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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)

We actually got lucky last year with two romantic comedies that offered enthusiastic and likeable portrayals and familiar situations that at least provided a few fresh angles. One succeeded admirably while the other deserves marks for a good if uneven try. The films in question are respectively Paramount's Morning Glory and Fox's Love & Other Drugs.

Morning Glory (Blu-ray Disc)Love & Other Drugs (Blu-ray Disc)

Morning Glory is a total delight throughout because its cast appears to be really enjoying their roles and the script allows each of the main characters to shine both alone and in concert with the others. Rachel McAdams stars as Becky, a TV show producer who finally gets her big break - the opportunity to resurrect a failing morning show in New York. Her task is not an easy one, given the self-centred and disparate show regulars she has to deal with. Chief among them is the current show anchor Colleen nicely played by Diane Keaton who agrees to go along with Becky's rather far-out ideas, but balks at the prospect of new co-anchor Mike (Harrison Ford). Mind you getting Mike himself to cooperate is difficult since he views himself as a pure newsman and believes morning shows are about everything but news. Harrison Ford has tried comedy before to rather mixed results, but he seems very comfortable here and comes off as well in a comedy as he has since the days of Working Girl over 20 years ago. Rachel McAdams is the heart of the film and she provides a warm and energetic performance that makes even the most familiar plot elements seem fresh and engaging. The film is well paced at a length of 1¾ hours. It offers no serious insights or pretensions, setting out merely to entertain in a lightly comedic, unself-conscious manner and succeeds admirably. Paramount's 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer is seriously good - offering a sharp, very nicely detailed image that has a richly film-like feel throughout. All the positives that go along with that - light grain, natural colour, excellent contrast - and none of the negatives - digital smoothing, edge effects - are present. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track offers clear dialogue and a muted ambience that captures the big city setting effectively. The supplements consist of an audio commentary by director Roger Mitchell and writer Aline Brosh McKenna, and a deleted scene. Love & Other Drugs has a running time of only 5 minutes more, but seems 15-20 minutes longer. That's because it loses its momentum at about the 2/3 mark, slipping into a dramatic arc that compromises the earlier breezy material. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a Viagra salesman for Pfizer, who falls hard for the free-spirited Maggie (Anne Hathaway) who's suffered from stage one Parkinson's disease. Everything goes well for the pair and the film until Jamie has to attend a convention in Chicago. Maggie goes along, but sits in on a seminar for Parkinson's sufferers that hits both her and eventually Jamie hard, throwing their relationship into serious doubt. The shift in tone is unexpected; the film's and the audience's moods are altered; and though the two stars tackle the more somber tone forthrightly, the upbeat ending that inevitably comes now seems artificial rather than the naturally happy outcome that we would otherwise be quite content to see. Despite this lapse, the work of Gyllenhaal and Hathaway is so good and natural (both clothed and unclothed) throughout that the film is worth a visit. On the supporting side, look for some nice though too brief work by George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as Jamie's parents. The less said about Josh Gad's obnoxious efforts as Jamie's brother the better, though. Fox's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer offers pretty much the same high quality as that of Morning Glory's, both video and audio. It's perhaps just a tick behind on the video side due to a few soft-looking shots. Both films offer a number of other sound tracks (including DD5.1 French and Spanish ones) and subtitles including English, French, and Spanish among others. Love & Other Drugs offers some deleted scenes, four featurettes (in HD), and the theatrical trailer as supplements. Morning Glory is warmly recommended for purchase while Love & Other Drugs is suggested as a rental.

The Last Exorcism is presented in the style of a documentary in which a slick-talking evangelist (Reverend Cotton Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian) is being profiled.

The Last Exorcism (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The Last Exorcism (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

The centrepiece of the filming is to be one final exorcism that he is going to perform, his having had a crisis of faith and being now willing to reveal some of the trickery that goes on behind his so-called exorcisms. Cotton and the camera crew travel to Louisiana where they are confronted with a situation involving a sweet-looking girl, her wild-eyed father, and strange brother - one that proves to be far more evil than the routine situation they had expected. The film starts off rather promisingly with an engaging performance from Fabian, but eventually degenerates in style and content to a pastiche of other horror films such as The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, Children of the Corn, and so on. Its first misstep is to mention The Exorcist film, and with that in mind, we start to draw comparisons much to the detriment of The Last Exorcist. Its second half is a litany of cheap scares, head-turnings, vomit, blood, and the usual inexplicably bad decisions by the main characters. Toss in an incredibly bad ending and annoyingly excessive use of shaky hand-held camera work that some directors feel compelled to use in the guise of presenting reality and you've got a product whose home video incarnation provides an excellent opportunity to save money. Alliance Canada's 1.78:1 Blu-ray presentation is hit and miss. Daytime sequences look nicely rendered with a degree of depth and good facial and texture detail, but night-time shots look murky at times. Colour intensity is similarly afflicted. A 7.1 DTS-HD Master audio track graces the disc and is underutilized particularly in terms of surround activity. LFE are isolated and dialogue directionality even more so. A French sound track and English and Spanish subtitles are provided. The supplement package seems like overkill, providing three audio commentaries, a making-of featurette, audition footage for the main cast members, and a teaser and theatrical trailer. A DVD copy of the film is included. Alliance's release duplicates that of Lionsgate in the U.S..

I recognize Amarcord's reputation as one of Federico Fellini's more accessible films, but it doesn't work for me.

Amarcord (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

It's a film that attempts to satirize the director's youth by presenting it as a carnival-like depiction of the people and events of a provincial Italian seaside town during the fascist period. There is an apt comparison to be made with Fellini's I Vitelloni, a film he made 20 years earlier in 1953. The town depicted there and the people in it and events that affect them seem real. There is a continuity to the story that entrances. In Amarcord, characters are too often mere caricatures, and events, despite being presented as those occurring as the seasons of one year pass, feel disjointed and contrived more for their effect as spectacle than as parts of a narrative flow. It's a film that is less than the sum of its parts, amusing though some of those parts may be depending upon your reaction to Fellini's obsessions with mis-shapen people, bodily functions, and women's rear ends and breasts. Despite the film's shortcomings, there are few to worry about in Criterion's Blu-ray presentation of it. The 1.85:1 transfer is an improvement over the 2006 2-disc DVD presentation, offering a clearer, sharper image and better consistency of colour. Colours do appear accurate though muted in vibrancy. There is ample grain in evidence, and some edge effects are apparent at times. The LPCM mono sound is in good shape, with clear dialogue unaffected by hiss or crackle. Nino Rota's engaging nostalgia-inducing score is well conveyed. English sub-titling is good and an English dubbed sound track is also included. The supplement package is an extensive one, duplicating what was provided on the 2006 DVD release though all now in HD (though not all progressive). The key items are a very good documentary on Amarcord featuring Fellini and an audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Frank Burke. Highly recommended for Amarcord fans. Others new to the film should try a rental first.

Network is the 1976 television satire that merely continues to improve with age. With a devastating skewering of the ratings obsession that at times paralyzes TV creativity courtesy of a wonderful Paddy Chayefsky script and a powerful cast that delivers top-notch performances right across the board, the film is one of those experiences that excites no matter how many times you've seen.

Network (Blu-ray Disc)

Peter Finch's Oscar-winning performance as the newsman who announces that he's going to kill himself on air is the most recognizable one ("I'm mad as hell, and…") and Faye Dunaway also scored an Oscar, but for my money it's William Holden who deserves the acting honours with a thoughtfully powerful take on the fired news department head who takes up with the woman (Dunaway) who effectively forced him out. Holden is an actor whose body of work over some 40 years looks better and better all the time. Network has already appeared on DVD three times (an early edition from MGM, a reissue under the Warner Bros. label, and a 2005 2-disc special edition from Warners). Now we have Warners' 35th anniversary Blu-ray release, looking crisper and offering better detail than the last DVD edition. There's a modest feeling of dimensionality, but best of all the film's noticeable grain character has been retained while reducing the murky nature of many of the scenes. The DTS-HD lossless mono track is very effective in delivering the dialogue-driven film with clarity and some forcefulness. French and Spanish mono tracks and English, French, and Spanish subtitling is provided. The supplements (duplicating those on the 2-disc DVD) begin with a thorough audio commentary by director Sidney Lumet who speaks continuously throughout the film and delivers a vast array of information on all aspects of the production. Lumet has an engaging speaking style that enhances the commentary experience. The most impressive supplement is a six-part making-of documentary that lasts almost an hour and a half in length. Individual sections focus on writer Paddy Chayefsky, the film's casting, the sequence in which the Peter Finch character speaks his famous line ("I'm mad as hell…"), the film's rehearsal process, camera and lighting issues, and reflections from Walter Cronkite. Other supplements include a fine hour-long edition of "Private Screenings" in which Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne interviews Lumet, a vintage interview of Chayefsky on Dinah Shore's TV show, and the original theatrical trailer. Very highly recommended.

I must admit that I started to watch Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with some trepidation. Returning to the same ground of a highly successful film some 20 years later often smacks of desperation on the part of a filmmaker or an actor intent on recapturing past glory.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Blu-ray Disc)

In this case it's to some extent both - director Oliver Stone and actor Michael Douglas. Fortunately, the sequel has a rather good script that captures the market fallout of the recent economic upheavals very well, from both a company and individual point of view. Gordon Gekko (Douglas) is out of prison and seeking a way back into the action he used to command. He finds a way in via young trader Jake (Shia LeBoeuf) enamored of the potential of alternate energy sources and Jake's fiancé who happens to be Gekko's estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Douglas is in good form as Gekko and there's some solid support from Josh Brolin as a Wall Street manipulator. LeBeouf and Mulligan are both less persuasive in their roles and this diminishes the impact of the Gekko family feel-good aspects of the story. The latter, however, are easily outweighed by the film's portrayal of the Wall Street environment and the financial machinations behind market downturns and attempts to manage their results. The result is a thoughtful piece of entertainment on balance (plus a nice opportunity to see 95-year-old Eli Wallach still very effectively in action). Fox's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation is an impressive complement. Colour fidelity is noticeably good, and image depth and detail are excellent in both day and night sequences. The absence of any significant evidence of digital manipulation adds to the very film-like experience. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track focuses on delivering the strongly centre-rooted dialogue with strength and clarity. Surround activity is confined to muted ambient effects that create some realistic settings, particularly in the busy trading rooms. French, Spanish, and Portuguese tracks are included as is subtitling in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The supplements are highlighted by a typically packed, informative, and insightful audio commentary by Oliver Stone. There are also a roundtable discussion between Stone and the main cast members, a 5-part making-of documentary (50 minutes), deleted scenes (30 minutes with optional commentary from Stone), and the theatrical trailer (all in HD). Recommended.

So, does the title of the film The Fighter refer to Micky Ward, a stepping stone for other fighters who finally gets the shot he's always wanted, or to his brother Dicky who had his shot and is now addicted to crack, but still thinks that a comeback is possible at age 40?

The Fighter (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The Fighter (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

The answer could be either, but it doesn't really make any difference which of the two it is. Both men are fighters both in the ring and out, struggling with an oppressive family in Mickey's case or with drugs in Dicky's. The Fighter has the same heart as that of another fine boxing film, Rocky, but a more realistic and intense story to bear that heart. The film is superbly acted, particularly by Christian Bale as Dicky in a thoroughly entrancing performance, stylistically far removed from most of Bale's other work and with almost the same transformative physical adaptation to a role that Bale displayed in The Machinist. The effort merited the Oscar that Bale received, though it could just as easily been as Best Actor rather than Best Supporting Actor given the amount of screen time. Mark Wahlberg is top billed as Micky and he too delivers an engaging effort in trying to define a man struggling to come to grips with a suffocating family and a sibling relationship with Dicky that has as many negatives as positives. He's physically right for the role too, having devoted himself to a regular workout regime over four years leading up to filming. Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky's controlling mother and Amy Adams as Micky's girlfriend are both very well cast, while the actors who make up Micky's strange, shrieking sisters are an odd lot indeed. Director David O. Russell has taken a real-life story with many familiar boxing elements and managed to make the whole seem fresh, partly because it's a story about a family that has to be seen to be believed. Certainly one of the best films of 2010. Alliance Canada's 2.35:1 Blu-ray release (available from Paramount in the U.S.) is excellent. The level of image detail evident is uniformly impressive from facial features to costume textures to the interior and exterior locations of the Lowell, Massachusetts setting. Light grain is evident throughout and evidence of digital manipulation is minimal. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is equally impressive. It excels during the fight scenes with a thoroughly immersive experience that makes you feel you're right in the crowd watching the fight. Generally the film's other elements - dialogue, street noises, pop music soundtrack - are equally well handled in terms of dynamicism and balance. A French DD5.1 track and English and French subtitles are included. The disc has a nice suite of extras including a wide-ranging audio commentary by the director, a good making-of documentary (30 minutes), a short featurette in which the real-life brothers discuss their family's boxing background, about a quarter hour of deleted scenes with optional director commentary, and the theatrical trailer (all of the latter four in HD). A DVD copy of the film is included on a separate disc. Highly recommended.

Conviction is an inspirational true story based on the pursuit of righting a wrong caused by a legal system gone astray.

Conviction (Blu-ray Disc)

The story is rooted in family, specifically two close siblings, Betty Anne and Kenny Waters, whose relationship is fractured when Kenny is accused, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit. Betty Anne vows to prove her brother's innocence and have his conviction overturned. Conviction is basically about her struggle to do so including going to law school and becoming a lawyer, and pursuing the forensic evidence that she is convinced will aid her case. The success of any such inspirational film as this is very much dependent on how convincing the actors are, or in this case how much conviction they demonstrate. Fortunately both Hilary Swank as Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell as Kenny are up to the task. Swank is particularly good, delivering her best performance in several years. Rockwell is effective although the Kenny he gives us is not a particularly warm or likable guy. One of the film's best performances is given by Melissa Leo as an over-zealous police officer who allows her desire for a conviction to over-ride proper due process. Overall the film is an engrossing experience, but not one likely to demand repeated viewings. Fox's 1.85:1 Blu-ray presentation looks quite good. Detail is very pleasing, but overall sharpness is degraded by a few soft sequences. Colours appear accurate with flesh tones looking very impressive. Modest grain is evident throughout and there's no evidence of untoward digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is unremarkable. Dialogue is crisp and strong, nicely centred with little directionality. Surround activity is very limited. French and Spanish DD5.1 tracks are provided as well as English and Spanish subtitling. The only supplement is a short discussion between director Tony Goldwyn and the real Betty Anne Waters. Recommended as a rental.

Barrie Maxwell

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