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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got 15 reviews for you: Warner Bros.' Unknown and The Cincinnati Kid; Criterion's Kiss Me Deadly; Paramount's The Firm, True Grit, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off; MGM's Overboard; Alliance Canada's Mrs. Brown and Ironclad; Kino's Buster Keaton: The Short Films; Sony's Das Boot and Winter in Wartime; and eOne Canada's Barney's Version, The Beaver, and The Bang Bang Club.

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

What I've Looked At Recently

Given the lack of inspiration to be found in most recent theatrical releases and the low level of intelligence to which they seem to be pitched not to mention similar deficiencies in too many new DVD and Blu-ray title announcements entering my email in-basket, it's always a pleasure to come across a current thriller that at least offers a decent journey even if its plot elements are somewhat familiar. Such is Warner Bros.'s recent Blu-ray release of Unknown.

Unknown (Blu-ray Disc)

Prudently set in modern-day Berlin, featuring very good lead performances from Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger and January Jones, the film also benefits immensely from solid supporting work by Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella. Neeson is professor of Botany Martin Harris who is attending a conference in Berlin, but ends up with limited amnesia when a taxi he's being driven in plunges over a bridge. He hits his head and ends being saved by the resourceful taxi driver (Kruger). Fragments of memories remain, including who his wife is, but when he does find her (Jones), she doesn't seem to recognize him as her husband. Harris's resulting search for answers is a convoluted one indeed that requires at times very focused attention on the audience's part. The denouement is generally satisfying though stretching credulity at times. The Ganz and Langella characters are key to the solution and their work is persuasive. Direction is by Jaume Collet-Serra, who manages to allow the story to play out methodically without obvious stylistic intrusion. Warners' 2.40:1 Blu-ray presentation is solid, scoring particularly in its impressive detail in all aspects - facial features and interior and exterior location specifics. Colours are somewhat washed out-looking but that's a stylistic choice given the winter-time setting rather than any deficiency in the transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is superior in all aspects with directional effects abounding, whether involving the clear dialogue or the various action sequences. French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 DD soundtracks and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are provided. The supplements are a letdown, however, comprising only two very short promotional featurettes that manage to be a little repetitive even given their shortness. A DVD copy of the film is also included. Recommended.

"The Firm" was John Grisham's first published and breakthrough novel that gave rise to the continued successful writing career that he has carved out in the legal thriller genre. In 1993 it was filmed starring Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman and Jeanne Tripplehorn, to a fair degree of success.

The Firm (Blu-ray Disc)

The Firm focuses on newly minted young lawyer Mitch McDeere (Cruise) who accepts a position at a small but prestigious law firm in Memphis. Unfortunately the law firm proves to have irons in the fire with organized crime that eventually land Mitch in hot water indeed. The film is quite faithful to the book and is an entertaining turn overall, due as much to the presence of Gene Hackman playing a senior partner and mentor as to Cruise who does acquit himself well as the central character. The sure hand of director Sydney Pollack is clearly at work, as we get an unmannered, briskly executed film that holds the attention throughout. Further, the likes of Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Gary Busey, and Paul Sorvino as part of the supporting cast only add icing to the cake. A trifecta of solid acting, superior story, and skillful direction is hard to find in these days of excessive special effects and frenetic editing, so make your day and take a look at The Firm. Paramount has brought the film to Blu-ray in an appealing 1.85:1 transfer that sports bright and accurate colours and delivers solid interior and exterior image detail. Modest grain is evident. Some minor edge effects do crop up, but they're not of great consequence. On the audio side, a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD is provided, but it's unremarkable with surround usage limited to minor ambient effects. Dialogue is clear and well balanced across the front. French and Spanish 5.1 DD tracks are added as are English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. Extras are limited to a teaser and the theatrical trailer. Recommended. [Editor's Note: The title is currently a Best Buy-exclusive in the States, but will be widely available soon.]

Overboard is a Garry Marshall-directed film from 1987 that essentially showcased real-life couple Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell as a rather more unconventional one

Overboard (Blu-ray Disc)

Hawn plays a rich bitch of a young woman, married to Edward Herrmann. She employs young carpenter Kurt Russell to build a shoe closet on her yacht. Russell begins to develop the hots for her and when she falls overboard and suffers amnesia, takes advantage of the mishap to contrive a situation in which he makes her believe she's really his wife and the mother of his four children. If all that sounds somewhat absurd (for example, where's Herrmann during all this), the execution does little to make it all palatable. From an excessively broad opening act or so, the film then meanders through the rest of the plot hitting us with silliness and tiresome, sitcom-like, absurd characterizations. Hawn and Russell both deliver good work, but much of the rest of the cast is unmemorable. Roddy McDowall, credited as executive producer, almost fades into the woodwork as a manservant to Hawn while Herrmann just seems to go through the motions. MGM has brought the film to Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 transfer that isn't particularly impressive. Grain abounds to the point of exhibiting video noise while colours seem a bit weak. Image detail improves on that of the DVD version, but doesn't approach the better offerings on the HD medium. The 2.0 DTS Master audio does a decently workmanlike job in terms of dialogue and some ambient effects, but the overall impact is unremarkable. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer.

One of Steve McQueen's iconic screen roles as The Cincinnati Kid helped define the 1960s as his decade. Arriving in 1965 between his work in Baby the Rain Must Fall and Nevada Smith, the film stars McQueen as Eric Stoner, the title character of the film.

The Cincinnati Kid

Stoner is basically a very-much on-the-rise stud poker player in New Orleans who finds himself playing "The Man" Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), considered the best in the game. The match is set up by Shooter (Karl Malden), a dealer of impeccable reputation. Complicating Stoner's life are both his girlfriend Christian (Tuesday Weld) who seeks more than the casual relationship they have and Shooter's wife Melba (Ann-Margret) who seems quite happy to cheat on Shooter. Also in the impressive supporting cast are Joan Blondell, Rip Torn, Jack Weston, and the "hi-de-ho" kid himself, Cab Calloway. Direction is by Norman Jewison, who replaced Sam Peckinpah, and manages to maintain interest throughout including during several long stud poker sessions. The cast is uniformly excellent in all respects, with the result that McQueen does not stand out as strongly from the rest compared to his work in some of his other well-known films (such as Papillon, Le Mans, and Bullitt). The MGM film has been released by Warner Bros. on Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 transfer that offers excellent image detail and even sports generally pleasing colour despite the Metrocolor source material. We're given a DTS-HDMaster mono audio track that delivers the film's uncomplicated sound structure cleanly and with good fidelity. French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese DD mono tracks are provided, as are subtitles in the same languages plus English, Danish, and the three Scandinavian languages. The supplement package is highlighted by an informative and entertaining audio commentary by Norman Jewison. Also included is lesser commentary on the poker scenes by a couple of "Celebrity Poker Showdown" hosts, a vintage featurette on teaching Joan Blondell to deal cards, and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

John Hughes, who died too young at only 59 a couple of years ago, had quite a decade in the 1980s. Some of the films from that decade that were graced by his name in the writing and often producing credits were Mr. Mom; Sixteen Candles; The Breakfast Club; Pretty in Pink; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; The Great Outdoors, and Uncle Buck. But perhaps moreso than any other title than possibly Planes, Trains and Automobiles, his reputation rested on Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986).

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Blu-ray Disc)

The film is a carefully observed and magnificently executed portrait of 80s high school life and angst. In the title role, Matthew Broderick captures joyfully the essence of the free-spirited, rebellious, and ultimately intuitive Bueller who fakes sickness to ensure his day will be more effectively used than by going in to school. As part of his day's journey, the most important contribution he makes is the help he provides in the freeing of his friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) from the latter's unseen and emotionally distant father. Bueller is a cathartic character, in one sequence of the film executing a song and dance routine that seemingly engages the entire outdoor population of Chicago as he takes over a float in a parade to the tune of the Beatles' "Twist and Shout". Throughout the film, we are amused by Bueller's nemesis, high school principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who "just knows" that Bueller is faking it and manages to get himself into the most complicated and embarrassing jams as he attempts to prove it. And oh, how about that musical "Danke Schon" recurring motif that so pleasantly holds the film in the palm of its hand? Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("Bueller… Bueller… Edition" and a 25th anniversary release) is available on Blu-ray from Paramount. This is the second Blu-ray kick at the can on the title by the studio and the 2.35:1 transfer seems to replicate the previous one from 2009 which looked very good indeed. The image sports deep blacks, a bright and well-balanced colour palate, and satisfying image detail both in the interiors and exteriors. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is most effective in providing clear dialogue with some minor separation across the front. Limited surround usage is most notable in the music numbers. French and Spanish DD tracks are provided as are English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. The supplements comprise the same package that Paramount provided on its previous Blu-ray release, namely a series of featurettes delineating the production and prepared about 6 years ago using both new interview and archival footage. Recommended.

Mrs. Brown elucidates successfully a little-known or at least little-remembered slice of British late 19th century history. It dramatizes the years of Queen Victoria's (Judi Dench) reign following the death of her consort, Prince Albert.

Mrs. Brown (Blu-ray Disc)

While in mourning, circumstances brought her together with Scotsman John Brown (Billy Connolly) who looked after her horses on the Isle of Wight and later at Balmoral. The result was a passionate relationship that annoyed her advisors and kept the nation in thrall as it attempted to come to grips with the fact that Victoria's withdrawal from public life gave rise to questions of retaining the monarchy in Britain at all. Benjamin Disraeli (Anthony Sher) was Prime Minister at the time and played a key role for the pro-monarchy side. With director John Madden unobtrusively at the helm, the film offers impressive production design through classy location work and costume design (a swimming sequence, for example, has to be seen to be believed). It is, however, the impressive British cast that stays with one long after the film is over. Dench and Connolly are both superb in the lead roles, but Anthony Sher's Disraeli is captivating too. Overall, the film offers an hour and a quarter of entertainment well worth watching once, but with good repeat viewing potential. Alliance Canada has made the film available on Blu-ray in a very good 1.78:1 transfer. Colour fidelity is excellent and image detail both for interiors and exteriors is notably fine. Blacks are deep and contrast is very fine indeed. The audio is only a Dolby Digital stereo mix, but it handles the dialogue-driven film with ease. Everything is strongly centred across the middle. A French DD stereo track is also offered, but no subtitles. There are no supplements. The film warrants a definite recommendation, but the lack of lossless audio and any supplements for such a historically-interesting story compels me to recommend only a rental on this Alliance Blu-ray release of Mrs. Brown.

There's little new that I need to say about director Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (1981) which Sony has now released on Blu-ray. The evocation of German U-Boat life during the Battle of the North Atlantic in World War II stands as one of, if not the best, submarine films yet made.

Das Boot (Blu-ray Disc)

Jurgen Prochnow stars as the veteran captain in charge of a crew of mainly young, inexperienced enlisted men although a number of his officers have been with him before. The evocation of U-Boat life is very effective, with both the boredom of ship-board life well drawn as well as the fear, tension, and excitement that are part of the film's battle scenes. Prochnow's work is exceptional and the careful orchestration of the film by Petersen has led him to a very successful directorial stint in Hollywood. Das Boot has been available in various incarnations - a full-blown extended mini-series (293 minutes), an original theatrical version (149 minutes), and the director's cut (208 minutes). Both of the latter are provided on Sony's Blu-ray release. The 1.85:1 Blu-ray image is in excellent shape. Sony has delivered a nicely-detailed image that excels in the numerous interior locations (although objects rather than people and their facial features fare best). The image is reasonably sharp for the most part, offering deep black levels, though issues with the original photography have prevented a truly reference level image. There is no evidence of any excessive digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is an impressive experience, as we are sonically rattled by the sound of exploding depth charges or the crunching torture of metal under extreme pressure. The use of the surrounds and delivery of LFE by one's subwoofer by this release are hard to beat. Supplementing the German 5.1 DTS-HD track are English 5.1 DTS-HD and French 5.1 DD tracks as well as subtitling in 9 different languages including English. Sony's release comes on two discs. One contains the director's cut along with an excellent audio commentary by Petersen. The other disc contains the theatrical version and the rest of the supplementary features, which include both an older and a new making-of documentary, a documentary on The Battle of the Atlantic, and several related featurettes. Highly recommended.

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