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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)

Elf is one of Will Ferrell's better efforts and as a Christmas film, hits most of the right notes in delivering a sincere appreciation for the Christmas season. Buddy is a human being who through an accident of fate has been raised as an elf amongst all the elves at Santa's North Pole home and workshop.

Elf: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Elf: Ultimate Collector's Edition (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Eventually Buddy learns the truth about himself from his elf foster father (Bob Newhart) and that his real human father (James Caan) is a publishing executive in New York but also a man on Santa's "bad" list. Buddy sets out to reconnect with his father and it is during this section of Elf that the film really shines. The comedic situations that ensue, particularly in the toy section of a department store where Buddy gets work and in the offices and mail room of the publishing company, are wittily written and benefit from some lively physical humour. The pure innocence of Buddy is artfully portrayed by Ferrell throughout. The good feelings generated by all this are only slightly dampened by an ending that becomes rather forced though satisfying enough in the end. If you're looking for an enjoyable Christmas film that will definitely appeal to all ages, Elf certainly qualifies. The New Line film was previously released on Blu-ray in 2008. The 1.85:1 transfer that it offered then was pretty good and is the same one included in Alliance Canada's Elf: Ultimate Collector's Edition tin (available in the U.S. from Warner Home Video). It delivers fairly vibrant and accurate colour as well as good sharpness and some depth. Image detail is less impressive, particularly in darker scenes. Digital scrubbing seems to have been rather liberally applied at times. The Dolby TrueHD audio is mainly focused across the front with only occasional ambient effects utilizing the surrounds. Things are a little more immersive in the last reel or so once Santa and his sleigh gets involved. English SDH subtitles are included as well as a French 5.1 surround audio track. The supplements carry over all the significant extras from the previous DVD including a couple of audio commentaries (by Ferrell and by director Jon Favreau), some deleted/alternate scenes, and about an hour and a half of production and kid-oriented featurettes. The difference between the 2008 Blu-ray release and the Ultimate Collector's Edition is the latter's tin container and a collection of rather inconsequential items that have been added, including a 5x7" magnetic Elf picture frame, a 4x6" fridge magnet, 15 Elf Christmas gift tags, a 14" plush Elf holiday stocking, and a flat plastic Elf tree ornament. The latter is a poor replacement for the CD music sampler that can be found in Warners' U.S. version of the tin. If you already have the earlier Blu-ray version of Elf, there's no need to upgrade. If you don't, the packaging and extra swag of the Ultimate Collector's Edition don't justify the extra price of picking it up rather than going with the previous release.

The two main characters' names are Clive and Elsa, so yes we get it - Splice is essentially an homage to 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. Coming 75 years after that superior piece of filmmaking, Splice is however unlikely to provide the same inspiration to some filmmaker in 2085.

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

That is not to say that Splice is bad - there is at least half of a thoughtful film on view that raises legitimate issues concerning genetic science and morality before it runs off the rails into conventional horror film territory. Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are scientists who are very successful at splicing DNA from different animals to create bizarre hybrids with unique proteins that might be harvested for use in creating disease-fighting drugs. NERD (Nucleic Exchange R&D), a large pharmaceutical company where they work, wants the pair to concentrate on the latter aspect of their work, but Elsa and a reluctant Clive go further by splicing animal and human DNA and keep their efforts secret. The result is Dren, a creature with an initial slug-like appearance that evolves quickly into a young human-like adult with a decidedly unhuman-like physical characteristic. When Clive and Elsa's involvement becomes more than pure scientific interest, the experiment spirals out of control. As I said, the first half of Splice actually generates a lot of interest by virtue of its ideas and some solid execution by director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Brainstorm), but then we get a scene that just extinguishes that interest in a flash and telegraphs that the rest will be just the same old, same old. Adrien Brody seems invested in the movie throughout, but at no time was I ever convinced by Sarah Polley's characterization. Abigail Chu and Delphine Chaneac work hard at playing Dren at different stages of her development but they can't overcome the fact that the bald-headed Dren is never an appealing character. E1 Entertainment's 1.78:1 Blu-ray release in Canada offers a good-looking transfer that looks somewhat soft overall. Fine detail is certainly well reproduced though and the colour fidelity seems good. Modest grain is evident throughout. The 5.1 DTS-HD is the disc's best suit, offering crisp dialogue and a nice immersive ambience virtually throughout the film. Varied directionality of both dialogue and sound effects is also notable. A French 5.1 DTS-HD sound track and English and French subtitling are also provided. The main supplement is a 35-minute tour of production activities by the director without a lot of structure to it. Also included is an interview with Natali for the magazine "Fangoria", a trailer, and a teaser. The latter three extras are not included in the film's U.S. Blu-ray version from Warner Home Video whose release also includes a digital copy.

What a coup it would have been had Fox been able to include the 1936 film The Last of the Mohicans as an extra in its Blu-ray release of Michael Mann's 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans.

The Last of the Mohicans (Blu-ray Disc)

The studio may have looked into it and found the availability of the original Reliance Production distributed by United Artists too difficult to sort out. Whatever, the fact that the film was a strong influence on Mann's version would have made its inclusion most welcome. As it is we make do with an experience that's rather impressive in its own right. The film uses the 19th century James Fenimore Cooper novel as its inspiration but owes much to the 1936 film's screenplay for its plotline. Daniel Day Lewis delivers one of his immersive characterizations as the white man Hawkeye adopted by Chingachgook (Russell Means), one of the last of the Mohican tribe. Hawkeye falls in love with the daughter (Madeleine Stowe) of a British colonel who is besieged by the French in a fort during the French and Indian Wars in Colonial America. Vowing to protect her, Hawkeye finds himself in conflict with Magua (Wes Studi) a Huron looking for revenge for the murder of his family by the British. The film is an action-filled epic that is beautifully crafted by Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti. They rely greatly on natural light to capture a real feel for the times and shot much of the footage in North Carolina in forested areas felt to be indicative of the New York locations and times being depicted. The cast is uniformly impressive; beyond the obviously fine work of Lewis (the shots of him dashing through the woods are exhilarating), both Russell Means and Wes Studi really excel in their dignified and intense roles respectively. Fox's 2.40:1 Blu-ray presentation delivers Michael Mann's definitive cut of the film - one that excises a couple of minutes from the previous expanded director's cut. The transfer is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Daytime and most interior shots, though a little on the dark side, look impressively detailed and sport vivid and accurate-looking colour. The already-dark night-time sequences unfortunately are now so dark as to swallow up any detail that may have existed and frequently just look murky. This may reflect the filmmakers' intent, but the strain on the eyes draws one out of the film experience which is unfortunate because most of the night-time sequences are compelling in terms of dramatic content. In general terms, the image sports a natural sheen of grain and digital manipulation is not at all evident. The 5.1 DTS-HD sound is impressive, particularly delivering the Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman score with a richness and pounding urgency from all directions that really enwraps one in the film experience. The action sequences demonstrate aggressive use of the surrounds and LFE as well as frequent directionality for specific sound effects. Dialogue is crisp and clear while being well-balanced with the sound effects and music score. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided. The supplements include a typically informative and insightful audio commentary by Michael Mann, an excellent new making-of documentary (43 minutes) on all aspects of the production, the theatrical trailer, and a teaser. Recommended.

We've now been subjected to three episodes in the Twilight Saga, with Eclipse being the most recent to be released. The opener, Twilight, was a serious antidote for the sleep-deprived, but its follow-up, New Moon, actually had somewhat of a pulse in the hands of director Chris Weitz.

Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)Twilight Saga: Eclipse (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Eclipse, however, fails to build on the momentum generated by New Moon and so we're back to two hours of boring exposition and inexplicable romance punctuated by about 10 minutes of action. It's hard to see what our heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart) sees in either of her two suitors, both of them posturing, walking, non-human, beefcake posters - Edward the Vampire (Robert Pattinson) and Jacob the Werewolf (Taylor Lautner). But then, it's hard to see what either of them sees in Bella, surely one of the most self-interested, shallow, and just plain dull young women ever seen on screen. Anyway, what's Eclipse all about? Well something about an army of newborns (freshly-minted vampires) on its way from Seattle to Forks and apparently posing a threat to Bella which results in an uneasy alliance between Edward and Jacob and their respective clans intended to protect her. Woven into it all are scenes of Edward and Bella talking, Jacob and Bella talking, and Edward and Jacob grimacing at each other plus we get lots of sexual suggestion - are Bella and Edward going to do it, will Jacob and Bella ever get close enough to consider doing it, and there's even a ridiculous sequence where Bella inexplicably ends up freezing in a tent and guess whose warm body has to revive her (hint - it's not the cold-blooded Edward). Box office receipts say there's obviously an audience for this sort of over-ripe nonsense, but most serious and even not-do-serious film enthusiasts can safely avoid it. Whatever the deficiencies of the film, its presentation on Blu-ray courtesy of E1 in Canada (single disc BD only release) and Summit in the United States (BD/DVD combo disc) shows it in its best light. The 2.40:1 image is very sharp and clean with image detail being noticeably impressive. Black levels are suitably deep and there's virtually no evidence of edge effects. Colour fidelity looks very good with an overall palette that's generally muted. The disc sports a 5.1 DTS-HD lossless track that also works effectively. The dialogue is always clear and well balanced with sound effects. An immersive ambience is successfully created most of the time with full-bore surround and LFE cutting in impressively during the few action sequences. Howard Shore's music score is well reproduced although the score itself has little in it that sticks in the mind after the film is over. A French 5.1 Dolby Digital track and English (SDH) and French subtitles are provided. The supplements feature two audio commentaries of which the one by author Stephenie Meyer and film producer Wick Meyer is the more meaty and informative. There's also a very complete 6-part making-of documentary that runs almost an hour and a half. Also included are 8 deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary by director David Slade, a photo gallery, some music videos, and a feature that allows fans to jump to favourite scenes. Absolutely for Twilight followers only.

True Grit is of course the western for which John Wayne received his only Academy Award. He plays cantankerous one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn who is employed by a headstrong young woman (Kim Darby) to find the man who murdered her father and then made off with the his money into the Indian territories.

True Grit (Blu-ray Disc)

Assisting the two in the search is a young Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell). Arrayed against the trio are the likes of Robert Duvall, Jeremy Slate, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Corey. Wayne's Oscar win received some criticism at the time from those who seemed unwilling to give the man his due as an actor, preferring to complain about his then-unpopular Vietnam politics rather than focus on what was a richly multi-faceted performance. The distillation of the experience in outdoor roles that Wayne had gained over the previous four decades was such that he made the Cogburn characterization look almost too easy, belying the real effort that went into such making such a portrayal believable. It's a cross that those with an abundance of talent in any artistic field often have to bear. Aside from Wayne's performance, though, the film also benefits from a fine combination of assets. Henry Hathaway, well recognized as an effective director of classic action films, maintains a veteran's sure hands on the film - allowing it to breath comfortably in the first half and then ratcheting up the action in the second. The proceedings are beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard, taking fine advantage of the Colorado locations, while Elmer Bernstein contributes an expansive musical score. The film is also based on the fine novel of the same title by Charles Portis, and although some liberties have been taken with it, the novel's strong story line is generally adhered to. Paramount's 1.85:1 Blu-ray presentation of True Grit is very appealing as one might have anticipated from the fine quality of the previous DVD version. The image is crisp and clean with interiors and the frequent outdoor scenes equally impressive. Colour fidelity is very good with the general vibrancy of the film's colour palette well replicated. Skin tones are accurate and facial features are nicely detailed. There is virtually no evidence of untoward digital manipulation, only one or two slight suggestions of edge effects. A fine sheen of grain delivers a film-like feel throughout. The 5.1 DTS-HD lossless audio track does a workmanlike job of delivering a sound-field that is pretty much confined to the fronts. Dialogue is clear with some directionality evident. English, French, and Spanish mono tracks and subtitles are provided. The supplements are highlighted by a superior audio commentary by western experts Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell, and J. Stuart Rosebrook. It's packed with information and opinion, and provides continuous entertainment throughout. There are four featurettes related to the making of the film including a very nice one on the Aspen Colorado area in which it was shot. The theatrical trailer (in HD) rounds out the disc. This is the same suite of extras that graced the previous DVD release. Highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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