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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

What I've Looked At Recently (Continued)

I'm pretty much resigned to the current practice of releasing titles using the hook of a 5th a 10th, or multiple thereof anniversary, but sometimes it's just unwarranted. A case in point is MGM's 30th Anniversary Edition of Raging Bull on Blu-ray.

Raging Bull: 30th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

Not that Raging Bull doesn't rate a 30th Anniversary recognition, but there has to be a lot more on offer given that we just had the title come out on Blu-ray two years ago. At that time, it received a very fine transfer and carried over all the supplements from the previous DVD version. The new edition delivers the same transfer and the same supplements as before, then adds four featurettes (about 45 minutes of material) and a DVD copy of the film. The new featurettes (all in HD) are interesting (Scorsese and De Niro reminisce about their collaborations with emphasis on Raging Bull, several directors talk about Raging Bull's influence on their work, Scorsese reflects on his early work and love of film, and veteran boxers talk about Jake LaMotta), but not enough to warrant upgrading from the 2009 Blu-ray if you already have it. For those who don't have the earlier release, the 30th Anniversary Edition of Raging Bull is the version to get.

Case 39 was completed several years ago, but only recently released theatrically, to minor business.

Case 39 (Blu-ray Disc)

The film's catchphrase is "Some cases should never be opened", but in regard to this Blu-ray release, "Some keepcases should never be opened" fits the bill even better. The film is a thoroughly derivative, devil-child tale that opens with a slightly intriguing set of sequences, but then quickly settles into a supernatural niche that offers little that isn't predictable and plot holes that one could drive a truck through. Renee Zellweger stars as social worker named Emily given the case of Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland), a little girl with failing grades at school and seemingly shunned by her parents. One night Emily along with a police officer friend (Ian McShane) manage to intervene just as the parents are trying to kill Lilith. Lilith comes to live with Emily on a temporary basis, but Emily quickly comes to learn that Lilith's parents may not have been the monsters they seemed. Beyond the diminishing-returns nature of the plot, the film is not helped by Renee Zellweger as its star. She handles the opening sequences not too badly, but when things turn horrific, she seems to shrink in both stature and voice in the manner of a grade Z ingénue in a cheap mad-slasher horror flick. The transformation is jarring and the attempts to redeem her character in the film's climax never believable. Ian McShane delivers competent support but he given little to work with. Bradley Cooper is also around as Emily's romantic interest, but it's a scene involving his character and some wasps that clinches the film's descent into absurdity. The 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is unremarkable. It frequently seems soft and fine scale detail is lacking compared to the better Blu-ray efforts. Efforts were apparently originally made to give the film a warmer look than many horror films that prefer to drain the primaries from their colour palettes, and the Blu-ray does capture this effect for the most part. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio could be better balanced. The opening sequences are mainly dialogue-driven and tend to require a boost in one's volume setting. Later sequences try to ratchet up the sound effects for heightened shock effect and overpower the dialogue. English, French, Spanish, and Brazilian subtitles and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are also provided. The disc supplements are a rather prosaic combination of EPK-level featurettes and some deleted scenes.

The year 2004 brought one of the better music biopics to have come out of Hollywood. Depicting the life of Ray Charles, Ray was some 15 years in the making under the efforts of director Taylor Hackford.

Ray (Blu-ray Disc)

It mainly focuses on some 15 years of Ray Charles' life, from about 1950 to 1965 with frequent flashbacks to his youth, and it is buttressed by a superb performance by Jamie Foxx. The film had the support and participation of the real Ray Charles and unflinchingly covers many of the lesser aspects of his life – his heroin habit, marital infidelities, and shady business dealings. Charles would die at age 74 just months before the film was first screened. Despite the many dark paths in Charles' life that the film depicts, one still comes away with a profound respect for what he had to overcome as a blind black man in mid-20th century America. The film beautifully recreates that era and its characters, but it is Foxx's performance that sticks in the mind. His evocation of the Charles mannerisms, particularly at the piano, are impressive and the lip synching to Charles' singing of his most well-known songs works admirably. Foxx rightly won the Best Actor Oscar for his work. The many men and women that touched Charles life are well portrayed in Ray, but even at 2 ˝ hours the film can but barely scratch the surface of their lives. Some of the women fare best in this respect, particularly his wife Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King). One of the last HD-DVD titles that Universal released, the studio has now brought Ray to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1 transfer that vies for being the best work the studio has done with a catalog title. The image is beautifully detailed and textured with a colour palette that glows with dusky reds, yellows, and browns. The image is very crisp with deep blacks and sharp clean whites in evidence. There's no untoward digital manipulation and absolutely no sign of edge effects. The 5.1 DTS-HD sound delivers a wonderfully immersive experience that really showcases Ray Charles' best-known pieces. Directionality across the front is notably good and the balance between the fronts and the surrounds nicely judged (though with a slightly lesser emphasis on the surrounds than I expected). Outside of the musical numbers, dialogue is always clear and some nice ambient effects are evident. The supplement package is impressive in its breadth and depth. The audio commentary by Taylor Hackford is particular engaging for the amount of information as well as Hackford's enthusiasm. The Picture-in-Picture feature yields a wealth of production information, interviews, and so on. There is also almost half an hour of uncut musical performances, a half-hour biography of Charles hosted by Foxx, five shorter featurettes, and over a dozen deleted scenes. None of them are in HD but that's a minor concern. Highly recommended.

A fine piece of genre film making, The Town is Ben Affleck's follow-up directorial effort to Gone, Baby, Gone.

The Town (Blu-ray Disc)

It's one that focuses on events in the Charlestown area of Boston, a neighborhood with reputedly more bank robbers per capita than anywhere else in the world. Affleck plays a longtime thief who carries out a successful robbery with his gang, initially taking the bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage as short-term insurance before releasing her unharmed. He later falls for the young woman and plans a life elsewhere outside of both Charlestown and crime in general. Before he can do so, however, he's drawn back into carrying out one final heist. Affleck does a wonderful job of utilizing the Boston locations and the film vibrates with energy. The various robberies are very well staged and executed. They're also well interspersed with character development amongst the gang members, particularly the relationship between Affleck and a boyhood pal memorably played by Jeremy Renner, as well as between the FBI agents pursuing them (including Jon Hamm), and between Affleck and Rebecca Hall. The resulting balance maintains a high level of audience interest whether one chooses to watch the theatrical release version at 125 minutes or the extended cut at 153 minutes. Both are included on one Blu-ray disc by Warner Bros. That decision does result in lowered bit rates for each version than is normal, but surprisingly does not compromise the quality of the transfers. Framed at 2.40:1, the image is crisp and well detailed with deep blacks quite apparent. Colour fidelity is excellent, bathing the film in a warm hue and delivering accurate flesh tones throughout. There is no evidence of digital manipulation and a few instances of ringing that do exist were visible on the screen in theatres. Could the image have looked even better were each version of the film given its own disc or alternatively seamless branching been employed on a single disc? Well possibly, but it's hard to see where significant improvement over what we do have would be easily visible. Both versions of the film get a 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack that excels in immersiveness, and in its well-judged balancing of dialogue and effects. Both action sequences and quieter mood ones exhibit highly effective use of the surrounds. Gunfire is penetrating and persuasive in a Heat sort of way. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Supplements include an audio commentary (extended on the longer cut of the film) by Ben Affleck that is one of the best I've heard both in terms of content and listenability in quite some time. Six behind-the-scenes featurettes (totaling about a half hour) are also provided, with an option to access them separately from the supplement menu or as inserts while watching the film. Highly recommended.

The life of the notorious French robber and eventual "Public Enemy Number 1" Jacques Mesrine has been very ably documented in two separate films: Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct and Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy Number 1. Both have been released on Blu-ray on separate discs by Alliance in Canada (also coming on 2/22 in the U.S. from Music Box Films).

Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy Number 1 (Blu-ray - Canadian Release)Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy Number 1 (Blu-ray - U.S. Release)

Mesrine cut quite a swash of murder and mayhem across Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s, languishing in several jails including Quebec's Special Corrections Unit (St. Vincent de Paul prison) from which he first escaped and later returned to in an abortive attempt to free some fellow inmates. Both films are directed with great style by Jean-Francois Richet, but it is Vincent Cassel's work as Mesrine that constantly mesmerizes. One may not like the violent, at times brutally realistic nature of the films, but Cassel buries himself so deeply and effectively in his role that his work transcends the content. A nice cross-section of European actors has important roles including Gerard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Mathieu Amalric, Elena Anaya, and Cecile de France, not to mention Canadian actor Roy Dupuis. The films captured Cesar awards in France for Best Actor (Cassel) and Best Director (Richet). The 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfers look very good, offering generally vibrant colours and image detail that impresses though doesn't really leap out at one. The transfer is quite clean with moderate grain evident at times, the latter more apparent on the second film. The French 5.1 DTS-HD track is clear and balances dialogue well with sound effects. Surround activity is not as active as on many other discs, but when engaged is noticeably immersive. LFE is infrequently apparent, but effective when it does kick in. Also provided are a French 5.1 Dolby Digital track and English and French subtitles. There are no supplements. Both releases are easy recommendations.

Barrie Maxwell

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