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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

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Winter/Early Spring 2007 Reviews (continued)

Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut (HD-DVD)

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Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut
1999/2007 (2007) - Paramount
Released on HD-DVD on April 10th, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: B+
Video (1-20): 15
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B+

Specs and Features:
90 mins, NR, MPEG-4 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), HD-30, Elite Red HD packaging, all SCE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English), subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish

When Payback was released in 1999, the on-screen product was not very inspiring. The film didn't seem to know what it was trying to be and it flipped from gritty noirishness to tired Lethal Weapon-inspired joking while subjecting us to an image with an annoying blue colour wash and voice-over narration that smacked of Blade Runner-reminiscent wall papering. Most viewers at the time probably weren't aware of the film's production background with first-time director Brian Helgeland essentially dropping out when Paramount did not agree with his vision of the film, particularly the last third. Many of the afore-mentioned less-than-desirable characteristics of the film arose from decisions made after his departure. Paramount and Mel Gibson's Icon Productions have now given Helgeland the opportunity to reconstruct his vision of the film and the resulting director's cut of Payback is a substantial improvement in every way, gaining much in Helgeland's desire to construct a film possessing the 1970s film-making ethos. Gone are the narration, the jokiness, the blue wash, and even a significant character from the theatrical version (the Kris Kristofferson one) while the film's grittiness noir aspects have been enhanced, Gibson's central character is presented as much darker and uncontrolled than before, and the film's conclusion is suitably open-ended.

The story is based on the novel "The Hunter" by Donald Westlake (also the basis of the 1967 John Boorman film Point Blank). Mel Gibson plays a character named Porter who is shot and left for dead by his partner and his wife after they all rob a Chinese gang of $140,000. Some time afterwards, Porter returns seeking revenge on the pair not to mention his $70,000 share of the money. His former partner, however, is now tied up with the local crime syndicate and Porter finds he must take on the whole mob as well as a couple of corrupt cops in order to get what belongs to him. Payback still suffers somewhat from the unreality that characterizes so many contemporary thrillers - action sequences that would kill or permanently maim any real-life person, but seem barely to effect the hero after the fact, no matter how convincingly he or she may suggest they been suffering during some beating or other death-defying stunt. That aside, however, the film manages to hold one's attention through a combination of shadowy cinematography that makes the most of the Chicago location shooting, an initially enigmatic protaganist who slowly gets us rooting for him due to Mel Gibson's charismatic portrayal, and a host of effective supporting performances (Gregg Henry as Porter's former partner, David Paymer as a slimy drug dealer, and William Devane as the main face of the mob). In the face of today's common-place film marathons, Payback clocks in at only 90 minutes, but packs plenty of action into the time so we never feel short-changed.

The HD image presentation is quite serviceable. The range of colours is limited, but it's well rendered. A moderate amount of grain is present, complementing the film's gritty subject matter. Too often, image sharpness and detail are only slightly better than the DVD version, however, with dark scenes frequently subject to only fair shadow detail. There are few scenes that really pop like those on the best HD discs. The audio provides clear dialogue, fairly punchy sound effects, and renders the limited music score by Scott Stambler quite effectively. Surround usage is subtle at best. The disc's supplements duplicate the package available on the DVD version. The best of them is a new documentary (presented here in 1080p) explaining how this new director's cut came to be. There are also two substantial (almost 50 minutes in total) making-of featurettes focusing on either the Chicago or Los Angeles component of the shoot. The audio commentary by the director is quite comprehensive and complements rather than duplicates his participation in the new documentary. If you were turned off by the original Payback, I think you'll find this version much superior, but probably a rental is the best way to find out for sure.

Babel (HD-DVD)

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2006 (2007) - Paramount
Released on HD-DVD on February 20th, 2007
(also available on Blu-ray Disc)

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: E

Specs and Features:
143 mins, R, MPEG-4 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, theatrical trailer (1080p), audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English and French), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, English SDH

Those familiar with Alejandro González Iñárritu's previous work (Amores Perros and 21 Grams) will find themselves in familiar territory structurally with Babel, the current offering from the Mexican director. Collaborating with writer Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu produces narratives complex in both time and space that eventually coalesce into a satisfyingly coherent whole. Amores Perros is probably the most compelling of the three, partly because of its initial freshness, but the two films following each have much to recommend them. Babel of course was one of the 2006 Oscar Best Picture nominees, losing out to The Departed - a result that one can quibble with though not with great vigour.

Babel links three different stories that take place in disparate locales around the world. In Morocco, two young shepherds allow the thrill of having a new rifle to go to their heads resulting in a dare that leads to the shooting of an American tourist. Meanwhile in southern California, a Mexican nanny wants to attend her son's marriage in her Mexican hometown, but must take the two young American children in her charge with her when she is unable to get someone to look after them in her absence. Finally, in Tokyo, a motherless young woman struggles with her identity and her relationship with her father at the same time as her father's decision while on a past trip abroad may prove to have fatal consequences. As is typical of Iñárritu's work, the three stories are strikingly intertwined in both time and space - the links only becoming completely clear in the film's final sequences. It is this four-dimensional complexity that is the film's defining aspect rather than its theme. The latter, the idea of how connected we all really are despite distance and culture, soon becomes obvious. The Mexican story is the most compelling and is the best acted of the three highlighted by Adriana Barraza's work as the nanny and Iñárritu favorite Gael Garcia Bernal as her nephew. Much of the film's publicity has tended to focus on the Moroccan story due to the presence of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but its true strength lies in the work of the Moroccan youths and their elders. Pitt is more of a distraction than anything else and Blanchett really has little to do. The Tokyo story displays exceptional work from Rinko Kikuchi as the young woman and although it has a key connection to the other stories, it is the most self-contained of the three.

This is quite a fine transfer of a film each of whose plot components tend to exhibit different image characteristics. The Moroccan portions look grittier than the others reflecting the 16mm stock used for them. Image detail and colour fidelity (colours are somewhat muted on purpose in the Moroccan scenes) remain high despite that, even in the long distance shots. The Mexican (colours somewhat muted also) and Japanese portions are smoother looking as befits the 35mm stock employed in those cases. The image won't make you gasp in wonder, but it does appear to accurately replicate the theatre experience. The audio does a reasonably good job with both dialogue and the music score. It's pretty well rooted in the front with only limited and subtle surround effects. There are no supplements other than the theatrical trailer presented in 1080p - an omission than virtually guarantees another release given the film's potential as a work for discussion. Recommended.

Casino Royale (Blu-ray Disc)

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Casino Royale
2006 (2007) - MGM/Columbia (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 13th, 2007

Blu-ray Disc Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionPCM UncompressedDolby Digital

Film: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 19.5
Extras: B-

Specs and Features:
144 mins, PG-13, MPEG-4 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), BD-50 DL, Elite Blue HD packaging, all 2-disc DVD features included (some in 1080p), audio: Uncompressed PCM 5.1 (English) & Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles in English, English SDH, Chinese, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai and Korean

Much has been written about the new James Bond film, Casino Royale, and I find myself in complete agreement with the general direction of those writings. This is the best Bond film since those of Sean Connery's heyday, and Daniel Craig is a superior James Bond, rivaling Connery as the best to play the role so far. The film is based on the first James Bond book to be written by creator Ian Fleming, and it is as true to its origins as any Bond film has ever been. The story focuses on Bond's first days as a double-0 agent as it pits him against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), money man to world terrorism, in a game of very high stakes poker. Providing female distraction is the exquisite Vesper Lynd, a representative of Her Majesty's treasury portrayed by French actress Eva Green. The film sports the usual range of exotic locales (in this case Madagascar, the Bahamas, Venice, and Montenegro) and includes the requisite number of action set-pieces. In the case of the latter, however, the film avoids the excessive CGI that plagued recent Bond films and uses good old-fashioned stunt work to great advantage. The action is for the most part allowed to arise out of realistic (for lack of a better word) plot happenings rather than outlandish gadgetry and science-fictionesque situations. The idea of a collapsing building and the climactic sequences in it are particularly inspired. Daniel Craig gives us a rougher, grimmer, and deeper Bond, one who combines both levels of vulnerability as well as substantial ruthlessness. The annoying one-liners of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan days have been given a welcome burial in favour of a more world-weary cynicism.

This BD presentation is not quite a home run, but it's close. Image detail is excellent throughout and there are numerous eye-popping sequences, particularly during the film's central sections focused on Montenegro and the car-game centerpiece. Colour rendition is bright and accurate, except for skintones, which look a little too orange at times. The transfer exhibits a limited amount of grain that gives it a nice film-like look. The PCM audio is reference quality - the best I've heard so far, providing everything one could imagine asking for in an action movie mix - crisp dialogue, crackling special effect sound reproduction, ample but not artificially excessive LFE, extraordinary engagement of the surrounds and front-to-back/side-to-side movement. It's a constantly enveloping experience that puts you right in the middle of the action at all times. Given the packages of supplements on some Bond DVDs, the inclusions here add up to a modest set, but still reasonable value for your money. There are two good new featurettes, both in 1080p and approximately 50 minutes in total, dealing with the coming of Daniel Craig to the Bond franchise (Becoming Bond) and with the film's considerable stunt work (James Bond: For Real). An entertaining older TV special (almost 50 minutes long) covers the many past Bond women (Bond Girls Are Forever). The music video of Chris Cornell's title song ("You Know My Name") round out the extras. Highly recommended.

Rocky Balboa (Blu-ray Disc)

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Rocky Balboa
2006 (2007) - MGM/Columbia (Sony)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 20th, 2007

Blu-ray Disc Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionPCM UncompressedDolby Digital

Film: A-
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: A

Specs and Features:
102 mins, PG, MPEG-4 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), BD-50 DL, Elite Blue HD packaging, all DVD features included, audio: Uncompressed PCM 5.1 (English) & Dolby Digital 5.1 (English and French), subtitles: English, English SDH, French and Spanish

The idea of Sylvester Stallone returning to his Rocky character for a sixth time certainly invoked considerable eye-rolling from yours truly, but the results are surprisingly effective and provide a satisfying conclusion to the saga (assuming the film's box-office success doesn't make Stallone change his mind). In Rocky Balboa, a Rocky preoccupied with the memory of his now-deceased wife Adrian, tries to find meaning in his current life, one focused on running a restaurant and also trying to connect with his grown son. The only key link to his early past still around is the ever-present Paulie. The feeling that there is unfinished business as far is boxing is concerned leads Rocky to regain his boxing license. Meanwhile, the heavyweight boxing champion suffers from poor public acceptance because of a series of one-sided fights and his handlers see an exhibition match with Rocky as a way to massage the champ's tarnished image as well as put suggestions to rest that a fight between the two in their prime would have resulted in a victory by Rocky. The film has very much the thoughtful tone of the original Rocky film and eschews much of the over-the-top ring machismo of the original's other four sequels. Despite some lapses in its development of the relationships between Rocky and both his own son and that of a woman whom he befriends, the film's story arc is well-handled and given a very satisfactory conclusion in its staging of the exhibition match between Rocky and the current champ. The ending feels right in terms of both this particular film (compare it to the alternate ending presented as an extra on the disc) and the Rocky series as a whole, thus imparting a measure of credibility that the film as a stand-alone title might not otherwise have. Despite what one may feel about Stallone's acting abilities (whose limited nature have resulted in a rather lean period for the actor of late), his embodiment of Rocky has always been effective and his work here is superior within that context. Superior too is the script, which Stallone wrote as well as directed. The result is a film with numerous quietly truthful scenes that are characterized by warmth and subtlety as well as conveying the sense of complex real-life characters.

The BD presentation of the film is superior. Image detail is excellent virtually throughout, whether interior or exterior. The disc presents a nice contrast between the more subdued but accurate colours of the Philadelphia scenes and the glitzy, dynamic ones of the Las Vegas fight scenes. But most striking of all is the stunningly sharp and vivid red of the roses that Rocky leaves on Adrian's grave marker. The uncompressed PCM sound mix is equally effective. It is forceful and enveloping when it needs to be in the fight sequences, but it is also restrained yet atmospheric in many of the Philadelphia ones. Dialogue is crisp and clear for the most part, struggling only with a few of Rocky's mumbled utterances. The disc's extras are a nice mix including a very good audio commentary by Stallone; several featurettes on the general making-of the film as well as a couple of its specific components (the computerized fight scene and the Las Vegas fight sequences); a generous selection of deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
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