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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

What I've Looked At Recently

[Note that the BD Release List has also been updated.]

I've had the opportunity to screen some 17 releases since my last column. Seven of them rate definite recommendations, two are better than expected, six are disappointing, and two offer mixed blessings.

Let's look at the real high points first - Mystic River (from WB Bros.), The Last King of Scotland (from Fox), The Damned United (from Sony), Atonement (from Universal in the U.S. and Alliance in Canada), The Godfather, Part II (from Paramount), and The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy (both from Universal). The four most significant ones are Mystic River, The Last King of Scotland, The Damned United, and Atonement because each represent the first Blu-ray releases for the titles.

Mystic River (Blu-ray Disc)

Mystic River is of course the superb 2003 Clint Eastwood film based on Dennis Lehane's novel of the same title. With a great cast (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Hardin, Laura Linney) all in top form and directed with the usual Eastwood economy, the film is part thriller, part psychological drama and a brooding journey linking a tragedy in the boyhood of three men with a brutal murder in their adult life. The three male leads tend to have received the bulk of the acclaim in this film, but the work of Hardin and Linney in roles that are not the usual wifely window dressing really merit attention too. Warners' 2.40:1 transfer is a somewhat mixed blessing. It does offer a sharp and nicely detailed image that resolves textures and facial features impressively. The film's light film grain appears to be properly retained without obvious DNR applied. On the negative side, minor edge enhancement is obvious at times although much less so than on the DVD. The best aspect of the DTS-HD Master audio is its immersive delivery of Eastwood's low-key and evocative score. The supplements are a hold-over from the DVD with the highlights being the audio commentary by Robbins and Bacon, and a meaty trio of Charlie Rose interviews with Eastwood, Robbins, and Bacon. Highly recommended.

The Last King of Scotland (Blu-ray Disc)

In The Last King of Scotland, James McAvoy plays a young idealistic Scottish doctor who travels to Uganda to work in a free clinic, but through fortuitous events he becomes the personal physician of and eventually trusted advisor to Idi Amin, the country's newly-installed dictator. Forest Whitaker gives a powerful and persuasive performance as Amin that won him 2006's Best Actor Oscar. It's a mesmerizing portrayal of an almost larger-than-life character who's at times child-like and at others a disturbed and brutal individual that stands repeated viewings and obviously is the film's centerpiece. Some balance is provided by McAvoy's effective playing of a rather weak-willed character who travels down a slippery slope during the course of the film. Gillian Anderson gets one of those "and" credits that accurately reflects the brief and rather superfluous role she plays as the wife of the free clinic's head doctor. Fox's 2.35:1 transfer is excellent. The film had ample grain and that's well conveyed, but the film manages to deliver textures, facial imperfections, and other image detail impressively. Colour fidelity is very good, delivering the lush African landscape with vibrancy. The DTS-HD Master audio is solid if not particularly memorable. Surround activity focuses on effective ambient effects. The DVD supplements are ported over, with the highlights being a part history/part making-of documentary (Capturing Idi Amin) and the audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald. Highly recommended.

The Damned United (Blu-ray Disc)

The Damned United is one of the best new films to appear on Blu-ray so far this year. Based on David Peace's well-received book, it dramatizes the 44 controversial days of Brian Clough's brief run as manager of Leeds United, reigning football champs in England in the mid-1970s. The film switches back and forth between the Leeds period and the lead-in years when Clough (Michael Sheen) was a rising star as manager of Derby County with the help of his friend and co-manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). During that time, Clough developed a deep dislike for Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the man he replaced at Leeds - a dislike that resulted in actions by Clough that were at the root of the brevity of his time with Leeds. The film is a brilliantly-realized depiction of the era and its events by director Tom Hooper, but the two things you remember as the film ends are the deeply engrossing performance by Sheen as the bold-talking, own-worst-enemy Clough and the warmth of his relationship with Taylor despite the strain imposed on it by Clough's acceptance of the Leeds job. The enduring nature of the Clough/Taylor relationship is bolstered by an amiable and at times conspiratorial performance by Timothy Spall. Sony's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer replicates the film's washed-out look and delivers first rate detail and textures. There's no evidence of digital manipulation. The Dolby TrueHD track is well balanced, delivering clear dialogue that's never overpowered by sound effects or music. Surround activity is subdued. The supplement package is superior, including a fine audio commentary from the director, producer Andy Harries, and Sheen; four featurettes that cover well the film's development, Sheen's portrayal of Clough, and the British game in the 1970s; and a number of deleted scenes. Highly recommended.

Atonement (Blu-ray Disc)

Atonement, from Ian McEwan's novel of the same title, was one of the best films of 2007 and now it's one of the best early Blu-rays of 2010. It recounts a young girl's observance of a passionate embrace between her sister and a childhood friend and the resulting jealousy that drives her to tell a lie that will change the course of all their lives forever. The novel was a masterful blend of the lyrical, the brutal, and the surprising and it has been perfectly captured on film by director Joe Wright. Readers of the book will be aware of the narrative's startling conclusion, but it's completely and thankfully un-telegraphed by the film. Suffice it to say that it gives significantly added meaning to the title. A very strong cast headed by Keira Knightly and James McAvoy and supported by Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai completely draws one into the narrative. The period story (basically from the mid-1930s to the early war years) is very authentically staged, with the Dunkirk retreat strikingly recreated. Universal/Alliance's Blu-ray release is a superior one indeed. The 1.85:1 transfer is a glorious celebration of colour and texture, capturing the period sets with vibrancy, sharpness and excellent shadow detail. Skin tones are spot on, dimensionality is natural-looking, and there is no suggestion of digital manipulation whatsoever. A model of what a superior transfer should be! Almost matching the image for excellence is the richly immersive yet subtle DTS-HD Master audio. Supplements include a very informative audio commentary by the director, a good making-of documentary, and several deleted scenes. Very highly recommended.

The Godfather, Part II (Blu-ray Disc)The Bourne Identity (Blu-ray Disc)The Bourne Supremacy (Blu-ray Disc)

The Godfather, Part II, The Bourne Identity, and The Bourne Supremacy are all worth your attention as films. They are all appearing as separate Blu-ray releases for the first time, having earlier only been available on Blu-ray as part of box sets. All deliver exactly the same image and sound transfer previously available. In the case of Paramount's The Godfather, Part II release, an entry in its Sapphire Series, that's simply the best-looking home video incarnation that the film has ever had. Based on a restoration effort by Robert Harris, the film's vintage look with ample grain and dusky colour cast is beautifully preserved. The audio has been enhanced subtly through the provision of a Dolby TrueHD track although the original mono is also included. The only supplement is director Francis Ford Coppola's audio commentary. This release (and that of The Godfather, which I did not have the opportunity to view in its Sapphire Series version) are obviously intended for those whose primary interest is the films themselves. For those enthusiasts, these single-disc versions are highly recommended. Those seeking a full supplement package will have to look to the previously-released box set with its additional disc of extras. Universals' single discs of The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy have generated considerable discussion because of the studio's decision to make those discs double-sided with the Blu-ray transfer on one and the standard DVD on the other. There were no playback problems with the copies I looked at and indeed, I don't believe I've run across any such concerns in any reviews or fora I've looked at. Aside from that, the Blu-ray transfers are the same as those on the discs included in last year's box set of all three Bourne titles - and that is to say, quite good overall with a few quibbles about image detail levels and very minor edge effects, but virtually no issues with the excellent DTS -HD Master audio experiences. The same supplements have been carried over too. The discs (and presumably including that for The Bourne Ultimatum which I did not have for review) are easy recommendations for anyone who enjoys an intelligent thriller and does not already have the box set.

So, how about a couple of films that delivered more than I expected - The Box (from WB Bros.) and Surrogates (from Disney).

The Box (Blu-ray Disc)

The slightly better of these two is Richard Kelly's The Box. Based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson and with characters enriched by the director's own family background, this science fiction mystery film is a gripping experience on the whole. Does it explain everything you see on the screen? Not at all, but its central premise (about the choice presented to a young couple [Cameron Diaz and James Marsden] - press the button on a mysterious box and get $1 million, but know that somewhere someone that they don't know will die) is an intriguing one that provokes discussion long after the film is over. Many people have dismissed The Box, but like last year's Knowing, it rewards those who don't require every last thing to be explained, but can allow their minds to flow with the filmmaker's general intentions especially when it requires some sense of wonder, as thoughtful science fiction often does. Yes, there are some inconsistencies in the story line and follow-up on several of the plot aspects is irritatingly absent, but the overall impact easily more than compensates. The film also offers another good performance from Cameron Diaz (a nice follow-up to her efforts on My Sister's Keeper) and Frank Langella is suitably cryptic as the deliverer of the mysterious box. Warners' 2.40:1 transfer is a very fine one offering excellent image detail and good colour fidelity. The image even offers some pop on occasion. A mild level of grain is evident in the very clean image, befitting its recent vintage. The DTS-HD Master audio does a workmanlike job for the most part with only occasional though effective use of the surrounds. The supplements are not hugely inspiring beyond the director's fairly informative audio commentary. Recommended.

Surrogates (Blu-ray Disc)

Surrogates is hardly an earth-shattering science fiction film, particularly since it feels as though it was somewhat over-pruned in the cutting room. But it has an intelligent story and comes across as more than a run-of-the-mill Bruce Willis vehicle. In the near future, human beings no longer live their every-day lives in person but through surrogates (androids with perfect, youthful bodies). Humans mere stay at home and mentally move their surrogates while lying on a reclined wireless linking interface. Willis's character is a detective who (in the guise of his surrogate) is on the trail of someone who appears to be destroying the surrogates as well as the hosts linked to them. Meanwhile, in an interesting counterpoint, the real Willis host is seeking to reconnect with his wife who seems unwilling or scared to separate her real self from the perfect image presented by her own surrogate. Director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571, Terminator 3) keeps the film really moving along with some well-staged action sequences and good suspense during the climactic scenes. It comes in at a compact 89 minutes, but the story does seem rushed somewhat, with parts of the plot given short shrift. Willis does some of his best recent work and CGI is very effectively used to portray the smooth perfect-looking surrogates as compared to their less than perfect human controllers. Overall, the film is well worth your time. Disney's 2.40:1 Blu-ray presentation is very good indeed, with considerable depth and detailed facial features and object textures. The contrast between the generally tousled look of the real human beings and the smooth perfection of their surrogates is quite striking. The DTS-HD Master audio delivers an impressive sonic experience with plenty of good surround and directional effects. One's subwoofer gets a good workout in the action sequences. The best of the supplements are Mostow's interesting and informative audio commentary and a featurette focusing on the real-life possibilities of the film's surrogate theme. Recommended.


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