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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

I continue to experiment with the format of this column in an attempt to come up with a reasonable balance between depth and breadth of coverage. This latest installment leans on the side of the latter rather than the former. As always, your feedback is most welcome ( Note that the old coming releases table has now been split in two with the release dates past now found in a separate table at the end.

Current Fare - Bad News and Good, and Some in Between

The most important issue yet to face Blu-ray now that it's won the high definition software war is the integrity of the film transfers it presents to us all. This has been brought to the fore by Fox's recent much-anticipated Blu-ray release of two highly-admired war films - Patton and The Longest Day. Many consumers will look at these discs and deem themselves well-pleased with what they see. And they'd be right were films intended to look like computer games or the pristine images of some of the Discovery Channel nature programs. Films, however, don't naturally look that way, particularly any made in the past century. They reflect the characteristics of the film stock they were shot on - characteristics that have varied over time depending upon the nature of the film stock then in use, including nature of the film base, emulsion make-up and the attendant varying amounts of resulting granularity evident, sensitivity to light, film gauge, etc. When we watch a film, the unadulterated effect of these characteristics gives the film a unique look that encompasses image sharpness, brightness, film grain, and fine-scale or high frequency detail. Of course this effect may also be modified by artistic decisions by the director and cinematographer.

The highest accolade that a DVD or Blu-ray Disc can receive is that it has achieved a film-like look that successfully and accurately conveys to the digital medium the filmmaker's intent as seen on the theatrical screen. While many Blu-ray releases have achieved or come very close to this aim, some do not whether by accident or by misguided attempt to provide consumers with eye-candy rather than accuracy. Patton and The Longest Day are two such examples, apparently of the latter. The simplest way to describe the problem is to say that, apparently through the over-zealous application of digital noise reduction (DNR), both look like they've had the life sucked out of them. Although the problem is visually minimized on smaller screens (those below about 40”), larger properly-calibrated displays will clearly reveal such characteristics as a lack of both natural film grain and fine-scale detail in both fore - and background images (such as the texture on human skin, plants, walls, fabrics, etc.). The waxy results would make Madame Tussaud proud! The bottom line is that these two films don't look the way they did originally, by any means.

Patton (Blu-ray Disc)The Longest Day (Blu-ray Disc)The Sand Pebbles (Blu-ray Disc)

Now, both of these releases happen to come from Fox but this is not characteristic of all or even most Fox Blu-ray product. For example, at the same time the studio was releasing these two titles, it was also releasing The Sand Pebbles - a film of similar vintage, but one presented magnificently on Blu-ray. So too is the studio's more recent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Both are excellent ambassadors of how Blu-ray can present a film as it was intended to be seen.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Blu-ray Disc)The Untouchables (Blu-ray Disc)Gangs of New York (Blu-ray Disc)

The excessive DNR problem is not restricted to Fox by any means. Paramount has seen some of its high definition titles similarly afflicted - most notably The Untouchables, and even Disney, normally the purveyor of excellent Blu-ray releases, recently delivered a very disappointing version of Gangs of New York. Only Warner Bros. and Sony appear to have avoided the problem to date, although I've not seen all their releases so can't be definitive in that statement.

If Patton and The Longest Day represent the disappointing side of current Blu-ray releases, one need only turn to another Father's Day special - The Professionals, from Sony - for an example of Blu-ray done right. This exciting and engrossing western tale of four mercenaries (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode) hired by a Texas cattle baron to retrieve his kidnapped wife from her Mexican captors looks magnificent with the film's rich palette of colours, rugged terrain, and craggy facial features of its principals all accurately captured. The modest grain of the original film is fully intact and the reality of the resulting image is a pleasure to behold. In fact, Sony continues to impress with its Blu-ray efforts regardless of the vintage of the title. You can put this effort on The Professionals (from 1966) along side the excellent work on A Passage to India (from 1984). Add to them recent similarly superb visual efforts on the rousingly entertaining King Arthur tale of First Knight (from 1995) and the beguiling Tudor drama of The Other Boleyn Girl (from 2008) (both incidentally nicely endowed with useful supplementary information).

The Professionals (Blu-ray Disc)The Other Boleyn Girl (Blu-ray Disc)First Knight (Blu-ray Disc)

As suggested above, Warner Bros. seems to know what it's doing when it comes to Blu-ray. A current case in point is its Dirty Harry: Ultimate Collector's Edition. The original Dirty Harry film is given the lion's share of the attention in this case with a new commentary and documentary as well as various collectable extras, but each of the four sequels also gets a new commentary and featurette, with the “American Masters” profile Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows rounding out the package. The main thing to know though is that the films look as they should - crisp, clear, accurate colour, and with the modest grain that characterized them and contributed to the films' gritty nature intact. Similarly, the studio's Blu-ray release of Batman Begins is a superb representation, following up on its HD-DVD release that was highly rated when it first appeared.

Batman Begins (Blu-ray Disc)Dirty Harry: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Disc)There Will Be Blood (Blu-ray Disc)

Finally we have an example of a recent release that straddles the above spectrum - There Will Be Blood - one of Paramount's first releases since it re-embraced Blu-ray. For me this was easily last year's best film, a Citizen Kane-like tale of power, greed, and madness in the early twentieth century California oil industry, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It's a film with a wealth of detail and nuance buttressed by evocative cinematography and a haunting music score, and one that bears, in fact demands, repeated viewing to appreciate everything that's going on. Daniel Day Lewis's performance as the oil prospector and entrepreneur is a mesmerizing one, fully worthy of the honours bestowed on it. So powerful is it that it initially seems to dwarf all the other actors' efforts, but repeated viewings heighten one's appreciation for the work of Paul Dano as the rural preacher who is the Lewis character's nemesis. For those looking to the Blu-ray disc, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Much looks very good, with the moderate grain of the original retained. Yet some images are clearly sharpened to the point where edge haloes are quite evident. Given that the disc's supplements are modest at best, this is clearly a title that begs for a re-visitation on Blu-ray.

Current Fare - Vignettes

10,000 B.C. (Blu-ray Disc)

10,000 B.C.

Formulaic prehistoric tale has some fine CGI to commend it, but otherwise this is a fancifully written and at times plodding film. Not even a guilty pleasure, unlike some of director Roland Emmerich's other work. Excellent visual presentation of the film - very crisp, nicely detailed, with three-dimensional character. TrueHD sound effectively supports action sequences with impressive LFE at times. Supplements okay but feel limited, includes alternate ending and additional scenes. (Warner Bros.)

Battle of Britain (Blu-ray Disc)

Battle of Britain

Plenty of top British actors on view and superb aerial work, but the framing story disappoints somewhat. Still, an entertaining experience overall compared to most current theatrical fare. Image somewhat variable in sharpness but nicely detailed in general. DTS HD Master sound quite dynamic. Lamentable lack of any supplements ported over from the recent two-disc DVD CE. (MGM)

The Bucket List (Blu-ray Disc)

The Bucket List

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman do enough heavy lifting on the acting front to raise this one above the norm. An intermittently thoughtful film concerning impending death, at times funny and at times sad. Image decently detailed but not striking. Dolby Digital 5.1 sound good. Supplements have too much back-patting. (Warner Bros.)

Cloverfield (Blu-ray Disc)


Producer J.J. Abrams thinks New York needs its own Godzilla. I guess he never heard of King Kong. Predictable, unscary, and annoying due to camera gimmickry that constantly draws one out of the experience. Blu-ray makes this one look the best it can be. TrueHD sound excellent. Supplements more interesting than the film. (Paramount)

Mrs. Doubtfire (Blu-ray Disc)

Mrs. Doubtfire

One of the 1990s' best comedies with Robin Williams in top form, both in drag and out. Good support from Sally Field. Film admirably holds to a realistic ending. Satisfying Blu-ray image (mild grain, no apparent sharpening) with noticeably improved detail compared to previous standard DVD versions. DTS HD Master sound unremarkable. Supplements are good as far as they go, but the DVD's audio commentary is lacking. (Fox)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Blu-ray Disc)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A suite of excellent performances including Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher's Oscar-winning ones anchor this touchpiece of the 1960s filmed finally in 1975. At times inspiring and at others debilitating, with the ending devastating. Image is clean and replicates the flat look of the original film effectively. Dolby Digital 5.1 sound unremarkable. All supplements from the DVD SE ported over including the excellent commentary with Milos Forman, Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. (Warner Bros.)

Rambo (Blu-ray Disc)


A straight-forward action film with most of the clichés in place and satisfying enough in itself, but marred by excessively graphic blood-letting. Not as good a reincarnation of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character as was the recent Rocky Balboa one of his Rocky character. Very good Blu-ray image retains appropriate grain and delivers fine detail. DTS HD Master sound very good. Supplements very good including Stallone audio commentary. (Lionsgate)

The Spiderwick Chronicles (Blu-ray Disc)

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Engrossing family fantasy picture concerning the unseen world of fairies, demons, and goblins, based on a well-loved series of books. Superior CGI and appealing performances from the juvenile part of the cast (particularly Freddie Highmore). Only caveat is a rather pat ending. Image is crisp, clear, and very clean with a wisp of grain in keeping with the theatrical presentation. TrueHD sound offers only modest surround component. Supplements offer thorough coverage of the production components. (Paramount)

Step into Liquid (Blu-ray Disc)

Step into Liquid

Generally interesting surfing documentary covers people and places around the world, but unless you're into surfing, you can only watch so many waves. Image not much better than a good DVD. DTS Master Audio sound very good. Supplements very good, including a director commentary. (Lionsgate)

Twister (Blu-ray Disc)


A film of diminishing returns. Once you've seen the truly impressive tornado imagery, there's little reason to watch it a second time particularly with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as an annoying scientist couple. Image noticeably improved over standard DVD, but is no poster child for Blu-ray. TrueHD sound is truly impressive. Supplements on new two-disc DVD all ported over. (Warner Bros.)

Untraceable (Blu-ray Disc)

Polished but fairly predictable FBI vs. psychotic killer tale has intriguing and disturbing cyberspace twist and good work by Diane Lane to recommend it. Typically solid visual presentation from Sony - clean, crisp, film-like look. TrueHD sound offers good ambient effects, otherwise unremarkable. Supplements very good including audio commentary from director, producer, and production designer. (Sony)

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