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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

What I've Looked At Recently (Continued)

Gunless is an unpretentious western with a whimsical streak that leaves a good taste in the mouth. It stars Paul Gross as the Montana Kid, a gunfighter who strays across the border into Canada where he ends up in the little town of Barclay's Brush after a close shave with a noose.

Gunless (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)

He immediately gets into an argument with the town blacksmith and calls him out. The only problem is that the blacksmith has no handgun, nor does anyone else in town. Only rancher Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillory) has one and it's broken. So in order to get his showdown, the Kid goes to work for her in exchange for the handgun which he proceeds to try to repair so that he can give it to the blacksmith. But as he lingers with Jane and gets drawn into the lives of the town's inhabitants, it becomes harder for the Kid to leave even though he knows a group of American bounty hunters is hot on his trail. God knows it's been hard to find decent westerns of late (witness such lamentable recent releases as Come Hell or High Water or The Showdown) so it's doubly a pleasure to have one that is both a professional effort and a satisfying piece of entertainment. The film is a Canadian production filmed on location outside Osoyoos in southern British Columbia. Careful attention to production design has resulted in a handsome looking production that radiates authenticity as well as making the most of the natural spaces in which it was shot. The story reflects a minor play on the issue of handguns and differences in their availability north and south of the border, but it's never too overt and is well massaged by some nimble dialogue and mild comic bits that are effectively delivered by the fine ensemble cast. In fact, although the film's title is Gunless, there are in fact all sorts of guns in the film so western fans won't find it wanting in terms of some typical western action. Paul Gross and Sienna Guillory are very likable in the lead roles. Gross delivers the presence of larger-than-life western figure while Guillory's work is very natural. The British-born actress reminds one somewhat of Cate Blanchett in looks and manner. Director (and writer) William Phillips keeps things moving briskly and at 89 minutes, Gunless never threatens to overstay its welcome. Alliance Canada's 2.40:1 Blu-ray offering is very pleasing. The image is sharp and clear with a very film-like appearance. There's a mild sheen of grain and no evidence of significant digital manipulation. Colour fidelity is very good in both interiors and exteriors. The image doesn't really pop like the very best HD transfers, but neither does it ever draw untoward attention to itself. The DTS-HD audio is equally pleasing. Dialogue dominates the screen time and is clear and well balanced. Good use of the surrounds is made in the action sequences involving horses galloping by and in the dynamic sound of the gunfire. Songs by Blue Rodeo are well integrated into the sound track. The supplements consist of a good making-of documentary (about 25 minutes and involving comments from all the filmmakers) and four other short featurettes about different aspects of the production. Recommended.

Director Christopher Nolan doesn't go in much for repeating himself, as his filmography would suggest. From Memento to The Prestige to the Batman movies, and the impressive Inception, Nolan clearly is interested in involving himself in a wide diversity of subjects and approaches. One of his few genre pieces, Insomnia, arrived in 2002 and even it gives us a few twists on the typical police thriller.

Insomnia (Blu-ray Disc)

The film is based on a Norwegian film of the same title, and succeeds very well compared to the typical Hollywood reworking of foreign material. Al Pacino stars as Los Angeles police detective Will Dormer who is assigned with his partner to a murder case in Nightmute, Alaska. The assignment is made partly to take the heat off them as an Internal Affairs investigation of their methods in under way. The local Alaskan contrabulary welcomes them warmly enough, particularly a young detective played by Hilary Swank who idolizes Dormer for his successful investigations record. A murder suspect is quickly identified in the person of novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams), but Finch is not easily pinned down, particularly as he is able to manipulate to his advantage Dormer's accidental killing of his police partner. It doesn't help either that Dormer's inability to adapt to the 24-hour daylight of summer-time Alaska leaves him sleepless and increasingly unable to function efficiently. The film is well cast with Pacino reigning in his histrionic tendencies noticeably. Hilary Swank does a nice job with a character that at first looks like she may be rather annoying, but soon becomes better developed and forceful. Robin Williams plays things quite straight and generally nails the psychopathic tendencies of his character. A number of British Columbia locations stand in well for Alaska, so that the film's setting is virtually a character in the story itself. They seem to add a dimension that makes otherwise standard thriller sequences such as chases and standoffs fresh and different. One short sequence involving a chase on a floating log boom is a particularly suspenseful example. Warners' 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer of Insomnia is impressively sharp and dimensional. There is no evidence of digital sharpening and mild grain is evident throughout. The quality of the transfer can be seen particularly in a foggy sequence that remains rock solid throughout. Wally Pfister languid and atmospheric photographic rendering of the B.C. locations is beautifully conveyed. The DTS-HD sound is solid if unspectacular. Dialogue is always clear and well balanced with sound effects and the music score. Surround activity is mainly focused on atmospheric effects. The supplement package is highlighted by a fascinating audio commentary by Nolan who presents it in the order in which he shot the film rather than that of the completed project. There is also a commentary involving contributions from Hilary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Dody Dorn, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz. A 17-minute conversation with Nolan and Pacino about the production is also of interest. Four other featurettes and the trailer round out the extras. Highly recommended.

City of God is a distressing portrait of a section of Rio de Janeiro that mesmerizes in the depths of its corruption while you're viewing it, but lacks any characters either good or bad with charisma enough to make it a location one would want to revisit.

City of God (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)

The Rio slum that is known as the City of God is a place of crime, violence, and rampart drug use. The story of its descent into an anarchy in which most children seem lucky if they live long enough to become adults is told in flashbacks from the viewpoint of a young resident named Buscape (Alexandre Rodrigues) whose interest in photography may offer him a way out. His interest brings him in contact with two rival factions who are attempting to wipe each other out. One of their leaders, a contemptuous little punk called L'il Ze, wants to get his picture in the papers and thus provides an opportunity for Buscape's dreams to be realized. The most enduring image of the film is that of young children with guns and their almost total disregard for the impact of their use. Life is about as cheaply regarded in City of God as in any film I've seen. It may be a sad fact of life in that location, but it's not one that holds any lasting fascination for the viewer and dramatizing the situation as City of God does only conveys a feeling of sadness for the real people who must face such an environment on a daily basis. The film is photographed in an at-times frenetic fashion that may convey the volatility and unstructured nature of the location and its activity, but is frequently annoying rather than effective. Alliance Canada's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer is fairly good when it comes to close-ups and interiors, particularly in regard to image detail. Colour fidelity is inconsistent though, ranging from bright and sharp to pale and fuzzy, although it must be admitted that the former predominates. Mild ringing is occasionally evident. The DTS-HD sound (in Portuguese with English subtitles) is quite aggressive. Shootouts convey an impressive use of the surrounds. Dialogue is mostly clear, though some sequences are not well balanced with other sound effects. There's only one supplement, but it's a good one - an almost hour-long documentary on the actual area depicted and the drug environment that dominates it. Recommended as a rental.

Escape from New York has not aged particularly well. Still somewhat interesting is Kurt Russell's Man-with-No-Name take on Snake Plissken, a one-eyed notorious criminal and former Special Forces officer who is tasked with rescuing the U.S. President (Donald Pleasance) from a futuristic Manhattan that has become the country's main prison for its worst criminal offenders.

Escape from New York (Blu-ray Disc)

Unfortunately, his opponents (Isaac Hayes particularly) and helpers (Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau) seem even more caricature-like now and the action sequences lack any great sense of suspense or inventiveness indeed. The final one across a car-strewn bridge fails to generate any intensity whatsoever. And what were they thinking casting Donald Pleasance as the U.S. President? Mind you, at least we have the pleasure of Ernest Borgnine and Lee Van Cleef's company for part of the time. I know there are many proponents of the John Carpenter film, but I've never been one even allowing for its low budget origins and am no more inclined towards it now. MGM's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer isn't bad at all. Colour fidelity looks quite good and black levels are substantially improved over the previous DVD releases. The image even looks very clean and sharpness at times is impressive. Edge effects are not an issue. The DTS-HD audio is not that aggressive, but it does offer a reasonable presence that seems to fit the rather ominous feel of the futuristic Manhattan. Some good directionality across the fronts is evident. Disappointingly for fans, none of the supplements from the previous DVD SE have been included. A separate DVD flipper with both widescreen and standard versions has been included in the package, but it contains only the theatrical trailer according to the packaging.

Speaking of The Man with No Name, the real one - Clint Eastwood - has been brought to Blu-ray by MGM in The Man with No Name Trilogy. It of course includes, each on its own disc, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) - three Sergio Leone westerns analyzed up and down since their first appearance, but ones that easily stand the test of time entertainment-wise.

The Man with No Name Trilogy (Blu-ray Disc)

The latter film is presented here with the same transfer that appeared with its stand-alone 2.35:1 Blu-ray release in 2009. My review at that time noted a substantial improvement over the previous DVD, but also the existence of telltale DNR usage - not excessive, but noticeable on larger screens. The DTS-HD audio is also an upgrade with heightened dynamic heft, but a tendency in some of the dialogue, that off-camera particularly, to seem unnatural. Supplements from the previous DVD SE were ported over and an excellent new audio commentary by Christopher Frayling added. The best-looking transfer of the three arrives with For a Few Dollars More. The 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is consistently very good with some sequences that look quite dimensional. Colour fidelity and image detail are both impressive. A few specks are present while grain is well-handled yielding the most film-like image of the three films in the set. The DTS-HD audio yields a clean sound field that allows dialogue, sound effects, and Ennio Morricone's music to come across clearly and with decent fidelity. The lower end is the more impressive. The supplement package is highlighted by an excellent audio commentary by Christopher Frayling as well as two good featurettes in which Frayling discusses some of the advertising materials for the film and Leone's directing style. Also good is a short featurette with Eastwood reminiscing about his work with Leone. A Fistful of Dollars is slightly behind For a Few Dollars More in the quality of its 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer. The improvement over the existing DVD is of course substantial, but there is still a slight softness to the result that is likely attributable to the source material. Flesh tones do look much more natural than in the past. Some cropping of the image in comparison with the DVD can be detected. The DTS-HD audio comes across much the same as for that of For a Few Dollars More. The film has a similarly good suite of supplements including a Frayling commentary and two Frayling featurettes. This Blu-ray set by MGM obviously has room for improvement in respect to the transfer for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but otherwise it's a superior package that seems unlikely to be improved upon in the near future. On that basis, it's highly recommended.

Accidents Happen is a disjointed and disappointing jumble of a film that never decides what it wants to be - comedy with tragic overtones or tragedy with comic relief. It's also the occasion for Geena Davis's first starring role in a half-dozen years at least.

Accidents Happen (Blu-ray Disc)

She plays the foul-mouthed mom of a family that seems accident prone in a major way. A car accident has left the family without its young daughter and one of its sons in hospital in a catatonic state. The remainder splinters further when the husband leaves to take up with another woman. Billy, the youngest son, falls in a with neighbourhood friend and the two get into all sorts of mischief that culminates in an event that causes the accidental death of the friend's father. All this sounds somewhat surreal and the production does nothing to dispel that. It's a film made in Australia that's set in the1980s U.S. and other than Geena Davis, the cast is Australian. The result feels Australian in its sensibilities and seems jarring more than anything else whenever an image such as a flag, badge, or license plate reminds us that, oh yes, this is supposed to be taking place in suburban America. Some smarmy voiceover narration in the early part of the film is intrusive too. Davis's strong work keeps the film from falling apart completely, but its views on the fickleness of fate are almost completely subverted by its inability to settle on either a point-of-view or filmic tone. Image's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation is reasonably acceptable overall. Colour fidelity seems a little inconsistent, but animate and inanimate textures and other fine detail often are very impressive. Shadow detail occasionally suffers in the darker sequences. The DTS-HD audio doesn't get much of a work-out. The film is a dialogue-driven exercise with sound mainly confined to the fronts - well balanced and clear for the most part (although some of the dialogue does suffer from clarity issues related to Australian actors trying to affect American accents). The surrounds kick in only occasionally for some ambient effects. The supplement package's best component is a short interview package with the cast and crew. Otherwise there are two inconsequential brief featurettes, and a few extended scenes.

Amélie has occasioned some recent discussion on internet fora as a result of its two recent Blu-ray releases. The Quebec firm TVA has put out an unacceptable effort utilizing a 1080i encode and no English subtitling for either the feature or supplements.

Amélie (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)

Alliance's Blu-ray release corrects all of the TVA deficiencies, but adds a little wrinkle of its own that may annoy some buyers - its English subtitles are not optional. Aside from that, however, this delightful film gets a presentation that while not perfect should please many of its fans. The 2001 French film is a story about a shy waitress working at a Paris café. She makes an unexpected discovery of a box of childhood mementos hidden behind the wall of her apartment and decides to try to return them to their owner. The pleasure of doing so sets her on a course of helping others find happiness. Amélie is an endearingly quirky experience, full of wonderful characters and Paris locations. At the centre of it all is Amélie herself, as realized by Audrey Tautou, a character of great warmth and charm, full of life and with an expressiveness that constantly delights. As directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, despite the dialogue and the warm music of Yann Tiersen, the film has almost the feel of a silent production in its reliance on facial and physical reactions as well as its visual imagery. Amélie is truly a film that offers something different and well worth looking for if you've not yet had the opportunity to view it. Alliance's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation looks very sharp and nicely detailed (and is 1080p in contrast to the earlier TVA release). Colour fidelity seems quite good although brightness appears to have been boosted somewhat. The French DTS-HD audio (note that it's not the default mix) is impressive. Dialogue is clear and well balanced. A nice ambient submersiveness is achieved that really complements the Montmartre settings. Note however that the English subtitles are burned in. At least they appear properly within the picture frame, however, so those viewers with constant-height set-ups are not compromised. The disc also includes all the significant supplements of the earlier DVD including the audio commentary by the director in both English and French and the numerous featurettes and interviews. Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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