"Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition"

January 2011

201101_aliceDisney’s Alice is Still a Wonder, and Better Than Ever on Blu-ray 

Walt Disney 105888
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

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

I initially saw Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland during its first run in 1951. I was ten years old and spending the summer at Ocean Drive Beach, which had one movie theater. There were no multiplexes back then -- it was a one-screen, one-auditorium emporium. The house was filled with kids and not too many parents. In the middle of the movie a thunderstorm came up and knocked out the town’s power for a half hour. Though boisterous and talkative during the blackout, no one left. We’d all been so enchanted with what we had seen that we wanted more and were willing to wait.

Sixty years later, Alice has the same pull over me. Though I have favorite scenes, it is unthinkable to view them without seeing the rest. I love this film, and believe it has been unfairly judged throughout the years as "minor Disney" simply because it is "different Disney." There’s no romance, no princess, and instead of having one delightfully eccentric subordinate character, the film is totally populated by them. It also has more songs than any other Disney title. Kids loved it, but critics distanced themselves. Now, the kids have grown up to be critics so opinions are changing.

In Kathryn Beaumont, Disney found the ideal Alice. The Blu-ray contains a recently discovered live-action study sequence in which Alice has a discourse with a door knob. Pert, petulant, and precocious, Beaumont is never mean-spirited, just an inquisitive little girl who has opinions of her own. She’s ideal. The oddball characters she runs into are just as perfectly voice cast and drawn, including Verna Felton’s commanding Queen of Hearts, Bill Thompson’s harried White Rabbit, and Jerry Colonna’s insane March Hare, though Sterling Holloway’s sly Cheshire Cat is no doubt the most memorable. He was our favorite grin as kids, and remains mine as an adult.

The new Blu-ray release is outstanding. The first thing you’ll notice are the colors, which stand out as bright, deep, and varied. There’s a clue to this in the opening scene when we’re shown a traditional green and yellow countryside. Suddenly a pink and purple butterfly flits into the scene, to be accompanied by an azure mate. Throughout the movie, unexpected colors pop up, yet none of them is ever garish. Rather, they seem to suit. And the Blu-ray shows all of them in a picture than often borders on intense. The source material has been cleaned up so well that no flaws are visible and the Blu-ray sharpness makes many scenes seem three-dimensional.

The soundtrack is offered in a cleaned-up two-channel version of the original and in DTS-HD Master Audio guise. I preferred the latter, as the Disney engineers have done a marvelous job in giving the tracks more presence, depth, and range without doing anything that would be uncharacteristically startling. The disc defaults to the original tracks, so to obtain the DTS ones you will need to go into the setup menu.

The picture is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which, on HD sets, will cause black bars to appear on the left and right of the image to frame it in. For those who simply don’t get what aspect ratio is all about and want their whole screen filled all the time, the disc offers Disney View, where the black bars are replaced with wallpaper paintings that match the main image as closely as possible. Though these are not really all that bad, I opted for the original 1.33:1 as the black areas ideally set off the feature’s bright colors.

There are a multitude of extras, including almost all of the ones from the DVD release, which are unfortunately almost all still in SD. There is a new HD color introduction from the1959 television broadcast (the show was broadcast back then only in black-and-white), and a marvelous feature-length picture-in-picture, Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland, which contains a lot of information about author Lewis Carroll and Disney’s production of his most famous story. The movie is included on a companion DVD for those who can’t play Blu-ray yet or want it to play the film in places other than the home theater, but I think that this Blu-ray is reason enough to invest in a new player if you don’t yet have one, especially since Walmart is now selling network-enabled Sony machines for under a hundred dollars.

Alice in Wonderland is an animated classic that should please children of all ages. The Blu-ray version is of demonstration caliber, offering a perfect picture and near-perfect sound. This is not one to rent, but to own, and Disney has made it quite affordable.

Be sure to watch for: There are so many astonishing scenes in this movie, it is hard to pick one, but I’ll go for chapter 25, "March of the Cards," in which two-dimensional playing cards are transformed into three-dimensional characters, in a pack that folds and unfolds and changes into psychedelic colors. To think that this complex scene was hand drawn without the assistance of computers is simply mindboggling.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Once Upon a Time in America"

January 2011

201101_americaSergio Leone's Opium Dream Weaves a Rich, if Uneven, Tapestry on Blu-ray 

Warner Home Entertainment 3000034753
Format: Blu-ray

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

Once Upon a Time in America turned out to be the last film by Italian director Sergio Leone, the man who put Clint Eastwood on the map with his spaghetti westerns. It's often described as a gangster movie, but I think of it more as a coming-of-age film and a movie about a friendship that also happens to be about gangsters. In this case not the usual Italian mob, but a Jewish one. But more importantly, the film's main character has an opium dream. This assumption makes more palatable the film's almost operatic scope, unhurried pacing, and its third act filled with implausible, unanswerable questions.

That main character is David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro), who has, through his partnership with his boyhood friend Max (James Woods), climbed to the top by selling illegal liquor during the days of Prohibition. Through the use of flashback and an occasional suspension of time, Noodles observes three different periods in American history. The 1920s are the best, when the pals are boys and their crimes are more or less amplified and expanded pranks. These sections of the sprawling movie have appealing intimacy and a sense of humor often missing in scenes taking place later in Noodles' life. The first half ends, for instance, with a violent rape scene that is anything but funny. I'd forgotten just how ugly it is; it's the kind of scene that makes you want to crank up the speed, get it over with, and get on with things.

That scene was shorter in the original American version, which was cut by an hour and a half, making for a disjointed movie that often made little sense. This Blu-ray is the complete 229-minute cut that was shown in Europe and everywhere else. It was released on DVD some years ago, and I have a feeling that this Blu-ray is just an HD update of that DVD.

The picture is at times close to five stars, especially during the 1920s scenes, where every piece of clothing, lock of hair, and piece of wooden furniture is so sharp that it has a distinct texture. But in the middle-period and present-day (1968) scenes, a softness creeps in and renders a picture that is merely very good. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks are used simply to expand a soundtrack that's basically monaural. The music has an appealing richness to it and the dialogue is easy to hear, but there's little in the way of 360-degree-soundfield directionality.

There are only three extras: a trailer, a brief documentary on Leone shot during the making of the movie, and a very entertaining and thorough commentary by film historian Richard Schickel. Once Upon a Time in America is a rhapsodic, passionate, and epic film, and its brilliant, enigmatic performance by Robert De Niro is certainly a better representation of his abilities than his recent Focker films. For about half its length it looks absolutely stunning, and the rest is never less than very good. It would provide a fine evening's escape on these cold winter nights that keep us close to home and hearth.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 29 opens with an astonishing nighttime street shot in the 1930s. The details of the buildings and shadows combine for a scene that has amazing depth and presence. You feel like you can go right into the scene, and that's exactly what the camera does.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"The American"

January 2011

201101_americanSuspenseful Film Provides a Superb Role for George Clooney

Universal 62112874
Format: Blu-ray

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

The American opened to a tepid box office and general public neglect, yet I feel it was one of the best films of 2010. Perhaps it was the trailers that propped the title up as an action-adventure movie, while word of mouth belied that opinion with claims that it was "artsy." Potential audience members were understandably perplexed, and they avoided the film. The American played for only a week or two in my local multiplex to smallish audiences of mostly older women who were clearly fans of its star, George Clooney.

That reception is a shame, as The American is a most worthwhile movie. Yes, it has a European feel to it, and Clooney really is the American interloper in an otherwise European cast. But what's wrong with that? It only serves to set up his character as an outsider. The American tells the story of Jack (Clooney), a hit man who begins to rethink his life after being forced to shoot his girlfriend to eliminate witnesses to his latest kill. Jack's current assignment is to construct a super rifle, an assassin's special, for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a voluptuous but cold assassin. Colder yet is Jack's boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), who becomes an increasingly ominous figure as the film plays out. Jack wants out of the game, but will Pavel let him go?

The film is taut and suspenseful, as well constructed as the weapon Jack is assembling. Clooney is perfect in his role, and he fully and subtly conveys the extreme paranoia and loneliness that are part of a hit man's work. But as much as I admire the portrait of Jack by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, I didn't like the ending of the movie. Perhaps it was inevitable, but Clooney convinced me that Jack deserved another go at a different kind of life, and I wanted to see him receive that reward.

Martin Ruhe's splendid photography of the Italian countryside, stark yet not drained of color, is a main feature of this movie and has traveled well to the Blu-ray. Colors are full and true without turning into Kodak moments, and the detail is impressive. My only complaint is that the subtitles haven't been redone for home viewing and are a bit small. Since there are never any huge washes of sound, the audio tracks don't command as much immediate attention as the picture, but when examined in retrospect they stand out as refined and singularly clean. The music often uses the surround channels in subtle ways, and some of the action sequences place sound effects there as well, but 85 percent of the film's soundtrack is up front, perfectly balanced and clear.

The extras, which are a little skimpy, include a director's commentary track, a few deleted scenes, and a brief production featurette. The splendid film is the thing here, and I'd recommend that you at least rent it, though I'd consider purchasing it, as it plays so well on repeated viewings. The American deserves much more interest and respect than it received theatrically, and hopefully brisk sales and rentals of the Blu-ray Disc (and DVD) will correct that oversight.

Be sure to watch for: At the end of the first chapter, Jack is looking over a body of icy water from a ferry as he leaves Sweden. He walks toward the camera as we see bright-red and white railings in the foreground, along with red and blue signals. Across the white-blue water we see land, dotted with steely, blue-green evergreen trees and rust-red farm buildings. Though there are warm colors in the shot, the overall feeling is cold, typical of the movie’s design.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagexperience.com

"Backdraft: Anniversary Edition"

January 2011

201101_backdraftFire Seems Very Real in This Action-Adventure Film 

Universal Studios Home Entertainment 61106275
Format: Blu-ray

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

Though the cast listing is strong, with Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, and Robert De Niro as headliners, the real star of this action film is fire. The human cast does as well as could be expected acting out the somewhat shopworn story of sibling rivalry in the Chicago Fire Department ranks, but it's when the guys go out to meet their adversary that things really pop and sizzle. The fire department personifies fire, and director Ron Howard follows suit.

The Blu-ray edition of the 1991 movie is welcome, then, not so much as a dramatic film, but as a movie that can provide some very good demonstration-quality material for a state-of-the-art home-theater system. The picture is finely detailed and rich in color. The special-effects team went to great lengths to get the color of fire exactly right, and their success is carried over to the Blu-ray, where the flames are never too red or too orange, but are just right. To make sure, we're given the bright, deep red of the fire engines as a contrasting measuring stick. I can’t say if this is a new video master or the same one used for the previously released HD DVD, but I'd guess the latter, as that one looked very fine and I can't see any difference here.

The sound for the HD DVD was only Dolby Digital Plus, whereas here it's DTS-HD Master Audio, which makes a noticeable difference. The sound in the firefighting scenes is downright terrifying, surrounding the viewer with rushing and crackling sounds, peppered with explosions and the groaning and whistling of structures as they die. Fortunately, I've never been in the middle of a burning building, but I can imagine that this is very much the way things sound, and I hope I never get to experience that sound firsthand. This Blu-ray is quite close enough!

The extras on the disc are the same as on the HD DVD, with one exception. This new Blu-ray sports a limited picture-in-picture feature called "Scene Companion," which enhances your experience by showing pertinent behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.

Backdraft isn't a bad movie; if you've never seen it, this Blu-ray is worth renting. But as a demonstration disc, it's worth a lot more, especially if you own a high-end system that can fully reproduce it.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 7 begins with the team arriving at a fire in an apartment building. The contrast between the shiny-red fire engines, the flat-red bricks, and the fire is impressive, as is the detail when the hose team applies cascading water to the blaze.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Disappearance of Alice Creed"

December 2010

201012_alicecreedBrit Low-Budget Thriller Delivers 

Anchor Bay BD21744
Format: Blu-ray

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

You might expect me to wrap up the year with a review of some last-minute blockbuster, like Salt. To tell the truth, that movie was scheduled, but the review copy never arrived. So I picked up a title that was on hand and discovered a marvelous sleeper. This is how it usually happens: sleepers are discovered, not planned. They are those little movies no one has heard of because they failed to receive the kind of promotion afforded an A-list movie. Sometimes you can find one in the local mall eightplex. Say you are planning to see a big blockbuster and get to the theater a little late to find out that the film is sold out. Not wanting to waste the trip, you look to see what else might be interesting and pick an unknown film, go in to see it, and emerge having discovered a little masterpiece. Or it can be that DVD you pick up when all the copies of something like Salt are already rented.

Though I saw Salt in the theater and think it is a darned-good action-adventure film, I am sort of happy the Blu-ray didn’t show up, because The Disappearance of Alice Creed turned out to be a terrific little sleeper, a first-time feature film by director J Blakeson, that turned out to be a mesmerizing crime thriller. I can’t tell you much more than the setup or I will spoil your fun. Two men (Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston) set up an abduction, donning ski masks to brutally kidnap a young woman, Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), who is heiress to a large fortune. They tie her up to a bed in an undisclosed, soundproofed location and begin to negotiate a ransom. All seems to be going well until there’s one little slip up and from that turn the plot careens through intricate twists and turns to an unexpected ending. Double crosses become the rule of the game, always surprising the audience and keeping it from being too comfortable.

In a three-character movie such as this, the actors must all be first-rate on their own and play well with each other. That is certainly the case here. If one character ends up being a bit stronger than the other two, it is because that’s written in the script, not because anyone has less talent. The three young actors here are absolutely outstanding, making even the implausible sections of the plot acceptable. Blakeson also wrote the taut script and that, superb acting, and his astute direction make this little movie absorbing from beginning to end, all without a big budget.

The Blu-ray Disc displays stark colors, though this is partly because the film was shot in locations that are intrinsically drab. When there are bright colors they really pop but since the colors are so highly contrasted, the overall picture seems somewhat cold. There are no artifacts, shadow detail is good, and blacks are solid. The atmospheric music score by Marc Canham is splendidly reproduced, as are the voices up front. There’s not much surround, but just enough to keep the front soundstage from sounding flat. Extras include an interesting director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a storyboard featurette, and a gag reel.

This movie probably didn’t play at your local theater complex, but that’s no reason to keep you from seeking out the Blu-ray (or DVD). The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a superbly crafted, well-acted little thriller that delivers. It’s worth a rental for sure.

Be sure to watch for: The opening scenes are clever, showing the two men shopping for the items they will need for their kidnapping. The shots are angled so that they involve the audience as coconspirators while showing off a lot of minute detail.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Cronos"

December 2010

201012_cronosGuillermo del Toro’s Debut Film is a Blu-ray Gem

The Criterion Collection 551
Format: Blu-ray

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

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro will be known to most readers from Pan’s Labyrinth and his two Hellboy movies. Cronos was his first feature film and in it one can catch glimpses of the fantastic visions that would permeate his later movies. Though largely ignored in America, this cinematic gem received generous accolades in Mexico.

Cronos is a unique vampire tale, a very new take on an old genre. It combines elements of horror with a fairytale-like telling, developing characters we can care about. The main one is Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi), a dapper and kindly elderly man who is the proprietor of an antique store. At the film’s beginning, we see him in the company of his wife (Margarita Isabel) and his shy granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who speaks only one line in the whole film yet makes her warm presence and love for her grandfather known by gestures and facial expressions. Some find her irritating, I find her essential.

One day at work, Jesús finds a strange object hidden in the base of a newly delivered angelic statue. It is a small, golden device not unlike an insect’s body, with a real bug inside. When activated it projects pinchers like insect legs that puncture one’s body, exchanging blood. The result is that Jesús becomes younger and gains eternal life, but at the expense of becoming a vampire. He is approached by an American businessman, Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), who wants to obtain the machine for his ailing 86-year-old uncle, De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who’d rather be a vampire than dead. Angel pursues Jesús relentlessly until there is an inevitable stand-off.

That’s the cut-and-dried of it, but there’s a lot more in the subtext, which lets us share the misery of Jesús, who really didn’t want to become a vampire and always seems a bit befuddled and depressed by the results. The movie was filmed with rich colors, though red is reserved for blood and life and is often seen against blue surroundings, where it stands out. The movie has a look that draws the viewer in; even when eerie events are distasteful it is hard to keep from watching them. The Criterion transfer was supervised by del Toro and is both sumptuous and appealing. The audio track is a cleaned-up version of the original stereo and is rich and full as far as the almost overbearing music is concerned and excellent at capturing dialogue. The latter is in both Spanish and English with easy-to-read English subtitles for the former. For the Prologue, which tells the background story of the alchemist’s device, one is given a choice of languages.

Disc extras include commentaries by del Toro and producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro, as well as the director’s early (and bizarre) six-minute short, Geometria. The best extra, though, is the collection of script notes reproduced in the disc’s accompanying 42-page booklet where del Toro describes each character, including their biographical back stories.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 11, Jesús is at a party and follows a guest having a visible nosebleed into the men’s room. A big spot of blood ends up on the tile floor and Jesús passionately licks it up. The color contrast and content make for an unforgettable scene.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Fantasia / Fantasia 2000"

December 2010

201012_fantasia"Fantasia" Takes Well to Blu-ray 

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 105512
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Walt Disney’s visionary masterpiece seems fresher than most current animated films and it has been given a superlative transfer for its release on Blu-ray. Moreover, the four-disc set also generously contains Fantasia 2000 and Destino, Walt’s pre- and posthumous collaboration with Salvador Dali. DVD versions are also included if you have yet to take advantage of this holiday’s rock-bottom Blu-ray Disc player prices (an LG for $65 at Walmart) to upgrade your system.

Disney intended to make Fantasia an ongoing work by adding new numbers from time to time while deleting others. The project proved too labor-intensive, even though sketches had been made for Musicana, a Fantasia-like movie. Musicana is discussed in one of the supplements in this set. It and the other extras on the discs point out that all of the scrapped work done on Disney films is put in the archives where it might resurface and prove useful at a later date.  A prime example is Destino, a project that Disney and the world-famous artist Salvador Dali worked on for some time, then abandoned. The sketches and paintings already made for it were unearthed from the Disney vaults in the early 2000s, a director assigned and the short award-winning film was made. This set contains a fascinating hour-and-a-half documentary that very thoroughly documents the Disney-Dali connection and the way the film was made after they were both deceased.

As to Fantasia, the movie is presented in its original road-show length, which means that all of the introductions by music critic Deems Taylor have been reinstated. Well, sort of. Most of them had fallen into such a bad state that the audio engineers knew that many would have to be re-recorded. To avoid a mismatch in voices, they simply had the whole track recorded again. So while you may well see Deems Taylor in HD, you are going to hear Corey Burton sounding like him. Honestly, given the dilemma of missing material, I think the choice was a wise one and that most people would not even notice the substitution unless it was pointed out. Yet this issue has caused a lot of furor with purists. Perhaps even more of a tempest in a teapot is the exclusion of a black pickaninny centaurette in the Pastoral Symphony sequence. History has named her "Sunflower" and her scenes are mostly there, it’s just that they have been panned and scanned so she is not seen. This was a good choice to my mind, as the stereotypical images, seen in an enlightened age, are disturbing and not at all in the spirit of Mt. Olympus where the Disney version of Beethoven’s classic is set. If you don’t believe me search YouTube and watch the footage for yourself.

Those two nitpicks aside, the video transfer is stunning. Colors are vibrant and bold in sequences like The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, detail throughout is outstanding, perhaps best exemplified in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence where all the supernatural creatures take on new presence and concrete identity. The soundtrack has undergone extensive work and sounds much better than a 69-year-old effort should. The music was particularly impressive in the Rite of Spring section where the lower instruments growled with authority, and the timpani and bass drum strokes, if not subwoofer material, had solid impact.

Of course, good sound is not a problem at all with Fantasia 2000 where we have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded in very high fidelity a mere nine years in the past. The sound in The Firebird chapter is especially awesome and there we hear a bass drum that really benefits from a good subwoofer. Overall Fantasia 2000 is not as inspired as the original, but it does have some good moments, notably a Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue inspired visually by the art of Al Hirschfeld, who was still alive when it came time to record the commentary track. There are commentary tracks all over the place on these four discs, but be sure to hear that one. Overall, there are many more extras than one might first notice. Disney loves to throw up an extras title and then display four or five subtitles when you click on it. Just keep following the arrows and branches and click when you see "more." It is irritating, though, that so many of the Fantasia extras take such a long time to load. I thought Blu-ray was grown-up enough now that these delays were a thing of the past, but apparently not.

Be sure to watch for: The Nutcracker Suite is fashioned with the boldest imaginable colors and the blues are particularly rich and deep. At the end, the vibrant oranges and yellows of fall give way to the icy-blue of winter and snowflakes swirl toward the camera. It’s a total color rush.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"America Lost and Found: The BBS Story"

November 2010

201011_americalostfoundSeven Movies That Freed American Film 

The Criterion Collection 544-550
Format: Blu-ray

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

Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner founded and headed the production company BBS (1968‒1972). The organization made only seven movies, four of which were masterpieces. As for the other three, one was an appealing, worthwhile curiosity, and two were interesting misfires featuring A-quality acting. Their movies were counterculture to the core, and the company shook up an outdated Hollywood system by producing films that addressed current issues and appealed to young audiences.

Bob Rafelson was the main director, and there’s a tremendous array of talent, including Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Karen Black, Ben Johnson, Timothy Bottoms, and Bruce Dern. But when you watch all of these movies back to back, you’ll see Jack Nicholson emerge as the creative force, mainly as an actor but also as a director. In one of the interview extras, Nicholson says that at no time before or after BBS has he experienced such freedom of creation in making a film. In another extra, the great French film director François Truffaut correctly identifies the films as sexually liberating (there’s nudity in almost all of them, including full-frontal male nudity in Drive, He Said).

Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and The Last Picture Show are the masterpieces. It’s easy for anyone to admire these productions in retrospect, especially the pitch-perfect Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show, but you had to have been there to really experience their initial impact. These films produced the same kind of shock wave that Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman created a decade earlier, but the BBS movies were quintessentially American. With the inception of these films, movies no longer had to have Technicolor rainbow happy endings -- they could be just like real life. Like European movies, they could be dark and leave you guessing, in doubt, or stunned by tragedy. I remember sitting in silence at the end of the first DC run of Easy Rider, unable to move, not really sure of what I’d just seen but knowing that its impact was something new that pointed the way to something lasting.

As for the others, Head, starring the Monkees, and apparently scripted daily by Rafelson and Nicholson, is funnier now than it was then. Distance lets you make more sense of the anti-war statements brought on by US involvement in Vietnam, and it lets you enjoy the music as a pleasant dose of nostalgia. It was the Monkees being the Beatles without the same Brit class but with a lot of American insight and humor. It also made Victor Mature literally larger than life. Drive, He Said , the one film Nicholson directed, is also anti-war. It contains some first-rate performances, but it tries to cover too much ground in too short a time. A Safe Place, directed by Henry Jaglom, is the least-successful film from BBS. It’s a meandering tale of a young woman who can’t tell reality from fantasy. That young woman is beautifully acted, however, by Tuesday Weld, and Orson Welles scores points with a curious role as something of a magician in the park.

Criterion has, as usual, tried to find authentic sources in transferring these movies to Blu-ray and DVD. Cinematographer László Kovács supervised the transfer of Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, and The King of Marvin Gardens. Director Peter Bogdanovich supervised the transfer of The Last Picture Show, and Jack Nicholson was involved with the presentation of Drive, He Said. They all look splendid, much better than you might expect of movies around 40 years old. The sound is mostly uncompressed monaural, though there’s an optional stereo mix for Head, and a lot of work has been done to make them sound quite good. All of the people involved in bringing these movies to Blu-ray are thoroughly credited by Criterion, which also went to great lengths to obtain and produce excellent and relevant period and contemporary extras.

Seldom have so few accomplished so much on a limited budget. Easy Rider is said to have been made for $350,000, no doubt less than one episode of Sons of Anarchy costs today. Thanks to the vision and talent involved, BBS has left a strong legacy of American originals, and Criterion has made it possible to see them like new, in their entire gritty splendor.

Be sure to watch for: Though there’s a lot to see here, I’m still a sucker for the scenes of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, cruising through the majestic scenery of America on their Harleys. They look better than ever on Blu-ray.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Disney’s A Christmas Carol"

November 2010

201011_christmascarolAnimation Makes the Ghosts Believable in This Motion-Capture Version of Dickens' Famous Story 

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 105882
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

God knows, counting spinoffs and updating, that there are enough versions of Dickens' famous tale to keep a viewer busy for more than a day or two, but this motion-capture animated version is a welcome addition because it’s the best at presenting the ghosts. After all, the first edition of the book carries this complete title -- A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Various film versions have done well by this or that ghost, but this version does well by them all, and it lets them dominate the story while executing stunts that would be difficult for most stuntmen.

Once again, director Robert Zemeckis chose the motion-capture animated process, which he also used for 2004’s The Polar Express. The process is still far from perfect, though it’s getting better with time. In case you don’t know, mocap uses headpieces with four cameras to photograph each actor’s facial expressions, and they’re then filled in and adorned with computerized hair, skin, and costumes. The picture on this Blu-ray release was so clean and crisp that one could see both the advantages and disadvantages of the motion-capture process. Adult faces, especially men with hair on their face (of one sort or another), look convincing, but young faces look odd and slightly “off.” The technique hasn’t yet mastered skin, especially the not-yet-weathered skin of youth.

Jim Carrey stars in several roles (a number of the cast members play more than one part), and I was particularly impressed with his vocal talent. Scrooge doesn’t sound at all like Jim Carrey; he sounds like, well, Scrooge. Bob Hoskins is a natural as Old Fezziwig, and Gary Oldman, one of our most versatile actors, excels as Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim! The characters exist in a Victorian England that looks disarmingly splendid, with the aerial views of London being most impressive. The sharpness of the Blu-ray picture helps in their appearance, and the picture, in addition to being quite detailed, also has rich color, solid blacks, and excellent contrast.

The soundtrack is quite lively and immersive, utilizing all of the channels most of the time. There’s good boom and heft in the LFE channel, and excellent transparency and focus in the front three channels. The extras, however, are a mixed bag. Deleted scenes are presented in unfinished versions, and the production featurette is simply too “cute” to digest. The best extra is a picture-in-picture feature that lets you see the actual live motion-capture as it’s carried out by the actors and then compare it directly to the finished animation.

All in all, this Robert Zemeckis‒helmed version of the Dickens story can hold its own alongside distinguished versions of the past. It makes a very good holiday feature for home-theater viewing, and it contains a DVD version in addition to the Blu-ray. It’s also available in a 3D four-pack featuring the movie in Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy.

Be sure to watch for: After a literally dark prologue with Scrooge at Marley’s coffin, the scene shifts to seven years later and the camera soars over and through the streets of London in shots that give an impressive illusion of depth, even without 3D.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: Level Up! Collector’s Edition"

November 2010

201011_scottpilgrimSeven Evil Exes Can’t Stop This Unlikely Hero

Universal 61112438
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a great little movie that somehow got buried with other summer films. Most of them deserved the internment but not Scott. Based on the Oni Press graphic novels of Bryan Lee O’Malley and directed by Edgar Wright, this energetic movie provides A-plus entertainment from the first frame to the last.

Having directed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright is no stranger to fantasy that is an exaggerated extension of reality. His writing smacks of cracked sensibility. And what makes his movies work is that he completely inhabits the off-center world he’s created. In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, events happen that would seem odd if they happened in your life, but they are not at all strange in Scott’s world. The characters accept, so we accept, too.

Scott (Michael Cera) is a slacker, a 22-year-old that is "between jobs." He plays bass in a garage band called Sex Bob-Omb (a reference to the opponents in the Mario Brothers games), lives in a single room apartment with a gay roommate (Kieran Culkin), and has a 17-year-old Chinese girlfriend named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Then he spots Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and falls head over heels for her. She focuses his life, and there’s only one small catch. To date Ramona, Scott must fight and defeat her seven evil exes.

The style of the movie is pure comic book. When the phone rings, you see R-R-R-I-I-I-I-N-G sprawled in letters across the screen, not to mention "POW, WHUMP," and other one-syllable exclamations during fight scenes. When characters appear for the first time, pop-ups identify them. Since Scott must defeat seven exes there are fantastic, stylized fight scenes. When each ex is dispatched, he or she transforms into showers of coins. All of the amazing post-production art is fully integrated into the movie in such a way that you feel it was always there in the original shooting.

Since there’s a band, there are other, competing bands, and lots of musical performances. The DTS-HD Master Audio tracks handle these with ease. The music rocks loud at times with subwoofer bass, but it's not overbearing. This is a surprisingly dialogue-heavy film, where characters often speak in asides or under their breath, and the skillful mix allows one to hear every word. The picture explodes with spots of color and has plenty of detail in bright and dark scenes, but I remember the colors popping even more seeing the film in a theater.

Extras are plentiful and interesting, including four commentaries and a really useful visual trivia track that lets one in on the in-jokes and references. One of the commentaries features Wright and O’Malley and it proves very instructive to have a director and source-material author discussing the changes that needed to be made in carrying the story from the printed page to film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is funny, appealing, exciting, intelligent, heroic, passionate, and even, at times, heart warming. It has been brought to Blu-ray with care and imagination and deserves a wider audience than the theatrical release garnered. Don’t deny yourself its many pleasures. If you don’t have Blu-ray yet, there’s a second disc in this set that contains a DVD copy of the movie as well as a digital copy.

Be sure to watch for: At the beginning of chapter 12, we find the characters in a room that has walls plastered in Rock Band poster art. Since it involves the third evil ex, there are a lot of "3s" scattered throughout. The detail is very good. How many 3s can you count?

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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