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Phenomenon Blu-ray Review

Phenomenon (1996) movie poster Phenomenon

Theatrical Release: July 5, 1996 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jon Turteltaub / Writer: Gerald Di Pego / Songs List

Cast: John Travolta (George Malley), Kyra Sedgwick (Lace Pennamin), Forest Whitaker (Nate Pope), Robert Duvall (Doc Brunder), Jeffrey DeMunn (Professor John Ringold), Richard Kiley (Dr. Wellin), David Gallagher (Al Pennamin), Ashley Buccille (Glory Pennamin), Tony Genaro (Tito), Sean O'Bryan (Banes), Michael Milhoan (Jimmy), Troy Evans (Roger), Bruce Young (FBI Agent Jack Hatch), Vyto Ruginis (Ted Rhome), Brent Spiner (Dr. Bob Niedorf), Elisabeth Nunziato (Ella), Ellen Geer (Bonnie), James Keane (Pete the Cop)

Buy Phenomenon from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD VHS

Looking back, the career rebirth that Pulp Fiction gave John Travolta wasn't all that long-lived. The actor immediately enjoyed countless opportunities beyond the Look Who's Talking series and headlined a number of late '90s hits. Last decade was less fruitful. Retrospect makes it tempting to overread the significance of any one film. For instance, we can assign blame to 2000's Battlefield Earth, whose Scientology connections made it not your ordinary flop, for chipping away at the star's appeal.
Still, Travolta has had successes as part of ensembles (2007's Wild Hogs and Hairspray) and his mid-range performances (Ladder 49, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) are quite strong for someone who's been acting since the 1970s.

There is, however, no disputing that Travolta's popularity peaked in the wake of his Oscar-nominated turn in Tarantino's hip, influential crime film. From 1995 to the middle of 1997, Travolta starred in six films. All five given wide release in over 2,000 theaters grossed over $70 million domestically. Of the latter three, two passed the $100 million mark and the other fell just short.

From this rich period, Phenomenon made one of the strongest cases for Travolta's drawing power. This PG-rated 1996 drama opened on the fifth of July, against the year's runaway box office champ Independence Day. It had an original screenplay and no other big name stars in the cast and yet in the face of competition, it powered its way to $105 million domestically and $152 million worldwide.

Doc Brunder (Robert Duvall) looks on, as George Malley (John Travolta) tries to feel his way to the missing sick boy in need of medical attention.

In the film, Travolta plays George Malley, an easygoing bachelor and mechanic living in the fictional small town of Harmon, California. An all-around decent guy, George is best friends with the only black guy in town (Forest Whitaker) and also a dear pal of the town's longtime doctor (Robert Duvall). On the night of his 37th birthday, George alone witnesses bright lights in the sky which knock him to the ground. The unusual experience inexplicably equips him with striking changes. George suddenly finds himself full of ideas and unable to sleep. He reads books all night long, learns foreign languages in mere minutes, and, oh yeah, he can move small objects with his mind.

The smarter, telekinetic new George uses his powers for good: finding a missing sick child, developing an environmentally sound organic fertilizer, and so on. Still, he draws varied reactions from his neighbors, including his love interest, chairmaker and single mom Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick). Successfully predicting an earthquake and cracking a ciphered government transmission earns George attention from a stunned Berkeley seismology professor (Jeffrey DeMunn) and unamused FBI agents.

In a later development, George's trusted Doc reveals that there is a real medical explanation for at least some of his bizarre newfound potential: an inoperable brain tumor. Bummer.

Supremes-loving best friend Nate (Forest Whitaker) is quite pleased with the results of George's newly-developed organic fertilizer. Independent chairmaker Lace (Kyra Sedgwick) gives George a romantic shave.

We don't often see such corny, all-American movies as Phenomenon these days and certainly not opening at the height of the summer movie season and grossing nine figures. A film like this was intended to play to as wide an audience as possible: suitable for adults, acceptable for kids, tolerable for teens.
Sixteen summers later, Phenomenon seems quaint and old-fashioned. No one prime demographic? Minimal visual effects? No franchise possibilities? A poster design that places a romantic couple in the armpit of what looks like John Travolta as a karate master? All of these choices would be brought up and scoffed at today, yet they feel like an accurate reflection of Middle America's tastes in mid-'90s mainstream cinema.

Small town values, working class types, and inspirational tones crept into a variety of the decade's best-attended films, everything from Patch Adams to Armageddon. These are the kinds of movies that revisitation reveals aren't as good as your younger self thought they were. Maybe it's just nostalgia, but there does seem to be something sweet and decent about such productions even as more sophisticated times exposes them as manipulative and treacly.

You can easily get through three quarters of Phenomenon swept up in its simple charms and intriguing concept. Unfortunately, the final quarter kills much of the goodwill it's earned with dramatic speeches, trite philosophy, and its choice to conclude as a tearjerker. There is also its laughable notion of romance, best exemplified in a loverly haircut and shave set to Aaron Neville's cover of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love." You know how it's easy to see the humor in creative touches that are so clearly a product of the '60s, '70s, or '80s? This scene may be the '90s equivalent, as you question if viewers were really meant to be moved by such a silly expression of affection. The public's approval, evidenced by everything from box office totals to MTV Movie Award nominations, suggests a resounding yes.

Though it closes on a very sour note, Phenomenon isn't so bad. You maybe expect a little better from director Jon Turteltaub, the man behind some of Disney's better live-action family movies over the years (Cool Runnings, the National Treasure series) and the hit Touchstone Pictures romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping. You don't expect any better from screenwriter Gerald Di Pego; this was just his third theatrical credit in 25 productive years of primarily scripting television movies. While Turteltaub has remained an undersung but accomplished force at Disney (his next film, the star-studded geriatric comedy Last Vegas, will be his first at another studio), Di Pego has mostly faded in recent years. The scribe did return to television for ABC's Phenomenon II (2003), which despite the title was more of a remake than a sequel and which had the feel of an unrealized pilot.

Recalling its theatrical release, Phenomenon hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, just 24 hours away from Independence Day.

Phenomenon Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French) Dolby Surround 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: July 3, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $20.00
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Still available as DVD ($9.99 SRP; December 3, 1997)
Previously released on VHS ($9.99 SRP; September 2, 1997)

VIDEO and AUDIO

I've seen a couple of highly disappointing catalog Blu-ray presentations from Disney this week and I feared Phenomenon would add to that trend. Fortunately, it does not. The 2.40:1 transfer is quite good. While it doesn't boast the detail and clarity of today's movies, the element remains clean, sharp, and vibrant throughout, presenting the film's warm visuals with no complications. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is also satisfactory. Dialogue remains crisp, clear, and substantial. In addition to that we get a few potent moments of sound design and tasteful distribution of middle-of-the-road adult pop music and Diana Ross songs (which Whitaker's character loves). I have no doubt that this hi-def presentation handily bests the movie's DVD, a non-anamorphic disc from 1997.

"Feel the emotion" is one of the Phenomenon theatrical trailer's chuckle-worthy phrases. Feel the emotion" - John Travolta, "Phenomenon" Blu-ray menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Unsurprisingly, Phenomenon's Blu-ray contains a single bonus feature, the only one found on its DVD. The movie's original theatrical trailer (2:42) is presented in standard definition and presented windowboxed within the 16:9 frame.
It's nice they included this, although it does make you appreciate studios like Paramount taking the effort to provide original trailers in HD.

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, followed by the singing cowboy anti-tobacco truth spot. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing replays them and follows them up with promos for "Castle": The Complete Fourth Season and other ABC dramas on DVD.

The menu places the opening title score over the cover image, that same stretched karate-ish Travolta shot. The disc doesn't support bookmarks, doesn't resume playback, and doesn't remember where you left off if you couldn't finish the movie in one sitting. In that way, it is inferior to DVD and to the Blu-rays of studios who think to provide what should be standard features.

The minimalist nature of Disney's Touchstone catalog Blu-rays extends to the packaging, which has no slipcover, no insert, no reverse cover artwork, and only a plain blue disc label with the title and logos. Blu-ray collectors are willing to accept all this if it means a shorter wait for catalog releases, but after years of trickles, it is sort of inexcusable for Disney to scrimp on the basics when smaller studios do not.

37-year-old George Malley (John Travolta) sees bright lights in the sky approaching Earth. What does it mean? Phenomenon! Do-doo-do-do-doo.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

There are many worse ways to spend a couple of hours than watching Phenomenon, a somewhat sweet, ultimately sappy supernatural small town melodrama. But unless you developed some special appreciation for it, perhaps in a fondly-remembered summer of '96 theatrical viewing, you probably won't be compelled to see the movie more than once.

The Blu-ray offers a fairly strong feature presentation and no new extras. That makes the asking price a bit high for the disc's light value, but I'm guessing you can either get by spending a few more dollars or simply waiting to buy Phenomenon on BD.

Buy Phenomenon from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD / VHS

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Related Reviews:
Directed by John Turteltaub: National Treasure National Treasure: Book of Secrets The Sorcerer's Apprentice
John Travolta: Old Dogs Wild Hogs Saturday Night Fever Ladder 49 The Thin Red Line The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Bolt
Forest Whitaker: Good Morning, Vietnam Platoon The Color of Money Vantage Point The Experiment
Kyra Sedgwick: The Game Plan | Robert Duvall: The Godfather Trilogy Four Christmases Sling Blade The Road
1990s: Men in Black Armageddon Jack 101 Dalmatians 3rd Rock from the Sun: Season 1
It's a Wonderful Life Take Shelter Chronicle We Bought a Zoo Invincible Balloon Farm The Rocketeer Spider-Man

Related Interview: Director Jon Turteltaub

Phenomenon Songs List: Diana Ross and the Supremes - "Love Child", The Supremes - "Come See About Me", The Iguanas - "Para Donde Vas (Where Are You Going)", The Supremes - "Baby Love", Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions - "It's All Right", The Iguanas - "No Te Olvidare (I'll Never Forget You)", Dorothy Moore - "Misty Blue", Taj Mahal - "Corinna", Peter Gabriel - "I Have the Touch", Sheryl Crow - "Everyday Is a Winding Road", J.J. Cale - "A Thing Going On", Diana Ross - "Touch Me in the Morning", Marvin Gaye - "Piece of Clay", Aaron Neville featuring Robbie Robertson - "Crazy Love", Jewel - "Have a Little Faith in Me", Eric Clapton - "Change the World", Bryan Ferry - "Dance with Life (The Brilliant Light)"

Phenomenon: Music from the Motion Picture:
Buy CD from Amazon.com Download MP3 Album from Amazon.com Download Album on iTunes

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Reviewed June 30, 2012.



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