Black Legion (1937)

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3.5 stars out of 4. A strikingly bold picture for the time, and an early Bogart classic.

This is not an easy one to swallow. black Legion deals with a realistic KKK-like organization that unjustly takes out the frustrations of citizens against innocent foreigners and those of foreign descent. Based on a real life incident and court case, this is a great example of Warners adept production and refinement of the social issue picture.

Bogie stars as a worker passed over for a promotion he had been waiting for in favor of a better educated candidate who happen to be both younger and of foreign descent. This leads others to suggest he go to a secret meeting which of course turns out to be for the titular Legion, and it is at this point that he falls down the rabbit hole and will never make his way back out again. Seen today, what is most chilling is the degree to which the Legion infiltrates all aspects of society and these men’s lives, much as we have seen throughout modern times with the rise of various terrorist groups and factions hidden in plain sight.

Black Legion predates the Noir movement by a number of years but fits in right alongside other Warners productions from this era that effectively hint at what would later arise as Noir. Warner was always the studio that focused on real life dramas or stories of the streets. Aside from the gangster films, it was their continued adaptation of stories based on true events that set them apart from the other major studios.

Archie Mayo directed this film and it shares a number of similarities with  The Petrified Forest (1936), particularly in its strong use of Bogart as a dramatic performer. Mayo was able to get the most out of Bogie in both films before he was relegated to just playing the heavy or Gangster no.2 second fiddle to the rest. It is really only in these two films that you are able to see his range later glimpsed in his breakout role of Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra (1940). Assisting this strength is a great gathering of the great WB stock company of actors, including the later forgotten Dick Foran.

So if you’re in the mood for a hard hitting and truly dark drama from the 30’s that feels miles ahead of its time, or are a Petrified Forest fan, this one’s for you.

The transfer is great, as always from WB’s classic titles, and being from the Gangsters Vol. 3 set has commentary and Night at the Movies option. Another great rendering of a studio classic.

A must own for Bogie fans.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Review, Humphrey Bogart

Lady Killer (1933)

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3.5 stars out of 4. My favorite Cagney vehicle.

This is the third 1933 produced Cagney vehicle I have reviewed. Amazing how the breadth of one’s work back in the golden age could be so quickly put together. Lady Killer is pure contrivance and absolute fun.

Cagney plays a movie usher who winds up throwing in with a small time gang, who he then builds into an empire out East until it blows up and they must go run out West to escape the law. Cagney winds up broke and betrayed, only to find work as a movie extra and eventually becomes the top star in Hollywood.

If that paragraph doesn’t grab you, then stop reading here. This is the film that firmly cements the audience’s love of Cagney forever. He is at his charming best, and runs the gamut of opportunist and honest guy. And it also features more turmoil for poor Mae Clarke, who was the same actress on the receiving end of Jimmy’s grapefruit in The Public Enemy.

In addition to all the fun, there’s a nice criticism of Hollywood and the system at the time while providing a real glimpse into the workings of 1933 production that goes beyond just the stuff you can read in books. And any picture that can get Cagney to laugh at himself while riding a fake horse in full Indian chief regalia in front of back projection footage is tops in my book.

Another winner in WB’s Gangsters Vol. 3 with commentary and the always lovely night at the Movies option. Transfer is great as usual with these.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Cagney, Film Review

The Mayor of Hell (1933)

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3.5 stars out of 4. Somehow it works.

Here is a prime example of how effective the Warners machine was back in the day. The Mayor of Hell is basically a gangster film crossed with a youth reformation picture crossed with the studio’s successful hit I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). And yet despite seeming like a silly combination it actually manages to work in some strange fashion.

The film opens with miscreant youths progressing in acting up throughout their section of New York. Eventually they are picked up by the police and finally sent off to reform school upstate. Now this might have one thinking that the ringleader would then grow up into the Cagney character as would later occur in Angels With Dirty Faces and others, but you’d be dead wrong. They arrive at the “school” which is run more like a corrupt prison from Chain Gang. The headmaster is corrupt as hell and secretly delights in punishing the youths in his charge.

Enter Cagney as a gangster given the top job as payback in order to simply collect a cushy government salary. Yet despite his seemingly carefree attitude he takes an active interest in the treatment of the boys held there as they remind him of himself coming from the same neighborhood. This leads to an eventual clash of wills and temperaments that despite some slightly unbelievable elements eventually boil over to a flame filled full scale riot that truly gives Cagney the titular role.

It is this surprising honesty and darkness that led to the ending being partially re-shot by studio expert Michael Curtiz who was the master of action sequences. This steps up the game to a point where the Code started cutting chunks out of the picture like crazy when it had to be re-certified a year after release. By no means is this a happy picture or one with a positive outcome no matter what the tacked on ending tries to sell.

If you can forgive its narrative contrivances, this one is an interesting and invigorating watch that actually has some balls to it. Cagney can sell just about anything, and the nods to Chain Gang serve to only heighten the film’s dark tone.

A great uncut transfer on DVD, from WB’s Gangsters Vol. 3. Picture and sound are great, aside from a hair or two in the gate. Commentary and Night at the Movies options make this another essential slice of classic WB.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Review, Gangsters/Crime

Picture Snatcher (1933)

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3.5 stars out of 4. Classic Jimmy. The above poster says it all.

Here we have a pure Cagney vehicle, and one where he is allowed to keep the trademark snarkiness that still endears him to film fans while actually being a good guy for a change. Picture Snatcher deals with tabloid journalism and trying to get that perfect stolen shot of the juiciest story to sell editions before the next guy. Has very much changed all these years later?

Here we see the Warners machine really getting revved up, particularly its usage of the same tried and true on staff directors who could make even the lowest of pictures sing. Here the film is directed by Lloyd Bacon who does a remarkable job at keeping this one tight and compact as it crams quite a bit of story into its blistering 77 minute runtime.

Cagney plays an ex-con just out of the joint who takes up an offer to join a tabloid and lands the job of photographer after a particularly dangerous shot gets him the job. His supervisor is a surprising Ralph Bellamy, who portrays a cynical and beaten drunkard who once had grand ideals of journalism. Bellamy who seemed forever stuck in the role of the country bumpkin does really fine work here, showing even earlier on that he had the necessary dramatic chops to to portray greater roles.

But it is Jimmy Cagney who we’re staring at, it’s his picture and for good reason. Nobody else could have sold us a guy who so blatantly teeters on the line of good taste and breaking the law again. When they finally gave him his own starring vehicles, Cagney was basically unleashed upon the whole WB classic era backlot. From charming the ladies to worming his way into an execution to secretly snap the shot of the chair flashing…this is pure PreCode fun in every way possible.

The second entry in WBs Gangsters Vol. 3 set, complete with commentary and Night at the Movies option.

The transfer is solid with good sound, and miles ahead of previous tape copies.

If you don’t have the WB Gangster sets, what’s stopping you? The probability of these ever hitting Blu-ray is practically nil.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Cagney, Film Review

Smart Money (1931)

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3 stars out of 4.

Someone obviously came up with the idea to re-team Robinson and Cagney after their huge successes with Little Caesar and  The Public Enemyrespectively the previous year. This is exactly what Smart Money is, another gangster picture culled from “ripped from the headlines” news stories where the lead character will be a fictionalized variant based on several real life notorious crime figures.

This became Warner’s bread and butter release during the worst years of the Depression and still pack quite a punch these days, particularly these earlier films that arrived before the Code implementation. These Pre-Code gangster releases are grittier and darker, and today are finally seen again uncut. If they were reissued or put on tape any earlier it was always in a truncated Code enforced edit.

All this aside, Smart Money is an inferior picture that skirts by on the charm of its stars and the PreCode elements. Otherwise it’s all  very standardized and drags despite its short runtime. Robinson is given the lead, with Cagney playing a supporting role. He naturally steals all his scenes and it only when both are present onscreen that the picture really lights up. Of particular note is a small bit part for pre-fame Boris Karloff as some sort of pimp and a scene where Cagney pantomimes the err…accentuations of a certain lady that Robinson will find of certain interest.

It’s thankfully short, but many narrative contrivances cannot be overlooked, especially the apparent bloodthirstiness of the police and the sudden ending designed to punish evildoers.

Not a bad way to spend a little bit of time though. An hour and twenty minutes of pure American cinema pairing two of the great stars. Found in WB’s phenomenal Gangsters Volume 3 DVD set which can be had for NOTHING online. Highly recommended.

The transfer is astonishing for those used to grimy tape and laser releases. The film is uncut 1.33:1 in a clean typical WB transfer with a healthy grain field. The sound is clear and undistorted mono. There is a commentary  and full WB night at the Movies feature on all these from the Gangster sets. Maybe someday the studio will get its act together and do one big set of all their classic Gangster pictures.

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Filed under 3 stars, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Film Review, Gangsters/Crime, Uncategorized

Soul Erosion in a Counterfeit World

Soul Erosion in a Counterfeit World:

The definitive film of the 1980’s

William Friedkin’s career masterpiece

To Live and Die in L.A.

MGM/UA, 1985

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 4 stars out of 4. Immortal classic film.

As a lifelong fan of The French Connection (likely still the best film ever made about the police) I use none of the words above lightly. Over the years I find myself returning to this film and its ideas, themes and context. It has never truly gone away and is arguably more relevant today than upon its original release. TLADILA is a bold, brash and unrelenting explosion of energy, drive and complete erosion of the soul. This soul erosion is a reflection of the shift in culture that occurred and defined the 80’s, and an extension of Reganomics itself. It goes without saying that the industry itself was turned inside out for the worse but combined with the rise of commercialism in every aspect of society, conglomerates amassing huge amounts of control over our daily lives amidst a general feeling that cash solves all problems. It is no wonder that the film itself deals with a counterfeiting plot.

The film deals with the US Secret Service and their everyday activities fighting against counterfeiting rackets as an extension of the US Treasury department. Agent Richard Chance (the astounding William Petersen) is a reckless and brash field agent who risks everything in the pursuit of his target. When his retiring partner is ambushed and killed by ultra-counterfeiter Rick Masters (the incomparable Willem Dafoe), Chance sets out to nail Masters by any means necessary, roping in a new partner the by-the-book John Vukovich (John Pankow). Chance’s enraged pursuit, backed by a scintillating ego will place absolutely everything in the crossfire.

Chance is perhaps the worst agent possible. He must live on the edge almost as if it is as essential as breathing and frequently risks everything in order to achieve his goals. With the murder of his older partner pushing him over the edge, now the law he has upheld his entire career is merely an obstacle that slows him down. His partner Vukovich is another obstacle, as a traditional agent who finds Chance’s actions more and more objectionable though he himself gets involved deeper and deeper running against his own moral code and perhaps beginning to enjoy the danger somewhat.

Rick Masters is also not a typical villain. He may be even more of an enigma than Chance. As an artist he is consistently searching for something to fill the empty void within himself, the same degree of counterfeiting displayed in his excellent false money. This is why he burns all of his work, as it reveals something he cannot or will not acknowledge about himself. The same reasoning applies to the consistent videotaping of his own sexual encounters with his girlfriend. It is an extension of how each character displays such a deep rooted sense of teetering on the edge of destruction due to the fact that only primordial reasons guide them forwards in a land of imposed annihilation.

All in the film are completely developed and morally questionable characters, amidst a world that burns away at them. Frequently it seems as if everyone in the film is treading water in a sea of acid all while trying to grasp at any shred of debris to stop their flesh burning away. The style and tone of the film completely predates the slightly later 80’s action film renaissance where character began to take a backseat to unrealistic glories which when closely examined feel quite hollow i.e. the Rambos, Miami Vice-styled crud and even predates many of the same themes that turned up in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard before those franchises became imitators of themselves.

Each and every one of these characters is morally questionable and absolutely duplicitous. It is up to the audience to determine when they are counterfeit or if they are completely gone. The character of Vukovich is perhaps the only one who is not too far gone but over the course of the film even his motives come called into question. Friedkin described the film as being set in a counterfeit world, where everyone and everything is as counterfeit as the money Rick Masters makes. But this can only take place once the soul has eroded away leaving a world of people who revert to primordial tendencies of greed and rage with a degree of conviction because they have nothing else left to them. It is this central emptiness to their lives that pushes Masters to continually burn all of his own artwork as he cannot face the fact that he is already a dead man, and the reason why Chance lives so close to the edge taking enormous risks without any hesitation.

Friedkin was and is what I describe as a kinetic filmmaker, or one who uses the medium to convey a sense of motion and immediacy through sensory linked visuals in addition to narrative. You see this in The Excorcist and The French Connection, but never as blatant and layered as TLADILA, where they begin in the opening titles. It may come across as heavy handed to some, but they serve to link the narrative to the individual character’s state of mind and also to disorient the viewer and forcing the brain to work harder to get the meaning thus involving the audience in the picture even more. That this is done in a refined way without any modern tendencies to induce false realism only adds to the picture’s power. This extends to the soundmix design which uses varying levels of volume and other trickery to create a sense of unease in the brain that puts the audience on edge. And to extract such a degree of control on a low budget film in the era of analog Dolby Stereo, which was extremely limited in terms of what you could and couldn’t do, is nothing short of amazing.

Seeing this film begs the question: “how in the world did they get away with all this?” The answer is simply that it was made as essentially an indie with a non-union crew, and where everyone took pay cuts to simply do the film. Budgeted at six million, TLADILA was never meant for star power, and thus actually cast for the respective parts using lesser known stage and screen actors. It is of course no surprise that many are familiar faces now since much time and care was placed in finding the right people to fill the roles. Particularly Petersen and Dafoe both of which are absolutely riveting, with Petersen presaging his phenomenal work a year later in Michael Mann’s stylistically similar/outright inspired by TLADILA,  Manhunter. (Mann later tried to sue Friedkin by claiming TLADILA stole from his developing Miami Vice series. Which it didn’t, as Vice was a poor man’s version of TLADILA, made for TV.)   Then you have Friedkin’s usage of all practical locations and no sets. This bridges the line between fiction and reality so that we’re already in the film’s world and it is our own. To add to this it was Friedkin’s desire and practice during shooting to secretly film rehearsals and not cut at scene’s end in order to try and catch those magical moments of realism that came from developing a real trust with all the actors. The film truly evolves into a nightmarish vision of what seems like just another chapter in the madness of humanity.

The film was shot fast and dirty, but still provides remarkable cinematography from Robby Muller with great usage of color and staggering tracking shots that directly recall TFC. The editing is seamless and editor Bud Smith actually co-produced the picture. (I met Mr. Smith once at a lecture; who aside from being very honest, informative and talented is a very nice man. All a rarity in the business.)

The other and perhaps best stroke of luck possible is that the film’s deal was moved to MGM/UA who at this time was still financially off kilter, and UA had been bought out after the Heaven’s Gate fiasco. This led to many things being virtually unquestioned until it was far too late to do anything and because the budget was so low less care was placed on messing with Friedkin’s decisions.  This was challenged in the ending, where the studio objected to the abrupt reversals and demanded a more conventional and absolutely implausible happy ending. That being said is a testament to all those involved that they could craft such a piece of garbage and tie it in beautifully to the film’s overlying tone.

Anyone who knows of the film today or remembers it is usually referring to the now renowned car chase that tears through backstreets, train yards and the LA aqueducts before finally heading down the freeway against oncoming traffic. It is as bold as the film itself and was inserted only as Friedkin put it: “if it could top the chase in The French Connection”. Due to the latter’s sheer iconic status it doesn’t exactly do that, but it is one of the rare chases that so perfectly matches the story and characters with reality. Every single aspect of this chase is down to earth and places the audiences right there in the moment with Chance and the panicked Vukovich in the back of a crap Chevy sedan at its breaking point. Friedkin went for broke here and rightfully so. Car chases have become a cliché and never serve anything other than being the umpteenth bad action scene in any standard filth. They used to mean something and the really good ones told you about character whilst performing vehicular feats you could only dream about doing. Thus this chase is up there with the greats from TFC, The Seven-Ups, Ronin and of course the big one: Bullitt.

Now we come to the score. Friedkin handpicked Wang Chung to score the entire film as he liked their sound on the Points of the Curve album and felt they would be perfect for the setting he was trying to achieve. While it seems to be off-putting to modern reviewers who lambast the sounds as being terribly dated, in fact Friedkin was right and not only is the score perfectly matched to the narrative, but it is the best work the band ever achieved-particularly before going down in history as the “everybody wang chung tonight” guys. It is a symphony of darkness in a sun-blazed world set against synthesizers. Even their earlier hit “Dance Hall Days” was incorporated into the film as what its eventual resting place likely was: background music for a seedy stripclub in the daytime hours.

Modern viewers complain about the film’s style and staging being severely dated, but this misses the point entirely. The goal was to fully utilize the new sheen of the 80’s to fully convey just how far gone society had become. It is all defined by the erosion of the soul I underlined. It beautifully hints at the film industry shifts occurring at the time, the dark underbelly of Reganomics and the growing desire at the time for more.

The gaze of Regan himself reaches into the film, as a framed portrait on the wall of the abandoned Secret service branch office, glimpsed as Chance and Vukovich return arms late at night. It is one of those real life touches that so eloquently underscores the film’s study of the difference between outer shells and true intent. Regan is of course also heard in the opening, where he is giving a speech and heard over the radio comms.

Friedkin is still working today, but never achieved the recognition or career of some of his contemporaries, likely due to his up and downs at the box office and his somewhat abrasive personality. But it cannot be stressed enough that he is a prime example of someone who truly cares about the medium and isn’t afraid to embrace cinema history or to break rules. Somebody PLEASE give the man a decent budget and free reign. TLADILA was his return to form, and essentially going back to his roots of independent documentary filmmaking. It remains a triumph of story, style, execution and complete mastery and control of narrative cinema—particularly after the absolute waste that was his film Cruising.

TLADILA is a film not easily forgotten, and if closely examined reveals a rich understanding of the human condition and how it our own impositions that tear away at the soul. It is practically The Third Man of the 1980’s.

A federal agent is dead…

A killer is loose…

And the City of Angels is about to explode…

EDITIONS:

Not much to report here. Image eventually released a decent LD with okay color, widescreen matting and the original Dolby Stereo mix in PCM. MGM finally released the DVD in 2003 with extras and commentary surprisingly. The sound was remixed in 5.1 but preserved the original intent and design thank goodness. Eventually a Blu-ray was released and thankfully it features no tweaking or revisionism. The color and contrast is remarkably improved providing for likely the best presentation since the film’s 35mm run in 1985. The 5,1 remix was upgraded to a lossless DTS-HDMA presentation and is lovely. I only wish they had also included the original 2.0 track in lossless. Stupidly this disc has no new features nor any of the previous SD features so one must keep the DVD for those and swap discs to enjoy them.

Also of note, the DVD and Blu-ray releases stupidly and pointlessly airbrush out Petersen’s silhouetted face from the stunning poster and substitute a generic one. What the heck MGM?!?!?

SOUNDTRACK RELEASES:

Wang Chung’s score was released on LP and CD, arranged into a vocal side and instrumental side. I haven’t heard the CD as the vinyl is phenomenal and can be had four typically under two dollars. It was mastered at Artisan studios in LA just as their other records for Geffen were, so you have really the pinnacle of great 80’s production, engineering and plating going on to produce great records. The mix is far better than the film version and the album is a great listen for any mood. Sadly it does not include “Dance Hall Days”, but this can be rectified with one of the many 7” or 12” single releases of the song, or an LP copy of Points on the Curve, the album that convinced Friedkin that they should score the film, and it also includes “Wait”.

I recently found a 2015 dated vinyl reissue from Geffen of the film’s score in stores, but have no idea as to its origins or cutting information. If the price falls enough I will try it out, but don’t expect anything to touch the original LP, nor it be something that would justify the nearly $30 price difference between the two.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, William Friedkin

L.A. Confidential (1997)

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4 stars out of 4. A near-classic reshaping of a sprawling crime novel that glorifies the spirit of a city none will ever truly understand.

 

A huge work of fiction about a city that exudes explanation. A period piece about cops in the 50’s teetering on the edge of the dream factory. That it believably stars two Aussies is a testament to director Curtis Hanson’s desire to consistently toe over the line of fiction vs reality.

What L.A. Confidential does so well is not simply recreate the period as many films of this type do, but to accurately craft its story amidst the characters so that the setting just seems to fall into place naturally. By keeping the style and photography naturalistic this avoids what is now the film noir cliché that has made the term one of derision instead of one of the great American art forms. We the audience are actually allowed inside the character’s motivations and thought processes so that their arcs become the story arc and intermesh with one another so by the final credits the true plot becomes visible and concise.

It remains a film that can be revisited and firmly enjoyed time and time again because it never once insults one’s intelligence. The sure handed quality to the production creates an atmosphere of confidence which then spills over into the film itself. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to relax and enjoy a well crafted adult picture for adults that isn’t afraid to take risks in order to better serve its source material. This is most defined by the insistence upon relatively unknown leads to better suit the roles as written instead of using star power to make it more studio approachable. The usage of stars is carefully controlled to both side and character parts so that it creates a perfect balance of performers in order to better shape the world onscreen, much like the classic studio stock companies of old.

However, my one caveat to this strong recommendation is that each time I come away a bit unsatisfied. Instead of the usual feeling of being left wanting more, I get a sense of not seeing the whole picture. This is likely due from jettisoning the majority of backstories and virtually over half the novel which actually takes place over a ten year span. Thus the narrative seems even more fractured than what it should be and when the pieces are fit together one still gets the feeling of things being left out. Admittedly this is a minor qualm, but it still hasn’t gone away after all these years so I cannot simply write it off as a necessity of adapting to the screen. I have not yet read the novel and know several characters turned out wildly different so it must be viewed as more of a companion piece to the film. Yet, I still can’t shake the feeling of incompletion. This is why I can never place L.A. Confidential in the pantheon of greats, because it isn’t quite seamless in its presentation or narrative.

Any time you make a film set in the LA of the past, you invoke all the classics that have gone before and a certain stylistic approach people have in their minds. Whether or not it has anything to do with them or the hardboiled fiction that were their inspiration is irrelevant. There is one picture that was able to make that jump to classic status by incorporating more modern techniques into a poetic and timeless synthesis with the past, and one that the audience is reminded of throughout L.A. Confidential. Chinatown is that picture and probably the one time anyone ever achieved something onscreen remotely close to the poetic weathering of humanity Chandler’s prose created. The great Jerry Goldsmith provides the score to both films and one cannot help but see the similarities that the similar musical touchstones weave together.

I can write all of that above and yet still enjoy the hell out of myself revisiting this murky slice of the past. What is the most striking nearly twenty years on is just how dedicated and complete the direction is and all without the over-reliance on technology or proven trends we have today. To be completely honest it was a lucky thing to get the film made in 1997 and would be a miracle to be made in today’s landscape. It may not be completely perfect or seamless in its presentation of 1953 LA, (A number of shots can’t help but scream the 90’s.) but its well-drawn characters delving into the eroded humanity that is inherent to the city of angels is a refreshing breath of fresh air to this day.

EDITIONS:

Released on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD. The LD had a Dolby Surround mxidown and 5.1 ac3. The DVD was good for the time with DD 5.1 but suffered from noise and edge enhancement. It wasn’t updated until the simultaneous DVD SE and Blu-ray release from WB. The Blu-ray is a welcome improvement in every way. Picture quality dramatically increases with a nice natural look, good color and no visible edge enhancement. Sound is carries in the Dolby TrueHD lossless codec in the same 5.1 track. The sound is very subtle and the surrounds typically carry the scenes and only kick into high gear during the few action moments or more bombastic score cues. I did notice a slight bit of noise in one scene but overall this is a great improvement to the DVD’s lossy rendering.

Had now for a few bucks under the Fox label, this one is a steal. There is a Japanese release with slightly improved specs but likely not worth the import cost.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review