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Home Theater Movie Renter's Guide - March, 2014

ARTICLE INDEX

"Gravity" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Clements

movie-february-2014-gravity

Best of 2014 Awards

Synopsis

Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and flight specialist on her first shuttle mission.  The story opens with her and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) in the middle of a spacewalk repairing a satellite.  They are suddenly alerted that a Russian satellite has exploded in orbit, hurdling a trail of debris right at them.  With no time to react, they can only watch as the shuttle is destroyed.  The debris also takes out the rest of the crew wnd numerous communications satellites so Bullock and Clooney are left alone in spece with very limited oxygen supplies.  That's when the real fun starts. 

Specifications

  • Warner Brothers
  • 2013, Color, Rated PG-13, 1 Hr 31 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: AVC
  • English 5.1 DTS HD Master
  • Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris
  • Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Mild

Commentary

This is an amazing work of cinematic art that had me on the edge of my seat throughout.  There were some points where I questioned the physics of space and the efficacy if the characters' abilities to move about, but that did not detract from the film in any meaningful way.  I was entertained and plugged in the entire film and the acing was top notch just as much as the special effects.  I predict Bullock will get Best Actress this year but the Best Picture award will probably go to "12 Years a Slave".  Be that as it may, "Gravity" gets my highest recommendation for the entertainment and as demonstration material for your system. 

Technical

The picture quality on disc is first-rate.  I got the 2D Blu-ray to review and the detail was amazing.  This is a movie that could have been plagued with black crush but I didn't see any signs that would have me beleive I wasn't getting all I could get from the picture.  Some of the digital effects were not entirely convincing, but I still give this one 5 stars.  

The audio is equally impressive.  Since I've never been on a spacewalk, I can't comment about the accuracy of the various sounds at play (some deep bass impulses sounded more than a little trumped up), but the entertainment factor was high.  The effects were enveloping and were seemingly true to each environment.  Meanwhile, the music was pulse-poundung, clean and open.  

Extras

This is a two-disc set with the Blu-ray, a DVD and a Digital HD Ultraviolet code.  The extensive on-disc extras are some of the best I've see - Gravity: Mission Control (behind the scenes documentary), Shot Breakdowns, Aningaaq: A Short Film by Jonás Cuarón and Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space.


"Homefront" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movies-mar-2014-Homefront

Synopsis

Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder and Kate Bosworth star in this action-packed thriller about how far one man will go to protect his family. Widowed ex-DEA agent Phil Broker (Statham) retires to a quiet Southern town with his 10-year-old daughter and discovers that the idyllic setting is riddled with drugs and violence. When a riveting chain of events forces him to face off with psychotic local drug lord Gator Bodine (Franco), Broker must retaliate using the fearsome skills he hoped to keep in his past. From screenwriter Sylvester Stallone. 

Specifications

  • Universal Studios
  • 2013, Color, Rated PG-13, 1 Hr 41 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: AVC
  • English 5.1 DTS HD Master
  • Starring: Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth, Rachelle Lefevre
  • Directed by: Gary Fleder
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Yes

Commentary

If you like Statham movies, this one is right up your alley. Fasted paced, great action sequences and a fairly simple plot line. Nothing groundbreaking in the story, but the acting is quite good (even the kid). The plot does not bother to get bogged down with a secondary "love interest" storyline. It just sticks to the main theme of drugs, motorcycles and bad guys going after Statham and his daughter. At first I thought, ”How can Franco go up against Statham?”…I mean, what a mismatch! In reality, Franco is just an ominous instigator/local drug dealer and there are a slew of bad guy for Statham to disassemble. Which he does. He is both a force of nature and a loving father.  If you are in the mood for an action flick, this one is worthy of your time. (Notice who wrote the screen play?)

Technical

Picture and sound are very good. The night scenes have a bit of graininess around sunset, but it does not distract from an otherwise pristine movie. The surround sound is aggressive during the explosions and gun fights. Dialog is clean, even if the Cajun accents are bit faked.  

Extras

Along with a DVD and digital copy, you get some deleted scenes, commentary and theatrical previews.


"Haunter" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movies-mar-2014-Haunter

Synopsis

Abigail Breslin stars in HAUNTER, a unique take on the traditional haunted house story from director Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube). In 1986, teenager Lisa (Breslin) and her family died in their home under sinister circumstances. Unable to move on, their spirits continued to roam the house during the intervening years. Now, over a period of six days, Lisa must reach out from beyond the grave to help her living counterpart Olivia avoid the same fate that Lisa and her family suffered long ago. Uniquely unsettling and shocking, HAUNTER is a one-of-a-kind reverse ghost story that chills long after the final frame. 

Specifications

  • MPI Home Video
  • 2013, Color, Unrated, 1 Hr 47 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: AVC
  • English 5.1 DTS HD Master
  • Starring: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie & Lance Henricksen
  • Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

An interesting twist to the typical ghost story. The “heroine” is stuck in a “ground hog day” loop and about 20 minutes into the movie it becomes apparent that she is a ghost. She then must try to communicate with the “living” girl in the house to warn her of a deranged killer (played to the teeth by Lance Henricksen) that means to slay her and her family. My only complaint with the movie was the location of a large furnace in the basement of the old house that has a flue that goes up through to the garage floor. The garage was added to the house much later, so how does the chimney exit via the floor? I am over thinking the plot, which I tend to do often. No nudity or foul language either. Just chills. Creepy, but not too bloody, I could see this being seen by teens at a slumber party…provided they are not planning on sleeping after viewing this film.

Technical

Since it is perpetually foggy outside and the main characters can not leave the house, the lighting is generally dim. The picture still remains sharp and except for some crushing of the shadow details in the basement, colors and details look good. The surround sound adds to the creepy atmosphere and the dialog is distinct and clear. Though I don’t remember the soundtrack very well, I enjoyed the Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf solos on the clarinet. It was sort of fitting for the theme of the flick.  

Extras

Deleted scenes and commentaries and forced trailers.


"12 Years a Slave" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Chris Heinonen

movie-march-2014-12-years-a-slave

Synopsis

Solomon Northrup is a free man living in upstate New York with his wife and children in 1842. A skilled carpenter and a musician, his fiddle playing attracts the attention of two men passing through town. Agreeing to their offer to play music for a two week road trip, he accompanies them to Washington DC. At dinner he is drugged, kidnapped, and wakes up to find himself in chains. He is then shipped to New Orleans, renamed as Platt, and sold into slavery.

With no papers to prove his identity or freedom, and no one that cares to help him, he is now property. Initially sold to a benevolent master who welcomes his intelligence and musical skills, he survives fine. When he butts heads with a white carpenter on the plantation, he is sold to someone else who has far less respect for him. Still trapped, we see just how much Solomon can tolerate to survive.

Specifications

  • 20th Century Fox
  • 2013, Color, R, 2 Hr 14 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: AVC
  • English 5.1 DTS HD Master
  • Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt
  • Directed by: Steve McQueen
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Extreme
  • Sex: Yes
  • Language: Yes

Commentary

It took a lot of work for me to sit through “12 Years a Slave”. The film is depressing and violent, and never lets up. It presents a picture of how truly horrible slavery was, and still is in parts of the world, that typically do not wind up on film. It is not a film I have a desire to ever watch again.

Beyond the difficulty I found to watch it, the film is very good. The story and characters are well done, and it moves along at a good pace as well. Just don’t expect to come out of it feeling good about the rest of your day.

Technical

The Blu-ray transfer is impeccable. From the distinct facial hairs I can make out on Michael Fassbender to the fine details of a cotton worm, everything looks very good. It isn’t a bright or flashy transfer, but a very solid one. Dark nighttime scenes, of which there are many, are wonderful but there are bits of shadow crush. Overall the image is superb.

The soundtrack is also very good. A lot of dialogue is done with a whisper but it is always clear and easy to hear. The subtle environmental sounds are captured perfectly and the score comes across clearly. Just like the image there is nothing flashy about the soundtrack, it just does a perfect job of putting you in the middle of the scene.

Extras

Two small featurettes, a long feature and a trailer.


"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

movie-march-2014-catchfire

Synopsis

After Katniss and Peeta’s victory in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, President Snow’s grip on Panem starts to loosen. Katniss has inspired a long-brewing rebellion and Snow must find a way to stop her before he loses control. His plan is to bring back past victors for the 75th Hunger Games in hopes of destroying Katniss’ reputation when she kills her former allies. Despite these odds, Katniss and Peeta enter the games and find themselves fighting more against the environment than the other Tributes. A new Gamemaker stacks the odds against the contestants making the arena a deathtrap rather than a battle between foes. Katniss and Peeta manage to survive long enough to cut off the video feed and in a surprising twist, they find themselves on the frontlines of Panem’s civil war. The ending is a tremendous cliffhanger that leads the way right into the next film coming in November 2014.

Specifications

  • Lionsgate
  • 2013, Color, Rated PG-13, 2 Hrs 24 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78 & 2.40:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • English, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
  • Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Mild

Commentary

My expectations for sequels are usually low but this one was a happy exception. I liked it even better than the first film. I have not read the books so my perception is not influenced by them. Even though it’s fairly long at almost two-and-a-half hours, the time flies by and suddenly you’ve been delivered a fantastic plot twist and a killer cliffhanger! I’m not sure I can wait for the next film due out this November. I’ll just have to read the book!

Jennifer Lawrence once again shows her ability to carry an entire movie by herself. Her supporting cast is excellent and they all turn in memorable performances but Lawrence’s charisma is hard to ignore. The production design is suitably dark and foreboding; appropriate for a world that lives under relentless oppression. Donald Sutherland is just superb as the principal villain, President Snow. You just know a showdown is coming between him and Katniss! For action and drama fans alike, this Blu-ray is a must-own.

Technical

I can’t fault the transfer’s image quality in the slightest. Contrast is easily reference level with some of the best shadow detail I’ve ever seen. Color is used sparingly as nearly the entire movie seems to take place on either a cloudy day or at night. Detail is sharp and free of edge enhancement. My complaint refers to the choices made by the director. Like many contemporary films, Catching Fire is dark, dark, dark. It avoids becoming murky but I’d like to see just a little more color and vibrancy. And I would say you’ll need a display with excellent contrast for this Blu-ray to look its best. It’s a torture test that I’ll be including in future display reviews.
 
The audio makes for a fantastic surround demo right from the get-go. Many effects are hard-mixed to the surround channels which create a lot of startling moments when a sound suddenly comes from behind you. There’s plenty of opportunity to show off your sub as well. My favorite example is when the Tributes ride their chariots into the capital accompanied by long lines of tympani. The drum beats sound almost angry in their intensity; which I’m sure was the director’s intent.

Extras

In addition to audio commentary from the director and producer, there is a 2 hour and 25 minute making-of documentary presented in nine chapters. It’s one of the most thorough behind-the-scenes features I’ve ever seen. Included in the package I received were Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy versions of the film.


"Fried Green Tomatoes" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

movie-march-2014-tomatoes

Synopsis

While visiting a relative at a nursing home, Evelyn (Bates) meets Ninny (Tandy) and is suddenly drawn into her fascinating stories about life in Whistle Stop, Alabama. The tale revolves around a friendship between Idgie (Masterson) and Ruth (Louise-Parker) who have some unique adventures together. Ruth marries an abusive husband and Idgie sets out to rescue her and her newborn baby. When the husband comes looking for his family in Whistle Stop, he disappears under mysterious circumstances. Ruth and Idgie run a café together selling, of course, fried green tomatoes (served hot!) as their signature dish.

As Ninny tells the story, Evelyn is inspired to pull herself out of the rut her life has become. She works to improve her marriage, lose weight, and take control of her surroundings. Finally, when Ninny’s house is condemned, Evelyn takes her into her home.

Specifications

  • Universal
  • 1991, Color, Rated PG-13, 2 Hrs 17 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • English, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring: Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary Louise-Parker
  • Directed by Jon Avnet
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Brief
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Mild

Commentary

This is a fascinating film that had tremendous staying power in its day and makes one wonder why it hasn’t been transferred to Blu-ray before now. It was nominated for two Oscars; one for Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Tandy) and one for Best Screenplay. If you enjoy a good story, this movie will occupy a fun two hours and change. This release has seven minutes of added footage but I couldn’t determine where the new material was. The flow and pacing of the plot is excellent. It’s one of those films where you don’t realize two hours have passed by the end. Highly recommended.

Technical

The image quality is somewhat raw as well as a touch soft. There is no evidence of digital scrubbing or major restoration. While the print is clean, there is plenty of film grain; especially in wide-angle shots and outdoor scenes. The color palette ranges from warm in the flashbacks to a cooler presentation in the present-day material. Everything looks natural and nicely saturated although there is a bit of red push in the flesh-tones. Nighttime scenes look a little murky with some crushing of detail. Fortunately there is no edge enhancement used.

No potential is untapped in the excellent DTS-HD Master Audio encode. Dialog and sound effects are crystal-clear and correctly placed and a lush musical score helps to broaden the sound stage. While this isn’t really a subwoofer or surround kind of movie, I felt this was one of the best soundtrack restorations I’ve heard recently.

Extras

Bonus features include a 65-minute making of documentary, audio commentary from director Jon Avnet, a collection of recipes pulled from the story, production stills, script excerpts, and deleted scenes. All in all, it’s a very complete set of extras.


"The Little Rascals Save the Day" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movies-mar-14-Rascals

Synopsis

The Little Rascals are back in an all-new movie! Join the fun with Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, Petey the dog and the whole gang as they are up to their usual mischief! The Rascals try anything to raise the money needed to save their grandma’s (Doris Roberts) bakery. The only trouble is – they just can’t seem to do anything right! From botched pet washes to terrible taxi service, they can’t raise a penny. Their only hope is to win prize money from the local talent show – but have you ever heard Alfalfa sing?

Specifications

  • Universal
  • 2014, Color, Rated PG-13, 1 Hrs 26 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • English, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring: Jet Jurgensmeyer, Drew Justice, Connor Berry, Jenna Ortega, Camden Gray
  • Directed by Alex Zamm
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Comedic
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

Having grown up watching the original Rascals(in syndication…I’m not THAT old), I’ll admit that these kids look a lot like their original counterparts. They also have about the same degree of acting skills, which is to say, not very good. However, they do follow the tried and true formula of getting into trouble ever time they try to do something right. In the end, they (quite inexplicably) win the talent contest and save Grandma’s bakery from being foreclosed on. I found the entire film to be tough to sit through as an adult…but kids 8 years and younger may find it more entertaining than I did. Having to sit through several forced previews did not put me in a good mood either. I still don't know why Hollywood would use kids from a by-gone era. Why not just create a contemporary group of kids so a younger, modern audience could relate to them? Overall, this movie is just barely "O-tay!"-

Technical

The overall picture quality is good. Most of the filming was on the Universal back lot (ala Back to the Future) with good lighting control. You can even tell the building at the end of the street is canvas! Colors are strong, flesh tones are accurate and I did not notice any aliasing or digital artifacts. Sound quality is a mixed bag. I found some of the dialog to be difficult to understand, either because perhaps the kids did not articulate well or the miking was not up to snuff. Kids lip syncing songs is not a fun thing to watch either.

Extras

Theatrical trailers (forced), deleted scenes, bloopers and animatics are included. A Digital Copy is also added.


"Saving Mr. Banks" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movies-mar-2014-Banks

Synopsis

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson bring to life the untold true story about the origins of one of the most treasured Disney classics of all time. Determined to fulfill a promise to his daughters, Walt Disney (Hanks) tries for 20 years to obtain the rights to author P. L. Travers’ (Thompson) beloved book. Armed with his iconic creative vision, Walt pulls out all the stops, but the uncompromising Travers won’t budge. Only when he reaches into his own complicated childhood does Walt discover the truth about the ghosts that haunt Travers, and together, they set “Mary Poppins” free.

Specifications

  • Disney Home Entertainment
  • 2014, Color, Rated PG-13, 2 Hrs 00 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • English, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman
  • Directed by J.L. Hancock
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

Even though this story is “cleaned up” a bit, I found it quite entertaining. I also recently reviewed Mary Poppins several weeks back, so the story was fresh in my mind. It is my understanding that Travers was actually much more cantankerous than Thompson’s portrayal in this film. She could have used a "spoonful of sugar", no doubt. Even though it is true that this project took 20 years to make, Walt never went to England to twist Travers arm, but the Disney Studio has the right to sanitize the truth a bit if they want. I felt that a bit too much of the film dealt with Travers as a little girl and dragged out the alcoholism of her father (Mr. Banks) a bit too long. Besides, does the audience ever once think that the movie of Mary Poppins is never going to be made? It was said that Travers grabbed Walt after the premier of Mary Poppins and insisted that more changes be made, to which Walt replied, “Mrs. Travers, that boat has sailed.” And so it had. Much to the enjoyment of millions of movie goers around the globe.

Technical

Shot on 35mm stock, the film looks warm and beautiful. Colors pop and the details and contrasts are spot on. The sound is exemplary as well, with clear dialog and wonder musical scores boldly emanating from all of the speakers. The scenes of Australia look an awful lot like southern California, but I will not fault them for that.

Extras

Included are: Deleted scenes, “From Poppins to Present” and a fun “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”.


"Frozen" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movies-mar-2014-Frozen

Synopsis

Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna's sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter. Inspired by "The Snow Queen" story by Hans Christian Andersen, the film has plenty of quirky, lovable characters along with a nice blend of corny humor, serious sentiment, suspense, and peril. Frozen definitely succeeds in captivating audiences young, old, and every age in between.

Specifications

  • Disney Home Entertainment
  • 2014, Color, Rated PG, 1 Hrs 41 mins
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
  • 1080p
  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • English, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana
  • Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Mild
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

Finally! A Disney movie where the heroine is not rescued by a man. With superior animation, musical numbers and characters we can really care about, Frozen is a visual and sonic knockout. My only fault with the story is that Elsa’s frosty powers are never explained. Are they a curse? Are they a passed down family trait? Who knows….and who really cares, besides me. The songs are memorable and the characters are very well developed and fleshed out. The storyline moves right along and the animation is gorgeous. This is a great movie to show off your home theater and your kids will clamor for repeat viewings for years to come. Love conquers all…Recommended!

Technical

As mentioned, the P and S quality are just top notch. The sounds are clear and expansive, using all of the speakers and your sub woofer. I turned the sound up a bit higher than normal and was rewarded with a sonic spectacle that enhanced the action on the screen. In this respect, Disney never fails to impress. Note: If you want the 3D version, you'll have to purchase the one from the U.K.- (Disney! That's just COLD!)

Extras

Included with a digital copy & DVD are deleted scenes, a making of, music video, D’frosted: From Hans C. Andersen to Frozen and a short flick called “Get A Horse”…starring Mickey Mouse.