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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)

Winter in Wartime is a superior loss-of-innocence film that was made in Holland in 2008 and subsequently has been hailed at several film festivals worldwide.

Winter in Wartime (Blu-ray Disc)

It focuses on a young boy (13-year-old Michiel, played by Martjn Lackmeier) who finds himself deeply involved in the fate of a downed British pilot in Nazi-occupied 1945 Holland. Complicating Michiel's involvement are the roles of his father (the town mayor who tends to cooperate with the Nazis in order to maintain his town's prospects given the uncertain future) and his Uncle Ben, a resistance fighter with uncertain prospects. While the film has some modest action sequences, the focus is deeply on character development and director Martin Koolhoven successfully immerses us in Michiel's adolescent world, capturing well Michiel's entry in adulthood and the uncertainties that accompany it. The picture of winter wartime Holland that Koolhoven evokes in Winter in Wartime feels entirely right both physically and emotionally. It's well supported by a haunting original score from Pino Donaggio. Sony's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is superior. Colours reflect the purposefully muted look of the film, but image detail is above reproach both in exteriors and interiors - facial features and falling snow faring equally well. Modest grain is apparent while evidence of digital manipulation is not. In terms of action sequences, the Blu-ray's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Dutch track doesn't get much of a workout (though an early plane crash scores well). Otherwise, dialogue, ambient effects, and the background score are well-defined and properly balanced. A French 5.1 DTS-HD track is also provided as is English subtitling. Supplements comprise a 25-minute making-of documentary (in Dutch with English subtitles), the theatrical trailer, and a DVD copy of the film. Recommended.

Is the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit, now available on Blu-ray from Paramount, a better film than the original version that won John Wayne his long-deserved Oscar? In my opinion, no, due to an at-times ponderous and overly-talky adherence to the Charles Portis source material, but it is a decent accomplishment overall in its own right.

True Grit (Blu-ray Disc)

It's a film that requires close attention due to a screenplay that does focus strongly on both narrative and character development. The principal actors make the most of their opportunities, with Jeff Bridges (as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn), Matt Damon (as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf), and young Hailee Steinfeld (as precocious Mattie Ross who hires Cogburn and falls heir to LaBoeuf in her quest to bring Tom Cheney [Josh Brolin], who killed her father, to justice) all in good form. On balance, True Grit is a worthwhile addition to the currently feeble western film genre and did reasonably well at the box office. Despite the film's unevenness, that can only be a good thing as far as western buffs and their hopes for more westerns are concerned. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation certainly doesn't falter. It offers an impressive level of image detail that is uniformly reflected in indoor and outdoor scenes and amongst facial features, prop textures, and the natural environment. Blacks are very deep and shadow detail is very well handled. There's no evidence of untoward digital manipulation. The dialogue-driven film is well conveyed on the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Occasional gunshots and the action scenes in general demonstrate precise use of the surrounds. Dialogue is mainly centred with some directionality and comes across clearly with the exception of some of Jeff Bridges' lines which he seems to slur through. French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 DD tracks are also provided as are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Supplements include seven featurettes covering such topics as costume design, weaponry, cast, western town recreation, cinematography, and Charles Portis. There's also the theatrical trailer, and DVD and digital copies of the film. Recommended as a rental.

Kino has just given us a three-disc Blu-ray set of all 19 of Buster Keaton's shorts from 1920-1923. Keaton had entered the film industry in 1917 working in second-string roles with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. He then started to make his own short comedies in 1920 when Arbuckle moved into features. For this Kino collection, entitled Buster Keaton: The Short Films, the shorts have been mastered in HD from 35mm archival film elements.

Buster Keaton: The Short Films (Blu-ray Disc)

Titles such as The Paleface, Cops, My Wife's Relations, and The Balloonatic will be familiar to even the most casual Keaton fans. The complete list is as follows: Disc One - The "High Sign", One Week, Convict 13, The Scarecrow, Neighbors, The Haunted House, Hard Luck; Disc Two - The Goat, The Play House, The Boat, The Paleface, Cops, My Wife's Relations; and Disc Three - The Blacksmith, The Frozen North, Day Dreams, The Electric House, The Balloonatic, The Love Nest. The entertainment value of the collection as a result of Keaton's efforts to both ingest them with inventiveness and beautifully choreographed action and gags is enormous and it's all made the more attractive by a typically fine silent Blu-ray release by Kino (3 discs, each with its own slimcase and all housed in a sturdy cardboard slipcase). Kino has chosen to do little restorative work, so some scratches, speckles, and stains do intrude, but otherwise the HD images offer some striking detail that lifts them well above their DVD counterparts. Black levels are quite deep for the most part and slightly over-cooked whites intrude on only a couple of the shorts (The Frozen North, for example). Overall, these shorts look better than they probably ever have. Kino provides LPCM 2.0 stereo sound that highlights the fine, era-appropriate organ and piano accompaniments written and conducted by Ben Model or Robert Israel. The supplement package is highlighted by visual essays by Keaton experts that are essentially short documentaries on the making of 15 of the 19 shorts. There's also an interesting exercise that provides digitally-enhanced versions of several of the shorts. Comparing these to the non-digitally-enhanced versions clearly illustrates the sterility that such tools can impart to a classic title. Other supplements include a series of brief alternate/deleted shots for three of the shorts; a collection of clips from slapstick films influenced by Keaton's work; an 8-page booklet with an essay by Keaton biographer Jeffrey Vance; 4 visual essays on the shorts' locations; and two 1922 films with cameos by Keaton. Buster Keaton: The Short Films is very highly recommended.

"Barney's Version" by Mordecai Richler has been given an impressive filmization by director Richard Lewis, drawing a memorable portrayal of the lead character from Paul Giamatti.

Barney's Vision (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)Barney's Vision (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Certainly, Barney Panofsky is no paragon of a character - a TV producer working his way through three wives (played by Rachel Lefevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamunde Pike) in the course of a life lived raucously and with much distain for his fellow man at times. There's even the question of a possible murder charge associated with the death of his pal Boogie (Scott Speedman) that provides impetus for some soul-searching that opens out much of Barney's life for us to see. Paul Giamatti really immerses himself in the lead role, effectively communicating Barney's complexity and obtuseness, making us at times angry with him and at others sympathetic. Richard Lewis also draws fine work from Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father, ex-cop Izzy, and from Minnie Driver and Rosamunde Pike as wives #2 and 3, providing an effective blend of comedy and drama as the film proceeds. So much goes on in Barney's life that one needs to draw a breath by the end, but the ride is well worth the investment of time. The 2011 Barney's Version film has been released on Blu-ray by Entertainment One (eOne) in Canada, but is available elsewhere in Region 1 from Sony. The eOne release benefits from a typically superb 2.35:1 Sony transfer that is consistently sharp and captures the interiors and exteriors of Barney's Quebec world in richly-satisfying image detail. Colour fidelity is spot-on, with facial features looking particularly good and colours even offering some real pop on occasion. There is no evidence of untoward digital manipulation whatsoever. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track deftly handles the film dialogue, providing good clarity while strongly centred across the front. Use of the surrounds is mainly directed towards the effective enhancement of ambient effects in bars, at receptions, and in the out-of-doors at Barney's lakeside cottage. A French 5.1 DTS-HD track and English and French subtitling are also provided. The supplement package is highlighted by a generally illuminating audio commentary by director Lewis, writer Michael Konyves, and producer Robert Lantos. Also included is an EPK-like making-of featurette, a short conversation with Mordecai Richler while he plays snooker, some red carpet coverage at one of the film's showings, the theatrical trailer, and a half-hour-plus Q&A in which Giamatto discusses his career and Barney's Version in particular before a live audience. Highly recommended.

One of the ultimate film noirs, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly has long been available on DVD from MGM, but now also graces Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion.

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

The film finds Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) making an ill-fated choice to pick up a hitch-hiker (Cloris Leachman) - a decision that results in her eventual death and one serious beating for him. That's only the beginning, with Hammer finding friends bumped off, his secretary disappeared, and then there's the issue of the mysterious glowing package. Kiss Me Deadly in the end seems to leave everything to fate, tossing a key plot point in the air like the Cold War exercise in paranoia the film is and with it all our expectations of what we expect from a standard film noir. As far as noir acting pedigree is concerned, the likes of Meeker, Paul Stewart, Jack Elam. Jack Lambert, and Albert Dekker fill the bill nicely. If Spillane's original novel is lost in the translation to the screen, at least screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides delivers the hard-boiled dialogue we expect, set in the sort of sleazy urban settings where noir so typically resides. Criterion's 1.66:1 Blu-ray transfer is impressive, offering a sharp and well-detailed image virtually throughout that improves on the previous DVD to a very notable degree. Whites are very clean and the transfer generally sports a nicely-detailed gray scale. Criterion indicates that considerable digital clean-up of dirt, scratches and debris was performed and it's certainly apparent when compared with the old DVD. On the audio side, there a LPCM mono track that delivers the dialogue crisply and clearly while maintaining a good balance with sound effects and the music score. Some minor hiss and background crackle are still evident, however. English subtitles are also provided. The supplement package is highlighted by an informative audio commentary by noir specialists James Ursini and Alain Silver. Also included are a 1998 documentary on Spillane, several featurettes/ interviews dealing with different aspects of the production, an alternate ending, the theatrical trailer, and a 22-page supporting booklet. Highly recommended.

It's a good thing the producers of Ironclad were able to secure Paul Giamatti to portray King John in Ironclad, else the entire endeavour would be pretty much of a loss.

Ironclad (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)Ironclad (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

The film purports to tell the story of what King John did next in 1215 after his signing of the Magna Carta, a document that formalized the rights of free men in England and limited the powers of the monarchy. That signing came after a bloody confrontation between the crown and his subjects led by the country's barons. Little interested in having the Magna Carta stand, John engages a group of Danish mercenaries to spearhead his cause and the stronghold of Rochester Castle becomes a focal point where a handful of noble barons with the help of a Knight Templar (James Purefoy in a very effective turn too) vow to remain holed up to protect the Magna Carta's provisions. Little of what Ironclad portrays actually happened as shown, as director Jonathan English shepherds us through a distorted historical mirror. Instead we're given the usual orgy of hack and slash medieval fighting with much grunting and groaning, hacking and slashing, bloody limb removal, and spouting blood, but little sense of artistry due to the frenetically-edited images and repetitiveness of it all. Perhaps there's a market for such stuff, but it probably is the same one that will somehow find the disc jacket blurb of "Heavy Metal Goes Medieval" at all inventive and inducing. All is not entirely lost, though, and that's due to a mesmerizing performance by Giamatti as the ruthless John. His work is captivating throughout and full of nuance, all the more effective for going against the type of thoughtful rather than violent historical role that we're accustomed to seeing Giamatti undertake. Also in the cast and struggling to make an impact against the relentless battle scenes are Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Aneurin Barnard, Jason Flemyng, and Kate Mara. The film is available on Blu-ray from Alliance Films in Canada in a 2.35:1 transfer that impresses overall. Colour fidelity is quite good, reflecting the strong earth tones of the production effectively and also handling the frequent splotches of red in battle well. Image detail, particularly with respect to facial features, is also notably good. Black levels are not as deep as one would like, however, and although digital manipulation is not that apparent, some banding is evident at times. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is persuasive, offering generally clear dialogue while also delivering a strongly immersive experience in the battle scenes. LFE are notably deep and general directionality of sound effects is well handled. A French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and English subtitles are also provided. Bonus features include the theatrical trailer and a through and entertaining audio commentary by the director. Recommended as a rental in order to see Paul Giamatti's efforts.

The Bang Bang Club is an intense emotional journey of a movie that puts the viewer right in the frame along with four photo-journalists covering the final days of Apartheid in South Africa.

The Bang Bang Club (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The Bang Bang Club (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

The four young men are Greg Marinovich (Ryan Philippe), Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach), and Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) and the risks they take to do their job to the utmost are uncompromisingly and sometimes harrowingly told in the almost two-hour drama that unfolds. In many cases they are working freelance which puts their commitment to the work they do impressive, given the risks to their lives and of getting the photo that makes a difference, and as a result consequently being paid uncertain. The ultimate fate of the four individually is in some cases surprising. The background to the story rests heavily on the rivalry between two black groups, the Inkatha (Zulus) and Nelson Mandella's African National Congress, never really resolving the result of that rivalry. All four of the lead actors deliver solid work and the whole is well orchestrated by director Steven Silver. Filming on some of the actual locations in the Townships of South Africa heightens the film's recounting of actual events substantially. The 2010 film is a collaborative Canada/ South Africa production available on Blu-ray from eOne Canada. The 2.35:1 image is impressive in both colour fidelity and the detail and texture evident in both facial features and the Township locations. There's real presence evident in many shots, particularly given the documentary-like feel to some of the filming (handheld camera work and variable lighting). The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio offers a very immersive experience with some solid LFE well spotted throughout. Dialogue is strong and well balanced with sound effects. English subtitles are provided. The extras package is highlighted by a very good making-of documentary and a solid audio commentary by director Steven Silver. Also included are some deleted scenes, a slideshow of behind the scenes material, and a quarter-hour of cast and crew interviews. Highly recommended.

Jodie Foster's film of The Beaver is not a film to watch if you're in the mood for an experience that will lift you out of deep funk or even a mildly depressing time.

The Beaver (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The Beaver (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

It's not that it's not an ultimately life-affirming film, but that the journey is not entirely uplifting throughout. Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a deeply depressed man who botches a suicide attempt and regains consciousness to find himself speaking as the voice of a beaver puppet mounted on his left hand. Using the beaver as his alter ego, he attempts to bring his life back together- a life that includes his virtually estranged wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) and two sons, the elder of which (Porter [Anton Yelchin], who writes papers for other students and develops an interesting relationship with his class valedictorian when she asks him to write her valedictory speech for her) fears turning into his father, and the younger (Henry) a confirmed loner. The film successfully treads a very delicate balance between tragedy and comedy and feels very much a Jodie Foster film (Nell, Little Man Tate, Nim's Island) in tone. The two principal stars do well in their roles, with Mel Gibson doing some of his finest work in the central role. The Beaver has been released on Blu-ray by eOne Canada (Summit Entertainment in the United States) with a top-notch 2.40:1 transfer. Image sharpness and detail are both notably good while colour fidelity looks strong throughout. There is mild grain apparent and no evidence of untoward digital manipulation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn't showy in any way, but does a solid job with the dialogue-driven screenplay - well-centred across the front with occasional use of the surrounds to establish ambience. A French 5.1 DD track and English and French subtitling are included. Supplements include an audio commentary by director Jodie Foster that is quite entertaining and informative at times with the odd slow stretch. Some deleted scenes, and a short but generally thoughtful making-of documentary. Recommended as a rental first to determine one's affinity for the film's tone.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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