Go ahead and laugh, but I have a weak spot for any movie that features roller skating. Maybe it is because I am a child of the '70s and '80s, a time when people actually thought it was cool to attach giant metal wheels to lace-up boots and race around and around in circles all night long to organ music and Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." So anytime I see roller skating up on the big screen, I can't help but suffer a severe, wistful nostalgia for my long-spent youth. (Yes, I even own total dreck like 'Roller Boogie' on DVD -- and watch it frequently.) Which only made me a sucker right upfront for a movie like 'ATL,' despite its lame title and the fact that even for a mere roller skating movie, it's ambitions ultimately exceed its merits.
More or less another plotless examination of bored youth along the lines of 'American Graffiti' and 'Dazed & Confused,' 'ATL' is mostly a snapshot of the lives of a group of teens on the cusp of adulthood rather than "about something." The film it most resembles is actually an urban version of 'Saturday Night Fever.' Only instead of John Travolta booging to disco down at the Galaxy 3000 in Brooklyn, we get rapper Tip "T.I." Harris (in his screen debut) and his pals skating at the fictional Cascade roller rink in Mechanicsville, Georgia. Lower class, about to graduate high school and burdened with dreams that far exceed their opportunities, the gang's nights are spent spinning around in circles to the latest sounds of "crunk" (i.e., a brand of deep-bass hip-hop popular in parts of the South). The "life on skates" milieu is an apt metaphor -- they're moving fast, but going nowhere.
To be honest, if it wasn't for the skating (which, quite frankly, isn't even that exciting), I probably wouldn't have found much else to love in 'ATL.' Though in all fairness I am hardly the target audience for the film. I know nothing about crunk (honestly, at first I thought they were talking about my local Crunch gym, and this movie was about aerobics) and my rollerskating teen years are long since past. Still, as directed by music video vet Chris Robinson (helming his first feature), he doesn't do much to dispel the notion that his ilk can only make movies that are long on visual pizzazz but short on character. Indeed, 'ATL' plays like a two-hour music video, one endless loop of hip-hop skating montages with little else of substance in-between. Yes, there are scenes outside of the rink -- these teens' boredom extends to the local Waffle House and community swimming pool -- and thankfully this is the rare "urban" film that doesn't traffic in the cliches that all African-American kids are interested only in drugs, gangs, guns and sex. Still, there is a difference between making a film that examines aimlessness and making a film that's aimless.
Which only makes my disappointment with 'ATL' more pointed, because it had potential. Perhaps what really torpedoes the film's chance at achieving genuine resonance is that it doesn't manage a satisfactory conclusion. Yes, some of the characters have minor arcs, but the second half of the film tries to hard to suddenly wallow in moral dilemmas. Too bad 'ATL' didn't take more of a cue from a classic like 'American Graffiti.' In that one the filmmakers left their characters to enjoy their last nights before graduation doing nothing much of anything, then simply ended the film with short title cards, letting us know the fate of each character. In less that a minute, the film gained a whole new level of poignancy but didn't feel heavy-handed. Alas, 'ATL' doesn't really add up to much despite all the last-act moralizing. Too bad, 'cause I really liked the roller skating.
Warner Home Video has produced another winner of an HD DVD. 'ATL' looks pretty damn great, with a nice three-dimensional picture that reminded me of just how superior high-def can look over plain old standard definition DVD. Regardless of a film's subject matter, when you're hot, you're hot.
Everything about this transfer kinda rocks. The source material is immaculate with nary any visible grain (even in the darkest scenes). Blacks and contrast are also terrific, and color reproduction superb but not oversaturated -- even hard-to-reproduce hues like deep reds and blues are clear of chroma noise and smearing. Sharpness and detail are also up there with the best transfers I've seen, giving the image a clarity and depth that really screams high-def. If anything, this transfer may be too bright and vivid -- sometimes the blaring whites hurt my eyes (though perhaps I should take my eye doctor's advice and not watch movies in a room with no ambient light?) Still, no complaints -- unless I go blind, in which case I'm suing somebody at Warner Home Video.
Thump-thump-thump! I don't think I've ever heard such consistently and continually powerful low bass before on a home video soundtrack as I did on 'ATL.' I don't know about this crunk thing, but if this is what the future of America is listening to they better be wearing earplugs.
Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus, the sound design of 'ATL' is quite active, though it is all about the beats -- of course, that is the real star of the show anyway. Dynamic range is excellent, with rich midrange and clean highs, and yes, very powerful low end. Surround use is quite hefty, though again everything is overpowered by the crunk. Let's just say nothing here is subtle, and though there is plenty of sound emanating from the rear channels, there actually isn't much directionality -- sounds are never moved around, with just a constant pumping from behind. I intentionally turned this one up to 11 at the start, but it eventually got so bad after a while that even my cats quickly pounced out of the room in disgust. (They still haven't come back.) I can only say for once that I'm actually grateful Warner didn't produce a Dolby TrueHD track for this one, 'cause I don't think I could have taken it.
A bit slim on the extras, this is a pretty perfunctory package of stuff that is largely promotional. This is also another Warner HD DVD/DVD double-sided combo disc, so all of the set's extras are only on the standard DVD side of the platter.
With no audio commentary included, it is up to the 28-minute making-of featurette "In the Rink: A Director's Journey" to fill us in on all the production details. It's actually not bad, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with helmer Chris Robinson and the cast. Pretty good stuff, though again it is largely promotional.
Next up are six deleted scenes, but they run less than five minutes and offer no great character or plot revelations. But at least the look pretty good, however forgettable.
Wrapping up the goodies is the "What You Know" music video by Tip "T.I." Harris, plus the film's theatrical trailer in 2.20:1 widescreen. And that's it.
'ATL' is certainly a fun movie, especially its first act when it concentrates on its characters lazy days and nights at the roller rink. Alas, it cannot achieved a hoped-for poignancy on the level of such teen classics as 'Saturday Night Fever' or 'American Graffiti.' Still, this is a great looking and sounding HD DVD, though the extras are a bit slim. Which is too bad, because given the high $39.95 list price, those curious about the movie are best left to keep it as a rental. In any case, 'ATL' will certainly keep your eyes and ears continually alert.