Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stop Making Sense: Legendary concert sounds great on Blu-ray

Stop Making Sense (documentary, music)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
88 minutes

Umvd/Visual Entertainment | 1984 | 88 min | Not rated | Oct 13, 2009

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (audience mix)
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (studio mix)
English: LPCM 2.0

The Film 5/5

I was passionate about music long before I became passionate about film. It began when my neighbor played Hunky Dory to me, and became stronger through school as I discovered the likes of Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Joy Division, The Fall and too many punk bands to mention. We shared albums on cassette and I started listening to the John Peel show on the radio. He broadened my appreciation for obscure music. I mention this because Talking Heads were a big part of my musical education. I remember playing Fear of Music to death when it came out.

David Byrne is not a conventional singer. In fact, very few of the bands I love have people who can really sing. It's just not a requirement for me. I prefer vocalists who obviously feel what they are performing, even if their vocal ability is limited. A list of my favorites would include:

Ian Curtis - Joy Division
Neil Young
Stephen Malkmus - Pavement (can change key several times during a line)
Black Francis - Pixies
Tom Verlaine - Television
David Bowie
Kristin Hersh - Throwing Muses
Polly Harvey
Nick Cave
Thurston Moore/Kim Gordon/Lee Ranaldo - Sonic Youth
Kurt Cobain - Nirvana
Jonathan Richman - The Modern Lovers
Mark E. Smith - The Fall

Byrne whines, growls, yelps and screams. It works...for me. It may not work for everyone. The same goes for most people on the above list. That's why all those bands, and Talking Heads, don't sound like anyone else. They have their own identity. It amazes me that bands like Television don't get more recognition. Marquee Moon (arguably the best album of the 70s) is an absolute masterpiece of guitar sound, but they were labeled as punk/new wave and never got the recognition they deserved. I'm one of their 17 fans across the world.

Talking Heads deserve a special place in music history and the band was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Their sound isn't exactly rock, but what is it? There's a huge funk influence as well as world music.

The rhythm section was superb with Chris Frantz (drums), Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboards) and Tina Weymouth (bass) all vital to the mix. For the purposes of this film, the band was joined by Bernie Worrell (keyboards), Steve Scales (percussion), Alex Weir (guitar), Edna Holt (backing vocals) and Lynn Mabry (backing vocals). The result was an intricate fusion of styles with multiple layers of sound. This complicated layering is prevalent among bands I have grown to love over the years.

The movie doesn't look like a movie at all; it looks like a live concert. It was filmed over several nights with cameras being positioned in different places each time. As a result, you won't see cameras cluttering the performance. It explains how we were given views of the audience from behind the drums without any other cameras in view. The shooting style is somewhat similar to that used in the dance scenes in Black Swan. You'll find yourself on stage with the band, right among the action.

The concert begins with David Byrne walking out carrying a boom box. He wants to play us a tape. It consists of the pounding backing beat of Psycho Killer and he performs it solo with his guitar. Tina Weymouth joins him for a rendition of Heaven, with Chris Frantz entering for Thank You For Sending Me An Angel and Jerry Harrison completing the foursome on Found A Job. The guest performers all add something to the sound and all nine performers are on stage for the start of the seventh song. I have seen Byrne use this formula for solo shows and it works well. I think it highlights what each musician adds to the sound and helps you appreciate exactly how much is going on in that rhythm section.

Byrne was a ball of energy, running on the spot, doing laps around the stage, leaping up beside the drums and performing a variety of patented moves. When the ensemble plays the Tom Tom Club's Genius of Love, Byrne leaves the stage. When it ends, he returns wearing the big suit. He wanted to make his head look smaller so he decided to make the rest of his body appear bigger. I think Byrne was one of the best front men in music history. Looking like a cross between a manic bird and Norman Bates, he was never still.

One of the gripes I have about popular music is that it's too manufactured. The record labels want a product that can be marketed and exploited. As long as those involved look the part, the music is secondary. That wasn't the case with Talking Heads. This was real. Look at their faces and how much they enjoyed the performance. Look at the effort involved.

The music is full of emotion.

There are 16 songs included in the 88 minutes:

1. Psycho Killer
2. Heaven
3. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel
4. Found A Job
5. Slippery People
6. Burning Down The House
7. Life During Wartime
8. Making Flippy Floppy
9. Swamp
10. What A Day That Was
11. This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)
12. Once In A Lifetime
13. Genius Of Love
14. Girlfriend Is Better
15. Take Me To The River
16. Crosseyed And Painless

No weak tracks there. It's not quite the perfect set, but it's close. Don't Worry About the Government would have been a nice addition. The bonus features do include Cities and Big Business/I Zimbra, adding another 11 minutes or so of music.

Talking of special features, there's also a 65-minute press conference of the band at a 1999 film festival where the movie was shown for its 15th anniversary.

Video Quality 3/5
You will probably be disappointed by the picture quality. It's marred by frequent dirt, scratches and white specks. Concerts tend to happen in dim settings and you have to remember that it's 27 years old.

Audio Quality 5/5
The real difference here is the sound. There are three lossless mixes. The audience mix (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1), the studio mix (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) and a PCM stereo mix. There are occasional sync issues, such as on Life During Wartime, but overall, things match up well. The audience mix gives more of a concert experience while the studio mix is more polished. Both are excellent.

I quickly forgot the shortcomings of the picture quality and enjoyed the music.

Can I recommend this to everyone? No, definitely not. It depends what kind of music you like. If all you have ever listened to is classic rock and AOR, the jump might be too much for you. If you are familiar with Talking Heads and appreciate what they do, the Blu-ray is an essential purchase.

Overall 4.5/5 

Return to index of every review on the site.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Criterion sale at

Amazon has a number of Criterion Blu-rays on sale. They are selling fast so you might have to wait a few days to receive them, but it's hard to find these titles for under $20. Barnes & Noble's next Criterion sale isn't due until July.

I ordered Kes, Broadcast News, Blow Out and Au revoir les enfants. I'll review them as soon as I receive them.

Titles include:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

8 1/2
Wings of Desire

Army of Shadows
The Naked Kiss
Paths of Glory
The Seventh Seal
Shock Corridor
Still Walking

Broadcast News
Fish Tank
Modern Times
The Red Shoes
Sweet Smell of Success

Blow Out
Le Cercle Rouge
The Double Life of Veronique
The Mikado
White Material

Au revoir les enfants
The Makioka Sisters
Yi Yi

The Leopard

Yojimbo and Sanjuro

America Lost and found: The BBS Story (7 movies)
Head/ Easy Rider / Five easy Pieces /Drive, He Said / A Safe Place / The Last Picture Show / The King of Marvin Gardens

The Mist: Frank Darabont adapting Stephen King is always a must-see

The Mist (horror, sci-fi, thriller)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Toby Jones

Weinstein Company | 2007 | 126 min | Rated R | Sep 16, 2008

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

English: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
English, French: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 5.1
French: Dolby Digital 5.1 (less)

English SDH, Spanish
English SDH, Spanish (less)

50GB Blu-ray Disc
Two-disc set (2 BDs)
Region free

The Film 4.5/5

Frank Darabont hasn’t directed many movies, but three of them are in my collection. The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are both adapted from Stephen King stories and so is The Mist. Despite its lower budget, The Mist is another strong entry from Darabont.

The thing I like about Stephen King is that most story elements are based in the real world. We can identify with the type of town and the characters who inhabit it. He usually changes one or two things to transport us into another world. In this instance, the other element is the mist. We learn that it has leaked through from an entrance to another dimension, along with some of the creatures from that reality.

The exposition is handled well and draws the viewer into the situation. After a brief description of David Drayton’s (Jane) home life, he travels into town with his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and neighbor Brent Norton (Braugher). While the three are shopping in the local supermarket, a man runs in with blood on his face warning that there’s something in the mist.

Some of my favorite stories examine what happens when society breaks down. Stephen King seems to enjoy writing about it too. The Stand is one of the best novels dealing with the psychological effects of a catastrophe and The Mist delves into the same territory. Imagine the situation. You’re in a store and a mist descends outside. A man runs in injured and shouts a warning. Do you listen, or do you ignore the warning and assume it’s a natural phenomenon?

Some people are deeply rooted in routines. They know how much they earn and live one or two paychecks away from disaster. Their routine means that they rarely have to think about anything out of the ordinary. They may excel in one or two known situations, but be completely out of their depth when facing the unknown. That’s when we see who the real leaders are. Who will crumble and who will adapt and remain calm under pressure? Will anyone lose touch with reality completely and start behaving in unpredictable ways? Would you steal to feed your family or kill to protect someone? The Mist shows what happens in just such a situation. The results are interesting to say the least.

My favorite character is Ollie (Jones), the assistant manager of the store. He’s a great reminder of how people are not always what they seem. Looking like an older version of Radar O’Reilly, he’s able to step up and make a difference in a crisis.

Darabont doesn’t spend a fortune on special effects, but the result is convincing to me. As the story unfolds, we see a variety of creatures. Some of them are close to creatures we know while others are like nothing we have ever seen.

Another interesting choice from Darabont is the use of sound in the movie. Most entries in this genre would feature music heavily during every action scene. Darabont chooses to just show the events as they happen without trying to influence our mood with music. There are a few muted sound effects for most of the movie, but nothing more. The result is that we are drawn into the situation even more as if we are left alone to think about how we would handle the situation. The one exception is in the last few minutes of the story when The Host of Seraphim (Dead Can Dance) is played during a pivotal scene. Its impact is greatly enhanced due to the absence of music in the remainder of the movie.

Darabont changes King’s original ending. It’s a brave choice and will annoy a lot of people. King remarked that he wishes he had thought of it. It’s a resolution of sorts and it’s certainly not typical Hollywood fare.

Video Quality 4/5
The Mist Blu-ray package consists of two discs; one showing the movie in color and the other in black and white. Darabont is known to prefer the black and white version as it adds to the intended feel. While I like both, I slightly prefer the color version. Detail is good in both and there’s nothing to complain about. It’s not up there with the best the format has to offer, but it’s more than adequate.

Audio Quality 4/5
The movie is driven by dialogue and is as much a character study as a monster movie. With no music for the vast majority of the running time, this is not the type of movie to show off your sound system. It handles everything it’s supposed to without going over the top.

Special Features 4/5
The commentary track goes into considerable depth and is an excellent addition for those who want to know how everything was done. There are also 15 minutes of deleted scenes, a "making of" feature and a discussion with King and Darabont. There are several other features focusing on certain scenes or special effects. Overall, over two hours, and a good supplemental package that’s worth seeing at least once.

The Mist is a fun world to visit for two hours. See it if you are a fan of horror or psychological drama and enjoy a decent Blu-ray presentation.

Overall score 4.5/5 

Return to index of every review on the site.

The King's Speech: Unexpected appeal

The King's Speech (biography, drama, history)
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi
Director: Tom Hooper

Starz/Anchor Bay | 2010 | 118 min | Rated R | Apr 19, 2011

M-PEG4 AVC | 1080p | 1.78:1

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

English SDH, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

Film 5/5

Have you ever been involved in public speaking? Even a small audience can be enough to take you out of your comfort zone. Imagine that you stammer and you're required to speak live to more than a quarter of the Earth's population. Throw in the fact that your audience is frightened due to the impending war against Hitler's Germany. A confident, optimistic and inspirational speech is essential.

That's the situation King George VI found himself in.

Historical dramas generally bore me. I'm not particularly interested in the royal family, despite living in the UK for the first 43 years of my life, and have no love for them at all. But for some reason, this works.

Tom Hooper directed the excellent The Damned United, but this is even better. He chose to shoot most of the film in dark rooms rather than focus on the potential splendor offered by Buckingham Palace. Apart from a scene inside Westminster Abbey, most of the rooms are drab. The story is character-driven and works because of the acting rather than the setting.

Colin Firth gives a brilliant performance as King George VI, although he isn't king when the film begins; he's the Duke of York. We see him stumble over an early speech in the 1920s and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Carter), seeks a speech therapist to help him overcome his impediment.

Doesn't that sound boring?

She finds Lionel Logue (Rush), who has a practice in London's famous Harley Street, and forces her husband to see him. Rush is great as the Australian therapist and supplies much of the humor in the film. The two initially enter into a doctor/patient relationship and eventually become friends.

If I had read that premise without knowing anything else about the story, there's no way you could have convinced me I would care about the characters or the outcome. But the quality of the acting overcomes all that and I did end up caring about a historical speech delivered by a monarch in whom I had zero interest. That says something about the power of this film.

Fans of the Harry Potter movies will be familiar with Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter. It's interesting to see them here in serious roles.

The driving force of the story is the friendship between Logue and the future king. Indeed, Logue insists that the two function as equals and calls the Duke Bertie. He apparently has little respect for the monarchy and makes fun of it throughout. Strangely, I'm reminded of The Shawshank Redemption. The two main characters are in a difficult situation and yet manage to form an unlikely friendship, with each sustaining the other.

We are shown early attempts by renowned physicians to cure the Duke's stammer, but no progress is made. The Duke's wife finds Logue and arranges an appointment. Logue's methods are unconventional to say the least and provide some of the film's humor. It's a big step for the Duke to trust this irreverent foreigner and relax enough to make progress.

If you allow yourself to be drawn into the story, a peculiar thing happens. Rather than focusing on Firth's technique for stammering, you will start to think about the man he's portraying. There are scenes showing how he behaves when he's alone with his wife and his two little girls, and how they accept him for who he is.

Firth's portrayal isn't over the top. He's a reserved man who isn't used to speaking up for himself. Over the course of the story, we see him grow. He finds that he has a voice.

The R-rating is for language and it absolutely has to be there for the story to work so effectively.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The sets, costumes, casting, sound and pacing are close to perfect. It won four Oscars: best picture, best director (Hooper), actor in a leading role (Firth) and original screenplay (David Seidler). During his acceptance speech, Seidler revealed that he used to stammer. That explains why he was able to portray that fear so well.

The film won't appeal to everyone. It succeeds because of the dialogue and the strength of the story. There's no action and very little romance. If you like human interest stories, give it a try. It's among the best in that category.

Video Quality 4/5
The video presentation isn't spectacular. The color palette is faded and wintry, filled with grays and blacks. There's occasional noise, such as in the dark shots taken in Logue's elevator. Detail is inconsistent, but strong in places. Most of these appear to be the intended look of the film, but it's slightly disappointing overall.

Audio Quality 4/5
The sound does exactly what it's supposed to do. There are a few instances of crowd noise and background sounds in the streets of London, but this is a film rich in dialogue. It comes across as clear and even throughout.

Special Features 3.5/5
The features appear sparse, but what's present is certainly worth checking out. I would be interested in a more comprehensive package in the future.

Director Tom Hooper's audio commentary is extremely informative.

There's a 23-minute feature with cast and crew detailing the making of the film.

A 22-minute Q&A session with Hooper, Firth, Carter, Pearce and Claire Bloom seems to end all too quickly.

Two speeches from the real King George VI show exactly what Firth achieved. As well as the stutter, Firth had to incorporate a slight impediment when using the letter R. One of the speeches appears at the end of the film, so you can see just how accurate Firth's portrayal was.

The Real Lionel Logue is a 10-minute feature with his grandson Mark. We learn that he discovered some of Logue's diaries containing actual accounts of the meetings with the Duke. A few lines of dialogue were taken from those accounts and used in the film.

And finally, a Public service announcement from the Stuttering Foundation.

It's hard to compare this to any other movie. There's nothing quite like it. I have already mentioned that the friendship reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption, but the overall tone is very different. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is another brilliant film about a man trying to overcome his inability to communicate, although in a more extreme way.

I saw every best picture nomination last year and this was top of my list. Inception and Black Swan both impressed, but for a combination of an engaging story and the technical aspects of making a film, The King's Speech deserved its Oscar success. See it if you enjoy dramas or period paces driven by dialogue.

Overall score 4.5/5 

Click here to find out where The King's Speech ranks in My Top 20 Dramas.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Psycho's presentation is worthy of a Criterion release

Psycho (horror, mystery, thriller)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam
109 minutes
Black and white

VC-1 | 1080p | 1.85:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: DTS-HD 2.0
French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0

English SDH, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin (traditional), Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish

Single 50GB Blu-ray disc

The Film 4.5/5

Alfred Hitchcock directed 67 titles, including more than 50 movies, but most people would rank Psycho among his five best works. It's certainly one of his most influential.

The marketing for the movie was clever and audiences were refused admission after the show had started. Hitchcock wanted them to experience the story from start to finish. He also urged people that had seen it to avoid spoiling it for others. I mention that because I don't want to spoil the experience for you. It's 50 years old, so the following comments contain spoilers and assume that you have seen the movie. If you haven't, please stop reading now and remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Psycho might seem a bit tame by today's standards. It was shot in black and white to lessen the impact of seeing the blood. The murders appeared brutal through the clever cuts and camera angles rather than explicitly showing flesh being cut. As with all of Hitchcock's work, what you imagine in your own mind is more frightening than what you see on the screen. To truly appreciate the impact of the movie, imagine what had gone before when this was originally released.

Without Psycho, we may never have seen franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw. But unlike some of those mentioned, Psycho isn't remotely humorous. The reason is that Norman Bates, or someone like him, could exist. That's the most frightening thing about the movie. Compare it to Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker for instance. The Dark Knight is elevated above every other superhero movie because it could happen.

Hitchcock uses misdirection effectively by opening the movie as if it is a romance. Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, meets her lover and the audience assumes that she is the focus of the story. We see her steal the money and flee the city. The camera hints at her thought processes without the use of narration or dialogue, and we see her nervous reaction to harmless encounters. It's a fascinating look at how people change under stress.

Crane eventually needs to stop for the night and we are introduced to Norman Bates and the Bates motel. The story still focuses on Crane's character, but changes dramatically after Bates attacks her in the infamous shower scene. This is usually the first scene that comes to mind when thinking about Psycho, and it's a shame in a way. The movie is so much more than a simple murder.

The plot switches as people start to wonder what happened to Crane, leading to a second murder. We then realize that Norman Bates is the true focus of the story. He's brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Perkins. He's shy around women and outwardly calm, but clearly nervous when under pressure.

Until the revelations near the end, Hitchcock cleverly lets us think that the mother exists. In a way I suppose she does. This is a sad story and Bates becomes a character we can pity. If you think things through from his point of view, his actions make sense. Wouldn't you cover up a crime committed by someone you love? There are many layers to the story and several different ways to appreciate it.

The initial setup uses well-established Hitchcock techniques and themes. He misdirects us and uses suspense. The initial focus of the story, Marion Crane, is a woman on the run. Because she's in that situation, she becomes more interesting to us. The $40,000 she steals is a MacGuffin that serves no purpose other than to give Crane's character a reason for her actions.

Everything flows smoothly and the pacing is effective. It's hard to be bored even for a second. The term masterpiece is overused, but Psycho qualifies.

Video Quality 4.5/5

The universal VC-1 transfer is region free and very pleasing. Detail is excellent and instances of dirt on the image are infrequent. Even though the presentation is in black and white, the upgrade is definitely warranted. Detail is incredible throughout. Take for instance the shot of Marion Crane's eye as she lies dead in the shower.

Audio Quality 4.5/5

One of the special features goes into a detailed explanation of how the audio track was converted to 5.1 and the results are satisfying. Ambient sounds, such as rain, greatly enhance the feeling that you are immersed in the story. Dialogue is clear and Bernard Herrmann's score has never sounded better. For the purists, the original audio track is included. Check the beginning of this review for full details of languages and subtitles included on the disc.

Special Features 5/5

Remastering Psycho HD
The making of Psycho
In the master's shadow: Hitchcock's legacy
Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews
Newsreel footage: the release of Psycho
The shower scene: with and without music
The shower sequence: storyboards by Saul Bass
The Psycho archives
Posters and Psycho ads
Lobby cards
Behind the scenes photographs
Publicity shots
Psycho theatrical trailer
Psycho re-release trailers
My scenes
Feature commentary with Stephen Rebello, author of 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho'

The 'making of' feature is fascinating and you'll love it if you are an admirer of the movie. With interviews from many of the original cast, the 95 minutes passes quickly and leaves you with a better understanding of how the movie was made.

The extensive features cover just about everything and it's nice to hear Hitchcock talk about some of the issues that he faced at the time.

This Blu-ray looks exceptional and the package is worthy of a Criterion release. I only hope that all of Hitchcock's important movies are given similar treatment.

Overall 5/5 

Return to index of every review on the site.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Avatar: The best Blu-ray presentation to date?

Avatar (action, adventure, fantasy)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana
162 minutes

20th Century Fox | 2009 | 162 min | Rated PG-13 | Released Apr 22, 2010

MPEG-4 AVC | 1080p | 1.78:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: DTS-HD 2.0
English, French, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH, Portuguese, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray disc, region free
DVD copy

The Film 4.5/5

James Cameron knows how to make movies with mass appeal. After grossing $1.8 billion worldwide with Titanic, Avatar is closing in on $3 billion. Despite its success, many regard it as unoriginal and simply a blend of several stories we already know. While that's true in some ways, it doesn't mean that it isn't groundbreaking or spectacular in its own right.

The trailers didn't impress me at all and I dismissed the hype from people who had seen the movie in theaters. When Avatar earned nine Oscar nominations, winning three, and the Blu-ray was released, it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about. I truly expected to be disappointed, but I was completely wrong.

Within 90 seconds, the movie had me in its grasp.

We see an interior shot of the ship and meet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the main protagonist. Cameron chooses to use Sully as a narrator and it works effectively. The opening shot of the ship looks impressive and gives an idea of the sheer scale of the movie. A minute later, a shot of Pandora orbiting a gas giant increases the impression of size.

The first 24 minutes takes time to establish the setting. We meet the main human characters and discover some of their background and the purpose of their mission. Sully is an ex-marine who, despite having lost the use of his legs, is able to use the expensive avatar intended for his dead brother. This shows us that the mining company in the story is cynical and only concerned about the bottom line, money.

Sully has no experience with the avatar and no training in the background of the native Na'vi language. He's portrayed as savvy, confident and disrespectful, and we are supposed to like him immediately. After a speech that wouldn't have been out of place in Full Metal Jacket, we learn that Pandora is a dangerous and inhospitable moon and that many will not survive their tour of duty.

The initial setup might drag for some, but it held my interest. The exposition is clumsy, but it really doesn't matter. This is a feast for the eyes and ears and you will enjoy it more if you don't stop to analyze it.

After 24 minutes, everything changes when Sully, as part of an exploration team, is sent on a mission outside the training complex in his avatar body. The initial shot of the surface is breathtaking, full of detail and color. In fact some of the colors seem totally new to science.

Sully's inexperience shows and he is separated from the team by the native animals. That's when the story really begins as we encounter a Na'vi woman in the form of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Sully's eventual love interest.

The hour following Sully's first trip to the surface is the most original and interesting part of the movie. We are shown Pandora and the Na'vi way of life in an extended training sequence as the tribe decides to study Sully. The creatures and plants he encounters are quite different from things we have seen before. The jungle which they inhabit also has unique features. Just look at some of the night scenes for example.

I don't want to ruin the story by revealing too much for the few people who haven't seen Avatar, so let's concentrate on the themes.

As the world is introduced to us, we start to shift focus. Instead of viewing it as something to be exploited for its minerals, it becomes a precious thing of beauty. The inhabitants want nothing more than to live and be left alone. It's an effective sequence and most viewers will empathize with the plight of the Na'vi and start to side with them, just as our protagonist does.

As I have indicated, the script isn't the most important reason to watch Avatar. Some of the dialogue is silly and you are clearly told which characters you are supposed to like or dislike. But that doesn't mean it's totally without depth and you will see a few of the characters develop and change. Sully is an obvious example, as is Grace (Sigourney Weaver), but take a closer look at Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso). His character interested me and I enjoyed seeing his character gradually change throughout the story. I would have liked to have seen him involved even more.

Once we are fully invested in the Na'vi way of life, the events which follow have more meaning. The actions of the military seem like abominations. There are obvious parallels to the way in which the US military is viewed by some. The use of Unobtainium is an obvious reference to oil in today's world. The home tree may even be viewed as the twin towers and the Na'vi represent a race that was exploited on our own world. Cameron isn't afraid to use our modern prejudices to draw us in deeper. There is a strong green message as well and it just seems wrong to destroy the beauty and harm the native population.

I'm a big fan of Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggin series and it was interesting to see his theme of everything in the world being connected - from Speaker of the Dead - used in Avatar. It was effective because it heightened the feeling that this world and its people should not be exploited.

The final 45 minutes switches to full Hollywood mode. We see non-stop action, explosions, inspirational speeches, death, heroic acts, unlikely outcomes and miraculous escapes. It's full of cliché, but I found that I didn't actually mind. The reason was that the first half of the story made me care about these characters. I was fully invested.

One thing I realized after taking everything in was that Avatar was unique in one very important way:

I'm a fan of science fiction in general and love movies such as Blade Runner and Dune. When I watch those movies, or Star Wars, I know that they are set in different realities and sometimes on different worlds. But part of me always thinks that it's just Earth. It may feature a desert setting or use an unusual location, but it's still something I know. Avatar made me feel like I stepped out onto a completely new world. When I saw where and how the Na'vi lived, I was really seeing it for the first time. The creatures, the fauna and the colors were unique. It almost felt like I was a part of the story.

The overall pacing was excellent. Once you see Pandora's surface for the first time, you'll be hooked. This experience doesn't seem to last over two-and-a-half hours and you will probably wish for more when it ends. Don't despair; there is now an extended cut available with an additional 16 minutes and extensive special features, as well as the likelihood of two sequels over the next few years. The popularity of Avatar almost guarantees that we will be seeing a lot more of Pandora in the future. I for one can't wait.

Avatar is influenced by so many movies that it would be prohibitive to list them all. Dances with Wolves and The Matrix are certainly near the top of the list.

Video Quality 5/5
Avatar looks better than any movie I have ever seen, with the exception of some fully-animated titles. Although the majority was created on a computer rather than filmed with a camera, it seems real and the detail is exceptional. The colors that we know are accurate, while the newly-invented surroundings and inhabitants appear consistent with the less-familiar colors. The image is so good that it adds to the feeling that you are stepping out onto an unknown world. Even the menu and subtitles look impressive. I really can't imagine a better quality presentation in the future.

Audio Quality 5/5
The sound quality matches the picture quality. There is so much detail that it's a completely immersive experience. You can hear creatures all around you on the moon's surface. The latter action sequences carry impressive weight and the explosions seem real. The score matches the mood of the movie well and builds during important sequences, in a similar fashion to Lord of the Rings. I didn't have to strain to hear any dialogue.

It's hard to fault anything in the presentation as a whole. This is why Blu-ray exists.

Overall score 5/5 

Return to index of every review on the site.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Exorcist: Excellent Blu-ray presentation for Friedkin's theological thriller

The Exorcist (horror, mystery, thriller)
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb
Director: William Friedkin

Warner Brothers | 1973 | 132m and 122m | Rated R |

VC-1 | 1080p | 1.78:1

English DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono

English SDH, Arabic, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German SDH, Greek, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian SDH, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish

Two 50GB Blu-ray Discs

The Film 4/5

The Exorcist's iconic cover claims that it's the scariest film of all time, but the makers of the movie prefer to label it as a theological thriller. I tend to agree and have always considered The Silence of the Lambs, The Shining and Psycho as psychological thrillers rather than horror. I mention those three because they represent the best that 'horror' has to offer, whether you label them as such or not.

When I think of horror films, the first thing that comes to mind is excessive gore and cheesy lines. I'm simply not a fan of seeing bodies hacked to pieces and I don't find any value in cheesy horror stories. So bear that in mind if you are a fan of such movies as the Evil Dead (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Instead, I look at how films are made, what they make me feel, the quality of the acting and the methods used by the director. In those terms, The Exorcist deserves to be rated among the best 'horror' films ever made.

The film plays like a book with the three main sets of characters being shown individually before the threads are drawn together for the body of the story. The story begins with Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) heading an archeological expedition in Iraq. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is shown caring for his dying mother and we see how he lives. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is shown being a mother to Regan (Linda Blair).

Regan is a pretty, playful 12-year-old girl without a care in the world. We see her demeanor gradually change as she's possessed by a demon. She seeks out her mother's bed because her own is shaking, but her mother thinks she's lying. There are noises in the attic which are thought to be rats as Chris tries to label them as something familiar. Regan's sweet nature gradually erodes and we see her lose her temper more and more frequently. She's eventually referred to doctors and shouts obscenities at them. Some of the tests she has to undergo would be frightening to a child, but everything comes back negative. A psychiatrist gets a turn and also fails to solve the problem. Denial is a powerful thing in this story as doctors continually try to rationalize the things they are seeing and hearing.

Chris is an atheist, but can see that the doctors are wrong. She eventually seeks out help from Father Karras, showing just how desperate she is to help her daughter. If you allow yourself to be drawn in to the story and consider how you would react if your own child underwent such changes, you'll feel the power of this film.

The climax of the film sees Father Karras and Father Merrin performing an exorcism after convincing the church that it was needed. Regan's transformation is impressive. When possessed, she talks in many different voices, some of which are known to the priests and the people around her. The demon is a master liar and seeks to confuse the priests and prevent the exorcism. Regan becomes a monster, reeling off obscenities and spewing foul green bile. Her face and body become covered in scars and it's hard to see anything of the original person.

In 1973, it was a real challenge to produce some of the effects seen in the film. Instead of CGI, everything had to be done by other means. Wires were used in two or three of the scenes were Regan levitates or runs down the stairs upside down. A model was made to enable the illusion that her head turns 360 degrees. The bile had to be made and then delivered using tubes. Although it's obvious that the spinning head is a model, it's still unsettling to see it happen.

Will you be scared by this movie? Visually, it's nothing compared to effects achieved by modern techniques. You might be scared if the story captures you sufficiently to make you feel that you're a part of it. Imagine yourself as Regan's parent for example. We can overlook the dated effects and take them seriously because everything else about this film is deadly serious. The acting is strong throughout, with the whole cast performing well. Friedkin tells the story simply, but effectively. The final solution is extreme, but convincing.

Like Psycho, this film was original and startling in its day. It has an important place in film history. It might not have a strong impact on people who are used to modern horror movies, but it's worth seeing for anyone who has avoided it thus far.

Video Quality 4/5

This package includes two discs. One shows the original theatrical version (122m) and the other shows the extended version (132m). My comments refer to the extended version, although I would expect the quality to be identical in both versions.

The scenes in Iraq are bright and full of detail and the film would earn a 4.5 for picture quality if it were that good throughout. Unfortunately, much of the film is shot in dimly lit rooms and grain is dense in such scenes. All things considered, it's hard to imagine the image looking any better than it does though.

Audio Quality 4.5/5

Friedkin mentions that the lossless audio enables him to hear effects that he had forgotten were in the film. It's certainly a strong presentation and the film benefits most of all from the audio upgrade. We can clearly hear Regan wheezing and the voices in outdoor scenes come across well in the rear speakers. Dialogue is always easy to understand and some of the louder scenes, such as furniture moving or glass breaking, carry added weight. The 6.1 version is included in the extended cut, while the original version has 5.1 audio.

Special Features 4.5/5

There's plenty of background information included in the special features for anyone who is interested.

Director's commentary
Raising Hell: Filming the Exorcist (30m, HD)
The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now (9m, HD)
Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of the Exorcist (10m, HD)
Trailers, TV Spots and Radio Spots
Director's Introduction (2m, SD)
The Fear of God (77m, SD)
Filmmaker Interviews (9m, SD)
Sketches and Storyboards (3m, SD)
Original Ending (2m, SD)
40-page booklet with pictures, cast details and background information

The Exorcist is an important part of cinematic history. Nominated for 10 Oscars, it won two, and that's unusual for this genre. It's a beautifully presented package complete with a high quality booklet and separate discs for each version of the film. The audio upgrade is huge, making the experience a lot more intense. The visual upgrade is probably the best that could have been managed considering the dark setting and the director's original intentions. I would strongly recommend this definitive version for any fan of the film or of cinema in general.

Overall score 4.5/5 

Return to index of every review on the site.

A little about me and this blog

Hi there,

My name is Steve Aldersley. I'm 52 and originally from England, but have lived in Toronto for the past nine years. I recently moved to Oshawa and took the Canadian citizenship oath on February 9, 2012. It feels good to finally be Canadian after working toward that goal for seven years.

I have been writing Fantasy Football articles for the past five years and have decided to branch out and write about one of my other passions.

About four years ago, I watched David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. for the first time. Until then, movies were simple entertainment for me. After experiencing what I believe to be Lynch's best film, things have never been the same. I found myself searching for every theory and opinion I could find in order to better understand Mulholland Dr. and its meaning. I viewed it again the following evening and saw it in a new light.

That one film changed the way I think about cinema.

I'm an analytical guy. Complex stories have always interested me. In fact, I enjoy exploring the layers of music, film, books and even people. It's not that I can't enjoy something that has little depth, but all my favorite things have multiple layers.

For the last year or so I have felt compelled to write movie reviews. I haven't been disciplined about it, choosing to make my comments on Amazon or message boards. A friend has finally convinced me to create this blog so that I can keep my thoughts in one place. I'm not going to set a limit on how much or how little I say in each review; I'll let the quality of the film determine that.

I enjoy a wide range of genres, but my favorites tend to be dramas. My tastes aren't confined to blockbusters or American films, so you can expect to see a mix of those as well as independent and foreign films. You will find everything from Avatar and Harry Potter, to Hayao Miyazaki and Criterion titles.

Blu-ray has helped me enjoy movies even more over the past two years. Many of my reviews will also feature comments on the picture quality and sound quality of Blu-ray releases.

I hope that you will pay me a visit again and I look forward to hearing any comments you may have.

Return to index of every review on the site.