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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

I've got reviews of seven films for you this time, including The Young Victoria and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (from Alliance in Canada), An Education (from Sony), The Baader Meinhof Complex (from MPI), Up in the Air (from Paramount), Minority Report (from DreamWorks), The Blind Side (from Warner Bros.), and XIII (from Phase 4 Films). All but one are highly recommended. Of them, some don't have the greatest supplement packages in the world, but the films themselves are all of a high standard.

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

Read on!


What I've Looked At Recently

George Clooney has much the same problem Cary Grant had. He makes it look too easy, with the result that his performances usually don't have the obvious mechanics that people can point to and say, "wow did you see what Clooney did there. That was some performance and it really deserves an award." That's not to say that his work isn't recognized, but if there's a showy performance to compare it against, Clooney's effort typically comes off second best, because people can't point to something specific that he's doing. This year's Oscar results are an excellent example. Clooney should have won the Best Actor award for his entirely natural, realistic and engrossing performance as a man forced to face up to the reasons for his peripatetic lifestyle in Up in the Air.

Up in the Air (Blu-ray Disc)

But because the seams in his performance didn't show and they did in Jeff Bridges' portrayal of Crazy Heart's over-the-hill singer, voters went for the latter. (Of course, career recognition sentiment also clouded the results.) You can appreciate for yourself how impressive Clooney's work is in Up in the Air via Paramount's recent Blu-ray release. The film offers a dark mix of mainly drama but with some comedy surrounding a man (Clooney) whose job is to fire people on behalf of clients who are unwilling to do the deed themselves. In the course of his work, Clooney logs some 90% of his year on the road, much of it spent in airport terminals or in the air flying from place to place. The script is intelligent and as well as Clooney's character, provides rounded opportunities for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick to shine as well. Farmiga's role is that of a fellow road warrior that Clooney hooks up with and Kendrick plays a new staff member at the company that Clooney works for whose cost-saving measure of using video conferencing to fire people puts Clooney's life style in jeopardy. The film is another feather in young director Jason Reitman's hat. He not only directs without artifice, the screenplay is his too (in conjunction with Sheldon Turner). Perfectly in tune with its economic times, the film leads but never pushes as it takes us on a thoughtfully observed voyage that ultimately is all about humanity - the connection with others that makes life worthwhile, not the lifestyle we lead or the things we accumulate as a consequence. Paramount's 1.85:1 effort is as seamless as Clooney's work. It offers a sharp, natural-looking image replete with impressive detail, natural skin tones and a colour palette with excellent fidelity. The DTS-HD audio provides crystal-clear dialogue and excellent use of the surrounds in terms of realistic ambient effects. Supplements include an engaging audio commentary by Jason Reitman and his director photography and first assistant director, a baker's dozen of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Reitman, and several other short extras. Highly recommended.

Minority Report (Blu-ray Disc)

Good hard-science-fiction films are difficult to find (and I'm not referring to space opera fare like Star Wars which can have their own intrinsic merit). Special effects are often allowed to overpower story even when good source material by some of our best science fiction writers is employed. Philip K. Dick has been fortunate that some of his stories have been treated carefully enough so that superior filmizations have resulted, such as Blade Runner (based on the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep"), Total Recall (short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), and most recently Minority Report (short story of the same title). The latter, a joint DreamWorks/20th Century-Fox release, was made by Steven Spielberg in 2002 with Tom Cruise starring and has now made it to Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. Cruise appears as a detective who works for Pre-Crime, a futuristic experimental law enforcement unit in Washington, D.C. that relies on people with precognitive powers to give advance warning of crimes about to be committed. The program has successfully prevented most crime and is on the verge of becoming a national mainstream program. Then Cruise's character is himself identified as a future murderer and he must race against time and his own special police unit in an attempt to prove himself innocent of a crime he has yet to commit. There are many people who don't particularly care for much of Stephen Spielberg's work, but I'm not one of them. Not all of his films are masterpieces by any means and sometimes I question casting decisions, but Spielberg's directorial skills are impressive and the results are usually big-canvas stories that are at the very least vastly entertaining. Minority Report is a fine example. Spielberg has a thoughtful story to work with and in Cruise, a star who always works hard at immersing himself in his part. The film contains several very well-orchestrated action sequences and although long at 142 minutes, it is consistently engrossing and thought provoking - an experience with considerable repeat-viewing potential. The film also does not make the error of creating a future world that's completely unrecognizable. Set some 50-odd years in the future, its world has some impressively futuristic transport systems and communications methodologies, but its housing methods and urban scapes are recognizable variants on what we have today. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray release looks superb. The film was characterized by a desaturated color palette and considerable grain, all of which is faithfully replicated on the disc. Blacks are satisfyingly deep and shadow detail is impressive. Facial close-ups and densely textured items Demonstrate some of the Blu-ray pop that viewers will not otherwise see in the film's general overall look. What you do see is what you should see, and Paramount is to be commended for its restraint on imposing any obvious digital manipulation. The DTS-HD audio is also top notch. The experience is very immersive throughout the film with an ample use of LFE that particularly imposes itself during the action sequences. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with John Williams' very complementary score. The release's supplements are contained on a second disc. There is over an hour of new features all in HD, including an extended interview with Spielberg split in to 18 segments and six other featurettes that mainly relate to various aspects of the production but do also include an interview with Philip K. Dick's daughter. Also included are the supplements from the previous DVD release. Highly recommended.

The Blind Side (Blu-ray Disc)

The Blind Side is just one of those films that makes you feel good. It depicts the true story of Michael Oher, a virtually homeless kid in Memphis, who finds a place with the Tuohy family when he is admitted to a Christian school that the Tuohy children attend. Oher has an athleticism that enables him to star for the school football team and eventually become a college All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. The film is not about these later successes, but about the bond that develops between Oher and the Tuohys, especially the strong-willed female head of the family - Leigh Anne Tuohy. Sandra Bullock delivers a remarkably thoughtful, uplifting, and natural performance as Leigh Anne that was properly rewarded with this year's Best Actress Academy Award. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Quinton Aaron being most notable as the gentle giant Oher and Jae Head as the garrulous Tuohy son S.J. reminding one somewhat of Macauley Culkin. The film is one that is both passionate and compassionate in its telling of the Oher/Tuohy story - a combination rare in films today, but one that apparently stems directly from the real Leigh Anne Tuohy and so well captured by Bullock's work. It's difficult to think of another actress who could have portrayed Leigh Anne so effectively both in visual similarity and in the combination of strength, self-assuredness, and caring that obviously comprise the true nature of her character. In some respects, The Blind Side is a sports biopic, but if you're not a sports fan, don't let that put you off watching this film. It's a positive emotional experience well worth putting up with a few football sequences. Warners' 1.85:1 Blu-ray presentation makes it easy to immerse oneself in the movie. The image is beautifully sharp and detailed with a mild grain that imparts a very film-like look. Colours are vibrant with some real visual pop at times. Fine-scale detail is particularly well conveyed. There's no evidence of unnecessary digital tampering at all. The DTS-HD audio is quietly effective in delivering the dialogue-driven movie clearly. The dialogue is well balanced with the film's pleasant music score. There are few uses of the surrounds other than the odd ambient effect such as crowd noise at a sporting event. The supplement package (most of it in HD) is not deep, but there are some interesting items in it. Most interesting are the conversations about the film's production between Sandra Bullock and the real Leigh Anne Tuohy, and between director/screenwriter John Lee Hancock and author of the book the film was based on, Michael Lewis. The featurette about actor Quinton Aaron is also good. Included too are some deleted scenes, an interview with the real Michael Oher, and the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.

The Baader Meinhoff Complex (Blu-ray Disc)

If you're like me and of a certain age, you probably well remember the headlines of the activities of the Red Brigade faction or Baader-Meinhof gang in Europe during the late 60s and early 70s. But the actual reasons behind the group's actions and the details of them never really crystallized, by virtue of distance and preoccupation with events in North America. Well, prepare to be educated. The Baader Meinhof Complex, written and produced by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Uli Edel is a mesmerizing chronicle of the group's rise and eventual fall. The film crystallizes the motivations and events and does so through a superb evocation of the times and places. The tone is set right when the film starts with a well-staged and brutally direct reconstruction of a student protest that goes awry. Later events are similarly filmed with explosive you-are-there reality. The cast includes an impressive group of young German actors such as Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others), Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run), and Joanna Wokalek (North Face) who provide a freshness and honesty to their work. Wily old vet Bruno Ganz (Downfall) is also on hand as the man who runs the gang to earth, but he seems like an afterthought to the cast, perhaps added to provide a degree of cachet for the international release audience. As impressively crafted and acted as the film is, it is equally superb in making us understand what the Baader Meinhof complex was all about and how it came to an end. MPI provides the 149-minute film a very fine 2.35:1 Blu-ray release. The look is very natural with an accurate representation of the somewhat desaturated film image. Flesh tones are impressive and fine detail is well preserved. The transfer delivers a good sense of presence on numerous occasions. There is no evidence of digital manipulation. The German DTS-HD sound provides a strong, sometimes aggressively so, surround experience, during both sequences of intense action and quieter ambient ones. Subtitles are clear to read and sufficiently detailed to deliver a good sense of the German dialogue. They are properly contained within the frame so that those with Constant Height setups will not have their viewing experience compromised. The supplement package is strong with the Blu-ray disc containing a fine half-hour making of documentary (in German with English sub-titles). A second disc (DVD not Blu-ray) contains 4 featurettes on various aspects of the production (acting, scoring, costuming, etc.) plus a 3-part interview with Steven Aust who wrote "The Baader Meinhof Complex" on which the film was based and a 2-part interview with writer/producer Bernd Eichinger. Highly recommended.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Blu-ray Disc)

The nitpicking that goes on in at some Internet fora and in some online reviews of DVD and BD releases never ceases to bemuse me. Too often, the important aspect of the exercise - the movie itself - gets short shrift when there's an errant speck or some perceived slight excess of digital manipulation to spend paragraphs anguishing over. Perspective seems to go out the window in some such cases and one sometimes finds studios being castigated or releases being completely damned as virtual crimes against humanity. That's not to say that we shouldn't be expecting the best transfers we can get, but does anyone really think that studios make conscious decisions to provide a sub-standard product. Accidents do happen from time to time, but more often than not there are valid reasons when a release turns out to offer a lesser experience than one might like. The recent Blu-ray release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Alliance in Canada is quite illustrative of such a situation. Alliance's release is identical to that of Warner Bros. in the U.S. There are of course those who whine about the release because it doesn't provide the extended editions of the films. But the release was clearly publicized as having the theatrical versions only and it was also made plain that the extended versions would come later. If you definitely only want the extended versions, that's fine, but why complain about these releases just because they don't provide what you want. They are what they are. As to the Blu-ray transfers they offer, they are clearly much superior to the DVD versions and that is true of all three films. Is The Fellowship of the Ring lesser-looking than The Two Towers or The Return of the King. Yes, it is slightly inferior and more characterized by digital manipulation. There are valid reasons for that being the case and you can look at Bill Hunt's review here for a full explanation as to why. There's no point in my repeating the reasons here. It's quite simple really. If you're looking to experience these three impressive films in high definition, you'll find that Alliance's release in Canada (and Warner's in the U.S.) provides a very satisfying means to do so. It's not reference quality material (though the audio side of things comes close), but very few releases are. And when the extended versions inevitably make their way to Blu-ray, they won't be either, given the nature of the source material. Get over it. Sit down; start to watch; and let the films start to work their magic. You'll soon be so engrossed that the minor transfer deficiencies will fade. If they don't, just admit that it's the technology rather than the film watching that's driving your interest. Highly recommended!

XIII (Blu-ray Disc)

A European graphic novel that was also the inspiration for a video game, XIII was adapted into a TV mini series in 2008 that is now available on Blu-ray from Phase 4 films. The story concerns a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States that is set in motion when the first female president of the country is assassinated. The chief suspect in the assassination (Stephen Dorff) is a man with no memory of his identity and only the tattoo XIII on his neck as a clue to his past. A pawn of one side and sought desperately by the other, Dorff becomes the key to unraveling the truth behind the conspiracy. If this all sounds somewhat familiar, that's because there are obvious elements of Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne stories embodied in it. Unfortunately, XIII doesn't deliver the same degree of intelligence or realistic action as any of the three Bourne films. At 180 minutes, there is obvious padding and also plot holes whose impact could be tempered when one's viewing is spread out over several nights as a miniseries often is but not when viewed in one sitting as with this single disc. Dorff does a workmanlike job with his main character, but few of the others in the cast deliver (or to be more precise, are allowed by the script to deliver) equally. Val Kilmer has a one-dimensional role as the conspiracy group's enforcer. The 1.78:1 Blu-ray image, save for a handful of shots that offer some heightened detail and presence, struggles to deliver beyond what we might see in a top-of-the-line DVD presentation. Edge halos are also noticeable at times. The sound is a DD5.1 mix that rarely makes use of the surrounds. Dialogue is clear and well-balanced throughout, however. The supplements consist of the trailer, about a half hour of interviews with Dorff and Kilmer, and another half-hour providing some on-set insight into the filming of three different scenes.

An Education (Blu-ray Disc)

An Education is a strikingly intelligent and superbly acted drama from Britain that introduces a new young star to the screen in the person of Carey Mulligan. Written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), the film tells the story of a 16-year-old schoolgirl striving to win a place at Oxford who meets a dashing older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to world of the arts, glamorous friends, clubs, and her own sexual awakening. Set in early 1960s Britain, a country only briefly removed from the rationing after the Second World War and just on the brink of becoming the swinging country ushered in by the success of the Beatles, the film captures the times precisely and embraces them warmly with both wit and style. Mulligan's is an engaging and warm personality with an optimistic and playful cast to her face that has the audience on her character's side throughout the film. Peter Sarsgaard, despite our nagging fear that his character is much less than he seems, manages to win us over as well. The denouement is not unexpected but is handled so skillfully that it never leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In addition to Mulligan and Sarsgaard's outstanding work, excellent support is supplied by a uniformly great supporting cast that includes Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, and Emma Thompson. Sony provides a clean 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer that does a very nice job with colour fidelity and textured detail. Some facial close-ups are not quite as clear as we've come to expect from the best Blu-ray transfers, but this may be due to conscious filtering by the filmmakers of such shots involving Mulligan's character in order to provide the youthful look that character requires (mulligan is actually some 7 years older than her character). The DTS-HD sound is rather straight-forward. Dialogue is clear and well balanced in terms of location and weighting in comparison with the film score. Surround use is limited but effective when it is employed. The first supplement I looked at was a very disappointing making-of featurette, but things picked up with an informative and entertaining audio commentary involving Mulligan, Sarsgaard, and director Lone Scherfig (a Danish director for whom An Education was her first major English language film). Eleven deleted scenes (no director commentary) and a short featurette about the film's L.A. premiere are included. Highly recommended.

The Young Victoria (Blu-ray Disc)

The Young Victoria has just been released on Blu-ray by Alliance Films in Canada (also available from Sony in the U.S.). As the title may suggest, the film tells the story of Queen Victoria's early rise to power, including the court intrigues that bedeviled her attempts to rule and the development of her relationship with Albert, the prince who would eventually become her husband. The young couple are well played by Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, particularly Blunt who must convey a blend of both youthful innocence yet also strength of character enough to counter the powerful influence of those trying to control her. Obviously the film is a period piece and it scores strongly in both its selection of locations and its costume work, but visual sumptuousness is never allowed to overpower story in this instance. Despite their fixed places in history and our consciousness, the principal characters have life and we develop an interest in them as real people. It helps too that the supporting real-life characters have been thoughtfully cast. Jim Broadbent as King William, Miranda Richardson as the Duchess of Kent (Victoria's mother), and Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne all stand out. Despite the superb cast, the film's greatest strength is its ability to walk a fine line between a love story and a tale of political manouevering - allowing both to develop and hold our attention without letting one overpower the other. Alliance's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is top-notch. Colours are vibrant with excellent fidelity while detail in terms of facial features, clothing textures, and architectural exotica is well conveyed. There's nary a blemish nor any evidence of digital manipulation to mar the fine film-like image. The DTS-HD sound is impressive in terms of dialogue clarity and balance. Surround usage is mainly of an ambient nature and is very effective when it does become engaged. Supplements include a hefty chunk of deleted scenes, a somewhat disappointing making-of overview, four featurettes totaling some 16 minutes on various aspects of the production, and trailers for several releases but not for The Young Victoria. Highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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