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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got 10 reviews for you: Le cercle rouge and Smiles of a Summer Night (from Criterion); Le Mans and Beverly Hills Cop (from Paramount); The King's Speech and The Way Back (from Alliance Canada); Grand Prix and Maverick (from Warner Bros.); The Terror (from Virgil Films); and Houdini/Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (from Legend Films). I also have a few brief comments on Paramount's A.I: Artificial Intelligence, MGM's Fiddler on the Roof, and Sony's Taxi Driver.

I've also updated the Blu-ray release schedule which you can access elsewhere on the site.


What I've Looked At Recently

French director Jean-Pierre Melville had wanted to do a heist film for some 20 years before he finally achieved his desire with 1970's Le cercle rouge.

Le cercle rouge (Criterion)

It was a desire preceded by his viewing and admiring John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle and one fed by an opportunity to film Rififi that in the end didn't materialize when the task went to Jules Dassin. Melville had established his impressive film credentials concerning the criminal genre with Bob le flambeur (1956), Le doulos (1962), and Le samourai (1967) before undertaking Le cercle rouge, a film that he conceived and wrote himself. Like Rififi, it contains a wonderfully executed and extended heist sequence in which the robbers carry out their plans with a quiet and practiced clinical exactitude. After the successful exercise (which involves the lifting of a fortune in jewelry from a location in Place Vendome in Paris), things almost inevitably begin to unravel with an almost equal precision brought to bear by the authorities. Playing the robbers is an impressive cast composed of Alain Delon as a smooth criminal just released from prison, Gian Maria Volonte, as an escaped prisoner with a ruthless streak, and Yves Montand as an ex-cop and sharpshooter trying to escape his alcoholic demons. Andre Bourvil (often simply billed as Bourvil) is the cop seeking to capture them - efficient though not above using questionable methods. There is a degree of fate involved in how these four individuals come together, hence the title Le cercle rouge which relates to an Eastern saying that people meant to meet will do so "in the red circle" no matter what road they take in getting there. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film is a long one, but it never feels like it, so engaging are the narrative and the performances of all the principals. Criterion's 1.85:1 Blu-ray release emphasizes a warm-looking colour scheme that delivers a realistic and naturalistic feel. There's a healthy dose of film grain evident throughout and the overall result is a very film-like presentation. Image sharpness is okay but detail is notably good. Dirt and debris have been exorcised with some care so that a mere handful of speckles remain. Criterion's French mono LPCM track sounds very clear and is mercifully free of hiss and crackle. English subtitling is provided. The supplement package is highlighted by three half-hour items - an episode of the French TV series Cineastes de notre temps that focuses on Jean-Pierre Melville; an archival interview with assistant director Bernard Stora; and an interview with Rui Nogueira, author of "Melville on Melville". Four other brief featurettes involve cast and crew (including Melville and Alain Delon) discussing the film. The original theatrical trailer, a 2003 re-release trailer, and a booklet of essays and appreciations round out the package. Very highly recommended.

Warner Bros. has seemed to play a sort of waiting game with Grand Prix over the years. It took almost 10 years after the introduction of the format before a DVD appeared in 2006 although an HD DVD version was released later that same year.

Grand Prix (Blu-ray Disc)

Here we are almost 5 years later and we finally have the Blu-ray version available to us. The film has always been the finest film evocation of Formula One racing with its wonderful presentation of the races at each of the well-known European circuits tied together by an interesting if predictable back story. (Don't be discouraged by others whose quibbles in this regard just manage to allow that to spoil the immense entertainment value of the rest of the film for themselves.) For those unfamiliar with the 1966 film, director John Frankenheimer manages to blend together, virtually seamlessly, special racing footage shot of his principal actors doing their own driving with footage taken of nine actual Formula One races of the 1965 season. Using different photographic approaches for presenting each race and a memorable score by Maurice Jarre, the results are enthralling, frequently placing one right in the drivers seat and conveying the immense speed, excitement, and danger of Formula One racing. James Garner, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, and Antonio Sabato portray the principal drivers in the competition to determine the year's driving champion while Eva Marie Saint, Jessica Walter, Toshiro Mifune, and Francoise Hardy star with them in the framing story. Warners' Blu-ray Grand Prix release mainly replicates the HD DVD effort. It provides a 2.20:1 transfer derived from restored 65mm elements whose image looks vibrant and beautifully detailed throughout, regardless of whether it's racing footage or interiors, and the various European locations look like picture postcards, particularly the scenes of Monaco shown throughout the film's first racing sequences. Particularly notable are the various textures in the image, be it clothing fabrics, metallic surfaces, facial topography, or even weather elements. Colours look natural and the image sharpness and detail are superb. The image is also spotless, reflecting the amount of clean-up effort that was invested in the release. The chief improvement over the HD DVD comes on the audio side with the provision of a new 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track that yields an even more impressive audio experience to support the visuals. The car engines scream effectively and I can't imagine anyone feeling short-changed on the audio side of things. Along with the already good though subtle use of directionality across the front, the feeling of immersion is heightened noticeably while the impact of LFE gets a modest boost. Included are the film's overture and entr'acte. Dolby Digital French mono and Spanish 5.1 tracks and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The disc's supplements are the same as those on the previous DVD and HD DVD versions. They include a four-part documentary that is a model of its kind. The material has a great deal of depth and provides one with a detailed appreciation for the filmmaking efforts as well as the complexity of Formula One racing itself. Surviving cast and crew participate, as well as actual racing drivers of the time. The presentation concludes with a vintage making-of featurette (quite good itself) and the theatrical trailer. None of the supplementary content is presented in HD. Very highly recommended.

Only in his later films did Steve McQueen lose the self-conscious facial expressions that marred his early work up to the mid-1960s. Le Mans (1971) is a good example of such a later film.

Le Mans (Blu-ray Disc)

He plays an American driver who returns to Le Mans to compete after crashing there in the previous year's race. His brief exchanges with a woman to whom he is drawn - the widow of a driver killed in the same crash - are skillfully handled with no hint of the diffidence of his earlier films. Filming was not initially without difficulty (partly due to the lack of a script and issues between McQueen and initial director John Sturges), but when the project's driving force McQueen finally accepted new director Lee Katzin's intentions a much more relaxed shoot ensued. That likely contributed to McQueen's comfortable, less-mannered efforts. The focus of the film, of course, is a recreation of the running of the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race. At that, it excels, creating a real feel for the confusion, variety, sights, and sounds of the event. The camera work for the race itself is top-notch and even if you're not a car-racing fan, the film really draws you into the overall spectacle of the event. The fact that McQueen did much of his own driving in the high-speed racing scenes adds to the film's look and feel of authenticity. A significant technical effort went into camera placement on cars and at strategic locations around the racing circuit in order to caption the elements of excitement, tension, and danger. Le Mans is a real winner - with its night-time and rainy passages, a grittier version of Grand Prix and with racing sequences that at times put one in the driver's seat even more than does that estimable film. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation is very pleasing overall. Despite the occasional soft sequence, the image overall is sharp with some eye-catching textural detail on faces and clothing. There's no real pop, but a fairly continuous degree of presence that is aided greatly by the accurately and at times vividly-conveyed colour palette. The transfer exhibits a nice level of film grain and a pleasing lack of digital manipulation that delivers a film-like feel. We get a very enveloping 7.1 DTS-HD Master audio track that succeeds admirably in immersing one in the race atmosphere. The roar of the racing cars fills the room in an impressive surround experience. English, French, Castilian, and German mono tracks and subtitling are all provided as well as half a dozen more subtitle options. The disc supplements include the theatrical trailer and a very interesting Speedvision making-of documentary hosted by Steve McQueen's son Chad - Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans (25 minutes). It includes appearances by several of the film crew including director Katzin. Highly recommended.

Not too many big-screen feature revivals of classic TV series are really successful in capturing the essence of what made the series so successful. With respect to TV western series, examples of both sides of the coin are on display courtesy of Warner Bros. this month. [Editor's Note: As of the date of this original post, both are Best Buy-exclusive titles in the States but are widely available in Canada and will be available at other U.S. retailers in a few months.] Wild Wild West is a disappointment of epic proportions, but Maverick (1994) is a resounding success.

Maverick (Blu-ray Disc)

In Maverick, Mel Gibson gives a jokey portrayal of Bret Maverick that at times relies too much on his schtick from the Lethal Weapon films (not surprisingly since Maverick director Richard Donner helmed those films and we even get a pointless cameo by Lethal Weapon co-star Danny Glover as a bank robber). There's enough allusion to the old James Garner Bret Maverick self-deprecating characterization though as well as that character's competence with guns and cards to make it all work very well though. Speaking of Garner, he's present in the film as a sheriff tasked with providing security for a half-million dollar poker game that's the focus of the film's plot, and there's a twist at the end that ties his character and the original TV series together nicely. It's also a pleasure to have Jodie Foster in the cast as a gambler who's never quite able to hide her intentions either at or away from the poker table. Better yet, the film is graced with James Coburn and a whole raft of veteran western players from classic westerns and TV series including Dub Taylor, Doug McClure, Henry Darrow, Robert Fuller, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, William Smith, James Drury, and Will Hutchins. Throw in some fine location work on the Columbia River, at Lone Pine, and at Kanab, Utah and the film achieves a nice expansive western look. The film provides amiable entertainment with enough intrigue and action to merit repeated viewings. When Warner Bros. released the film on DVD many years ago, the transfer was merely passable. The 2.4:1 Blu-ray version is a definite improvement over that, but is not at the level of the best HD efforts. The image is somewhat inconsistent in terms of sharpness and image detail. Colours never really pop and look somewhat pale at times. There's even some slight evidence of edge haloes, unlike most Warner product. We get a DTS-HD Master audio stereo track that conveys the story and action in a workmanlike fashion, but with no presence that really makes one sit up and take notice. A Dolby Digital French track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplements consist of a 28-minute HBO First Look special, A Pictorial History of the Makin' of the Movie Maverick, that's done in the amiable fashion of the film itself. There's also a music video and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

The 1984 action-comedy Beverly Hills Cop continues to age well, mainly because of Eddie Murphy's enthusiastic and engaging performance of the not-by-the-book Detroit cop who travels on vacation to Beverly Hills to solve the murder of his best friend.

Beverly Hills Cop (Blu-ray Disc)

His run-ins with the uptight and regulation-bound Beverly Hills police force are another source of persistent amusement. The casting beyond Murphy is also key to the film's success, both on the Beverly Hills police side (Ronny Cox, Judge Reinhold, and John Ashton) and the crooked adversaries (Steven Berkoff, Jonathan Banks). The film (and even its less inspiring sequels) are a continuing reminder of what Eddie Murphy was capable of, and perhaps is no longer in light of his many dismal efforts over the past decade. Immerse yourself in the California environment, Eddie Murphy's not-so-successful adaptation to it, and the iconic 80s score by Harold Faltermeyer and it's easy to while away an hour and three-quarters on a rainy or not-so-rainy day. Paramount's 1.85:1 Blu-ray presentation doesn't offer any great wow factor, but does the film justice on the whole. Colours aren't quite as striking as one might like, but the image clarity and detail are notably good. The lack of untoward digital manipulation results in a nice film-like feel, particularly with a noticeable level of film grain retained. We get a 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track is merely okay, never making one sit up and take notice. Surround action is limited and LFE are pretty much non-existent. The few action sequences don't really offer much punch. Dialogue doesn't have much directionality, but is clear and maintains a good volume level much as the music does. French 2.0, Spanish 5.1, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are provided as are English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. The supplement package includes audio commentary by director Martin Brest and three fairly engaging featurettes (a half hour making-of effort and 8-10 minute pieces on the film's score and on the casting process - the latter delving into the replacement of Sylvester Stallone by Murphy). There's also a location map and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Since the early 1990s, director Peter Weir has turned out movies in a measured fashion. Five years passed between Fearless (1993) and The Truman Show (1998), and between the latter and Master and Commander (2003). Now seven years later, we have The Way Back (2010) and the wait has sure been worth it.

The Way Back (Blu-ray Disc - Canadian release)The Way Back (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Based on the book "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz, the film has a particular fascination for me as I well remember reading the book some 40 years ago as one of a spate of books about World War 2 prison camp escapes that enthralled me. That a book uncelebrated then (at least in comparison to the likes of ‘The Great Escape", The Wooden Horse" and "Colditz"), so obscure now, and of particular interest to me should be the source of a modern big budget film seems almost miraculous these many years later. Yet the nature of the story is hugely cinematic and in Weir's hands and those of a talented and engaged cast that includes Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, and Colin Farrell, it becomes an engrossing film and one that celebrates and enforces the steadfastness and resiliency of the human spirit. The story is that of a Pole wrongly accused of traitorous activities against the state and imprisoned by the Russians in one of their gulags in far eastern Siberia. With a handful of fellow inmates (mostly political prisoners like himself but with differing nationalities and a criminal among them), he escapes from the camp in winter and the group attempts to make his way on foot to freedom over 4000 miles away, crossing the Siberian vastness via Lake Baikal, the Gobi Desert, and the Himilayas in the process. There are some very well-realized sets such as the gulag in winter and a rendering of a portion of the Great Wall of China, but the most impressive aspect of the film is its evocation of the harsh climate and vast and difficult terrain of the journey, utilizing location work in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India. The film is also very successful in gradually revealing the background and motivations of its characters as a natural part of the various obstacles and hardships that the group must overcome on its journey. Because we've all been too hot or too cold or bothered by insects or sore of foot or even hungry on occasion, it's easy to begin to relate to the characters' situation, but the durations and combinations of such deprivations that they have to suffer make for a truly harrowing experience at times. The small successes they experience or major tribulations they overcome can be equally enjoyed by viewers as a result. The Way Back is the sort of epic film that we see too seldom these days. It has been released on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment and distributed in Canada by Alliance Films. Alliance's 2.35:1 image is one of the year's better Blu-ray efforts. Most notable are the general depth of the image throughout and the level of detail. Facial features, accentuated by the harsh environment, are superbly rendered. The physical environment is alive with detail whether bathed in sunlight or shrouded in snow or sand. Colours seem to come increasingly alive the longer the escapees remain free. Modest film grain is evident throughout this impressive transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio is equally good. Surround effects are notable for their ability to really immerse us in the film's varied environments. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with both sound effects and music score throughout. A French 5.1 DTS-HD track is also provided as are English subtitles. The supplements are a bit light, including only the theatrical trailer and a half-hour long making-of documentary. The latter fortunately is a good one, eschewing the excessive level of mutual back-patting that sometimes mars such efforts. A DVD version of the film is included on the flip side of the Blu-ray disc. Highly recommended.

Legend Films, a company that released a number of Paramount titles on DVD several years ago, has now started to make some of the same titles available as Blu-ray double feature releases. The first such effort I've looked at is a pairing of two Tony Curtis films, presumably recognizing his passing in 2010 - Those Daring Young Men on Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) and Houdini (1953).

Those Daring Young Men on Their Jaunty Jalopies/Houdini (Blu-ray Disc)

Houdini is a George Pal-produced 1953 biography of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, starring Tony Curtis in the title role with fine support from Janet Leigh as Houdini's wife. At the time Curtis and Leigh were married in real life. The film takes advantage of that as the duo provide a very appealing on-screen pairing as well. The characters are likable and played with considerable enthusiasm, easily compensating for the fictionalized biography. The story also benefits greatly from the use of Technicolor while the efficient work of workhorse studio director George Marshall keeps the film moving along nicely. Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies was a follow-up film by producer/director Ken Annakin's to his 1965 film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Curtis is but one of a number of drivers of vintage cars participating in a rally that begins in various European locations and finishes in Monte Carlo. Among his competitors are the likes of Terry-Thomas, Gert Frobe, Susan Hampshire, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Walter Chiari. The film is a great source of work for the stunt performers of the time. Perhaps not quite the equal of Those Magnificent Men... due to the familiarity of the concept, Those Daring Young Men... nevertheless offers plenty of good, old-fashioned entertainment. Something is always happening and Technicolor gives it all a bright and colourful polish. Image-wise, Houdini is somewhat the stronger of the two. Its DVD rendition was quite good and the Blu-ray improves on that noticeably. The full frame Technicolor image is vibrant throughout and facial detail looks strong though skin tones trend to being overly red. Modest grain is evident. Mis-registration occurrences seem less obvious than I remember from the DVD. Those Daring Young Men on Their Jaunty Jalopies is presented with a 2.35:1 image (not 1.78:1 as stated on the package) and has the original 125-minute length as opposed to the truncated 93-minute general U.S. theatrical release version. Colour is fairly bright and looks accurate though a little muted compared to that on Houdini as one might expect. On the other hand, image sharpness is a tad stronger. Both transfers sport some speckles and the odd scratch, but nothing to get too concerned about. On the audio side, neither film has been accorded a new lossless track. The Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks on each are workmanlike though and if they don't enhance the experiences, it least they aren't intrusive in a bad sense. Houdini does sport some hiss and the odd pop though. There is no subtitling with either title. The fact you're getting two titles on the one disc means that the lack of supplements is hardly an issue. Too bad the theatrical trailers that accompanied the DVD releases weren't retained, however. With on-line availability at $12-15, two good films looking very presentable on Blu-ray is a deal. Recommended.


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