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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got 17 reviews for you: Conviction, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Love & Other Drugs, and Unstoppable (from Fox); Morning Glory (from Paramount); Get Low (from Sony); Network and Hereafter (from Warner Bros.); Glorious 39 and Fair Game (from Entertainment One); The Mikado, and Amarcord (from Criterion); Mona Lisa, Pleasantville, The Last Exorcism, and The Fighter (from Alliance Canada); and Uncle Buck (from Universal).

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

What I've Looked At Recently

The title of Glorious 39, a film now out on Blu-ray from Entertainment One, refers to the generally marvelous weather that characterized summer in England as the war in Europe approached in 1939.

Glorious 39 (Blu-ray Disc)

As one gets into the film, however, the title takes on added significance as it becomes clear that although the weather may have been glorious, there was not a glorious unanimity of purpose among all the British people towards the onrushing conflict with Hitler's Germany. The Keyes family headed by the very influential but soft-spoken Conservative Party member Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy) and his quiet, gardening-obsessed wife (Jenny Agutter) is one of historic privilege. The couple has two children of their own (played by Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple) and a third, Anna, the eldest, who was adopted (Romola Garai). The story that Glorious 39 weaves about this family is a complex one of events that seem to revolve around Anna, including the family's involvement with a shadowy government functionary (Jeremy Northam) and the discovery of a trove of 78-rpm records that contain, rather than the music listed on the labels, secret recordings of conversations related to pro- and anti-Hitler appeasement advocates. As Anna delves more deeply in these events and struggles to understand her family's possible role in them, she finds herself increasingly isolated by the rest of the family and ultimately held as their prisoner. The film is a low-key thriller with a surrealistic air, particularly in regard to real historic events that are presented in an exaggerated, almost other-worldly fashion. At 133 minutes in length, the film plays itself out in leisurely fashion, but maintains interest throughout due to the marvelous evocation of the times and a British cast that hasn't a weak link in it. Including those mentioned above, the film offers fine work by Julie Christie, Christopher Lee, David Tennant, Corin Redgrave, and Hugh Bonneville. Stephen Poliakoff directs with assurance and without artifice from his own script - one that sports a satisfying modern-day framing sequence that accentuates the intriguing and nicely-building drama within. Entertainment One's Blu-ray release of the BBC Films production delivers overall a very good 2.35:1 image that is at its best in the numerous outdoor location sequences. Colour fidelity is impressive and saturation is satisfying. Close-ups also look very nice with fine detail well captured and skin tones and textures looking very accurate. The transfer is not completely without problems, however, as some of the night-time and more-dimly lit sequences falter in terms of sharpness and clarity. The 5.1 DTS-HD sound offers strong precise dialogue with only casual use of the surrounds to accentuate suspenseful sequences. Adrian Johnston's score complements the dreamlike nature of much of the film very effectively and is well balanced with the dialogue. English subtitling is provided. The supplements consist of a short featurette on the set-up of one of the scenes, the trailer, and almost an hour's worth of short interviews/sound bites from a large selection of the cast members and the director. Recommended.

Fair Game is an effective and engrossing recounting of the events involved in the public outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson by the Bush administration in response to her husband Joe Wilson's editorial article claiming that the White House falsified intelligence used to justify the Iraq War.

Fair Game (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Fair Game (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Based on books by both Wilsons, the film gives a fairly balanced accounting of both sides, but clearly favours that of the Wilsons which is only fair as subsequent investigations clearly showed how shamefully they were treated. The first half of the film is a well-structured inter-cutting of Valerie Wilson's intelligence work in the Middle East with the Washington-based analysis and application of such intelligence. The second half is a more emotional recounting of the impacts of Valerie's outing on her and her family life. The film's overall dramatization of an alarming and shameful episode of the Bush administration makes one very angry to know how callously and ultimately unpatriotically political power can be wielded. But then that's always one possible outcome when little men (or women) are given positions of responsibility well beyond their capabilities. As a political thriller, Fair Game succeeds admirably, particularly with the added luster of its basis in fact. The Wilsons are very well portrayed by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn and the array of administration figures is well cast with David Andrews's lizard-like portrayal of the Vice Presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby notably standing out. Entertainment One Canada's 2.40:1 Blu-ray is pretty much a direct port of the Summit release in the U.S. and that means we get a high grade image that captures the film's muted look quite accurately. Facial and clothing detail is well rendered and overall contrast is great with some very deep blacks apparent. There's no evidence of untoward digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS HD Master audio track is equally impressive with all channels delivering noticeable heft when called on, notably during some of the Iraq sequences. Dialogue is well balanced with sound effects and music and always easy to understand. English and Spanish subtitling are provided. The disc is light on supplements, but the one that's present is a very good one. It's an audio commentary by the real Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson, and it's fascinating to hear their comments on both the film, their characterizations by the actors, and the events portrayed. It starts off a little slowly but ramps up as the Wilsons become increasingly engaged. Recommended.

After 2009's Invictus, Clint Eastwood returned to form with this past year's Hereafter - a very engrossing dissection of the possibility of an afterlife.

Hereafter (Blu-ray Disc)

Matt Damon, working with Eastwood for a second straight time, stars as a blue-collar American named George who has a unique gift of being able to connect to the afterlife. For him it's a curse that affects his personal relationships and after dabbling in trying to make a living from it, he attempts to withdraw entirely from the field. George's life, however, will intersect with a French journalist trying to recover from a near-death experience and a young English boy whose twin brother was killed in a traffic accident. For each of the three, the possibility of an afterlife is a question to which they seek answers each in different ways, and the film satisfying inter-cuts the three stories. It of course provides no firm answers but does offer hope, in the process delivering a thought-provoking story that engrosses throughout. The film is shot in Eastwood's normal economical fashion, making fine use of its three different locations and real recent events. One of them involves the 2004 Thai tsunami that is recreated in frighteningly convincing fashion while the London sequences factor in the 2005 bombings. As has become common, Eastwood also contributes a meditative score that complements the story nicely. The acting from the principals - Matt Damon, Cecile de France, and Frankie and George McLaren as the twins - is uniformly good. The 2.40:1 Blu-ray release from Warner Bros. is impressive. It's difficult to single out one particular aspect; there's just a real film-like feel to the image - one that conveys colours, shadows, and detail in a realistic fashion throughout. There's no sign of digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is equally impressive, delivering the scenes of the tsunami or the bombings with startling presence and immersion while handling the many dialogue-driven ones with clarity and balance. The English soundtrack includes dialogue spoken in French for much of the French journalist segment of the film. For that, English subtitling is provided. Unfortunately it has been placed half in and half outside the frame so that Constant Image Height setups are compromised. Otherwise, the disc also contains a DD5.1 French soundtrack and subtitling in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The supplements are twofold. One consists of nine featurettes (about hour total) available individually or as part of an In-Movie experience. All involve Eastwood's participation as various aspects of the production are addressed in an informative manner. The other supplement is the 129-minute full-length version of Richard Schickel's look at the life and films of Clint Eastwood entitled The Eastwood Factor. Highly recommended.

It was sure a pleasure to see one of John Candy's best comedies, Uncle Buck, announced for Blu-ray release from Universal.

Uncle Buck (Blu-ray Disc)

The super-sized Candy was one of the most beloved of comedians who died far too young at age 43 almost two decades ago. After great success with Canada's SCTV, he fashioned a fine film career with titles such as Summer Rental, Stripes, Armed and Dangerous, Spaceballs, Trains Planes and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, Cool Runnings, and of course Uncle Buck. Many of his films were collaborations with John Hughes, including the latter. In it he plays the single, seemingly unemployed, slob Buck Russell who agrees to babysit his nephew and two nieces when their parents are called away on a family emergency. Buck's approach to meal preparation and other household tasks is a great source of amusement to his two younger charges (Macauley Culkin and Gaby Hoffmannn), but rebellious teenage niece Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) is more of a challenge. Amy Madigan also appears as Buck's long-suffering girlfriend, Chanice. The entire cast is quite good, but the film is clearly Candy's as he barges through his short stay with his young relatives, chomping on a cigar (the first step in his 5-month program to quit smoking) and driving an oil-burning, back-firing, floating sofa of a car. Aside from the mere presence of Candy, the film works because Buck is not just played as a slapstick character, but also as one with a real sense of responsibility for his charges particularly in his attempts to reign in Tia. The film works its way to a satisfying conclusion, both in the positive influence that Buck has on the family situation, but also in the ambivalent manner in which his relationship with Chanice is left. It's a great film by which to remember John Candy. Universal's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer could have done better by the film, but it's a passable effort. Some sequences are very sharp and nicely detailed, but others particularly at night-time lose definition. Skin tones are somewhat inconsistent too. The source material is fairly clean and exhibits no excessive digital manipulation. Despite Universal trumpeting "purest digital sound available" on the back of the case, all we get is a DTS lossy stereo mix that manages decent dialogue but nothing else. English SDH sub-titles are provided. There are no supplements. Shame on Universal for not doing better by both John Candy and Uncle Buck.

I was happy for the opportunity to return to 1998's Pleasantville for the first time since its DVD release 10 years ago.

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

It's a thoughtful movie that recreates the 1950s TV sitcom in the form of a fictional such program called Pleasantville - a black and white town la Leave to Beaver and Father Knows Best where everything that happens is expected and pleasant. Moms run the house and dads come home to dinner on the table and contented kids around it. David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are 1990s high school age siblings who find themselves transported back in time and space to Pleasantville after a strange TV repairman gives David a replacement TV remote. They take on the personas of Bud and Mary Sue, the two children of Pleasantville's central TV dad and mom, George and Betty Parker (William H. Macy and Joan Allen), but their presence in the town starts to have profound implications. David is happy to play along as Bud, but Jennifer is quickly bored with being Mary Sue and she introduces sexual knowledge that rouses emotions both good and bad among Pleasantville's youth with the result that their images change from black and white to full colour. The emotional revolution begins to spread to the adults, particularly the mild-mannered soda shop operator (Jeff Daniels) who becomes enamored of painting and Betty Parker who finds herself no longer satisfied by her restrictive motherly role. Soon the once pleasant town is fractured by confrontations between the black and whites and the coloureds. Pleasantville is very much a Gray Ross creation as he wrote, produced and directed, presenting the film as basically a parable on the story of the Garden of Eden and the introduction of temptation. It's an ambitious project that satisfies on all counts. The acting is uniformly excellent throughout with particular pleasure to be found in Joan Allen's nuanced transformation. In addition to the principals, look for solid work from J.T Walsh as the town's mayor in what proved to be his last film. The effective introduction of colour into a monochrome world was done by shooting in colour originally, scanning the film digitally at 2K, and then removing colour frame by frame as needing by the progression of the story. Alliance Canada has released the film on Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 image that is very pleasing indeed. Monochrome sequences offer a nicely graduated gray scale with very good contrast and blacks that are acceptably deep. When colour does start to be introduced into the monochrome world, those colours look vibrant whether primaries or secondaries. Overall, the image looks quite clean and modest grain is evident virtually throughout. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track provides clear, crisp dialogue that's strongly centred with only occasional directionality. Surround action is limited to some sports-oriented sequences and a few involving crowds, but is effective on those few instances. Randy Newman's pleasing score is nicely highlighted. Spanish and Portuguese tracks and English, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles (among others) are included. The Blu-ray ports over the same extras from the previous New Line DVD: audio commentary by Gary Ross, isolated score track with commentary by Randy Newman, a half-hour making-of documentary called The Art of Pleasantville, Fiona Apple performing an "Across the Universe" music video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and the theatrical trailer (none of the latter three in HD). Recommended. The Blu-ray is available in the U.S. from New Line (via Warner Bros.).

"The Mikado" is usually considered the most successful of the Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations - 14 comic operas that the pair produced between 1871 and 1896.

The Mikado (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

The stories were mainly fashioned as absurdist commentaries on British life and politics, though sometimes with exotic settings such as Japan, the one used in "The Mikado". In 1939 the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed and promoted the Gilbert & Sullivan works for over a century, for the first and only time granted filming rights to "The Mikado". The result was a transatlantic effort that utilized American director Victor Schertzinger and singer Kenny Baker along with an otherwise British cast and crew and filming at Pinewood Studios outside London. Despite some pruning and rearrangement of the story and musical numbers, the flavour of the source material does shine through in this 1939 filmic The Mikado. There is no effort to open up the material as many film versions of stage plays do, rather there seems to have been a conscious effort to convey a theatrical feel to the presentation a decision that works to the absurdist material's favour. The decision to employ Technicolor turns out to be a crucial one as it allows the film to highlight the fantastic costumes and some exceptional production design by Marcel Vertes. Criterion has brought the film to Blu-ray in a very appealing full frame transfer (in accord with the original theatrical aspect ratio). Working from a 35mm interpositive as source material, the two most obvious characteristics of the transfer are the colour fidelity and the cleanliness. The colours are not as vivid as the most saturated Technicolor images, but they are bright and capture the rich variety and juxtaposition of colour tones in costuming, scenery, and skin-tones very well. There is modest grain apparent throughout. The only mis-step of consequence is some inconsistency in sharpness. The LPCM uncompressed mono sound conveys dialogue and music quite well, but some minor hiss and crackle can still be heard in the background. English SDH subtitling is provided. Criterion has managed to assembly quite a good suite of supplements, with all visual ones being in HD. Included are video interviews with director Mike Leigh (whose film Topsy Turvy dealt with the original genesis of "The Mikado") and with Gilbert & Sullivan scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr. There is also a deleted song sequence for "I've Got a Little List", four NBC Radio audio excerpts for musical numbers from two modernized versions of "The Mikado" staged on Broadway in 1939, and an 18-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien. An easy recommendation for Gilbert & Sullivan fans. Others may wish to try a rental first.

Any film that has trains in it can't be all bad, and if it's 2010's Unstoppable, it's quite entertaining indeed. The film, directed by Tony Scott, has a simple premise.

Unstoppable (Blu-ray Disc)

A runaway train transporting deadly toxic chemicals is headed for Scranton, Pennsylvania where a sharp bend in the track is almost certain to cause a derailment in a densely-populated area. Only two men can stop it - a veteran engineer (Denzel Washington) and a young conductor (Chris Pine) who are manning another train on the same line. There's nothing particularly novel in the film, but it's very well executed by Scott who builds suspense effectively and orchestrates some tense action sequences. (But what's with the excessive and unnecessary camera movement?) Both Washington and Pine are likeable in their roles even if the combination of grizzled, no-nonsense veteran and fresh-faced, has-to-prove-himself newcomer is as old as the hills. The trains are filmed lovingly and there's some great footage of turntables, railroad yards, and level-crossing train passages to go with plenty of shots of trains roaring along under full throttle. The story was inspired by real events although if some of the decision-making depicted in the film is at all indicative of what really happened, one wonders why there aren't more train accidents. Fox has brought Unstoppable to Blu-ray with an impressive 2.40:1 image that's crisp and clean. Image detail is very good both in fore- and background. Colour fidelity appears accurate with the Pennsylvania countryside looking quite lush and verdant. Mild grain is evident while evidence of digital manipulation is minimal. Not surprisingly, the disc excels in its 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track. When you've got trains rumbling across the screen, you've got the perfect reason for aggressive sound and this mix offers it in spades. A totally immersive and LFE-laden experience that is easily one of the best of its kind. French, Spanish, and Portuguese DD5.1 tracks are provided as are subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The supplement package is nicely comprehensive too. The main items are two audio commentaries (one with Tony Scott alone and a second with Scott and writer Mark Bomback discussing all the aspects of film-making that shape the final script) and a half-hour making-of featurette that's a cut above the usual back-slapping EPK effort. Also included are three shorter featurettes focusing on specific aspects of the production and the original theatrical trailer. This is the sort of film that's bread and butter to video rental places. For train enthusiasts, it's an easy purchase recommend.

Get Low took over ten years to get made as the filmmakers struggled with studio support and financing, but I'm sure glad they persevered because the result is an engaging film that offers something a little different.

Get Low (Blu-ray Disc)

The film title refers to its main character's expression for being buried. That main character, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), feels that his time is near and decides that he'd like to have a living funeral party for himself before he actually dies. He enlists the help of local undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and assistant Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black) to make it happen. Felix, who has lived alone in the Tennessee backwoods for over 40 years, wants to have people invited to the funeral party who will tell their stories about him. His hope is that the process will help him to deal with secrets in his past life including one that involves old flame (and recent widow) Mattie (Sissy Spacek). For the most part, Get Low is a low-key film that lovingly invokes its small-town, Depression-era setting. It's a character study that evokes real people and provides a satisfying explanation of Felix's past. Robert Duvall delivers an intriguing and affecting performance of the haunted Felix character and Bill Murray continues his string of fine performances. The film stays long in the memory and will bear repeated viewings. Sony's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is superb. With Georgia standing in for Tennessee, exterior colour fidelity and detail is exemplary. The pristine image delivers accurate skin tones, beautifully textured costuming, and excellent contrast throughout highlighted by very deep blacks. The video is matched by the 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track which deliveres uniformly clear dialogue well balanced with the sound effects of the occasional more active scenes. The evocative score by Jan Kaczmarek is very nicely conveyed. A nice package of extras includes five short featurettes (mainly addressing different aspects of the production) and the theatrical trailer (all in HD). There is also a very informative and entertaining audio commentary, with director Aaron Schneider, producer Dean Zanuck, and actors Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek all contributing. Highly recommended.

The one thing that really sticks in one's mind and remains long after the film is over is the impact of Bob Hoskins' work in 1986's Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Mona Lisa (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Yes, the film's dark British atmosphere and its marvelous depiction of the seamy sex trade is typically that of director and co-writer Neil Jordan, and we get nice performances by Michael Caine as an oily criminal kingpin and a reined-in Robbie Coltrane as a quirky friend of Hoskins'character. It's, however, Hoskins' working class hood, George, whose uncultured ways are tamed by the exotic and cunning call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) and who eventually falls in love with her that brushes all else aside. George, just out of jail after taking a fall for the Caine character, has virtually none of the social graces, dresses as though colour blind, and is prone to violent fits of temper, yet there's a sensitivity there, apparent in his increasing concern for Simone's welfare. He's a character that we come to care about very much despite his dodgy past and uncertain future. Hoskins' stolid demeanor and everyman look are perfectly suited to George and he makes the most of that advantage. Image released the film on Blu-ray last year and now Alliance Canada has made it available north of the border. The releases are identical. The 1.85:1 Blu-ray image only occasionally looks like HD. Some scenes are very crisp and nicely detailed, but most of the time everything looks somewhat soft and little better than standard DVD. Dark interior and night-time scenes are even rather murky at times. Colours fare pretty well in terms of fidelity throughout, although skin tones seem a little over heated. The film's 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is a little disappointing as it seems to be focused across the fronts virtually exclusively. An immersive experuience is thus lacking, although what we do get is at least well balanced with some front directionality. A French mono track and English SDH subtitling are also provided. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended as a rental.

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