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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Reviews (Continued)

Mixed-blessings is a reasonable way to characterize the releases of Analyze This/Analyze That (from WB) and The Mel Brooks Collection (from Fox).

Analyze This/Analyze That (Blu-ray Disc)

As we all know, sequels are a common Hollywood response to successful films at the box office and very seldom do they come close to living up the original. A perfect example is the duo of Analyze This and Analyze That. Analyze This worked wonderfully well because we saw Robert De Niro successfully satirizing his gangster persona and the typical mafia situations he'd encountered in his serious dramatic films. Having him play off as a gang leader with anxiety issues against Billy Crystal's psychiatrist was inspired casting, and the result is an amiable outing with plenty of chuckles and even a few real belly laughs. Repeat viewings are well rewarded so long as they're decently spaced out. On the other hand, Analyze That is a real dud, partly because its basic situations just aren't funny (beginning with a strained sequence in which De Niro's character pretends to be crazy and starts to sing West Side Story songs - leading to his release from prison into the care of Billy Crystal), but also because in the meantime we've grown tired of seeing De Niro in comedy roles he's just not suited for (Meet the Parents, Rocky and Bullwinkle for example). Warners gives us both films on one Blu-ray disc. The 1.85:1 transfers are quite nice, offering good colour fidelity and quite good detail for facial features and textures. The standard DVD of Analyze This was quite good, but the Blu-ray does improve on it noticeably. I didn't have a DVD of Analyze That to do a similar comparison. There are no supplements for either film. I suppose Warners saw the opportunity to combine the two films as an obvious release, but really I think the better approach would have been to give Analyze This its own disc with a few supplements (including the audio commentary from the standard DVD) and just ignore the sequel.

The Proposal (Blu-ray Disc)

Inveterate Mel Brooks fans will undoubtedly welcome The Mel Brooks Collection from Fox. It contains nine titles on nine discs housed in an 8"x11" book of 10 cardboard pages with openings to hold the discs. This is a nice presentation and despite some concerns that I've seen raised, should cause no problems with scratching discs if you're careful when you remove them. The solid slipcase package also contains a very good, similarly-sized 120-page book on Brooks and his films. The films range from the amusing and generally successful (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, To Be or Not to Be) to the uneven (The Twelve Chairs, High Anxiety, History of the World: Part I) to the disappointingly insipid (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Spaceballs). The Blu-ray transfers (all 1.85:1 except the 2.35:1 Panavision ratios of Blazing Saddles and History of the World: Part I) are noticeable improvements over their DVD counterparts, but to differing degrees. Silent Movie and History of the World: Part I are marginally the best of the bunch, offering vibrant colour and superior sharpness. The least of the nine are Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety, the former mainly due to excessive dirt and scratches, the latter due to overall softness. DTS-HD Master audio tracks are offered for all films except Blazing Saddles which retains its older lossy DD5.1 surround track. Only Robin Hood: Men in Tights really stands out in terms of an immersive surround experience. The older the film, generally the lesser the use of the surrounds. Dialogue clarity is good on all. Each title is supported by a decent range of supplements which on the whole are pretty much a carry-over of those from the standard DVD Mel Brooks Colllection (including four audio commentaries by Brooks himself). Combined with the 120-page book, Brooks fans should be quite satisfied. Even though this set contains three titles previously released individually on Blu-ray, it is recommended if you can find a good price (likely, since three of its six previously unreleased nine titles have already been announced for individual Blu-ray release in May).

And so we come to our money savers for this column. They comprise Couples Retreat (from Universal), Paranormal Activity (from Paramount), Whiteout and The Invention of Lying (both from Warner Bros.), Amelia (from Fox), and Billy Jack (from Image).

Couples Retreat (Blu-ray Disc)

I started watching Couples Retreat with zero expectation - after all, Vince Vaughn starring in a film with a title that pretty much suggests unoriginality doesn't lead one to expect much - but I have to admit to a very slight degree of tolerance to the finished product. There's certainly nothing very original about the basic idea of several couples cavorting at a vacation resort, but the little wrinkle of having one of the couples there for relationship mending while the others expect to spend their time enjoying the food and water toys only to find that they too must undergo their own relationship analysis does add some interest. There are a few modest laughs, mainly involving sessions with several therapists, and the film does create an atmosphere of geniality that persists for a while before succumbing to the film's bloated run-time of almost two hours. Vince Vaughn's character is actually tolerable in this outing and his work along with that of Jason Bateman is the male half of the relationship-mending couple compensates somewhat for bland or forgettable efforts from the rest (such as Jon Favreau, and Jean Reno in an unfortunate choice of cameo role as a relationship guru). Universal's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is quite satisfactory, offering a crisp image with very good detail. It only falters during the island-based night-time sequences. The DTS-HD audio is effective in terms of dialogue clarity and directionality. Surround effects are modest but well done. The supplements include a U-Control PIP commentary from Vaughn and director Peter Billingsley that's rather humourless for a comedy film, a suite of short, by-the-numbers featurettes, and various deleted and/or extended scenes. Even though this release ended up being a cut above the zero star rating I expected going in, it's still a very mediocre effort. Vince Vaughn enthusiasts may be able to tolerate a rental, but all others should beware.

Paranormal Activity (Blu-ray Disc)

The only thing scary about Paranormal Activity is the vast number of people who have succumbed to Paramount's advertising campaign that has turned an amateur's home video effort into a major theatrical release. The film has the look of a staged home video; it's acted in a generally amateurish fashion; it lacks pacing and any sense of scariness; and the only suspense comes from whether the viewer can tolerate sitting through the whole hour and a half or will admit that he or she was taken in by hype and turn it off. Night-time scenes, which would normally generate unease in a horror or suspense film, here merely result in boredom. I honestly cannot understand the fascination with this film, but then neither was I impressed by The Blair Witch Project - another example of "found" footage supposedly masquerading as reality. Paramount's 1.78:1 Blu-ray image is an accurate recreation of the source material, which is to say, not much better than a good VHS-quality effort. The DTS HD Master audio has no distinguishing character beyond providing a basic reproduction of the original dialogue and secondary sound effects/music. Supplements include two versions of the film (two different endings).

Whiteout (Blu-ray Disc)

Whiteout wastes the opportunity afforded by its interesting location (the Antarctic) and that environment's unique obstacles to simple every-day living with a mystery that becomes predictable far too quickly. The set-up involving the crash of a Soviet cargo plane offers a promising beginning, but the main story in which Kate Beckinsale stars as a U.S. Marshal faced with a shocking murder offers little that's novel. The restrictions of the freezing environment should add complexity to the otherwise standard action sequences, but somehow the results are just clumsy-looking rather than envigorating. Tom Skerritt is effective in one of the lead roles, but the rest of the cast is virtually faceless and not just because their features are frequently encased in vast parkas. Warners' 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is not particularly striking. There's too much inconsistency in sharpness, contrast, and shadow detail. One would have expected the interiors to fare better than the snowy, windy exteriors, but that's not noticeably so. Some minor edge halos are also noticeable. The Dolby TrueHD track is perhaps the disc's strongest suit as it offers a solid surround experience, particularly when conveying the harsh exteriors. The two supplemental featurettes are standard making-of fare.

The Invention of Lying (Blu-ray Disc)

I'm a Ricky Gervais fan and after the success of Ghost Town, I was expecting much from The Invention of Lying. The idea of a world where the human race has never developed the ability to lie seemed to offer great promise, but alas it's promise that for the most part is unfulfilled. Gervais plays a man whose life seems to be slipping away (the rent is due, he has no money, his job is on the verge of being terminated, and he has no girlfriend) when he realizes that by lying he may be able to overcome all the obstacles in his way. Both co-written and co-directed by Gervais, The Invention of Lying offers Gervais a role that should be perfect for his at times deadpan and at others cringe-inducing approach to comedic situations. Indeed it does start out promisingly in that respect. But eventually Gervais maneuvers his character into someone who can converse with the "man in the sky" and at that point the film becomes a polemic about the ills of religion, setting itself on a humourless path with an unsatisfying ending. As if realizing the inadequacies of the film, Gervais adds in cameos for the likes of Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Bateman, and Tina Fey, but their appearances are of modest interest and can't save the day. Warners' 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer delivers the film faithfully, but since the film never looked particularly striking, neither does the Blu-ray. Sharpness is quite good for the most part and there's no evidence of excessive digital manipulation. The Dolby TrueHD audio delivers clear dialogue, with the minor surround activity limited to a few ambient effects and the music score. There are several featurettes about the production activities that while offering nothing startling gave me more chuckles than anything in the film itself.

Amelia (Blu-ray Disc)

I wanted to like Amelia and indeed Hilary Swank does a fine job portraying Amelia Earhart and the film itself looks very classy, but I constantly found myself wanting to know much more about the person and her background than the film ever offered. As structured, it is a series of flashbacks of her life as she pilots her plane on the fateful flight during which she disappeared. But the emphasis is almost exclusively on the last decade or so of her life and we never really get to know the real Amelia Earhart beyond seeing that she looked pretty good dressed up. Earhart obviously was a very ambitious and tenacious person, but how those characteristics developed and matured are never fully explained. Part of the problem is the emphasis on the Richard Gere character (her charismatic business partner and eventual husband), necessitated I understand by the need to cast someone of Gere's stature to ensure the original financing of the film. Amelia just makes Earhart's life look all too easy when in fact, she had to overcome tremendous obstacles in an era when being a pilot was an unusual occupation for a woman and subject to prejudice and pressure that was far from subtle. Fox's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation is top-notch, beautifully detailed and textured with a slight softness that seems to fit the 1930s era. Captured that era in colour as opposed to the black and white through which we're used to seeing it is always difficult, but Amelia succeeds very well. The DTS-HD Master audio is pleasant enough with a strong surround presence, but a little underwhelming considering what we might expect from an airplane-based drama. Dialogue is very clear and the music score is adequately inspiring if not exactly stirring.The best of the supplements is a 23-minute making-of effort that's a slight cut above average. There is also a nice suite of deleted scenes. I'd go so far as a rental on this given how good the disc looks. Perhaps some will find the content more to their liking than I.

Billy Jack (Blu-ray Disc)

Billy Jack was an Indie hit back at the time of its original release in 1971 particularly with young people who seemed drawn to its make-love-not-war message (superficial only, for what people really wanted to see was Billy kick butt), but time has dulled its impact and its acting difficulties and fake gore are even more revealed for all to see. The first half of the film (about a Native American Vietnam War hero who acts as protector to young hippie students at a "freedom school" located on a Cherokee reservation) holds interest still, but the rest is drawn out and compromised by the performances by much of the supporting cast. But if we see those deficiencies with more clarity now, it's because we finally have a home video presentation that makes the film look the best it probably ever has. A thorough restoration has resulted in an Image Blu-ray presentation that's very fine. The image is very clean and colours are quite vibrant with some grain apparent throughout. Skin tones do waver a bit, looking a little orange at times, but that's about the only quibble I have given the film's modest original budget. The DTS-HD Master audio is quite presentable, with some decent ambient surround effects. Sound effects associated with the action sequences are less persuasive. The best of the supplements is a brace of audio commentaries, both with star Tom Laughlin, that are quite informative if somewhat repetitive.

Barrie Maxwell

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