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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO

Director:
Steven Soderbergh
Cast:
Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Luis Guzmán, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen
Writing Credits:
Simon Moore (miniseries, "Traffik"), Stephen Gaghan

Tagline:
No One Gets Away Clean.

Synopsis:
Traffic examines the effect of drugs as politics, business, and lifestyle. Acting as his own director of photography, Steven Soderbergh employs an innovative, color-coded cinematic treatment to distinguish the interwoven stories of a newly appointed drug czar and his family, a West Coast kingpins wife, a key informant, and cops on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border. Rarely has a film so energetic and suspenseful presented a more complex and nuanced view of an issue of such international importance. Instantly recognized as a classic, Traffic appeared on more than 200 critics ten-best lists, and earned 5 Academy Award nominations.

Traffic is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This new digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive using a Spirit Datacine. At the request of the director, English subtitles for the Spanish sequences are presented as they were on the U.S. film prints, rather than as optional subtitles. There are two soundtracks available, the full 5.1 theatrical mix and a restricted dynamic range two-track. The soundtrack was mastered from the original 24-bit print masters.

Box Office:
Budget
$48 million.
Opening Weekend
$250.580 million on 4 screens.
Domestic Gross
$124.107 million.

MPAA:
Rated R

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Audio:
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby 2.0
Subtitles:
English
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 147 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/7/2006

Bonus:
Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Director Steven Soderbergh and Writer Stephen Gaghan
• Audio Commentary with Producers Laura Bickford, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and Consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien
• Audio Commentary with Composer Cliff Martinez
Disc Two
• 25 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
• Alternate End Cue
• Demonstrations
• Additional Footage
• Trailers
• Trading Cards


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EQUIPMENT
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


Traffic: Criterion Collection (2006 Re-Release) (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 24, 2006)

I’d argue that Steven Soderbergh embraces more sides of filmmaking than any other current director. He can pull off seriously artsy fare while he also produces blockbusters. I suppose Spielberg jumps around a lot as well, but the difference is that even when he goes for darker, more serious fare, it still feels like a Big Spielberg Production. As much as I admire and respect him, I just can’t see Spielberg making the small, experimental stuff Soderbergh shoots.

Even with all his success, Spielberg never received an honor like the one accorded to Soderbergh in 2000. Soderbergh put out two movies that year - Erin Brockovich and Traffic - and both earned Oscar Best Picture nominations. Neither won, as the prize went to Gladiator, but Soderbergh did nab a Best Director trophy for the ambitious Traffic.

Traffic examines drugs in America via three intertwined tales. In Mexico, police officers Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) get an assignment to do what they can to take down the Obregon drug cartel. We learn that General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian) doesn’t make this order for altruistic reasons, though, and we see the complications along the way.

In San Diego, agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) bust drug operative Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). To escape jail time, Ruiz offers them a deal to lead toward his superiors. This brings about the arrest of Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), a notable local businessman, and we view his trial. Most of the story comes from his wife’s point of view, however, as we observe how pregnant Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) deals with the sudden change in her financial and community status.

Finally, we meet Ohio judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas). Newly appointed to act as the President’s lead in the war against drugs. Wakefield quickly discovers that his own home is part of the battlefield. His honor student teen daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) does hard drugs with her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) and she spirals down even farther as the film progresses. We watch as these various stories interconnect and develop.

Traffic offers a case study in why it’s sometimes good to revisit movies you don’t like. Actually, I can’t say I genuinely disliked the film when I saw it theatrically, but I don’t recall that it left me with a positive impression. Perhaps some of this related to expectations; I knew Traffic enjoyed a slew of critical plaudits and I may have felt it simply didn’t live up to the hype.

Whatever the case may be, five years later I found myself much better able to appreciate what Soderbergh did with the story. Of primary note is the smooth way that he balances the various tales. Soderbergh ties them all together with remarkable self-confidence and ease. At no point does the flick become meandering or difficult to follow. Instead, it flows effortlessly as it jumps from various places and characters to others.

Soderbergh’s creative use of palette helps. All the shots in Mexico receive a heavily bleached, desaturated look, while the Ohio scenes go with a strong blue tint. Those in San Diego present a more natural look; the colors are still a little subdued, but they more closely represent reality than the other areas.

Some may see these color choices as a gimmick, but I think they’re a useful choice that allows us to more easily differentiate from one spot to another. Not that I think Soderbergh really needs the palette variations, as the story makes more than enough sense without them. Nonetheless, the color alterations enable us to orient ourselves more quickly than otherwise might have been possible. Even with a consistent palette, I feel the story would have made plenty of sense, but the stylistic color choices focus us more rapidly.

Only Del Toro received an Oscar nomination for his acting. He won the award, which is good since he did a fine job. However, it seems almost unfair to single him out for notice. Traffic packs an excellent cast, and virtually all of them provide stellar work. Since I just complained that Del Toro received particular notice, I won’t break down my opinions any more than that to spotlight some of the actors. Suffice it to say they all bring great performances to the material.

Perhaps Traffic is a movie that needs to be seen a couple of times for the viewer to truly take in all of the action. Or maybe I just was dumber five years ago. All I know is that I can now see Traffic as a strong piece of work. The movie offers an incisive view of the drug trade and its related concerns, and it tells its tales in an inventive, engrossing manner.


The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B-/ Bonus A-

Traffic appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite the movie’s recent vintage and high profile, the transfer suffered from a mix of apparently unintentional problems.

I said “apparently unintentional” because a movie like this made it tough to tell the difference between filmmaking choices and actual defects. In this case, I thought the transfer displayed a fair number of the latter. I didn’t have any complaints about the light grain, but I did feel displeased with the moderate levels of specks, marks and grit that appeared throughout the movie. While these didn’t dominate the image, they were decidedly more prominent than I expected.

As far as sharpness went, the flick usually offered good definition. Mainly due to some light edge enhancement, wide shots occasionally seemed a little soft, but that wasn’t a consistent issue. Normally the movie was concise and distinctive. I saw no signs of jagged edges or shimmering.

As I mentioned in the body of my review, Traffic featured heavily stylized colors at times. Within those constraints, I thought the hues looked fine. They displayed good delineation dependent on the situations and were solid. Blacks also looked deep and firm, while shadows were smooth and easily visible. The source flaws remained my biggest complaint about this transfer, and they were what dropped my grade to a “C+”.

Despite a decided lack of ambition, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Traffic was good enough for a “B-”. Audio quality was solid. Speech sounded natural and concise, and the lines suffered from no edginess or other problems. Music was lush and vibrant, as the synthesized score appeared full and warm. Effects came across as clear and accurate. Bass response seemed perfectly adequate for this material.

Only the music ever appeared anywhere other than the front center channel. All effects and dialogue came from that speaker, so when the movie used no score, it remained monaural. At least the music spread nicely to the side and rear channels. The music blended well and created an immersive feel that made it engaging. This wasn’t a stunning soundtrack, but it worked just fine for the material.

This two-DVD package pours on the extras. On DVD One, we find three separate audio commentaries. The first comes from director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan, both of whom sit together for this running, screen-specific discussion. They touch on the movie’s visual design, cinematographic issues and Soderbergh’s work as DP, developing the story and characters, various inspirations and influences, adapting the original mini-series, locations and the absence of sets, structure and editing, casting and performances, and many concerns encountered along the way.

I’ve heard a handful of Soderbergh commentaries, and except for his odd self-interview track for Schizopolis, I’ve enjoyed them all. The Traffic discussion offers another fine commentary. Soderbergh and Gaghan can be a little too restrained at times, but they cover the information with candor and self-deprecation, and they also add a modicum of dry wit. They help turn this into an informative and compelling piece.

Next we get a track with producers Laura Bickford, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien. Zwick and Herskovitz chat together, while all the others sit alone for this edited discussion. From the producers, we learn a lot about the cast and their performances as well as budgetary concerns, story changes and adaptation issues reactions to the movie, and various production problems. Golden and Chretien dig into the reality behind the film. They tell us about inspirations for various characters and situations, historical topics, and background for the law enforcement side of things.

While the producers provide nice materials, the consultants are the best part of the commentary. I like the way they flesh out the facts of drug issues and whatnot, and they give us a solid background against which to view Traffic. As for the producers, they’re quite informative as well, but because some of their notes repeat information heard in the first commentary, they don’t prove quite as useful. Nonetheless, all participants present many nice tidbits in this tight commentary.

Finally, we get a piece with composer Cliff Martinez. He offers his running, screen-specific remarks and he also lets us listen to the various cues. Martinez provides some details of the different cues and also tells us many aspects of composing and recording the score. He digs into the music with insight and vigor, and I like that the DVD also lets us hear the cues on their own. He chats about a mix of connected issues like audience reactions, the integration of source music, his history and influences, and other cool subjects. I especially like his chat about how he left the world of rock ‘n’ roll and entered score composing. This form of commentary/isolated score often ends up flawed in both directions, but this one works quite well.

The composer commentary domain also includes an Alternate End Cue. Martinez introduces this three-minute snippet and we listen as the audio plays over the movie’s finale. I’m sure score fans will like this addition.

Over on DVD Two, we start with 25 Deleted Scenes. Taken together, these run a total of 26 minutes and 33 seconds. Helena’s character benefits most from the additional material, as we see much more about her woes. I understand why this footage was cut; it’s not essential and it would make an already long movie even lengthier. That said, it helps flesh out the character and shows her journey from high-society trophy wife to drug smuggler in better detail.

As for the other scenes, we find a little more with Manolo and Javier, a snippet in which Frankie Flowers buys surveillance equipment, and extra footage of Robert. There’s also a gag in which an extra breaks character with Catherine Zeta-Jones. None of this stuff is nearly as valuable as the Helena bits, though I do like the Wakefield family discussion of the ramifications of drug legalization.

We can watch the clips with or without commentary from Soderbergh and Gaghan. They offer the standard sorts of remarks about the scenes, their shooting, and why they were dropped. We get a nice overview of the footage and learn a reasonable amount here.

Under the category of Demonstrations, we get three areas. We look at “Film Processing” (one segment, five minutes, 41 seconds), “Editing” (four segments, 16:43), and “Dialogue Editing” (four segments, 13:16). “Processing” takes us through the five steps utilized to create the movie’s unusual presentation of color and other visual elements. We watch the Mexican footage go through the five steps and we hear narration about the processes used.

“Editing” takes us through the choices made for four separate scenes. We also get commentary from editor Stephen Mirrione as he discusses the choices he made and how he worked. Finally, “Dialogue Editing” includes remarks from supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake as he tells us about his work and lets us examine some specifics of what he did for Traffic. Blake also provides basic text noes about his job. Though these elements tend to be somewhat dry and technical, that’s expected, and they give us a detailed, rich view of these domains.

Under the banner of Additional Footage we find four segments. Instead of actual deleted scenes, these are raw shots, unedited shots. This area includes “Epic”, (3:03), “Drug Warehouse” (7:08), “Cocktail Party” (24:38), and “Kids on Street” (three takes, 2:37).

Each offers different viewing options. “Epic” comes with three angles, while “Drug Warehouse” includes commentary from Craig Chretien. He gives us information about the warehouse location and issues connected to the storage and disposal of massive amounts of drugs. “Party” presents three angles, while takes one and two of “Kids” feature two angles but take three only has one. All of the pieces also come with text that tells us “About the Scene”.

The quality of the footage varies. “Epic” is really fairly dull, as it shows a by the numbers briefing. The shots in “Warehouse” are plain, but Chretien’s details make the segments interesting. “Party” and “Kids” are both fun since we see elements that don’t show up in the final cut. “Party” gets a little stale since we find so much footage, but I still like these segments and think they’re quite worthwhile.

Many ads appear in the Trailers domain. We find the US teaser and full trailers along with five TV spots. An unusual feature called Trading Cards finishes the DVD. This includes a note “About the Canine Enforcement Program” along with 100 “K-9 Cards”. These show drug enforcement pooches and include photos and vital stats like breed, age and largest/most notable seizure. The program doesn’t make it clear why the feds created these cards, but they’re fun to see.

Based on prior Criterion DVDs, I expect that Traffic comes with a booklet that presents essays and notes related to the film. My screener DVD didn’t include the booklet, though, so I can’t comment on it.

Though it do much for me five years ago, my second screening of Traffic more fully revealed its charms. A deftly assembled and compelling examination of the drug trade and its effects, the movie forms a rich narrative that flows well and never lets go of us. The DVD presents fairly mediocre picture and audio but adds a lot of good extras; the three commentaries prove especially valuable. While I can’t rave about the technical qualities of the DVD, the movie itself and the supplements make Traffic worth a purchase.

Note that this 2006 release of Traffic is apparently identical to the original 2002 Criterion DVD. Don’t expect to find any changes in quality or extras.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2121 Stars Number of Votes: 33
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