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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Reviews (Continued)

Starman (Blu-ray Disc)

Starman (Sony)

The space probe Voyager 2 has been launched to seek out other worlds with intelligent life and to bear greetings from Earth as well as an invitation to visit. Starman relates the story of an alien response in which a being comes to earth and assumes the outward body of the dead husband (Jeff Bridges) of a grieving young woman (Karen Allen) living in Wisconsin. The being's original landing area was to be in Arizona, and so it sets off with Allen to drive there in time for a rendezvous with another alien spacecraft in three days time. Posing obstacles are U.S. Government representatives who want to capture the alien for less than altruistic reasons.

It's hard to believe this John Carpenter-directed science fiction tale is now 25 years old. It has always been a favorite of mine due to the gentle and affecting relationship that gradually develops between the Bridges and Allen characters and is so well portrayed by the two principals. Many familiar situations are faced by the pair in the course of their journey, but the finely-observed way in which they are presented and handled more than outweighs the film's weaknesses (lack of clear motivation of the alien being and the caricature hostile government response to any alien "invasion").

Sony has done an excellent job in bringing Starman to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1 transfer that is by far the best the film has ever looked on home video. The transfer really shines in its enhanced depth of field and in its presentation of Carpenter's widescreen composition. The image does look a little soft on occasion, but grain is minor with no evidence of digital scrubbing. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is also quite effective. Minor but noticeable use has been made of the surrounds, although the emphasis is strongly on the fronts. Dialogue is clear and true. Unfortunately the only supplements are a selection of trailers for other Sony titles. Recommended.

What Doesn't Kill You (Blu-ray Disc)

What Doesn't Kill You (E1 Entertainment)

The film depicts director Brian Goodman's autobiographical tale of the life of two young thugs (Brian - Mark Ruffalo, and Paulie - Ethan Hawke) on the gritty streets of south Boston. The pair break away from a local organized crime boss and attempt to run their own show, only to end up in jail. Upon their release, the two diverge, with Brian trying to go straight urged on by his long-suffering wife (Amanda Peet). The story is a familiar one and even the locale seems overused of late, but the work especially by Hawke is very compelling and draws one in despite those shortcomings. Director Goodman (who also is effective playing the local crime boss) has a good eye for detail and the south Boston setting is very well utilized and well delineated in the wintry environment.

Ethan Hawke delivers the film's best performance, finely balancing his character's volatile nature with streaks of sympathy. Ruffalo's portrayal may be accurate, but is less interesting, his character coming across mainly as a poor, much put-upon soul rather than a hood in tune with the rough neighborhood. Overall, the film is but a qualified success, with the second half meandering a bit and the ending lacking any real dramatic punch.

E1's Blu-ray release in Canada is the same as Sony's in the U.S. The 2.35:1 image translates the film's rather dark and dreary feel into a decent but hardly striking HD image. The almost black and white look of much of the film is well conveyed, but contrast is merely average and there's but sporadic evidence of good depth of field. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is effective in its depiction of sounds (gunshots, the crunch of tires on snow), but use of the surrounds is sporadic. Dialogue is crisp and the music score is quite dynamic via some effective stereo separation. The best supplement is the audio commentary by Goodman and writer Donnie Wahlberg. There is also an interesting making-of featurette that's more than just back-patting and a quarter-hour of deleted/alternate scenes. Recommended as a rental.

Race to Witch Mountain (Blu-ray Disc)

Race to Witch Mountain (Disney)

An action movie for kids with virtually nothing to keep accompanying adults diverted - that pretty much describes Race to Witch Mountain. Dwayne Johnson stars as a Las Vegas taxi driver who finds himself driving two alien beings disguised as Earthly teenagers to a mysterious government installation in the desert. The teenagers are trying to return to their lost spaceship so they can return home, but in their way stand an alien hunter and government agents with other ideas. Johnson has a likable presence, but the rest of the cast is bland at best. There's plenty of action and explosions, but little stands up to realistic scrutiny if you're over 10 years old. It's hard to believe you could dumb down the ideas of the original Witch Mountain movies, but this updating succeeds.

The Disney Blu-ray package looks substantial, but that's because it's composed of two additional unnecessary discs - a DVD version and a digital copy. The actual supplements boil down to some deleted scenes and bloopers and a short featurette. The best aspect of the Blu-ray disc is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound, which is very dynamic with excellent use of the surrounds and some decent LFE. The 2.4:1 image has a very digital look to it with some facial features looking as though they've had high frequency detail cleansed from them. The image also disappoints in shadow detail in some of the darker interior scenes.

Echelon Conspiracy (Blu-ray Disc)

Echelon Conspiracy (Paramount)

This thriller begins promisingly, as a young computer technician (Shane West) receives a series of mysterious cell phone messages that prove to be both life-preserving and monetarily rewarding. Soon, however, he realizes he is but a pawn in an international plot that draws him from Bangkok to the Czech Republic and Russia, and eventually back to the U.S., with present (Ving Rhames) and former (Ed Burns) intelligence agents in tow. As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly familiar eventually resorting to the old standby of the self-aware super computer. Unlike The International, a much superior thriller of similar scope and vintage, Echelon Conspiracy is never believable or engrossing (beyond its opening reel).

Its action sequences show little inspiration in conception or execution, and its use of international locations seems more intended to show off how it spent money on location work rather than focusing on them as integral parts of the plot. Rhames and Burns are sadly underutilized, a point heightened by the unconvincing efforts of Shane West. Martin Sheen merely collects a pay check as an intelligence chief. The 2.40:1 transfer and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio deliver a middling Blu-ray experience at best. Visually, exteriors come off best, while skin tones are inconsistent in accuracy. Aurally, there's good use of the surrounds and dialogue is clear and well-balanced against the sound effects and music score. There are no supplements.

Defiance (Blu-ray Disc)

The Soloist (DreamWorks/Paramount)

The film is based on the book by L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez telling the story of his meeting and subsequent relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless person whom he finds playing a two-stringed violin on the streets of L.A. Ayers is a former Juillard School student whose schizophrenia had caused him to drop out of the school and eventually landed him among the homeless. Despite the film's quality, it seemed to come and go in the theatres rather quickly early this spring. That's a shame because it features two very fine performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx as Lopez and Ayers respectively.

Downey has the more difficult task, but delivers an effective combination of wit and sarcasm in his efforts that plays very well against the more showy but finely-tuned work by Foxx who manages to avoid the sort of overplaying that such roles as his can fall prey to. The story is one of small positive steps rather than gigantic leaps (such as in another film about a musical prodigy, Shine, for example) and consequently proceeds at a measured pace which may put some off. Persevere, however, and you will be amply rewarded by what is ultimately an inspiring and hopeful experience.

The 2.35:1 transfer is an above average effort sporting some excellent depth of field, mild grain and a very film-like image overall. Facial detail is particularly impressive. Some soft sequences do exist, but seem mainly reflective of the director's choices rather than a transfer deficiency. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio does a superior job with the music score - delivering fine separation and some noticeable musical surround effects. Another of the audio's strengths is its conveyance of ambient effects in the streets of the city as well as for interior sounds such as the newspaper presses. Supplements include an above-average audio commentary by director Joe Wright and four featurettes in HD including a good making-of effort. Recommended.

For All Mankind (Blu-ray Disc)

For All Mankind (Criterion)

Capitalizing on the recent 40th anniversary of man's first landing on the Moon, Criterion has re-issued Al Reinert's very fine 1989 documentary of it on DVD and also brought it to Blu-ray. The release utilizes a new, restored HD transfer, supervised and approved by producer-director Reinert. The nature of the material with its appreciative use of archival footage, mainly in 16mm, does not lend itself to substantial improvement via the Blu-ray treatment. Nevertheless, crispness is improved over the previous and new DVD editions, but grain is heightened as well. Colour brightness and fidelity is noticeably better. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 fares similarly.

The immersive experience is heightened slightly, but the main improvement to be noted is in the clarity of the dialogue and the fidelity of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois's background music.

For a detailed record of the disc's substantial suite of supplements, both old and new, see Bill Hunt's earlier Digital Bits review here. Recommended.

The Seventh Seal (Blu-ray Disc)

The Seventh Seal (Criterion)

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is now 52 years old and the past five decades have entrenched its reputation as one of the landmark films of the 1950s, The film, despite imitation and frequent study, retains its mystery and power despite the familiarity of some of its key images and passages. It is essentially a tale of man's search for meaning as the knight crusader Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) returns to his homeland and engages death in an ongoing game of chess in the course of meeting various fellow travellers in circumstances both happy and sad. The film is a vast treasure trove of ideas and inspirations dealing with death and people's reactions to it that only gradually reveal themselves through repeated viewings.

In that regard, we are fortunate to have this new Blu-ray version that easily presents the film in the best light to date. The 1.33:1 black and white image is dazzling in its crispness and contrast, with close-ups particularly very impressive in depth and detail. Textured surfaces are precisely rendered and black levels are exemplary. Mild grain is well handled. The PCM Swedish mono track is clean and clear of any distortion or age-related defects. Highlights among a fine array of supplements includes Peter Cowie's original audio commentary for the Criterion laserdisc, a recent addendum to it, a feature-length documentary on Bergman's life in film and TV (Bergman Island), and excerpts from Cowie interviews with Max Von Sydow. Very highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
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