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PANIC ROOM

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristin Stewart
Director: David Fincher
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: March 30, 2004

They're locking us in.

Film ****

Before we delve into my actual review for this movie, allow me to reveal a little insight into one of my favorite filmmakers, Mr. David Fincher.

Many readers will note my strong admiration for director Brian De Palma, and although he remains my top favorite director of all time, he may have the title challenged one day by that of another masterful filmmaker, David Fincher. What he applies each of his movies is something I can’t even begin to describe, but I do know that it lies very heavily within the technical aspects. There is absolutely no denying that in the realm of visual filmmaking, Fincher is a reigning god. Prior to his moviemaking status, Fincher had long been directing music videos, including Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”, as well as several Madonna videos. His movie debut came with Alien 3 in 1992, which I didn’t think much of at first, but I have revisited many times since then and now have a tremendous deal of affection for. Seven, Fincher’s next film would, in my honest opinion, change the suspense movie genre for years to come. He followed that with the brilliant mind-bending The Game and then with his most masterful piece of work to date, the brutally bold and daring Fight Club. Now David Fincher has brought to the screen another work of masterful cinematic suspense, and it will indeed go down as one of the year’s best films.

Few movies can present a familiar plot scenario and elevate it to sheer excellence; then again, there aren’t many directors like David Fincher, who is indeed capable of making such an execution. Panic Room is a restlessly superior and downright jolt-to-the-senses suspense thriller. What makes the movie even the more unique is the fact that the whole plot is built around a familiar backdrop; a simple cat and mouse game of wits between a mother and three not too subtle burglars. What makes this case more distinctive is Fincher’s original and wild sense of style, use of mostly dark sets with unique colors, and his uncanny knack for literally pumping up the suspense as the movie progresses. When was the last time a movie had the guts to have a camera suddenly zoom and place itself in the middle of a keyhole? Panic Room has many additional tricks up its sleeve.

The visual effect of the movie strikes your nerve right from the opening credits, which is an amazing sequence that I assure you even Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of.  Jodie Foster, in yet another amazing performance, plays Meg Altman, a just divorced New Yorker who has sealed the deal on a dreamlike Brownstone complex in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, along with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). This is quite a place, which includes very spacious rooms, its very own elevator, and a secret little hidden bonus known as the panic room. The room is designed as a castle keep of medieval times, and this room carries just as many nooks and crannies as the entire complex does. It acquires its own phone line, a ventilation system, countless security monitors, in addition walls, ceilings and floors made completely of steel.

Upon their first night of experiencing their new residence, Meg and Sarah are thrown into an unexpected predicament, when three men break into the house. The burglars are Burnham (Forest Whitaker), a security expert, Junior (Jared Leto), the brains behind the break-in plan, and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), whose presence is simply that of requested assistance by Junior. Their sudden break-in causes the mother and daughter to hide off in nowhere else but the panic room. The only problem is the men have come to steal a fortune that is hidden specifically in the panic room, which now sets off the razor sharp cat and mouse game. This also causes tension between the three intruders. Burnham advises that he will hurt no one, while Junior shows signs of an insane nervous breakdown, and Raoul, who is cool and calm at first, slowly delves into a psychopathic menace.

The performances are virtually flawless. Foster is simply dynamite in what might just be her most physically demanding performance to date. Another triumph is in that of Forest Whitaker, who creates a much complex antagonist whose moral compass is put to the test many times. And Dwight Yoakam, who created a haunting portrait of evil in Sling Blade, does his maniacal best again as he elevates Raoul from subtlety to extreme insanity. His evil is such a menacing force, that it surpasses that of any basic horror movie slasher. Even tough the true star of the movie is David Fincher’s artful directing, the superb quality of the performances don’t hurt one single bit at all.

Panic Room is a stunning achievement in the realm of cinematic suspense. The technical and visual genius of David Fincher is a riveting one, and it is displayed once again in this stunner that rarely gives you a moment to gasp for breath.

Video ****

Panic Room, of course, was first released to DVD in the top of the line Superbit format. I had seen many releases in a few titles in Superbit, including The Fifth Element and Bad Boys, but of all the movies to be presented in such a high quality viewing mode, this one really stood out as the ultimate best. Superbit discs had always seemed to come out a few months down the road from the movie's initial DVD release. That's not the case here, as Columbia Tri Star is given the challenge of presenting Panic Room in a non-Superbit presentation for the first time.

And I'm happy to report that the new transfer is just as enthralling and visually absorbing as the transfer on the Superbit release. When you have a film directed by David Fincher, the visual look is always going to be an important factor, something that CTS took into account very well. The notion that the movie went through two cinematographers alone indicates a sense of strive by the filmmakers for a visual perfection. From the astounding opening credit sequence to the numerous visual gimmicks Fincher has supplied the film; the superb anamorphic picture does nothing short of elevating the already claustrophobic feeling of the movie. For a movie filmed in continuous dark tones and lit scenes, the look of this disc is certainly one of pure accomplishment. The colors in the presentation are as supremely natural as one could expect, especially since Mr. Fincher likes to toy with the color tones in his films.

Columbia Tri Star deserve all the credit possible for taking the best known visual format in Superbit and coming up with something just as astounding.

Audio ****

No surprises here, as all of the sound wizardry and effects in the film are given a sound quality of striking proportions. Although the package indicates that the 5.1 track is an all new audio mix, I couldn't really distinct much of anything between this one and the 5.1 mix on the previous offering. Just as it was one of 2002 most outstanding transfers, this will certainly be remembered at the next DMC Award in the Best Re-Issue category.

Every aspect of the effective sound applied in Panic Room is given an incredible level of detail which illustrate that this is one of the best films to ever experience, especially on that of a home theater. Howard Shore's magnetic score to the film is one of them. Although Shore took home Oscars for his work on two of the Lord of the Rings films, I still feel that his strongest musical scores have been in the films he's done for David Fincher, including Seven and The Game. In these films, Shore has always managed to create a memorable score of music that perfectly matches the dark mood of Fincher's work. His score for Panic Room is no exception, and the chillingly moody music sounds as striking as ever in the presentation. And the level of dynamic range, overall, is something that words cannot describe. Just pop the disc in, and be prepared to be engulfed by the strong and superior surround sound provided.

Again, I must commend the folks as Columbia Tri Star for a tremendous job well executed!

Features ****

At last, we arrive at, unquestionably, the highlight and most anticipated area of this release. Although the previous disc included an assaulting Superbit presentation, it also included close to zero in the extras department. It's been close to two years since we've waited for the proper upgrade. It is now here, in the form of a jaw dropping three disc package. It goes without saying that it was very much worth the wait.

Disc One, of course, includes the feature movie and three, count 'em--THREE, audio commentary tracks. The first is with David Fincher, who is very much insightful and intriguing to listen to as he reveals in detail what it took to get what he wanted onto the screen. The second sells itself by having cast members Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam offering their comments on their experiences making the film. The third includes screenwriter David Koepp and a special guest speaker, whose name I'll leave for you to discover. Also included on the disc are trailers for this and these CTS releases; Lawrence of Arabia, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Taxi Driver, Midnight Express, and Dr. Strangelove.

Disc Two delves deep into both pre-production and production of the movie. There are six featurettes which track the prepping process, covering areas of pre-visualization right through testing. There's also an interactive pre-visualization, where you can compare pre-visualization, storyboards, dailies and final film in a multi-angle/multi-audio format, along with optional commentary. For production, there is an hour long documentary titled "Shooting Panic Room”, a thoroughly informative piece on all that went into the principal photography stage. Lastly, there is a make up effects featurette with effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.

Disc Three covers areas of late stages in regular production, as well as the post-production phase. The area of production is concluded with a look at four individual sequence breakdowns. The post-production status is covered through varied looks at the final touches applied to the movie. First off, there are 21 short documentaries on visual effects and the scenes they were put into, from the credit sequence on down. There's also a Sound Design featurette with sound designer Ren Klyce, a multi-angle look at scoring sessions with composer Howard Shore, a piece on Digital Intermiediate as well as looks into additional areas of the post-production phase. Lastly, a detailed glossary of terms has been provided, each of which is associated with the filming format the movie was shot in (extensively informative).

It's an outstanding knockout of a three disc package, ranking high with the DVD's for Fincher's Fight Club and Seven, and marks CTS' finest DVD delivery since their deluxe release for Black Hawk Down.

Summary:

Panic Room is a masterful contemporary suspense thriller; one of the downright finest ones in recent memory. It oozes, scene after scene, with atmospheric chills and David Fincher's unrelenting visionary suspense. It has also become a DVD experience for the history books, with a four star offering of extras, audio and video that is worth every cent. Without a doubt, a must have on all levels.