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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Capsule Reviews (Continued)

The Forbidden Kingdom (Blu-ray Disc)

The Forbidden Kingdom (Lionsgate)

I'm not enough of a kung-fu movie follower to be able to say where The Forbidden Kingdom would rank in the spectrum of such films, but I found it an engaging experience in its own right. Jet Li and Jackie Chan are paired on film for the first time here and the resulting verbal and physical interplay between the two is all one could ask for. Both take on two roles in the film. For my taste, Jet li's efforts are much more compelling, as I found one of Chan's characters (the drunken nomad immortal) more annoying than anything else. The story revolves around a 21st century kung-fu fanatic who's transported through time to take on the task of delivering a magic staff to the Monkey King (one of Li's roles) who has been imprisoned by the Jade Warlord. Li and Chan are ancient Chinese warriors who take on the job of training and mentoring the young adherent.

The kung-fu sequences are excellently choreographed (by the well-known Yuen Woo-ping), offering sufficient variety to keep potential boredom at bay. Too bad the Monkey King is portrayed as such a gibbering idiot; it makes it hard to root for him with much conviction.

Lionsgate's 2.40:1 image is of a very high standard, being one of those efforts that exhibits real pop at times. Colours are very vibrant and accurate while image detail is particularly striking. Occasional instances of some softness in the image are the only things keeping the effort from perfection. The 7.1 DTS-HD audio is equally impressive, with crisp dialogue, good directionality, and emphatic use of the surrounds yielding a wonderfully immersive experience. The supplements are extensive, including a Bonus View Picture-in-Picture experience, entertaining audio commentary by director Rob Minkoff and writer John Fusco, a number of good, short production featurettes (all in HD), deleted scenes, and second disc with digital copy. Recommended.

Ghost (Blu-ray Disc)

Ghost (Paramount)

The first and the least of two ghost films covered in this column is the 1990 Demi Moore/ Patrick Swayze romance/mystery that became famous for its pottery-turning sequence. It also garnered Whoopi Goldberg a supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of a skeptical psychic. Nineteen years later, the film does not strike me as having aged well. Neither Moore's nor Swayze's performances offer anything memorable and Goldberg's efforts appear more shrill than anything else. In Whoopi's case, perhaps she was just much more of a fresh face when the film first came out and we've seen her do similar work too much since. The murder mystery part of the story is rather contrived, but regardless, it never really generates much suspense. Perhaps another director than Jerry Zucker (of Airplane!, Police Squad, and Naked Gun fame) might have gotten more out of the material.

The 1.85:1 image is passable at best. The source material is not particularly clean and the colours lack virtually any sparkle. Overall, this is only marginally better than the most recent standard DVD transfer. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound is equally unremarkable - decent front separation at times and clarity is fine. The Blu-ray ports over the selection of extras from the DVD although neither the audio commentary with Zucker and writer Bruce Joel Rubin nor the various production featurettes are greatly inspiring.

Ghost Town (Blu-ray Disc)

Ghost Town (DreamWorks)

Fans of Ricky Jervais's TV series The Office and Extras, as well as his podcasts will be delighted by Ghost Town, a film that effectively channels the Gervais persona onto the big screen. He plays Bertram Pincus, a Manhattan dentist who develops the ability to see dead people after a medical abnormality occurs during a routine colonoscopy. The dead people he sees are all roaming New York because of unfinished business in their lives and they view Pincus as a way to have such business resolved. But Pincus doesn't like dealing with people in the real world never mind taking on the problems of the dead. The film effectively mines the Gervais acerbic and at times cringe-inducing comic technique, but also layers it with an appealing romantic sub-plot involving the wife (Tea Leoni) of one of the most-recently dead (Greg Kinnear).

It's Gervais though who elevates the film to one of the better comedies released of late. His facial expressions, dry humour and air of exasperation at the absurdity of much of life's routine keep us smiling throughout.

The 1.85:1 image is a pleasure to watch. It's richly detailed, clean, and sharp with excellent colour fidelity particularly evident in many outdoor New York scenes. The Dolby TrueHD sound is basically rooted in the front and delivers clear dialogue with some minor directional effects. The supplements are highlighted by a very entertaining audio commentary with Gervais and director David Koepp. Two production featurettes and a short outtake featurette are worthwhile and all are presented in HD. Recommended.

Groundhog Day (Blu-ray Disc)

Groundhog Day (Sony)

Groundhog Day provides an ideal vehicle for Bill Murray as a Pittsburgh TV weatherman who has to travel to Punxutawney, Pa. to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration. After four years, this annual junket has become a chore and our hero looks forward to returning home the next day. Unfortunately the next day never comes as Murray's character finds himself in a time warp in which every new day is Ground Hog day all over again. The film successfully mines this situation with a continuously inventive succession of plot variations, but one's enjoyment will depend on how well one likes Bill Murray's typical blend of smugness and acerbity. If you're a fan, you'll definitely like Groundhog Day.

Regardless of your view of Murray, as a comedy with a bit of a twist, the film has merit, but to give it the cachet that director Harold Ramis offers in an interview in one of the disc's supplements is over-reaching somewhat. Amiable timepasser rather than cultural touchstone is closer to the mark.

Sony really knows what it's doing with its Blu-ray transfers. The 1.85:1 transfer is a delightfully film-like experience offering a clear sharp image with modest grain, and is certainly by far the best the film has looked on home video. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is clear with some occasional separation evident, but is otherwise unremarkable as befits the nature of the film. Supplements include a good audio commentary by director Harold Ramis, a new interview with Ramis, a making-of featurette, and deleted scenes. Recommended, particularly so for Bill Murray fans.

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

JFK: Director's Cut (Warner Bros.)

Kevin Costner had quite a run of fine films in the late 1980s and early 1990s and in JFK, Oliver Stone's film of the Kennedy assassination and its subsequent investigation, he found one of his best roles. He plays New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison who carried out a controversial investigation of the assassination in the 1960s and 70s - questioning the lone gunman conclusion and raising the ante on the possibility of a thoroughly planned conspiracy that reached into the highest levels of the U.S government. Whatever one may think of such a conspiracy theory, and Stone's film made it very persuasive, JFK is extremely compelling cinema that mesmerizes from start to finish despite its 205-minute running time.

Costner captures Garrison's single-mindedness well and he has never been better than during his lengthy address to the court in which he presents the evidence for Kennedy's murder at the hands of a coordinated team of killers. Stone marshals a large cast (including numerous familiar actors such as Sissy Spacek, Garry Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon, and Ed Asner) and a wealth of footage both new and archival into a deftly constructed film that bears repeated viewings with ease.

Warners has presented the film on Blu-ray in its digibook packaging. The 2.40:1 image provides an excellent reproduction of difficult material that varies in tone and intensity as well as in source quality (because of the use of archival footage). Colours appear accurate and image detail is very fine indeed. Modest grain is evident at times and appears representative of the original film look. The Dolby TrueHD track delivers a clear and crisp rendition of the dialogue-rich film, but there are segments notably punctuated by dynamic sound effects and music that make effective use of the surrounds and LFE. The supplements are of a high standard, including audio commentary by Stone, a 90-minute documentary on the conspiracy theory, and almost an hour of deleted or extended scenes. Very highly recommended.

Lakeview Terrace (Blu-ray Disc)

Lakeview Terrace (Sony)

When a young interracial couple moves into an upscale Los Angeles hill neighborhood, they are at first comforted to know that cop Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) lives next door. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Abel doesn't approve of the couple and his actions gradually bring the couple's relationship under stress, heightening existing tensions and creating new ones. Despite the difficulties, the couple refuse to be intimidated by their neighbor, leading him to an extreme measure that doesn't work out quite as planned. This film is much more than the simple thriller it seems on the first glance. It's a thought-provoking experience that raises many questions of conscience in general and specifically about how appropriately the characters in the film react to the situation they find themselves in and indeed how we ourselves might act under the same conditions.

Abel is a complex individual with a powerful motivation in his past that he has so twisted that it colours his every move, and in portraying him, Samuel Jackson delivers a bravura performance that totally overshadows everyone else in the cast (including Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson as the young couple).

Sony's 2.40:1 presentation does a fine job of replicating the theatrical experience. It's richly detailed and handles night-time scenes particularly well. Black levels are notably deep. The Dolby TrueHD audio isn't given a huge workout by the dialogue-driven film, but isolated instances of gunfire, vehicle movement, and music do exhibit effective use of directional and surround effects. Director Neil Labute along with actor Kerry Washiungton provide a good audio commentary that's the highlight of the supplement package. Several short production featurettes and deleted scenes are also included. Recommended.

The Last Emperor (Blu-ray Disc)

The Last Emperor (Criterion)

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 epic about the last Chinese emperor - Pu Yi, who took the throne in 1908 at age 3 - was a favourite of Oscar, winning nine Academy Awards (every one for which it was nominated, including picture, director, screenplay, cinematography). The film is one that improves with repeated viewings, seeming at first a rather cold and un-involving spectacle (though one beautifully designed and photographed), but eventually revealing itself as an intimate story of the progress of an individual person as we begin to see beyond the distraction of the impressive Forbidden City settings. John Lone's performance in the lead role is a perceptive one, gradually metamorphosing from cold, self-interested detachment to bewilderment and finally to an almost appealing humbleness that parallels the emperor's fall from grace, eventual incarceration, and finally acceptance as an ordinary citizen in mid-20th century China.

This Blu-ray version, according to Criterion, presents the film in the director-approved aspect ratio of 2.0:1 with the high definition transfer being supervised by the film's cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. It's also Bertolucci's preferred 165-minute cut. A longer 218-minute version shown on Italian TV and included on Criterion's standard DVD release is not included here. The 2.0:1 ratio has been the subject of some controversy as the film was originally released at 2.35:1 (with some 70mm prints at 2.20:1) - resulting in some rather tight compositions on the Criterion version. Regardless, the film does sparkle on Blu-ray, with exquisite colour and excellent image detail. The DTS-HD Master stereo sound is in fine shape though obviously there's little sense of envelopment. Criterion provides its typically exhaustive supplement package highlighted by four lengthy documentaries on the making-of the film and Bertolucci's creative process. Highly recommended.

Mamma Mia! (Blu-ray Disc)

Mamma Mia! (Universal)

If you like the music of Abba and enjoyed the stage musical "Mamma Mia", you should equally enjoy this big-screen version starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. The film is an infectiously entertaining experience that will leave you humming for days afterwards. The choice of actors for the three female leads is particularly inspired (Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranskl) while the three male leads (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, Colin First) are game if nothing else. All do their own singing with the women again coming off much the best. Brosnan's efforts might best be described as melodic howling, but it works in the spirit of the film. Amanda Seyfried as Streep's daughter Sophie demonstrates the finest voice in the whole cast. Don't avoid the closing credits or you'll miss one of her finest efforts.

The 2.40:1 image conveys a warm, colourful ambience that goes hand in hand with the toe-tapping music. The colour is well-saturated and image detail is very good. The Greek exteriors and the massive interior set fare equally well. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio provides for potent renderings of the Abba music although the mix is notably front heavy. An impressive suite of supplements is highlighted by audio commentary from director Phyllida Lloyd, high definition making-of featurettes, a deleted musical number ("The Name of the Game"), deleted scenes, U-Control picture-in-picture commentaries, and a digital copy. Recommended.

RocknRolla (Blu-ray Disc)

RocknRolla (Warner Bros.)

Guy Ritchie makes a unique kind of film that really captures the ethos of the British gangster sub-culture. Anyone who enjoyed Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch will know what I mean. RocknRolla is firmly in this mold though perhaps even more outrageously so than the others. It's loud, at times crude, and punctuated but not overwhelmed by mayhem, while offering a particularly appealing blend of both the serious and the humorous. The plot is a convoluted one even for Ritchie - one that pits old-school London gangster Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) against a new-style Russian mobster planning a riverfront property swindle. Complicating the tale are a small-time trio (headed by Gerard Butler) hoping to play both sides against each other, an accountant intent on getting her own slice of the pie (Thandie Newton), a drug-addicted rocker who's also Lenny's stepson playing dead to boost sales, a missing painting, and a miscellany of witted and half-witted hustlers and hangers-on.

Aside from this continuously involving and well-acted story, there is the pleasure of seeing numerous London locations that highlight the evolving city while also evoking echoes of the past (particularly the use of the now abandoned Battersea power station).

The 2.40:1 image has apparently been purposefully desaturated and this is well-conveyed on this Blu-ray release. Though the film was shot in HD, the Blu-ray image manages to be smooth and film-like with generally good image detail retained. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio provides good clarity on the British accents which can be difficult for some viewers. Otherwise it delivers the music and action sequences with strong impact and good directionality. The supplements are modestly informative. Recommended.

Stranger Than Fiction: Special Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

Stranger Than Fiction: Special Edition (Sony)

In this original and thought-provoking film, Will Ferrell steps away from his normal brand of comedy to play IRS agent Harold Crick, a man who begins to hear a voice narrating the events of his life. A university professor (Dustin Hoffman) helps Harold discover that he's actually the character in a novel whose author (Emma Thompson) is trying to decide on a way to kill off the Crick character. The pleasure of the film lies both in trying to decide what is real and what imagined as well as watching a tremendous cast energizing a well-written script. The three principals all shine, but Maggie Gyllenhaal and Queen Latifah provide effective support. Ferrell particularly demonstrates that he has a range well beyond what he has shown previously. Work by director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball prior to this, and The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace subsequently) is always worth checking out!

Sony has given the film a double-dip on Blu-ray with this new Special Edition. The image transfer is the same as the original release, but that's all right as it's a crisp one with excellent image detail and a natural look that doesn't draw attention to itself. This time, Sony gives us Dolby TrueHD audio instead of uncompressed PCM. It doesn't make a great deal of difference given the nature of the track. This is a dialogue-driven film with some directional effects but little use of the surround. The TrueHD audio delivers it clearly and precisely. A couple of new audio commentaries (one with Forster and some of the cats, the other with Forster and some of the crew) supplement the six production featurettes held over from the initial release. The deleted scenes section has also been expanded from the original. Recommended.

Swing Vote (Blu-ray Disc)

Swing Vote (Buena Vista)

Here we have an amiable time-passer starring Kevin Costner as Bud, a generally shiftless dad (except when it comes to his daughter Molly) who finds himself in the unexpected position of having the deciding vote in the U.S. presidential election. Things get really interesting when the incumbent president (Kelsey Grammer) and his opponent (Dennis Hopper) both show up in Bud's town to try to gain his support. Don't expect too much from this and you'll come away content. The actors all convey good enthusiasm for their roles and there are genuine chuckles to be had as the two presidential hopefuls vie for Bud's vote. Grammer is particularly well cast and Hopper's casting works nicely against type. The film's ending is very appropriately handled.

The 2.40:1 image looks very presentable, offering good colour fidelity and fine image detail. Mild grain is evident, conveying a good film-like look. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio is similarly quite competent but unremarkable, for what is basically a dialogue-driven film. The audio commentary by writer/director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Jason Richman is quite entertaining and easily the best of the supplements (which also include a short making-of featurette and some deleted scenes. Worth a rental.

Unfaithful (Blu-ray Disc)

Unfaithful (Fox)

Director Adrian Lyne has remade Claude Chabrol's La femme infidèle with generally positive results, mainly due to a trio of impressive performances turned in by Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez, and particularly Diane Lane. Lane really captures the conflicting emotions that her character experiences as her affair begins and later deepens and begins to affect her relationship with her family. As her husband, Gere delivers a quietly understated performance throughout that works very effectively against Lane's developing guilt. The film is quite erotic and develops considerable suspense, with the conclusion well-handled and open to individual interpretation by the viewer.

Fox's 1.85:1 presentation is very film-like with mild grain intact. Image detail is exceedingly good and flesh tones are particularly well handled by the accurate colour palette. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio does a nice job of conveying ambient sounds that contribute much to the film's mood. Otherwise dialogue is crystal clear. The supplements are highlighted by an excellent audio commentary by Lyne, scene specific commentary by Lane and Martinez, and two good production featurettes. Some deleted scenes and a "Charlie Rose Show" interview with Lane, Gere, and Lyne are also included. Recommended.

Well, that's it for now. I'll return again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
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