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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Sex, Lies, And Videotape: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Sex, Lies, And Videotape: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // R // July 17, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 12, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

A hot-button independent sensation that propelled its director to Hollywood and back again, Steven Soderbergh's excellent debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) holds up almost three decades later as a striking drama that made the most of limited means. Almost every actor involved in this production was either just beginning their career or had only a few projects under their belt, making this "little film that could" a launching pad for everyone with their hands in it. The frank dialogue and adult themes in Sex, Lies, and Videotape are supplemented by wonderful performances, happy accidents, and exactly zero nudity, softening the edges that might keep away those who need to see it the most.

Our story is told largely from the perspective of Ann Mullany (Andie MacDowell), who lives in Baton Rouge with her yuppie husband John (Peter Gallagher). Their marriage is crumbling after just a few years together. Ann seems reserved and almost puritanical; John works long hours, just became junior partner, and is having an affair with Ann's younger sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). It's obvious that the Mullanys are bored with their marriage -- for completely different reasons, of course -- and Cynthia doesn't seem to care about hiding the secret from her uptight, reserved sister. The cracks in their marriage really start to show upon the arrival of John's old college friend, Graham Dalton (James Spader). It's been seven years since they've seen each other and both have changed dramatically, but the introspective Graham immediately becomes a catalyst...especially once Ann discovers a personal project he's been working on.

Afraid of repeating himself in subsequent films, Steven Soderbergh drew partially from his own experiences when writing Sex, Lies, and Videotape -- famously penned just over a single week on the road, although the project was in the back of his mind for a full year beforehand. The young director (just 26 years old when the film was released) was surrounded by a mostly young and inexperienced crew, while two of the four primary characters were last-minute audition surprises. Released by Miramax during its first decade of business and several years before the tidal wave of The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, and the sale to Disney, the film's enormous financial and critical success helped to pioneer the independent film movement in the years after its release. Warmly received at both Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was also nominated for an Oscar the following year for Soderbergh's original screenplay.

Despite all the "26-year-old director" and "hot-button" hype, this film remains durably effective for the great performances and a mature story that handles its touchy subjects with all the confidence in the world. It doesn't have the charismatic appeal of Out of Sight or the polished shine of Ocean's 11, but the appeal of an adult drama with this level of care will never go out of style...even if the fashion and technology haven't aged that well. Criterion's new Blu-ray of Sex, Lies, and Videotape aims to replace Sony's 2009 Blu-ray and does so with ease, offering a top-tier A/V presentation and a host of great bonus features that pay tribute to the film's cultural impact and understated technical prowess.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Sex, Lies, and Videotape looks absolutely flawless on Blu-ray -- not surprising, when you read over the restoration statement included on the disc a text-only bonus feature. The short version is that this new 1080p transfer, a joint effort between Deluxe and Harbor Picture Company, was sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and supplemented by a thorough correction of existing dirt and debris. Colors are bold and vivid at times, with a strong amount of native film grain and deep black levels and strong image detail. Though not overseen by Steven Soderbergh and Rich Garibaldi of Telecine Tech from start to finish -- as the initial home video transfer was in 1989 -- the final version of this 2018 master was approved by the director. It's important to note that, while Sony's 2009 Blu-ray was probably good enough to recycle, the fact that a brand-new transfer was created for this and possible future releases (including an eventual 4K UHD disc down the road) is yet another feather in the studio's cap.

NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.

Similar news on the audio front -- this is by no means a flashy presentation, but it's been polished to absolute perfection (and also includes more than one supplement concerning its restoration). Stories about on-set dialogue recording plagued by noisy equipment are recalled, as are details about different masters created from the original audio stems on prior releases. Even the well-regarded 2009 mix from Sony's Blu-ray is discussed in detail but, like that older 1080p master, it just wasn't quite good enough and warranted another update. The result is a clean and crisp DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix (96kHz, 24-bit), recorded at sound mixer Larry Blake's Swelltone Labs, that's largely front-loaded but entirely free from defects including hiss, crackle, and the persistent racket of on-set power generators. Simply put, Sex, Lies, and Videotape will never sound better on disc. Optional English subtitles are also included during the main feature.

Criterion's interface is very smooth and easy to navigate with access to a timeline, chapters, and bonus features. This disc is locked for Region A players only -- and surprisingly enough, its packaging offers a refreshing change of pace from the studio's usual format. Housed in a slim Digipak case about the size of a standard Blu-ray release, the familiar cover art is distorted by a "moire pattern" slipcover and includes a thick Booklet with an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and detailed excerpts from Soderbergh's 1990 book about the film. It's quite a handsome package and carries the weight and feel of Warner Bros.' "Diamond Luxe" Blu-rays (with the added benefit of a normal plastic hub, thank goodness).

Plenty of great material, and much of it is new. Undoubtedly, the main attraction is "Something in the Air" (29 minutes), a new retrospective documentary about the film's production featuring actors Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo. There's a lot of great information here, with topics of discussion including their separate introductions to the director, how their careers changed after the film's success, their interpretations of the script and and characters, the taboo of sex, happy mistakes, and more. The lack of James Spader is disappointing, but a 1989 Today Show segment with the actor (5 minutes) is also included; among other items, he discusses the film's warm reception at Cannes and his initial attraction to the material. Speaking of interviews, we also get three more appearances by director Steven Soderbergh: a new Introduction (6 minutes) that provides a nice retrospective overview of the film, his 1992 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show (14 minutes), and a 1990 on-the-street Interview in Washington DC (9 minutes).

Several other new supplements fall into technical territory and, for my money, show how much care was put into this disc. These lead off with a Restoration Statement from sound mixer Larry Blake (text only) that details the extensive work that went into not only this Blu-ray, but earlier versions of Sex, Lies, and Videotape on home video. Also here is a new Interview with Blake and composer Cliff Martinez (20 minutes), who speak about meeting Soderbergh in 1979, touring with the band Yes for 3 days, working on Alien Nation and Pee-wee's Playhouse, subtle variations and sound design, recalling the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, getting "points", and other collaborations with the director. Wrapping things up is a Sound Restoration Demonstration (12 minutes), narrated by Blake, that details the different -- and in some cases, disastrous -- audio mixes of the film from its Cannes screening onward, including a few comparisons.

Carried over from earlier releases including Sony's 2009 Blu-ray are a 1998 Audio Commentary featuring director Steven Soderbergh and filmmaker Neil Labute, one Deleted Scene with optional director commentary, and two different Trailers (one cut by Soderbergh, the other by Miramax). We're missing a few odds and ends, including a clip from Sundance's 20th Anniversary Reunion and Sony's "MovieIQ" functionality, but nothing major. Overall, a great mix of extras.

Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a confident debut at any age, is a landmark of independent cinema and makes the absolute most of its limited budget. Featuring great performances by the small cast, a memorable score by Soderbergh regular Cliff Martinez, and a purely character-driven plot that unfolds at a terrific pace, there's a lot to like about this little production and, technical advances aside, its core themes still ring true today. Criterion continues their improved editions of mainstream classics returning from earlier laserdiscs: much like The Graduate, 12 Angry Men, Dr. Strangelove, and The Silence of the Lambs, this is an extremely polished Blu-ray that will sell enough copies to help them dig for deeper treasures. Its sparkling new A/V presentation wrings every ounce of detail from the source material, while its thoughtful bonus features and terrific packaging are icing on the cake. Very Highly Recommended.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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