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Blu-ray Reviews

HTF Blu-ray Review: MONSTERS



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#1 of 15 OFFLINE   Michael Reuben

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Posted February 09 2011 - 03:31 AM

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Monsters (Blu-ray)


Monsters isn’t your average monster movie. The British writer/director, Gareth Edwards, is a do-it-yourself auteur. After finishing film school, he taught himself visual effects and used that expertise as an entree into the industry. When he sat down to write his own film, he knew that he could spend less than a million dollars to make something that looked like it cost ten times that much by shooting it himself and creating his own CGI. All he needed was good actors, a flexible crew and exotic locations like Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize to provide the raw material. Stephen King called the results “simple, but sturdy and resonant” and ranked Monsters eighth on his top ten list of 2010.




Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment

Rated: R

Film Length: 94 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

HD Encoding: 1080p

HD Codec: AVC

Audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1

Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish

MSRP: $29.98

Disc Format: 1 50GB

Package: Keepcase with textured slipcover

Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 24, 2010 (on demand); Oct. 29, 2010 (limited theatrical)

Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 1, 2011




The Feature:


At an unspecified date in the near future, a space probe returning to earth with samples believed to contain alien life forms has broken up over Mexico. Now it’s six years later. Huge, menacing creatures are sighted with alarming frequency in the “infected” zone, which continues to expand south toward Central America and north toward the U.S., despite an all-out effort by the military to contain the infection. Air raids with poison gas are a daily occurrence over the infected zone. At the U.S. border, a huge wall has been constructed to prevent the creatures from entering American territory. (Some critics saw a political message in this part of the story, but the filmmakers insist otherwise. Like a number of elements in Monsters, the wall is something of a MacGuffin.)


Andy (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist who works for an American media empire. He’s spent months traveling around the infected zone trying get pictures of a live monster, but so far he’s only managed to capture carcasses after military action. Suddenly he gets a new assignment that he doesn’t want. Samantha, or “Sam” (Whitney Able), the daughter of the company’s CEO, has been vacationing in Mexico south of the infected zone, but her hotel has just suffered a monster attack. Sam escaped without serious injury, but her father wants her home now, and he instructs Andy to make sure that happens. Andy protests that babysitting isn’t his job, but he’s enticed with promises of promotion.


The basic narrative of Monsters follows Andy’s efforts to get Sam across (or around) the infected zone. It’s not an easy task. The military is constantly adapting its tactics to a fluid situation, and routes that are available one day might be suddenly closed the next. A thriving black market of travel assistance has sprung up around the infected zone, charging exorbitant (and escalating) amounts for ferry rides and other forms of passage. And Andy is neither an organized nor a reliable chaperone – a point made more problematic by the fact that Sam isn’t an entirely willing passenger. Her “vacation” was also a form of escape, and she’s not enthusiastic about returning.


This last point gets at the deeper narrative of Monsters, which places it firmly in the British strain of science fiction (represented by such writers as J.G. Ballard) in which there are no greater mysteries than those of the human mind. Both Sam and Andy are struggling with personal issues – in Andy’s case, a son he feels guilty for leaving; in Sam’s, an impending marriage about which she’s clearly uncertain. As their circumstances grow more difficult and dangerous, each of them is forced to confront issues they’ve been avoiding. All the while they’re learning things about the aliens that haven’t been shown on the news, they’re learning even more about themselves. Every path they take to get Sam home seems to lead to another detour, but even as the detours bring them closer to their destination, the strangeness of the experiences – and the close encounters along the way – make each of them question the lives they’ve led. By the end, even if they make it through, it’s not clear whether either Sam or Andy can go back to being who they were.


If Monsters had been a studio project, what Sam and Andy learn would be boiled down into neat sound bites and tidy speeches, and everything would flow like movie dialogue. But Monsters doesn’t play that way, because Edwards’ approach was a guerilla filmmaker’s version of the method developed by the great British director Mike Leigh. Edwards outlined a story, characters and situations, then left his actors free to improvise all of their dialogue. The result, even when carefully edited, seems spontaneous and unrehearsed, and it has a distinctive rhythm unlike a typical science fiction film. You have to listen to the dialogue and read between the lines, because the characters don’t stop to give you bullet points outlining their thoughts.


Edwards shot the film himself with Sony digital cameras, using real locations and whoever happened to be there as extras and supporting “actors”. (Needless to say, he didn’t bother with permits.) Because he could visualize in his head what digital effects he would add later, he could dispense with green screens and tracking markers. Often he would just pan overhead, where he planned to insert something like jets flying, or sideways to an empty space that he would later fill with ruins or wreckage – much to the consternation of his two lead actors, who couldn’t understand why their director was suddenly pointing the camera away from them.


Monsters recalls many other films, but it’s good enough to stand the comparison. Cloverfield came out while Edwards was working on his film, and many people told him his idea had already been used. But as Edwards points out, Cloverfield records the beginning of an alien encounter, while Monsters picks up the thread some years later. District 9 is an obvious comparison, and there’s a river journey in Monsters that can’t help but suggest Apocalypse Now. By the end of the film, though, I was thinking of Steven Spielberg (and I don’t mean War of the Worlds).


Hint: After finishing the film, replay the opening. It may strike you very differently on a second viewing.



Video:


Shot, edited and finished entirely in the digital realm, Monsters comes to Blu-ray with no interim analog conversion. Compression issues aside, what Edwards created should be what we get. The 2:35:1 image is generally very detailed, colorful and sharply defined, although detail does tend to suffer in night scenes and dark interiors, probably due to a lack of supplemental lighting. Video noise is minimal, though occasionally enough to be noticeable. The color pallette tends to be muted, although there is the occasional strong, saturated color for a deliberate effect.



Audio:


Monsters’ audio track can be immersive and powerful, especially in jungle scenes or scenes in moving vehicles, such as trains or military transports. It can also be very quiet in simple dialogue scenes in such places as hotel rooms. It’s a well-mixed, intelligently crafted track that knows when to use the surrounds but doesn’t rely on them. The subtly atmospheric score is by Jon Hopkins, and the track is presented in 7.1 DTS lossless.



Special Features:


The special features are extensive and detailed, but at a certain point one wishes for the kind of editorial judgment that took the initial cut of Monsters from 4:15 to its current running time of 1:34. Less is sometimes more, and when special features add up to a running time several times greater than the film itself, the balance is off. In general, the features where participants other than Edwards do much of the talking are the most valuable, because they provide an essential balance. I have marked them with an asterisk.


*Commentary with Writer/Director Gareth Edwards and Actors Scott McNairy and Whitney Able. The close relationship forged among the three collaborators is obvious as they recall people and places and, in the case of Able and McNairy, marvel at how the scenes were transformed in post-production. One notable item that emerges is that most of the scenes in the film’s first act were reshot at the end, after the team had finished the rest of the film, because they felt they could convey critical exposition more efficiently, now that they’d enacted the entire story together. Another interesting fact: McNairy and Able, who were a couple when filming began, married shortly after.


Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD; 2.35:1; enhanced for 16:9) (20:07). Four scenes are included, and they provide interesting examples of the alternative takes that Edwards’ improvisational shooting style generated for him and his editor. For example, one shows a slightly different version of the initial encounter between Sam and Andy and a local family, while another shows a variant of their arrival in a hotel room.


Behind the Scenes of Monsters (HD) (1:09:15). An exhaustive (and exhausting) production diary following Edwards from the first day of shooting through the end of principal photography. Its chief value is that it gives one a sense of how arduous the shoot was.


*Monsters: The Edit (HD) (21:31). In this intense but amicable dialogue, Edwards and editor Colin Goudie discuss how they carved the film out of the hundreds of hours of footage that Edwards brought back from his various locations. Because no shooting script existed, Goudie had to “find” the story in the footage, based on Edwards’ notes. And because the effects wouldn’t be added until after the edit was “locked”, Goudie had to use his imagination as much as the actors had when they were filming. It’s not how feature films are usually done, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be done this way more often, and Goudie’s comments are thought-provoking.


Visual Effects (HD) (34:56). Edwards discusses the effects work, all of which he did himself using “off the shelf” software. Because Edwards also operated the camera at all times, he did not need green screens, background plates or “tracking points” to create references for an outside effects house. As he was shooting, he was also deciding where visual effects would be inserted. The only elements that required major design work were the creatures themselves, and background on their development is included.


Interview with Gareth Edwards (HD) (44:16). Edwards speaks at length about his background, the genesis of the project, his approach to the story and the dangers of the shoot.


*Interview with Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (HD) (28:04). The two actors describe how they were cast and the filming process. As much as they enjoyed the freedom to create their characters, they also discuss the stress and uncertainty of not having “pages” to prepare for the next day’s work and of not being able to tell, by reference to a script, whether they were getting it right. The director’s assurance that they were giving him what he needed became essential.


*New YorkComic Con Discussion with Gareth Edwards (HD) (5:02). Although the questions appear to have been edited out, this short presentation by Edwards provides the best introduction to Edwards’ background and the film’s origins. A very early working concept, Edwards says, was “Blair Witch meets War of the Worlds”.


HDNet: A Look at Monsters (HD) (4:40). This is the usual HDNet promo piece. It uses brief selections from the longer interviews listed above.


Trailers. The film’s trailer is not included but can be found on various Magnolia discs. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Ong Bak 3, All Good Things, Night Catches Us, Vanishing on 7th Street, Rubber and HDNet and HDNet Movies; these can be skipped with the top menu or chapter forward buttons and are also available from the special features menu.

 

BD-Live. The BD-Live entry for this particular Magnolia disc returns the familiar message “Check Back Later for Updates”.

 

Digital Copy. An insert contains instructions and a code for downloading a digital copy compatible with iTunes. It has an expiration date of February 1, 2013.

 

 

In Conclusion:

 

Original talents are rare. Edwards appears to be one of them, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if someone gives him real money. Much of what makes Monsters distinctive resulted from Edwards’ ability to keep tight control over all aspects of production, but that kind of control can disappear very quickly when a significant investment is riding on the outcome. That’s why some of the best movies are made on the cheap.

 

 

Equipment used for this review:

 

Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)

Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)

Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough

Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier

Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears

BostonAccoustics VR-MC center

SVS SB12-Plus sub


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#2 of 15 OFFLINE   Adam Gregorich

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Posted February 09 2011 - 04:17 AM

I think I remember seeing this trailer on HDNET and it looked pretty interesting.  I will have to see if I can find it in the guide.



#3 of 15 OFFLINE   Tino

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Posted February 09 2011 - 10:15 AM

QUOTE:


Hint: After finishing the film, replay the opening. It may strike you very differently on a second viewing. ::;;;::::;


This hit me about 3 hours after watching the film! I was like...waitaminnit.....


Bought it blind and liked it.



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#4 of 15 OFFLINE   TonyD

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Posted February 09 2011 - 03:05 PM

I already, very much looked forward to seeing this. Then I read this from the review and want to see it even more. "Edwards outlined a story, characters and situations, then left his actors free to improvise all of their dialogue. The result, even when carefully edited, seems spontaneous and unrehearsed, and it has a distinctive rhythm unlike a typical science fiction film. You have to listen to the dialogue and read between the lines, because the characters don’t stop to give you bullet points outlining their thoughts." Long wait on Netflix so I think they underestimated the demand for it.
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#5 of 15 OFFLINE   Ryan-G

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Posted February 09 2011 - 05:12 PM

This film is also notable for one other event...


This film was a promotion on X-box Live where you could view it at home prior to it's theatrical release in the US.  I purchased and viewed it there prior to it's release.


I would heartily recommend this film to any interested,  It's a very good drama and you wouldn't know at all that it was filmed unconventionally if you didn't read about it first.


I don't want to say anymore,  for fear of spoiling,  but it's definitely a movie that made me think after watching it.



#6 of 15 OFFLINE   Robert Crawford

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Posted February 10 2011 - 01:15 AM



Originally Posted by Adam Gregorich 

I think I remember seeing this trailer on HDNET and it looked pretty interesting.  I will have to see if I can find it in the guide.



I have this film recorded on my HD DVR from a HDNET Movie channel showing prior to it's theatrical release.  I'll try to watch it this week.








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#7 of 15 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted February 22 2011 - 06:28 AM

I watched this yesterday.  It was an interesting experiment, but it wasn't as good a movie as, say, Cloverfield or District 9 (of course, it's not the same sort of movie as those -- it's far more leisurely paced).  I'd forgotten that the dialogue was all improvised, but in retrospect that makes sense because IMO it tended to be rather amateurish.  Like a script that's still a couple of revisions from truly being ready for prime time. :)


The opening sequence is interesting.  Sort of a bonus for people who watch the movie more than once (or who watch it on disc and think to re-watch the beginning due to the hint at the end :) ).  The commentary makes it even more interesting, since the director isn't sure exactly what happens!


When Sam is seen lying on the ground, he says something like "there's Sam, dead, or unconscious." :)



Note: the DVD edition has NO English subtitles -- only Spanish.  Can you verify that the BD has English subtitles?  Amazon's listing only mentions Spanish.


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#8 of 15 OFFLINE   Johnny Angell

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Posted February 22 2011 - 09:31 AM



Originally Posted by Aaron Silverman 

I watched this yesterday.  It was an interesting experiment, but it wasn't as good a movie as, say, Cloverfield or District 9 (of course, it's not the same sort of movie as those -- it's far more leisurely paced).  I'd forgotten that the dialogue was all improvised, but in retrospect that makes sense because IMO it tended to be rather amateurish.  Like a script that's still a couple of revisions from truly being ready for prime time. :)


That was my reaction.  I was never really engaged by the film and I found the two leads not very interesting.  It is very possible that if the circumstances were actual, you might have 2 characters like these, experiencing what they do in the movie.  However, I don't watch movies for a literal slice of life.  I want more drama, more excitement, and I wanted more monsters.


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#9 of 15 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted February 23 2011 - 06:01 AM

The problem with pacing a movie like this so slowly is that it gives the viewer too much time to think about things that don't really make sense. :)


It is pretty impressive from a technical standpoint as a piece of guerrilla filmmaking, though.  I read that the total budget was under $500,000.


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#10 of 15 OFFLINE   Jim_K

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Posted March 07 2011 - 11:32 PM

Nice review Michael.


I rented this not knowing much about the film and also not expecting much but I was pleasantly surprised.  What can I say other than it worked for me both on a visceral level and just for being different than the pack.


I didn't mind the slow pace or the improv dialog as it adds to the charm of the film.


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#11 of 15 OFFLINE   Michael Reuben

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Posted March 08 2011 - 02:37 AM

Thanks, Jim. I felt the same. As I tried to indicate in the review, the film is essentially a drama in sci-fi clothing. From that point of view, I find it polished, professional and satisfying. But people looking for more traditional sci-fi will probably be disappointed -- hence the oxymoron of a previous poster's calling the film a "slice of life", while conceding that the circumstances (humans openly sharing the planet with alien life forms and everyone accepting this as the everyday norm) are fantastical.


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#12 of 15 OFFLINE   Johnny Angell

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Posted March 08 2011 - 07:31 AM



Originally Posted by Michael Reuben 

Thanks, Jim. I felt the same. As I tried to indicate in the review, the film is essentially a drama in sci-fi clothing. From that point of view, I find it polished, professional and satisfying. But people looking for more traditional sci-fi will probably be disappointed -- hence the oxymoron of a previous poster's calling the film a "slice of life", while conceding that the circumstances (humans openly sharing the planet with alien life forms and everyone accepting this as the everyday norm) are fantastical.


You are right that those looking for traditional sci-fi will be disappointed, I was.  I don't think it was an oxymoron to refer to the film as a "slice of life" .  I never referred to the circumstances as fantastical, just that I wanted more drama, more monsters.  But yeah, the circumstances were fantastical.


A film that I liked much more, Cloverfield, was something of a "slice of life".  Except there was more drama, more heroics.  While there were only two types of monsters in the film, they were more interesting the those of Monsters.  All IMHO, of course.



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#13 of 15 OFFLINE   Ron-P

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Posted March 08 2011 - 06:58 PM



Originally Posted by Michael Reuben 

Thanks, Jim. I felt the same. As I tried to indicate in the review, the film is essentially a drama in sci-fi clothing. From that point of view, I find it polished, professional and satisfying. But people looking for more traditional sci-fi will probably be disappointed -- hence the oxymoron of a previous poster's calling the film a "slice of life", while conceding that the circumstances (humans openly sharing the planet with alien life forms and everyone accepting this as the everyday norm) are fantastical.




My family and I really liked it. A very well done film, of course I knew going in that the Aliens were more of a background to the story. But more then a drama, I found this to be a love story first and foremost.

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#14 of 15 OFFLINE   EricSchulz

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Posted August 11 2012 - 12:53 PM

Excellent review, Michael.

This title caught my eye as I was leaving my local public library (my new Netflix!) so I grabbed it.  NEVER heard anything about it and went in with no real expectations (other than knowing it was extremely low budget).  I agree that it's a drama with a sci-fi wrapping.  But I found myself sucked in pretty quickly...until the last scene.  I thought it was too much of a co-incidence and DID go back to see the opening sequence again.

I'm curious as to how many of the BD extras are on the DVD version.


A good use of 90 minutes of my life!



#15 of 15 OFFLINE   JohnS

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Posted August 11 2012 - 09:35 PM

This movie is now available on Netflix streaming and this coming Saturday(Aug 18th) on Showtime Extreme for those of you that want to watch it before you buy it. I plan on watching it this weekend.

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