as "Ronny") and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) must make in one night as if their flight were leaving the next morning. One moves on, and the other changes his mind and stays.

The strip might have been a block, or a mile, or a particular road, but at that point in time there was always some place to drive your car (or your dad's car), show off, and be cool. My strip growing up was pretty much an oversized circle around the drive-in restaurant. If you didn't have a car, you wanted a friend who did so you could ride shotgun. The strip in American Graffiti is composed of a lot of city blocks, and Lucas gets all of this so right it's uncanny. Older viewers who've been there will think they've traveled through time; younger viewers can see things like they really were "back then." Some of the specifics: slicked-back hair, diner waitresses wearing bellhop caps carrying orders right to your car on roller skates, suped-up cars, a rock band that wears red blazers and ties, and waiting outside the liquor store when you're 17, looking for an adult who might buy booze for you. And oh yes, the mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a white T-Bird.

Lucas was initially unable to market the film, but Universal finally took a chance on it, and it made many, many times what it cost, giving Lucas enough bankroll to work on Star Wars. The cast included largely unknown young actors like Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, and Paul Le Mat, who have all gone on to have excellent careers.

The Blu-ray Disc shows all of the period details in a focused and detailed picture. At the beginning it's a little too detailed and exhibits some edge enhancement, but it quickly calms down to normal grain and definition. Fans won't be disappointed. The chrome on the cars and the neon on the buildings really sizzle and pop. The all-important period rock music sounds just great, and the new mix occasionally mixes some of it to the rear, as in the hop dance sequence. A nifty feature in the U-Control extras lets you click while a scene is playing and get an onscreen readout of the song, including its title and the artists performing it.

The rest of the extras include a moderately in-depth production featurette, a handful of screen tests, and a picture-in-picture commentary from Lucas. American Graffiti defines a time shortly before the assassination of John F. Kennedy when events in America were more innocent. American Graffiti conjures a longing to go back there, along with the realization that it has to remain a past dream.

Be sure to watch for: The opening credits appear over a daytime shot of Mel's Diner, which looks drab like any other burger joint. But at the beginning of chapter 3, accompanied by the Crests' "Sixteen Candles" and illuminated by several hundred feet of neon, it looks like the place you want to be at: a teen palace. It's a breathtaking shot and moment, well rendered on the Blu-ray.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Papillon"

May 2011

PapillonA Stoic Steve McQueen Carries This Prison Film

Warner Brothers 3000035175
Format: Blu-ray

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

It seems perversely pertinent that Warner would release Papillon just now, when there's talk of torture and imprisonment in the air again after Osama bin Laden's death. The film is as much an indictment of the inhumane treatment of prisoners on Devil's Island off the shore of French Guiana as it is an adventure-escape tale. It's based on a book (a supposed autobiography) of the same name by Frenchman Henri Charrière, nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattooed on his chest. Though many now doubt the veracity of Charrière's writing, one cannot deny the atrocities committed by the French officers at Devil's Island. It seems certain that Charrière tried to escape many times, but his exploits in the book are probably a summation of the adventures of many other prisoners.

The movie brings the darker elements of imprisonment at Devil's Island to the fore, and parts of it are difficult to watch because they seem all too realistic. Other than indicting the prison system of the day (Devil's Island closed in 1954), the movie provides a great star vehicle for Steve McQueen, who plays Charrière. Because McQueen died at the early age of 50, Papillon is the only chance we have to see him age beyond that half-century mark. It's all makeup of course, but it's very effective, as is his stoic performance as a man who must have freedom at any cost. Dustin Hoffman is less impressive as Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who became Papillon's friend, as he veers too close to caricature to be taken seriously.

The movie arrives on Blu-ray in one of Warner's handsome Blu-ray book editions, and the book contains around two dozen superbly reproduced still photographs of the cast and crew on slick paper that has a real quality look and feel. As for information, however, there are just a few very short essays; this is nothing like a Criterion information booklet.

The picture image is excellent once you're about 15 minutes into the movie, but the first portion is dirty and grainy and a bit soft. Hang on through that first stretch and you'll be rewarded with a superb picture that has true-to-situation colors (drab at the prison, bold and vibrant in the longing dreams of freedom) and sharp focus. The movie is a good test for a video system, since it ranges all the way from brightly lit outdoor scenes to the shadowy blackness of solitary-confinement quarters. The sound is robust and full, but except for Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score, it exists almost exclusively in the front three channels.

Aside from the film, there are only two short extras on the disc: a production featurette and a trailer. Both are period pieces, and they're interesting for being different from today's trailers and featurettes. The short production program, for instance, has the real-life Charrière giving the audience a tour of Devil's Island. Whether or not this is rental or purchase material will depend on how much you revere McQueen or director Franklin J. Schaffner. But whichever way you go, Papillon is well worth a look.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 16, shutters are put up over the windows in Charrière’s solitary cell. The light is gradually tuned out until only deep blackness remains. Out of that profound darkness, Charrière’s hand appears in a small shaft of light, then his face. It's an impressive scene for checking black levels. 

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Smiles of a Summer Night"

May 2011

Smiles of a Summer NightBergman’s Classic Comedy Brings Smiles on Criterion Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 237
Format: Blu-ray

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

Younger readers have likely never seen this 1955 comedy classic, but their lives have probably been touched by it, for Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night served as the basis of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, most recently revived with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in the cast. The Broadway musical includes the song "Send in the Clowns," which dozens of singers from around the world have recorded. It seems impossible that anyone has escaped hearing it.

If Sondheim's version of the story, with most of the music in three-quarter time, is elegant, Bergman's original is exquisite, a perfectly timed and acted ensemble piece that reminds me of the intricate threads heard in a Mozart or Rossini opera, as musical themes weave in and out with absolute perfection. It's interesting to note that later in his life, Bergman filmed a stage production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, a version that both drama and music critics lauded for its ensemble performances.

Smiles of a Summer Night, set near the end of the 19th century, focuses on four pairs of mismatched lovers who intermingle during a weekend at the country estate of Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand), mother of the famous actress Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). Her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand), is there with his young trophy wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), and Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), his terminally romantic son from an earlier marriage. Henrik loves Anne (technically his stepmother), who, though married to Fredrik for two years, is still a virgin. There are other characters, liaisons, and trysts, with the humor largely crafted from one character's humiliation of another in order to "set things right." Though there are pratfalls and visual jokes, much of the humor comes from the rapid-fire dialogue, which is subtitled in easy-to-read English on Criterion's Blu-ray.

The Criterion Collection has done well by Bergman's movies: the Blu-rays of The Magician and The Seventh Seal display exemplary black-and-white transfers. Smiles of a Summer Night, presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.33:1, is good for the most part, but there are some scenes that contain a little video noise and a few outdoor shots that have some flicker. Overall the contrast is sharp with clean focus for a very detailed and appealing picture. The optical soundtrack has been restored, and it sounds much better than you might expect given the age of the release.

The extras, which are a little lame for Criterion, include an interesting but brief video introduction with Bergman; a discussion, again brief, between Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and writer Jörn Donner, who was also the executive producer of Fanny and Alexander; and the original Swedish trailer, which is subtitled in English. The handsome booklet included with the disc contains an interesting essay by John Simon as well as a 1961 review by Pauline Kael.

Smiles of a Summer Night is a delightful comedy of manners on the surface, but underneath that façade it makes some enlightening and wry comments about love, fidelity, marriage, sex, and humiliation. Ingmar Bergman directed it with pitch-perfect precision, and it's so skillfully and subtly shot that you can watch it many times over before noticing every detail.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 16 begins with a close-up of Anne standing next to a birdcage. The Blu-ray's high resolution reveals the tiniest detail and gives everything in the shot its own texture: Anne's hair, her dress, the metallic cage, the birds, and even their feeding dish have palpable presence.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Blow Out"

April 2011

Blow OutCriterion Gives Us a Quality Blu-ray Release of Brian De Palma's 1981 Masterpiece

The Criterion Collection 562
Format: Blu-ray

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

I've always felt that Blow Out was a great movie, though few critics, Pauline Kael excepted, seemed to agree with me. Perhaps this gorgeous Criterion Blu-ray will change its status. When the film was released in 1981, many complained that director Brian De Palma had sacrificed plot and clarity for exaggerated camera techniques. But now that we're constantly barraged with television commercials that use unending digital effects, De Palma's use of split screen, slow motion, and other visual effects seems quite natural and effective. We can now clearly see that the director's cinematic wizardry is indispensable in heightening the enjoyment of every scene.

John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound-effects man who works for a sleazy horror-film company. He's out in the park at night, searching for new wind sounds for Co-ed Frenzy, the bad flick he's currently working on, and his recorder captures the sound of an accident that results in a car plummeting off a bridge into the river. The accident is caused by a blow out, but Jack is convinced that he heard (and recorded) a gunshot right before the tire was punctured, meaning it was actually a murder. In fact, it would be a political assassination, since the car's driver was a presidential candidate. Jack rescues Sally (Nancy Allen), an unexpected passenger in the car, and pursues the truth while he and Sally are chased by a zealous killer (John Lithgow) who wants to leave no witnesses alive. Jack is one of Travolta's best performances, and he creates a nice-guy character who the audience can relate to and cheer on. In the last three scenes his acting is absolutely Oscar worthy.

De Palma approved this video transfer of Blow Out, and for the most part it looks excellent. But it's not perfect. One scene shot inside a car is loaded with video noise, and some of the night scenes are a little murky, but most of the images are crisp and clean, especially exteriors. Skin tones are good, blacks are deep, and shadow detail is always adequate and often excellent. People who remember reel-to-reel tape will appreciate the clean-as-a-whistle close-up shots of vintage tape recorders. The sound is mostly up front with a little bit of ambient sound distributed to the rear channels. Pino Donaggio's music is rich and full, and the dialogue is clear.

Even if you didn't care for the movie, you have to check out this disc for one of the extras. Cameraman Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam, demonstrates the fascinating device and talks about his work on Blow Out. He's an engaging, interesting guy who makes for a vigorously entertaining extra. Others include a long interview with De Palma and a shorter one with Nancy Allen. De Palma's 1967 Murder à la Mod is also included in its 80-minute entirety. It's a mixed bag, more interesting as an experiment than as drama, but it presents some of the best black-and-white images I've ever seen on a video screen.

Blow Out is an engrossing movie, part political thriller, part noir, and part murder mystery with all its pieces adding up to an entertaining, satisfying whole.

Be sure to watch for: A little bit into chapter 6 there's a scene at a newsstand that's so sharp you can read the magazine covers. Even the snack-food packets look tangible. And don't miss the supplement Murder à la Mod, which has undeniably crisp black-and-white images.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kes"

April 2011

KesKen Loach’s Social Commentary Receives First-Class Blu-ray Treatment from Criterion

The Criterion Collection 561
Format: Blu-ray

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

Since the fare here has been heavily weighted to superhero and SFX films for the past month, let's turn attention to dramas for a bit. Kes (1969) was the first big hit for director Ken Loach, and it remains one of the most lyrical expressions of social injustice ever committed to film. On the surface it's a touching, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad movie about a young boy who finds a young kestrel and trains it to fly and return to his gloved hand. The main theme, however, is about an educational system that dead-ends creative children and parcels them out as unskilled laborers. Most of Loach's films portray the poorer classes in England in a very personal and realistic manner, and Kes follows suit, exploring the coal miners and laborers of the northern part of the country.

Billy (David Bradley) lives with his mother and brother in a house so small that the two siblings must share a bed. Brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) works in the coal mines, and it's assumed that Billy will leave school early to do the same. At a show-and-tell in English class, Billy talks about training Kes. His eyes light up and he becomes galvanized and magnetic, so much so that we can sense that given a chance, this young boy could go on to be a success at whatever he chooses. But in a later scene we see Billy with a job-placement officer, who asks the boy what kind of work he'd like. Billy can't come up with an idea because the adults in his life, his English teacher (Colin Welland) excepted, have drilled into his head the idea that there's no chance for advancement. Billy has been trained for failure.

Loach believes in casting people who've had some experience with a script's subject matter. For Kes, he picked his cast of non-actors right out of a school and community in Yorkshire. Natural, affable, and authentic, Bradley is remarkable as Billy. The part of Kes was cast with three kestrels, and Bradley actually trained one of the birds so it would come to him. Today this might be done as a digital effect, and it probably wouldn't be nearly as effective as this pre-digital effort. The scenes of Kes in flight are thrilling and lyrical in a very realistic way.

But Kes is no Hollywood "boy and his hawk" movie. Though it has some funny spots, it's a gritty look at life that doesn't guarantee a Technicolor happy ending, and Loach filmed it in a somewhat grainy manner to underscore its true-to-life sincerity. Criterion has gone to great lengths to restore the movie (there's almost a whole page in the booklet describing the sources and difficulties), and since Loach is listed as one of the telecine supervisors, the result must be considered accurate. There are two soundtrack choices. One is the original director's version, which has Yorkshire accents so thick you might have to flip on the English subtitles. I did. The second track was created at the request of MGM/UA, the American distributor, and has the actors looping their dialogue over in an effort to make it more intelligible. Both tracks are monaural and do a decent job of reproducing John Cameron's intimate, small-scaled music score.

The extras include a 45-minute "making of" featurette with Loach and his long-time producer Tony Garnett, a segment of "The Southbank Show" devoted to Loach and his work through 1993, and the full-length black-and-white television film, Cathy Come Home, which decries the plight of the homeless in England and how government intervention broke up families and made the situation even worse than it was. By all means rent Kes; it's a beautiful and socially important movie, but it makes its point so firmly that you might not want to view it a second time. Watch and you'll understand. Thanks to Criterion for making it available in such a finely crafted edition.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 13 shows Jud on his way to work, walking through muted green fields and forests. And then there's the monolithic coal mine, rising like a monster out of the woods. It's a visually arresting contrast of fleeting hope dashed by inevitable despair.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Incredibles"

April 2011

201104_incrediblesBlu-ray Version of Pixar Classic Is Truly Incredible

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 105504
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

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

Pixar Animation Studios has racked up one hit after another, for a record that so far is unblemished. One of the factors that earns the studio accolades is impeccable storytelling. The writers, producers, and directors all have fertile imaginations, but they also have the uncanny knack of making the most fantastic plot and characters resonate with the average audience member, regardless of age or background. Brad Bird directed The Incredibles in 2004. It was his first feature for Pixar, but it wasn't his first film. That would be the highly regarded The Iron Giant, one of the few non-Pixar animated features worthy of mention in Pixar company.

In The Incredibles we're introduced to husband and wife superheroes who've perhaps done their jobs too well. Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) in particular has saved people from dying who didn't really want salvation. These malcontents sue, and society decides it doesn't need superheroes that have become such liabilities. Now he and his wife (the former superhero Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter) have become typical suburbanites as Bob and Helen Parr, complete with three children: Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews). Bob works in a government office, has gained too much weight, and is generally depressed by his sedate life, missing the excitement of his superhero days. Helen handles things a bit better, but the children are frustrated. They also have special powers (Violet can become invisible, and Dash can run faster than the speed of light), and they have a hard time keeping their abilities concealed.

Without telling Helen, Bob quits his job and starts hanging out with another has-been superhero, Lucius Best / Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The two friends listen to police calls and show up at fires, where they mask themselves and do what they did best in the past -- save people's lives. Bob, as Mr. Incredible, soon gets an offer he can't refuse: a caper to defeat a renegade robot that resides on a remote island. Off he goes, not realizing until later that the caper has been a ploy of an arch enemy, Syndrome (Jason Lee). Helen discovers Bob's deception and flies after him. Violet and Dash stow away on the jet, and soon the whole family is in peril on Syndrome's island.

Though the movie presents pulse-pounding chases and action sequences, it's also a deeper portrait of middle-age angst, the price of sedentary living, and the value of family. It has what all Pixar films have that make them so special -- heart. The Incredibles is also populated with exceptionally appealing characters, and it pits them against a villain we so love to hate. All of the film's ideas are presented in jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art animation and multichannel sound. Bird was almost 100 percent on target in guiding this huge project. My only problem is that at nearly two hours, the movie seems about 10 minutes too long.

I'm running out of superlatives for describing Pixar Blu-rays. Whether it's the brightly colored world of superheroes or the pale, washed-out picture of suburbia, the picture is simply perfect in all respects. The sound, ranging from quiet dialogue to earth-shattering chase effects, is equally outstanding. And for once, there's plenty of dynamic range, but not so much that if you turn your system up to hear the dialogue your home theater will be decimated by the blasts in action sequences. You can set the volume for The Incredibles and forget it, enjoying its terrific but unexaggerated dynamic range.

Disney seems to consistently release all of its major releases in multiple-disc sets so that anyone can play them on Blu-ray or DVD. This set has four discs. The two Blu-rays contain the feature and extras, the third disc is a DVD of the feature, and the fourth is a digital copy disc. The extras are extensive and contain many new HD featurettes as well as the entire set of SD featurettes from the previously released DVD. The best of these is a newly mastered HD of Boundin', the short that was originally shown in theaters with The Incredibles. The story of a tap-dancing sheep who finds his groove in spite of being shorn every year is one laugh-out-loud hysterical happening.

Be sure to watch for: As indicated, there are dazzling chase sequences scattered throughout the film. The best of these, "100 Mile Dash," occurs in chapter 23 when Dash runs through the jungle, pursued by whirring-disc-rotor pursuit ships. The foregrounds and backgrounds have equal focus during this high-speed chase, so much so that the picture has a near 3D sense of depth. The surround sound adds to the excitement to make this a memorable action-adventure sequence.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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