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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High-Definition Matters, I've got 14 reviews for you: The Ghost Writer, Triage, and Harry Brown (from E1 Entertainment - Canada); City of God, Amélie, and Gunless (from Alliance Canada); Road to Perdition (from Paramount); Repo Men (from Universal); Insomnia (from Warner Bros.); A Prophet (from Sony); Date Night (from Fox); Accidents Happen (from Image); and Escape from New York and The Man with No Name Trilogy (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 Ghost Writer is one of 2010's early candidates as one of the year's best films. Directed by Roman Polanski, it's a riveting thriller in the Hitchcock tradition, placing an everyman in a complex situation that's often out of his control.

The Ghost Writer (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)The Ghost Writer (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

There's no ridiculously staged and edited action sequences here, just good suspense, an intelligent story, and fine acting that beg for repeated viewings. The film is a faithful adaptation of Robert Harris' engrossing novel, “The Ghost”. Ewan McGregor plays a writer who takes on the task of ghosting the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who is threatened with being charged with war crimes. Only McGregor's character doesn't know at first that the last person who attempted to write the memoirs ended up washed up on a beach murdered. The film is deftly directed by Polanski who demonstrates a tremendous rapport with his actors, drawing rich characterizations that are restrained yet quietly intense. In addition to solid work from the two principals, Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams are both impressive as the Prime Minister's personal assistant and wife respectively, as is Tom Wilkinson in a small but key role as a man from the Prime Minister's past. Thoughtful thrillers that are exercises for the mind are all too rare these days, so it's an event to be savoured when one such as The Ghost Writer surfaces. Just as simple contemporary plot devices were enough to enable Hitchcock's protaganists to whittle away at the predicaments they found themselves in, so too does Polanski utilize modern day equivalents such as the internet and a GPS system to help his hero find the way forward. The film masks its secrets well, doling them out deliberately, but inexorably, so that by the end we are heartily satisfied, even in the face of the somewhat ambiguous ending. The 2.35:1 Blu-ray release is available from E1 Entertainment in Canada (from Summit elsewhere) and provides a superb transfer. The image is crisp, clean, clear, and characterized by exceptional detail and reasonable dimensionality. Top notch color fidelity and a slight sheen of grain contributes to a very film-like appearance. There is no evidence of digital manipulation whatsoever. The DTS-HD sound is also impressive. The film is dominated by dialogue which is clear and well balanced, but surround usage is extensive though more for emphasizing ambient sounds. LFE are minimal but well integrated. The supplement package consists of three featurettes that total about a half-hour of content. Most of interest are the ones in which Polanski provides some thoughts on various aspects of the production and Robert Harris discusses some of the relationships between the film and book. Very highly recommended. Note that the Canadian release is a single-sided Blu-ray-only disc, unlike the BD-on-one-side/DVD-on-the-other U.S. release.

Harry Brown (from E1 Entertainment in Canada - also available from Sony in the U.S.) is a welcome surprise of a film - not hugely uplifting, but a well-crafted and engrossing if at times brutal experience. Michael Caine stars as the title character, a long-retired marine and widower who lives in a depressing housing complex in London.

Harry Brown (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Harry Brown (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

His life is a limited one, saddened by the recent death of his wife and enlivened only by his daily chess games with his one friend. When that friend is brutally murdered by local young thugs and the police seem unable to resolve the killing satisfactorily, Harry decides to take action himself. This all sounds a little familiar - witness vengeance films like the fine Gran Torino or the lamentable Taken, but Caine under the capable hand of director Daniel Barber breathes new life into that familiarity. Harry Brown is no veritable avenging superman, but a mere pensioner with a mission. He knows how to handle a gun or a knife, but his physical stamina is much limited by emphysema and as portrayed by Caine, he realistically never looks or acts like anything other than the old man he is. The young hoodlums he has to deal with are a rotten bunch indeed - murderous, drug dealing, cop-baiting, women-hating low-lifes all. The portrait of life in a crumbling housing complex that director Barber paints for us is depressing indeed, and unfortunately closer to the truth than many would like to believe. One wonders about the future of a society than breeds such contempt for life. It gives nothing away to say that Harry wages an ultimately successful campaign though its resolution is not without considerable surprise elements. The slightly hopeful ending seems entirely appropriate. No doubt enlivened by the fact that the film was shot in the same area in which Michael Caine grew up, the film is basically Caine's show, but the supporting cast of actors playing the thugs is also uniformly impressive. E1 Entertainment's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation catches the grayness of the film very realistically. There are a lot of shadow and night-time scenes, but shadow detail is exemplary. Colour fidelity is impressive, with facial skin tones looking spot on. The image also exhibits noticeable dimensionality at times. The DTS-HD audio handles both dialogue and action well. Some of the climactic action sequences have a lot going on, but the sound is precise and very submersive throughout them. Some of the dialogue is hard to understand, but that's a function of the actors' projection rather than any fault of the sound mix. The supplement package is a bit problematic. It includes a good suite of deleted scenes and some worthwhile interview footage with a number of the filmmakers including Caine. E1's release does not include the audio commentary that is available on the Sony release. That commentary is by director Daniel Barber, producer Kris Thykier, and Michael Caine, with Caine reportedly contributing much worthwhile information and engaging perspective. It's a major omission from the E1 release. Recommended, though if you have the option to get the Sony version with the commentary, that sounds like the preferred way to go.

The most memorable scene in Repo Men is that of an immense white room filled with people in white work suits and white face masks working away at white tables.

Repo Men (Blu-ray Disc)

Why white, why one huge white room? Who knows, but I presume the filmmakers felt it made some sort of statement that would make the audience take notice. It certainly worked for me, but that's about the only thing that did in Universal's Repo Men, an exercise in lifting ideas from other movies and media sources that is tiresome, unnecessarily gory, riddled with unrealistic action sequences, full of unresolved issues, and otherwise something that should be hidden in the fine print of the resumes of its stars, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker. It's not that they're bad in the film; their work actually delivers some of the few bright spots in an otherwise unrewarding two hours at the movies. The pair play repossession men Remy and Jake respectively who work for The Union, an outfit that provides artificial organs to people in need. When the purchasers of the organs fall behind in their payments, the repo men are sent to reclaim the organs, doing so in violent and grisly fashion. Then a job that Remy is on goes awry causing him to be outfitted with a heart replacement. Of course, Remy eventually finds himself behind in his payments and he is soon on the run with Jake assigned to track him down. One wonders sometimes what possesses actors to take certain roles. Presumably neither Law nor Whitaker need the money, so what was it? Certainly it can't have been a script that's riddled with holes and unanswered questions, and padded out with a cheap if somewhat telegraphed ending. It can't have been the director, Miguel Sapochnik, for he has nothing on his resume to suggest a capability to orchestrate a futuristic drama such as Repo Men successfully. Maybe Law and Whitaker just wanted to hang out together in Toronto and its surroundings where the movie was shot. If so, I hope they at least had a good time doing that, for otherwise their time wasn't well spent. Universal's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation certainly should give any adherents of the film little cause for alarm. The image is sharp and clear most of the time with fine-level detail well rendered. Black levels are quite striking and skin tones are accurately rendered even allowing for the numerous juxtapositions of real and artificial skin. Close-ups fare best, with longer shots sometimes suffering from murky backgrounds. The DTS-HD audio is loud and notably immersive, with sound effects well balanced with dialogue. Both the theatrical and an unrated cut are included on the disc, with the main supplements being audio commentary by the director and writers Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner, some deleted scenes, and a short featurette on the visual effects.

A Prophet, winner of numerous film awards overseas including a César for France's best film of the year and nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2009, has now been brought to Blu-ray by Sony.

A Prophet (Blu-ray Disc)

Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, a friendless and almost illiterate 19-year old sent to prison for 6 years for an unidentified crime. In a brutal French jail, he runs afoul of a Corsican clique whose leader Cesar (a fine performance by Niels Arestrup) coerces Malik (under fear of being killed himself) into killing an inmate slated to testify against the Corsican interests. Once drawn into Cesar's sphere, Malik is initially a mere gofer, but he soon begins to develop a mind of his own. The film has been compared to The Godfather for its sweep and the way it portrays the criminal world as a metaphor for the real one. That's an excessive assessment in my opinion, but there's no denying that the film does have an epic feel while one views it, due to the arc of the part of Malik's life that it portrays. The prison setting constrains any relationship to the real world of the vast majority of viewers, however, and ultimately the film is no more than a very well crafted thriller that seems unlikely to command much repeat viewing due to the unsavoury nature of most of its characters and their actions. Sony's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is another in a line of excellent efforts from the company. The image is consistently sharp with excellent colour fidelity that replicates the film's muted look very well. Some modest grain is evident. Deep black levels and shadow detail are both notably well delivered. The DTS-HD sound is equally impressive. Dialogue is always well balanced and action sequences are very dynamic with some even shocking in the ferocity of their presentation. The score by Alexandre Desplat complements the film very well and incorporates some well-known English songs, notably a fine version of “Mack the Knife” at the end. The supplements are highlighted by a good audio commentary by director Jacques Audiard, actor Tahar Rahim, and writer Thomas Bidegain (in French with English subtitles). Some deleted scenes and rehearsal footage are also of interest. Recommended for those who are familiar with and like the film. Others should try a rental first.

Every so often you run across a lesser-known release that really delivers. Triage, a 2009 film written and directed by Danis Tanovic, is one such that is now available on Blu-ray from E1 Entertainment. In it, Colin Farrell plays photo journalist Mark Walsh who travels to Kurdistan with fellow photographer and close friend David (Jamie Sives).

Triage (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Triage (Blu-ray Disc - U.S. release)

The pair become separated after a violent offensive and Mark eventually returns home after being badly wounded. There's no word of David's return though, and Mark becomes increasingly withdrawn and his physical condition begins to deteriorate. Desperate to help Mark, his wife (Paz Vega) turns to her grandfather (Christopher Lee), a psychiatrist whom she despises for his role in the Spanish Civil War, for assistance. The film is obviously a labour of love for the principals involved, with funding apparently cobbled together from a variety of European sources. Farrell is particularly compelling as the tormented Mark, adding another fine performance to his recent efforts such as In Bruges. But the cast is uniformly effective in delivering realistic and heart-felt performances - from Paz Vega to Christopher Lee to Branko Djuric as a battlefield doctor who must make wrenching decisions on who gets treatment and who doesn't. It's particularly rewarding to see the strength and conviction that 88-year old Christopher Lee brings to his crucial role. Although the film is mainly a character study, its action sequences are well crafted and punctuate the story with an intensity that heighten the drama convincingly. Some of the scenes revolving around the triage procedure (yellow strips of paper for those who might be saved and blue for those for whom there is no hope) are truly heart-rending. E1 Entertainment's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation of Triage is very good indeed. The image is strikingly detailed with excellent colour fidelity in both Kurdistan and Ireland sequences. Skin tones are right on and fine scale detail is well conveyed. The image is virtually free of digital artifacts and ringing is never an issue. The DTS-HD sound is equally satisfying, delivering the dialogue-driven narrative with excellent clarity and balance. Yet, when the battlefield sequences occur, the impact is aggressive indeed, with at least one such sequence almost lifting one out of one's seat. Supplements include a decent making-of documentary and almost half an hour of interview footage with the filmmakers (some of which also appears in the documentary). Recommended.

You know a movie is in trouble when the holographic cover image of its Blu-ray release is at least as interesting as anything in the movie itself. That's certainly the case with Date Night, a recent release from Fox.

Date Night (Blu-ray Disc)

It's also very disappointing given that it stars two of the more inventive visual medium comics of the day - Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The pair play a suburban couple who head into New York for a night on the town instead of their standard date night which sees them eat dinner at the same suburban steak house every week. A case of mistaken identity gets them involved in a series of misadventures involving a flash drive, two crooked cops, a local gangster chief, and a corrupt politician. Along the way they get some help from a private detective played by Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg manages to remain shirtless for the duration of his screen time, which the filmmakers would like us to think is a source of great mirth. The whole movie lacks any inspiration and just limps from one tired sequence to another. Neither star, but particularly so Carell, seems understandably energized by any of the material with perhaps the exception of a couple of bits including one where he and Fey try to find out a phone number guarded by a restaurant receptionist. Writer Josh Klausner should stick to his efforts for animated characters like Shrek. The direction by Shawn Levy is leaden, with one scene involving the stars dancing awkwardly around a stripper pole drawn out interminably. Levy even manages to give us a car chase scene (does every movie have to have one of these?) that's so incoherently edited that it wastes a decent comic idea involving two cars with their front grills locked together. The best thing that one can say about Fox's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is that it's inconsistent. Sharply-defined scenes with great black levels are too often followed by ones that seem soft and noisy, particularly night-time exteriors. The problem? There's a lot of the latter since the bulk of the film takes place at night. At least colour fidelity is quite good, with skin ones particularly being well replicated. The DTS-HD sound is unremarkable. The film is mainly dialogue-driven and speech is well balanced with the rest of the sound track. Occasional use of the surrounds is made for ambient effects and a couple of action sequences that sound reasonably punchy. The supplements focus on a lot of deleted, alternate, and extended scenes, and on director Shawn Levy who seems quite impressed with himself going by the audio commentary he delivers and a couple of featurettes about his directing techniques. By the way, there's both the theatrical cut and an extended one available on the disc. If you're somehow roped into watching this thing, insist on the theatrical cut. That'll provide for a few minutes less of your life being wasted.

Road to Perdition is one of the best films thus far released this year on Blu-ray, and it sports a highly impressive Blu-ray presentation from Paramount to boot. The 2002 film, derived from Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, is a low-key affair that tells a tale of doomed father-son relationships set in the Depression era of the early 1930s.

Road to Perdition (Blu-ray Disc)

One is that of mob hit-man Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) who is like a surrogate son to his boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Another is that of Michel Sullivan's to his own eldest son Peter (Tyler Hoechlin) who both fears and loves him, although he doesn't know what his father does for a living. Then there's the almost absent relationship between John Rooney and his son Connor (Daniel Craig) - one that exposes the worst in Connor's character and serves as a catalyst for events that will doom all three of the relationships. We see those events unfold from the viewpoint of young Peter over a six-week period as Michael Sullivan is reduced from a favoured and feared Rooney associate to a man on the run with another mob hit man (Jude Law) relentlessly tracking him. Road to Perdition pretty much has it all - a compelling story, brisk direction (Sam Mendes), and uniformly strong acting, but its most striking aspect is its cinematography. Conrad Hall was the director of photography and won an Oscar posthumously for his efforts. The film may as well have been black and white, for Hall extracts as much colour from the image as possible. The resulting look and the judicious use of mid-west locations really captures the Depression era, at least as we've often come to view it - empty, devoid of colour and hope, with isolated individuals or vehicles moving across empty landscapes. The use of rain and snow reinforces the impact of the images. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation of the joint Dreamworks and Twentieth Century Fox production is superb. Deep black levels and excellent shadow detail provide immense depth to the image throughout. The film's desaturated look is accurately portrayed and together with a fine sheen of grain delivers a very film-like look. Image sharpness is exemplary and there's no evidence of digital manipulation. The DTS-HD audio delivers an aggressive soundscape that echoes with the sound of machine-gun fire. Otherwise dialogue is clear and well balanced with Thomas Newman's evocative score. The supplements are highlighted by a thoroughly informative audio commentary by Sam Mendes. Also included are a good HD featurette on Conrad Hall, a worthwhile HD featurette on real world details and history that inspired the graphic novel, some deleted scenes (with or without commentary), and a decent making-of documentary. Very highly recommended.


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