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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got 11 reviews for you: Jonah Hex (from Warner Bros.); Toy Story 3 (from Disney); Arn: The Knight Templar, Splice, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and Love Ranch (from E1 Entertainment); The Pillars of the Earth (from Sony); Life Is Beautiful and Elf: Ultimate Collector's Edition (from Alliance Canada); True Grit (from Paramount); and The Last of the Mohicans (from Fox).

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

What I've Looked At Recently

As a western fan, it's dispiriting to see one of the year's few western entries be Jonah Hex. I've reviewed other poor westerns in the past year but they at least could be excused as ill-conceived, more-enthusiasm-than-talent, shoestring productions.

Jonah Hex (Blu-ray Disc)

A well-budgeted release from a major studio like Warner Bros. has no such excuses. Even at a spare length of 82 minutes, Jonah Hex is an excruciating experience of pointless noise, poor editing, and lack of respect for the venerable film genre. Sure its comic book source material with the larger than life figures, exaggerated and surreal action, and supernatural aspects means that we're not expecting a conventional western story, but whatever happened to plot logic, even rudimentary character development, and attention to basic narrative structure? The film's images are unappealing - when you can see them that is, for the film is dimly lit for the most part. Perhaps the film makers recognized the turkey in waiting and hoped to hide as much of it as possible. For those who may somehow care, the story concerns a scarred drifter and bounty hunter (Hex - Josh Brolin) who speaks with dead people. He's asked by the U.S. government to stop a former adversary (John Malkovich) from spreading mayhem using a super weapon, in exchange for having several warrants on his head cancelled. Megan Fox is around as generally semi-dressed eye candy playing a love interest of Hex's. Brolin is the only one in the cast who escapes without complete ridicule - if he actually got a decent western role, he looks as though the western could be a good genre for him. We'll perhaps see in the forthcoming remake of True Grit. Warner's 2.40:1 Blu-ray efforts are mediocre. It all starts off badly with the unacceptable placement of an advertisement before the main menu - an anti-smoking one. Perhaps Warners was aware of the potential for the ugliness to follow to make viewers take up smoking? The film image for the most part looks no better than a middling DVD. The numerous dark and dimly-lit scenes are murky, with video noise and poor shadow detail readily apparent. Daytime scenes and the few decently-lit interiors fare a little better with some depth and acceptable facial detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD sound is mostly notable for its volume. Directionality is hit and miss. Dialogue is clear when you can hear it, but it's frequently compromised by sound effects. English SDH is provided. Supplements for those who may care are highlighted by a PIP commentary that combines production footage with interview snippets with Brolin, Fox, Malkovich, and director Jimmy Hayward. There are also some deleted scenes and a featurette illuminating the comic book background of the Jonah Hex character. Absolutely not recommended.

Just as we've all matured over the intervening eleven years since Toy Story 2, Woody, Buzz and the gang and their circumstances have changed too. In Pixar's Toy Story 3, we find them generally forgotten by a mature Andy who is now getting ready to go to college.

Toy Story 3 (Blu-ray Disc)

Andy's mother demands he deal with a lot of the stuff in his room - either donate it somewhere or store it in the attic. Due to a misunderstanding, instead of going to the attic, the toys find themselves donated to a daycare centre where as newcomers, they become the playthings of less-than-gentle kids. The centre's head toy - Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear - is less than sympathetic, so it's up to Woody to save the rest of the toys and hopefully reunite them with Andy. Toy Story 3 is probably the best third picture in a series that has ever been made, although it falls slightly behind the excellence of Toy Story 2. The best thing about it is the emotional investment it not only invites from the audience but also nurtures without taking advantage. The film's denouement is remarkably touching and satisfying, for it rings true. It conveys feelings that we can all relate to and provides an ending that is realistic in terms of the combination of sadness for things past and hopeful future happiness it suggests. Disney's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer is superb in all respects. While not a 3D rendition of the film (it was presented that way in some theatres), the image imparts much of the depth and presence that a 3D presentation offers. Colour fidelity is excellent and there's no evidence of any untoward digital manipulation. The level of image detail is also impressive and all the familiar toys, many of them replications of real toys we knew ourselves as children or the parents of children, come startlingly to life. The 7.1 DTS-HD audio track is a marvel as well - deeply immersive with judicious use of LFE on occasion, all while maintaining well-centred, clear, crisp dialogue. The music score by Randy Newman is nicely conveyed even if it's pretty much forgettable. An English 5.1 DTS-HD and French and Spanish 5.1 DD tracks are also provided as are English, French, and Spanish sub-titles. There's a whole raft of supplementary content, some on the same disc as the feature (the Day & Night short that complemented Toy Story 3's theatrical release, for example), but most on a separate second BD disc. The highlights are a pair of commentaries, one featuring a number of production crew members and another with director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla Anderson that's part of a CineExplore feature that also provides lots of illustrative artwork and photos via PiP with other behind-the-scenes material. A DVD version of the film is provided on its own disc and a digital copy is also included. Highly recommended.

What a pleasure it is to see a story focused on the Crusades that doesn't overload us with the usual unrealistically edited and excessive gory hacking off of heads and arms as our hero pirouettes and slashes his way through the fray relatively unscathed. Such is the case with Arn: The Knight Templar.

Arn: The Knight Templar (Blu-ray Disc)

Based on a series of books by Swedish author Jan Guillou that dramatizes Swedish history through a fictionalized hero Arn Magnusson, the film provides a captivating story of love set against a rather broad canvas. Arn is a monk trained in the arts of warfare by a former Knight Templar. When he leaves the monastery, Arn soon proves his meddle by fighting to defend his family's honour. He meets a young woman named Cecilia with whom he falls in love, but the two are separated and excommunicated when Cecilia, already promised in marriage to a different family, becomes pregnant with Arn's child. Cecilia is consigned to a convent while Arn is sent off to fight in the Crusades. The train of events that brings the pair back together is the focus of the majority of the movie. Arn is portrayed by Joakim Natterqvist, a rising young Swedish actor and he delivers a very likable performance, capturing both the naivite of the young Arn as well as the battle-hardened weariness of the Crusades veteran. Sofia Helin is also appealing as the faithful Cecilia. The cast also includes such internationally-known names as Stellan Skarsgard, Vincent Perez, Simon Callow, and Bibi Andersson. Peter Flinth directs with considerable assurance and makes the most of what is a modest $30 million budget for this type of epic. He is able to convey the sense of large battlefield engagements by focusing on individuals or small groups that are part of a perceived larger whole. The benefit of this is much more realistic hand combat scenes and a greater connection for the viewer with the people involved. Two films were actually made for theatrical release - Arn: The Knight Templar and Arn: The Kingdom at Road's End. The version that has just been released on Blu-ray by E1 Entertainment and called Arn: The Knight Templar appears to be a well-edited version that combines the main elements of both. The 2.35:1 image is very appealing looking. The outdoor sequences are particularly impressive in terms of the detail and textures conveyed. Colour fidelity is very good. Image sharpness is sometimes softened by a colour palette that emphasizes oranges and yellows during the Crusades sequences. The audio is a 5.1 DTS-HD mix that delivers effectively both immersively in the action sequences and in the many quieter moments when ambient environmental effects are evident. The dialogue, which is a mix of English and Swedish with some Arabic and even Latin (all subtitled in English), is always clear. English SDH subtitling is available throughout. Two informative behind-the-scenes featurettes (over 40 minutes in total) and the trailer comprise the supplements. Recommended.

Almost an hour's worth of deleted scenes provided as a supplement on E1 Entertainment's Blu-ray release of Love Ranch reveals a movie that might have been - one that might have been coherent, entertaining, and even just a little bit juicy not to mention a somewhat more fitting use of Helen Mirren's talents.

Love Ranch (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Love Ranch (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

As it is we get 117 minutes of tedium and very little titillation - hard to believe of a film about the first legalized brothel in Nevada. The story focuses on the relationship between the brothel's owners, Grace (Helen Mirren) and Charlie Bontempo (Joe Pesci), and what happens to it when Grace is inexplicably drawn to heavyweight boxing lout Bruza (Sergio Peris-Menchata) who's under contract to Charlie. The film was apparently subjected to heavy editing in order to bring it in at an acceptable length and what was mainly cut seems to have been the scenes dealing more with the brothel and its workings that we would have liked to have seen, rather than the unlikely and uninteresting relationship between Grace and Bruza. Helen Mirren very seldom fails to deliver in her film roles, but in Love Ranch she seems bemused by the role she finds herself in. Joe Pesci's loud, foul-mouthed schtick wore thin long ago and he's done himself no favours coming out of semi-retirement to repeat it here. Did I mention that it's all rather unbelievably directed by Mirren's husband, Taylor Hackford (who by the way provides audio commentary that interesting enough but comes across as a bit of an apology too). The only time Hackford is able to generate any real interest, given what he had to take out of the film, is in a well-staged fight sequence in the latter part of the film. E1's 1.78:1 Blu-ray presentation is generally unexceptional. Exteriors do show some good depth and detail, but the interiors are somewhat soft and seldom do we get the presence of the better Blu-ray efforts. Interior colours are fairly bright, but they never excite due the soft nature of the image. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio has little chance to shine. The film is dialogue driven and surround opportunities are limited to mainly the fight sequence, plus the occasional foray through the brothel when we get some nice immersive experiences. English SDH is provided. Supplements include the afore-mentioned audio commentary and deleted scenes (available with or without commentary by Hackford) plus an introduction by Mirren and Hackford.

When Ken Follett published his massive novel "The Pillars of the Earth" some 21 years ago, my first reaction was one of misgiving - 1000-pages-plus about building a cathedral in 12th century England? A chapter or so in, however, and my concerns were quickly dispelled. Skillfully wrapped in historical background, murder, intrigue, suspense, and a host of interesting and fully-formed characters, the building of a cathedral in a small English market town took on a fascination that I had not believed possible.

The Pillars of the Earth (Blu-ray Disc)

The story was recently transformed into a highly successful 8-part television miniseries - a joint German/Canadian co-production filmed in Hungary that drew upon the expertise of Scott Free Films to yield a polished production that would put many feature films to shame. (Fans of the book and series will also know that Follett has written an equally long and engrossing sequel called "World Without End". Hopefully that will also be filmed in the near future.) Just about everything is right about The Pillars of the Earth production. At 8 parts comprising some 7 hours of screen time, John Pielmeier's adaptation retains all the suspense of the book and most of the ingenious plot's serpentine twists resulting in a satisfying experience for the book's fans. A few changes from the book are apparent, but they are generally within the spirit of Follett's story and should not prove troubling. All the key characters are brought to life by an impressive cast, with Ian McShane (as the duplicitous Bishop Waleran Bigod), Rufus Sewell (as the master stone mason Tom Builder), and Matthew MacFadyen (as Prior Philip) standing out. Hayley Atwell (as the noblewoman turned fleece merchant Aliena) and Eddie Redmayne (as Jack the gifted stone carver with a mysterious background) also impress. The production design - set construction and decoration, costuming and props - is particularly striking and really conveys the flavour of the times. Visual effects are well-integrated for the most part. With all the battles and attacks that were part of the story, the filmization could have foundered had too much screen time been devoted to them. Fortunately that is not the case as such scenes are well-staged but generally not dwelt on excessively in comparison with the story's aspects of dramatic intrigue and deception. The series is presented on 3 Blu-ray discs by Sony and typically for that company, the digitally-shot 1.78:1 image is very sharp. Colours are bright, accurate, and at times very vivid. Black levels are impressively deep and whites clean. Image detail is particularly notable whether in daylight or darkness. The wide range of fabrics, armour, wooden village buildings, castle and cathedral stone, dusty or wet ground, and forest vegetation offer endless textures that are all captured with superb exactness. Equally impressive is the 5.1 DTS-HD sound particularly in respect to Trevor Morris's epic and driving score. Immersiveness is very apparent both in the action sequences and in quieter more atmospheric ones. Dialogue is clear and well-centred throughout. A French 5.1 DTS-HD track is included as are English and French subtitles. The supplements include a very good making-of documentary (about 28 minutes), and two shorter featurettes focusing on the series visual effects and the creation of the opening titles sequence. Highly recommended.

In 1997, the Italian film Life Is Beautiful (La Vitta Bella) was a surprise contender in that year's best picture contests. Co-written, directed by, and starring Italian comedy star Robert Benigni, the film is an entrancing fable about a charming waiter named Guido (Benigni) whose imagination and irrepressible sense of humour enables him to win the young woman (Nicoletta Braschi - Benigni's wife in real life) of his dreams.

Life Is Beautiful (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)

But World War II interferes and Guido finds himself, his wife, and their young son shipped off to a concentration camp. Guido decides that he must shield his son from the horrors around them and concocts an elaborate imaginary game to divert his son's attention. The film, of course, treads on sensitive ground in respect to its treatment of the concentration camp experience, but its earnestness and focus on the resilience of the human spirit carry it through. Benigni's work throughout is an infectious joy to behold and it's apparent why he was such a popular and deserving winner of the year's Best Actor Oscar. The film also won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Score (Nicola Piovani's entrancing theme still stirs one deeply). The Miramax release first came to DVD some 10 years ago and is now available on Blu-ray from Alliance Canada. The 1.85:1 image is generally pleasing although it lacks the striking depth of the better HD transfers. It's quite sharp and offers good colour fidelity. Brightness is a little inconsistent, but overall is satisfactory, particularly in the exterior sequences. Skin tones are realistic and image detail in respect to facial features and clothing textures is good. Some digital smoothing may have been applied but it's not intrusive and no significant edge effects are apparent. The 5.1 DTS-HD Italian audio is a workmanlike effort. Dialogue is clear and well-centred. Surround usage is limited to occasions when the soundtrack swells and the occasional ambient effect. English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks are provided as are subtitles in both those languages. The supplements are the same as those on the original Miramax Collector's Series DVD - a good half-hour featurette on making the film and the subsequent acclaim for it and Benigni, the theatrical trailer, and several TV spots. Recommended.

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