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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Welcome to the second edition of my high definition column in its new format. The intent of the column is to provide a convenient one-stop summary of current high definition information for readers' convenience. I aim to provide my take on selected current releases, some guidance on near-future releases worth looking out for, and a tabular summary of all forthcoming titles that have been announced. I welcome your comments on the column, particularly suggestions for any ways in which you think it can be improved without becoming unwieldy.

Current Fare - The Best

Genre movies have always been the bread and butter of the American film industry and no one consistently makes them better. We were fortunate to have several fine examples in 2007, including the western 3:10 to Yuma and the thriller Michael Clayton.

Michael Clayton (Blu-ray Disc)

Michael Clayton
(also available on HD-DVD)

It's easy to be dismissive of polished efforts like Michael Clayton, but its excellence is something akin to that of a big, highly-skilled athlete - he's so good that half the time he hardly seems to be trying. Such is the fate of Michael Clayton. Certainly not the very best film of the year, but a worthy contender as acknowledged in its Best Picture nomination, the film chronicles the efforts of a legal firm's "fixer" (George Clooney) who must defuse a potentially explosive situation when the firm's top litigator (Tom Wilkinson) unexpectedly puts a $3 billion case in jeopardy by suddenly switching from advocate to whistleblower. The film is incisively written by Tony Gilroy, who also directs unobtrusively yet propels the narrative forward with urgency so that the two-hour running time seems much less. The flashback structure employed works well, as it so often does in the thriller genre.

Michael Clayton is a bonanza of fine performances from Clooney's on-the-edge portrayal of a man living a fine balancing act yet somehow always in control to good work by Sydney Pollack as the legal firm's chief executive. In between, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson provide strong support as an opposing counsel and as the firm's top litigator respectively. Warners' BD and HD releases (1080p, 2.40:1) offer a noticeable improvement on the DVD with deep blacks now apparent and the previous digital noise almost completely absent. The image detail is not a poster boy for either BD or HD, but it is impressive. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a thoroughly workmanlike job on the dialogue-heavy track, but does unfortunately allow James Newton Howard's fine score to fly somewhat too much under the radar. The main supplement is an audio commentary with writer/director Gilroy and his brother and the film's editor John Gilroy. Several deleted scenes (with optional commentary) round out the discs.

The Brave One  (Blu-ray Disc)

The Brave One
(also available on HD-DVD)

The Brave One is another worthy genre example. Directed by Neil Jordan and starring Jodie Foster, it seems on the surface like any other revenge film along the lines of the Charles Bronson Death Wish outings except with a female rather than male protaganist. In the hands of Jordan, however, it becomes a much more complex animal. The film delves deeply into the traumatic experience that seeing one's partner murdered before your eyes can have on one's own perception of self - the isolating and even self-changing effects that can make one a person almost unrecognizable to oneself and capable of acts that one would previously never have thought possible. Jodie Foster does a very realistic job of capturing such changes in the character she plays, a New York public radio show host.

There is sudden and at times graphic violence in The Brave One, but it's never gratuitous and always remains subordinate to the reactions of Foster's character to them. As a secondary benefit, Jordan takes us on a fascinating tour of New York locations seldom visited in the movies. It seems that as Foster's character moves deeper into unknown personal territory, so does she find herself in areas of the city increasingly unfamiliar to us. Gradually zeroing in on Foster's character is a New York homicide detective, persuasively played by Terrence Howard. The film's conclusion brings the two together in an unexpected twist that provides a initially surprising but ultimately satisfying ending. Warners' HD release (HD and DVD combo format) captures the look of the film admirably, ranging from the soft-filtered beginning to the more hard-edged middle and ending that reflect the Foster character's altered view of life and her environment. Image clarity is excellent and facial close-ups (of which there are many) are particularly impressive in terms of flesh tone accuracy and skin detail. The Dolby TrueHD audio provides an admirable sonic experience with extensive subtle use of the surrounds for ambience. The supplements include a mediocre making-of piece (in hi def) and some deleted scenes.

A good spy story is always welcome and we've been fortunate to have had several fine examples released in high definition in 2007 - the superb The Lives of Others (on BD from Sony) and two others that focus on the history of the CIA. Of the latter two, anyone who has not seen The Good Shepherd should seek it out (available on HD from Universal), but of more immediate interest is The Company, a miniseries originally broadcast on TNT and now available on a two-disc BD release from Sony.

The Company (Blu-ray Disc)

The Company

Of course no one should expect historical accuracy from films and The Company is no exception although its story does use a series of real events involving the CIA as the basis for its narrative of ferreting out Soviet double agents within the intelligence agency. The program consists of three parts, each of which is progressively better in terms of narrative tension, historical and geographic scope, and the quality of its ensemble acting. Starring are Chris O'Donnell as a young recruit to the agency, Alfred Molina as his mentor, and Michael Keaton as the agency's counter-intelligence specialist. Molina and Keaton, who anchor the expansive saga, are both very good, but are matched by a number of lesser-known performers who inhabit the series' numerous supporting roles.

Aside from the series' captivating story, the series also scores in respect to its effective use of location shooting, an evocative music score, and especially its superb make-up. Seldom has a film managed to age its key players so effectively and realistically as has The Company. Sony's BD disc allows all these aspects to shine through clearly - not a perfect visual experience (1080p, 1.78:1) due to some minor sharpness inconsistency, but certainly overall one of the best-looking ones for a made-for-TV program that I've seen. The PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio is equally impressive, offering a surround experience that is intense when appropriate but effectively subtle at other times. The supplements are restricted to two featurettes dealing with the genesis of the film and the making-of details. They total a little more than a half-hour and are interesting as far as they go, but one is left wanting more.

Current Fare - The Rest

The Invasion (Blu-ray Disc)

The Invasion
(also available on HD-DVD)

Once upon a time, Jack Finney's novel "The Body Snatchers" translated into the superb, understated 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Increasingly diminishing returns resulted from remakes such as 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1994's Body Snatchers. Now we have The Invasion, a 2007 incarnation from Warner Bros. that vies with the 1994 version for the title of "worst Body Snatchers on film". Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are both wasted in a film that doesn't know whether it wants to be a cerebral thriller or just another conventional car chase flick, and in the end just fizzles out like a dud firecracker.

The Washington D.C. locations are a welcome change from New York and Los Angeles when it comes to disaster-based films, but that's about it for highlights. The Warner HD version that I looked at (1080p 1.85:1) offers little to complain about and equally little to get thrilled about; it's a very nice transfer with very good image detail and colour fidelity, but no visual pop. Similarly the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track works well in dealing with subtle ambient effects as well as the more obvious action sequences. The supplements (presented in 1080i) consist of four featurettes that are superficial and entirely forgettable.

The Jane Austen Book Club (Blu-ray Disc)

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club is a film with an interesting premise. Five women and one man form a book club to discuss the novels of Jane Austen as a way to ease the current personal difficulties of one of the group. As each novel is discussed, it soon becomes clear that the issues of Austen's well-known characters mirror many of the group members' own concerns. The film benefits from a uniformly impressive and likable ensemble cast (Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Marc Blucas, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, Jimmy Smits, Lynn Redgrave, Hugh Dancy) and is a pleasant time-passer, but the whole thing is just a little too pat in terms of the convenient similarities in the film characters' issues and those of the Austen characters. One recognizes the narrative artiface involved, but its obviousness is off-putting enough so that the film has little repeat viewing potential.

Thus, the disc a good rental at best. If the film itself is but a trifle, its BD presentation from Sony is superior. The 1080p 1.78:1 transfer is very film-like and complements the content well, drawing little attention to itself. Yet if you focus on it specifically, its clarity, shadow detail, and colour fidelity qualities are obvious. Similarly the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio shines, whether in respect to the dialogue or the numerous surround ambient effects. The disc's supplements are also superior, particularly the audio cast and crew commentary and four featurettes (though not presented in high definition).

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (Blu-ray Disc)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(also available on HD-DVD)

The problem with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not the film itself. Once the film's slow and muddled beginning (during which Jesse, his brother Frank and a gang of misfits prepare for one last train robbery) is over and the film's intent becomes clear, it's a fascinating experience watching Brad Pitt's Jesse James, a man of conflicting emotions and impulses, become obsessed with eliminating gang members that he sees as disloyal at best and a danger to himself at worst. Robert Ford, at first a young man who virtually hero-worships Jesse and seeks his approval to validate his own life, becomes increasingly wary of Jesse's feelings towards him and the path towards the eventual murdering of Jesse becomes inevitable.

Casey Affleck does a superb job portraying Ford; his facial emotions speak volumes and the subtle changes that he gradually introduces to fit his character's increasingly fragile mental state as the film progresses are a pleasure to behold. Sam Shepard provides an effective if too-brief portrayal of Frank James (if only Jesse had seen through Robert Ford and treated him as dismissively as Frank does at the beginning of the film). The film is handsomely photographed by Roger Deakins and the spare music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis really captures the film's melancholy mood. The standard definition DVD's rendition of the film was quite satisfactory give what that medium is capable of, but the HD version (1080p 2.40:1) is barely so, given what a high definition presentation can deliver. It does improve on the image detail somewhat, but it has not excised the edge effects that were at times apparent on the DVD and video noise is apparent in some of the darker scenes. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is actually quite good, but I couldn't get past the anemic gunshots. They sound like a duel of cap pistols. Any mono Warner film of the 1930s or 40s sounds much better in this regard. The only supplement on the disc is a lengthy documentary on the life of Jesse James, with little on the making of the film itself. That a special edition is coming in the future seems obvious to me and one would be well advised to wait for it rather than jump at this version.

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