Word From the Street: March 20, 2007

Big Fish (Sony) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Danny DeVito and Jessica Lange

I remember seeing Big Fish at the ArcLight theater in Hollywood and remember being blown away by the sun-dappled color that cinematographer Philippe Rousselot achieved, and at the time it seemed like I had never seen such golden imagery in a Tim Burton film before.

While not completely abandoning the typical gothic look of so many of his films (not counting a certain Big Adventure and the shots of color within the Easter door during Nightmare Before Christmas), Burton’s gothic vision is tempered, but not muted, by Rousselot’s wondrous fantasy images, giving it mix of the Roccoco and lighter Southern Gothic look. Since he’s not tied to his usual funereal tropes and somber palate, Burton seems freed to express a different side of his personality and really let the characters of Big Fish drive the story forward like a good page-turner. Burton’s actors seem to inherently trust him, and the flights of fancy and tall tales spun by Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney playing the young and old Bloom) seem to gain believability through their telling before the imagery even hits the screen.

The film is remarkable for being different than Burton’s previous work, but maintaining many of the same sympathies for a host of unusual characters… it’s a cinematic departure that works for Burton, much like The Straight Story worked for David Lynch, and it’s completely re-watchable. The disc is a very high-quality transfer in 1.85 Widescreen at 1080p. It features a very refined PCM (English) or Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (English/French). Subtitles are multi-lingual: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai… But guess what!? No features ‘cept an audio commentary by Mr. Burton himself. Bummer. Get it for the showcase look it will give your hi-def home theater, and hope that soon they’ll release a 2-disc edition with an emphasis on features that give insight into the making of this richly detailed film.

Eragon (Fox) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Edward Speleers, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Sienna Guillory, and Robert Carlyle

Based on a novel by teen author Christopher Paolini, the movie about a farmboy who becomes the leader of a rebellion against evil tyranny and fulfills his destiny. If that generic description screams Star Wars you’d be very nearly correct, ‘cept this flick’s got swords, sorcerers and talking dragons. When Eragon, the farmboy in question finds a dragon egg that, when hatched, turns out to be total hottie Rachel Weisz (well, at least her voice), he discovers that he is a dragon-rider whose mission is to save his kingdom from King Galbatorix (Malkovich) and his dark minion, the wizard Durza (Carlyle). While the middle-of-the-road adaptation is pretty much a complete wreck, and the acting uneven, the effects are worth a look (some of the best dragon effects since 1981’s Dragonslayer), but then you’d expect that since neophyte director, Stefen Fangmeier, is a former VFX artist. The blu-ray release in conjunction with standard DVD (but not HD DVD, hmmmm) offers a vivid looking 2.35 widescreen with resolution at 1080p. The audio is a crisp, clean and deep rumbling mix in DTS 5.1 (English) and Dolby Digital Surround (English/Spanish/French). Subtitles are in English/Spanish and… Well, once again hi-def enthusiasts are getting royally screwed by the captains of commerce in the video distribution marketplace who seem to think that no one notices a double-dip coming along in the near future. You get a theatrical trailer in hi-def (whoo-hoo!) but nothing more, which is a sad directorless commentary on the state video distribution.

Finding Neverland (Buena Vista) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman

Well, this is a total departure for a director… you go from a gritty, sexually charged tale like Monster’s Ball to the adult romantic fantasy about the nature and source of imagination. With superb performances from some top-shelf talent, this Oscar® nominated film is a very re-watchable romantic drama. Luckily, on Blu-ray it also looks and sounds terrific. Video is widescreen 2.35 format with audio in good ol’ uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish). Subtitles can be found French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and wonder of wonders there’s plenty to be had in featurette-land! This blu-ray release offers commentary by Marc Forster, producter Richard Gladstein, and writer David Magee. There’s some outtakes and deleted scenes (with director commentaries) as well as some interesting selections on the making of the film including The Magic Of Finding Neverland, Creating Neverland, and On The Red Carpet which documents the film’s Oscar® awards evening.

Chicken Little (Buena Vista) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Zach Braff, Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, Catherine O’Hara and Don “Luther Heggs” Knotts

Cinematic history can sometimes easily be divided into the timeless and the timely. Without Pixar in the picture, recent Disney animation, especially this, their first full-CGI effort, often seem more timely than timeless with their too-hip-for-the-room sense of humor and contemporary soundtracks full of some of the most vapid pop-music ever committed to film. What you say? It’s just a kid’s film that shouldn’t be taken too seriously? Consider that years from now, you’ll be able to pop in just about any Pixar effort (the recent Cars might be excluded here, even though it looks great) and be able to see a great work of art anew through older eyes. Pixar films don’t merely capture a moment in time— their stories, characters, jazzy, musically scored soundtracks and, above all, humor that doesn’t rely on knowledge of what’s on E!, make the films completely re-watchable for just about any reason. Kids films, sure, but with adult (not vulgar) sensibilities that drive their stories and give gravitas to the crackerjack wit… not to mention some of the best voice-casting in animation.

The same can’t be said of the nicely rendered, and sometimes amusing Disney film Chicken Little. Based on the “sky-is-falling” fable of the same name, the film attempts to be more edgy/hip and slam-bang-loud than well thought-out and sincere in its storytelling prowess. Think Finding Nemo with its deeply felt themes of abandonment and gaining self-acceptance (and esteem) through overcoming physical and emotional conflict, and then see Chicken Little and find the deep rift between the two styles of storytelling and cinematic approach. The animation is very well done, but where’s the heart?

The Blu-ray disc gives the young tyke hi-def library a super sharp and very digital-looking 1080p image at a ratio of 16:9 (widescreen) for HDTV. Audio is a nicely balanced, crisp and uncompressed PCM 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. The single-disc release offers chocks of infotainment such as an audio commentary with director Mark Dindal, producer Randy Fullmer and VFX supervisor Steve Goldberg as well as deleted scenes (original scenes and new items). There’s also the featurette Hatching Chicken Little: The Making Of The Movie and a host of Disney extras kids will love such as music videos: Shake Your Tail Feather (performed by The Cheetah Girls) and One Little Slip performed by Barenaked Ladies. One Little Slip is also featured as a karaoke segment and sing along, which should drive parents nuts.

Rocky Balboa (Sony) [Blu-ray]
Featuring: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Tarver, Milo Ventimiglia, Burt Young, and Tony Burton

Rocky Balboa picks up in a place where the other sequels sorta exist on the periphery, and the main story line is still, at it’s core, about Rocky and Adrian… it’s a love story without Talia Shire even appearing in the film. With graveside sequences to fill the void, this film also continues the father-son bonding elements from the misbegotten Rocky V. With wry nods to the first film and his own aging physique, Stallone has finally written a lovely swansong to the character that is as much a part of himself as any other character he’s ever played, even John Rambo.

It’s a nice addition to a hi-def library, with you-are-there audio quality that truly packs a (ahem!) punch. The ring sequences look vivid and all the action is tack-sharp in this transfer, which gives us 1080p resolution in 1.85 widescreen. Audio, up to the usual excellent Sony standards, is a quality mix in uncompressed PCM 5.1 (English) with Dolby Digital 5.1 offered as well (English and French, because the Italian Stallion likes to speak the language of love, I guess). Subtitles are in English (so you can understand the Philly), Spanish and French. The disc is feature-rich for a standard release. We’re offered deleted scenes and an alternate ending (Clubber Lang runs off with Adrian to some island in the Bahamas… what?! You’d think I’d actually spoil it for you?). There’s also something called Boxing’s Bloopers (a hit or miss affair, I gather) and some featurettes: Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa and Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky’s Final Fight. Last, but not least, there’s a nice, audio commentary with Sylvester Stallone that offers nice reminisces of the shoot and the character he so lovingly created.

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