ATL - HD DVD review

I liked ATL for its music and for its all-around good intentions and general amiability.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: Warner Bros. have made "ATL" available in three disc formats: widescreen, which I reviewed earlier; fullscreen; and the HD-DVD and DVD Combo reviewed here. WB's Combo discs, as you know, contain a 1080-resolution high-definition transfer on one side and a 480-resolution standard-definition transfer on the other. The Combo format costs a little more but provides greater flexibility for playback in either HD or SD DVD machines.

First, the movie. You may recall my thing about movie titles. I keep thinking about how much they influence box-office receipts. I read somewhere recently that a surprisingly large number of moviegoers only make up their minds what to see when they read the marquee at their neighborhood multiplex. Then they decide on a movie based on starting times and titles. Hard to believe but apparently true.

Which brings me to "ATL," a 2006 release from Warner Bros. that did terrific business in its opening weekend and sank precipitously in the following month. I didn't see it in a theater, but I noticed an advertisement for it in my local paper. "ATL"? I wondered what it meant. The first thing that crossed my mind was "ATM." Was it a movie about asynchronous transfer modes or automated teller machines? I could picture it: "The Attack of the Automatic Teller Machines!" No, that's silly. But it wasn't until the movie arrived on DVD that I learned the setting was Atlanta, Georgia. And wouldn't you know, I still didn't get it. I had it in my head that "ATL" was an acronym standing for three separate words. OK, now I figured the "A" had to stand for Atlanta, but what of the rest? "Atlanta Termite Legion"? The movie was about teens, so maybe it was "Atlanta Teen League"? No, I soon discovered that "ATL" stood for....Atlanta. Sometimes the simplest answers are the best.

Still, if I had that much trouble figuring out the title, I wonder how many other people did, too, and whether it kept some folks away from the theater. Of course, the fact that it's a movie about black teenagers in Atlanta probably limited its potential audience as well, which is sort of a shame since it can easily appeal to all age groups and all ethnicities. I didn't find it a particularly memorable film, mind you, but there is nothing offensive about it, either.

What I enjoyed most about it was its high energy, its spirit, especially in its first half. For me, this was no doubt attributable more to the music than to its rather commonplace plot and characters. The music is described on the keep case as "crunk," a style I had never heard of before, being a rather a sheltered and provincial lad. The thing that immediately popped into my mind was Detroit's celebrated Kronk Gym. Sorry, no relation. I have since learned from several good readers that the word "crunk" is a noun, an adjective, and a verb, meaning a number of different things, but that in reference to music it is a form of hip-hop popular in Atlanta and elsewhere in the South.

Tina Gordon Chism based the screenplay on a story by Antwone Fisher, a fellow you may recognize from the movie of the same name. If you're going to write about yourself, you might as well let them know who you are up front; and "ATL" is said to be based loosely on the real-life experiences of producers Dallas Austin and Tionne Watkins.

The movie stars singer/rapper/musician Tip "T.I." Harris as Rashad Swann, a young man in his last year of high school narrating a story about him and his friends a few weeks from graduation time. The movie follows Rashad, his buddies, and his younger brother as they seriously question where they're going in life. It's a typical coming-of-age story in the tradition of "Boyz N the Hood," "American Graffiti," and "The Outsiders," but with black youngsters, set in Mechanicsville, Georgia, about a mile south of downtown Atlanta, in a less-than-affluent neighborhood. As in "Graffiti" the music serves a significant function in the story line, and as in "Boyz" and "The Outsiders" the character bonding is all-important. In the long run, though, "ATL" is more about the journey than the destination, and its many small, memorable moments are probably more meaningful than the movie as a whole.

Antwone "Ant" Swann (Evan Ross) is Rashad's brother. The two of them live with their Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson) since their parents died in an accident a few years earlier (more shades of "The Outsiders"). But it's more like their uncle lives with them.

Rashad's best friends are Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), a young fellow from New York who is gentle and poetic; Teddy (Jason Weaver), a little older than Rashad and into ornamental teeth; and Esquire (Jackie Long), who has just been accepted to an Ivy League college. The five of them pal around, all of them but Esquire trying to figure out what to do next in their lives. Rashad works as a custodian for a department store, a job he sees as a dead end but all he can get. Esquire is the only one attempting to make more of himself, trying to get a letter of recommendation from a rich, black CEO (Keith David).

Sunday nights all the young people in town head for Cascade, a roller-skating rink that brings everybody together. It's like the Mel's Diner in "Graffiti." At Cascade they show off their stuff, look for girls, and practice their routines for skating competitions. And it's at Cascade that Rashad meets a cute girl named New New (Lauren London), with whom he becomes involved.

The plot tends to ramble along, moseying casually here and there from the boys' home to school to the Waffle House to the community swimming pool to Cascade, all of the characters' minor actions accompanied by plenty of music. The film's first half is lighthearted and joyous. Refreshingly, it contains only the most passing references to booze, profanity, sex, or violence. These are just good, normal kids trying to find themselves. When drugs do enter the picture, it's to make a positive point.

The movie's primary weakness, though, is that it's all too much like an extended music video, which should come as no surprise because the film's director, Chris Robinson, is veteran of music videos and half the people in the film are musicians. A secondary weakness is that the movie's second half gets bogged down in moral dilemmas, becoming clichéd and drippy really fast. A final weakness is that there are so many characters in the story, they have to be introduced one at a time with their own screen titles. Too much is too much, you know?

I liked "ATL" for its music and for its all-around good intentions and general amiability. But I really can't say there is all that much to the banal plot or stereotyped characters that we haven't seen before and better. So, it's sort of an average, hit-and-miss affair.

As I remarked in my earlier review, the video quality of the standard-definition transfer is generally superlative. The 2.19:1 ratio anamorphic screen size retains most of its original 2.40:1 dimensions, and WB's high-bit-rate processing ensures good definition, strong, vibrant colors, and zero grain. If anything, the picture is perhaps a tad too bright, sometimes a touch glaring.

Anyway, the high-definition transfer has its work cut out for it; after all, the HD version has a lot to do to look better than the SD edition. Needless to say, it does look better. It's not night-and-day, and I suspect that unless you had the SD disc playing in another machine as I did for instant comparisons, you might not notice much of a difference. But in side-by-side testing, the HD disc does, indeed, make the SD version look slightly faded and blurred. Colors in HD remain as before, very bright and a tad garish, and there remain a few shimmering Venetian blind slats, but to a small but discernible degree the HD picture has more deeply entrenched colors, better definition, and stronger black levels. Moreover, any minor grain one sees in the SD or HD transfers is undoubtedly inherent to the original print.

The regular Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduces a fat, pounding bass, the kind of sound you hear from automobile woofers occupying entire trunks and being played with the windows down in front of your house while you're trying to sleep. Unfortunately, if you don't like a loud, boomy bass, you're kind of out of luck because that's mainly all there is. I enjoyed the movie's music, but I admit the bass does get a little annoying. No matter how low you set the volume, your room will vibrate. There's not a lot of surround activity, either, but the midrange exhibits excellent clarity, so I guess all things even out.

On the HD side of the disc, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio reproduces almost exactly the same thing. According to my expert, experienced, audiophile ears ("Huh? What's that you say? Speak up!"), the DD+ sounds a touch cleaner in the midrange and a bit deeper and better controlled in the bass.

The primary extras appear only on the SD side of the disc. Here, things begin with the best of the bonuses, a behind-the-scenes featurette called "In the Rink: A Director's Journey." It's twenty-eight minutes long and analyzes the film from the points of view of the actors and director. After that, you'll find about a half a dozen additional scenes totaling around five minutes or so. Then, there is a music video, "What You Know" with T.I., and widescreen theatrical trailer. In addition, there are bonus trailers at start-up only for "Getting Played" and "Take the Lead."

You'll find twenty-eight scene selections (but no chapter insert) on both sides; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. What the HD side adds are English captions for the hearing impaired, pop-up menus for scene selections and such, and a zoom-and-pan feature.

The disc is housed in one of WB's Elite Red HD cases, and I should add that as always the HD version played flawlessly from beginning to end. I'm assuming the SD version would play flawlessly, too, but to tell the truth I did not look at more than a couple of minutes of it, having watched the SD-only disc just a few weeks before. I have nothing against the film, but watching it three times in two weeks might have been excessive.

Parting Shots:
The plot and characters in "ATL" make it feel like a movie we've all seen once too often, but its sweet moral nature and its highly listenable music make it something that is hard to regret having watched. So, it's kind of a toss-up, an ordinary but not unpleasant film, already looking and sounding good in its SD/DD 5.1 format, yet made even easier on the eyes and ears in its HD/DD+ configuration


Film Value