"Toy Story 3"

November 2010

201011_ts3A Totally Satisfying Final Act to a Memorable Trilogy

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 102391
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Before Toy Story 3 was released, this past summer’s movies were looking like a series of misfires. But Toy Story 3 turned out to be a huge success and broke that pattern, scoring with critics and audiences alike. The Toy Story franchise now exists as a trilogy of uniform-quality films, where it’s impossible to add one or two to your collection; you simply have to purchase all three. 

Admit it or not, we’ve all had favorite toys that were incredibly real to us. We played with them daily, putting them into scenarios we’d concoct from bits and pieces of culture that we were learning as we grew up. We trusted them with our deepest and darkest four-year-old secrets and elevated them to buddy or pal status. With me it was an old brown teddy bear that I loved so much I literally wore it out.

Pixar examines that child-toy relationship in this movie in a very palatable way, simply by showing us. Andy, the owner of all the toys in the first two parts of the story, has grown up and is going to college. He no longer plays with his toys, though he has a great fondness for them, especially the cowboy-sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and plastic spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). The toys end up getting donated to Sunnyside Daycare Center, where they get commandeered by Lotso (Ned Beatty), a very disgruntled and evil strawberry-scented teddy bear. Woody still believes that he and his pals belong to and with Andy, though the other toys think Andy has abandoned them. The answers to these issues make for a three-hanky ending that will move even the hardest heart.

Toy Story 3 arrives on home video in a four-disc combo pack consisting of two Blu-rays, a DVD, and a digital-copy disc. The video and audio transfers are beyond reproach. I’ve given five-star ratings to Pixar’s picture and sound, and they deserve it. I’ll go so far as to say that if you haven’t seen a Pixar film in Blu-ray on your home-theater system, you don’t know how good your equipment can be.

Textures are particularly good on this release. Items like the smoke from a locomotive or Lotso’s plush fur, which has obviously been through a lot, give the movie a sense of reality that helps make its fantasy elements thoroughly acceptable. The sound design is also perfect. Dialogue is always clear, and sound is dotted around the 360-degree soundfield in a realistic manner. Thunderous subwoofer action is reserved for the finale, making it all the more impressive when it happens.

There are dozens of extras that examine the making of the movie (and Day & Night, the included short that ran with it) as well as the general character of the Pixar company. If you haven’t seen this film yet, rest assured that this Blu-ray Disc is an eye-popping, heart-warming experience not to be missed!

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 23, Ken shows Barbie his closet full of outfits and then, at her insistence, models several. The individual textures, stitching, and color of each outfit are dazzling, just as they would be in reality. The colors really pop in this scene.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"I Am Love"

October 2010

201011_iamloveLuca Guadagnino’s Sumptuous Film Evokes the Spirit of Visconti

Magnolia 10345
Format: Blu-ray

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

If you’re a film buff, you’ll only be about 10 minutes into I Am Love before you start to wonder if the ghost of Luchino Visconti has come back to earth to direct yet another cinematic masterpiece. That’s not to say that director Luca Guadagnino has made an entirely derivative movie, but past influences are predominant and the young director does mention Visconti in his rather lengthy interview in the extras section. Guadagnino makes his homage even more evident in naming one of his characters Tancredi, after the name of the nephew in Visconti’s seminal film, The Leopard.

That movie closes with a banquet; I Am Love opens with one, in which the camera virtually caresses the food, the accoutrements and the faces of the characters with whom we are to spend a few hours. The primary visage is Emma (Tilda Swinton), the head of the household, though brief scenes prior to the feast indicate that she acts more comfortably as a domestic. Later we learn that she’s Russian and that she married into a wealthy mercantile family in Milan, but she stands always apart, never fully joining the tight-knit family.

At the end of the dinner, a man arrives with a gift, a handmade cake for Edo, Emma’s son. The giver is Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a master chef and Edo’s friend. Emma takes notice, and she begins to fall head over heels in love. It doesn’t seem to be a fling for her; this is the passionate relationship she’s waited for her entire life. The movie is about her relationship with her family and her lover, but it’s also about the breakup of a wealthy merchant class, a manufacturing aristocracy. Here again, the association with The Leopard is unmistakable. At the end of both films the main character vanishes and moves on, leaving behind a life that is no longer tenable.

Swinton doesn’t just act her role, she embodies Emma in every movement and expression. This is surely an Oscar-worthy performance, though the only award she won for her remarkable achievement, which involved learning both Italian and Russian, was from the Dublin Film Critics. The rest of the cast seems perfectly suited to their roles, and they offer rich character development throughout the whole movie.

Exterior and interior shots provide a feast for the eye, and the Blu-ray Disc, for the most part, looks colorful and well defined. Some of the very darkest scenes are a little murky, however, making me wish for better shadow detail and contrast. The soundtrack does an excellent job of reproducing the bustling John Adams music score, and it’s about the only time the surrounds come into play. During dramatic moments, even when there’s a lot of activity, the sound stays up front, where it’s well balanced, clean, and clear.

The extras include a commentary by Guadagnino and Swinton, and there are quite a large number of lengthy interviews with the cast members, who shed quite a bit of light on their characters. I Am Love gives Tilda Swinton one of her best roles and immerses the eye with visions of natural and manmade beauty. Its romantic sweep dictates that it should be seen on the largest screen you can find. Be forewarned that the shots of food are so inviting that you might emerge from a viewing with quite an appetite.

Be sure to watch for: The opening sequences show Milan during a rare snowfall, which transforms it into a surreal winter wonderland, bringing out incredible detail in both manmade structures and nature’s tree limbs. These gossamer opening credits made me want to see the rest of the film.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Psycho -- 50th Anniversary Edition"

October 2010 

201010_psychoPsycho Looks, Sounds, and Scares Better Than Ever 

Universal 61112067
Format: Blu-ray

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

Psycho broke the mold in so many ways that it has become often imitated but never surpassed. One of the interesting featurettes in the extras section has famous directors like Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin talking about Hitchcock’s influence on them, and there’s a separate featurette on François Truffaut and Hitchcock. The director’s name has even been absorbed into the English language as an adjective. If someone describes an event as Hitchcockian, we know exactly what they mean. 

While other movies come and go, Hitchcock’s films remain viable and entertaining without seeming dated. Psycho is no exception. It still stirs the blood and stimulates the senses, and though some of the original suspense might be tempered by our knowing what’s going to happen, we’re perhaps freed to admire the subtleties of the terrific acting team and take satisfaction in noticing how pivotal scenes are expertly set up. 

Universal has always done reasonably well by this masterpiece of terror. The LaserDisc and DVD editions looked very good, but the Blu-ray is even sharper, with contrast between dark and light that seems exactly right. You can enjoy in greater detail the minute twitches that enhance Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates and delight in the horrific details of Norman’s stuffed-bird collection. The Blu-ray reveals all, including the celebrated shower scene, where the water has more texture than ever. 

The soundtrack has received special treatment, sounding richer and fuller. Using new techniques, the sound engineers have constructed a 5.1 presentation from the original mono track. This process is thoroughly discussed in one of the featurettes. It’s mostly Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score for string orchestra that benefits from stereo separation and surround warmth, but there are also subtle sound-effect placements that make a great difference in the movie’s enjoyment. The people in charge here have wisely kept it subtle and not gone for any extreme surround effects so that the tracks still go well with the images on screen, but you will notice a difference in the way you react to certain parts of the film. It was already impossible to think of Psycho without Herrmann’s music, and now his score seems even more indispensible. 

I mentioned three featurettes, but there are many more, as well as lobby cards, advertising art, and some of Hitchcock’s droll trailers for the movie. Universal has done well by one of its most durable films and produced an anniversary edition on Blu-ray that’s truly a cause for celebration. 

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 7, with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) driving in the rain and discovering the Bates Motel. The rain is terrifically realistic, and you’ll marvel at how the motel emerges and takes shape and focus between arcs of the wiper blades.

 . . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Magician"

October 2010

201010_magicianIngmar Bergman’s Cinematic Sorcery Examines the Relationship Between Artist and Audience

The Criterion Collection 537
Format: Blu-ray

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

Released right after the highly successful debuts of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician is often ignored as representative of the revered director’s best work. Its moods vary to the point that it’s difficult to know whether to call it a comedy, as did Bergman, or something darker. When it was released in 1958, it was somewhat scary and quite disturbing. I remember seemingly endless college conversations about the eyeball in the inkwell during the attic scene. But what was grisly then now seems tame, and you can finally focus on the movie as Bergman intended it: a revenge on his critics and a study on the relationship between an artist and his audience.

In the film, Max von Sydow plays Albert Emanuel Vogler, Bergman’s alter ego, a 19th-century alchemist and peddler who’s become little more than a charlatan deceiving his audiences with cheap tricks. There are hints that he was once a great theatrical artist, but in the movie he has a somewhat unsavory reputation, so much so that he’s been called before the officials of Stockholm to present a private performance so the bureaucrats (critics) can decide if his show is worthy of public consumption. Suffice it to say that Vogler still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and the tables get very effectively turned.

Deception is a watchword in this film. Vogler is not who he seems, and his young assistant, assumed to be a boy in the beginning of the movie, turns out to be his wife in disguise (acted by the radiant Ingrid Thulin). There are many other sleights of hand, the most remarkable being a mistakenly autopsied corpse. The whole affair is presented in stunning black-and-white photography that’s rife with shadow and light, and it’s supported by Erik Nordgren’s remarkable score, which proves that less can be quite a bit more. Some scenes are scored for only a single harp or for timpani, yet these sparse instruments are more effective than an entire symphonyorchestra.

Once again, Criterion has achieved a triumph with a black-and-white film. The high contrast is perfect, allowing blacks to be inky and whites to be very bright. Detail in hair, clothing, and set decoration is perfect, and the English subtitles that translate the Swedish soundtrack are placed at the very bottom of the 1.33:1 frame where they’re easily read. The sound is also excellent, especially considering the film’s age. Only the extras disappoint. There are two brief interviews with Bergman, one in Swedish with subtitles and one in English, and a good but very brief visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie. There are also good essays in the supplied booklet by Olivier Assayas, Geoff Andrew, and Bergman himself. Were this not a Criterion release, that would be enough, but by Criterion’s usual standards things feel a bit lean.

By all means, if you haven’t seen this film, rent or buy it. There’s much to enjoy and many mesmerizing images to see.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 7, the camera discovers two servant girls working in the foreground of a kitchen while Vogler and his disguised wife are eating in the far background. The detail of both foreground and background is exceptional, as is the accurate delineation of set details and costumes, with Vogler and his wife in black and the maids in cheerful stripes with bright white accents.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Beauty and the Beast: Three-Disc Diamond Edition"

October 2010

201010_beastDisney’s Blu-ray of Beauty and the Beast boasts Perfect Picture and Sound

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 104629
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

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

I’ll confess it: Every time I come to the end of this animated classic, I get a lump in my throat and my eyes well up with tears. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast resonates in a very deep place that knows no boundaries of age or background. And now Disney has brought it to home video in versions that are technically flawless. Versions? Yes, you can obtain it as a three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack either in DVD packaging or in Blu-ray packaging, and there’s also a two-disc DVD edition.

With music by Alan Menken, Beauty and the Beast plays like the ultimate Broadway show. The biggest difference is that it’s not limited to stage action, and since it’s animated, it can use special effects not available to live productions. But that didn’t stop it from becoming a hit Broadway show that has gone on to be a favorite production for local theater groups all over the US. The voice casting is perfect, as is the editing, and the story flows without a hitch or dead spot. The Blu-ray offers three versions of the movie: the original theatrical release; an extended version, which seamlessly reinstates the musical number “Human Again”; and a picture-in-picture storyboard edition with commentary by producer Don Hahn.

The DVD included in this set looked awfully good, especially when upsampled on my Oppo Blu-ray player, but the Blu-ray Disc is perfection that I can’t find fault with. The notes tell us that Disney technicians found some water spots on the master that weren’t noticeable on DVD but would have been on Blu-ray, so they cleaned up the entire print with loving care -- and a great deal of expertise, I might add. There’s not a spot, hole, jaggie, ghost image or any other aberration here. The vivid colors seem to leap off the screen, the definition is beyond reproach, shadow detail is ideal, and blacks are really black. This is HD video done to perfection.

The audio has been re-mixed into 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and it, too, is ideal. The front stage is lively, with dialogue often distributed left to right rather than being all in the center, and the rears are alive with sound throughout virtually the entire film. I believe that Robby Benson’s voice performance as the Beast is one of the greatest voice characterizations of all time, and it comes across well on this Blu-ray, ranging from loud roars and rants that involve the LFE channel to softly spoken inner-directed asides. Audio for the music is focused and transparent, and nothing is slighted in this mix, which is one of the best I’ve heard for any film, animated or live action.

The extras (spread across all three discs) are what you’ve likely come to expect from Disney’s Diamond Edition releases: They’re plentiful and meaningful, and they’ll enhance your appreciation of the movie considerably. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remains a timeless classic that you can view over and over, and it now stands as a Blu-ray demonstration disc with few peers.

Be sure to watch for: The film opens and closes with drawings of stained-glass windows that tell the story. At the end of the movie, we see the final one close-up, and the camera then pulls back to reveal the window frame adorned by vines and flowers. The window retains its astonishing sharpness all the way from close to distant.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Babies"

September 2010

201009_babiesAn Appealing Look at the First Years of Four Infants 

Universal 62112181
Format: Blu-ray

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

For this entertaining and somewhat striking documentary, director Thomas Balmès followed and filmed the lives of four babies from their birth to their first steps. The quartet of infants was selected from four widely varying cultures: Ponijao was born in Namibia, Bayar in Mongolia, Mari in Tokyo, and Hattie in San Francisco.

Cynics will dismiss this film as too cute, but that’s what cynics do. Not being one, I found it to be a movie montage that delighted my eyes and ears while pointing out a universality that transcends cultural differences. Balmès must have filmed for a very long time to capture the defining images that made his final cut. The four children are shown playing, eating, crying, gurgling, and laughing while interacting with parents, pets, and the rest of their newfound environment. Animals, especially cats and goats, figure heavily in the scenario.

Though Bayar and Ponijao must cope with cultures that have low sanitation (Bayar, in particular, always seems to have insects crawling over his body) while Mari and Hattie enjoy the latest technologies that Japan and the US can offer, they all share an innate inquisitiveness; an unwavering desire to taste, touch, see, and learn; and sense of delight in their triumphs as they learn first to crawl and then to walk.

The movie was shot in HD, but its picture quality varies with the different locations. It’s never short of excellent, but often, as in establishing shots of Tokyo and San Francisco, it’s of astonishing, five-star quality. There is no dialogue as such in this movie, so the DTS soundtrack is devoted to Bruno Coulais’ evocative music and various sound effects. The Blu-ray’s sound is full and focused, using mostly the front channels but opening up effectively to the rears on more than one occasion. The extras aren’t much -- just a very short featurette of the director visiting the four children three years on to show them the movie and an even shorter featurette honoring the winners of “Your Babies Sweepstakes.”

Babies is a remarkable achievement. Without using dialogue, Balmès has created a cohesive and charming opus, a rhapsodic “symphony” to babies that will make everyone chuckle, smile, and remember. All but the cynics, and too bad for them.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 9 opens with a scene in Tokyo of a woman with an umbrella walking toward the camera on a bustling city street. Notice how both background and foreground are sharp and clear. The scene has a compelling three-dimensional feeling, without glasses!

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Breathless"

September 2010

201009_breathlessGodard’s Masterpiece Emerges Alive and Fresh

The Criterion Collection 408
Format: Blu-ray

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

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is often credited as the movie that changed cinema and solidified the French New Wave. Some will say there’s before Breathless and after Breathless. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1960, and it seemed fresh, alive, and daring -- it was filmmaking unfettered by convention. Amazingly, it still feels that way today. Unlike many movies from that period, Breathless doesn’t seem dated. This is partially due to the timeless themes involved, but credit must also go to the effervescent performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Belmondo plays wannabe gangster Michel Poiccard, and Seberg plays Patricia Franchini, a young American girl working for an American newspaper in Paris. Poiccard is on the lam for killing a policeman and wants Patricia to escape with him, but she won’t budge. Spoiler alert: she rats him out and he’s caught. The plot is about that simple, but its characters are complex. Poiccard is a rounder but has such charisma that we can’t help liking him. Patricia is young and naive on the surface, but her subtle expressions indicate that there’s a lot going on underneath her gamine exterior. The bulk of the film is concerned with the two talking to each other, all while Poiccard is trying to avoid the police. The plot seems slight, but Breathless is a movie where style becomes substance.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is at the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As usual with Criterion, the black-and-white images are exceptionally clean and crisp. Contrast is fairly high and helps to highlight detail. The monaural soundtrack has been remastered, allowing every bit of dialogue to be heard clearly while providing enough dynamic range that Martial Solal’s jazzy music score has lots of punch. The movie is in French, with English subtitles that are easy to read unless there’s white at the bottom of the picture.

The extras provide valuable information that enhances the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie. There are archival interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville, the French New Wave director credited with starting the movement. There are some excellent featurettes, including a portrait of Jean Seberg that traces her career from age 17 to her tragic suicide at just 41. An 80-minute French documentary studies the making of the film and its shooting locations, and there’s a very good print of Godard’s 1959 short film, Charlotte et son Jules, the first meeting of Belmondo and Godard.

Breathless is an undeniably important film in the history of cinema. It paved the way for the use of techniques that are now commonplace, but, far from being dry film history, it’s a very appealing and entertaining movie that gets better with time. Criterion has put it on Blu-ray Disc with care and attention to detail.

Be sure to watch for: A little bit into chapter 15, Seberg puts a l’Oiseau-Lyre recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto on a turntable. The camera stays with that image for a long time. The vinyl is so detailed and realistic that I suddenly remembered not only the sound of those wonderful old discs but their aroma as well.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Eyeborgs"

August 2010

201009_eyeborgsAn Indie Sci-Fi Discovery from North Carolina

Image EYE6567BD
Format: Blu-ray

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

Eyeborgs is the kind of movie that most people won’t notice. But while many will pass it off as a schlocky science-fiction B movie without a second thought, I’ll say it isn’t so. Despite the film’s obviously low budget, its clever filmmaking tricks the audience into thinking it’s something more. The plot involves a not-too-distant future in which complete surveillance is the norm. Observation robots, called eyeborgs, have been created in various sizes and are linked to a central system that spies on everyone’s activities. The small, two-legged ones are actually pretty cute, until you realize what they can do to a human through electric shock. But there’s no question about the larger ones: they resemble giant spiders, and they have wicked built-in tools to harm. As the story unfolds, federal agent R.J. “Gunner” Reynolds (Adrian Paul) begins to realize that the eyeborgs are about much more than keeping the United States safe from terrorists, and he gradually uncovers an insidious plot for total domination. By whom? You’ll have to see the movie -- there will be no spoilers here.

The script, by Fran and Richard Clabaugh, is intelligent, and it’s acted with skill by a group of actors known for supporting roles on television shows. Richard Clabaugh is also the director, and because he teaches cinematography at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the production was centered in Winston-Salem, where the school is located. The eyeborg robots are CGI, though you can tell on only one or two occasions. The photography is solid, and the Blu-ray Disc reflects it with an honest, well-defined look and skin tones that are right on target. The dynamic soundtrack makes good use of surround possibilities, and the extras provide a clear and straightforward look at the film’s production and how the producers worked around the low budget.

Eyeborgs probably cost five percent of a Hollywood-budgeted CGI fest like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but it’s more effective in its simplicity (as opposed to Joe’s simple-mindedness), and whereas Joe had little dramatic impact, Eyeborgs scores as a solid science-fiction drama, too. Score one for Eyeborgs.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 10 places the viewer in the middle of a final shootout with the robots. Shadow detail is particularly good in these scenes, and it will let you know whether your brightness and contrast are adjusted correctly.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Black Orpheus"

August 2010

201008_blackorpheusCriterion’s Black Orpheus Is, in a Word, Irresistible 

The Criterion Collection 48
Format: Blu-ray

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

Rio de Janeiro! Carnival! Dancing in the streets! Insistent, incessant, irrepressible drum beats! The birth of bossa nova! Bright colors and lavish costumes! A love story for all time! Any of these exclamatory phrases could be used to describe Black Orpheus, the award-winning movie that took the world by storm in 1959. Made by French director Marcel Camus, the film explored Brazil while wrapping it up in an appealing, superficial toy box worthy of MGM or Disney. Residents of Rio’s poorer sections, who are portrayed as constantly happy and always singing and dancing, bear as much of a relationship to reality as Gershwin’s romanticized Catfish Row denizens in Porgy and Bess or, “Ol’ Man River” aside, the joyful riverbank dwellers in MGM’s Show Boat.

The love story in Black Orpheus is an updating of the Greek Orpheus and Eurydice tragedy, and was based on the revisionist South American play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes. In this film version of the play, Orfeo (Breno Mello) is a streetcar conductor and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is the new girl in town who steals his heart. But Eurydice is pursued by Death (Adhemar Ferreira da Silva in a slinky, death’s-head costume worthy of Carnival). The interesting truth underlying the romanticism is that all of the actors are of African descent. The American and European public had previously been exposed to South America via Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat, performers with Hispanic backgrounds, but Camus dared, in segregated 1959, to make it clear that Brazil also had a large black clear.

The Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá composed the film’s score, which shows the influence of the bossa nova beat on Brazilian music. But the drumming sequences just as clearly reveal African roots, and taken together, the two influences form a wonderful concoction that provides memorable melodies and rhythms, making it difficult to sit still while watching this movie. The Criterion mono soundtrack has been considerably cleaned up from the original optical version, and it’s offered uncompressed. The images on screen are as memorable as the sounds, and the almost overly bright colors of the costumes play very well on Blu-ray without any smearing or bleeding. The movie is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and in Portuguese with fairly easy-to-read English subtitles. There’s also an English-dubbed soundtrack, but you don’t want to go there. Stick with the original.

The extras include a full-length film, Looking for Black Orpheus, which offers a closer look at the racial makeup of Rio and the racism that has existed there. There are also archival interviews with Camus and Marpessa Dawn, as well as a contemporary interview with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam, jazz historian Gary Giddins, and Brazilian author Ruy Castro, who discuss the film’s musical roots in great depth.

Black Orpheus is an important film in the history of cinema, but it’s also a very entertaining movie that’s full of life and romantic vision. I’ve seen it many times, but never looking as gorgeous as it does in Criterion’s colorful Blu-ray edition. It is, in a word, irresistible.

Be sure to watch for: I was struck by the beginning of chapter 11, in which the hillside community prepares to go down the mountain to celebrate Carnival in metropolitan Rio. The scene is a riot of blues: Serafina (Léa Garcia) is in a turquoise top with a bluish purple skirt, behind her is a building painted in navy blue and white stripes, and yet another steely blue can be seen in Rio’s harbor. All of these blues are set against a background of green grass on the left, and to the right of the screen are banners and flags bearing every conceivable color. It’s just as demanding as any color test pattern, but much more enjoyable.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kalifornia"

August 2010

201008_kaliforniaKalifornia Is Propelled by Superb Acting

MGM M122542
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

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

Kalifornia was released to a limited number of theaters in 1993, after which it was promptly forgotten. A few critics gave it favorable reviews, but by and large the thriller was ignored. It later resurfaced because members of its cast, including Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny (pre X-Files), and Michelle Forbes, went on to find fame. The film received a released in the early days of DVD, and it’s now one of the headliner titles in the recently launched Fox and MGM Blu-ray Plus DVD series.

This renewed interest is gratifying, because the movie really is top-drawer. Duchovny and Forbes play a yuppie couple who travel to California while gathering research for a book on serial killers, for which she’ll take photographs of sites where murders occurred and he’ll write text to accompany them. After placing a notice for someone to share the ride and expenses, they draw in Early Grayce (Pitt) and Adele Corners (Lewis), poor white trash and, in Early’s case, a killer. The rest of the movie depicts a road trip from hell as Early’s true nature slowly emerges. The script never descends into slasher-flick land, and the acting is as good as you’ll see anywhere, with all four principals fully embodying their characters. Lewis and Pitt are particularly good, turning in what might be the best performances of their careers. How they escaped award nomination is a mystery, as is the fact that the movie’s director, Dominic Sena, has gone on to make only two-star films like Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish, and Whiteout).

Bojan Bazelle’s cinematography is a major factor in Kalifornia, as he utilizes imaginative angles and focus points to generate just the right mood for each scene. These details come across very well on the Blu-ray. The audio is mostly up front, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks kick up a ruckus when required while always allowing for clear dialogue. There are no extras beyond a trailer, though we might consider the second disc to be one big extra. Using streaming video, it contains the film in both unrated and R-rated versions, in both widescreen and pan-and-scan. The Blu-ray contains only the unrated version, which adds about a minute of uncomfortable violence to the movie.

If you haven’t seen Kalifornia, you owe it to yourself to give this unheralded masterpiece a look. If you have seen it, have fun looking back at the early careers of the famous actors involved. You’ll easily see why they’ve been successful; these early efforts reveal superb talents.

Be sure to watch for: There are many shots in this movie that demonstrate Blu-ray’s ability to crisply reproduce backgrounds. At the beginning of chapter 20 there’s a helicopter flyover on a beach, with Michelle Forbes on the far left of the screen and a beach house on the right. As the helicopter fades in the distance, it keeps its shape and definition, giving the scene a three-dimensional depth.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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