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Home Theater Movie Renter's Guide - January, 2011

ARTICLE INDEX

"Strictly Ballroom" (DVD) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movie-january-2011-ballroom

Synopsis

From Baz Luhrmann, the director of the award-winning hits Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, comes the hilariously funny romantic comedy that will leave you singing, laughing and cheering for more. Experience the magical story of a championship ballroom dancer who's breaking all the rules in a fantastic new special edition, complete with never-before-seen bonus features! A hit with fans and critics all across the globe, Strictly Ballroom will hold you tight and dance straight into your heart. In a fabulous special edition, it's a dream come true!

Specifications

  • Miramax Films
  • 2010, Color, Rated PG, 1 Hr 34 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 1080p
  • English 5.1 Dolby Digital, French and Spanish Subtitles
  • Starring: Paul Mercurio, Bill Hunter, Tara Morice, Gia Carides
  • Directed by Baz Luhrmann
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

In a nutshell, an up-and-coming champion ballroom dancer gets bored dancing the same tired steps that everyone has danced in competition the past 50 years and wants to break out and do things his way. Of course, his way is the better way because it comes from his heart. However, that causes astonishment, high drama, dashed hopes and total hilarity that ensues as forces clash to prevent the young man from taking ballroom dancing’s traditions and turning them on their head. It is sort of like your grade school teacher telling you it is bad to color outside of the lines. Creativity is dangerous! I was pleasantly surprised by this movie as it is a light-hearted spoof, but the dancing is very real. After viewing it, my wife turned to me and said, “That was fun!” I agree. A great date movie, guys.

Technical

This movie cries out for a BD version as the costumes and colors would have been greatly enhanced by higher resolution. However, even in DVD form, the picture quality was very clean and the sound was enveloping. In general, the film looked very good, if but a little soft. Sound was clear and punchy during the musical numbers, but your sub will snooze through the rest of the show.

Extras

Strictly Ballroom from Stage to Screen documentary, Samba to Slow Fox, design gallery, filmmaker commentary and deleted scenes.


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

movie-january-2011-house

Synopsis

How to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s indescribable 1977 movie HOUSE (Hausu)? As a psychedelic ghost tale? A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story? Any of the above will do for this hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other ghoulish visions, all realized by Obayashi through a series of mattes, animation, and collage effects. Equal parts absurd and nightmarish, HOUSE might have been beamed to Earth from some other planet. Never before available on home video in the United States, it’s one of the most exciting cult discoveries in years.

Specifications

  • Criterion Collection
  • 2010, Color, Unrated, 1 Hr 31 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 1080p
  • Dolby Digital 2.0, Japanese with English subtitles
  • Starring:Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yoko Minamida
  • Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: Nudity
  • Language: No

Commentary

Criterion is a great company -- arguably, the best remastering and releasing company in the world. In their Blu-ray transfers and special features they are prized for their consistent high quality of the films they release. Most of the films Criterion release are already well-established "classic" films. However, it's always nice to see a somewhat more "obscure" film get the Criterion treatment. Obayashi utilizes all sorts of deliberately cheap special effects, like obvious rear projection and stilted animation but mixes it with sophisticated effects and interesting cinematography to create a heightened sense of the universe. Throw in unpredictable segues to other scenes that have an abrupt, unsettling effect and you have a very unique film. Decapitation, drowning and being turned into a pile of bananas are just a few ways you can meet your demise in this film. If you haven't given in to House by the time one of the girls is ingested by a piano then this is probably not the film for you. This is what Scooby-Doo would be…on acid! Perhaps you'll notice some of Raimi's Evil Dead humor here and there. More of an experience than a movie. Those who are not into avant-garde, need not apply.

Technical

Picture quality is generally very sharp with good contrasts and color retention for a movie of this age. A few long shots are a bit soft, but the overall picture is light years better than the DVD or VHS versions that are floating about. Overall picture is remarkable for a Japanese film from the 1970's. Criterion has done an excellent retoration from the original prints. Sound is in stereo with little use of bass. Subtitles are sharp and easy to follow, though the plot may not be upon first viewing. The strange music theme will leave you humming the tune long after the show is over.

Extras

Constructing a House: a new video piece with director Nobuhiko Obayashi. Emotion: a 1966 experimental film by Obayashi. New video appreciation by director Ti West (House of the Devil), and a theatrical trailer.


"Battlestar Galactica-Razor" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movie-january-2011-galactica-razor

Synopsis

On the eve of a devastating Cylon attack, officer Kendra Shaw reports for duty on the battlestar Pegasus. When mankind's future is forever changed on that fateful day, Kendra is reshaped into a "razor", a tool of war, under the ruthless guidance of her commander, Admiral Cain. Why can't we all just get along?

 

Specifications

  • Universal
  • 2010, Color, Unrated, 1 Hr 41 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 1080p
  • DTS-HD Master 5.1
  • Starring: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis
  • Directed by Félix Enríquez Alcalá
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Mild

Commentary

Although it sets up some events in season 4, chronologically Razor is a prequel taking place within season 2, when Galactica had unexpectedly met up with a fellow Battlestar, Pegasus. The central character is new, Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), who becomes the XO after Lee Adama takes command of the Pegasus. The central conflict in Razor involves the Pegasus trying to rescue a Raptor crew from the Cylons. During the mission Shaw flashes back to 10 months earlier, and her experiences in the immediate aftermath of the Cylons' wipeout of Caprica influence how she handles this mission and its implications of a new Cylon-human hybrid. Razor is an "edge of your seat" adventure, with top writing, great acting, and bleak future vision that made Battlestar Galactica one of the best shows on television. If you are into the series, you will have to add this to your collection. I should also mention that there is an intense "dogfight" sequence that is not to be missed! This is great sci-fi.

Technical

As earlier reviews of this series mentioned, this show has outstanding picture quality and sound. Very aggressive surrounds and bass throughout. the picturewas shot digitally and effects are very well done, with intense colors and blown out whites. Grain can be heavy at times, but this was done for "artistic" purposes. Your sub will do back flips with this one. Almost all of the CGI is good to excellent. The show exudes a grim fatalistic feeling and atmosphere that I enjoyed. If this is how it all ends, consider me enlisted.

Extras

Among the bonus features is the complete 19-minute minisode version of Husker's Cylon encounter and two deleted scenes. Featurettes include "The Look of Battlestar Galactica" and "My Favorite Episode So Far” and a trailer and 2.5-minute "sneak peek" at season 4. In a commentary track for the extended edition, executive producer Ronald D. Moore and writer Michael Taylor discuss how the episode came together.


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

movie-january-2011-cronos

Synopsis

Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) made an auspicious, audacious feature debut with CRONOS, a highly unorthodox tale about the seductiveness of the idea of immortality. Kindly antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) happens upon an ancient golden device in the shape of a scarab, and soon finds himself possessor and victim of its sinister, addictive powers, as well as the target of a mysterious, crude American named Angel (a delightfully deranged Ron Perlman of Hellboy fame). Featuring marvelous special makeup effects and the unforgettably haunting imagery for which del Toro has become world-renowned, CRONOS is a visually rich and emotionally captivating dark fantasy.

 

Specifications

  • Criterion Collection
  • 2010, Color, Rated R, 1 Hr 32 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 1080p
  • DTS-HD Master 5.1
  • Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook
  • Directed by Guillermo del Toro
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

Though not without some plot holes, this film is a refreshing twist on the vampire genre. Well acted and quickly paced, the film offers some genuinely nice surprises, such as an ending that you don’t predict during the first half of the movie and the fact that there are no fangs. The extras are great too, including Geometria, a never-before-seen horror vignette that is also tongue in cheek. I also liked the tour of del Torro’s home…sort of like a small museum of un-natural history. Fans of del Torro or horror movies in general will be delighted with this early work from an inspired master of the macabre.

Technical

Picture quality and sound are very good, especially when compared to the earlier DVD version. Color and shadow delineation are consistent and accurate. As with almost all of the Criterion Collection films, this one has been painstakingly restored and remastered and just looks great. Dialog is clear (as are the english subtitles) and the music score sounds superb.

Extras

Newly restored high-definition digital transfer, audio commentary featuring Guillermo del Toro, audio commentary featuring the producers, Geometria, an unreleased 1987 short horror film by del Toro, Welcome to Bleak House: a video tour by del Toro of his office, video interviews with cast members, photo stills gallery, and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic M. McDonagh.


"The American" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Tyler Stripko

movie-january-2011-the-american

Synopsis

Jack (George Clooney) is a professional assassin/gunsmith with a long history of successful jobs.  After his most recent “work,” he heads to the Italian countryside to lay low for a while.  Looking for a change, Jack calls his handler to tell him that he wants out of the business, but agrees to take one last job.  While working on his final project, Jack meets Clara, an Italian prostitute (Violante Placido) who changes his outlook on life.  Now that he has something to look forward to Jack must safely extricate himself from his past, something that may prove very hard to do.

Specifications

  • Universal
  • 2010, Color, Rated R, 1 Hr 45 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 1080p
  • 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 
  • Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
  • Directed by Anton Corbijn
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: Nudity
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

While this movie may not be for everyone, I enjoyed it.  Clooney is superb in the role of Jack and the supporting cast backs him up well.  The settings and cinematography are beautiful and really make you feel like you are in the heart of the Italian countryside.  The plot is simple, but it takes its sweet old time building.  This is where some viewers may dislike the film.  Slow and deliberate is the name of the game here, with each scene working towards the climax.  There is very little action until the finale.  Personally, I thought the pacing was fine, but it does start to drag a bit over the 1 hour, 45 minute run time.   Still, a very fine effort and one of Clooney’s best acting jobs to date.

Technical

This is an excellent overall presentation on Blu-ray.  Picture quality is very good, with excellent clarity and detail in nearly every scene.  The picture is sharp and contrast is deep.  Colors are slightly under saturated across the board, but black levels and shadow detail are superb.  This makes the Italian countryside look like it resides under a permanently overcast sky, which is fitting for the mood of the film.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack does its job well, with a nice balance.  Dialogue shines through nicely and the soundtrack carries a nice subtlety.  Surround use is infrequent, but does its job when called for.  LFE usage is also subdued, but gunshots carry appropriate weight and punch.

Extras

Included on the disc are deleted scenes, a “making of” featurette, and a director’s commentary.  The disc is also BD-Live enabled.


"Salt" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Stephen Hornbrook

movie-january-2011-salt

Synopsis

The movie opens with CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) being tortured in a North Korean prison. She is soon released as part of a prisoner exchange to her lover, Michael Krause, a German arachnologist. Two years later, the two are married and Salt has recovered from her time in prison.  Just before she is about to leave to celebrate her anniversary, a Russian defector Orlov explains that Evelyn Salt is a Russian spy, who had been trained since she was a child.  He claims that her ultimate goal is to kill the Russian President at the funeral of the American Vice President. No one in the CIA takes this lightly and locks the office down to ask Salt a few questions.  Evelyn is much too worried about her husband to sit around doing nothing, so she escapes the CIA offices. She rushes back to her apartment to find it ransacked and Michael gone.  After gathering supplies, weapons, and a special spider, Evelyn takes off on the run from the CIA agents.  To figure out what is really going on, she heads toward her supposed target, the Russian President.  Is she truly a Russian trained spy hellbent on destroying the U.S. of A? Watch the movie to find out!

Specifications

  • Sony
  • 2010, Color, Unrated, 1 Hr 40 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • 1080p
  • 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 
  • Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber
  • Directed by Phillip Noyce
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

I wasn't expecting to much with this movie, but I came away pleasantly surprised.  Jolie definitely kicks some ass in this movie and the action is a lot of fun.  There is just enough story and intrigue to keep the film rolling.  If you enjoy movies like James Bond or the Bourne series, definitely check out Salt.

Technical

Image quality was sharp and detailed, yet lacked some depth to really draw the viewer into its grasp. I think perhaps a bit more contrast and color could have brought this transfer to the top.  The audio soundtrack was very good, although I just watched Inception and the sound on that completely blew away Salt.  Still, a very good quality disc.

Extras

Audio Commentary, theatrical/directors/extended cuts of the movie, several featurettes to keep you more than satisfied.


"Yogi Bear's All Star Comedy Christmas Caper" (DVD) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

movie-january-2011-yogi

Synopsis

Yogi Bear’s friends decide to drive out from the big city to visit him and Boo Boo Bear in Jellystone Park.  Yogi decides to visit his friends in the big city by stowing away on a tourist bus.  By the time the mix-up is discovered, Yogi and Boo Boo have landed themselves in big trouble with the police when they meet up with the daughter of billionaire businessman, J.Wellington Jones.  Just as Yogi is going to be hauled away, Jones reunites with his daughter realizing he’s ignored her and all is forgiven.  Yogi and his friends celebrate Christmas in the park in a happy fairy-tale ending.

Specifications

  • Hanna-Barbera / Warner Brothers
  • 1982, Color, Unrated, 23 min
  • Aspect Ratio:  1.33:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 480i
  • English, Dolby Digital Monaural
  • Starring the voices of:  Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Georgi Irene, Don Messick
  • Directed by Steve Lumley
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

Fans of Saturday morning cartoons will certainly enjoy this short feature.  It’s classic animation with funny characters and some great voice-acting by the great Mel Blanc and others.  I was always more of a Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner fan myself but Yogi and his animal cohorts provide fun and wholesome entertainment for everyone.  You can easily watch this DVD with kids of any age.

Technical

This looked like a fairly straight transfer with little effort made to clean up the original film.  Color is nice and rich with even tones throughout.  My only complaint was the very evident dirt.  It was easy to see in the many solid-colored objects and backgrounds.  The image is otherwise noise and artifact-free.  It’s fun watching material like this on a big screen when you can see all the little details drawn by the very skilled artists that are lost on a smaller television.

The Dolby Digital encode faithfully reproduces the original monaural soundtrack used for TV broadcast.  The dialog is crisp and clear but the music sounds small and compressed.  Still the whole package with all its familiar crash and bang sound effects makes for an effective presentation.  My surround processor defaulted to Full Mono mode which means the same sound came from all five speakers.  This created a nice wide and immersive soundstage.  You don’t usually think of imaging when watching a Yogi Bear cartoon but it was good nonetheless.  Playing the disc with only the center speaker made for a very small boxy sound.  I recommend at least using two speakers when listening to mono soundtracks like this.

Extras

The only bonus is another 20-minute feature entitled “Yogi’s Birthday Party.”


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

movie-january-2011-backdraft

Synopsis

The movie centers around Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin), who returns home to Chicago after years of failed business ventures to make sure he doesn't follow the family line of becoming a Firefighter. After giving in and completing the Fire Academy, he is placed in his brother's company, one of the toughest. His brother Steven (Kurt Russell) is still a bit annoyed with him for not deciding to become a fireman right off the bat (Chicago firefighters have a stout tradition for family continuance and stubborn old fashioned fire fighting that has no room for progressive tactics). He seems determined to make sure Brian either stays with it or quits. Sibling rivalry ensues. All the while, a murderous arsonist is on the loose in the city!

Specifications

  • Universal Studios
  • 1991, Color, Rated R, 2 Hr 17 min
  • Aspect Ratio:  1.35:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 1080p
  • English, DTS-MA
  • Starring Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • Directed by Ron Howard
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Intense Action
  • Sex: Mild
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

With solid acting by Russell and De Niro, the story line moves right along considering that is over 2 hours long. Sutherland is great as the pyromaniac and nemesis of De Niro. The biggest character of the film though is the fire, and it is astounding! Even though the movie is over 20 years old, it holds up well today. With the element of real fire, the visual results are frightening and impressive. The fire almost looks like a living creature at times. Ron Howard (wisely in my opinion) chose not to go with CGI fire, which adds to the visual intesity of the movie. All in all, the movie was involving and the fire fighting scenes exhilarating to watch. In the firefighting genre, this movie is still one of the best.

Technical

For the most part the picture quality is very good, but some scenes are a bit soft. Flecks of dirt appear occasionally throughout the movie. Still, not bad for a 20 year old film. Sound is quite dynamic for the most part, but I had trouble hearing all of the dialog from the center channel. Sound effects and music often overwhelmed the conversations. However, the sound effects were marvelous during the fire fighting sequences, with crackling fire and breaking glass continuously going off in the surrounds. Plenty of subwoofer action, especially when the fire balls explode during the backdraft scenes.

Extras

Ron Howard introduction, deleted scenes, "Igniting the story", stunts, "Creating the villain: fire" and real life stories from actual firemen.


"Swat Kats, The Complete Series" (DVD) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

movie-january-2011-kats

Synopsis

Megakat City has many evils to defend against.  It seems like every week there’s a dinosaur, deadly bacteria, a doomsday machine or some other seemingly insurmountable threat.  Protecting the city are the Enforcers led by an incompetent commander named Feral (these are cats after all).  Where the Enforcers fall short, the Swat Kats come to the rescue.  By day they are mechanics working out of a junkyard.  But their shop hides a fantastic secret in the form of the Turbokat, a high-tech plane and fighting machine.  When danger looms, Jake and Chance become T-bone and Razor flying straight into the face of huge monsters and maniacal villains.  When the bad guys come to town, you can bet the fur will fly!

Specifications

  • Hanna Barbera
  • 1993-94, Color, Not Rated, 8 Hr 48 min
  • Aspect Ratio:  1.37:1
  • Codec: Not Specified
  • 480i
  • English, Dolby Digital Stereo
  • Starring the voices of:  Barry Gordon, Charles Adler and Gary Owens
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Cartoon Variety
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

This is another Hanna-Barbera classic but for the older kids.  While there is plenty of comedy, the action is probably too intense for the youngest children.  There are plenty of sci-fi B-movie moments and the bad-guys are typical 1950’s fare.  The story lines are well-thought out and even a longtime action movie fan like me can find something to enjoy.  Each episode is around 20 minutes so you can sit back and chew on a few of these without engaging your mind too often.  It’s popcorn action at its colorful and cartoonish best.

Technical

The sample I received came on DVD-R discs instead of mass-produced ones.  Though they will work in the majority of players, be sure yours supports DVD-R before you buy or rent this title.

The DVD transfer was reasonably free of dirt and scratches but I did see ghosting around black lines and some softness.  The clarity was inconsistent from scene to scene ranging from sharp to moderately soft.  Color was bright and vivid in the best traditions of hand-drawn animation.  This is pure pen and ink with nary a hint of computer-enhanced trickery.  My hat’s off to a very talented team of artists.  I did see some edge enhancement which seemed to reduce sharpness and increase jaggies in many instances.

The stereo soundtrack was very dynamic and to the fore at all times.  I even had to reduce the volume from my usual starting point which is a rare occurrence.  The music accompanying the Swat Kats is pure 80’s rock which really brought back some memories of my youth.  The dialog showed a high degree of fidelity with hints of reverb added to increase the sense of space.  It’s some of the best cartoon audio I’ve ever heard.

Extras

The only extra is a montage of scenes from the series’ episodes arranged in a documentary format.


"Catfish" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

movie-january-2011-catfish

Synopsis

Two young filmmakers decide to make a documentary about the life of Yaniv Schulman their co-worker (and brother).  In the course of the project, Yaniv becomes involved with an eight-year-old artist, her mother and her 19-year-old half-sister.  They maintain a long-distance relationship through Facebook, and with texts and the occasional phone call.  After a few months, Yaniv decides to surprise them by showing up in Michigan unannounced.  What happens next is something the filmmakers never expected.  Let’s just say it will make you question what you think you know about people on the Internet.

Specifications

  • Universay Studios
  • 2010, Color, Rated PG-13, 1 Hr 28 min
  • Aspect Ratio:  1.85:1
  • Codec:  VC1
  • 1080p
  • English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
  • Starring: Yaniv Schulman, Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Ariel Schulman
  • Directed by Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: Suggestive
  • Language: Mild

Commentary

Catfish is shot in a freeform documentary style.  It is meant to be a reality-type look at Yaniv’s life as he lives it.  Mostly he interacts with the person behind the camera but you see him talk to other people in the shot as well.  Even though the camera is handheld, shaking is minimal.  I did not experience any fatigue from excessive movement.  This film genre is not really my thing but I did find myself being drawn in and within a half hour or so, I really wanted to see how it turned out.  Yaniv is not really a character I identified with but I was impressed at the maturity he showed in a difficult situation.  There is some speculation online that this entire project was staged and scripted but it sure looked real to me.  If the people in this movie are actors, they did an extremely convincing job playing their roles.  Perhaps Catfish will become one of those great Hollywood mysteries.  Was it fake?  Was it real?  We may never know.

Technical

The entire movie was filmed with consumer-grade handheld video cameras.  The image therefore ranges in quality from poor to OK.  Color is natural and consistent throughout.  There is one nighttime scene which looks pretty good given it’s only lit with a car’s headlights.  Indoor clips show moderate noise in keeping with the cameras’ poor low-light performance.  As I said above, shake was kept to a minimum and the action remains stable most of the time.

Audio is OK given that only small clip-on or camera mounted microphones are used.  Music is sparse and only present during transitional material.  The score is written by Mark Mothersbough and makes great use of mallet percussion.  Other sound effects are simply environmental; nothing seems added or faked.  Dialog is often muffled or distant but subtitles are used whenever this happens so you won’t miss a single word!

Extras

The only bonus feature is an on-screen interview with the filmmakers.


"Battlestar Galactica: Season Four" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Tyler Stripko

movie-january-2011-battlestar-galactica-season-4

Synopsis

In the fourth and final season of this fantastic television series, the surviving members of the human race continue on their journey to find the mythical world of Earth.   Desperate to find the clues that will guide them to their new home, the humans and Cylons intensify their search for the final five Cylons.  The secret for the future of mankind and Cylon alike is revealed and the two races must learn to trust each other if either faction is to survive.

Specifications

  • Universal Studios
  • 2008-2009, Color, Not Rated, 23 Hr 11 min
  • Aspect Ratio:  1.78:1
  • Codec:  AVC
  • 1080p
  • English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
  • Starring: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Tricia Helfer, Katee Sackoff, Jamie Bamber, James Calli
  • Directed by various
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: Suggestive
  • Language: Mild

Commentary

Season Four of this award-winning series was bittersweet for me.   While I got to see the show reach its conclusion, I was also sad to see one of the best television series in history (IMHO) end.  I can count on one hand the number of shows where I made it a point to see every single episode, and Battlestar Galactica was number one on that list.  The acting by all characters was convincing and the storylines continued much of the character development that started in seasons two and three.  Overall production quality remained consistently high; as did the special effects work.  While I still feel that seasons one and two delivered consistently stronger episodes (and a bit more space combat action), three were still some very good episodes in this season, particularly around the middle.  “The Hub,” “Revelations,” and “Sometimes a Great Notion” were some of my personal favorites from season four.  The three part series finale, “Daybreak,” was a fitting end to the series, though it did leave me a bit disappointed in that it still left a few big questions unanswered.  Season four is an absolute watch in my book, just make sure you’ve seen the rest of the series first or you may find yourself a bit lost.

Technical

Season four on Blu-ray looks just like seasons one through three:  inconsistent depending on shot location.  Battlestar Galactica was shot with a very specific “you are there” grainy image.  Many shots have lots of grain to them while others (often close-ups) clean things up and show an incredible amount of detail.  Personally, I always liked the gritty visual style of the series as it made you believe that things weren’t always so neat and clean up in space while humanity was struggling to survive.   Certain scenes feature very oversaturated reds and yellows, while most shots use a subdued color palette.   Clarity and detail is almost always good, as are contrast and black levels.  There is the occasional shot where black levels appear to have been elevated, but rarely at the expense of shadow detail.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack continues to please in season four, with some of the best sound I’ve ever heard from a television show.  The sound is dynamic when needed yet also displays great subtlety when called for.  Dialogue is always clear and you shouldn’t have to fiddle with the volume control when watching the show.   Bass is powerful and the surround channels are used effectively.  Blu-ray is definitely the best way to experience the entire Battlestar Galactica series.

Extras

This box set has quite a few extras.  A separate disc contains the spin-off “Razor” movie, which is definitely worth your time.  Each of the remaining five discs contain additional bonus content including extended editions of certain episodes (I liked them), episode commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, web minisodes, podcasts, and video blogs.  There are also sneak peeks at the Cylon point of view spin off “The Plan” and the new “Caprica” series.


"Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (DVD)" - Reviewed by Jim Clements

movie-january-2011-american-girl-holiday

Synopsis

This was the first among 5 made for TV movies featuring characters who are offered as a series of dolls marketed by American Girl. This particular film is about an aristocratic orphan named Samantha Parkington (AnnaSophia Robb) who is being raised by her "Grandmary" (Mia Farrow). The year is 1904 and the story begins with Samantha living at her Grandmary's country estate in New York. Grandmary is teaching Samantha to be a porper lady. A family of servants moves into the mansion next door. There are three daughters in the family and Samantha bonds with Nellie O'Malley (Kelsey Lewis) who is closest to her age. They soon become best of friends. Samantha and Nellie go their spearate ways when Samantha moves to New York City to live with her Uncle Gard and his new bride. Nellie and her two sisters become orphaned when their father dies. That is when the real adventure of this story begins to unfold.

Specifications

  • Warner Brothers
  • 2004, Color, Not Rated, 1 Hr 26 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic
  • Codec: MPEG 2
  • NTSC
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0
  • Starring: Mia Farrow, AnnaSophia Robb, Kelsey Lewis and Olivia Ballantyne
  • Directed by Nadia Tass
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

The sets and locations are quite opulent while the wardrobes are equally detailed.  Each is about as true to the period and region as I could imagine. The acting is more than competent: the strongest performances coming from Mia Farrow and AnnaSophia Robb. Concerning the plot, it is adequately intricate and the story unfolds at at a pace that maintains one's interest.  The two biggest drawbacks with this film would be that the story's message and the conclusioon are way too predictable.

Technical

This movie was previously released on DVD in a full screen, matted format. The disc I reviewed here is the new Deluxe Edition which has the video presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic format. I watched this DVD on my Oppo BDP 83 SE player on a a 50" plasma screen.  On this set up, the movie looked about as good as DVD can look. This colorful and brightly lit movie actually looked a little better than a lot of broadcast HD material. The finest details in the video revealed the quality of the wardrobes and the set pieces. The audio was a little off the standard set by the video. Still, the dialogue was clear and crisp, better than average for a made for TV movie. While the musical score and Samantha's piano playing both sounded compressed.

Extras

There are three shorts on the disc - "Votes for Women: An American Girl: Samantha", "All About Samantha, An American Girl: An Insider's Tour Through Samantha's World" and "Mount Bedford News: A Victorian Wedding, Cornelia and Gard's Video Wedding Announcement".


"The Films of Rita Hayworth" (DVD) - Reviewed by Jim Clements

movie-january-2011-rita-hayworth

Synopsis

Sony Pictures and the Film Foundation have teamed up to release this 5-disc boxed set of movies starring heart throb Rita Hayworth. Two of the films, Gilda and Cover Girl, have previously been released on DVD. The other three movies, Tonight and Every Night, Miss Sade Thompson and Salome are being released on DVD for the first time. The discs are lovingly packaged in a tri-fold portfolio adorned with images from the films. In Cover Girl, Rita plays a dancer who suddenly becomes a magazine cover model. The leading man is Gene Kelly. Music is by Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Gilda is an adventurous bit of film noir set in Buenos Aires. Here, she plays the wife of a casino owner. Unbeknownst to Gilda, her husband hires a new casino manager who is a man from her past (Glen Ford). Rita and Glen have a very tumultuous on screen relationship in Gilda. In the wartime classic, Tonight and Every Night, Hayworth plays an American showgirl in London. This story of a theater that stayed open throughout the German bombing raids is based on a true story. On disc 4, Hayworth plays Miss Sade Thompson, a fun-loving woman who is temporarily quarantined on a South Pacific Island in the post war era. She captivates the Marines who are stationed there while while struggling over the wrath of a preacher who wants her sent away. The last film in the set, Salome, has Ms. Hayworth taking the lead role as the step daughter of King Herod in this adaptation of the Biblical tale.

Specifications

  • Columbia Pictures
  • 1944 - 1953, Color and B/W, Not Rated, 4 Hr 22 min
  • Aspect Ratio:1.33:1 and 1.85:1
  • Codec: MPEG 2
  • NTSC
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0
  • Starring: Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelley, Glenn Ford and Charles Laughton
  • Directed by Charles Vidor, Victor Saville, Curtis Bernhardt and William Dieterle
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Mild
  • Sex: Suggestive
  • Language: No

Commentary

The pictures included here are a representative cross section of Rita Hayworth films from the prime of her career. The stories range from War Time dramas such as Tonight and Every Night to the post-war spectacle, Miss Sade Thompson, to the historical with Salome. The standout film of Hayworth's career is clearly Gilda. This is film noir at its best and it's a classic example of the style. For entertainment, I rate Gilda 4.5 stars. The next best picture in this boxed set is Cover Girl which, like Gilda, is a work closely associated with Rita Hayworth's career. I rate this film 4 stars for entertainment. The remaining three films are very dated but they are solid entertainment choices. I rate them an average of 3 stars for entertainment. This leads to my composite score of 3.5 stars for the whole package. I would recommend this set for any Rita Hayworth fan or for collectors who want to have a well-rounded library of classic movies.

Technical

Four of the movies are presented in a native 4:3 aspect ratio. Miss Sade Thompson, which was originally presented in 3d, is the only movie in this set that is in a widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio. It is given the full anamorphic treatment here. Also, 4 of the 5 films are in Technicolor, while Gilda is the lone black and white disc. Gilda has undergone an extensive restoration and the results are good, even though the print shows some dirt and scratches. Be that as it may, the picture quality of all five films is consistent and acceptable looking for their age with significant film grain and mostly steady, natural colors. Long shots are soft and some scenes exhibit a fair amount of compression artifacts. The audio also shows its age. All the films are mono with little response at the frequency extremes. Still, the sound is punchy and engaging with solid voice reproduction. There are no real audio effects, even during the air raid scenes in Tonight and Every Night.

Extras

Gilda has the most extensive collection of extras, with an introduction by Martin Scorsese and Baz Lurhmann. A running commentary by the noted film historian, Richard Schickel is also available on the Gilda disc. Cover Girl is introduced by Baz Lurhmann while Patricia Clarkson provides the introductions on Miss Sade Thompson and Tonight and Every Night. The introductory sketches are anamorphic wide screen. Each disc contains the original theatrical trailer for the movie that is on it.


"Yojimbo & Sanjuro (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movie-january-2011-yojimbo-sanjuro

Synopsis

The masterless (ronin) samurai Yojimbo, who slyly manipulates two warring clans to his own advantage in a small, dusty village, was so entertainingly embodied by the brilliant Toshiro Mifune, that it was only a matter of time before he returned in a sequel. Made just one year later, Sanjuro matches Yojimbo’s storytelling dexterity, yet adds a layer of world-weary pragmatism that brings the duo to a thrilling and unforgettable conclusion.

Sanjuro: In Kurosawa’s sly companion piece to Yojimbo, the jaded samurai Sanjuro helps an idealistic group of young warriors weed out their clan’s evil influences, and in the process turns their image of a proper samurai on its ear.

Yojimbo: To rid a terror-stricken village of corruption, wily ronin samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) turns a range war between two evil clans to his own advantage in Akira Kurosawa’s visually stunning and darkly comic Yojimbo.

Specifications

  • Criterion Collection
  • 1961-1962, B/W, Not Rated, 3 Hr 26 min
  • Aspect Ratio:1.35:1
  • Codec: MPEG 2 1080p
  • NTSC
  • Japanese with English subtitles
  • Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi, Yûnosuke Itô
  • Directed by Akira Kurosawa
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Mild
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

If you liked “Fist Full of Dollars” or “Last Man Standing”, you’ll love these two films from which others have drawn their inspiration. Great stories with even greater character development with a mix of intrigue, action and wry comedy. Mifune is a world weary samurai we can identify with. He is both a superman and a common man rolled into one. In fact, he is so highly entertaining and iconic that after seeing these films, when you hear the word samurai, you’ll think of Mifune's character. Not a lot of blood until the final showdown in Sanjuro. Tarantino would have been pleased with climactic duel at the end.

Technical

The highlights of these brand new sets are definitely the new high definition transfers, absolutely gorgeous in every sense of the word. The images are crisp and razor sharp. Grain and dirt are practically non existent and the images have not been digitally scrubbed to death. I never knew black and white could look so good with blu-ray, but these films are well nigh perfect in presentation. B/W seems the be the perfect medium for these films which just look and feel right. Sound is almost as great as the picture. Included is the original mono track in Japanese as well as an optional 3.0 DTS-MA track that was created to preserve the original Perspecta simulated stereo effects. Subtitles are clear and easy to follow. Yet another outstanding Criterion re-master.

Extras

Restored high-definition digital transfers, Optional DTS-HD Master Audio Perspecta 3.0 soundtracks, audio commentaries by film historian Stephen Prince, documentaries on the making of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, theatrical trailer and teasers, stills galleries and a booklet featuring essays by film writers.


"Death Race 2" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Milton

movie-january-2011-death-race-2

Synopsis

In the world's most dangerous prison, a new game is born: Death Race. The rules of this adrenaline-fueled blood sport are simple, drive - or die. When repentant convict Carl Lucas discovers there's a price on his head, his only hope is to survive a twisted race against an army of hardened criminals and tricked-out cars of destruction. This movie is actually the prequel to "Death Race" and "Death Race 2000". Fasten your seatbelts; this ride is going to be a killer!

 

 

Specifications

  • Universal Studios
  • 2011, Color, Rated R, 2 Hr 21 min
  • Aspect Ratio:1.77:1
  • Codec: MPEG 4 1080p
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 , Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Starring: Luke Goss, Danny Trejo, Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, Tanit Phoenix
  • Directed by Roel Reiné
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Yes
  • Sex: Nudity
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

After a bank robbery goes bad Carl Lucas (Goss) gets sent to prison. The crime boss who sent him out (Bean) is afraid he will testify against him and sends in assassins to the prison to make sure he doesn't. There were a couple characters from the first one, along with a few "set-ups" that happen in the original movie. I would say this is more of a “how it all began” story, as it explains the origins of the Death Race and the character called Frankenstein. More entertaining than Corman’s original, this flick has action, hot cars and hotter women. Even if you haven’t seen the first two films, you will be able to follow the basic plot line. Hey, it isn’t like this movie is an Oscar contender.

Technical

Picture quality is very good with saturated colors and detailed “dark” scenes. Every pore and pock mark on Danny Trejo’s face is revealed (yeck) and details abound. Most of the racing scenes are not GCI, which adds to the realism of the picture quality. A few dark scenes exhibited pulsing horizontal lines, but no edge enhancing or banding was noticable through the film. Sound is very powerful and loud. Surrounds are in constant use during the fights and racing scenes. Your sub will be maxed out during most of thoses scenes as well. Dialog is intelligible, though a bit thin sounding at times compared to the bombastic soundtrack. Contains a BD, DVD and digital copy...so choose your poison.

Extras

Feature Commentary, The Race Begins: The Evolution of Death, Cheating Death: The Stunts of Death Race 2, Fast Cars and Firearms: The Cars of Death Race 2 and deleted scenes.


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

movie-january-2011-secretariat

Synopsis

The "greatest racehorse of all time" mantle fits easily around the neck of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner. A highly lacquered Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, the inheritor of her father's stables, who segues from being an all-American mom to running a major horse-racing franchise; reliable character-actor support comes in the form of John Malkovich, as a gaudily outfitted trainer, and Margo Martindale, as Chenery's assistant. Behind every legend lies an impossible dream. Witness the spectacular journey of an incredible horse named Secretariat and the moving story of his unlikely owner, a housewife who risked everything to make him a champion. Out of the gate with never-before-seen bonus features, Secretariat is hours of pulse-pounding entertainment for the whole family!

 

 

Specifications

  • Disney Studios
  • 2011, Color, Rated PG, 2 Hr 3 min
  • Aspect Ratio:2.35:1
  • Codec: MPEG 4 1080p/ DVD copy included
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, Dylan Walsh
  • Directed by Randall Wallace
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

A good story, combined with good acting and beautiful cinematography about a horse that did the impossible. I know, you think that if you have seen one “horse story”, you have seen them all, but this one has a lot of heart and very easily might not have ever happened if some people didn’t have faith. I am still amazed that Secretariat won the Belmont by over 31 lengths…a record never challenged after almost 40 years! The story never drags and will sustain interest of kids, pre-teen and up. I was just a youngster myself when this horse came onto the scene. Never knew what the hub-bub was all about, but I do now.

Technical

Disney has once again put together an interesting story with gorgeous picture quality and wonderful sound production. The pounding of the hooves will have your sub jumping about the floor. Colors from the 70’s clothing just pop off the screen. Details are easily seen and the light and dark scenes are well nigh perfect. Only technical blip I saw was the satellite dish on the roof on the Belmont that could not have been from that period (but I look hard for those things). Otherwise, this is a very entertaining and inspiring story for the family, and one you’ll watch over and over again. Well done, Disney!

Extras

Heart of A Champion, Choreographing the Races, A Director's Inspiration: A Conversation with The Real Penny Chenery, Audio commentary by director Randall Wallace, 7 Deleted Scenes with optional audio commentary by director Randall Wallace, Secretariat multi-angle simulation, & music video - AJ Michalka "It's Who You Are"


"Gone Madigan" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Jim Clements

movie-january-2011-gone-madigan

Synopsis

The 1996 American Comedy Award winner for "Best Female Comedian" appears in this hilarious stand-up special, shot at the Gramercy Theater in New York City, Kathleen takes on politics, American culture and her family who has given her full permission to sell them down the river. Madigan has been seen over 12 times on The Tonight Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, The View, Dr. Phil, ESPN, The Joy Behar Show and has had her own specials on HBO and Comedy Central. Madigan was the only comedian in the history of NBC's Last Comic Standing to go unchallenged by any other comedian. She lives in Los Angeles but spends inordinate amounts of time with her family in the Missouri Ozarks.


Specifications

  • Image Entertainment
  • 2011, Color, Not Rated, 1 Hr 4 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • 1080i
  • Codec: MPEG-4
  • 5.1 DTS-HD Master
  • Starring: Kathleen Madigan
  • Directed by Shannon Hartman
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

This special originally aired on Showtime in December 2010. The DVD/Blu Ray release followed in January 2011. Kathleen covers a wide range of current topics with her material here including Afghanistan, Oprah, health care reform, Sarah Palin, etc. But her best material revolves around her family and her Irish upbringing. Madigan seems to be very relaxed and in control on stage. She doesn't need to resort to raunchy or radical tactics to get genuine laughs from the audience. She has a very interesting and entertaining perspective, offering up a wide array of impressions of both real and fictional characters. This is where she is at her best. My favorite example being when she imitates Paula Abdul as an American Idol judge. While her material is acceptable for audiences of all ages, she does let an F-bomb slip out now and then.

Technical

The vast majortiy of the show is Katheleen on stage standing next to a bar stool with two generic bottles of water. There are a few shots of the audience. The video has serious compression artifacts on the main feature. The compression is exacorbated by the fact that the stage lighting is inadequate for video production. The audio is a little better, providing a good sense of ambiance reflecting the theater space. Kathleens voice is clear and uncolored.

Extras

There are two extras on the disc. An brief "interview" with Madigan as she gets ready to go out on stage. The other extra is much longer and more entertaining. It is a sort of behind the scenes look where you get to meet Madigan's parents and siblings. Louis Black is there, preparing for his warm-up act. The extras are in 480i and LPCM stereo.


"Triggerman" (DVD) - Reviewed by Jim Clements

movie-january-2011-triggerman

Synopsis

The central figure, Doc West (Terrence Hill), is a gunslinging medical doctor who is also the greatest champion poker player of all time. Seriously! Doc, working together with the local Sherrif (Paul Sorvino), decides to throw the biggest poker tournament this side of Monte Carlo. If Doc wins the tournament, then they can raise enough money to build a hospital in this small frontier town. All the great poker players descend on their small town for the big poker tournament. Watch as this movie plays toward its all too predictable finale.

Specifications

  • Lionsgate
  • 2011, Color, Rated PG, 1 Hr 37 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • 480i
  • Codec: MPEG-2
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Starring: Terrence Hill and Paul Sorvino
  • Directed by Giulio Base and Terrence Hill
    Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: No
  • Sex: No
  • Language: Bad

Commentary

Who wouldn't love a good Western? I know I would. No thanks to having just watched Triggerman. This movie actually has the American Frontier down because it includes all the necessary elements - cowboys, indians, dusty trails, outlaws, poker playin', shoot-outs, bar room brawls and romance. The problem is, even when you get to the end of Triggerman, you still aren't really sure that you saw all that stuff.  It's because this movie is plagued with an interminably slow pace. It just couldn't capture my imagination for very long. Also, numerous subplots (some of them entertaining) make their contributions to the slow pace by being drawn out themselves. The acting talent is actually pretty good and there were some entertaining moments, so I am giving it two stars.

Technical

I let my Oppo BDP 83 SE player convert this over to 24 fps. There are mostly brightly lit scenes. The picture has very good resolution for DVD. The colors are natural and properly saturated as well. The 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack is punchy and rich sounding.

Extras

None.