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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Cradle Will Rock (Blu-ray)
Cradle Will Rock (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // R // August 7, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $17.62 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 30, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Tim Robbins' third directorial effort after Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking, 1999's Cradle Will Rock is a Depression-era drama that closely examines the balance of art and power in a crippled economy. It also features a large and diverse roster of familiar faces including Vanessa Redgrave, Hank Azaria, John and Joan Cusack, Emily Watson, Paul Giamatti, John Turturro, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Tenacious D (!), and actor/musician Ruben Blades -- and if we're being honest, the names involved were (and still are) probably a bigger draw than the subject matter. But that's kind of the point, isn't it?

From start to finish, Cradle Will Rock is nothing if not committed to fully exploring its own subject matter, with a keen eye for detail and strong left-leaning political undertones that seem like a perfect fit for writer/director Robbins. But there's so much going on here that it's often overwhelming: among other stories, Cradle Will Rock follows a homeless woman's dreams of stardom (Emily Watson), the back-and-forth struggle between Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) and provocative Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades), the sale of valuable paintings by art dealer Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon) to help fund Mussolini's war effort, washed-up ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Tommy Crickshaw) and his meetings with HUAC-friendly clerk Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), and yet another struggling hopeful (John Turturro) who leaves his family for their political leanings. These stories and many others kinda-sorta intersect during the development of "The Cradle Will Rock", a musical written by Mark Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) that's being produced by young Orson Welles (Angus Macfayden) and John Houseman (Orson Welles) via the government-funded Federal Theatre Project.

Again, there's a lot to chew on, especially for the new folks. (Admittedly, I'm one of them -- Cradle Will Rock stood out at the video store with its bold cover and striking ensemble cast names, but I never got around to renting it.) And I'd be lying if I said the movie's magic didn't wear off before the performance of its title play: there's just too much crammed into its 132-minute running time, which often overwhelms the viewer with details that don't always pay off. Cradle Will Rock certainly has a few great moments and no shortage of little episodes along the way, but its ambitious scope would have worked far better as a longer, more evenly-paced film or mini-series. But for what it's worth, there's still a solid amount of appeal here -- and if not for the subject matter itself, at least an ensemble cast that, for the most part, seems to be enjoying every minute of the show. Yet the obvious drawbacks to its crowded narrative really limit the film's replay value, while the period it explores only grows more faded from public consciousness with each passing decade.

Originally released on DVD by Buena Vista all the way back in 2000, Cradle Will Rock has likewise faded from the public eye during the last two decades. Kino Lorber, continuing its valiant rescue of catalog titles all but abandoned by major studios, has given the film a second life on Blu-ray in what should have been a much more well-rounded disc. The good news is that Tim Robbins contributes an all-new audio commentary that's full of valuable insight. The bad news? That's all the good news you're going to get.

.

In a word: "disappointing". Considering DVD Talk reviewer Earl Cressey's high praise for Buena Vista's anamorphic 2000 DVD and the lackluster appearance of Kino's new Blu-ray, I can only assume that the exact same source materials were used for this release. It's obviously sourced from a dated scan that, while more than acceptable by almost 20-year-old standards, is lackluster when compared to similar catalog releases in high definition. Image detail and texture are lacking with a slightly waxy appearance. Black levels often lack proper depth due to crush. Occasional moments of dirt and debris, while not overly distracting, can easily be spotted. Colors are vivid but over-saturated with obvious blooming. But the biggest strike is that this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer just looks processed in the way most early DVDs do, conveying an appearance much closer to video than film. It's still a technical upgrade over the DVD due to Blu-ray's increased resolution and better encoding...but those expecting a night-and-day improvement won't get one here.


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

The audio represents another curious side-step rather than a leap forward, as the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.0 mix is now presented in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio. As I don't own that disc for a direct comparison, it's obvious that this presentation doesn't offer as much heft and presence as expected for a dense, crowded film built around musical theater: front channel separation is obvious, but I rarely felt like I was "right in the middle of the action". Dialogue is always crisp and cleanly recorded, while there are occasional moments of depth during the music numbers and scenes of overlapping dialogue. Optional English SDH subtitles are included during the film only.

Kino's static interface -- similar to the original poster seen below -- includes options for playback, chapter selection (eight total), subtitle setup, and bonus features, with quick loading time and very few pre-menu distractions. As with most recent Kino catalog releases, this one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase with classy, familiar cover artwork and no inserts of any kind.

Color me surprised, as the included Audio Commentary with writer/director Tim Robbins is actually new and exclusive to this disc; since I've never owned Cradle Will Rock, I assumed it to be a carryover from Buena Vista's 2000 DVD. Either way, this commentary covers a lot of ground; among other topics, Robbins talks about writing and researching for nine years, filming in 1998 NYC, the opening sequence, voicing a newsreel, assembling the massive cast, Orson Welles' The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, supporting characters and shout-outs, progressive politics of the past and present (only a matter of time, right?), Nelson Rockefeller, Revolt of the Beavers, unemployment in the 1930s, working with a baby, truths and embellishments, the final performance, and more. Robbins is relaxed but steady from start to finish while delivering personal anecdotes, candid reflections, and thoughtful observations. It's a great track overall and one that die-hard fans will enjoy. The remaining extras include a returning eight-minute EPK Featurette and the film's Theatrical Trailer.

Tim Robbins' ambitious Cradle Will Rock offers a dense, sprawling, and thoughtful historical drama loaded with familiar faces, but it often borders on overkill and the magic fades before its curtain call. Still, the subject matter is engaging and, if nothing else, the ensemble cast makes this one worth wading through at least once. Kino's Blu-ray sounds great at first glance: it aims to replace a nearly 20-year-old DVD and features a brand-new Robbins audio commentary, but the A/V presentation isn't anywhere close to what we've come to expect from most catalog releases. I'd still recommend Cradle Will Rock to die-hard fans -- more for the commentary than anything else, probably -- but its limited replay value and obvious technical shortcomings kind of spoil the party. Rent It.

A Footnote: Several readers pointed out that Tim Robbins made his directorial debut with Bob Roberts and followed it up with Dead Man Walking. This review was edited on 8/31 to correct my earlier mistakes.


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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