Venus and Serena (US - BD RA)
Jonathan takes a look at the recent documentary on the Williams sisters..
Venus and Serena takes and unfiltered look into the remarkable lives of the greatest sister-act professional tennis has ever seen. With unprecedented access, the film tells the inspiring story of how these two women, against all odds, but with the help of visionary parents, made it to the top. (From the Magnolia synopsis)
Sports documentaries are a tough sell for me, mostly because I'm just not that into sports. When most of my family members would watch sports I would always rather be watching movies. Most sports documentaries end up being more of an education on their subjects than a penetrating look at what makes them tick. Two examples that have really transcended the genre are Hoop Dreams and the immaculate Senna, both of which focused on the heart and soul of both the sport and the athlete. Venus and Serena doesn't quite reach that level of quality, but its a sports documentary with worthy subjects and its focus in the right place.
The documentary follows the sisters through one of the roughest years of their careers: 2011. Venus was suffering from injuries and Serena was recuperating from blood clots in her lungs. The directors made the smart decision to switch back and forth between the history of their tennis careers and their current recovery process. This keeps the momentum rolling along nicely. If you're ever getting tired of the historical education, the movie will switch back to the present soon, and vice versa. I don't know much about the Williams sisters aside from knowing they were really good at tennis. Before watching the documentary I probably never would have taken the time to educate myself on them either. But the way their careers are covered in the movie kept me interested. If I had to complain about these segments, I sometimes wished there would be more time devoted to their matches. Usually the filmmakers only show the very end of the games. They could've taken a page out of Senna's book and created some real nail-biting tension for the uninitiated like myself.
The moments that take place in 2011 can sometimes be a slog. Watching Serena struggle through exercises more than once feels a bit unnecessary. The chronology of these scenes isn't as tangible as the history lessons, so it feels more repetitive and slow. That said, I did really enjoy the footage of Venus and Serena just being themselves. Both sisters have a ton of personality and getting to know them and their family members makes watching the highlights of their careers all the more rewarding. There's some enjoyable interview footage with Chris Rock, Bill Clinton, and John McEnroe. Occasionally the film does indulge in some gossip segments that feel like they belong on the E Channel, but these are few and far between. The film is at its very best when it explores the relationship the two sisters have and how they've sharpened each other into better players over the years. One of my favorite moments was when Serena won a tournament and Venus grabbed a camera from the audience and joined the press in snapping pictures of her sister holding her trophy. The movie really gives you a feel for who the sisters are and where they came from, and it becomes impossible not to respect and admire their accomplishments.
Venus and Serena has a ton of archive footage in it. More than most documentaries. As a result, you can imagine the image quality of this Blu-ray is almost constantly in flux. There's old video interviews, old television broadcasts, some newer broadcasts, and then a lot of footage shot by the filmmakers in 2011. The most current footage all looks great. It wasn't shot on the same kind of digital cameras that big budget films get, but there is plenty of detail and dynamic range to the footage to let you know that you're watching something in high definition. There are some interview segments with Venus and Serena that look more professional than all of the rest of the footage. The sisters are dressed up nice and there is a softer focus to the image. It makes it clear that the Blu-ray transfer is quite strong, and that the limitations of the image are all from the source material. Chances are you know what you're getting into if you buy a documentary, so you just have to decide if having around 50% of the feature be old archive footage is worth the high definition treatment for you.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is in the same boat as the image. There's only so much you can do with old recorded video footage to make it sound better. Most of the archived audio stays in the center channel, but the background music is used to open up all of the front channels. I can't say I was crazy about the music choices in the film. N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton works, even if it is a little too on the nose. But there are some really corny songs, like one with lyrics about the spirit of a champion and battling in an arena. It sounds so processed and gross, and plays loudly over the closing fact cards. Gripes aside, the sound quality of the music is what you'd expect on a Blu-ray and it opens up the mix well. The music is really the only time I really noticed the stereo channels and LFE making themselves known. The rear channels might as well not be there. I started to worry that they weren't working because of how little activity there was, but that's documentaries for you. The important thing here is that you can understand everything being said in the interviews without issue.
Special features kick off with Deleted Scenes (HD, 45:32). There's plenty of them, and most of them cover similar ground to what was in the movie. There's more footage of the sisters being their goofy selves, there's some more doctor visits, and some discussion about how much money they get for winning tournaments. We get some behind the scenes footage with Serena's hitting partner and the preparations he does for practice. There's one scene where the camera crew was privy to a civil injunction Serena attended for one of her stalkers. There's some footage dedicated to their charity work. You also get to see Venus go shopping for Hellboy comics. There's some good variety here. If you wanted to spend more time getting to know Venus and Serena off the court, there's plenty of worthwhile stuff here.
There are two interview segments. The first is an Interview with Director Maiken Baird (HD, 03:56). This is a short segment but hardly is a second is wasted. Baird talks about how they were pursuing the Williams sisters since 2007 to make a film, and they really only got the opportunity to spend time with them because of their interviews in 2011. She also talks about how they got some of their interview segments and why they interviewed some of the people they did. The other [i]Interview with Michelle Major (HD, 07:43) is more of the same that looks like it was shot around the same time in the same place. Major reveals that they recorded over 450 hours of footage, and that after spending so much time around them the sisters became way more comfortable and acted more like themselves on camera. There is some information repeated almost verbatim from Baird's segment. Next up is AXS TV: A Look at Venus and Serena (HD, 2:42). This feels like an extended promo made to play on television to advertise the documentary. This is more like an odd trailer cut with some director interview footage. Last of all there is a Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:30).
As someone who couldn't care less about tennis, I found Venus and Serena very engaging and easy to watch. I learned a lot about the Williams sisters' careers and I felt like I really got to know them and understand who they are. I can't ask for much from a sports documentary. Long time fans of the sisters probably won't find much new information here, but they're likely to enjoy the behind the scenes footage. Magnolia's Blu-ray release has the best video and audio one could reasonably expect from a documentary with lots of archive footage. Most of the extras are disposable, but the deleted scenes are worthwhile for any fan of the movie.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 2nd July 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Trailer, Interview with Director Maiken Baird, Interview with Director Michelle Major, AXS TV: A Look at Venus and Serena
Easter Egg: No
Director: Maiken Baird, Michelle Major
Cast: Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Richard Williams
Length: 100 minutes
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