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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this first 2011 edition of High Definition Matters, I've got 12 reviews for you: The American, Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct, Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy Number 1 (all from Alliance in Canada), The Social Network (from Sony); Red (from eOne in Canada, Summit in the U.S.); Secretariat (from Disney); Knight and Day (from Fox); Army of Shadows (from Criterion); Raging Bull: 30th Anniversary Edition (from MGM); Case 39 (from Paramount); Ray (from Universal) and The Town (from Warner Bros.).

I've also updated the Blu-ray release schedule which you can access elsewhere on the site.

What I've Looked At Recently

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 uncertainty that becomes clear only in the final sequences.

The American (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)The American (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

George 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. The American narrowly escapes being killed at a remote cabin in Sweden and travels to a town in the alpine countryside of Italy to await further instructions. A relationship with a young prostitute named Clara begins to blossom beyond the initial encounter at the same time as he receives an assignment to package a high-powered sniper's rifle for a beautiful assassin. Despite the remoteness of his current location, the American finds himself stalked by more killers and begins to suspect that he may have outlived his usefulness to the controller and organization employing him. The appeal of the film is manifold - its serenity as The American meticulously goes about his craft; the paucity of dialogue that heightens its few action sequences when they do occur; a superb ensemble of actors led by Clooney that also includes Violante Placido (Clara), Thekla Reuten (assassin), Johan Leysen (controller), and Paolo Bonacelli (as a local town priest); the artistic framing of the film by director Anton Corbijn both in its interiors and the long shots of the Italian settings; and simply the story's uncertainty that grips one from its very beginning. The American is a welcome respite from much of the mainstream junk that passes as entertainment these days. Alliance/Universal'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. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. The supplements are highlighted by an audio commentary by the director that while delivered in a quiet fashion that echoes the mood of the film, does convey a lot of information about the director's intentions and also clarifies aspects of the plot, particularly in comparison with the book by Martin Booth that was its inspiration. Some deleted scenes, a brisk 10-minute making-of documentary are also available. The package includes both DVD and digital copies. Highly recommended.

With all the hoopla over The Social Network, one would think the film was the second coming of Citizen Kane. There's much discussion about how the film is supposedly a game changer, how it's more in tune with the current zeitgeist as opposed to the traditional narrative strengths and linearity of a period piece like The King's Speech.

The Social Network (Blu-ray Disc)

Will The Social Network win this year's Oscar for Best Picture? Quite possibly, given the fact that such things are increasingly fueled by publicity that is as much based on punditry and other awards ceremony results as it is studio or audience driven. Should it win? Well possibly too. It's certainly a very fine film, and in fact it's hard to find areas of the film that are not well executed. Yet it is no better than several other films that have graced theatre screens in 2010, including Inception, The King's Speech, and True Grit. For those who may have been hibernating since the beginning of the fall, The Social Network is of course about the creation of Facebook and the subsequent litigation involving co-creator Mark Zuckerberg that arose as a result of intellectual property allegedly having been stolen and questionable financial dealings that led to the parting of the original Facebook creators. An excellent young cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella), working with an incisive screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, brings the whole episode startlingly to life. The director is David Fincher and his control over the production is absolute. Given the visual and temporal clues that he provides, the narrative structure is complex, but never difficult to follow. Virtually every scene rings true, whether it's a intimate one involving only two or three of the actors or a mass barroom or party one with multiple actions and overlapping sound effects and dialogue. The resulting film is an experience that lingers long in the memory whatever one may think of the actions of the computer programming genius Zuckerberg and the lack of sympathy that he elicits from the viewer. Facebook itself is to some the hopeful face of human interaction for the foreseeable future, to others a sad reflection of the lack of real, meaningful communication between people these days. People in the former camp will see The Social Network film's obvious merits clearly; those in the latter should not let their point of view blind them to those merits. The film has been released on Blu-ray by Sony in an impressive two-disc edition. The 2.40:1 transfer is an entrancing experience, delivering the warmth of bar and party scenes equally as effectively as the cold clinical feel of computer labs and office conference rooms. Colours are somewhat muted in line with the film's look, but image detail is always notably good. There is no significant pop to the image as in some of the very best HD transfers, just a uniformly high level of crispness and naturalness than conveys a feeling of real life. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is strongly focused on the dialogue as one might expect. It's clear, with a couple of exceptions, and provides appropriate directionality that is well balanced with ambient sounds. The latter are well though usually subtly delivered by the rather active surrounds. Some notable LFE is evident during club scenes. A French 5.1 DTS-HD track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplement package is very impressive, leading off with two audio commentaries. The one by Fincher is a tremendous experience as he treats us to a comprehensive overview to all aspects of the production, even admitting to things he might have done differently in retrospect. The other one by Aaron Sorkin and various cast members (some of whom were recorded separately) comes across as more relaxed and there's fortunately little overlap with Fincher's effort. On the second Blu-ray disc, we get a very stimulating hour and a half documentary on the making of the film (4 parts that can be viewed separately or as a continuous whole), and six featurettes (ranging from 4 to 20 minutes in length) on specific aspects of the production. Highly recommended.

Like an increasing number of films of late, Red is based on a graphic novel - the current jumped-up term for a comic book. The title is actually an acronym for Retired - Extremely Dangerous.

RED (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)RED (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

In this case, it's Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) who is "red" based on his former occupation of black ops CIA agent. One day a hit squad attempts to kill him, apparently because of something he did in connection with a Guatemalan operation many years ago, and he has to head out on the run with reluctant girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker in tow. Frank recruits his former team (Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich) to aid in sorting out the mess. Karl Urban appears as the operations leader of the group trying to eliminate Frank. The film is an amiable timepasser for a rainy or snowy afternoon with no pretensions of being otherwise. There is an obvious touch of tongue in cheek about the film which is a good thing because there's nothing here to be taken at all seriously - particularly not the action scenes which have little air of reality to them. Bodies pile up and thousands of bullets get fired, but our heroes mainly suffer only a few scrapes or bullet wounds that never seem to be debilitating. The cast all seems to be having a good time and at no time do they appear to be taking anything too seriously - except maybe Karl Urban, which is probably just as well. With both good guys and bad playing it for laughs, the whole affair would collapse upon itself. Bruce Willis and even John Malkovich (who seems to making a career out of quirkiness) are comfortable in these types of roles, but Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren seem less so. One of the film's real pleasures is seeing a rather agile 93-year old Ernest Borgnine with a couple of good scenes as a record keeper deep in the CIA building. Red has been delivered on Blu-ray by Entertainment One in Canada (also available from Summit in the U.S.) in an appealing 2.40:1 transfer. Image crispness is impressive and details such as facial features, surface textures, and weaponry all offer good dimensionality. Colour fidelity is very good offering a vibrant image with skin colours seeming to be spot on. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is quite aggressive, offering very good directionality during the noisy action sequences as well as for the dialogue during the quieter passages. LFE kicks in quite strikingly at times. A French 5.1 Dolby Digital track and English SDH and French subtitles are included. None of the supplements really stand out. The best is an audio commentary by a real-life CIA field officer who was a consultant on the film (Robert Baer) that delivers some fascinating information that goes beyond the film. There are also some deleted and extended scenes, and a feature called "Access: Red" that activates some featurettes, trivia, interviews, etc. during the course of the film. Worth a rental.

In the latest in a sequence of attractively inspirational films (Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Invincible, The Rookie), Disney brings us another winner in Secretariat.

Secretariat (Blu-ray Disc)

The film dramatizes the story of the famous Triple Crown winner and succeeds admirably in generating suspense about events whose outcome is already well known. The races are exceptionally well re-created and build effectively to the Belmont race that confirmed Secretariat's status of "super horse". But as much as the film is about Secretariat, it is also the story of Penny Chenery a housewife who wins him on the flip of a coin and struggles financially to remain his owner and see him become a champion. Diane Lane portrays Chenery and does a very fine job of conveying the combination of strength, tenacity, and charm that the real woman must have had to be successful. John Malkovich plays Secretariat's trainer Lucien Laurin with warmth and enthusiasm while maintaining the offbeat nature of Laurin's character. Other familiar faces in the cast are Scott Glenn as Penny's father and James Cromwell as the wealthy horse owner and breeder who makes the wrong choice on the Secretariat coin toss. As mentioned, the races themselves are very well staged by director Randall Wallace, and the Chenery character obviously benefits from his attention, but the aspect of the film that concerns the challenges to family life posed by her devotion to Secretariat are less firmly handled. Overall, the film is a compelling experience though and well worth repeated viewings. Disney's 2.35:1 Blu-ray is somewhat inconsistent, but the dominant characteristic is one of vibrant colour, obviously clear detail in textures and facial features, and deep blacks. Occasionally though, some scenes exhibit softness that degrades image detail and lessens contrast. More impressive is the 5.1 DTS-HD audio that really shines during the horse races, delivering a very immersive feel with notable use of LFE. Quieter dialogue-driven sequences are well rendered too, with clear dialogue and subtle use of the surrounds. Nick Glennie-Smith's music is lushly conveyed. The supplement suite is very good, highlighted by a thoroughly interesting audio commentary by the director that covers all aspects of production as well as the liberties taken with real events. A 20-minute conversation between the director and the real Penny Chenery is also of considerable interest. Other extras include a simulation of the Preakness race as well as actual footage, featurettes on Secretariat himself as well as on the film's staging of the races, deleted scenes, and a music video. Recommended.

It's dispiriting to see a film like Knight and Day - so much talent and money wasted on mind-numbingly ridiculous action sequences and dialogue and situations intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek that fall depressingly flat.

Knight and Day (Blu-ray Disc)

Tom Cruise plays a mysterious super spy who seems to be on the lam from every law and spy agency imaginable while Cameron Diaz appears as a young woman caught up in his troubles. Bullets fly (and fly and fly), things blow up (and blow up and blow up), our hero makes one miraculously death-defying escape after another, and we don't care anything about any of it because it insults our intelligence so repeatedly (attempts at witty dialogue or not). What on earth motivated Tom Cruise to take this role (other than perhaps the opportunity to travel to a number of nifty locations around the globe such as Boston, Austria, and Spain)? Cruise is a very good actor who seems to revel in his craft and works hard at it. Yet of late he seems to have difficulty in finding good material although 2008's Valkyrie was a notable exception. As for Diaz, she seems to be sleep-walking through the film, that is, when she's not drugged as part of the so-called plot. You know, Knight and Day was nominated for two Teen Choice awards; that tells about all you need to know right there. Perversely, Fox has released the film on Blu-ray in a 2.40:1 transfer that looks and sounds terrific. Image sharpness and depth is laudable and skin and texture detail really shine. Colour fidelity impresses constantly and black levels are suitably inky. The only caveat relates to softness in a few isolated scenes. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is continually aggressive with lots of immersive effects in quiet moments that really rev up in the action sequences. Dialogue is always clear and well balanced with sound effects. French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks and English SDH and Spanish subtitles have been provided. The supplement package consists of the theatrical trailer and 7 featurettes ranging from a minute or so in length to about 12 minutes. All are pretty standard EPK fare.

Jean-Pierre Melville only lived to be 55 years old, but the films he directed include some impressive fare - Les enfants terribles, Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le samourai, Le cercle rouge, and Army of Shadows (L'Armee des ombres). The latter is a 1969 film that received a mixed reception from French critics when originally released.

Army of Shadows (Criterion)

It did not receive an American release until 2006 - an event that in contrast occasioned virtually unanimous acclaim. It's easy to see why. The film is essentially a tragedy, a muted tableau of events concerning the French Resistance during the mid-part of World War II. Based on a book by Joseph Kessel, it follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and the members of his resistance unit in a period where some are imprisoned and escape, others are imprisoned and tortured and where some are murdered by either the Gestapo or by their comrades as a result of their betrayal of others or the danger posed to the unit's security. It's all presently in a very low-key fashion, filmed in muted colours and very much reflects the stolid, intense quiet intelligence of Gerbier, so admirably conveyed by Lino Ventura. Beyond the excellence of Ventura's work, the film benefits from a uniformly excellent cast that includes Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Crauchet, Claude Mann, and Christian Barbier. Some films about underground activities never manage to capture the sense of fear, tension, and continuous danger under which such actions are carried out, but that is never the case with Army of Shadows. It's clear throughout that one chance encounter, one poor choice of location for a meal or meeting, one slight misstep in speech can mean capture and an incarceration that will live up to one's worst nightmares. There are numerous scenes that stick in one's memory, but it is the killing of a young man who worked with the unit, but betrayed them to the Germans, that really lingers. It's not the actual event, rather the low-key discussion about how to do it (spoken matter-of-factly right in front of the man) that conveys the real horror of the sequence and by extension reflects the desperation that drives the unit's actions throughout the film. The film is almost 2 hours long, but it's been edited with an eye to presenting just enough detail to keep one riveted to the screen throughout. Criterion released the film on DVD in 2007 and has now brought it to Blu-ray in an impressive 1.85:1 transfer supervised by director of photography Pierre Lhomme and created from the original 35mm camera negative, restored by StudioCanal. Colours are muted throughout in recognition of the look Melville wanted and image sharpness is very good with only a couple of isolated exceptions. Night-time scenes are noticeably improved over the previous DVD in terms of colour fidelity and shadow detail. The image is very clean, reflecting the manual removal of multiple instances of scratches, dirt, debris, and other visual imperfections. The French DTS-HD 2.0 audio is clear and the very limited use of theme music is well conveyed. A French LPCM 1.0 track and English subtitles are provided. The supplement package emphasizes Criterion's typically thorough attention to detail. It's the same package that appeared with the 2007 DVD with several of the items now presented in high definition. The highlights are an audio commentary with film historian Ginette Vincendeau, a 27-minute documentary about Melville and the film, an interview with Pierre Lhomme, and three featurettes related to the actual Resistance movement. Very highly recommended.

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