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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Current Fare

For a change, I’m organizing my comments by studio for this edition of the column. At hand are four titles from Sony (A Passage to India, The Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep, Gattaca, Sleuth), five from Fox (Juno, Independence Day, Commando, Predator, I Robot), four from Warner Bros. (That’s Entertainment: The Complete Collection, Bonnie and Clyde, I Am Legend, No Reservations), and one from Lionsgate (3:10 to Yuma).


Sony Blu-ray Releases


A Passage to India (Blu-ray Disc)

A Passage to India

A Passage to India is the class of Sony’s current offerings. David Lean’s last film, originally released in 1984, it tells an intimate story set against the broad canvas of the Indian sub-continent and grips one’s interest throughout its 164-minute running time. The story concerns a young woman (Judy Davis) who, along with an older free-spirited woman (Mrs. Moore – Peggy Ashcroft, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts), travels to India to be with her future husband (Nigel Havers), but finds herself disenchanted with the aloofness of the British colonial rulers with respect to the local people. With this background, her efforts to interact with the Indians are difficult and eventually lead to a situation that results in her apparent rape by an Indian doctor (Aziz - Victor Banerjee).


Based on the book by E.M. Forster, Lean developed an engrossing screenplay that is a combination of an expose of British smugness and superiority, a tale of mystery with the whiff of the supernatural, and a thrilling travelogue of an exotic location. Lean balances the three components beautifully with his usual visual mastery and his strong editing background, aided by an impressive cast (including James Fox and Alec Guinness in addition to those already mentioned). Although mainly filmed in India, much of what you see was shot on constructed sets with large casts of extras drawn from the local population – no CGI here. This is a film that’s been allowed to breathe and is uncluttered by the frenetic editing and ludicrous action set pieces that defy reality and plague so many of today’s epics. The Blu-ray release offers a spectacular 1.66:1 transfer – a real feast for the eyes with superb colour brightness and fidelity, and a beautifully crisp and detailed image. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound is quite effective and we are treated to a fine supplement package including audio commentary by producer Richard Goodwin, a seven-part making-of documentary, and a ‘picture-in-graphics” track that can be stepped through without viewing the whole film. Very highly recommended, and if this release is any indication, we can look forward to future Blu-ray releases of two other David Lean classics, Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, with anticipation.

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep  (Blu-ray Disc)

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

Another winner from Sony is The Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep. For some reason, this film seemed to get little love when released late last year – a real pity, for it’s a delightful film that combines fantasy with real life and has plenty to offer both adults and children. Dare one say, a real family picture! Set in the Loch Ness area of Scotland during World War Two, the story focuses on a young boy named Angus (Alex Etel) who discovers a mysterious egg that soon yields up a water horse, a fabled Scottish sea creature. Angus struggles to keep the existence of the water horse a secret while his life becomes increasingly complicated by the presence of British soldiers billeted at his home – a troop whose commander sees the guarding of the loch as part of the front-line defense against a potential German invasion.


The water horse is very effectively brought to life by a combination of computer graphics and animatronics; the interactions between it and the film’s real life characters, especially Angus, are particularly believably done. The historic atmosphere is well invoked by the fine art decoration and by a good cast (including Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin, and David Morrissey), effectively tempering plot complications that could otherwise have seemed rather light weight for generating real conflict and suspense. Much of the film rests on the shoulders of young Alex Etel and he comes through with flying colours. Director Jay Russell obviously has a love and respect for the story’s source material, the book of the same title by Dick King-Smith, and it shows in this enchanting film. The 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer is another superior effort by Sony – one that excels with both the rugged scenery (New Zealand stands in rather well for Scotland), the fine detail of interior sets, and skin tones. The many water scenes and some night-time ones exhibit very fine shadow detail. The Dolby TrueHD5.1 audio track is also impressive, particularly in respect to the surround usage and its fine evocation of ambient effects. The disc’s supplements include a six-part making-of documentary well over an hour in length and several deleted scenes. Recommended.

Gattaca (Blu-ray Disc)

Gattaca

Gattaca is a an intelligent science fiction drama concerning a young man (Vincent Freeman - Ethan Hawke) who has been born without the genetic pre-engineering that would afford him assured success in the film’s futuristic world. He aspires to explore space by taking a job at Gattaca Aerospace, although as only genetically superior individuals work there, in order to get hired he must assume the identity of one such person (Jude Law) who has otherwise become crippled. When a murder occurs at Gattaca, however, the subsequent investigation threatens to reveal Vincent’s subterfuge.


While the film has some lapses (the waste of Uma Thurman as one of Vincent’s co-workers at Gattaca, and a murder investigation team that sports the now familiar wily veteran cop [Alan Arkin] paired with the impatient younger one [Loren Dean]), it otherwise avoids the standard science fiction film traps of fractured science or ridiculous alien antagonists. Instead it focuses on interesting human relationships, memorable characters (Law’s flawed “perfect human”), and science ethics to some degree, culminating in a satisfying ending. Sony’s 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer is a marked improvement over the previous standard DVD releases. Perhaps not as eye-popping as the best high definition releases, it stills excels in image detail in all lighting conditions. Colours are accurate throughout although frequently somewhat subdued due to the film’s at-times cold look. The Dolby TrueHD5.1 audio does a fine job with the dialogue-driven film, although it too is generally subdued, with but infrequent use of the surrounds. The disc’s supplements include two new making-of featurettes (about 35 minutes in all), the original puff-piece featurette, some deleted scenes, and an outtake. Recommended.

Sleuth (Blu-ray Disc)

Sleuth

Finally from Sony we have the 2007 remake of Sleuth. It arrived some 35 years after the original screen adaptation that starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. This time, Caine has assumed the role that Olivier had, while Jude Law takes on Caine’s old role. The original Anthony Shaffer play, about two men engaged in a battle of wits over the woman who is wife to one and mistress to the other, has been newly adapted by Harold Pinter. The remake’s biggest misstep is its setting of the story in a high-tech British mansion, a decision that continually draws one away from the cerebral cat-and-mouse game of one-up-manship between the two men. Similarly, director Kenneth Branagh’s wide variety of camera angles and lighting decisions is unnecessary. It was always the immersion in the men’s interaction that gave the play its power.


Now that’s diluted to the point where the next press of a button, flourishing of the remote, or view from the ceiling is as interesting as what the two principals are saying or doing. Both Caine and Law strive earnestly, but there’s too much artifice to enable the cozy conviviality that the original developed at its start to develop and which made the story’s subsequent revelations so surprising. Despite the film’s disappointment, Sony’s 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is very good. Sharpness is top notch and the many difficult lighting situations are easily handled. Colour fidelity is spot on. The Dolby TrueHD5.1 audio delivers crisp, clear dialogue and some limited but effective surround effects. The disc’s best supplement is its brace of audio commentaries, one featuring Caine and Branagh, and the other Law. Caine’s efforts are the highlight of these tracks. Modest but reasonably interesting featurettes on the film’s background and on make-up concerns show that Sony is at least trying when it comes to giving value on its Blu-ray disc supplements.


20th Century Fox Blu-ray Releases


Juno (Blu-ray Disc)

Juno

Juno takes pride of place amongst Fox’s recent Blu-ray releases. The film is 96 minutes of diverting entertainment with a rich cast of characters, even if they all occasionally sound just a little too hip to be completely real. The title character of Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is a teenager who becomes unexpectedly pregnant and then embarks on an effort to find the perfect parents for her child. Along the way she must deal with her supportive though somehow disconnected boyfriend (Michael Cera), her resigned father and with-it stepmother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney), and a dysfunctional prospective couple seeking to adopt (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Despite the strong supporting players, Ellen Page takes this film and carries it on her back throughout. Her portrait of the hip though not-quite-part-of-the-crowd teen is certainly one of 2007’s highlight performances.


Director Jason Reitman gives the actors free rein and the viewer never gets the feeling of being manipulated as the film’s many funny sequences play out. Diablo Cody wrote the script and although as I mentioned, it is at times too smart for its own good, it never fails to entertain with its sometimes curious but usually honest turns of phrase. Fox’s 1.85:1 Blu-ray image is quite nice with fine image detail and fairly vibrant colour. I didn’t experience the in-your-face sharpness of the best high definition discs, but the Blu-ray image is clearly superior to the standard DVD one. The DTS HD Master Lossless 5.1 audio presents the dialogue-driven film with clarity, but is otherwise unremarkable. The supplements are highlighted by a very entertaining audio commentary by Reitman and Cody, and some good deleted scenes. Several short featurettes, various outtakes, and a gag reel complete the first disc. A second disc contains a digital copy of the standard DVD version of the film. Recommended.

Independence Day (Blu-ray Disc)

Independence Day

Fox has dipped into its catalog for the other four releases I looked at, with varying degrees of success. Independence Day is a guilty pleasure of mine. Its high concept (of an alien invasion that devastates the planet just prior to Independence Day and the subsequent efforts to overcome it) carries the day despite a wealth of stereotypical characters/mediocre performances (Will Smith and Randy Quaid being the chief culprits) and lapses in plot logic (Macs are universal). The 2.35:1 Blu-ray image is easily the best the film has looked on home video. It’s crisp, clear and sports vibrant colour. A touch of film grain imparts a nice film-like look. Even better is the bone-rattling DTS HD Master Lossless 5.1 audio that excels in the major scenes of destruction, but also generates effective surround effects in relatively quieter moments.


The supplements signal the area in which Fox is still underperforming on its Blu-ray catalog releases. There is an audio commentary by director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, and a separate commentary on the special effects, but most of the other supplements on the standard DVD Five Star release of seven years ago are missing including several lengthy featurettes and eight extra minutes of deleted scenes that were edited into the theatrical version for the DVD release. Even so, I offer a recommendation on this release just because of the transfer and my personal enjoyment of all the film’s nonsense.

Commando & Predator

Commando (Blu-ray Disc)Predator (Blu-ray Disc)

I’m less forgiving on two other releases – Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles Commando and Predator. Commando is a forgettable tale of a retired commando whose daughter is kidnapped in order to force his assistance in overthrowing a country. After a piece of subterfuge (during which our hero manages to jump off a plane in the process of taking off) allows him several hours of grace, he sets out to knock off his daughter’s kidnappers one by one. About ten thousand bullets and seemingly hundreds of dead bodies later, guess what? The 1.85:1 Blu-ray image provides a reasonably detailed and sharp image although skin colours look a little off. One has the impression that the transfer is a little tired overall; the vibrancy of even the better catalog releases just isn’t there. The DTS HD Master Lossless 5.1 audio is equally unimpressive. There are no supplements worth mentioning, certainly none of the best of the recent Director’s Cut on standard DVD. Not recommended. Predator has a little more going for it in the form of its interesting confrontation between an alien hunter and its human quarry. It also lacks the ridiculous and unrealistic body count of Commando, although Arnold’s screen ability to withstand punishment is as usual impressive. My view of the Blu-ray disc’s image and sound is basically the same as for those of Predator – upgrades over the standard DVD image, but still lots of room for improvement. Supplements follow the Commando approach too – nothing of substance and certainly none of the meat on the earlier Predator standard DVD collector’s edition. Not recommended.

I, Robot (Blu-ray Disc)

I, Robot

Finally, a few words about I, Robot – a newer catalog release. Originally released in 2004, the film was a Will Smith vehicle that turned Isaac Asimov’s thoughtful source material into a science fiction action flick, but at least one retaining a reasonable degree of intelligence. Smith is more likable than usual in this film as he plays a detective tasked with solving the murder of a scientist. It’s a futuristic world in which robots are commonplace, their actions strictly controlled by three basic laws of behavior. According to those laws, a robot should be incapable of killing a human, but one particular one seems nevertheless to be the prime suspect in the killing.


Alex Proyas directs and he infuses the film with well-developed characters in addition to well-developed motivations, all of which manages to balance the film’s dynamic action sequences effectively. The result is a futuristic scenario that seems all too frightening real. Fox’s 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is simply superb in both image and sound. If you’re looking for visual pop from a Blu-ray disc, you’re can’t do any better than this one. Similarly, the sonic experience is enveloping throughout whether during intense action or lesser ambient episodes. Even the supplementary content is more than satisfactory with three audio commentaries and a number of production featurettes included (each different type of supplement is accessed using a different coloured button on your player remote). The only thing tempering my enthusiasm is the fact that the earlier two-disc standard DVD SE had even more material not included on this disc. Highly recommended even so.


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