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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)

Robocop has had a chequered history on Blu-ray so far and that continues with MGM's latest effort - Robocop Trilogy.

Robocop Trilogy (Blu-ray Disc)

The original Robocop film about a Detroit policeman (Peter Weller) who is almost killed by a vicious criminal gang and turned into a half-man, half-machine cybernetic police enforcer is very much a personal taste. Its excessive blood-soaked violence and gore will turn off some even though the sheer excess becomes almost comical. Others will cling to the film's satirical approach to its extrapolation of American consumerism and commercial enterprise as a welcome respite from that violence. With such a combination, it should come as no surprise that Paul Verhoeven is the director (another of his films, Total Recall, comes to mind occasionally as one watches Robocop, and not just because Ronny Cox is the chief villain). Robocop spawned two sequels but each offered increasingly diminishing returns. Weller reprised the role in Robocop 2 (he was replaced by Robert John Burke for the third film) and the humanity he manages to continue convey in his Robocop persona is quite impressive. But the villains become increasingly ho-hum (we lose Ronny Cox after the original and Dan O'Herlihy after Robocop 2) and eventually ridiculous (matched cyborg ninjas in Robocop 3), and the plots are stretched to incredulity (a little girl with some laptop smarts can conveniently reprogram Robocop and his cyborg opponents at the drop of a hat in Robocop 3). The original Robocop was initially to be released on Blu-ray in 2006 by Sony (when it was distributing MGM product), but the title was withdrawn within days of the release date. Review copies did circulate in advance and they revealed a poor transfer characterized by bizarre colours and numerous digital artifacts throughout. About a year later in 2007, MGM did finally release the title through its new distribution deal with Fox. That version, the unrated cut presented with 1.85:1 aspect ratio, showed definite improvement over the unreleased Sony disc. Colours were more accurate and the digital artifacts were much reduced. Vestiges of edge enhancement remained however, and the best that can be said is that the image looked inconsistent. Some scenes showed great detail and a slight measure of depth, but others were pale and flat-looking. There's plenty of film grain evident, which is fine except that in the darker scenes it has the organized look of video noise that runs roughshod over shadow detail. The audio came via a DTS-HD track that is quite enveloping, but lacks any heft in the low end so that explosions and even gunshots suffer noticeably in comparison with more contemporary action films. In terms of supplements, all that was offered was the theatrical trailer - none of the extensive supplements offered on MGM's previous DVD SE. The result is a barely passable Blu-ray effort at best, but at least a modest improvement over the previous DVD incarnations. In April of this year, MGM decided to release Robocop once again on Blu-ray, this time packaged with the DVD version on a separate disc. The Blu-ray transfer was the same as that from 2007. Now we have MGM's Robocop Trilogy which presents each title on its own disc. Once again, however, the Robocop transfer is the same as that from 2007 and with the same lack of supplements. Robocop 2 and Robocop 3 of course are new to Blu-ray (both presented at 1.85:1) and they both look better than Robocop in terms of image detail and overall consistency. Neither really startle in terms of depth of image, however - not that it matters much given the limited viewing interest the films offer. Both sport DTS-HD tracks that are somewhat more dynamic than that of the original film, particularly at the lower frequencies. Only trailers are offered as supplements. MGM would have been better off focusing its resources into giving Robocop a new transfer and a properly packed Blu-ray release, rather than this triple dip of the old Robocop transfer and new ones of the two mediocre sequels.

I'm not a huge advocate of the increasing trend towards animated films these days. If you've got a good story to tell, I much prefer to see it told with real people. That said, I found DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon to be a diverting piece of entertainment that makes its 98-minute running time pass quickly by.

How to Train Your Dragon (Blu-ray Disc)

The tale revolves around Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), an unassuming young Viking and son of his town's fierce Viking leader (Gerald Butler). Dragons are the Vikings' sworn enemies, but Hiccup befriends one such ferocious beast - a dragon type called a Night Fury that he names Toothless. Together the pair finds themselves fighting to save both their worlds from destruction. The film benefits from strong writing that particularly includes dialogue that sounds natural and fits the characters well, even if it's frequently voiced with Scottish accents that put one in mind of Shrek on more than one occasion (Shrek Goes Norse?). The story is well-laden with sincerity and strong, clear messages about standing up for oneself and challenging pre-conceptions. The messages are never blatant but subtly conveyed mainly through the affecting relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. The trust that develops between the pair during the process of mutually learning how to fly together is a pleasure to behold. Beyond that, the plot offers plenty of action and excitement tempered by comic relief that's never forced or overdone. How to Train Your Dragon vies realistically with Toy Story 3 as the year's best animated feature film. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is superb. Animated material tends to fare very well in high definition and that's certainly the case here. There's strong dimensionality throughout and image detail is at times astounding. Colours and bright and vibrant while blacks are inky. Shadow detail in the film's night-time scenes is admirable. The Dolby TrueHD audio is fully a match for the video, offering a strong surround experience throughout whether during the action scenes or quieter ambient character-development ones. The supplements are highlighted by a very thorough audio commentary by co-director/writers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, and producer Bonnie Arnold, as well as a new short (Legend of the BoneKnapper Dragon) that reunites a number of the feature film characters. The latter is also in high definition as are a number of additional featurettes and deleted scenes, a quiz and trailers. A PIP feature, The Animators' Corner, is somewhat repetitive of material from the filmmakers audio commentary but does add in storyboards and some cast and crew interview footage. Recommended.

Love that transcends time, love that's destined not to be, and love that's destined to be are all to be found in Letters to Juliet, a film that successfully conveys the both the former, but trips up on the latter.

Letters to Juliet (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Letters to Juliet (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

The title refers to notes left on a wall at the home of Juliet Capulet in Verona by women who visit. Fact-checker and frustrated-writer Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), in Italy on a pre-honeymoon trip with her master-chef fiancÚ Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) who soon finds himself immersed in Italian cuisine, joins a group of women who respond to the letters as a way to pass the time on her own. One day she discovers a letter from 50 years ago hidden behind a brick in Juliet's wall. The letter expresses the regret of the writer over abandoning her true love. Sophie responds to the letter (from a woman named Claire - Vanessa Redgrave), encouraging Claire to take up the hunt for her old love. Claire comes to Verona in response to do just that, with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) in tow. At this point, one can sense exactly how the story is going to go. The pleasure comes from the execution, fueled by excellent performances from Redgrave and Seyfried. Redgrave's efforts are subtle and beguiling and one never wavers in one's belief in her enduring love for the man who got away and may yet be out there. Seyfried has a wide-eyed, innocent look that is perhaps a little overdone in the film, but she's so convincing in her conviction over Claire's cause that we easily give her a pass in that regard. That her future with Victor is not to be becomes increasingly obvious, for though Bernal portrays Victor with enthusiasm and a surface veneer of compromise, it's clear he's a one-dimensional man whose personal life will always play a distant second-fiddle to his work. On the other hand, a future relationship between Sophie and Charlie is an obvious intent in the film, but the film never convinces us of any concrete basis for it. Charlie is a jerk to start and by the end he's little more than a jerk in sheep's clothing despite's the script's convenient protestations to the contrary. Overall though when it comes to expressing the various strands of love, two out of three isn't bad and that makes Letters to Juliet worth a look. E1 Canada's (Summit in the U.S.) 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is quite pleasing overall. The Italian location work is warmly portrayed with a gentle golden hue. Image detail is generally very good for both facial features and textures on inanimate objects although deep focus is lacking at times. The DTS-HD audio projects the dialogue well, balancing it nicely with Andrea Guerra's evocative music score and ambient sound effects. Director Gary Winick and Amanda Seyfried provide an audio commentary that's amiable enough, but focused strongly on discussion of the film's locations. There's also a routine making-of featurette and a segment of deleted and extended scenes. Recommended as a rental.

When a film in the public domain is rescued from such oblivion with a proper home video restoration, it's always cause for celebration. Such was the case when Criterion released the 1963 Stanley Donen film Charade on DVD in an anamorphic version in 2004 (the company had issued a non-anamorphic version four years prior).

Charade (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

Now Criterion has improved on that with its new 1.85:1 Blu-ray version. The film is a wonderful combination of style and substance that revolves around a woman named Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) whose apartment in Paris has been stripped bare by her husband who later turns up dead. What doesn't turn up is half a million dollars that he supposedly stole. Three men (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass) are after that money and the only person who seems willing to help Regina is a mysterious stranger played by Cary Grant. But Grant's real motives are unclear too. There's obviously plenty of star power in Charade, but it's the story that's the real star - an entrancing mystery game of cat and mouse, red herrings, and unexpected twists that puts to shame most contemporary thrillers that have to rely on special effects and overt sex to compensate for sub-standard writing. The chemistry between Grant and Hepburn is palpable and that makes their relationship at least as sexually intense than any overtly consummated one. The film also provides a great opportunity to see several familiar actors early in their careers (the afore-mentioned Coburn and Kennedy, as well as Walter Matthau in a supporting role as a U.S. embassy official). It's been often stated that Charade is the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made - a familiar sentiment that is none the less true for its frequent repetition. The improvement in Criterion's Blu-ray image over its fine DVD version is substantial. The colour is the most noticeable aspect - bright and vibrant with very good fidelity. Reds are particularly well handled. Skin-tones are accurate. The image detail also impresses in both near and distant focus objects. Modest grain throughout imparts a very film-like look. The image has also received considerable clean-up although a few speckles and scratches still remain. The uncompressed LPCM audio delivers the dialogue clearly and Henry Mancini's music is well conveyed. The DVD supplements are carried over including a diverting audio commentary by Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone, and a booklet with a good essay by veteran film historian Bruce Eder. Great film, great Blu-ray presentation. Highly recommended.

Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York received a problematic Blu-ray transfer from Disney in 2008.

Gangs of New York (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Gangs of New York (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

Early this year, a remastered Blu-ray version that corrected the previous difficulties was released by Disney though no compensation or exchange was offered to purchasers of the first release. The new version was identifiable by its cover designation as being part of the Miramax Award-Winning Collection. That version has now been released in Canada by Alliance with steel-book packaging (note that the Miramax Award-Winning designation does not appear on the steel-book cover and the Alliance cover consists solely of Leonardo DiCaprio's face rather than the trio of DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis and Cameron Diaz). The presentation is otherwise identical to the Disney release in the U.S. The film itself is, of course, Scorsese's continuously interesting though flawed portrait of the Five Points area of mid-19th century New York. The new Blu-ray transfer of the 2.35:1 image has had virtually all the annoying edge effects and the generally digitized look of the original transfer removed. The film's grain now seems natural and no longer intrudes on one's perception. The film has also been slightly reframed to remove some vertical colour blazes that were a problem on the sides of the image. The presentation now works very nicely on large-scale projection systems. The audio comes courtesy of a DTS-HD track that sounds pretty much the same as the previous LPCM uncompressed track. It's not that continuously aggressive or immersive a track compared to some, but it fares well in the battles where competing sounds are strongly and discretely noticeable. The supplement suite is highlighted by an excellent audio commentary from Scorsese and a good featurette on the sets constructed at the Cinecitta lot in Rome. Alliance's classy steel-book packaging is a plus. Recommended.

As a film, Good is not bad. Based on a stage play by C.P. Taylor, it relates events that unfold after the Nazis make propaganda use of a book on compassionate euthanasia written by a German literature professor, John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), in the 1930s.

Good (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Good (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

Halder finds his career rising as a result and despite his misgivings, allows himself to be gradually subsumed into the SS. His advancement and increasing though subtle influence are contrasted against the increasingly harrowing conditions suffered by a close Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs). The film attempts to make a strong case that even the most well-intentioned individual can have his ideals subverted by a system designed to undermine such altruism. It's only partly successful because Viggo Mortensen's acting strengths lie elsewhere than in portraying such a mild, and ultimately weak, individual as Halder. Mortensen's portrayal is too bland, too undemonstrative and we are never really sure whether he's just a simple man who can never believe in or understand the Nazi's insidious influence or a weak man who knows what's happening but doesn't have the fortitude to stand up against it. It's unfortunate because Jason Isaacs' work as Halder's Jewish friend is forceful and persuasive, and a more even clash of characters would have resulted in a much more powerful film statement. The stage play has been nicely opened up for the screen by director Vicente Amorim through the use of a good variety of interior sets and exteriors. Despite that Amorim has managed to maintain the sense of the increasingly claustrophobic nature of German society at the time for any non-Aryan or non-Party member. The film's closing sequence is a powerful one despite the uncertainty generated by Mortensen's Halder characterization. E1 Entertainment Canada's (National Entertainment Media in the U.S.) 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer of Good is crisp and clean with very good shadow detail. The latter is important due to many night-time or dimly-lit sequences. The image never generates much dimensionality though. The film's colour palette is somewhat subdued and that is well replicated. Occasional reds, as on Nazi flags, shine out brightly. The film's audio is delivered by a DTS-HD mix that offers clear dialogue. There's little use of the surrounds and a sense of envelopment occurs infrequently, when large crowds of people are involved. The disc does have almost an hour and a half of supplementary material, but it's annoyingly presented. About an hour of it is raw interview footage with various cast and crew individually, but introductory time codes before each answer are very distracting. A half hour of behind-the-scenes footage lacks any supporting narrative to make it all relevant. Worth a rental at best.

Somehow I had forgotten the fact that the Argentinian film The Secret in Their Eyes had won the Academy Award for 2009's Best Foreign Language Film.

The Secret in Their Eyes (Blu-ray Disc)

Thus last spring, when I ran across the title when searching in frustration for something worth going to see amongst Toronto's many movie theatres, I didn't realize the significance of it at first. I took a chance, and was I ever rewarded! It's a film that folds a story of unfulfilled love into that of a 25-year old unresolved rape and murder case. The story blends current events and flashbacks involving criminal court investigator Benjamin (Ricardo Durin) who decides to write a novel based on the murder. It's very much his own story as he was the lead investigator on the case, one on which he worked closely with the beautiful judge Irene (Soledad Villamil) with whom he was and remains secretly in love. Director Juan Jose Campanella works magic in balancing the two threads. The love story has much less actual screen time, but its unspoken-ness remains in the background behind so much of the murder case so it's never far from our consciousness. The film title is continually in one's mind because of the expressiveness of the two lovers' feelings that is so evident in their eyes despite how few words are spoken. The film title also is significant in respect to the murder case too, though to say more would spoil the film's well-hidden ending. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent across the board. So well do the actors embody their characters that we feel as though we're seeing real life unfold before us in all its complexities, ambiguities, humour and sadness, beauty and ugliness. Do yourself a favour and see this film if you've not already. It's an ample reward for many hours of mediocrity at the local multiplex. Sony's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is a typically solid Sony effort. The image is sharp and very well detailed. Colour fidelity is top notch and blacks are suitably deep. The image does not pop like some of the very best blu-ray transfers; all it does is convey what you're seeing on the screen accurately and unobtrusively so that you're never taken out of the story. The DTS-HD audio is equally persuasive. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with the music score and ambient sounds. There is not an overpowering surround sense, but a more subtle envelopment that accentuates the film's sense of realism. The main supplement is an audio commentary by the director that's informative and intelligent. It's in Spanish with English sub-titles. Also of value is a featurette on the film's casting. Highly recommended.

Finally, a brief few words on Alliance's release of David Fincher's Se7en on Blu-ray in Canada. In early 2009, Alliance made a bare-bones Blu-ray version of Se7en available.

Se7en (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Se7en (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

There were no supplements; the aspect ratio was incorrect at 1.85:1; and the transfer was 1080i. Recently New Line released an excellent version of the film in digibook packaging. The aspect ratio is correct at 2.35:1, the transfer is 1080p, and the proof is in the pudding - a visually superb rendition of the film's subdued colour palette with remarkable detail and varied gray scale. The disc's sound is if anything even more impressive. Using a new 7.1 DTS-HD mix, the sense of envelopment is about as impressive as any disc I've heard. LFE effects are house-rattling and ambient noises are incredibly lifelike, while dialogue remains clear, strong, and well balanced with the rest of the sound field. All of the impressive set of supplements (save some DVD-ROM content) was ported over from New Line's Platinum Series 2-disc DVD release. Alliance has released the New Line Blu-ray in Canada under its own imprimatur, but otherwise the Alliance effort replicates the New Line release completely, including the digibook packaging. The specs on the back of the book list the sound as being 5.1 DTS-HD, but rest assured that it is the 7.1 mix that is on the disc. Very highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell

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