|Well, I had said I was retiring the High Definition Matters column, but sometimes the column format lends itself better to one's thoughts than the stand-alone review approach. So here we go. I can't promise that the column will appear regularly, but it will continue to pop up from time to time as the spirit moves me. This time out, I list my choices for best Blu-ray releases of 2009 as well as reviewing a number of titles that I've recently been able to view (WB's Sphere, The Negotiator, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Universal's Public Enemies; Sony's District 9, Julie & Julia, Adoration [from E1 in Canada], and The Quick and the Dead; BFI's Man of Violence; Fox's All About Steve and (500) Days of Summer; MGM's Misery; and Disney's The Proposal). I've also updated the Blu-ray release database.
The Ten Best Blu-rays of 2009
The following are listed alphabetically and represent releases that were top quality films as well as quality transfer packages. It's no surprise that the list is dominated by Criterion and Warner Bros. as both companies have made Blu-ray a priority. It helps also that both companies have access to some of the best films, but the attention to high quality transfers shows. Sony can also be relied on for great Blu-ray transfers, but the films they have to work on aren't always among the very best. I've reviewed many of these releases over the past year either as stand-alone reviews or as part of previous editions of this column, so please seek out the individual reviews for more details. They're all archived in the Reviews section of the site.
The 400 Blows (Criterion)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion)
Dr. Strangelove (Sony)
Gone with the Wind (WB)
North by Northwest (WB)
The Seventh Seal (Criterion)
Star Trek (Paramount)
Wings of Desire (Criterion)
The Wizard of Oz (WB)
Honourable mention: An American in Paris (WB), Braveheart (Paramount), The General (Kino), Howard's End (Criterion), The International (Sony), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney)
What I've Looked At Recently
My pile of recently viewed Blu-rays has grown to 13 titles and in looking back over them, I can only point to two that gave me little or no pleasure. Sphere, a 1998 Barry Levinson science fiction film from a novel by Michael Crichton, squanders a fine cast (Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson) in a predictable and bloated production. This was a bit of a throw-away release from Warners last September and although it looks okay, they obviously knew they didn't have much to work with. Worse, however, is the so-called comedy All About Steve. I normally enjoy Sandra Bullock's work, but here she plays an obnoxious cruciverbalist (crossword puzzle specialist) in a paper-thin tale that finds her essentially stalking a TV cameraman that she's become obsessed with. A fine transfer from Fox is wasted on this sad affair.
At the other end of the spectrum are three engrossing pieces of entertainment all worth recommending strongly. Adoration is Atom Egoyan's latest effort - a thoughtful and strikingly constructed film about a young high school boy whose dead father may have been a terrorist. The truth is unraveled in a mesmerizing series of scenes that flip back and forth in time, but the film's real strength lies in the central characters created by Arsinee Khaljian, Scott Speedman, and Devon Bostick. Sony's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer (released in Canada by E1 Entertainment) is no poster-boy for dynamic high definition, but it is an accurate representation of the film's theatrical look. Textures are impressive and minor grain is evident. The DTS HD Master Audio sound is unremarkable, but the supplements offer some good discussion from Egoyan spread over several featurettes. Julie & Julia is also delectable stuff and not just because it deals a lot with food. Its parallel stories of Julia Child's life in France and fledgling writer Julie Powell's attempt to make all the recipes in Child's French cooking book in the course of one year are intertwined masterfully by director Nora Ephron. Meryl Streep delivers a great take on Julia Child and Amy Adams' Julie is fresh and envigorating. These are characters you're happy to spend time with and the film is one that can stand repeat viewings. Sony's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is typically fine - good dimensionality, modest grain, accurate colour, with very good detail and no apparent digital manipulation. The DTS-HD Master Audio isn't taxed but delivers quite adequately. The supplements including audio commentary by Ephron are meaty, particularly an extended piece in which family and friends remember Julia Child. Public Enemies is director Michael Mann's take on John Dillinger and the efforts led by FBI agent Melvin Purvis to hunt him down. The early 1930s era is well evoked by Mann (often a difficult thing to achieve in colour when historically we've been used to viewing it in black and white) while Johnny Depp and Christian Bale capture Dillinger and Purvis respectively quite effectively. Depp's work (he should be getting some Oscar attention for his efforts, but memories are short) is particularly nuanced and underplayed, something that we also see in Marion Cotillard's portrayal of Depp's girlfriend, Billie Freshette. Some of the set pieces are reminiscent of ones from other Mann crime films, but they're dynamic sequences nonetheless. The final sequence of Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph theatre, while Purvis deploys his forces to capture Dillinger once the film is over, is masterfully orchestrated by Mann. Overall, the combination of a thoughtful cat and mouse game, and plenty of machine-gun action, results in an exhilarating film. Mann's decision to shoot with HD cameras, sometimes a decision that results in a overly-sanitized look, works very nicely for Public Enemies. The 2.40:1 image is very crisp with excellent texture and facial detail. Colours are quite vivid and blacks are particularly deep. Some minor edge effects are evident at times, but overall, this is a very nice job by Universal. Equally as impressive despite some variation in sound volume is the DTS-HD Master Audio track, which delivers the crackle of gunfire as effectively as it does the fidelity of the period music on the soundtrack. Surround and low frequency effects are both notable. An excellent supplement package, highlighted by a great audio commentary by Mann and a number of featurettes all in HD, is a fitting complement to the Blu-ray transfer.
Much has been made of District 9 by those searching for science fiction films that aren't delivering the usual derivative monsters-on-a-spaceship or monsters-at-a-remote-site-on-some-distant-planet tale. The film is certainly an improvement on such fare, but it's hardly novel stuff for anyone who's a regular reader of science fiction. The film deals with a group of aliens interned in a camp near Johannesburg after their spacecraft grounds to a halt over the city and efforts to move them to a new camp by the company charged with policing them. An eager-to-please functionary is assigned the task of managing the move, but he is quickly out of his depth and as a result of an accident finds himself beginning to metamorphose into one of the alien beings. Much of the goodwill built up in the early part of the film is tempered by a second half that degenerates into a chase sequence filled with the usual frenetic editing and implausible action sequences that too often replace credibly developed suspense in current thrillers. Sony's 1.85:1 transfer is an accurate representation of the theatrical experience and the DTS-HD sound is impressively immersive. Plenty of effort has gone into a sweet set of extras including director commentary by Neill Blomkamp and a fine three-part making-of documentary, among many others. Unfortunately it's all in support of a film that's on balance worth an initial viewing, but one I can't imagine bothering to watch a second time. A much better science fiction film out now on Blu-ray is Moon.
(500) Days of Summer, with stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, doesn't on the surface promise a great deal. The actual delivery is something else. If there's been a better and more realistic romantic comedy this year, I don't know what it is. The title refers to the 500 days of the relationship between a greeting card writer and aspiring architect (Gordon Levitt) and a young woman whom he believes may be ‘the one” - office co-worker Summer Finn (Deschanel). We see the various phases of their relationship played out in a non-linear fashion that constantly keeps us thinking in a way that seems to make us almost privy to our hero's thoughts as the relationship with Summer develops and matures. The film neatly avoids contrivance and delivers a satisfying ending that provides both closure and promise. Gordon-Levitt has the most difficult role and he delivers a portrayal that is a realistic mixture of enthusiasm, insight, and bemusement. Deschanel's character is at times a quixotic one and she imbues it with just enough uncertainty that we're never sure where the relationship is going until the filmmakers want us to know. Fox's 2.40:1 Blu-ray presentation is a solid one, accurately replicating the theatrical look - a somewhat soft overall look, but one exhibiting good colour fidelity and image detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio does a presentable job, but there's little about it that stands out. A decent supplement package is highlighted by an entertaining audio commentary by director Marc Webb, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Webb, and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Recommended.
Those who enjoy the Harry Potter films will not be disappointed by the latest one - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The film captures the essence of the book quite well despite omitting several main events, with director David Yates delivering a rather foreboding story with considerable flair. More than any of the preceding films, however, I feel this one relies on the audience having read the book upon which it is based, in order to understand fully all that is going on. Our three principals (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) and the usual British supporting cast (including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, and Alan Rickman) are back and in their normal good form, though it appears the apparent demise of one character may see the ranks depleted for the two future films. Aside from Harry's tribulations, attention is paid to his and his friends' recognizable issues of adolescence with some wit, something that effectively tempers the otherwise dark proceedings. In the end, the film functions essentially as a set-up for the series finale - something to look forward to as David Yates' facility with this film suggests that the final book, to be presented in two films (one coming in late 2010 and the other in mid-2011, I understand) is in good hands cinematically. Warners has delivered a fine 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer that handles the film's dark look very well. Even with the limited lighting and preponderance of muted colours, shadow detail is very good and black levels deep. The few brightly lit or colourful sequences shine like beacons when they occur, offering vivid colours and very well detailed skin appearance and clothing and prop textures. The transfer appears free of unnecessary digital manipulation. The Dolby TrueHD audio is virtually a reference experience with aggressive LFE and surround activity supporting clear dialogue and excellent panning of moving sounds. The supplements are numerous but seldom that meaty. One exception is the documentary on J.K. Rowling's year of creating and launching the final book in the Potter series. Recommended.