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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Welcome to the first High Definition Matters column of 2012! I've got a selection of 9 Blu-ray reviews for you this time - some very recent releases and some catch-up on the last half of 2011: Contagion (from Warner Bros.); Margin Call (from Lionsgate); The Debt, The Guard, and The American/Burn After Reading (from Alliance Canada); Little Big Man (from Paramount); African Cats (from Disney); and Killer Elite and The Tree of Life (from eOne). At the end of these reviews, please note that I also have a suite of generally shorter reviews of a number of releases from Alliance Films Canada that represents a catch-up on Alliance's 2011 Blu-ray releases: The Crow, The Devil's Double, Hanna, Jackie Brown, Limitless, One Day, Pulp Fiction, and Somewhere. Please note that I've also updated my Blu-ray release schedule which you can access elsewhere on the site.

Blu-ray Reviews

If you like thrillers in the nature of Munich (2005) or even The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), 2011's The Debt should prove to be appealing.

The Debt (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The Debt (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

The latter's story begins in 1966 when three Israeli agents are assigned to track down a Nazi war criminal hiding in East Berlin. The task is apparently accomplished successfully, but 30 years later events come to light suggesting that all was not what it seemed. One of the 1966 team members, now retired (Helen Mirren), must deal with the fallout that also draws in her former team mates (Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds). The Debt tells a somewhat surprising tale, and does so in an intense fashion that keeps one constantly interested. The performances by the three principals are first-rate with those playing the team at the time of the original operation (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington for Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds respectively) almost equally effective. The Debt focuses on the interactions between team members, both past and present, with only occasional action scenes to balance things out. The result is a film structured to be equally thoughtful and suspenseful, but most importantly reliant on an attentive audience to keep on top of the intricate interweaving of time periods and events that characterize the film's narrative structure. The 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer courtesy of Alliance Canada (with an identical release by Universal in the United States) offers a pleasingly film-like experience with modest grain evident and a stylized shadowy look throughout. Subdued colours are utilized in the 1966 sequences to evoke the paranoid feel of the Cold War times and these are well conveyed by the Blu-ray image. There is no sign of untoward digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is unshowy but effective. The occasional action sequence has suitable heft while the dominant dialogue-driven aspects of the film are clear with subtle ambient surround effects to add a nice sense of realism. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS surround tracks are also provided as are English (SDH), French, and Spanish sub-titles. Supplements include a somewhat dry audio commentary by director John Madden and producer Kris Thykier, and three very short production featurettes. Recommended.

Terrence Malick's grasp doth not exceed his reach. And in The Tree of Life, Malick's reach is ambitious - apparently to capture on film the meaning of life and to illustrate its functioning on a very human level.

Tree of Life (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)Tree of Life (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

In the latter respect, Malick's efforts are modestly successful, but it's a success more in spite of his film's depiction of the development of Earth's building blocks - a rapturous and 2001: A Space Odyssey-like but ultimately tedious presentation. When The Tree of Life focuses on its human story - that of a 1950s family in Texas headed by a dominating father (Brad Pitt) and a humanizing mother (Jessica Chastain) and with an eldest son who as an adult (Sean Penn) struggles with the death of his brother, it's on generally sure ground and it connects with its audience. The rest is merely pretentious and not even particularly original filler. The film has connected well with the majority of critics who seem dazzled more by Terrence Malick's name on it than the actual content. Were it a film from some unknown director, one suspects its pretentions would be recognized for what they are - a recognition that the film-going public has apparently made via its less-than-welcoming box office support and less-than-supportive reactions. eOne has now made The Tree of Life available on Blu-ray in Canada (Fox in the United States) in a very impressive 1.85:1 transfer that excels both visually and sonically. The image is exceptionally clear and detail is very strong, notably in facial close-ups and in the rendering of period costuming. Colours are for the most part nicely saturated and fidelity is very good. Film grain is quite apparent. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master audio is given a workout both in respect to quiet, atmospheric moments and pulsing, chaotic sound, and handles both extremes with ease. The music by Alexander Desplat is richly effective and one can do little better than just to sit back with one's eyes closed and enjoy the Blu-ray's sonic presentation of it. (Not for nothing do the filmmakers place a notice at the start of the film suggesting that you play the film with the volume loud!) A half-hour supplement entitled Exploring the Tree of Life is a better than average background featurette. Recommended as a Blu-ray demonstration disc only.

The American/Burn After Reading - This George Clooney double feature has something for all.

The American/Burn After Reading (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The American (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)Burn After Reading (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

In The American, Clooney plays the title character - a purveyor of weaponry for assassins by contract and perhaps a contract killer himself, with his assignments doled out by a controller whose own allegiances are never made clear. What a pleasure to spend an hour and three-quarters in the company of The American! This intelligent film creates a hypnotic web of suspense and sensuality as it gradually doles out its plot - simple on the surface, but laden with an uncertainty that becomes clear only in the final sequences. Alliance's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation is as effective as the film. The image is very crisp with exceptional detail evident in facial features, clothing textures, and the cobblestones, walls, and doorways of the village exteriors. Colour fidelity is first-rate whether it's the stark whiteness of a Swedish snowscape or the alpine expanses of Italy. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio does a nice job with what is mainly a dialogue-driven story. The surrounds do convey some subtle ambient effects in the woods and during a procession in the town, but only really come alive in the few action sequences. A French 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is also provided. There are no supplements. Burn After Reading is an intriguing and quite funny black comedy from the Coen brothers. It's one of those plots with a number of threads that gradually begin to intercept and overlap. Clooney plays a government agent making time with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a CIA agent (John Malkovich) who quits the Agency after a well-deserved demotion. Then there's a couple of health club workers (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand) who get mixed up with the Clooney/Malkovich/Swinton trio - Pitt because he comes across some sensitive Malkovich computer files and McDormand because she needs money for cosmetic surgery. Farce and coincidence abound and blackmail comes into play, all leading to a bad end for pretty-well all. The 1.85:1 Blu-ray captures the film's somewhat colour-drained image quite accurately. Image sharpness and detail are notably good. Modest grain is pleasingly present. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio handles the dialogue-driven film efficiently, but is otherwise unremarkable. Some directionality is apparent, but there's little sense of envelopment. A French 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is also provided. There are no supplements. Recommended. Outside Canada, The American was released separately on Blu-ray by Universal. In Canada, it's also available in a stand-alone release by Alliance. Both of these versions include a fine set of supplements and several subtitle sets. I reviewed the Alliance stand-alone version in a previous HDM column and highly recommended it. Burn After Reading was released separately on Blu-ray by Universal outside Canada, in a version that included several supplementary featurettes and several subtitle sets.

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is strictly middle-of-the-road in the realm of disaster films. As a Friday night stay-at-home or date flick, it's decent background fare, but won't make you forget the likes of vaguely similar films such as Outbreak (1995) and Virus (1980).

Contagion (Blu-ray Disc)

Of course its screenplay about the outbreak of a virus that spreads worldwide from Hong Kong is laced with current hot-button references to the likes of the Internet, Facebook, and herbal medicine, but it's simply an all-too-obvious effort to make us think that Contagion has something new to offer. Are you going to see the usual cast of well-known actors underused in stereotypical roles? Yes, how about Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, etc. Will stupid decisions be constantly made by otherwise intelligent characters? Of course, how else do you drive the plot in some of these types of pictures. Will some intelligent government officials find themselves overbalanced by overly officious and self-important others? Of course. Will there be the inevitable breakdown of the social structure, with the trashing of private businesses, individuals running wild, and senseless murders/miscellaneous brutality. Again, of course. Contagion makes its way to a conclusion that has heartening aspects, but it disappointingly leaves many loose ends. On the positive side, the film is thought-provoking in terms of how much more prone to the worldwide spread of viruses the Earth now is. The recent SARS and H1N1 concerns have been several such real-life harbingers. Warner Bros.' 1.85:1 Blu-ray release shows the film in a good light. While looking generally sharp and finely detailed as one might expect from a digital image shot on Red One cameras, the video also accurately reflects the colour vibrancy of an increasingly desaturated image that mirrors the plot's deteriorating turns. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is not particularly attention-drawing. Dialogue is clear and the music score suggests good fidelity. There is modest directionality and aggressive surround is minimal. English 2.0 and French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also provided as are English SDH, French, and Spanish sub-titles. Supplements include three featurettes (The Reality of Contagion, The Contagion Detectives, Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World) and a separate DVD copy as well as digital copy of the film. Recommended as a timepasser rental.

In 1975, Sam Peckinpah delivered us of a film entitled Killer Elite. It was definitely lesser Peckinpah, but in retrospect a masterpiece (with Robert Duvall and James Caan) compared to director Gary McKendry's 2011 film of the same title.

Killer Elite (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)Killer Elite (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

The films bear no resemblance in terms of source inspiration, story, or artistic style. Only the titles are the same - not apparently changed to protect the innocent! Considering its acting pedigree (Robert De Niro, Jason Statham, Clive Owen), McKendry's Killer Elite should have been better. Unfortunately it is sunk by action sequences that seem merely derivative and hyperkinetically staged rather than entertaining, plus an uninspired script (apparently something about a rogue SAS unit represented by Owen intent on developing world assassin domination coming into conflict with a skilled special ops agent [Statham] and his mentor [De Niro]). Director McKendry develops no sense of suspense and the film merely plods from one instance of killing and mayhem to another. There is little sense of character development and as a viewer, one never connects with or cares about any of the main players. Ironically, as is often the case for a sub-standard film, we get a superior Blu-ray release, available from eOne Entertainment in Canada. The 2.40:1 image is very sharp and finely detailed (both close-ups and longer shots). The film's colour palette is subdued and as such is well represented by the Blu-ray image. A modest level of grain is pleasingly apparent. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is equally as impressive with aggressive use of the surrounds, striking LFE, and noticeable directionality. Dialogue is clearly delivered. Supplements comprise deleted scenes and 13 short interviews with various crew and cast (Statham and Owen included). A DVD copy of the film is included in the case. One might find pleasure in eOne's release as a visual and sonic workout for one's home theatre system, but don't count on much content entertainment value. Note that the release elsewhere in North America comes from Universal and is identical other than the case artwork and Universal's omission of the interviews but inclusion of a digital copy. Not recommended except maybe for Jason Statham diehards.

The ambition of Margin Call is almost realized. Certainly in its casting and the quality of performances delivered by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto, and particularly Jeremy Irons, the film soars.

Margin Call (Blu-ray Disc)

The film's relevance to the present day in its efforts to invoke the spectre of the recent economic meltdown is also admirably solid. The plot appears to revolve around a New York investment firm's efforts to deal with a crisis due to questionable mortgages that threatens to bankrupt it. I say "appears" because it's in relation to its screenplay that Margin Call is most on shaky ground. The viewer is left to guess what really is going on most of the time. Despite even characters in the film asking to have the crisis explained to them in terms a child could understand, they and we never have anything explained satisfactorily (although "they" pretend to understand). While we care little about the ultimate fate of the investment firm, there's certainly a sadness invoked concerning the individuals caught up in the mess, particularly the older ones who have made and make a lot of money, but have little happiness to match it. The Spacey character who's the firm's chief operations manager is the most pathetic of the lot. After 34 years of service, he has a broken marriage, back-breaking alimony, and a dying dog that appears to be his best and perhaps only friend, to show for it all. Margin Call is available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate. The 1.78:1 image is solid for the most part. There are a lot of close-ups in the film and these always look very sharp. Facial features are finely detailed and nicely delineated even in the sometimes shadowy lighting seemingly favoured by the director (J.C. Chandor). The film's colour palette is slightly subdued and is well presented on Blu-ray. The 5.1 DTS HD Master audio isn't given a great workout by the dialogue-driven script, but what we get is clear and concise. There's some evidence of effective directional effects in both dialogue and ambient sounds (noticeably in respect to phones ringing and conversations in the trading rooms). English and Spanish subtitles are provided. The supplements are highlighted by an audio commentary by the director, J.C. Chandor, and co-producer Neal Dodson. It's admirably thorough on the film production and casting side of things but like the film itself, less so on explaining the financial basis of the plot. Other supplements include a photo gallery and three short segments (6 minutes max) offering deleted scenes, rudimentary making-of comments, and cast and crew slips. Recommended as a rental.

Little Big Man tells the tale of Jack Crabb - card sharp, gunfighter, medicine salesman, drunk, Indian brave, cavalry scout - who manages to survive the battle of the Little Big Horn and live to the ripe old age of 121. I first remember seeing this film at a special preview and being modestly entertained by something that was distinctly different from the traditional western.

Little Big Man (Blu-ray Disc)

Of course, Dustin Hoffman is no one's idea of a western protagonist, but he seemed to fit the various facets of the title character of Jack Crabb quite well. This was perhaps the first western to offer essentially no ties to westerns of the past. You can scan your way down the lengthy cast list, but you'll find virtually no one with substantial western credits to their name. Certainly the stars (Hoffman and Faye Dunaway) were in virgin territory and even the co-stars like Martin Balsam and Richard Mulligan (other than a credit in 1969's The Undefeated) were new to westerns. Chief Dan George was also, but one could at least say he knew what he was doing in one. Director Arthur Penn had directed The Left Handed Gun in 1958, but he was much better known for films with contemporary settings. Despite a first viewing's entertainment, the film's revisionist and semi-satirical approach is one of diminishing returns. The amusing shock of something new quickly loses its allure on repeated viewings, particularly when the film is well over 2 hours long. The problem with it, as with most western satires that don't really work, is the feeling that ultimately, the actors are looking down on the genre because they feel it's somehow beneath them. That's why entries like Blazing Saddles and Cat Ballou pale beside the likes of Ruggles of Red Gap, Destry Rides Again, or Support Your Local Sheriff. The latter all feature numerous players familiar with westerns - frequently their bread and butter in fact - and they all convey a feeling of respect even when they're poking fun at it all. Blazing Saddles and Cat Ballou only work when it's the likes of western veterans Slim Pickens or Lee Marvin involved in the comedy sequences. In Little Big Man, only Chief Dan George comes out of it unscathed. The other main players and the director all seem so impressed with their Method backgrounds that their approach is more mean-spirited than affectionate. At least the film looks good in its 2.35:1 Blu-ray release from CBS via Paramount. Although not the cleanest looking element has been employed with plenty of speckles evident, the image is quite sharp with both close-ups and midrange shots benefiting. Image detail for building surfaces, clothing textures, and the varying terrain is impressive. Colour fidelity is quite good except for a few instances of somewhat rosy skin tones. Modest grain is pleasingly apparent and there's virtually no evidence of untoward digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is unobtrusively effective, delivering clear dialogue and modestly enveloping ambient sound. Good directional effects are evident in some dialogue exchanges, action sequences, and in John Hammond's music score. Disappointingly, the only extra is the theatrical trailer.

For anyone such as yours truly who has had the privilege of being able to travel to Africa, DisneyNature's African Cats is a remarkable document.

African Cats (Blu-ray Disc)

Using footage shot entirely on location in the African savannah region of the Kenya and Tanzania's Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve, it tells the story of three families (two of lions and the other of cheetahs) vying to establish themselves in a beautiful but at-times unforgiving landscape. The film offers imagery and events that are variously heartwarming, heartbreaking, awe inspiring, exciting, and endearing in themselves, but always amazing in that it has been possible to even capture such images on film. Disney's release of African Cats on Blu-ray is the ideal way to experience the film. The 1.78:1 video is impressive in terms of both sharpness/ image detail and colour fidelity. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is an equally impressive complement, offering crisp, clear dialogue (from narrator Samuel Jackson), very enveloping ambient surround, and cueing in some striking LFE during some thunderstorm sequences. The main supplement is video commentary from various crew members presented in a PiP format when invoked. A couple of minor featurettes promote Disney's conservation efforts and initiatives to save the savannah areas. The Jordin Sparks music video of "The World I Know" is also included. Highly recommended.

A 2011 Irish production, The Guard, is truly, to quote some of the advertising on the disc packaging, "A cracker of a film". It stars the wonderful Brendon Gleeson as Connemara policeman Gerry Boyle who finds himself teamed with an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to deal with an international drug-smuggling gang.

The Guard (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The Guard (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Boyle is rumpled, crass, and completely politically incorrect in his approach - an image that is easy to conjure up if you know Gleeson's work on film at all (think Perrier's Bounty and In Bruges for example). The interaction between his character and the more straight-laced one of Cheadle's is a delight and the playing out of the story is a constant pleasure. That's due to both the Gleeson-Cheadle dynamic, the impressive collection of supporting Irish character actors, and the effective use of the Connemara locations on display. Written by John Michael McDonagh, who also directed, the film is affectionate in its portrayal of people and places despite some of the mayhem on display. Expect to hear a liberal use of the "f" word though with Irish productions such as The Guard, it's done for authenticity rather than to shock. There is as much comedy as drama in the film and again if you know Gleeson's work, the degree to which he impresses with the comedic aspects will not be surprising. Gleeson has been nominated for a number of 2011 acting awards for his efforts, though I fear the relatively low profile of the film works against him. Alliance Canada's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is reasonably good, though a touch inconsistent. Detail is noticeably good in close-up shots, but less so and the mid-range and greater ones. Overall sharpness does seem to switch from very good to slightly soft at times. Colours tend to be rather washed out, reflecting the nature of the locations and directorial choices. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is quite effective in its reproduction of the dialogue. There's little call for more, there being only a few gunfire exchanges. The latter could have delivered a little more authority than the track provides them. English SDH subtitling is provided. The supplement package is well done, starting with an audio commentary by director McGonagh and Gleeson and Cheadle. Its anecdotal nature makes its constantly entertaining. Included too are an 18-minute making-of featurette that's a cut above the average, a short outtake reel, a liberal selection of deleted and extended scenes, and a McDonagh short film Second Death that served as inspiration. Alliance's release also includes a DVD version of the film. Highly recommended. The Guard is available outside Canada as a Blu-ray-alone release from Sony, with the same transfer and virtually the same supplementary content.

Alliance Films-Canada Blu-ray Reviews

The Crow (1994, Miramax, with Brandon Lee) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

The film is as much, if not more so, successful due to its style than its substance. Brandon Lee (the iconic Bruce Lee's son) plays a young musician murdered along with his fiancee on the eve of their Hallowe'en wedding. A year later, a mysterious crow apparently raises him from the dead to deal with his killers. The active camera of director Alex Proyas (Dark City) that characterizes the film gives it a pizzazz that compensates somewhat for its plot's motivational thinness. Lee's death in the waning days of production has heightened the film's somewhat mythic feel. Alliance Canada's 1.85:1 Blu-ray image is very impressively detailed both in daylight and the mainly night-time shots. Colours are deeply saturated. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is strongly directional and enveloping with effective use of LFE. Dialogue is clear and concise. A French Dolby stereo track and English subtitling are also provided. The supplement package, highlighted by audio commentary by director Proyas, is quite comprehensive. Alliance's Canadian Blu-ray release also includes a DVD version of the film. Highly recommended. The Crow is also available on Blu-ray in the United States from Lionsgate - same transfer and supplements, but with a digital copy included rather than a DVD version.

The Devil's Double (2011, Lionsgate, with Dominic Cooper) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

Latif is a man forced to become the body double of Uday Hussein, Saddam's ruthless son. As the Iraq war looms, Latif seeks freedom from a life of debauchery and cruelty that has made him virtually indistinguishable from the real-life man he's doubling. In an amazing acting effort, Cooper portrays both the real Uday and Latif, succeeding quite well in his differentiation between the two psyches with the physical similarities. The film is not short on its liberal presentation of brutal violence and some sexual content, being hard to watch at times, but Cooper's work deserves to be seen. Alliance Canada's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image shines both in its excellence in terms of sharpness and detail, and in its desert-like hues. A small amount of edge effect is apparent at times. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master audio is an impressive effort that really immerses one throughout. A 5.1 French DD track and English subtitling are also provided. Supplements include audio commentary by director Lee Tamahori and three featurettes (including a short profile of the real Latif). Worth a rental. The Devil's Double is available on Blu-ray outside Canada from Lionsgate (same transfer and extras, but also including Spanish subtitles).

Hanna (2011, Focus Features, with Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

I suspect viewers of this film will either love it passionately or hate it equally passionately. It's a film that defies conventional in its hurdling of film genres and in Saoirse Ronan's unexpected portrayal of an adolescent assassin. In addition to Ronan, it shines in its casting of Eric Bana as her ex-CIA-agent father and Cate Blanchett as a ruthless CIA chief who despatches agents to kill Ronan. With respect to film genres, there are elements of action adventure, environmental survival, thriller, light and dark fantasy, and fairy tale. Director Joe Wright (who also directed Saoirse Ronan in The Atonement) orchestrates it all with great style, suspense, and plenty of surprise in the telling and in the visual imagery. Alliance Canada's 2.40:1 Blu-ray release (in steelcase packaging) does Hanna's image full justice throughout with a level of detail that lends great presence. There is no evidence of untoward digital effects. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is equally fine, delivering a sonic assault on the senses that is as effective with dialogue as the ambient sounds and effects that could have overwhelmed it but don't. LFE is also an effective part of the mix. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS surround tracks and English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitling is also provided. The supplement package is highlighted by a very informative audio commentary by director Wright. Also included are some deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and a short featurette on the anatomy of an action scene. The package includes a DVD copy of the film and a digital copy. Highly recommended. Outside of Canada, the Region A release comes from Universal. It's the same as Alliance's with the exceptions of a couple of extra supplementary featurettes, no DVD copy, and the use of a standard plastic Blu-ray case.

Jackie Brown (1998, Miramax, with Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD
Pulp Fiction (1994, Miramax, with John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Therman, Bruce Willis) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

For me, Jackie Brown has a lasting appeal that outshines that of the oft-touted Pulp Fiction. It's a marvel of casting (in addition to Grier, Jackson, and Forster, we also get Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, and Michael Keaton) that marches its charges through a continuously intriguing tale of a group of people all on the trail of a half million dollars in cash. Quentin Tarantino's writing and directorial skills are both evident as are his covert and overt nods to classic Hollywood film-making style and players. Pulp Fiction tale of two hitmen in a blend of crime drama and comedy tends to rely on occasional sudden punches to the heart rather than Jackie Brown's more even-handed pressure. And in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino seems to be trying too hard to shock us rather than concentrating on classicly effective storytelling. But whatever one's views on the two films' relative merits, both ultimately are repeatable entertainment worth having in one's film library. And both are now available in attractive Blu-ray presentations from Alliance Films in Canada. Alliance's releases are direct ports of Lionsgate's Blu-ray releases in the United States except that Alliance uses a digipak case instead of the standard plastic Blu-ray one and includes DVD versions as well. Both are recommended, Jackie Brown highly so. For in-depth reviews of the Lionsgate (and therefore Alliance) transfers and supplements, see Tim Salmons' reviews elsewhere here at The Digital Bits (here and here).

Limitless (2011, Relativity Media, with Bradley Cooper, Abby Cornish, Robert De Niro) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

It's hardly the same story, but Alan Glynn's novel "The Dark Fields" about tapping the vast potential of the human brain that is seemingly unused does make a classic science fiction book and film fan like yours truly hearken back to Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" and the film made from it - Charly (1968, Oscar for Cliff Robertson). From "The Dark Fields", we now have 2011's Limitless starring Bradley Cooper as burnt-out writer Eddie Mora whose use of a secret pill allows him to tap all of his brain's potential. Of course, there are the inevitable side effects that take their toll and then there's Robert De Niro as a Wall Street power broker who wants what Eddie has. The film is no Charly, but it does provide a reasonably engrossing hour and three-quarters of entertainment. Cooper fits his role well while even De Niro seems more engaged than we've become used to in many of his recent films. Alliance Canada's 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer of what is an Unrated and Extended Cut (the only-slightly shorter theatrical cut is also included) delivers very good image detail with a notable colour palette that mirrors Eddie's condition - bright and well saturated when he's on the pill, muted and somewhat drab when he's not - and obviously the director's intention quite well. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio draws a nice balance between clear dialogue and a wealth of ambient surround effects. A French 5.1 DD track and English (SDH) and French subtitles are also provided. Supplements feature an audio commentary by director Neil Burger and include a couple of routine making-of featurettes and an alternate ending. Certainly worth a rental. Limitless's United States Blu-ray release is courtesy of Fox, offering the same transfer and content, but also including a digital copy.

One Day (2011, Focus Features, with Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

I'm probably somewhat in the minority in my generally positive view of this film. It's a love story about two characters, Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess), whose relationship plays out as the pair get together each year on July 15th. Based on the novel of the same title by David Nicholls, it offers plenty of surprises, some welcome familiarity, and appealing performances by both leads. The ending is a little off-putting but it doesn't really leave a bad taste in the mouth. Look too for nice performances from Ken Stott and particularly Patricia Clarkson as Dexter's parents. Alliance's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer isn't the sharpest one in the world, but it is clear and reasonably well detailed. The varying colour intensity is the most noticeable thing about it, reflecting the characters' moods and successes - a directorial choice well represented by the Blu-ray. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is pretty much unremarkable. Dialogue is clear and there's some occasional ambient surround evident. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS Surround tracks and English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Supplements include audio commentary by director Lone Scherfig, some deleted scenes, and three short routine production featurettes. Recommended as a rental. In the United States, the Blu-ray release uses the same transfer and content and comes from Universal.

Somewhere (2010, American Zoetrope, with Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning) - Canadian BD, U.S. BD

From director Sofia Coppola comes an affecting story of the relationship between actor Johnny Marco (Dorff) and his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Fanning). Somewhere is a worthy follow-up to Coppola's Lost in Translation - just as measured in its pace and as thoughtful but even more well-acted. Both Dorff and Fanning deliver performances that remain in one's memory long after the film is over. It helps that in the writing, the characters are well drawn and interesting though in Johnny case somewhat stereotypical. Thematically, Coppola builds her story methodically in the first half and brings us to a satisfying conclusion using both wit and drama while geographically taking us from Los Angeles to Europe. Alliance's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is equally satisfying. Detail and sharpness are very good as is colour fidelity. Modest grain is pleasingly apparent while untoward digital manipulation is not in evidence. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio doesn't have to be a stunner and it isn't - just fully competent in its clear dialogue and modest ambient surround effects. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS Surround tracks and English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. The only supplement is a thoroughly routine EPK making-of featurette. Recommended, though a rental to start might be advisable as the film's somewhat measured pacing may not be to some tastes. The same Blu-ray release is available in the United States from Universal.

Well, once again, that's it for now, but I'll return again soon. Best HD wishes to all of you for 2012.

Barrie Maxwell
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