Set it Off (1996)

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Released 8-Jul-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Action Dolby Digital Trailer-Train
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 1996
Running Time 117:33
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (70:10) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By F. Gary Gray
Studio
Distributor

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Jada Pinkett Smith
Queen Latifah
Vivica A. Fox
Kimberly Elise
John C. McGinley
Blair Underwood
Vincent Baum
Van Baum
Chaz Lamar Shepherd
Thomas Jefferson Byrd
Charles Robinson
Ella Joyce
Anna Maria Horsford
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $24.95 Music Ray J
Busta Rhymes
Christopher Young


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Director F. Gary Gray is an interesting filmmaker. Since going for the full sell out with A Man Apart and the remake of The Italian Job, I have thought a little less of his work – but that is merely a personal subjective opinion and you are free to disagree with me. His earlier work, however, I felt shows a lot of promise, particularly when Gray landed a good script. I speak of films such as The Wood and The Negotiator, and also the considerably overlooked film that is the subject of this review.

    Set It Off is the story of four black women living in a poor L.A. neighbourhood. The most successful of these women, Francesca ‘Frankie’ Sutton (Vivica A. Fox), works at a bank which is one day held up by a man she knows. When the hold up goes terribly wrong and people are killed she is put under suspicion by robbery-homicide detective Strode, blamed by management and fired despite all her years of tireless service. She gets a job cleaning the houses and apartments of the rich with her three childhood friends, Lida ‘Stony’ Newsom (Jada Pinkett), Cleopatra ‘Cleo’ Sims (Queen Latifah) and Tisean ‘T.T.’ Williams (Kimberly Elise). As poverty begins impacting on these four women little by little, the mistaken shooting of Stony’s brother Stevie (Chaz Lamar Shepard) serves as the impetus for the four to use crime as a way of getting enough money to solve their problems and take back something from the system that keeps them down.

    While the advertising makes this look like a fairly conventional thriller, let me assure you that it is not. Too easily dismissed by critics upon its release in 1996, if you take the time to scrutinise this film there is much beyond the surface here – layers of complexity that make this, at the very least, unconventional, and at best even challenging. The script is fraught with moral choices and various points of no return. There is an intentional ambiguity here, and a truly Shakespearean confluence of events to make this the heartfelt tragedy it really is. Far more a drama than an action movie, this really looks at poverty not from the point of view of the black man, but from the point of view of the truly downtrodden underclass in the politics of racial discrimination in the US (and indeed the world over) – the black woman. Rather than focusing on gang violence, this focuses more on the problems facing women, the type of jobs available to them, the role that men have chosen for them in society, and especially their vulnerability in the race struggle and, perhaps more importantly, the class struggle. And it’s got quite a lot to say on the subject, although only if you read between the lines.

    Where Set It Off falls down slightly is in its pacing. While, for the most part, a lot of this is to do with establishing characterisation – a choice which pays off very well come the end of the movie – it is at times clumsy, missing the establishment of some important relationships and leaving your emotional connection to them somewhat limited. The relationship between Stony and her brother Stevie, for example, was not well handled, a fault that had more to do with scripting than with the acting, I might add. Indeed, the acting in this film is on the whole very good, with the four leads putting in fantastic performances, especially Pinkett, whose performance is outstanding.

    The faults of this film can largely be put down to inexperience on Gray’s part, and have more to do with uneven pacing and non-judicious editing – faults in the script that could have been corrected in pre-production or post-production. By the time of Gray’s superior thriller The Negotiator, these lessons had been, for the most part at least, well learnt. This is somewhat of a shame, as Set It Off could have been a landmark film that really projected Gray’s career forward. Instead, it settles for being better than your average John Singleton movie – certainly far less preachy, and considerably more adult in its examination of the consequences of racial divide and, more importantly, the economic divide that is part and parcel of racial discrimination. In complete contrast to Singleton’s ‘hit-you-over-the-head-with-it’ approach, Gray takes a more subtle route which is ultimately more affecting.

    While yet to achieve the mastery of the films of Spike Lee, Set It Off speaks volumes more than the simplistic tales of gang violence espoused in films such as Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society., which almost glorify their subject as opposed to vilifying it. For that reason, Set It Off is definitely worth checking out, especially if you want something to think about for a while afterwards.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Transferred in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this has been altered from its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This alteration does not seem to have resulted in a Pan & Scan effect and I would suggest the image has simply been opened up from its original cropping. I have no idea why this was done, or whether it was approved by director F. Gary Gray. If someone knows, please enlighten me. The image is 16x9 enhanced.

    This is a fairly good transfer, although perhaps not as sharp as transfers done for more recent films – particularly those made post-2000. The softness compensates for any graininess, however, and the print looks very smooth as a result.

    Shadow detail is very good, and colour is not bad, although lacking the vibrancy that you would expect of a movie made so recently. While skin tones were natural and well balanced, the whole thing has a slightly faded quality, as if perhaps it were brightened up a little but the contrast was not tweaked at the same time. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the movie at all, and is just a minor observation.

    There were no MPEG artefacts, and the softness of the image compensated for any aliasing that might have occurred. Indeed, this movie was very light on film-to-video transfer artefacts.

    There is a bit of dirt on this print, maybe a little more than you would expect from a movie this young. It is never really distracting, though, but if you set out to look for it, you will notice it.

    Subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired only. They appear as white with a black border and are easy to follow. They follow the dialogue pretty much word for word including background noises and such as relevant and character cues when necessary.

    The dual layer pause is at 70:10. It occurs during a scene change and is well timed and concealed.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The only audio track available here is an English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, encoded at 448Kb/s.

    This track is very good for the most part. However, at times the dialogue can be a little difficult to fully discern, either lost in mumble or drowned out in ambient sounds.

    There are plenty of directional cues in the default track, and some scenes where a full 3D sound field is created. The second bank heist by the girls is one such example.

    The soundtrack, which consists of a lot of Rap and R’n’B tunes as well as an original score by Christopher Young, has a dynamic range that really compliments the on-screen action.

    The subwoofer gets an excellent workout in the action sequences, particularly the second robbery and the final chase sequence.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Menus

    All menus are 16x9 enhanced. They are also silent.

Theatrical Trailer (1:44)

    All we get in the way of extras here is the original trailer in 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced, 2.0 Dolby Surround. The studio execs had no idea how to market this movie and it shows. Amusingly enough, the DVD cover does no better.

Dolby Digital Trailer - Train

    Same old, same old.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The R1 version includes a Music Video of a song called ”Let It Go” by Ray J and an English 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtrack. The R1 misses out on the Theatrical Trailer and the Dolby Digital Trailer. The film itself is identical barring the NTSC/PAL format and the region coding. This is really much of a muchness, so vote with your wallet and compatibility issues.

    I understand there is also a R2 German release in the original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio, non-16x9 enhanced. Unless you specifically need a German dialogue track, I suggest not going with this version however as there is no English dialogue track.

Summary

    Set It Off is a bit of a sleeper, an underrated movie with a few low points, which are more than outweighed by its high points. If you like drama with an edge, check this one out.

    Video is nicely done if not quite perfect. I am puzzled as to why this was transferred in 1.78:1, altered from the original 2.35:1.

    The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is quite good except for the minor dialogue balance issues.

    There is only a trailer for an extra.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Edward McKenzie (I am Jack's raging bio...)
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDPanasonic DVD-RV31A-S, using S-Video output
DisplayBeko 28" (16x9). This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationMarantz SR7000
SpeakersEnergy - Front, Rear, Centre & Subwoofer

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