Baz Lhurmann has recently found himself in the midst of fame with his terrific "Moulin Rouge", catching awards attention and sweeping up new members into its fan base after a packed recently released DVD of the film allowed those who hadn't caught up with the film to view it. Lhurmann's two prior films have used the director's style in a similar fashion, but there's something unusual, lively and altogether different about a Lhurmann film that's enjoyable, fresh and entertaining.
The director's second film was a fairly big risk, but one that the director was a very good choice for. Lhurmann's style - cartoonish, but managing to add gravity, depth and substance to gain interest - has been called "MTV-ish" in the past (mainly in regards to this film), but the editing of Jill Bilcock (Lhurmann's editor on this and "Moulin Rouge") uses zippy editing and various tricks in way that gives the film intensity and energy without getting in the way of telling the story or simply turning things into fractured chaos.
The film's plot is, of course, widely known, although it has been slightly changed for this retelling. There are still the Montagues and Capulets, lead by Brian Dennehy for the Montagues, Paul Sorvino for the Capulets, but the action has been relocated to Verona Beach, the soundtrack filled with current pop hits and the clothing and weaponry have been modernized, as well. Romeo Montague (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet Capulet (Claire Danes) still fall in love at first sight, although this meet cute has been cleverly rethought as the two catch sight of one another through a giant fishtank.
As with Lhurmann's other films, the costumes are extrordinary, the cinematography (Don McAlpine) stunning and the production design remarkable. The performances are quite good, as well. Although I've never been a fan of Dicaprio, he's been good in "Titanic" and impressive here, as well. Claire Danes has seemingly done little after this picture, but it's her most memorable performance - she's passionate, moving and intense as Juliet. There's also a good supporting cast, including Pete Postlethwaite and others.
Lhurmann's retelling was a love-or-hate film upon release, but personally, I still find it an enjoyable interpretation of the classic tale, stylish and intensely presented.
VIDEO: "Romeo and Juliet" was originally released by Fox in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen a couple of years back. As with most of Fox's other DVD product from around that time, it was not a flawless presentation, but as non-anamorphic ones go, it was quite good. The film has recieved a new 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for this Special Edition re-release, which is also THX-Approved. As for that last part, THX certainly has not been helping their previously fine reputation over the past couple of years, most recently offering a new presentation of "Tombstone" with some serious edge enhancement. While comparing Fox's original non-anamorphic widescreen edition and this new transfer, some problems were apparent on both. The earlier non-anamorphic presentation did a very pleasing job rendering the film's vivid, bright color palette, with only a few areas that started to look slightly oversaturated. Colors in this new edition look heavy and a bit smeary in more than just a couple of sequences, unfortunately. While not terrible, colors seemed more consistently well-presented by the original release and flesh-tones looked more natural on the prior release, as well.
There is a mild improvement in sharpness and detail on this new edition, but I didn't find the difference to be major. Edge enhancement was seen on the original release and it's seen again here, only somewhat less so. The print still isn't entirely clean, either - a couple of stray, mild specks are seen in a few scenes.
SOUND: "Romeo and Juliet" is presented on this release once again in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (a DTS track for this new release would have been appreciated but, moving forward...). The film's soundtrack is still an agressive, enveloping experience that, while not stunning, provides sound in the same sharp, intense way that the film provides vivid images. Surrounds are employed quite well for the music, some sound effects and occasional ambient sounds. Audio quality is, again, quite pleasing; strong bass is occasionally heard, dialogue sounds clear and the music comes through crisply and richly.
MENUS: Wonderfully animated film-themed images serve as backgrounds. There's some nice transitions between menus, as well.
Commentary: 20th Century Fox's laserdisc release did contain a commentary track that was, if memory serves me correctly, a fairly weakly recorded session with comments from director Lhurmann, editor Jill Bilcock, production designer Catherine Martin, cinematographer Don McAlpine and co-producer Martin Brown. It's been a while, but I don't remember finding that track very interesting. While I had expected that track to return here, Fox has actually brought Lhurmann, Martin, McAlpine, along co-writer Craig Pierce together to record a group commentary. Lhurmann's track for "Strictly Ballroom" and, to a bit of a lesser degree, "Moulin Rouge", were nice mixtures of entertaining chatter, some playful humor about the movie and good information. This commentary from "Romeo+Juliet" is much of the same, as the four provide some very good stories from the set, discuss the troubles that the production faced, and occasionally make a joke or two related to what's on-screen.
Cinematographer's Gallery: This section provides several very small behind-the-scenes clips featuring the crew attempting to get the set together to film the next scene. Cinematographer Don McAlpine provides commentary for these clips about how the crew were able to film some of the trickier shots.
Director's Gallery: This section provides another group of featurettes, these being more substancial. The best of this group, in my opinion, is Pitching Shakespeare, a very enjoyable featurette that captures Lhurmann relating (quite energetically) the story of what it was like to pitch a new "Romeo and Juliet" for young audiences to Fox execs. This featurette also includes a bit of a demo reel shot in Australia with Dicaprio, which is quite interesting to view.
Venture further into this section and you'll find three additional scene-related featurettes; "Gas Station", "Tybalt's Execution" and "Pool Scene". All three are snappily edited complilations of behind-the-scenes work, rehersal footage, staging and other elements, complete with some additional text to discuss what we're seeing. Also included in this section is an excerpt from a Shakespeare doc and interview with Lhurmann about "Why Shakespeare?".
Design Gallery: Several different galleries of production art and other designs, most animated and some narrated by production designer Catherine Martin.
Marketing: The film's trailer, a couple of TV spots and a poster gallery.
Interview Gallery: Interviews with Dicaprio, Danes and Leguizamo, as well as the film's choreographer, editor, co-writer and costume designer.
Final Thoughts: Lhurmann's "Romeo and Juliet" is a flashy, fast-paced modernization that works because of Lhurmann's use of style in a way that adds intensity without the storytelling suffering. While Fox's new special edition DVD has video quality that is somewhat less pleasing in some aspects than I expected, the film's soundtrack still shines and I quite enjoyed the supplements included. Recommended.