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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Welcome to the latest edition of High Definition Matters. I'm highlighting Criterion's news about its Blu-ray plans in this column because even though it's several weeks old now, I think it signals an important development for classic enthusiasts as well as high definition fans in general. I also have a collection of capsule Blu-ray reviews for you including: Pirates of the Caribbean: 3-Movie Collection from Disney; The Ruins from DreamWorks via Paramount; Jumper, Nim's Island, and Point Break from Fox; The Eye from Lionsgate; Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2 from Miramax; Shine a Light from Paramount; 21, The Counterfeiters, The Devil's Own, In the Line of Fire, and Redbelt from Sony; and The Perfect Storm from Warner Bros. The column concludes with the updated list of forthcoming Blu-ray releases. As usual, your comments are always welcome (barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com).


Criterion and Blu-ray

Earlier this summer, Criterion let it be known that it would finally be starting to release titles in Blu-ray this coming autumn. It announced that its first batch of titles would comprise The 400 Blows, Bottle Rocket, Chungking Express, The Complete Monterrey Pop, Contempt, El Norte, For All Mankind, Gimme Shelter, The Last Emperor, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Third Man, The Wages of Fear, and Walkabout. The company's November plans have now been released and we can expect The Last Emperor, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Third Man on November 18th. Following on November 25th will be Bottle Rocket and Chungking Express. All titles will contain the same supplementary content as the standard DVD versions and will be priced identically. Note that, according to Criterion, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Third Man will be U.S.-only releases and thus not available for distribution in Canada.

Criterion has addressed a number of questions about its Blu-ray program in a recent newsletter. Here are some key points:

- Criterion's Blu-ray discs will be region encoded as Criterion is licensed to sell most of its editions only in North America and in some cases only in the U.S. (for example, as noted above for two titles of its initial release slate).

- Many of the titles Criterion releases will still only be on standard DVD as the Blu-ray marketplace is not large enough to support Blu-ray versions as yet. Where Criterion does think a title has a shot of succeeding on Blu-ray, it will aim to put out both a standard DVD and a Blu-ray version at the same time, so you can make an informed choice. Where classics from its catalog are concerned, to give customers a little extra comfort it'll be offering a $20 Blu-ray upgrade program (subject to change) for those who have already bought the equivalent edition on DVD. You send Criterion the movie disc from your DVD edition, and for $20 (plus tax and shipping) it'll exchange it for the Blu-ray version.

- Criterion's Blu-ray packaging will be similar to its DVD packaging, only in the smaller Blu-ray size. As with DVDs, it'll use a range of paper and plastic packaging, and will bring the same care and attention to the design. When upgrading an existing release, the design will match right down to the disc labels, so if customers want to take advantage of the $20 Blu-ray upgrade program, the replacement disc will fit right into the design of the existing Criterion DVD edition. In the store, if customers want to be sure of buying the Blu-ray edition and not the standard-def DVD version, they'll know it by the smaller size and the blue Blu-ray sticker on the front.

- Spine numbers on Criterion Blu-ray discs will match the existing DVD editions. The Blu-ray releases represent a significant upgrade when it comes to audiovisual quality, and many customers will want to take advantage of that, but Criterion is not starting over at number 1, and is not expecting longstanding DVD collectors to do so either. Where content is concerned, the company is not planning on publishing anything on its Blu-ray editions that won't also be available on DVD. Whether one collects only DVDs or only Blu-ray discs or a mix, it's all part of one's Criterion collection—and they'll all line up in spine-number order.

- Criterion's Blu-ray editions will generally be priced to match its DVDs. High-definition mastering and restoration has been a part of the company's DVD production standard for years. For customers who might be on the fence about whether to buy DVD or Blu-ray, Criterion has thus taken the price issue out of the equation.

The addition of Criterion to the ranks of active Blu-ray releasers is welcome news for classic film fans who have been poorly served to date by most of the major studios (Warner Bros. being the major exception). Hopefully this will spur on increased attention to classic title releases in the coming months. No true film enthusiast can exist solely on the current fare that has characterized most of the Blu-ray releases to date.


Capsule Reviews


21 (Blu-ray Disc)

21 (Sony)

Apparently inspired by a true story, 21 tells the tale of a group of MIT students (including Jim Sturgess as reluctant player Ben Campbell) who, fired by a gifted statistics professor (Kevin Spacey), master the art of card counting and proceed to clean up at the blackjack tables in Las Vegas. The only fly in the ointment is an old-school casino analyst (Laurence Fishburne) who recognizes the signs of card counting and prepares to come down hard on the group. The film's best part is its opening half, as it spins somewhat out of control in the second. Overall, it's an amiable time-passer with a good twist to the tale, although there are too many plot contrivances for my liking (Ben may be smart academically, but he's pretty dumb when it comes to the realities of everyday life.)


The actors playing the students aren't particularly memorable for the most part, but Spacey and Fishburne both score in what are essentially supporting roles for them.

The 2.40:1 image looks very impressive - clean, well-defined, accurate colour both in the glitzy Las Vegas and more-subdued Boston sequences, superior shadow detail. The Dolby TrueHD sound is less striking, though at its best during the Las Vegas scenes. The disc has the same supplements as the standard DVD including an entertaining commentary by the director and producers. Worth a rental.



The Counterfeiters (Blu-ray Disc)

The Counterfeiters (Sony)

Last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar winner doesn't have quite the resonance of Schindler's List or The Pianist, but it is an engrossing and relatively untold tale of German efforts to counterfeit British and American currency during World War II in hopes of subverting the allied economies. The film (based on the memoirs of Adolf Burger - one of the counterfeiters and now 91 years of age) is told from the point of view of the Jewish printing and counterfeiting specialists who were afforded more comfortable accommodations and treatment in the German concentration camps in return for their counterfeiting efforts. The moral quandary raised by the situation is well dramatized by a fine cast (notably Karl Markovics as master counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch and August Diehl as Burger) that is relatively unknown to North American audiences.


The 1.85:1 image transfer is very sharp and is faithful to the intentionally grainy and generally drab look of the original theatrical film. The result, however, is an image that looks little better than a good upconverted standard DVD. The TrueHD German soundtrack does good work with the music score including several opera selections. Surround action and low frequency opportunities are minimal. English subtitling is comprehensive, and not intrusive. Very good supplement package all either in English or with subtitles. Recommended.


The Devil's Own (Blu-ray Disc)


The Devil's Own (Sony)

A fairly conventional 1997 thriller about an IRA killer (Brad Pitt) who comes to New York to buy missiles for the cause and finds himself billeted with the family of a New York cop (Harrison Ford). Both Ford and Pitt are excellent in a film that has a few too many convenient turns of plot, but does focus on the main characters rather than ridiculously-staged/edited action sequences. A film that in retrospect looks pretty good given what passes for thoughtful thrillers nowadays.

Sony's Blu-ray image is quite impressive, offering nice high frequency detail and faithful colour rendition. Some skin tones look a little overcooked, but otherwise the image is very film-like. The Dolby TrueHD sound is very good with gunshots exhibiting real potency and James Horner's score well conveyed. There are no supplements of consequence. Recommended.



The Eye (Blu-ray Disc)

The Eye (Lionsgate)

Jessica Alba stars in this American remake of an Asian film about a blind woman who receives an eye transplant only to start having strange visions that haunt her life both asleep and awake. I haven't seen the original to be able to judge how well this version stacks up, but this remake is a diverting effort in its own right. The effects are suitably scary without resorting to cheap gore and Alba demonstrates that she has much more in her than her Fantastic Four efforts would suggest. If I had to choose between The Eye and The Ruins (reviewed below), this one is much the superior vehicle and the title I'd go for.


The 2.35:1 image looks quite sharp and accurate, well reflecting the film's dark look. The sequences with more dynamic colour are well conveyed and the film's mild grain is retained. The 7.1 DTS HD Master audio delivers an impressive and submersive experience - not quite demonstration material, but very satisfying. Four featurettes on various aspects of production and some deleted scenes comprise the main supplements. A worthy rental.


In the Line of Fire (Blu-ray Disc)


In the Line of Fire (Sony)

Exciting secret service film about an agent (Clint Eastwood) trying to exorcise the demons of his failures during the Kennedy assassination by tracking down an ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich) bent on killing the current president. Eastwood restricts himself to acting in this 1993 film and delivers a nicely modulated performance. Director Wolfgang Petersen builds the tension very effectively in the well-written tale.

The Blu-ray image is a typically fine effort by Sony, offering a very film-like look and excellent high frequency detail. A few soft patches are the only (minor) detraction. Dolby TrueHD sound is efficient but not particularly striking, partially reflecting the film's thoughtful, rather than popcorn, nature. Supplements from the DVD version are all included. Recommended.



Jumper (Blu-ray Disc)

Jumper (20th Century Fox)

A good teleportation movie still awaits making after the muddled mess that is Jumper. The film attempts to tell a story involving people who can teleport (jumpers) and others who attempt to capture and kill them (paladins). Why some people can teleport and not others, who paladins are and why they try to kill jumpers are just some of the questions that arise from the film. They're also questions that Jumper has no answers for. As directed by Doug Liman, the film is merely an exercise in excess - “jumping” sequences that are so frenetically edited that they leave the same bad taste in the mouth that one experiences from action sequences in too many current thrillers; a cornucopia of international location shoots that appear to be used just to impress rather than to drive the plot; and the teleportation of ever larger and larger objects (doubledecker buses, entire apartments) as though that will make us overlook the film's myriad deficiencies.


Unfortunately the latter is impossible since one of the major such deficiencies is lead Hayden Christensen whose wooden performance suggests little improvement from his Star Wars days. Not much better are Rachel Bilson and Jamie Bell as his non-jumper girlfriend and chief jumping accomplice respectively. Samuel Jackson appears as the paladin who tries to trap Christensen, but he's wasted in what for him is but another in a long, almost unbroken sequence of disappointingly routine roles.

Fox has released the film on Blu-ray in a two-disc version, one disc of which provides a digital copy of the film. On the other disc, the film itself looks marvelously clean and well-defined throughout. Colour fidelity is top-notch. (Why do some of the worst films get the best transfers?) The DTS HD5.1 Master audio delivers an impressive surround experience during the jumping sequences, but the rest is nothing special. The DVD's generally impressive collection of featurettes and the audio commentary have been ported over, with some of the former being presented in HD. An excellent opportunity to save yourself time and money, both now and perhaps in the future as the film's ending leaves the possibility of a sequel entirely possible. Please spare us!



Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Blu-ray Disc)

Kill Bill: Volume 2 (Blu-ray Disc)


Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2 (Miramax)

Quentin Tarantino's fourth film relates a bride's efforts to exact revenge on five assassins who left her for dead at the altar. Uma Thurman stars as the bride and the assassins include Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, and Daryl Hannah, with David Carradine as their leader Bill. The film, Tarantino's take on kung-fu movies, is somewhat pretentiously divided into two sections and all goes on a bit too long, but still delivers an exhilarating story in the typical Tarantino style - interwoven narrative, uncouth though at times stylized dialogue, outrageous action, and plenty of nods to classic genre filmmaking. Each stage of the vendetta is beautifully directed - a virtual mini-movie in itself with its own distinctive mood, exhibiting different camera techniques and placements, colour and B&W choices, and set decoration.

The 2.40:1 transfers look superb, offering a very sharp and at times incredibly-detailed image. Colours are wonderfully saturated and the B&W sequences exhibit a nicely-detailed grayscale. The PCM sound is equally as impressive, delivering an excellent surround experience in both action and more subtle ambient sequences. The unremarkable supplementary content from the standard DVD has been ported over to the Blu-ray version. Highly recommended.



Nim's Island (Blu-ray Disc)

Nim's Island (Fox)

Abigail Breslin stars as the title character, a young girl living on a Pacific island with her marine scientist father (Gerard Butler). When he becomes stranded at sea due to a severe storm and her island looks to become the playground of an ocean-going cruise ship, Nim seeks help via email from her favorite adventure-story author (Jodie Foster) who turns out to be suffering from agoraphobia. She struggles to even leave her house in San Francisco, never mind travel to the South Seas to help Nim. The film's premise is a promising one, but the delivery is far too contrived and cutesy, particularly in respect to Breslin and her island creatures. The plot line with the Jodie Foster character suggests an interesting twist but doesn't deliver, unfortunately following a predictable arc with uncharacteristic over-acting by Foster and then fizzling out at the end. Kids may get a mild kick out of it all, but adults will be left cold.


The 2.40:1 image is unremarkable-looking for Blu-ray. The DTS HD5.1 Master Audio, however, does deliver a nice sound experience that leans to the atmospheric rather than aggressive, as the film's theme might suggest. There is a decent suite of supplements highlighted by two audio commentaries.


The Perfect Storm (Blu-ray Disc)

The Perfect Storm (Warner Bros.)

Previously available on HD-DVD, Warners has now brought this title to Blu-ray with the same supplementary content. The 2000 film is an exciting re-creation of the events surrounding the loss of a cod-fish boat and its crew (featuring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg) during a 1991 storm resulting from the confluence of three major weather systems east of the North Atlantic Grand Banks. The film blends some superior CGI work with shooting in a large water tank set with a boat on a giant gimbel, to great effect. You really feel submersed in the ocean-going action and even though the ending is known, the film manages to generate substantial suspense. Yes, the character interactions are somewhat stereotypical and emotions are manipulated by an evocative score, but the overall effect is very engaging and makes for good repeat viewing.


The Blu-ray image is a good improvement over the standard DVD, and even looks slightly better than the HD-DVD version, but is no poster-child for Blu-ray. Image detail and sharpness aren't quite in the same league as the best Blu-ray transfers. Where the disc does shine is in its Dolby TrueHd audio, which provides a deeply immersive and enveloping experience, particularly in the climactic storm sequences. The disc retains the standard DVD's suite of supplements including three audio commentaries. Recommended.


Pirates of the Caribbean: 3-Movie Collection (Blu-ray Disc)

Pirates of the Caribbean: 3-Movie Collection (Disney)

Previously released individually on Blu-ray, Disney has now boxed the two-disc Blu-ray presentations of all three films together at a price that effectively gives you one title free compared to the individually-priced releases. Of course, one might say that that's merely appropriate as the three films offer diminishing returns. The exhilaration of The Curse of the Black Pearl leads to the beginning of confusion in Dead Man's Chest although that film retains considerable novelty and excitement. At almost three hours in length, the bloated At World's End heightens both confusion and tedium while stretching one's patience to the breaking point with the sort of ridiculously-staged and frenetically-edited action set-pieces that soon leave one cold. Only Johnny Depp's performance as Jack Sparrow holds the third entry at all together though it's clear even he's become somewhat bemused by it all.


Whatever one may think of the films, the Blu-ray transfers are undeniable demonstration-quality efforts. Whether bright or dark, the transfers offer superb higb frequency detail and the sort of visual pop that many look for in their high definition experiences. Colours are nicely saturated and skin tones completely natural. The PCM sound offers an incredibly immersive experience throughout the films, equally in command during action sequences and quieter character-driven ones. LFE are particularly impressive and well-defined. Supplements are numerous and generally meaty on all three films - highlighted by the three audio commentaries on Curse of the Black Pearl, the revealing making-of documentary on Dead Man's Chest, and the many supplements on At World's End delivered in high definition. Recommended.


Point Break (Blu-ray Disc)


Point Break (Fox)

FBI agent Keanu Reeves goes undercover among the surfing community in an attempt to solve a series of robberies by men wearing masks of ex-presidents. Well-conceived action film offers good action sequences and offbeat surfing/sky-diving milieu that adds up to fine, repeatable entertainment. Look for a superb chase sequence on foot, well orchestrated by director Kathryn Bigelow, and fine work by Patrick Swayze as a charismatic surfer.

Fox has delivered a nice, film-like transfer - sharp with mild grain intact and realistic colours. There's no real pop to the image, but it's certainly among the better catalogue efforts. The DTS HD5.1 Master audio delivers an effective surround experience given the 1991 origins. The modest standard DVD supplements are ported over. Recommended.



Redbelt (Blu-ray Disc)

Redbelt (Sony)

The latest film from David Mamet is the story of Jiu Jitsu master Mike Terry who tries to pursue an honourable life by operating a self-defence studio with a samurai's code of ethics. The realities of trying to make a living intrude and stepping into the mixed martial arts ring in a world of crooked promoters may be the only solution. Redbelt is not in the same class as Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross or The Spanish Prisoner, but it is a diverting character study anchored by an excellent performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man, Children of Men) as Mike Terry. The plot is a typically well-constructed one by Mamet and nicely peopled by a seedy group that includes Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, and Tim Allen (yes, that Tim Allen, in a good turn as a movie star). Fortunately Mamet avoids the obvious ending that could have marred the film.


The Blu-ray image is solid rather than flashy and exhibits some mild grain that complements the film's subject matter. The Dolby TrueHD audio is subtly immersive, only cranking it up in the climactic fight sequences. All the supplements from the standard DVD have been ported over. The audio commentary with Mamet and Ultimate Fighting champion Randy Couture is worth a listen. Recommended.


The Ruins: Unrated (Blu-ray Disc)

The Ruins: Unrated (DreamWorks)

Some day I'd actually like to see a really scary contemporary film that doesn't resort to cheap gore and blood-letting as a way to frighten people. The first few reels of the “unrated” release of The Ruins actually hints that it might be such a film, belying its packaging which suggested otherwise. Sadly, by the end, we have just another orgy of blood that ultimately overshadows the film's initially thoughtful exercise in group psychology and shows how unimaginative filmmakers have become when it comes to the horror genre. That's unfortunate, because the film's prenise of a mysterious evil surrounding an ancient Mayan ruin where a group of young tourists have become trapped seemed to have the potential to be something special.


Paramount's Blu-ray release, on behalf of DreamWorks, looks top-notch with a vibrant colour palette, and very good image detail. The source material is excellent leading to a very crisp, clear image and one which retains just a smidgen of grain. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is excellent at delivering an atmospheric feel to the proceedings. The satisfactory set of supplements (director/editor commentary, several featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate ending) is delivered in high definition.


Shine a Light (Blu-ray Disc)
Shine a Light (Paramount)

Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones concert film hardly breaks new ground. The opening scenes are instructive as Scorsese shows some frustraion at not receiving the concert playlist until the last moments. Little wonder then that camera placements are unremarkable. The Stones are in fine voice, but if you saw their IMAX concert feature At the Max, there's little additional incentive in this new film.

Paramount's disc offers a decent but unremarkable image, only impressively detailed and three-dimensional in some close-up shots. The disc's best aspect is its audio, offered in three different mixes - DTS HD5.1 Master, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and PCM. The supplement package is disappointing except for four extra Stones tracks.


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