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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got eight reviews for you: The Last Station (from Sony); In Bruges and Shakespeare in Love (from Alliance Canada); Absolute Power and the double feature of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes (from Warner Bros.); Shutter Island (from Paramount); Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (from Fox); and The Greatest (from E1 Entertainment).

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


What I've Looked At Recently

One of 2009's best films, The Last Station, was released theatrically late in the year and seemed to fly under the radar despite its pedigree. I say "seemed" because it did receive critical approval and even Oscar nominations in the Best Actress (Helen Mirren) and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer) categories.

The Last Station (Blu-ray Disc)

Yet many people were oblivious to the title or if they had heard of it, weren't aware of its subject. That's unfortunate, because the film is a rewarding experience indeed. It provides a compelling look at the last days of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (Plummer), particularly his relationship with his wife Sofya (Mirren). At issue are the royalties to Tolstoy's works; Tolstoy wants to donate them to the Russian people and Sofya is outraged and wages a vigorous campaign challenging her husband's altruistic desire. One of Tolstoy's chief disciples, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), strives to carry out the great man's wishes to the point of being manipulative and he becomes the focal point of Sofya's anger. Much of the proceedings are shown through the eyes of a young Tolstoy admirer (Valentin Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy) who is engaged by Chertkov to be Tolstoy's literary secretary. The acting in the film is uniformly admirable and it's particularly a pleasure to see the mature personal relationship between Tolstoy and Sofya given full attention. The director Michael Hoffman, whose track record doesn't really run to such historical dramas, manages to maintain considerable dramatic tension throughout by careful management of the Chertkov and Bulgakov relationships with Tolstoy. He also delivers a sumptuous look to the film through location work in both Germany and Russia. The Last Station's title refers to a train station in southern Russia to which Tolstoy travels in his final days in an attempt to distance himself from Sofya's increasing mental and physical hysteria. The scenes that take place there are the most memorable ones in the film due to the unusual location and the interplay of all the principal characters as they wait not for a train but Tolstoy's death. Sony's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation is a typically superior effort. The image is clean and sharp with excellent detail apparent in both exteriors and interiors. Colour fidelity is particularly strong. A mild level of grain contributes to an impressively film-like experience devoid of obvious digital manipulation. The DTS-HD track is an admirable complement, delivering a marvelous ambience that is virtually constant through the film's many exteriors. More potent effects such as the train sequences have great heft and can stand with the sonic presence of the best action films. The supplement package is highlighted by audio commentaries by the director and by Mirren and Plummer. The former is filled with production information while the latter is more free-form with some long silences punctuated by information and anecdotes. Both are worth a listen. Also included are a blooper reel, a Plummer tribute, seven deleted scenes, and the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.

The Greatest, available now from E1 Entertainment, is a modestly successful tale of emotional survival that is ultimately let down by an ending that doesn't ring quite true. Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play a married couple, Allen and Grace, whose son is killed in a car accident.

The Greatest (Blu-ray Disc)

Each deals with their grief differently. Allen submerges his in his work and any other diversion that offers itself while Grace's manifests itself in anger and an obsessive desire to hear her son's last words from the driver of the vehicle that killed him, a man lying in a coma. Three months later, a young woman named Rose (Carey Mulligan) shows up on their doorstep, pregnant with their son's child. The film then details the relationships that develop between the three as well as Allen and Rose's other son (Johnny Simmons) while Rose's pregnancy advances. Susan Sarandon takes the acting honours in the film with Carey Mulligan (not far removed from her work on An Education) not far behind. The most recent films of Pierce Brosnan that I'd seen were The Matador and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Along with them, his work in The Greatest (the title refers to Rose's view of Allen and Grace's son) further removes him from the James Bond persona he was so long associated with. My first reaction to his work here was that he seemed awkward, but the more I've thought about, the more impressed I am with his efforts. What seemed contrived in the emotional breakdown that his character finally experiences now does seem to me to be true to life. Crying does not come naturally to many males and when they do cry, it often comes across as artificial in real life. That's exactly what Brosnan conveys in The Greatest. Where the film stumbles is in its ending. All is wrapped up just a little too patly, with individual emotional traumas seemingly resolved in all the characters. Things don't work out so simplistically in real life, even if we wished it otherwise. The film is a venture of Brosnan's production company with workmanlike direction from newcomer Shana Feste. E1 Entertainment's 2.35:1 Blu-ray release is quite pleasing. It never possesses the pop of the more vibrant Blu-ray transfers, but it is clear, sharp, and free of digital artifice. Image detail is very good and modest grain is apparent. The DTS-HD sound is not particularly memorable. Emphasis is on the front sound stage and dialogue is clearly conveyed. Supplements include some good interviews with Pierce Brosnan, Carey Mulligan, Shana Feste, and Johnny Simmons; deleted scenes; and the trailer. There's little replay value to the film and it's recommended as a rental.

Shutter Island was to have been a high-profile release for Paramount in 2009, but its release got delayed into the doldrums of this past winter. That's unfortunate because it's easily one of the best films of the year so far, but likely to be overlooked for any year-end honours due to that timing.

Shutter Island (Blu-ray Disc)

Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same title and set in 1954, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels who along with his partner (Mark Ruffalo) arrives at the asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. The investigation does not go well, mainly due to a lack of real cooperation from the asylum's administration including director Ben Kingsley and advisor Max Von Sydow. Also a factor, however, are memories triggered by the investigation concerning Teddy's World War II experiences in liberating the Nazi death camps and the more recent memories of a family tragedy in his own life. When a major storm devastates the island, cutting it off from connection to the mainland, the nature of what is actually transpiring on Shutter Island is gradually revealed. The film is directed by Martin Scorsese and he is full command, brilliantly cutting between the present and the past, ramping up the suspense, and creating a sense of unease without resorting to cheap shock tactics. He draws out a very fine performance from DiCaprio of a man caught in a situation that is much more complex than he ever realizes. Ben Kingsley is also a strong plus in the film, tempering his past tendencies to take his character over the top somewhat. Ruffalo and Von Sydow have less to do, but provide strong support and are memorable nonetheless. Shutter Island is a film of many threads and a single viewing isn't nearly enough to assimilate them all. The film is littered with clues as to what is actually happening and the pleasure of multiple viewings lies partly in recognizing them and fitting them into the broader narrative. This is a psychological thriller that's intelligent and thought provoking - one that will stay with you for a long time. In Hollywood film-making these days, that's really rare! Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is very impressive. It's exceptionally clean and sharp with noticeable depth particularly in the outdoor scenes. Image detail is impressive with background objects looking particularly well-defined. Colours are vibrant, frequently seeming to leap out from the at-times drab surroundings. The DTS-HD audio is equally impressive. Ambient effects are subtly deployed throughout and when the storm sequence begins, the audio delivers an aggressive and thoroughly immersive sonic experience. Dialogue is always clear and well balanced with sound effects and the music score. The supplement package calls out for a commentary from Scorsese, but all we get are two meaty featurettes on the production and on the film's psychiatric underpinnings. Highly recommended.

Fans of the Harry Potter films need have no fear that they're missing much if they take a pass on Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. The film is based on the novel by Rick Riordan, one of a series by him that draws on Greek Mythology for inspiration.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Blu-ray Disc)

The concept is a good one and works rather well in his series of books, but the translation to the screen fails to satisfy. It comes across as a cheesy Potter copycat with protagonists that have limited charisma. It's also become rather tiresome seeing massive CGI monsters unrealistically defeated by poorly-armed humans, particularly ones with limited experience in fighting techniques. The premise of the story is that Percy Jackson, rather than being a normal teenager, is actually a half-blood - a son of a human mother and a Greek God, in his case that of Poseidon, god of the sea. Poseidon's brother, Zeus, believes that Percy has stolen his lightning bolt and Percy is given two weeks to return it. Faced with the daunting task, Percy sets out with two companions - fellow half-blood Annabeth and a smart-talking satyr who's Percy's official protector - to accomplish it. Logan Lerman plays Percy but he never convinces us that he's capable of the heroics he engages in. Brandon Jackson's protective satyr is an annoying motormouth who unfortunately survives for the whole movie. Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth is the only one of the three that gives the viewer any sense of belief in her character's capabilities. A number of well-known actors take on small roles. Sean Bean is suitably regal and forceful as Zeus while Uma Therman is a hoot as Medusa. Pierce Brosnan looks as embarrassed playing Chiron the centaur as we are watching him. Due to its central character already being a teenager and its use of iconic American settings such as Hollywood and Las Vegas, the film seems as though it's trying to position itself as a hipper version of the Potter films. All it's done, however, is to remove most of the sense of wonder from its storytelling. I can't imagine that there'll be a follow-up film. Those who can tolerate the film can at least rejoice in Fox's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation. The image and sound are both first-rate with the DTS-HD sound perhaps the most striking aspect. It's a thoroughly immersive and at-times house-shaking experience. The supplements consist of ten deleted or extended scenes, a selection of short featurettes on various aspects of the production, and the theatrical trailer.

In Bruges is a delightful black comedy set, where else, but in Bruges, Belgium. It stars Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of Irish hit men who have been ordered by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) to cool their heels in the storybook old-town area of Bruges after their most recent job.

In Bruges (Canadian Blu-ray Disc from Alliance)In Bruges (U.S. Blu-ray Disc from Universal)

The two men couldn't be more different. Ferrell is completely and profanely oblivious to Bruges's charms, preferring to be in Dublin, but if he must be in Bruges, it had better be in the nearest pub rather than touring Bruges's many historic sites. Gleeson's blowsy hitman on the other hand seizes the opportunity to immerse himself in the city's historic past, visiting everything and reading voraciously about it all. The two wait for word from their boss, but when it comes, it's in the form of shocking news that eventually can only be resolved by a visit to Bruges from the boss himself. All three actors are superb in a film that really surprises with its freshness and irreverence, throwing political correctness aside with little hesitancy. The turns by Ferrell and Gleeson are not that far removed from their typical characterizations, but Fiennes' work goes in an uncommon direction for him, welcomingly so. The film doesn't disappoint in terms of some short but briskly directed action sequences either. Alliance has released the film on Blu-ray in Canada (the same package is available from Universal in the U.S.). The results are very pleasing. The 2.35:1 image is consistently sharp and film-like with a mild sheen of grain evident. Dimensionality is not particularly striking, but image detail is very impressive with facial and natural features showed good texture. Colours are a little subdued, but fidelity is strong. The DTS-HD is given only a modest workout by the film, but it delivers good surround presence when called on. Otherwise, the mainly dialogue-driven film is clearly presented with some modest directionality across the fronts. Supplements include an enjoyable gag reel, a healthy chunk of deleted and extended scenes, and a short featurette based on a boat-trip along the canals of Bruges. Recommended.

Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1998. It probably shouldn't have beaten out Saving Private Ryan for that honour, but it did and some people seem to feel that it was a completely undeserving winner, denigrating the film undeservedly as a result.

Shakespeare in Love (Canadian Blu-ray Disc from Alliance)

No matter what your position on the Best Picture issue, however, Shakespeare in Love is an impressive achievement. For anyone that values the acting, writing, and directing aspects of film-making, this film delivers. Its recreation of Shakespearian London in the form of a romantic comedy and particularly its staging of "Romeo and Juliet" for that time period shows real attention to detail and an affection for the era. The story revolves around the attempt by Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) to write "Romeo and Juliet". Initially he plans to call the play "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter", but he's suffering from writer's block and it's only when he becomes enamored of the young noble-woman Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) that the words start to flow. There are just two problems - he doesn't know she's impersonating a man in order to play the lead in his play, and she's promised in marriage to someone else. The two stars are equally impressive in their roles. Paltrow would win the Best Actress Oscar, though Fiennes was unjustly overlooked for even a Best Actor nomination. The film's real acting bonanza is in its dizzying array of British talent in the supporting roles (Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Martin Clunes, Colin Firth, Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, and so on) plus impressive work also from Geoffrey Rush and even Ben Affleck. Director John Madden does his job well. He gives the actors free reign to create original and exuberant characterizations while marshalling effectively and unobtrusively the vast resources needed to bring this sort of period picture to life. Shakespeare in Love has been released on Blu-ray by Alliance in Canada. The most important aspects of the presentation, the image and sound, have been accorded fine attention. The 2.35:1 image looks sharp and clean and offers a modest feeling of depth. Facial features and objects exhibit good detail. Colours are quite bright and fidelity appears to be very good. There is a fine sheen of grain evident and little evidence of digital manipulation although the odd shot did strike me as looking a little over-processed. The DTS-HD sound is not given a great workout by the film, but some ambient effects are evident. Otherwise, the dialogue is clearly defined with some directionality across the fronts. The release, however, disappoints on two fronts. It contains no supplementary content whatsoever - none of the extensive package of extras on the previous DVD Collector's Series edition. In addition the disc begins with a car commercial, which although it can be skipped, should not be on the disc under any circumstances. If I give Alliance's release a recommendation at all it is a grudging one; a rental provides a more effective message that such films warrant the proper inclusion of already available supplements and inclusion of commercial content is unacceptable.

"Absolute Power" was the impressive debut novel of the fine thriller writer, David Baldacci. It was then brought to the screen with Clint Eastwood directing and starring as thief Luther Whitney who in the course of a burglary observes the murder of the wife of a powerful political figure and must then engage in an intricate game of cat and mouse with the local police and the highest levels of oval office power in order to save his own life.

Absolute Power (Blu-ray Disc)

Absolute Power is an interestingly structured film in that it delivers its most explosive sequence in its first quarter. The rest consists of a virtual character study that draws out the best from a very deep cast including Ed Harris as the local investigating detective, Laura Linney as Whitney's estranged daughter, Gene Hackman as the U.S. President, and E.G. Marshall as an aging politico. To be sure, there is an interesting and satisfying resolution of Whitney's situation by the film's end, but it is the playing-out of the character inter-relationships leading up to it that holds the attention. We don't have to suffer through ridiculously edited action scenes or CGI-laden effects, just give free-reign to a very suspenseful story that unfolds in a non-manipulative fashion. Eastwood's pared-down style of directing is most effective in such situations and that remains the case for Absolute Power. Warner Bros. has given the film careful attention on Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 transfer is quite impressive for the most part. Colours look spot on, whether for facial tones or the Washington exteriors. Image detail is very good although some soft shots do intrude. The dark scenes that predominate in the film's opening sequences are well handled. Modest grain is apparent throughout. The image is not as clean as some others of this vintage, with some speckles and debris apparent. The film is mainly dialogue driven, which the DTS-HD audio handles quite capably. The pleasing sound track is well conveyed. Rear surround activity is quite limited. There are no supplements. Recommended.

A Clint Eastwood Blu-ray double feature release of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes is now available from Warner Bros. Each film receives its own disc. Both films are World War II action extravaganzas directed by Brian Hutton and originally released by MGM, but neither of the films is meant to be taken seriously for they are full of contrivances and unrealistic occurrences.

Where Eagles Dare/Kelly's Heroes (Blu-ray Disc)

With that realization in mind, Where Eagles Dare is by far the more entertaining of the two films. Based on Alistair MacLean's novel of the same title (which owes much to his earlier The Guns of Navarone), the film is an amazing piece of derring-do at a castle high in the Bavarian Alps where Richard Burton heads up a group of Allied agents parachuted in to spirit away a captured Allied general (who knows the D-Day plans) before he can be interrogated by the Germans. The plot has additional wrinkles that make the mission more complicated than it would appear on the surface. It's possible Richard Burton took his role simply for the payday for he's not particularly stretched by it, but he does convey conviction and effective leadership qualities that make him a good choice for the part. Clint's role is a typically laconic one (with a few good one-liners) that finds him acting as mainly back-up muscle which allows him to fire off hundreds of rounds of ammunition with abandon during the course of the team's escape from the castle. The Germans are not portrayed much beyond comic-strip personages, but Anton Diffring and Derren Nesbitt (as one of the few intelligence officers who actually projects some intelligence) do stand out from the rest. The action highlight of the film is the marvelously choreographed escape sequence that involves cable cars, a chase on snow-covered roads as dynamited telephone poles collapse, and an attempted take-off at an airfield. It's no surprise that veteran stunt man Yakima Canutt was in charge of the second unit. Despite a running time that's in excess of 2 hours, the film speeds by. It's good, old-fashioned, action film-making unimpeded by ridiculous over-editing and intrusive CGI effects. Kelly's Heroes is almost the same length but seems to be much longer, because it's a tiresome exercise full of annoying stereotypes and anachronisms (one just has to mention Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, and Carroll O'Connor to visualize a few of the former). Clint Eastwood leads a group of fellow-soldiers of dubious scruples behind enemy lines to claim a cache of gold and that's pretty much the storyline. Lots blows up in this film, but too much of the action is interrupted by leaden stretches seemingly inserted to make sure each player got their allotment of screen time. The film is most tolerable when Clint's on screen, least when Donald Sutherland's hippie-out-of-his-time tank commander and Savalas's platoon sergeant are front and centre. Both films have quite presentable 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfers. The source materials are reasonably clean and the images are sharp, but lack the dimensionality of the best Blu-ray transfers. Image detail is a little variable, but colours are vivid and fidelity quite good. Kelly's Heroes fares better overall, particularly in fine level detail. Grain is apparent on both, but more pronounced on Where Eagles Dare. DTS-HD 5.1 tracks are offered on both films, but neither ventures much beyond use of the fronts. Surround effects are quite intermittent and sound discrete rather than immersive. Where Eagles Dare does offer a robust presentation of the Ron Goodwin score. The only supplement accompanies Where Eagles Dare. It's a pretty decent vintage making-of featurette. Recommended for the Where Eagles Dare half of the double feature.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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