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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

This will be the last edition of High Definition Matters. The intent of the column was simply to provide brief review coverage of a wide variety of titles available in HD, but I feel that a somewhat different approach will serve readers better.

I will still be continuing my reviews of Blu-ray discs, but they will appear in two different fashions. Firstly, coverage of classic titles appearing on Blu-ray will now be included in my Classic Coming Attractions column, which will otherwise continue as in the past. Secondly, current or recent catalog titles will receive longer stand-alone reviews that will appear on The Bits just as Blu-ray reviews by other Bits staff members do at present. I will, however, tend to focus such non-classic reviews more on titles that would not tend to get the degree of coverage that the high profile ones do. For example, my first two stand-alone reviews (which are already available on The Bits) feature The Class and Bleak House - the former the Palme d'Or best picture winner at Cannes for 2008, and the latter an impressive BBC TV drama presentation from 2005.

For this final column, I have short reviews of 14 titles: For All Mankind, In the Realm of the Senses, and The Seventh Seal (Criterion); The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Man with the Golden Gun (MGM); John Adams (HBO); 2010 (WB); Powder Blue (Image); The Greatest Game Ever Played and Race to Witch Mountain (Disney); Echelon Conspiracy and The Soloist (Paramount); What Doesn't Kill You (E1 Entertainment); and Starman (Sony).

I'd also like to give mention to five titles that, while not reviewed fully here, are worthy of your Blu-ray dollars - Sony's The Deep, Paramount's Things We Lost in the Fire (for DreamWorks), Fox's The Towering Inferno, and WB's Falling Down and Grumpy Old Men. All four offer worthwhile entertainments combined with above-average Blu-ray presentations. The Deep is particularly impressive-looking.

I must also confess to having been quite entertained by Universal's Fast & Furious. It provides a fine-looking and superb-sounding experience, but for me also a tale that while offering nothing new in content nor any performances of great note, was polished and diverting on a rainy afternoon. Perhaps it helped that I hadn't seen any of the first three films in the series and that I had no great expectations of this one, but regardless I believe you could do much worse when in the mood for an amiable time-passer. If I can like something with the perpetually angry-looking Vin Diesel in it, you can too!


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Blu-ray Disc)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (MGM)

The studio has taken its previous DVD SE version and served it up on a Blu-ray version that preserves its admirable content and added at least one significant supplement in the form of a very fine audio commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling (director Sergio Leone's biographer). I reviewed the DVD SE previously here and readers are invited to revisit my comments on the film content as they remain valid.

The 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is certainly a substantial improvement over the DVD version, but it's not consistent in a number of aspects. Some scenes look particularly well-detailed while others have that telltale smoothness that suggests excessive DNR application. Grain is also inconsistently present both in expansive outdoor scenes and in indoor sets.

Colour fidelity is very good, however, and I don't believe there's much to quibble about over both the image's contrast and deep blacks. There is still some obvious debris (notably several persistent hairs) on the image that one would have thought could have been easily cleaned up. The 5.1 DTS Master Audio track brings a successful upgrading of the original mono score at least in respect to Ennio Morricone's distinctive score. It has a much more dynamic heft to it that seems to heighten the all the different senses that the film invokes. Sound effects are also strengthened by the mix. Less successful, however, is the dialogue, particularly the front directional work. Too often, dialogue spoken off camera by various characters seems overpowered and almost disembodied so that one is jarred out of the scene on several occasions. Despite the audio's mixed success, the film's quality combined with the overall image improvements and the fine array of DVD SE supplements buttressed by the added Frayling commentary make this Blu-ray release an easy one to recommend highly.

In the Realm of the Senses (Blu-ray Disc)

In the Realm of the Senses (Criterion)

Every so often Criterion makes a mis-step and its release of In the Realm of the Senses, a Japanese film by Nagisa Oshima, is one of them - an effort that does little more than give foreign film a bad name. A sexually explicit, but pretentious tale of a sexually insatiable woman and the man whose penis she becomes obsessive over, it drags on repetitiously and seemingly interminably until its telegraphed ending mercifully but not prettily puts us out of our misery. This is the sort of film that critics like to analyze to death trying to justify the images on the screen in the name of art. Beautifully crafted and artfully presented love scenes are worth anyone's time, but there's nothing like that here - just self-indulgent film making that soon becomes boring and offensive.

The acting is better than that in run-of-the-mill pornographic films and the setting is more beguiling, but those are about the only things that distinguishes In the Realm of the Senses from them.

Criterion's 1.66:1 Blu-ray image is superb, exhibiting startling clarity and excellent colour fidelity. Flesh tones are particularly notable in the latter respect given there's so much skin on display. The mono sound in comparison is merely satisfactory. Supplements include audio commentary by film critic Tony Rayns, an interview with the film's principal actor (Tatsuya Fuji), several archival interviews, some deleted footage, and the U.S. trailer.

2010 (Blu-ray Disc)

2010 (Warner Bros.)

For all its sense of wonder, its majestic use of classic music, and its mind-expanding conclusion, Stanley Kubrick's two hour and twenty minute 2001: A Space Odyssey was at times a plodding experience for many science fiction fans of the late 1960s. Arthur C. Clarke, upon whose short story "The Sentinel" the film 2001 was based, revisited the story with his novel "2010" and this was eventually both adapted for the screen and directed by Peter Hyams. The story follows the efforts of a joint Russia/U.S. voyage to Jupiter to resolve the mystery surrounding the Jupiter mission at the heart of 2001. The resulting film, originally released by MGM in 1984, is a very effective sequel and a more interesting experience in terms of its compactness and lack of pretention than 2001.

Its use of special effects was state-of-the-art for the time and its casting benefits tremendously from the work of the too-often under-appreciated Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren. Its ending is equally as compelling as that in 2001 without the protracted psychodelic trip that accompanied that film.

Warners' 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer provides a nice film-like transfer that accurately reproduces the somewhat diffuse look of the original 1980s theatrical experience. Image detail is noticeably sharp in the outer space "exterior" scenes, while interior spacecraft scenes are somewhat softer in comparison. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is quite strong, with some truly immersive sequences, though obviously not nearly as aggressive as more recent films. Supplements are disappointing (only a short vintage making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer). Recommended.

John Adams (Blu-ray Disc)

John Adams (HBO)

Here is eight hours very well spent. HBO's seven-part mini-series focusing on the life of the second U.S. president John Adams (Paul Giamatti) and his close relationship with his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) is consummate storytelling and a compelling illumination of early U.S. history. For many, the contentious events surrounding the American Revolution and the resulting young country's difficult early tests of sovereignty have become obscured by the rose-coloured patina of time. Famous personages such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even John Adams himself not to mention the many lesser-known figures of the time were not the one-dimensional paragons that time has made them out to be. Great figures they were, but not without personal faults and foibles, just as the events in which they played such important roles were not as straight-forward as superficial later accounts of them would have us believe.

The focus in this mini-series is obviously on John Adams' roles in these events from the early days of the revolution to the end of his years as the country's second president. At times, Adams was at the centre of the action in Boston, Philadelphia, or at a barely-completed first White House in Washington while at others he was a distant observer while serving the country as its emissary to France and England. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book by David McCullough, the series is rich in the detail of the events of the era and the historic characters are wonderfully brought to life by an exceptional cast. Giamatti and Linney are both superb as Adams and Abigail, but Stephen Dillane, David Morse, and Tom Wilkinson also contribute notable portrayals of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin respectively. Much effort was made to ensure historical accuracy in all things and such aspects as the realities of surgery at the time and even the brutality of actual tarring and feathering are jarringly brought to life.

HBO's 1.78:1 Blu-ray image is excellent. It's strikingly detailed throughout, with facial features and the textures of clothing, flags, and tapestries being particularly notable in that regard. Colour fidelity is very good although muted as befits the costume and set design. The production involved a significant amount of special effects shots that are so well integrated that they are unidentifiable in most instances. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally as good as the video - clear, concise, and nicely atmospheric. Supplements include a lengthy profile on David McCullough and a shorter making-of documentary that is one of the better of its kind (both are in HD). Also included are two pop-up features - one providing historical information during each episode and the other short profiles of the various personages involved in the era. Highly recommended.

The Man with the Golden Gun (Blu-ray Disc)

The Man with the Golden Gun (MGM)

If memory serves, "The Man with the Golden Gun" was the last James Bond novel to be written by Ian Fleming. It was also the least of them, and it led to a film that aside from a few aspects is a pretty pedestrian affair. In this outing, Bond finds himself facing Scaramanga, an assassin who routinely commands $1million for a killing, but also a man who admires Bond and effectively challenges him to a duel to the death. It's Roger Moore's second screen outing as James Bond and he delivers a decent performance, avoiding most of the odious witticisms that characterized his later efforts, but not really giving us a sense of a Bond that really takes control of situations.

The film does offer a few good action sequences, particularly a car chase in Bangkok (though compromised by the unrealistic appearance of redneck sheriff Pepper [Clifton James] from Live and Let Die), but its final confrontation between Bond and Scaramanga is a letdown due to its repetitious use of the setting from the film's opening sequence. We get a few good explosions at the end, but they're rather anticlimactic since Bond's already dispatched his adversary. Christopher Lee appears as Scaramanga and he offers a fine portrayal; unfortunately the Scaramanga character just lacks the heft of the best Bond villains. Hervé Villechaize appears as Scaramanga's assistant Nick Nack and while he's diverting enough, he doesn't offer the same sense of menace as does, for example, the character Odd Job in Goldfinger.

The 1.85:1 Blu-ray image is quite impressive. Lowry Digital has worked its magic on a Bond film here again although the results are not as striking as for Dr. No or Goldfinger. Colours are bright and the image is quite well defined, except for some weak shadow detail in darker sequences. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is clear and competent but unmemorable, offering a mainly front-focused experience with only occasional use of the surrounds. Although there are no new extras, a whole raft of supplements from the earlier DVD releases, primarily 2006's Ultimate Edition (including two audio commentaries, nine featurettes, various trailers and TV spots), has been included.

The Greatest Game Ever Played (Blu-ray Disc)

The Greatest Game Ever Played (Disney)

Despite the rather grandiose title, a product of the book on which it is based, this film is a welcome piece of entertainment - one that pleases on a traditional sports story level, as a period piece, and as a pointed observation on the class structure that defined golf in the early 20th century. It details the story of the 1913 U.S. Open Golf Championship in which the young American amateur Francis Ouimet vies to defeat the world's greatest player and British champion Harry Vardon. Despite their difference in age and nationality, both players have had to combat golf's upper class image in their struggle to play the game, an affinity that deepens our interest in their competition beyond that of underdog versus established champion.

Ouimet is well played by Shia LaBeouf, here given some decent material to work with compared to such tripe as Eagle Eye and the Transformers films. He delivers an unaffected and appealing performance, even managing a fairly convincing golfing technique. Stephen Dillane, as is so often the case (see his recent work as Thomas Jefferson in John Adams), is superb as Harry Vardon, the champion whose childhood was marred by golf, yet who still seeks acceptance in the clubs controlled by the aristocracy. The film is directed by Bill Paxton, who successfully manages to immerse us in the golf sequences with some innovative camera work.

The 1.85:1 Blu-ray image is a pleasure to behold. It's richly detailed, vibrantly colourful, and possessed of real depth throughout. Textures and patterned images are striking in their impact. The 5.1 DTS Master Audio is equally impressive. It's a mix that focuses on faithful delivery of atmosphere whether on the golf course or in clubhouse interiors. Occasional use of bass is very effective, and the mix also delivers Brian Tyler's inspirational score with marvelous fidelity. Supplements include two audio commentaries (one by Paxton who obviously concentrates on the film-making, and the other by author Mark Frost who focuses on the historical background - both are worthwhile), a standard making-of featurette, and two additional featurettes (the best of which is a 1963 PBS program following the real Francis Ouimet as he takes us on a tour of the course where the famous 1913 confrontation occurred). Highly recommended.

Powder Blue (Blu-ray Disc)

Powder Blue (Image)

Following in the footsteps of films such as Crash and Magnolia, Powder Blue presents the stories of several individuals whose disparate lives in Los Angeles gradually converge. Jessica Biel plays a stripper with a dying son; Forest Whitaker a grieving husband with a death wish; Ray Liotta an ex-con who's terminally ill; and Eddie Redmayne a pathologically shy mortician. Lisa Kudrow, Patrick Swayze, and Kris Kristofferson each appear in small supporting roles that add texture to the story threads. Powder Blue is no Crash or Magnolia, and it must be admitted that it seems to draw shamelessly from some elements of those films, but the people it depicts are interesting in every case and one cares about their stories.

Certainly there are contrivances, but such is the case to some extent in all such films. All four principals perform effectively in their roles and the result is an engrossing film despite the familiarity of the narrative structure and some of the outcomes that are telegraphed early on. Fortunately the film is not completely nihilistic and there are some happy endings. Don't go in expecting too much and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The film has a gritty noir look virtually throughout that is well captured by the 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer. Several close-ups have the precise detail one associates with HD material, but otherwise there's an intended graininess that matches the seemingly desperate lives of the characters and the unglamorous places they inhabit. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is competent, with activity mainly restricted to the fronts. Supplements include an innocuous audio commentary with director Timothy Linh Bui and producer Tracee Stanley, a standard making-of featurette, a photo gallery, and the trailer. Certainly worth a rental.

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