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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Winter/Early Spring 2007 Reviews

The relative inactivity by the studios in releasing classic titles in High Definition of late means that this latest edition of HDC is a little sparse on the ground when it comes to classic reviews. We only have a few releases that skirt the classic era (Bullitt, The Getaway and Dog Day Afternoon), so I'm focusing more coverage on current fare this time. Fortunately there are some worthy titles to consider (Babel, The Departed, Payback, Casino Royale and Rocky Balboa). The latter two titles also signal HDC coverage of Blu-ray discs for the first time. For simplicity, please note that hereinafter I will be using HD for HD DVD and BD for Blu-ray. Now, on with the reviews.


Dog Day Afternoon (HD-DVD)

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Dog Day Afternoon
1975 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on April 10th, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A+
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: A


Specs and Features:
124 mins, R; VC1 1080p standard (1.85:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all 2-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned


More than 30 years after its initial release, I continue to admire Dog Day Afternoon tremendously. Despite the many awards or acclaim garnered by its competition in 1975 (the likes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Man Who Would Be King, Jaws, Nashville), I still consider it the best film of that year. Though very much a film of its time, Warners' new HD release merely confirms my feeling for it. In its story of a Brooklyn bank robbery gone ridiculously bad and its perpetrators' questionable efforts to save a seemingly lost situation, the film caught the ebbing spirit of rebellion of the early 70s and the general malaise with police authority and its seeming incompetence beautifully. Filmed on location in New York, director Sidney Lumet captures the spirit of both people and place while the work of Al Pacino as Sonny, the leader of the gang of two (the other is Sal, played by John Cazale), is mesmerizing. The images of him yelling "Attica, Attica" at the assembled police, egging on the crowd of onlookers, is one of the decade's enduring film moments. Based on a real event, the film beautifully blends humour with drama in the way that real life so often does. Real life events often turn sour in the end and the film remains true to that spirit also. Dog Day Afternoon is a film of constant surprises, well-rounded performances (look to the work of Cazale, Charles Durning, and Chris Sarandon, as well as Pacino), and rewards multiple viewings.

Equally rewarding is Warners' excellent work on its new HD release. The image is just about everything one could hope for in relation to a film of the 1970s. There is a modest level of film grain in keeping with the film's original gritty look, but otherwise, the image is crisp and accurate. It may lack the showy pop of more recent HD efforts, but it has a presence that makes you feel that you're right there seeing events as they happened. The HD image handles daytime sunlight and evening shadow equally well. Some minor edge effects that could be seen on last year's 2-disc DVD SE are not in evidence on the HD effort. The audio is unremarkable. Dialogue is clear and precise, but some other sounds (gunshots, telephone rings) are rather strident. The supplements, presented in standard definition are the same ones available on the DVD SE (including audio commentary by director Sidney Lumet, a 4-part "making-of" documentary, a vintage featurette and the theatrical trailer). They represent an excellent package that tells you pretty well all there is to know about the film. Lumet's commentary is one of the best and most enthusiastic of its kind while the making-of documentary is very thorough. Highly recommended.


Bullitt  (HD-DVD)

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Bullitt
1968 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on February 27th, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: A


Specs and Features:
114 mins, PG, VC1 1080p standard (1.85:1 - incorrectly labeled as 2.4:1 on the case), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all 2-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 (English) & 1.0 (French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned


"Chases" have been a staple of films for over 100 years, although there has tended to be an ebb and flow in how frequently or effectively they have been employed. The appearance of Bullitt in 1968 signaled a high point insofar as car chases were concerned. It would be three years before another one (The French Connection's car versus elevated train) would rival the effectiveness of Bullitt's high-octane trip through San Francisco. Aside from the chase, Bullitt is an above-average cop thriller that finds Steve McQueen (the title character) assigned to a witness protection assignment that proves to have something deeper involved. McQueen's low key almost anti-hero cop portrayal is the film's other chief attraction and one that stands as a highlight of his work during his most active screen period from 1963-1973. The story is doled out slowly, but with considerable suspense (the everyday tasks of Bullitt's home life provide an effective contrast to the hazards of his vocation) and also benefits from a quintessential 1960s/70s supporting cast (Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Duvall, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell). The San Francisco locations are well-utilized by director Peter Yates. Bullitt is a film to savour and the car chase never fails to excite no matter how often you've seen it.

The HD image, much like that of Dog Day Afternoon, captures the look of the film beautifully. One does not get the aura of heightened reality that some of the very best high definition transfers provide, but the image is very crisp and clear with accurate colours and a modest amount of grain in keeping with the film's original look. Both day-and night-time scenes are improved in clarity over the most recent DVD release. Notably, the film's darker sequences are handled very well in terms of black level, although I suspect shadow detail could be even better yet. The stereo track is quite serviceable whether handling the dialogue or Lalo Shifrin's atmospheric score. The only directional effects seemed to occur during the car chase and then only modestly. Warners has included the supplement package that graced its recent two-disc DVD SE of the film. An audio commentary by director Peter Yates does provide a fair bit of information on the film although it suffers from quite a few silences. Two meaty documentaries focus on Steve McQueen (a career profile prepared for Turner Classic Movies - Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool) and on editing in general (The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing - here presented in 1080p, 5.1 audio). Either would make worthy discs in themselves so their inclusion here is a real treat. Also present are a vintage making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.


The Getaway (HD-DVD)

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The Getaway
1972 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on February 27th, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 16
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: B


Specs and Features:
123 mins, PG, VC1 1080p standard (2.4:1 - not 1.85:1 as stated on the case), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned


Warners' other release in its February high definition mini-tribute to Steve McQueen is this Sam Peckinpah movie that, when originally made, followed the pair's fruitful collaboration on Junior Bonner. Much of the same crew gathered in Texas to make a straight but immensely satisfying genre movie that told the story of bank robber Doc McCoy (McQueen), who along with his wife Carol (Ali McGraw), manages to get himself paroled from prison with the aid of a local crime boss (Ben Johnson) in exchange for pulling a major bank heist. Of course, things don't go quite as planned, and a relentless chase across the state ensues. The film is characterized by the same measured plot progress as exhibited in Bullitt except that the point of view of the main character is from the opposite side of the law and this time the attractive San Francisco settings are replaced by back alleys and various other seedy settings of rural Texas. McQueen is working at the peak of his craft in the film and he brings an effective mix of both strength and humanity to his role. Mind you, he has to be good, given that so many of his scenes are shared with Ali McGraw and her standard wooden acting mannerisms. Despite that, the McQueen/McGraw combo is a powerful one simply because their real-life chemistry is obvious virtually throughout the film. The Getaway is beautifully orchestrated by Peckinpah as he blends scenes at times tender and at others ridiculous with bursts of violence. The latter are well-staged and pull few punches, but avoid the excesses that some people find objectionable in Peckinpah's work. Peckinpah adherents will be glad to find so many Peckinpah regulars such as Ben Johnson, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor, and Slim Pickens in the cast.

The Getaway's HD transfer is similar in nature to Bullitt and Dog Day Afternoon, though slightly below them in its overall impact. The inherent grain typical of the era is clearly in evidence while most interiors and exteriors are rendered in a sharp but-not-unrealistically-so fashion. The overall image detail one expects from high definition is clearly evident without the feel of artificial boosting. Tempering all this is evidence of more source-material defects than the other two films, plus difficulty with shadow detail in some of the darker scenes. The mono sound is in good shape, offering clear dialogue and sound effects with some presence, and Quincy Jones' music is decently rendered. Carried over from the 2005 DVD SE are an admirably chatty and thorough audio commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle; a reel 1 commentary cobbled together from historic interviews with McQueen, McGraw, and Peckinpah; and the theatrical trailer. New supplements are a documentary about the Jerry Fielding/Sam Peckinpah relationship (Fielding's score for the film was replaced by that of Quincy Jones' at McQueen's instigation); the bank robbery sequence using Fielding's score, and the entire Fielding score as an audio-only bonus. Recommended.


The Departed (HD-DVD)

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The Departed
2006 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on February 13th, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby TrueHDDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B-


Specs and Features:
151 mins, R, VC1 1080p standard (2.40:1), HD-30/DVD-9 double-sided combo disc, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English) and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned


The film that finally brought director Martin Scorsese his Academy Award and was also the Best Picture winner for 2006 has made a very fine debut on HD-DVD at least in terms of the presentation of the film itself. Warners Bros.' efforts on the video transfer show few missteps as we are rewarded with a beautifully detailed image that shines in terms of colour fidelity and overall sharpness. Both interiors and exteriors are equally impressive. The transfer only falters on a couple of night-time scenes that are a little murky for my taste. It's not the best HD-DVD effort I've viewed, but it's close. The sound is best rendered in the TrueHD mix that's offered (in preference to the Dolby Digital Plus track), but its overall impact is not as striking as the best sound mixes. Certainly all the dialogue is crystal clear and gunshots are jarringly effective at times, but the surround activity is best described as subdued.

The film itself is a worthy addition to the Scorsese gangster canon (and a typical one in terms of its ample violence and f-word quotient), although the focus is as much on the police side as the gangsters this time. In terms of the latter, the story focuses on Boston crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) while the former is embodied by two officers - Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who is actually working for Costello while ostensibly an up-and-comer in the plain-clothes division, and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover cop who has infiltrated Costello's gang. The early part of the film focuses on police attempts to bring Costello to justice, but later morphs into a tense cat-and-mouse game as Costigan struggles to protect his cover while Sullivan tries to unearth him. Leonardo DiCaprio is the class of the film as the increasingly desperate Costigan, but Matt Damon is also coldly effective while Mark Wahlberg provides a memorable turn as one of Costigan's control officers. Supporting work from Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin is also quite worthy. The sole sour note is sounded by Jack Nicholson who no longer seems able to give a restrained performance. Here he resorts to a Jokeresque effort that significantly diminishes his character's credibility at times. It's surprising that Scorsese didn't rein him in substantially. As many will know, the film is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs. The lack of originality is a little surprising in a film coming from Scorsese, especially when the original version was so recently released. At least Scorsese's other foray into remake territory (1991's Cape Fear) came three decades after the original. The Departed does add a few twists to the original Infernal Affairs plot that can stretch one's acceptance of the film's ending somewhat, but overall the film is so effectively orchestrated by Scorsese and so well acted (aside from Nicholson) that the entertainment value and repeat viewing potential are very high. The film was probably not last year's best one, but given Oscar's track record on such things, certainly not a bad choice.

One would have liked to have seen a more substantial package of supplements on the disc, but what we get is enough to keep one satisfied until the inevitable second release. There are a couple of documentaries that focus not so much on the film itself as on its real-life background and on its place in respect to other Scorsese gangster films. Scorsese introduces a number of deleted scenes and we also get the theatrical trailer. Some would say that the provision of the film's standard definition DVD version on the disc's flip side is a supplement also. In terms of being able to see the image improvement that HD offers over DVD, I guess that's true. But it just adds an extra cost to the HD disc that I suspect most purchasers would be quite happy to dispense with.

Not the home run as a package that one might like to see, but the film is very good and is allowed to shine brightly in this HD rendition. Highly recommended.


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