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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

My first Blu-ray column for 2009 begins with some news about Warner Bros.' plans for classic titles on Blu-ray courtesy of a recent article posted at High Def Digest, and then offers 19 capsule reviews including Amadeus: Director's Cut, Any Given Sunday, JFK: Director's Cut, and RocknRolla from Warner Bros.; Babylon A.D., The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Unfaithful from Fox, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Swing Vote from Disney; The Duchess, Eagle Eye, Ghost, and Ghost Town from Paramount; The Last Emperor from Criterion; The Forbidden Kingdom from Lionsgate; Groundhog Day, Lakeview Terrace and Stranger Than Fiction: SE from Sony; and Mamma Mia from Universal.

The list of upcoming Blu-ray releases, downloadable here, has also been updated. Note particularly Paramount's ambitious May plans - 18 releases at last count, including a set of all six Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek films. As usual, your comments are always welcome (barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com).


Classic Plans at Warner Bros.

The lack of classic titles on Blu-ray is one of the most frequent concerns raised by readers who correspond with me, and of course it's a sore point with me too. Sure we've gotten a sprinkling of titles, mainly from Warner Bros. as one might expect, but too many of the most obvious ones are still missing never mind deeper catalogue efforts. It's sometimes argued that with standard DVD, an appropriate market for classic titles didn't really develop until four or five years into the medium's existence, and that the same can be expected with Blu-ray. This may well be true, but it's not particularly comforting for classic fans.

A new article at High Def Digest, in which George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video sheds some light on Warners' classic plans, is certainly of interest to classic lovers looking for information on the timing of some of their favorites coming to Blu-ray. Emphasizing a strong commitment to classics on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video., here are some of the main points he covers. The full article can be found here.

- March's releases of the biblical epic, Quo Vadis, and two Best Picture winners, Gigi and An American in Paris, may be viewed as a "litmus test" for classics, even though they are "very, very risky titles to put out in this marketplace, which mostly caters to new theatrical releases".

- In honour of its 40th anniversary, Woodstock will arrive on Blu-ray in July of this year in limited numbered editions with two hours of recently discovered performances. The classic concert film was originally shot in 16mm, so beware, there will be noticeable grain.

- Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and North by Northwest are all planned for a Blu-ray release later in 2009. Hitchcock's thriller underwent a $1 million restoration, while GWTW and Oz - both of which were remastered in 2K Ultra Resolution three or four years ago for splashy DVD releases - have been completely overhauled once again to make sure they meet all of Blu-ray's exacting standards. "What was perfection two to three years ago is not now", Feltenstein says. "We thought Gone with the Wind would be good to go on Blu-ray with what was done previously, plus $200,000 for dirt cleaning. But to look perfect, we had to start all over from scratch at enormous cost. I took it to management and there was no hesitation. Having a film like Gone with the Wind on Blu-ray will set a new standard and pave the way for more classic releases".

- The compromising of a film's original elements, such as grain structure, is not acceptable. Feltenstein is adamant that Warners does not condone such tampering, nor does it allow The Motion Picture Imaging Group, the company that produces its transfers, to artificially enhance images or apply digital noise reduction to achieve a more modern, sleek look. Black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s tend to exhibit more grain than movies made in the '50s and '60s, and sometimes that grain looks amplified when projected on a high-def display. When doing transfers, Feltenstein says, "We keep the grain, but get rid of every piece of non-photographic originated dirt we can".

- Some of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals will appear on Blu-ray in 2010, with Top Hat apparently one of the first titles.

- The 1954 version of A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, currently being mastered in 6K resolution, will see a 2010 release.

- Citizen Kane will celebrate its 70th anniversary with a Blu-ray appearance in 2011.

- Ben-Hur is in the pipeline, but timing is not set yet. It was already mastered in 1080p but is being redone to address concerns that many viewers had over the standard DVD transfer.

- Singin' in the Rain is in the process of an expensive 1080p makeover as its previous mastering in 2001 was only in 1080i. No timing appears set (though one might anticipate as a worst case scenario a 2012 release since that's the 60th anniversary).

- The Music Man, Doctor Zhivago, and Meet Me in St. Louis will all see Blu-ray releases in the next two to three years.


Capsule Reviews


Amadeus: Director's Cut (Blu-ray Disc)

Amadeus: Director's Cut (Warner Bros.)

The 1984 Best Picture Oscar winner (as well as seven others including a worthy Best Actor award to F. Murray Abraham) is a superb translation of the Peter Shaffer play to the screen which while long, is a continuously intriguing and entrancing chronicling of Mozart (Tom Hulce) in Vienna and his effect on the fortunes and feelings of court composer Salieri (Murray Abraham). The film offers a number of excellent performances including the two leads and a supporting one by Jeffrey Jones as the Emperor Joseph II. The film's music as conducted and supervised by Sir Neville Marriner is an obvious highlight.

The film, while always sounding quite impressive on DVD, has never looked quite as good on DVD as some of its contemporaries. The first release was an early flipper disc that was improved on in a two-disc special edition in 2002.


The latter, a new director's cut with some 20 extra minutes of footage that worked much to the film's advantage, offered two very fine supplements in its audio commentary with director Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer, and in its lengthy making-of documentary. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer was quite good in many respects, but edge effects did intrude and there was a murkiness to some scenes that seemed to offer good scope for improvement in a future release. Now with its current Blu-ray release, that opportunity is here. Unfortunately it is an opportunity not fully realized. To be sure, the new Blu-ray offers substantial improvement on the previous DVD. Colours are brighter and colour fidelity is much improved. Much of the murkiness is gone and black levels are very good. On the down side, however, digital manipulation has apparently been applied to the image resulting in a loss of some high frequency information that has yielded a somewhat waxy look to faces and an at-times overall smoothness similar to but not as pronounced as that from which Patton suffered in its translation to Blu-ray. On smaller screens this may not be particularly evident, but larger screens will be less forgiving. The fault here would appear to lie with the Saul Zaentz company which supplied the source material to Warners; however, since it's mainly Warners' name on the line as disc distributor, one would think that Warners could have taken a stand on the quality of product going out. One doesn't want to over-emphasize the disc's faults for there is much to admire, but as with previous disc versions of the film, there is still room for improvement. For completeness, the Blu-ray release offers the supplements from the previous DVD SE and comes in a digibook format with two extra discs - a digital copy and a CD compilation of Mozart music. Definitely worth renting to judge the transfer merits and defects for yourself.


Any Given Sunday (Blu-ray Disc)

Any Given Sunday (Warner Bros.)

It helps, though it's not essential, to be a football fan in order to appreciate the merits of Any Given Sunday - Oliver Stone's dissection of one of America's favorite weekend pastimes in which Al Pacino, leading a fine ensemble cast, plays veteran coach Tony D'Amato who must deal with a faltering team, a headstrong back-up quarterback (Jamie Foxx), a new owner (Cameron Diaz), a sleazy team doctor (James Woods), and a new-school assistant coach (Aaron Eckhart) among others. The film is more than two and a half hours long but never falters throughout. The cast is uniformly good and the various conflicts between the main characters are compellingly developed, but the best aspect is the detailed picture of the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a professional football franchise - particularly the sort of human interactions that occur between team members, press, coaching staff and ownership, and the many general hangers-on.


The 2.4:1 image is quite clean but somewhat variable in sharpness, though this may be more indicative of Stone's style than a deficiency of the Blu-ray transfer. I didn't see the film theatrically to be able to compare. Regardless, there is some impressive detail (particularly in facial images) to be seen and colour is usually very vibrant. Mild grain is present at times. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound is particularly impressive during football sequences, with emphatic use of the surrounds and appropriately deep bass. Otherwise it handles the dialogue driven main portions of the film with good clarity and some directional effects. The fine set of extras (Stone and Foxx audio commentaries, deleted scenes, making-of featurette, etc.) is carried over from the most recent standard DVD. Highly recommended.


Babylon A.D.: Raw and Uncut (Blu-ray Disc)

Babylon A.D.: Raw and Uncut (Fox)

Here's a hopeless mess that the director (Mathieu Kassovitz) apparently disavowed. As a futuristic story, the plot of a mercenary (Vin Diesel) tasked with shepherding a mysterious young woman from a war-torn and refugee-filled Asia to a glitzy but protectionist America has some merit, but the story's messianic underpinnings are ultimately so poorly elucidated and the film so badly truncated at the end that it all just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. (The disc presents the international release version, some 10 minutes longer than the North American release - can the latter possibly have been even less coherent?) Even were some of these shortcomings not present, Vin Diesel certainly doesn't convey a character that one has any desire to be spending time with. The pleasure of the work of the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Charlotte Rampling can't compensate for all the rest.


Fox has done a fine job with the image, retaining some modest grain and the desaturated look of many of the scenes. Image detail is very good. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is aggressive with excellent use of the surrounds for both ambient effects as well as the in-your face action sequences. Several production featurettes, a couple of BonusView offerings, a digital copy, and a deleted scene are the main elements of the supplement package.


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Blu-ray Disc)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Disney)

It seems like everyone knows of and has read or seen "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe", the first volume in "The Chronicles of Narnia" series by C.S. Lewis. "Prince Caspian" is the second volume and for my money, a better tale overall and more mature in tone. Similarly, it has made for a better film than the opener, at least from an adult's point of view. The Pevensie youngsters return to Narnia a year after their initial escapades and find themselves helping the young Prince Caspian to regain his throne in a Narnia 13 centuries older than when they last left it. The film is dominated by various battles, but they are well choreographed by director Andrew Adamson and one seldom finds oneself wallowing in the lack of clarity that characterizes too many modern CGI extravaganzas.


The casting of the Pevensie children is the same as in the first installment and remains a strong point of the films. Able support is provided by Sergio Castellitto as the uncle who deposes Caspian and by Peter Dinklage as the dwarf Trumpkin.

The Blu-ray presentation is of reference quality in both sight and sound. The 2.40:1 image is vibrantly colourful and superb in image detail in both bright and dark sequences. The 7.1 DTS-HD sound handles quiet and loud sequences with equal aplomb. Separation and surround usage is very well done. The amount of extras, spread over two discs plus a third for a digital download, is impressively thorough on all parts of the production. The audio commentary by Adamson and the four Pevensie actors is a highlight. Highly recommended.



The Day the Earth Stood Still (Blu-ray Disc)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Fox)

This is the original 1951 film directed by Robert Wise and still a potent science fiction film. It relates the tale of a spacecraft landing in Washington with an alien emissary intent on making Earth realize that it must change its warlike ways or otherwise find itself faced with destruction. The film is a thoughtful consideration of the ‘first contact" situation and deviates significantly from the more standard Independence Day sort of approach. Michael Rennie is well cast as the alien emissary and Patricia Neal is fine as the mother of the young boy who befriends him.

The black and white full frame image looks excellent on Blu-ray. For anyone who wonders about whether high definition really makes much of a difference with older films, this effort shows clearly that it does.


Compared to the standard DVD, the image is sharper, details are much clearer, and there is a virtual you-are-here feel to the era the film depicts. The disc conveys the film's inherent grain quite appropriately. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio also does a fine job, delivering a surprisingly robust sound with even some isolated surround effects and the odd LFE too. A mono track is included. The disc contains a wealth of fine supplements including two audio commentaries, a good making-of featurette, a documentary on flying saucers, etc - many presented in HD. Highly recommended.


The Duchess (Blu-ray Disc)

The Duchess (Paramount)

Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes star in a finely-crafted period drama about the life of Georgiana Spencer - Duchess of Devonshire, who cut quite a fashionable figure in 18th century England and whose resulting influence allowed her a subtle role in shaping the politics of the time. She was married to the Duke of Devonshire at a young age with the Duke's sole interest in her being a desire for a male heir - something she was not able to provide. Instead, her interest in a young politician complicates the situation and leads to an unhappy compromise. As is typical of such period fare made in Britain, the production sports fine acting and an admirable eye for period detail and set design. Unfortunately the cold-hearted nature of the Duke of Devonshire character seems to seep into the film as a whole, and one finds the whole thing somewhat uninvolving on initial viewing despite plenty of plot turns.


I somehow suspected, however, that the film would benefit from repeated viewings and indeed on watching it a second time, I found myself much more engaged by focusing less on the Ralph Fiennes admirable portrayal of the Devonshire character and more on the Duchess's interactions with the other characters.

Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray offering is very fine-looking and replicates the smooth image of the theatrical presentation. It delivers excellent colour fidelity and just a hint of grain. The film's costumes and set detail are thus showcased appropriately. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is mainly confined to the fronts, but excellent clarity and good separation are apparent. The supplements consist of two trailers and three featurettes mainly dealing with the production itself and totaling over half an hour in length. All are in high definition. Recommended.



Eagle Eye (Blu-ray Disc)

Eagle Eye (DreamWorks)

If you want to be assaulted by noise (what is it with movies destroying cars in tunnels these days?), steamrolled by an absurd paranoic plot, and annoyed by the frenetic editing that passes for action nowadays, then Eagle Eye is for you. Its plot has something to do with a super-computer hatching a scheme to assassinate high-ranking American government figures as retribution for having ignored the computer's "abort" recommendation concerning the killing of a suspected terrorist. Against their will, two strangers (Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monghan) are "activated" by the computer to help carry out the assassinations. The film seems to have been tailored as a vehicle to further promote the career of LeBeouf, but he lacks the gravitas to pull off such a role (despite sporting a scruffy beard in a failed attempt to mask his youthfulness) and mainly spends his time running around with furrowed brow, wide-open eyes, and half-opened mouth.


Subtlety is not something that seems to have occurred to the four writers or director D.G. Caruso (who also did Disturbia with LaBeouf) when making the film. Perhaps they all should have done some homework with the likes of Three Days of the Condor or Enemy of the State.

Of course it all looks and sounds (Dolby TrueHD) great on this blu-ray release and there's a few extras of modest interest (deleted scenes, production featurettes) all presented in HD, but really who cares when the film itself is such a letdown.


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