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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Romeo + Juliet [Blu-ray]

 

(Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Production:

Theatrical: Bazmark Pty Ltd. (Australia)

Blu-ray: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: 'A' (B+C untested)

Runtime: 2:00:10

Disc Size: 44,733,473,238 bytes

Feature Size: 27,049,334,784 bytes

Video Bitrate: 20.46 Mbps

Chapters: 29

Case: Amaray Blu-ray Case

Release date: October 19, 2010

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

Resolution: 1080P / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital
Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono)
English 2.0 Dolby Digital

 

Subtitles:

English, French, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish & none

 

Extras:

• Shaking Up Shakespeare Picture-in-Picture Mode with Audio Commentary by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Donald M. McAlpine and Craig Pearce

• Audio Commentary by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Donald M. McAlpine and Craig Pearce

• Uncut Footage from the Bazmark Vault

• Romeo+Juliet: The Music

• Filmmaker and Interview Galleries

• BD-LIVE: Live Lookup

 

Description: Romeo + Juliet is the second installment of what Baz Luhrmann calls his Red Curtain trilogy. This film, together with Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) celebrate, in turn: dance, word, and song in what Baz calls “heightened cinema.” Indeed, there is nothing subtle about his movies. If you can stand the pressure and the demand, he sucks you in and splashes you with color, movement and music, comedy, pathos and ecstasy, romance and division. In the case of Romeo + Juliet these elements are given a violent boost. Baz’s Red Curtain movies are love stories – you may have noticed the big “L’Amour” sign placed prominently in these films and for his stage version of “La Boheme.” Baz’s textures may be complex, but his stories aren’t. Repeated viewings are not likely to reveal new truths or delicate shadings of character or story, but they will tell you more about how he does what he does and how he makes you feel the way you do from one moment to the next. I have found more to enjoy and to love with each viewing, much more in the case of Romeo, about which I was lukewarm on my first encounters.

 

 

The Film: 7
I can’t say where it all started, possibly with Max Reinhardt’s 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the idea that the cinema held non-traditional possibilities for creative production certainly felt a resurgence for a spell a decade or so ago: Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), are among the more successful adaptations of the plays of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon into more contemporary settings. Released eight weeks before Branagh’s Hamlet, Baz Lurmann translated into a dazzling, frantic, violent contemporary milieu the most tried and true of great love tragedies: Romeo and Juliet that Baz retitled, presumptuously, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

In 1968 Franco Zeffirelli made a big deal of casting young unknowns Leonard Whiting (18) and Olivia Hussey (15) in the parts of the lovers, reminding audiences that Shakespeare’s play indicated Juliet be not yet 14 and Romeo hardly much older (“Upon whose tender chin, as yet, no manlike beard there grew, whose beauty and whose shape so far the rest did stain"), though surely none of Shakespeare’s actors were that age and, in any case, none were female. Luhrmann took a somewhat different path, casting two rising young actors who, unlike Whiting and Hussey, who not only speak Elizabethan English, they convey meaning even if we don’t understand all the words. Danes and DiCaprio are both American and neither can make coincident word and meaning – at least not very often. But perhaps they don’t have to. Luhrmann may be counting on an audience familiar enough with the text that we can superimpose meaning while he is free to create the pop gangster culture in which his movie lives.

Leonardo DiCaprio, with This Boy’s Life, Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Quick and the Dead behind him, was already 21, but looks to my eye even younger than Whiting. The wide-eyed Claire Danes was, at 17, fresh from a raging success in her debut TV series, “My So-Called Life.” The rest of the cast is not only older, but more comfortable with the language, something that Leonardo has a hit and miss relationship with, mostly miss. Miss Danes may not get the language right, but she is a natural, if a little dreamy Juliet. In his scenes with her, Leonardo is more centered than anywhere else in the movie – save perhaps in the aftermath of the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio. I have always said that Leonardo, once he left adolescence, is very difficult to cast. For all his beauty, he strikes me as asexual. That said, despite Titanic, The Beach, The Aviator, Romeo + Juliet would remain perhaps his most convincing rendering of a sexual being thus far.

As for the rest of the cast, they are giddy and earnest perfection: John Leguizamo, menacing as a psychopathic Tybalt; Harold Perrineau, mercurial as Romeo’s best friend; Pete Postlethwaite, as the good Friar, speaking closer to iambic pentameter that anyone else in the cast; Miriam Margolyes, as Juliet’s loyal and voyeuristic nurse; Paul Sorvino and a more or less mute Brian Dennehy as mob dons Capulet and Montague, each with a very different approach to their work; and Paul Rudd, a pretty and contented rival, who, fittingly, looks more like he’s pledging a fraternity than suing for Juliet’s hand.

 


To digress for a moment, my early experiences with this film were not particularly positive. I liked the leads so little and found Baz’s rendering of time and place so jarring that I couldn’t let myself go with the flow. Two events, however, conspired to alter my thinking and my feeling about the movie. The first was the continued spate of contemporary film configurations of Shakespeare (along with my favorite film adaptation of the play, Shakespeare in Love), and my discovery of Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 1997. Shakespeare Santa Cruz is noted for their creative productions, of which I’ve seen twenty since, at least half stretched the boundaries of time and place, sometimes in several directions in the same play. Shakespeare Santa Cruz, plus the aforementioned film adaptations, opened up a much wider appreciation of possibilities than were available to me when I first saw Baz’s movie. Within just a few minutes watching the film last night on Blu-ray I had completely accepted and understood what Baz was up to. . . which brings me back to our young stars.

It is in a way fitting that Leonardo and Claire operate in this movie like there isn’t anyone else in it. Romeo and Juliet are very young and completely besot with Love. As a couple they take note of their friends and families only so far as how to avoid detection – but even there, they flirt with the disaster of apprehension. They act despite Juliet’s words of caution. If only their speech were not so much of a different style than everyone else’s. It’s not like the rest of the cast is in tune with the stage rhythms we associate with Shakespeare, but that the other actors exude a confidence in the language such that we believe they believe they know what they are talking about. Claire, less so. Leonardo, still less.

Unlike the later Moulin Rouge!, which was filmed entirely on sound stages, Romeo + Juliet was filmed on locations in Mexico City, Vera Cruz and California. Production Designer Catherine Martin built a huge half-destroyed stage at the beach where Mercutio meets his end and Romeo his fate. It’s a remarkable set, reminding us that this is a play, after all, and not reality (not that in Baz’s movies, one ever really needs reminding.) The scene is one of the film’s two most riveting. The other is Romeo’s arrival at the church, entirely lit by hundreds of candles, where Juliet is laid out, looking more beautiful in “death” than in life. It’s a devastating moment.


 

Image: 8/9
For the most part this is an excellent transfer. There is, however, at least one striking example of blue fringing when Tybalt leaps through the air. In other respects, and certainly in comparison to the previous DVDs from 2002 or 2007, it is astounding. Flashes of color and fireworks, a churchful of candles and its otherwise gray setting, the gleam of gun barrels come alive as never before on home video. Occasional bits of dirt present in the DVD are gone. And what few moments where sharpness or smoothing are suspect - they are not troubling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Blue fringing'

 

 

Audio & Music: 8/8
The new uncompressed DTS-HD MA mix is so much more exciting than the previous DVD Dolby Digital and standard DTS tracks that it is tempting to give this new one a higher score than it deserves. Through no fault of the new mix, however, dialogue is not always as crisp as it should be, especially considering the remote elegance of the language. Beyond this, effects and music is pretty much fantastic – perhaps nowhere more dynamic than in Capulet’s party. That guy really knows how to throw a party: everything from raucous crowds to fireworks to serious funk to a lovely ballad from Sade. Gunplay, car crashes, ambulance screams, helicopter whooshes, radio & TV news reports all vie for attention with the ongoing punchy pop music mix that accompanies most of the movie and demands the surrounds pay homage

 

Operations: 3
Once arrived at, the PIP feature works very well. Instead of relying on talking heads, numerous and fleeting clips form behind the scenes fly into view on one side of the screen, then the other, deliberately placed it seems so as to reveal the movie better. The material chosen supports the commentary. All of this material is densely packed that it feels like you’re watching a parallel universe for Baz’s movie. So much for the good news.

Fox continues and expands their idea of hidden menus, preferring a clean home page to a useful one. The head-scratcher du jour is the tab titled “SEARCH.” The purpose of a MENU serves both TABLE OF CONTENTS and SEARCH/FIND functions. It is therefore redundant at best to include an additional SEARCH tab in the MENU. Traditionally, thoughtfully, a video menu is divided into PLAY, SET-UP (or AUDIO/SUBTITLES/LANGUAGES), CHAPTERS (or SCENES), BONUS (or EXTRA FEATURES). But when you click on Fox’s SEARCH tab a new tab comes up titled “SCENES” that needs to be clicked on in order for you to access said scenes. There are no other tabs under the SEARCH tab.

It gets worse: Fox divides the movie into 29 chapters - a sensible number. However the SCENES toolbar displays only the thumbnail for the scene you’re in at the moment plus a time line, which would be helpful except that there are no other visible thumbnails for other scenes, nor can you get to them without clicking through them one at a time! The same heartless attitude apples to the Extra Features tab: you can’t know what’s there until you’ve opened each window and sub-window. I can’t believe that the people who devised this menu have ever actually used it in the real world. (By the way, the same unfriendly approach to Menu design applies to Fox’s simultaneously released Moulin Rouge!)

 

 

Extras: 8
Most, but not all of the extra features found on the “Music” and “Special” DVD editions appear here. I think the only segment of value missing is Baz & Craig’s commentary from the “Music Edition” though some of that content is addressed in the new PIP commentary (the same as was on the “Special Edition” DVD.) Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Craig Pierce, and Donald McAlpine – the same group that provide comments on the Moulin Rouge! commentary track. Here they discuss the Capulet party, the church used for Juliet’s funeral, the guns (instead of swords), locations, effects, casting and many other aspects of production.

There’s an “Interview Gallery in HD with actors Leonardo, Danes and Leguizamo, plus production designer Catherine Martin, writer Craig Pearce, editor Jill Bilcock, choreographer John O’Connell, and costume designer Kym Barrett. Also a half-hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes clips and comments by Baz for his Director’s Gallery. Similarly, DP Donald M. McAlpine gets six minutes to enlighten us about five of his more interesting scenes. But these are all fairly small potatoes compared to the section titled: The Music which includes a fascinating 50-minute documentary in HD about the importance of the music soundtrack from marketing and aesthetic points of view. There are also shorter segments under the heading “Everybody’s Free” brought over from the “Music Edition” DVD.

 

Bottom line: 8
Even more than Baz’s
Moulin Rouge! I should think, the reaction to Romeo + Juliet from critics and public alike has been sharply divided. I started out more in the Roger Ebert/Mick LaSalle camp, not very friendly reviews to be sure, but have since enjoyed pleasures and understandings heretofore out of my reach. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as some critics do, that I’ve discovered “insights” with repeated viewings, but I have definitely moved from a restless uncomfortable state to one of amused delights alternating with serious intensities. I’m not yet convinced that the entire film, performances and all, works as a piece, but I can get behind a recommendation – especially for the Blu-ray with its much improved image and audio. I should add that the soundtrack for Romeo + Juliet made heaps of money for the producers and for Capitol Records. It features the likes of Garbage, Butthole Surfers and Radiohead – the names kind of tell the story, do they not! Wikipedia notes that it was the second highest selling album in Australia in 1997 and went Platinum five times.

Leonard Norwitz
October 27th, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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