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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

This latest edition of High Definition Matters offers up 10 Blu-ray reviews: from Criterion - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The 400 Blows, The Last Metro; from Fox - Slumdog Millionaire, Australia; from Paramount - Primal Fear, Major League; from Sony - Ghosts of Mars, Rachel Getting Married; and from Universal - Frost/Nixon.

I also offer some capsule comments on 7 other Blu-ray releases: Valkyrie (MGM), Defiance and A Mighty Heart (Paramount); Body of Lies (WB); The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) and Taken (both Fox); and The Thirteenth Floor (Sony).

The Blu-ray release schedule has also been updated as of May 26th.

I hope you enjoy this latest edition and as always, I welcome your comments.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Blu-ray Disc)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion)

After watching director David Fincher's latest film at the theatre, I could sense the audience taking a collective deep breath, almost as though the film had made it forget to breathe as the mesmerizing tale which straddles the 20th century unfolded. The film is impossible to absorb fully on a first viewing, so rich and detailed is the experience it conveys. It is easily Fincher's most compelling and completely satisfying film to date.

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it tells the engrossing tale of a man (Brad Pitt) born in New Orleans who ages backwards, the narrative being framed by scenes of a dying woman who conveys the story to her daughter. Cate Blanchett co-stars with Pitt, playing a young woman whose life intersects with that of Button several times before the two become an couple whose future together eventually becomes impossible as Button becomes younger.

Blanchett and particularly Pitt invest both characters with considerable emotion so that we come to care deeply about what happens to them both. The mellow narration provided by Pitt's character is soothing and maintains our connection with their world even as the story shifts in time and space. Almost two decades in its planning, filming was deemed possible only recently with the advent of more sophisticated digital techniques. The latter, in addition to more standard make-up applications, have been applied virtually seamlessly on the screen such that the years fall away in Pitt's characterization of the increasingly youthful Button so realistically that one's immersion in the story is never jeopardized. The music score by Alexandre Desplat is a superb complement to the film, never intrusive yet always subtly apparent and perfectly complementing the film's lyrical narrative. Along with Revolutionary Road, this is one of 2008's two best films.

The film comes to us on Blu-ray via Criterion by arrangement with Paramount. The resulting package will be a candidate for best Blu-ray release of the year. The 2.40:1 image is demonstration quality in its clarity and colour fidelity, capturing the sepia-like images of Button's early years as accurately as it does the more conventionally bright and sharp images of the later ones. The film was mainly shot in the digital domain so that the lack of any grain is appropriate. There is no evidence whatsoever of any DNR application. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally compelling, offering a rich environment of ambient surround effects occasionally punctuated by more extensive directional effects and the odd LFE application. Dialogue is very clear. The supplement package is every bit the measure of the film itself, providing an impressively-detailed audio commentary by Fincher and then an exhaustive 3-hour-plus multi-part documentary by David Prior on all aspects of the production from initial philosophy to the film's premiere. Interviews with Pitt and Blanchett, various galleries, and an essay by film critic Kent Jones round out the 2-disc set. Very highly recommended.

Slumdog Millionaire (Blu-ray Disc)

Slumdog Millionaire (Fox)

Last year's Best Picture Oscar winner was one that seemed to gather momentum by word of mouth until its victory became inevitable, removing almost all sense of drama in that aspect of the annual Oscar show. The Danny Boyle directed film is certainly an entertaining one with a feel-good story, an Indian setting that adds an intriguing aspect to the production, and a suite of engaging performances, but its impact as a whole does not quite reflect the sum of its parts.

The story - that of a young Indian who manages to get one question away from winning the 20M Rupee jackpot on Who Wants to be a Millionaire because the questions and their correct answers just happen to relate to his difficult young life in the slums of Mumbai - gains our sympathy, but not our empathy if you will, and as a result the film falls into the category of being well worth seeing, but with repeat viewing potential seeming limited to me.

It lacks the commanding acting performance(s) that elevates most of the truly great films. As mentioned, the Indian setting is fresh and it's uplifting to see the work of several youngsters plucked from the actual Mumbai slums, but all that seems to have blinded many to the otherwise contrived story.

Fox delivers a very fine 2.35:1 image transfer of what could have been difficult source material given Boyle's use of several film stocks and his choice of camera types. As a result, the image ranges from grainy realism such as in some of the slum sequences to almost 3-D like pop in the Taj Mahal ones. It is the former that tends to dominate, however, so that although the transfer is a fine replication of the film experience, it's not one that will be turned to for demonstration purposes. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is quite enveloping and fidelity is very good, benefiting A.R. Rahman's music score substantially. The result is a superior evocation of the Mumbai setting, although at times dialogue is partially compromised. The disc's special features are highlighted by a fine audio commentary by Danny Boyle and actor Dev Patel. Also included are a second commentary, a 23-minute making-of documentary, 12 deleted scenes, and several other shorter pieces. Recommended.

Ghosts of Mars (Blu-ray Disc)

Ghosts of Mars (Sony)

The premise of this film - that organisms that originally populated Mars are unleashed by a mining operation during a latter day terra-forming exercise - could have made a solid science fiction film. The story, set on a Mars characterized by a matriarchal society, concerns a small group of police (led by Pam Grier, with Natasha Hensbridge as her second in command and Jason Statham as one of two token males) sent to a remote mining site to bring in a dangerous criminal (Ice Cube).

Once there, however, they find the site at first strangely uninhabited. As the truth of what has occurred is revealed, the film unfortunately resorts to the usual gang of zombie-like creatures racing around yelling unintelligible noises and wielding weird weapons as they terrorize and try to eliminate the members of the police team.

Just once, I'd like to see alien organisms treated in some sort of intelligent and thoughtful manner, rather than merely as a medium to generate cheap scare tactics such as we have here. Aside from all that, too much of Ghosts of Mars is reminiscent of director John Carpenter's earlier and better work, such as Escape from New York. The acting features some quite decent work by Hensbridge who anchors the film, but Pam Grier disappears too quickly and too much reliance is placed on Ice Cube's rather limited skills.

The 2.40:1 transfer is quite solid, dealing very well with the film's many reds and delivering very good contrast throughout. The film's modest grain is also well handled. The Dolby TrueHD audio handles the noise that passes as music effectively, delivering an immersive experience and some good bass effects. The music-free sections, however, seem rather front-heavy. Supplements include audio commentary by Carpenter and Hensbridge and three mediocre featurettes.

Major League (Blu-ray Disc)

Major League (Paramount)

Major League is one of a number of good baseball films made 15-25 years ago, such as Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, and The Natural. All have something distinct to recommend them. In Major League's case, it's an overall sense of fun and a generally good feel for the team dynamics created by the film's group of baseball misfits.

The story concerns the owner of the Cleveland Indian's efforts to move the club which she attempts to achieve by bringing in a group of ragtag players, expecting they will lose so consistently that attendance will drop off below 800,000 thus allowing her to void her Cleveland lease and take advantage of the lure of a new stadium in Miami.

Among the players are a washed-up catcher (Tom Berenger), a wild fireballer currently in jail (Charlie Sheen), a third baseman more concerned with his contract than putting out on the field (Corbin Bernsen), an outfielder who's all-run-and-no-hit (Wesley Snipes), and a voodoo-worshipping slugger (Dennis Haysbert). The story of what happens to the team is pretty predictable, but the film's merits lie in the journey rather than the destination.

The 1.85:1 presentation is an upgrade over the most recent DVD edition, but nothing remarkable as far as Blu-ray is concerned. The image is very sharp for the most part, but softness intrudes from time to time. Grain is evident and some speckles and the odd bit of debris are present. The Dolby TrueHD sound is mainly focused in the fronts with some surround activated in parts of the music score and for crowd ambience during the ballpark sequences. The disc retains the DVD supplements with none being presented in HD. Worth a rental.

Australia (Blu-ray Disc)

Australia (Fox)

In Australia, director Baz Luhrmann has fashioned a grand tribute to classic epic Hollywood film making that mixes romance, adventure, action, and Aboriginal mysticism into a satisfying if at times surreal whole (in which regard, I was at times reminded of Duel in the Sun). The film is solidly anchored by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in the leading roles of an English aristocrat who travels to Australia to deal with a cattle ranch that's part of her family holdings and the cattle drover she turns to for help.

Strongly supporting them is the work of Brandon Walters as a half-caste Aboriginal child they both come to love. Bryan Brown and Jack Wenham are suitably villainous as the main face of the vast cattle empire that Kidman's and Jackman's characters are up against.

The film sports some impressive action set pieces including a cattle stampede and the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. The special effects used in these are for the most part well executed although some of the seams show in the stampede sequences. Scenes of the actors riding, intercut into the action, are a little jarring, but then they only remind one of some of the back projection to which classic Hollywood often resorted. That's a minor quibble in what is otherwise a vastly entertaining film.

There's nothing much to quibble about in respect to Fox's Blu-ray presentation though. The 2.35:1 image is virtually pristine and demonstrates vibrant colour, deep blacks, and realistic flesh tones. The close-up work is particularly sharp and impressively detailed. There is no evidence of artificial sharpening and some grain is apparent at times. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio does a stand-out job with the pleasing music score while also delivering precise dialogue and some thundering LFE in the main action sequences. Supplements include a sequence of some ten short production featurettes and some deleted scenes. Recommended.

The 400 Blows (Blu-ray Disc)

The 400 Blows (Criterion)

Francois Truffaut's evocation of his Paris childhood is a welcome choice for early inclusion in Criterion's Blu-ray schedule. The uncompromising journey of the young Antoine Doinel through dispiriting school experiences, a difficult home life, and petty street crime so vividly acted by Jean-Pierre Leaud and always complemented substantially by the picture of Paris against which Truffaut presents it, now seems heightened by the improved detail that Blu-ray imparts to that Paris setting.

For a film enthusiast so often subjected to less than ideal presentations of foreign films over the years, the opportunity to see one of the best of them looking better than it probably ever has is a pleasure indeed.

Not only does it all look better, the already superior acting ensemble that Truffaut assembled for the film (most notable of which are Albert Remy and Claire Maurier as Antoine's parents) somehow seems even more impressive too, as fine nuances sometimes lost in scratchy prints no longer go un-noticed.

The film is presented at 2.35:1 reflecting the original Dyaliscope framing correctly. Image detail, as noted, is excellent and a fine patina of grain is evident virtually throughout imparting a nice film-like look. Criterion has wisely stuck to the original French monaural sound which here is crisply and clearly delivered while supplemented with good English subtitling. Supplements include the two audio commentaries available on the previous Criterion DVD edition, four short archival pieces in HD, and an essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf. Highly recommended.

Primal Fear (Blu-ray Disc)

Primal Fear (Paramount)

An engrossing adaptation of the William Diehl novel of the same title, Primal Fear focuses on confident criminal attorney Martin Vail and his defence of an altar boy accused of the gruesome murder of a local Catholic archbishop. (Diehl wrote two follow-up novels about the principal characters, but unfortunately neither has been filmed to date to my knowledge.) Richard Gere galvanizes the film with a very fine performance as Vail, but he is matched by outstanding work by Edward Norton as the accused. With a strong supporting cast that includes Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, John Mahoney, and Alfre Woodard, the film is a superior courtroom thriller with a surprising and satisfying conclusion, and overall so well crafted that it bears repeated viewings easily.

Paramount gives the film a superior 1.85:1 presentation that has moments of heightened dimensionality in an otherwise excellently detailed image with accurate colour reproduction. The Dolby TrueHD sound is front-focused with only occasional surround effects. Three good featurettes (in SD) comprise the best of the supplements. There's also an audio commentary with too many participants to be properly coherent. Recommended.

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