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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got eleven reviews for you: K-19: The Widowmaker and War of the Worlds from Paramount; Tombstone and Armageddon from Disney; Doctor Zhivago, Sherlock Holmes, and Edge of Darkness from Warner Bros.; Avatar from Fox; The Matador from Alliance Canada; Red Cliff: Extended Version from E1 Canada; and The Magnificent Seven Collection from MGM.

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


What I've Looked At Recently

The recent 2D Blu-ray release of Avatar from Fox clearly shows how much that film depends upon its 3D imagery for success. I originally viewed Avatar at an IMAX 3D venue and was tremendously impressed by the impact that the 3D process had. The experience was an exhilarating one because of how seamlessly the 3D effects were integrated and how much they heightened the reality of the film's exotic and beautiful Pandoran world. It was easy to give the film's basic plot line and some of its anachronistic dialogue and stereotyped characters a pass as a result.

Avatar (Blu-ray Disc)

That is no longer the case with the version now available on Blu-ray. The 2D Blu-ray despite its excellent image comes nowhere close to the 3D experience, and without 3D, the film's deficiencies have no shawl to minimize them and the 2-hour length has lost much of the diversion that allowed the time to speed along. We are left to pass the time with the obtuseness and stupidity of the mining operation's director, the obviousness of the commander of the enforcement unit (Stephen Lang), and the blandness of the scientific director (Sigourney Weaver) whose most noteworthy if stupid and hokey trait is to smoke cigarettes after the completion of a session in her avatar. The Pandorans and their planet are at least an interestingly conceived people and environment; it's just unfortunate that Sam Worthington's Pandoran avatar too often has a silly grin on his face and even resorts to current urban street trash talk that takes away any sense of a true alien being. One can complain all one wants about the comparison to a Jar Jar Binks on steroids, but the reality is that at least in looks, it's an apt one. Despite the film's inadequacies and recognizing the lack of 3D on this current release, the Fox Blu-ray version is a superior looking and sounding disc. Presented in an open-matte 1.78:1 transfer (director James Cameron's preference), the image is very sharp and beautifully detailed with no evidence whatsoever of untoward digital manipulation. Colours are bright and vibrant and the image manages a superior sense of depth. I'd rate it to be of reference quality overall. The DTS-HD Master audio also offers a superior experience with plenty of dynamic surround activity, well-balanced dialogue and sound effects, and a pleasing but not bombastic use of LFE. This Avatar release also includes a DVD version on its own disc. There are no supplements, such content being reserved for an SE expected this fall. A 3D version is still further in the future. In terms of putting down money, a rental is a no-brainer, but if you really want Avatar on Blu-ray, I'd be waiting for the 3D release as the film is otherwise one of diminishing returns.

When director Guy Ritchie turned his attention to Sherlock Holmes, there were certainly questions about what we'd end up with, given Ritchie's oeuvre of films about the lower strata of British gangster life. Some of that staccato, bone-crushing approach has made its way into the new Sherlock Holmes release from Warner Bros., but otherwise one need not have worried.

Sherlock Holmes (Blu-ray Disc)

Yes, Sherlock Holmes is much more of an action figure with the sense of a James Bond for the Victorian era and there's no deerstalker hat nor Meerschaum pipe in evidence, but the cerebral nature of Holmes and his engaging relationship with Dr. Watson are both intact. Robert Downey Jr. provides an eccentric but engaging characterization of the famous sleuth that dominates the screen whenever he's on it and Jude Law makes his version of Dr. Watson a much greater man of action too than we have heretofore seen on screen. Not being a Holmes aficionado like some, I can't attest to the veracity of the filmmakers' assertions that many of their changes from the Rathbone/Bruce films' approach to the duo are very much more in line with Conan Doyle's descriptions of his characters and the backgrounds he attributed to them. Regardless, they work well in the context of Ritchie's view of the Victorian world. In that connection, the most striking aspect of the film is the production design, which delivers a vibrant and detailed portrait of Victorian London that captures the blend of dirt and squalor and opulence that actually coexisted. With our eyes and ears preoccupied by Downey and Law and their environment, the actual plot almost seems like an afterthought. It has something to do with the effort group involved in the black arts to take over the British government and further British influence around the world, all headed by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Complicating things are the involvement of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only woman to ever get the best of Holmes, and the apparent mysterious hand of Holmes nemesis Prof. Moriarty. Warners' 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer offers a very pleasing transfer that accurately highlights Ritchie's choice of subdued colour pallet to denote Victorian London. The resulting level of image detail is superior. Occasional splashes of colour look striking indeed amidst all this. Facial detail and clothing and building textures are all extremely well rendered and a fine level of grain delivers a nice film-like feel to the overall product. The DTS-HD sound is equally impressive. Dialogue is clearly presented, an important consideration considering Downey's at times rapid delivery and the quick repartee between him and Jude Law. Otherwise, the ambient sounds of London are as well captured as are the more intensive action sequences. LFE are frequently employed and are well-integrated with the rest of the sound field. Supplements include the feature length Maximum Movie Mode which Guy Ritchie hosts, playing out the film on one monitor while we're treated to a wealth of related film making-of detail on another. The highlights of this supplement are also delivered in a more traditional 8 short segments totaling just over a half-hour in length. An inconsequential EPK featurette is also included. Recommended.

Edge of Darkness brings Mel Gibson back to the screen with a bang. The Warner Bros. release is a thriller that certainly has some good action sequences, but it generally eschews mindless, cartoon-like action for a thoughtful blend of realistic action sequences and plot and character development, and delivers a satisfying conclusion. It helps that Gibson can convey being hurt physically and mentally on screen as well as anyone.

Edge of Darkness (Blu-ray Disc)

Based on a 1980s British mini-series of the same title and directed by Martin Campbell who also directed the British production, Edge of Darkness focuses on Gibson as a Boston police detective whose daughter is murdered soon after coming home to visit him. The film basically recounts Gibson's quest to determine why she was killed and seek vengeance on those responsible. Some of the villains are obvious, particularly Danny Huston as the head of a shadowy nuclear research institute and Damian Young as a U.S. senator, but they're deliciously so. Complicating things is a conspiratorial role by an arm of the U.S. government that allows for the introduction of a contract fixer with a conscience, well played by Ray Winstone (a role originally intended for Robert De Niro). Perhaps some viewers will be disappointed that Gibson has not chosen something more challenging for his first acting job in over half a decade, but if he was simply looking for something to ease back into things gradually, Edge of Darkness fills the bill well. As a revenge film, it's certainly markedly superior to similar recent films such as Taken. Warners once again delivers a fine Blu-ray transfer with the 2.40:1 image on display here. The film is purposefully somewhat desaturated and that is faithfully rendered. Facial images and textures are nicely detailed. Contrast is very good, although but there's no particular suggestion of great depth to the image. The DTS-HD Master audio competently handles all aspects of the film, from the isolated intense action events to more immersive ambient effects. Supplements include a suite of nine featurettes (about 30 minutes in total) detailing various aspects on the production, and four deleted or alternate scenes. A DVD copy of the film is included on a separate disc. Recommended.

The 2000s have been more disappointment than pleasure for Harrison Ford fans. Most of the latter came from Ford's resurrection of Indiana Jones (despite some excesses in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull installment) and from K-19: The Widowmaker, which Paramount has now released on Blu-ray. K-19, inspired by true events at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, tells the story of a Russian nuclear submarine that suffers a failure of its nuclear reactor that imperils the ship, its crew, and its nuclear torpedoes.

K-19: The Widowmaker (Blu-ray Disc)

Harrison Ford plays the submarine's commander, replacing its former commander Liam Neeson, who has been demoted to its executive officer. The most recent Best Director Oscar winner (for The Hurt Locker) - Kathryn Bigelow - directed the 2002 film. As submarine films go, K-19: The Widowmaker is one of the better ones - not in the same class as Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October, but superior to more formulaic efforts such as Crimson Tide or U-571. The Soviet commander's role is somewhat unorthodox casting for the All-American Ford persona, but Ford gives his characterization some grit and belligerence that works effectively even if his accent wavers on occasion. He also makes for a good pairing with Liam Neeson, with Neeson having the more easygoing, affable role that Ford would normally do. The action sequences on the submarine are well executed by director Bigelow, who has always had a good capability for such fare. The film did not do that well on its theatrical release, perhaps overlooked due to the subject matter and the strongly Soviet aspect of the tale and characters. The Blu-ray offers a fine opportunity to rediscover the film for those that may have missed it then. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is a faithful representation of the film. There's a lot of darkness to the film, but image detail is very good despite that. Blacks are very deep and contrast is superior. Modest grain is present and there's a welcome absence of obvious digital manipulation. The DTS-HD Master audio provides a fine immersive experience, accentuating the typical groans and clanks of a submarine at depth and delivering well-balanced LFE. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with sound effects. The highlight of the supplements is an informative audio commentary by Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Also included are four featurettes related to the production development and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

It's not hard to recommend any film by David Lean and that goes double when it's Doctor Zhivago, Lean's superb evocation of the Boris Pasternak novel of love set against the Russian Communist revolutionary years of the 20th century. With the impeccable casting of Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, and Geraldine Chaplin coupled with Lean's ability to capture grand stories and ever grander scales, the resulting film is truly an experience that could not be replicated today.

Doctor Zhivago (Blu-ray Disc)

Even given that it was 1965 and with the lack of the CGI capability that exists today, it's hard to believe that $15 million could pay for what we see committed to film. It's simply a magnificent experience that bears repeated viewings with ease, and doesn't require further repetitious comment from me. Doctor Zhivago has warranted enhanced release packages on home video since the inception of that concept. I still prize my 30th anniversary laserdisc package and the two-disc DVD SE. Now we have a three-disc release on Blu-ray courtesy of the folks at Warner Bros. that marks the film's 45th anniversary. The 2.40:1 image is superb in terms of sharpness, cleanliness, and image detail. Facial hues are accurate and colours are extremely vibrant. There is absolutely no evidence of digital manipulation and a modest level of grain enhances the film's natural look. Warners has obviously made a commitment to excellence in bringing its major classic titles to Blu-ray and that's well borne out in what we see on the screen. The DTS-HD Master audio is quite dynamic throughout and exhibits some nice directionality across the front. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with Maurice Jarre's sweeping score. The use of the surrounds is quite limited and LFE are virtually non-existent. Supplements are spread over the three discs. The first one includes an entertaining and informative audio commentary from Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, and Sandra Lean, plus a new two-part documentary appreciation of the film (about 40 minutes in total) covering various aspects of the production process. The second disc contains the supplement package from the earlier laserdisc and DVD releases, highlighted by the 1995 making-of documentary hosted by Omar Sharif and a large collection of vintage featurettes and interviews. The third disc is a CD sampler of the film's soundtrack. The discs are housed in a classy 48-page commemorative digibook. Very highly recommended.

"They don't make 'em like they used to" isn't always true and it's a pleasure to report that 1993's Tombstone is one of those films that belies the phrase. This old-fashioned western provides rousing entertainment.

Tombstone (Blu-ray Disc)

As we get further and further from the actual period, the western becomes a more difficult film to make, at least with an authentic feel to it, because the intervening years mean we've lost the people who had direct experience with the period or at least knew others who did. Now, like other period pieces, filmmakers have to rely on secondary sources to provide the necessary detail. Even when they do get the details right, they sometimes just don't manage to have their film convey an atmosphere of authenticity and viewers never manage to believe that what they're seeing is other than a collection of contrived set-pieces. It doesn't help either when the casting and dialogue is done with more of an eye to the viewer demographics than to ensuring what's best for the film itself. Feeble efforts like Young Guns (1988), Young Guns II (1990), and 2001's American Outlaws certainly demonstrate that. Tombstone manages to avoid all this admirably. Its strongest suits are its casting (particularly Kurt Russell in one of his best roles as Earp and Val Kilmer's unorthodox take on Doc Holliday) and its story execution up to the OK Corral confrontation. The film stumbles slightly thereafter with a hurried and rather muddled denouement in which Wyatt exacts his revenge on the remnants of the Clanton gang and their hangers-on. Tombstone was nominally directed by George Cosmatos, but the real director was apparently Kurt Russell himself. Considerable footage not used in the Blu-ray cut (which by the way is the theatrical cut, not the director's cut from the previous DVD release) is believed to be in Russell's possession so there is hope that an even better version of the film may be possible in the future. (Perhaps for the 20th anniversary in three years time?) The film suffered from excessive edge effects in Disney's previous Vista Series DVD version, and much but not all of that has been remedied in the new 2.35:1 Blu-ray edition. Overall the disc looks reasonably good with some good detail level in textures and facial features accompanied by fairly vibrant colour. It's hardly a poster boy for Blu-ray, however, as there are consistency issues in terms of sharpness and level of grain, and night-time and interior scenes do seem a little dark so that shadow detail suffers accordingly. The DTS-HD Master audio is impressive, providing a satisfyingly immersive experience, clear dialogue, and occasional strong use of LFE. The supplement package is a disappointment compared to the previous DVD release, as several of its extras are missing, most notably the director commentary. The main supplement remaining is the three-part making-of documentary that runs almost a half-hour in length. Recommended as a rental.

Armageddon sure looks good in its new Blu-ray release from Disney, but clarity and sharpness of image don't compensate for the film's general inanity and the fact that it's another Michael Bay effort with all the sturm und drang and annoyingly choreographed unrealistic action that tend to diminish his films.

Armageddon (Blu-ray Disc)

When the film arrived in theatres in 1998, it vied for attention with Deep Impact, another film that dealt with the effect of a interplanetary body colliding with the Earth. Despite its own faults, Deep Impact (also available on Blu-ray) looked like a masterpiece in comparison with Armageddon. The superbness of Disney's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image - its vibrant colour, sharpness and cleanliness, and rich detail - almost makes you weep that such an effort is wasted on a film like Armageddon while other much more worthy catalog titles such as Spartacus and Out of Africa are shamefully treated (though not by Disney, it must be noted). The DTS-HD sound provides a strong sound experience, though with a immersiveness that, not unexpectedly, isn't quite up to the standard of more recent action extravaganzas. The disc's supplement package is very weak. Recommended as a rental at best, in order to experience the very strong image transfer.

The Matador is now available on Blu-ray from Alliance Canada. The film itself is an amiable timepasser that finds Pierce Brosnan playing against type as scruffy-looking hitman Julian Noble who finds himself increasingly encountering a mental block when he tries to carry out his assignments.

The Matador (Blu-ray Disc)

He turns to a struggling salesman (Greg Kinnear) whom he met in a Mexican bar, seeking him out at his home six months later and looking for his assistance in carrying out the most critical kill of Noble's career. The film's chief pleasure is seeing Brosnan play the lonely and at times pathetic Noble, capable of the sort of social gaffes that would be unimaginable to Brosnan's more common suave on-screen persona. Kinnear is an effective foil as the salesman and Hope Davis provides a quirky interpretation of Kinnear's wife, a woman strangely drawn to Noble's unusual profession. Despite the likeability of the performances, the film has little repeat potential once the viewer is aware of the story's main twists, however. Alliance's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer is a solid if unremarkable effort. Sharpness and colour fidelity are quite good, but the image never demonstrates the sense of depth and presence that distinguishes the best Blu-ray efforts. Image detail is fine and a modest level of grain is present. Although the sound defaults to Dolby Digital surround, there is a DTS-HD track (not listed on the outer packaging) but it offers little in the way of a strongly submersive experience. Dialogue is clear with some frontal directionality apparent, as appropriate to the on-screen action. There are no supplements. Recommended as a rental at best.

Director John Woo's Red Cliff is an epic historical drama based on a legendary 208 AD battle that heralded the end of the Han Dynasty in China. The battle results from the desire of power-hungry Prime Minister-turned-general Cao Cao (Zhang Feng Yi) to lead a southward bound mission sanctioned by the Han Dynasty Emperor to crush two troublesome warlords who stand in the way of the Dynasty's total domination. In order to withstand Cao Cao's efforts, and though vastly outnumbered, the warlords, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen), mount an innovative and heroic campaign under the leadership of Viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) assisted by military advisor Zhu-ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in the shadows of Red Cliff on the Yangtze River.

Red Cliff: Extended Version (Blu-ray Disc)

Zhou Yu's wife, Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling) plays a crucial role in that climactic battle. The release I looked at was the Extended Version distributed by E1 Films Canada (available from Magnolia Pictures outside Canada) that comprises two parts totaling some 288 minutes of running time on two Blu-ray discs. (The shortened 148-minute American theatrical release version is also available from both sources.) I actually started watching the 5-hour epic with some trepidation about the running time, but my concerns were quickly dispelled. Seldom have I found such a long film to pass so quickly. Woo manages an exceedingly skillful blend of human drama and action. Although it takes some time to sort out the various characters and their roles in the story, one quickly becomes enmeshed in the intrigues playing out amongst them. Each has positive and negative traits no matter which side they're on and they seem like real people that you care about. The film's greatest strength lies in the immense set pieces that Woo choreographs to perfection. The scale of the battles seems unimaginable, but Woo manages them in such a way that individual heroics and actions are clearly staged and we never feel that we're lost in a seething mass of humanity with mindless killing that delivers no sense of what's really going on. Almost as much time is spent in detailing the strategy of the battles or the subterfuges that support them and that approach helps to clarify the events of the battles themselves too. E1's Blu-ray presentation is excellent. Colour fidelity and image sharpness are impressive and the immense effort that's gone into the production design and the selection of props and costumes is fully apparent on the screen via the incredible clarity of textures and facial features. The image has plenty of depth and is graced with a mild level of grain. There is no evident of untoward digital manipulation. The DTS-HD Master audio is equally impressive, offering a complete immersive experience whether in the midst of battle or during a retrospective, atmospheric interlude. LFE rumbles into action impressively when appropriate. The crisp dialogue is in Mandarin with clear white subtitles. Supporting the film is an impressive range of extras highlighted by a 2 hour documentary on the making of the film, a hour interview with John Woo, and extensive storyboard material. Highly recommended.

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is a somber, but for the most part entertaining film. His fairly faithful remake of the H.G. Wells novel benefits from a strong performance by Tom Cruise as father Ray Ferrier who with his daughter and son must try to keep one step ahead of alien invaders who activate giant killing tripod machines long dormant beneath the Earth's surface.

War of the Worlds (Blu-ray Disc)

In the typical Spielberg fashion of focusing the impact of a broader event on an individual or family, the film retains a degree of intimacy that allows the audience to feel a part of the story much more than would otherwise be the case. This minimizes the impact of the film's use of appreciable computer generated effects that are effectively integrated with the rest of the footage and prevents it from falling into the category of simplistic summer popcorn fare. The film only stumbles somewhat when the story takes Ray and his daughter (Dakota Fanning) into a house where the somewhat deranged Tim Robbins lurks and asks us to believe that they can remain undiscovered by a number of alien detectors that trawl persistently through the basement where the three are hiding. Paramount has delivered a 1.85:1 Blu-ray presentation that does the film full justice. The gritty and rather desaturated look of the film is accurately captured as are the inky blacks and the blown-out whites. While shadow detail was never intended to be impressive, facial detail and textures in close-ups are notably good. Even better is the reference quality DTS-HD track that gives every speaker in one's setup a thorough workout and then some. It goes without saying that the sequences involving the tripods excel, but the mix is equally adept at the more subtle stuff arising from the aliens' search of the farmhouse basement. The Blu-ray carries over the fine supplement package from the previous DVD release. Highly recommended.

There's little new to be said about The Magnificent Seven, one of the seminal westerns of the 1950s and early 60s. Its virtues are many, from The Seven Samurai source material to the fine casting of the Seven (particularly Yul Brynner as Chris, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn) to Chris' on-screen assembly of the group to Elmer Bernstein's enduring theme music. The stylish and action-filled 1960 film spawned three follow-up films, with rather uneven results.

The Magnificent Seven Collection (Blu-ray Disc)

From the original only Yul Brynner returned, reprising his role of Chris, in 1967's Return of the Seven. Unfortunately there was no one of Eli Wallach's caliber for Brynner to go up against in this first sequel, and the results were rather anemic. Not anemic enough, however, to preclude another kick at the can in 1969 entitled Guns of the Magnificent Seven. This time, George Kennedy essayed the Chris role. The task confronting him was to free Mexican revolutionary leader Quintero from a well-protected federal prison. Kennedy gathers together the usual gang of seven portrayed by the likes of James Whitmore, Monte Markham, Joe Don Baker, and Reni Santoni - a rather pale imitation of the original seven. Playing the imprisoned revolutionary was Fernando Rey, with Michael Ansara in the role of the prison warden and chief antagonist. Despite the decidedly second-tier cast, the film might have succeeded with superior execution, but alas that doesn't happen. Too much of the film is taken up with the seven riding around the countryside looking grim, accompanied by the swell of Elmer Bernstein's familiar theme. The action sequences, when they do occur, are short and boring, and the slow build-up to the climactic siege of the prison goes unrewarded as that set-piece is staged with little imagination. One would have thought that this flaccid specimen would have spelled the end of the series, but the idea was trotted out one final time in 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride! One of the darlings of the spaghetti western, Lee Van Cleef, plays Chris this time and does a good job of it. His gang of six associates this time is indeed a motley crew, with some of them convicts bound for the territorial prison until Chris fees them in return for their help in saving the Mexican town of De Magdelene from the usual Mexican marauders. Actually, The Magnificent Seven Ride! turns out to be a step up from its predecessor. The opening sequence in which Chris is introduced is shot with some style, immediately signaling that director George McCowan has some affinity for the material. He follows up with some well-staged action sequences, culminating in an exciting final confrontation. The film is well-paced and thus avoids the lengthy empty spaces in Guns of the Magnificent Seven as well. Of course, Elmer Bernstein's familiar music gets a good workout once again. There's certainly nothing new here, but the familiar paces are handled with respect. MGM has now released all four films on Blu-ray in The Magnificent Seven Collection. Three of the four films are transferred at 2.35:1 (The Magnificent Seven Ride! is odd man out at 1.85:1). The Magnificent Seven is the best-looking of the lot. It has a bright, clean appearance that looks sharp and offers very good fine detail. Facial features and material textures are particularly noticeable. Black levels are nice and deep and a fine grain structure is evident. Best of all, there's essentially no evidence of digital manipulation. Guns of the Magnificent Seven is close to The Magnificent Seven in the quality of its image with only a slightly lower degree of consistency in its sharpness evident. Return of the Seven falters during the opening reel in terms of cleanliness and sharpness, but then looks much as good as the other two the rest of the way. The Magnificent Seven Ride! brings up the rear in overall quality with a somewhat soft look and lack of the fine detail that we expect from a good Blu-ray transfer. It still improves on the earlier DVD version though. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio on each film offers little that's very notable. Use of the surrounds is limited to a few gunshots, the sounds of horses, and Elmer Bernstein's recurrent score. Dialogue is clear on all with some decent directionality across the front. While the three sequels only have their theatrical trailers as supplements, The Magnificent Seven offers a number of the fine supplements that graced the earlier DVD SE version including a 45-minute making-of documentary, a featurette dissecting Elmer Berstein's score, and audio commentary from James Coburn, Eli Wallach, producer Walter Mirisch, and assistant director Robert Relyea. Missing unfortunately are Sir Christopher Frayling's excellent audio commentary plus a featurette containing Frayling's appreciation piece on the film. Overall, MGM's effort here is a worthy one and The Magnificent Seven Collection is highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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