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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Reviews (Continued)

Frost/Nixon (Blu-ray Disc)

Frost/Nixon (Universal)

This is director Ron Howard's filmization of Peter Morgan's successful stage play of the same title that dramatized the David Frost/Richard Nixon post-Watergate television interviews. Howard has opened the play up effectively for the screen and one does not have the sense of a filmed stage play. If anything, it now takes on an almost documentary-like quality given the staged framing interviews that Howard uses. As one might conclude from the film's title, the focus is on the two principal personages, and in their presentation, the film does not fail.

Frank Langella's portrait of Nixon is particularly incisive and he received a deserving Academy Award nomination for it. Michael Sheen's version of David Frost is also interesting, accurately reflecting the fairly high opinion of himself that the real Frost always conveyed, though it does seem to err somewhat on the side of smarminess.

The handling of the logistics of the actual interviews is for the most part effective with the support groups behind each of the two title characters (Matthew MacFadyen, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell for Frost, Kevin Bacon for Nixon) vying against each other like the coaching staff of a couple of sports teams - re-strategizing, calling time-outs, cheering-on, or looking despondent as the contest proceeds. On the other hand, the interview sequences themselves seem somewhat underplayed, to the extent that one almost wonders what all the fuss was about.

The 2.35:1 image is very clean and quite sharp although perhaps a cut below the best HD transfers. Some mild grain is appropriately evident. The transfer handles the mix of real historical footage and newly shot material quite adroitly without resorting to unnecessary digital sharpening. The DTS-HD audio mix is very pleasing, delivering equally effectively the front-centred dialogue, occasional surround opportunities, and the fine score by Hans Zimmer. The supplements are generally enlightening and are highlighted by a very insightful audio commentary by Ron Howard, and U Control features such as a running commentary on the film by various cast, crew, and real life personages, and a similar running assortment of various pieces of real historical footage. Recommended.

Rachel Getting Married (Blu-ray Disc)

Rachel Getting Married (Sony)

Rachel Getting Married is a perceptive but only at times engaging portrait of a family that gathers for the wedding of one of the family daughters, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Despite the title, however, the story focuses mainly on Rachel's sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), who has had a saga-like history of personal and family issues and whose presence brings to the surface family tensions previously held in check.

The nature of the multi-character narrative lends itself to an ensemble acting performance that is for the most part successful. Unfortunately, the narrative smacks of political correctness with all the bases being self-consciously touched within the extended family - mixed racial marriage, gay relationships, divorce and remarriage, drug addiction, empathetic father, etc. - making such a mixture of sensibilities appear merely contrived rather than the true mirror of society it was presumably trying for.

Director Jonathan Demme tries to convey the complexity of the family relationships and the controlled chaos of the wedding with extensive use of the handheld camera, but the result is disorienting and works against one's immersion in the story. The musical score also proves to be an intrusive device, too often being an unwelcome and sometimes unmelodic presence when one would welcome silence in order to absorb some of the film's developments properly. Anne Hathaway's performance in the film has been rightfully admired elsewhere, and I concur, particularly when so much else in the film seems to be working against her efforts. It's the main reason to put up with the film's flawed mechanics.

If the film is not all one could hope for, at least Sony's Blu-ray presentation doesn't disappoint. The 1.85:1 image is sharp with very fine colour fidelity and grain-free reflecting the use of HD video cameras. The Dolby 5.1 TrueHD sound does the job for the most part. Dialogue is at times obscured by the film's music, but that's not the disc's fault. Supplements include two audio commentaries, a number of deleted scenes, a cast and crew Q&A, and a couple of featurettes. Worth a rental.

The Last Metro (Blu-ray Disc)

The Last Metro (Criterion)

As I watched The Last Metro (a Francois Truffaut film that I had somehow managed to miss seeing over the past three decades), it struck me what an interesting double bill one could concoct with it and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be. Both deal with theatrical companies operating under German occupation during World War II, with the latter taking a decidedly comic approach to the situation and the former a serious one.

To Be or Not to Be is by far the more satisfying film overall because of its coherent narrative and successfully constructed conclusion. It features a wealth of well-known Hollywood stars and particularly supporting players who truly give a sense of a unified theatrical troupe. It also integrates the fact of German occupation well into its story, although it's played for comic effect.

The Last Metro delivers some excellent individual performances by Catherine Deneuve, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, and Gerard Depardieu, but on only the odd occasion do they give any sense of the ensemble unity that one would expect. The film also seems to lack any objective, a sense reinforced by the somewhat rushed and slightly cryptic ending. The fact of German occupation is evident in the film, but it seems strangely underemphasized other than as a background reason for a couple of the film's plot angles.

Criterion's 1.66:1 Blu-ray transfer is the best aspect of the disc. It's beautifully detailed and offers excellent colour fidelity for skin tones as well as all aspects of the theatrical setting. The PCM mono French track is in very good shape. Supplements include two merely average audio commentaries, and a grab-bag of interviews and excerpts, as well as a deleted scene, a short film co-directed by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and an essay by film critic Armand White. Not top-drawer Truffaut, but still recommended for la Deneuve if nothing else.

Capsule Reviews

Valkyrie (Blu-ray Disc)

Valkyrie (MGM)

Well-acted story of the attempt to kill Hitler using a bomb planted by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, and Terence Stamp all shine. Suspense is well built by director Bryan Singer despite the known outcome and careful attention to detail and historical accuracy are notable. Superior 1.85:1 image transfer and strong DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Supplements highlighted by very good audio commentary by Cruise, Singer, and writer Christopher McQuarrie, and a superior historical documentary, The Valkyrie Legacy. Highly recommended.

Defiance (Blu-ray Disc)

Defiance (Paramount)

A good time for WWII-film adherents is reflected in Valkyrie above and this superior telling of the true story of the efforts of four Jewish brothers (starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) to save a group Jewish war refugees in the forests of Bellorussia. The story focuses effectively on personal interactions with a few well-staged action sequences interspersed. Well directed by Edward Zwick. Another superior 1.85:1 image transfer from Paramount. Dolby TrueHD audio is a showcase for a lovely score by James Newton Howard. Good audio commentary by Zwick plus several short but generally well-made featurettes in HD. Recommended.

A Mighty Heart (Blu-ray Disc)

A Mighty Heart (Paramount)

An earnest though at times muddled attempt at telling the story of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and his wife Mariane's efforts on his behalf. Angelina Jolie is very good as Mariane, but despite the tragedy involved, the film is strangely uncompelling, perhaps because it focuses too much on Mariane's story and not enough on Daniel's. The 2.35:1 image is not among the better Blu-ray efforts in terms of sharpness and detail. The Dolby TrueHD track delivers a reasonably pleasant ambience that does capture the flavour of the Pakistan setting. The main supplement is a half-hour making-of featurette.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) (Blu-ray Disc)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) (Fox)

Fox makes the mistake of including the original 1951 version in the same 3-disc SE of last year's remake. It only serves to show how pale this ‘re-imagining” is in comparison. No sense of wonder, just in-your-face CGI, and a waste of Jennifer Connelly and even Keanu Reeves. The 2.35:1 image has little to grumble about - good shadow delineation for the many dark scenes and appropriate grain evident. The DTS-HD Master Audio is aggressive with some pretty impressive LFE. Supplements include an audio commentary by writer David Scarpa and a welter of featurettes in HD plus galleries, trailers.

Body of Lies (Blu-ray Disc)

Body of Lies (Warner Bros.)

This is a nice return to form for director Ridley Scott after the underwhelming American Gangster. Body of Lies is not just a standard action film set in the back-drop of the Iraq War, but an espionage tale of some complexity and thoughtfulness anchored by superb performances by Russell Crowe and especially Leonardo DiCaprio. Mark Strong also scores as the head of Jordanian intelligence. The 2.40:1 image is beautifully detailed and strikingly conveys the gritty yet colourful atmosphere of the middle eastern setting. The Dolby TrueHD sound is equally satisfying delivering a very submersive overall experience as well as jolting action sequences as appropriate. Supplement highlights are the 9-part making-of documentary and audio commentary with excellent input by Scott and original novel author David Ignatius. Recommended.

The Thirteenth Floor (Blu-ray Disc)

The Thirteenth Floor (Sony)

A not-particularly-original tale of virtual worlds within virtual worlds, but one that is reasonably executed nonetheless. The 1937 virtual world of Los Angeles is well realized and Armin Mueller-Stahl stands out in the cast (which also includes Craig Bierko, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Gretchen Mol). One begins to suspect the truth well before the end, but it's an amiable timepasser despite that. The 2.35:1 image and Dolby TrueHD sound are both good, though not showcases for Blu-ray. The main supplement is an interesting commentary by director Josef Rusnak and production designer Kirk Petruccelli. Worth a rental.

Taken (Blu-ray Disc)

Taken (Fox)

Taken has the basic appeal, on a very visceral level, of seeing Liam Neeson successfully come after and thoroughly deal with those who have kidnapped his daughter in order to sell her into white slavery. In this sort of film, we know he's going to do the job, so the pleasure can really only lie in the execution and in how well his adversaries are portrayed. Unfortunately, Taken is a mess of undeveloped, virtually faceless characters and frenetically edited action sequences that defy credibility (both traits typical of films that Luc Besson is involved in, here as co-writer and producer) such that less than a third of the way through, we're already numbed by mindlessness. The 2.40:1 Blu-ray image and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio do their expected jobs successfully, and we get two audio commentaries along with a few mediocre featurettes, but life is too short and there are too many good films to spend the time on this one.

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page
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