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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Summer 2007 Reviews

Activity by the studios in releasing classic titles in High Definition has continued to be modest at the very best, with only Rio Bravo, Battle of the Bulge, and The Cowboys really fitting the bill. I have reviews of those three titles in this edition of HDC plus coverage of more current fare such as Blood Diamond, Flags of Our Fathers, Freedom Writers, Trading Places, The Holiday, Premonition, and Planet Earth. Due to time constraints for this column necessitated by my current moving activities, my comments are brief for each title. As in the previous HDC column, HD-DVD is abbreviated by HD and Blu-ray by BD. Note also that in some instances both HD and BD versions have been reviewed while in others only one or the other have been evaluated. I think which case is which will be evident from the headings/specs of each review. If you have any comments on the reviews at all, I'd appreciate hearing from you as it gives me a better feel for the interest level that exists for a column with a High Definition focus.


Rio Bravo (Blu-ray Disc)

Rio Bravo (HD-DVD)


Rio Bravo
1959 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD & Blu-ray Disc on June 5th, 2007

Film: A+
Video (1-20): 16 (both HD and BD)
Audio (1-20): 14 (both HD and BD)
Extras: A (same content for both HD and BD)


Blu-ray Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital

Specs and Features (Blu-ray):
141 mins; Not Rated; VC1 1080p standard (1.85:1); BD-50 double layer disc, Elite Blue BD packaging; audio commentary by director John Carpenter and historian/critic Richard Schickel; 2 new featurettes (Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked), The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks documentary; John Wayne westerns trailer gallery; Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 in (English and French); Subtitles in English, French and Spanish

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital

Specs and Features (HD-DVD):
141 mins; Not Rated; VC1 1080p standard (1.85:1); HD-30 double layer disc; Elite Red HD packaging; audio commentary by director John Carpenter and historian/critic Richard Schickel; 2 new featurettes (Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked), The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks documentary; John Wayne westerns trailer gallery; Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 (English and French); Subtitles in English, French and Spanish


In my most recent Classic Coming Attractions column, I reviewed Warners' new Special Edition DVD of this title and I invite you to that location for my take on the film and the supplementary content on the discs (the latter being the same as on the HD and BD versions). As for the new High Definition versions, both HD and BD efforts are interchangeable in video and audio quality. The image is bright and colourful while preserving the grain that was characteristic of the original release. In comparison to another Warner release of a John Wayne film of similar vintage (The Searchers), Rio Bravo doesn't offer the same visual pop nor quite the same degree of pristine-looking cleanliness. It is, however, an admirable visual experience for a film that's now almost half a century old and improves on the DVD SE in the areas of colour intensity and level of image detail. The mono sound track provides a very nice sonic accompaniment. It's clean and clear and even manages some decent presence to gunshots and the like. Recommended.


The Cowboys (Blu-ray Disc)


The Cowboys
1971 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on June 5th, 2007
(also available on HD-DVD)

Blu-ray Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital

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


Specs and Features:
135 mins; GP; VC1 1080p standard (2.4:1); BD-50 double layer disc; Elite Blue BD packaging; audio commentary by director Mark Rydell, cast/director reunion featurette The Cowboys: Together Again; vintage featurette The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men; theatrical trailer; Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English and 1.0 French and Spanish; Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish


This is one of the better films of John Wayne's final years. In it he portrays a rancher taking his cattle to market who must turn to a group of boys for help when the herders he had hired desert him for the lure of gold. Initial mutual ambivalence between Wayne and his young charges gives way to understanding and appreciation as the drive progresses and Wayne really takes the boys under his wing. A shocking event in the latter part of the film forces the boys to become older than their years as the lessons they learned under the Wayne character's tutelage are tested in the reality of a harsh world. Directed by Mark Rydell, who moved from suspicion of Wayne's politics to an appreciation for Wayne as an actor while the filming progressed, The Cowboys has taken on added luster over the past 35 years. At the time of its original release, many viewed it as just another western churned out by Wayne in his final years. Somewhat akin to The Shootist, however, though not at the same personal level, the film actually reflects, even presages, changes in Wayne's and our contemporary world. Old heroes are no longer invincible and gun violence is seen as the easy response for youth faced with adversity. The Cowboys exhibits another fine catalogue transfer from Warner Bros. The image is for the most part sharp and clear. Facial features and clothing textures are nicely detailed and the western vistas are very attractively rendered. There are a few blemishes and the odd instance of softness, but the overall impression is quite positive and about on a par with that of Rio Bravo, but below that of The Searchers. The 5.1 sound track is mainly focused on the front with only sporadic use of the surrounds. Dialogue is clear and clean, but gunshots seem weaker than one would expect. John Williams' score sounds quite impressive and enveloping. The supplements are the same as found on the DVD Deluxe Edition recently released. They include a superior audio commentary by Mark Rydell, who also participates in a cast reunion featurette that lasts about half an hour. It's best to view the latter before listening to the commentary due to the overlap in information content. Recommended.


Battle of the Bulge (Blu-ray Disc)

Battle of the Bulge (HD-DVD)


Battle of the Bulge
1965 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD & Blu-ray Disc on May 15th, 2007

Film: B
Video (1-20): 18 (both HD and BD)
Audio (1-20): 14 (both HD and BD)
Extras: A (same content for both HD and BD)


Blu-ray Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital

Specs and Features (Blu-ray):
169 mins; Not Rated; VC1 1080p standard (2.76:1); BD-50 double layer disc; Elite Blue BD packaging; audio commentary by director Ken Annakin and actor James MacArthur, 2 vintage featurettes (The Filming of the Battle of the Bulge and History Recreated); theatrical trailer; Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English and 1.0 French; Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Specs and Features (HD-DVD):
169 mins; Not Rated; VC1 1080p standard (2.76:1); HD-30 double layer disc; Elite Red HD packaging; audio commentary by director Ken Annakin and actor James MacArthur, 2 vintage featurettes (The Filming of the Battle of the Bulge and History Recreated); theatrical trailer; Audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 in English and 1.0 French; Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish


One's enjoyment of this film will be dictated very much by one's frame of mind. If you're in the mood for an old-fashioned war epic with plenty of clichés and lots of well-known faces in both starring and cameo roles, and also don't mind kicking back for the best part of three hours, Battle of the Bulge is for you. On the other hand, if you're looking for the real lowdown on the actual Battle of the Bulge, don't want to be distracted by star cameos, and don't have all afternoon or evening to spend, you should look elsewhere. Personally, I'm always beguiled by old-fashioned war epics, so even though this one drags at times more than I'd like to admit, I find it to be time enjoyably spent for the most part. Warners' high definition versions offer one more reason to enjoy the film. For those who aren't aware, the Battle of the Bulge was the final German offensive of significant consequence during the Second World War. It occurred in late 1944 when many Allied soldiers were beginning to feel the German army was really on the run. Instead, the Germans mounted a desperate tank-based attempt to slow the Allied advance in eastern France, hoping to buy time for new German air weapons to help swing the war's momentum back in Germany's favour. Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw portray the key characters on the Allied and German sides respectively, with the likes of Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, George Montgomery, Telly Savalas, James MacArthur, and Charles Bronson peppered throughout the film. The film's major failing is its desire to explain each side's approach to the battle; it doesn't do a very coherent job and at times one is left scratching one's head at exactly what's happening. Still if you persevere, there are some decent battle scenes as compensation and plenty of opportunity to play name the actor (even if one does get tired of seeing Telly Savalas play a wisecracking NCO type for what seems like the hundredth time). Whatever one may think of the film, there can be no debate about the impressive job that Warners has done on bringing the 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision alive in High Definition. Looking identical in HD and BD, the film appears as though it was virtually shot yesterday . Colours demonstrate excellent fidelity and the image is very clean and very well detailed - the latter to the point where some of the film's special effects (model work, rear projection use) are almost cruelly revealed. Warners created a new 5.1 track for the film previous DVD special edition and it's a fine effort in terms of clarity and accuracy. It exhibits only limited surround character, however, so that one seldom experiences the feeling of envelopment that one would like from the battle sequences for example. The disc supplements are highlighted by an audio commentary by director Ken Annakin and actor James MacArthur, an extra that was not included on the standard DVD special edition. For most people beyond ardent war film enthusiasts, it'll probably be best to try a rental on this one.


Blood Diamond  (HD-DVD)


Blood Diamond
2006 (2007) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on July 3rd, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby TrueHDDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A


Specs and Features:
143 mins; R; VC1 1080p standard (2.4:1); HD-30 double layer disc, Elite Red HD packaging; audio commentary by director Edward Zwick, Blood on the Stone documentary; 3 featurettes (Becoming Archer, Journalism on the Front Line and Inside the Siege of Freetown); music video; In-Movie Experience with Edward Zwick; theatrical trailer; Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 English, French and Spanish; Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish


The last few years have seen some really fine performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, fulfilling the promise of his earliest work. I'm talking about the likes of The Aviator and The Departed, to which you can now add Blood Diamond. In the latter, DiCaprio plays an ex-mercenary turned smuggler who stumbles across the trail of a rare pink diamond of significant value found by a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou). The story is set against the civil war background of 1999 Sierra Leone. Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai), the film is relentlessly paced and paints a very stark picture of late 20th century Africa. The latter aspect is the most striking component of the film and gives what is already an engrossing plot considerable added interest. The acting is first-rate across the board (including a fairly stock part of a journalist played by the always-welcome Jennifer Connelly). The HD presentation looks very fine, both in facial close-ups and in long shots of the African landscape. Dark scenes are handled very well. The image looks pristine, befitting such a new film, and appears to replicate the theatrical experience effectively. Edge effects are not in evidence and one can only quibble over some sequences that seem a little soft. Equally as effective if not more so is the TrueHD audio which delivers a thoroughly exhilarating surround experience with effective low frequency effects as well. The film's frequent gunfire has great presence. The highlight of the disc's supplements is a thorough and engrossing audio commentary by Zwick. Together with the In-Movie Experience that Warners has provided, I'd say you learn just about everything there is to know about the making-of the film. Also of considerable value is a lengthy documentary on the road a diamond travels from source to retail and on the diamond trade in general. Highly recommended.


Flags of Our Fathers (Blu-ray Disc)

Flags of Our Fathers (HD-DVD)


Flags of Our Fathers
2006 (2007) - DreamWorks/Warner (Paramount)
Released on HD-DVD & Blu-ray Disc on May 22nd, 2007

Film: A-
Video (1-20): 19 (both HD and BD)
Audio (1-20): 18 (HD) 17 (BD)
Extras: B+ (same content for both HD and BD)


Blu-ray Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital

Specs and Features (Blu-ray):
132 mins; R; MPEG-4 1080p standard (2.35:1); BD-50 double layer disc and BD-25 single, Elite Blue BD packaging; introduction by director Clint Eastwood; 6 featurettes (Words on the Page, Six Brave Men, The Making of an Epic, Raising the Flag, Visual Effects and Looking into the Past); theatrical trailer; Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French, and Spanish; Subtitles in English, French and Spanish

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Specs and Features (HD-DVD):
132 mins; R; VC1 1080p standard (2.35:1); HD-30 double layer disc, Elite Red HD packaging; introduction by director Clint Eastwood; 6 featurettes (Words on the Page, Six Brave Men, The Making of an Epic, Raising the Flag, Visual Effects and Looking into the Past); theatrical trailer; Audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 in English, French and Spanish; Subtitles in English, French and Spanish


Clint Eastwood just keeps churning out superior products these days. His most recent endeavor has been two films made simultaneously about the Iwo Jima events of World War II. Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story from the Japanese point of view while this film, Flags of Our Fathers, tells it from the American. The film is based on the book of the same title by James Bradley whose father was one of the men who raised the flag in the famous Iwo Jima image. Bradley traced the history of all the men involved in that event and revealed many surprising facts. The truth behind the flag-raising and the fate of the flag raisers makes for an engrossing tale, but only once you become comfortable with the complex flashback format that Eastwood has used to tell the story. Along with a number of mainly unknown actors, this makes the narrative difficult to follow at first. Eventually though the approach becomes less obtrusive as the faces of the actors and the names of those individuals they're portraying coalesce. The comfort level that one develops also enhances one's appreciation of Eastwood's juxtaposition of Iwo Jima battlefield scenes and those on the American home front. The result is a film experience that greatly benefits from a second viewing in order to appreciate all the intricacies of the story. In high definition, Flags of Our Fathers looks superb. Although different encodes have been used for the HD and BD presentations, I could see no significant difference between the two. Image detail is about as good as you can get whether on the battlefield or in big city or small-town America. The desaturated look that Eastwood has employed for the battlefield sequences is as effectively conveyed as the more colourful home front passages. Eastwood's use of colour also seems authentic for the 1940s, something that is hard to achieve without an artificial look for a period that one is so used to viewing in black and white. On the audio side, the HD version has a modestly more vibrant sound due to its DD Plus track than does the BD version which has to make do with a standard DD Surround. On both, however, the battlefield sequences are particularly notable for the very fine surround effects and the precision of individual sonic events. Paramount has accorded this release a two-disc treatment with all the supplements contained in high definition on the second disc. The bulk of the supplements comprise a superior six-part documentary that covers the film-making process in admirable detail. There's no commentary by Eastwood, but he does provide an insightful introduction to the film. Recommended.


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