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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

In this edition of High Definition Matters, I've got 16 reviews for you: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (from Disney); The Secret in Their Eyes (from Sony); Good and Perrier's Bounty (from E1 Entertainment Canada); The Peacemaker, Iron Man 2, and How to Train Your Dragon (from Paramount); King Kong, Forbidden Planet, and What's Up Doc (from Warner Bros.); The Killer Inside Me (from MPI); Letters to Juliet (from Summit); Charade (from Criterion); Se7en and Gangs of New York (from Alliance Canada); and Robocop Trilogy (from MGM).

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


What I've Looked At Recently

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
seemed to irritate a lot of film critics this past summer - some felt it was too formulaic, others that it had too much CGI, or that Jake Gyllenhaal was not a worthy lead, and so on - but they seemed to overlook the fact that as summer popcorn entertainment, it provided simply a very enjoyable outing at the movies.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Blu-ray Disc)

Certainly I can think of no instance where a movie has better served its video game origins. It's full of impressively-mounted action with some effective application of parkour. Many of the actors performed their own stunts and it's obvious in the final footage how much that adds to the realism of such sequences. The production design is superb with some massive sets built in Morocco very well integrated with CGI. Moroccan artisans were also responsible for the bulk of the props and weapons. Some impressive footage is shot in various Moroccan medinas or the beautiful Atlas Mountains. All this, combined with a massive cast of extras from the local populaceThus the film really conveys the atmosphere of the early Persian period it's intended to portray. The story is engrossing enough too although it becomes a little over the top at the climax. It involves a princess (Gemma Arterton) whose city has been wrongfully invaded by the Persians and one of the princes of the invading army (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has been falsely accused of killing his father. Together the pair forms an uneasy alliance and must safeguard a magical dagger capable of reversing time while they try to resolve their individual situations. Ben Kingsley really enjoys himself and it will surprise no one that he doesn't prove to be quite the wise advisor with no self-interest that he purports to be. I had no problem with Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role. He looked the part and performed very effectively in all the action sequences. There could have been better chemistry between him and Gemma Arterton though. One never gets the sense of a sexual attraction between the two that would have really sparked their scenes together. Disney provides an outstanding 2.35:1 Blu-ray image. It's crisp and beautifully detailed in all respects, with image depth noticeably evident almost throughout. There is no evidence of digital manipulation at all and there's a fine sheen of grain that makes for a very filmlike experience. The DTS-HD audio is equally impressive. Both the action set-pieces and more quiet situations are immersive and several times I found myself entranced by the directional effects on the rear surrounds. Dialogue was always clear and well-balanced with the music score and special effects. The Blu-ray disc's supplemental centerpiece is CineExplore: The Sands of Time with provides almost two hours of behind the scenes information spread over some 40-odd short featurettes. They can be accessed with the remote whenever an on-screen icon of a dagger appears, but even better by a menu which allows one to bypass having to wait for the on-screen icon and allows navigating back and forth to whichever featurette one prefers. Also included is a deleted scene and several trailers though not one for Prince of Persia. The Blu-ray package also includes the film on DVD on a separate disc and a digital copy. The DVD disc includes a 16-minute making-of featurette made up of material drawn from the Blu-ray CineExplore supplement. Recommended.

No film that starts off with a great steam locomotive sequence can be all bad. The Peacemaker is such a film and in fact one that is consistently entertaining throughout. Released in 1997 and directed by Mimi Leder, it was the first feature to come from the Dreamworks studio.

The Peacemaker (Blu-ray Disc)

Its story was inspired by the perceived vulnerability of the former USSR's nuclear stockpile to terrorist activity. A shipment of nuclear weapons is highjacked by a former Soviet military officer with its ultimate destination being Iran. A US nuclear specialist (Nicole Kidman) and a Special Forces colonel (George Clooney) head up efforts to retrieve the weapons, but unknown to them a separate deal that will see one of the warheads siphoned off to Bosnian interests will prove to be their biggest problem. The film successfully juggles all the aspects of a typical international thriller - plenty of foreign locales (Vienna, southern Russia, Bosnia), interjurisdictional conflicts within the US government and military, and well-executed action set-pieces. The rationale for the Bosnian aspect of the tale is rather murky, but the climactic chase through downtown Manhattan more than makes up for that. Both Kidman and Clooney are effective in their roles and convincingly convey the sense of unease between their characters that stems from their academic versus military backgrounds. Hans Zimmer's driving score is a real asset throughout. Paramount's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer is nicely done. There isn't a great sense of depth to things, but colour fidelity is very good and image detail is consistently fine. DNR is not an issue and a modest level of grain contributes a generally film-like feel. The DTS-HD audio is quite immersive with occasional but effective use of LFE. Dialogue is clear and Zimmer's score is very well conveyed. The supplement package is underwhelming with the most interesting extra being a featurette on some of the stunt sequences. Recommended.

If you enjoyed In Bruges for its seriocomic take on the fortunes of two hit men consigned to wait in the Belgian city Bruges after a botched job, I think you'll be equally enchanted by Perrier's Bounty.

Perrier's Bounty (Canadia Blu-ray Disc)

It's an artfully written tale about small-time crook Michael (Cillian Murphy) who owes local Dublin gangster Perrier (Brendan Gleeson) money that he can't repay. With only four hours left before the payment deadline, two of Perrier's enforcers visit Michael with a warning about broken bones if he doesn't met the deadline. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads to extortion and murder, and envelops Michael's dad (Jim Broadbent) who believes the devil has warned him he will die the next time he goes to sleep, Michael's lovesick suicidal neighbour Jodie Whittaker), and a local gang of attack dog owners. Once you get comfortable with the Dublin working class language that consists of every fourth or fifth word being the f-word (at least so the movies would have one believe), the script is a marvel to listen to with its precisely-observed and almost Shakespearean dialogue. It's one of those blends of the ridiculous and the sublime that really sticks in the mind and makes one want to look for other projects from acclaimed playwright Mark O'Rowe. The tale is marvelously acted by the great cast of Irish actors. All four of the principals really invest themselves in the dramatic aspects of the story while obviously relishing the comic undertones, but for me it was Jim Broadbent's work that really sticks in the memory. The 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer from E1 Entertainment in Canada (IFC Films in the U.S.) is a fine effort that offers crispness and good detail for all the Dublin-area locations, but never really has that added presence that defines the top level of Blu-ray releases. Still, devoid of digital excesses and sporting a well-defined if muted colour palette, it offers a satisfying experience that allows one to immerse oneself in the film without video distraction. The DTS-HD sound is equally effective, providing an immersive environment but not one laden with bombastic surround effects. Supplements are modest with the best one being a making-of featurette. Recommended.

It says much to know that the almost 90-minute documentary on the making of Iron Man 2 and director Jon Favreau's audio commentary for the movie are both vastly more interesting than the movie itself.

Iron Man 2 (Blu-ray Disc)

The translation of the Marvel world of characters to screen has been a mixed bag of at best modest entertainments and the Iron Man franchise is no great step forward. The first film was a good-looking but disappointing effort with a predictable plot (you can guess Jeff Bridges is the bad guy five seconds after we see the bald head and bushy beard) and a narcissistic central character in Tony Stark whose annoyingly smart-ass and even childish behaviour as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. wears thin after the first reel or two. Iron Man 2 unfortunately gives us even more of the latter and if the plot isn't as predictable this time, that's because it's so littered with sub-threads that the film seems continually to be going off in all directions. At least Gwyneth Paltrow adds some class to the proceedings in her role of Stark's efficient assistant now elevated to the CEO position of Stark's empire and Mickey Rourke some entertainment value as he obviously has fun playing Iron Man's chief adversary. But back to the documentary and commentary - both are super examples of these sorts of supplements in terms of depth and insight, and even better they allude to the difficulties that the filmmakers apparently had in respect to Marvel's involvement in the production. It's revealing stuff. Mediocre as the Iron Man 2 film may be, there's nothing mediocre about Paramount's 2.35:1 3-disc Blu-ray presentation of it. Image clarity and level of detail are superb throughout. Colour fidelity is similarly excellent and there's definite pop to the image more often than not. The image is free of any dirt debris or scratches and with a fine sheen of grain combined with no evidence of digital manipulation, conveys a real film-like feel. The DTS-HD audio is equally impressive in handling the entire sound spectrum, from crushingly deep and powerful explosions to subtle ambient effects. Surround activity is aggressive and dialogue is well balanced with both music and sound effects. For an action film, this is demo quality stuff. In addition to the supplements mentioned above (commentary on disc 1 with the fim, documentary on disc 2), there are a number of production featurettes, deleted scenes, concept art, and trailers also on disc 2. DVD and digital copies are provided on the third disc.

Viewed 77 years after its initial release, King Kong might seem like just another monster flick to the uninitiated. But it's far more than that. Filmgoers had never seen anything quite like Kong on the screen.

King Kong (Blu-ray Disc)

Oh, actors had dressed up in ape suits for both horrific and comedic effect before, but the end result was just what you might expect - unconvincing at best and laughable when it wasn't supposed to be. Kong was different. He looked big; he looked real; and he looked scary. He had a personality of his own and he projected human characteristics that a viewer could identify with as well. Yet Kong was never more than an 18-inch flexible doll (except for a few scenes that required the construction of a giant-sized head, a hand, and a leg). What brought so much of it all to life was the magic of stop-motion animation. It was animation that basically involved setting up the desired action on a table that included the model of Kong amongst whatever scenery was called for and then exposing one frame of film. Adjustments were then made to the Kong miniature on the special effects table to reflect the next step in the desired action and another frame of film was exposed. With film passing through a camera at 24 frames per second, one can appreciate how long it would take to get even one minute of completed filming and the degree of exactness and patience in working that was required. Fortunately, RKO had Willis O'Brien on its staff. O'Brien was the pioneer of stop-motion work and had previously had some success with it in 1925's The Lost World. He was now experimenting with more elaborate effects for a film that was to be called Creation. It was never completed, but the work that O'Brien was doing on it did serve as inspiration for many of the Kong effects and techniques. The special effects work on Kong went far beyond the basic stop-motion activity. It included elaborate miniature sets that combined the stop-motion tables with matte paintings behind them and paintings on glass in front. In addition, live action footage of the film's human stars was shot and later projected on miniature screens placed within the stop-motion sets. Thus were created many of the scenes that show Kong interacting with those characters. With all the attention to Kong, one can tend to overlook the flesh-and-blood actors in the film. Robert Armstrong plays the adventurer and showman, Carl Denham, who brings Kong to New York. Denham was obviously modeled on the film's co-producer/director Merian Cooper, just as Ernest Schoedsack (the other co-producer/director) had himself immortalized in the cast as Denham's co-adventurer Jack Driscoll, as portrayed by Bruce Cabot. Fay Wray, of course, is the best-remembered member of the cast as Ann Darrow who gets captured by Kong on the island where he is first found and later finds herself carried to the top of the Empire State Building by Kong. Armstrong and Wray particularly give reasonable portrayals, given their clichéd parts, that for the most part manage to avoid the rather mannered performances that tended to dominate more than a few early sound films. Viewers should keep their eyes open for Cooper and Schoedsack themselves, as they make cameo appearances as the flyers of the plane that's responsible for the film's climactic moment. Warner Bros.' new Blu-ray version of King Kong (presented in digibook format) looks very, very good indeed. The black and white image simply sparkles and conveys more detail than I've ever seen in any previous viewing of the film. A nice sheen of nitrate grain is evident, but it never interferes with that detail. The image gray scale conveys an impressive range of gradation. Does the image deliver the eye-popping presence of the best high definition transfers of current films? No, but it does accurately convey the original look of the film given the technical limitations of the day. One can't ask for more than that. The DTS-HD mono sound is in good shape with clear dialogue that's well-balanced with the film's music and sound effects. The Blu-ray version includes all the DVD supplements except for a gallery of trailers for other Merian Cooper films. That includes the fine Kevin Brownlow documentary on Cooper and the exhaustive 2-hour making-of documentary on the film. The "Spider Pit" recreation and the Creation effects footage are now also presented in high definition - for your viewing pleasure, as they say. Warners obviously gave its efforts for this release a lot of thought. Very highly recommended.

Given the caliber of many science fiction films of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet looks like the Citizen Kane of the genre, for that time period anyway. It's less impressive now given all we've learned over the past 50 years and the numerous science fiction films and TV shows that have been released since.

Forbidden Planet (Blu-ray Disc)

At the time, the film was a major production filmed in CinemaScope and Eastman Color, starring Walter Pidgeon, and featuring some impressive art direction. Even the story showed intelligence in its conception of space travel to distant stars and an advanced race called the Krell, the remnants of whose knowledge have been discovered by an Earth scientist (Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon) previously marooned on the Krell's planet, Altair 4. Intruding on the scientist, his daughter (Anne Francis), and a Robot named Robby is a spacecraft sent from Earth to investigate. The crew of the latter is headed by Leslie Nielsen and includes the likes of Warren Stevens as the ship's doctor, Jack Kelly, and Earl Holliman. Nielsen and Stevens and their byplay seem like the prototype for the Kirk and McCoy relationship of later Star Trek fame. The film's production values are top-notch and benefit especially from the excellent representation of Altair 4 as conceived by art directors Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan. The colours and vistas of the planet are very reminiscent of the artwork of Chesley Bonestell, one of the most revered illustrators of science fiction magazines of the time. On the negative side of the ledger, the conception of Robby the Robot shows less originality, owing much as it does to the hackneyed ideas of whirring dials, flashing lights, awkward movement, and stiff protruding arms. Also tiresome is the usual mini-skirted innocence and romantic angle of the Anne Francis character, as well as the so-called comic relief work of Earl Holliman as the ship's cook. Still, these are minor quibbles considering the film's considerable achievements. The only really unfortunate aspect of the film is the fact that it didn't really lead to more productions with the same intelligence and production value. Most subsequent science fiction films of the 1950s and early 1960s seemed content to settle for second-rate plots and cheap special effects, and why not, since many viewers of the time didn't seem to discriminate between a good science fiction film and a bad one. Warners' previously released Forbidden Planet on HD-DVD and this new Blu-ray version is identical in most areas. The film, presented in 2.4:1 widescreen, sparkles with a beautiful colour palette and a strong three-dimensional look virtually throughout. Skin tones look very realistic. The source material appears to be in excellent condition as there is very minimal evidence of any dirt or debris. The image has some very mild grain inherent to the original film stock, but it's never intrusive. Some minor softness at times is due to the original source elements. The sound is the same 5.1 remix as before, and as is typical of such efforts, it's strong across the front, but has minimal bass or surround effects. It is, however, now presented in DTS-HD instead of the HD-DVD's Dolby Digital Plus and the change enhances the music score particularly. The supplement package replicates (with one exception - a science fiction film trailer gallery) what was provided on the previous HD-DVD and standard DVD two-disc SE and it's very impressive. It features three documentaries including the TCM Original Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us (an hour-long perspective on the science fiction film genre that was such a significant part of the 50s film landscape); Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet (a half-hour making-of featurette that includes comments from many of the film's stars); and Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon (a quarter-hour featurette whose title says it all). Also included are various deleted scenes, lost footage, excerpts from The MGM Parade TV series featuring Walter Pidgeon extolling the virtues of Forbidden Planet, and a science fiction movie trailer gallery. Last but not least are two follow-up vehicles that featured Robby the Robot: The Thin Man TV series episode Robot Client, and the full-length feature The Invisible Boy (which is quite enjoyable in its own right). The Forbidden Planet Blu-ray release is highly recommended to fans of the film, but even lukewarm science fiction adherents will find the release a beguiling package.

The Killer Inside Me is a disturbing film noir set in 1950s Texas. Casey Affleck stars as deputy sheriff Lou Ford who is asked by his boss to see that attractive prostitute Joyce Lakefield (Jessica Alba) is moved out of town before she causes trouble.

The Killer Inside Me (Blu-ray Disc)

He instead falls for her, but ultimately kills her violently and seemingly unfeelingly as part of a plan to settle a score with an old adversary of his family's (Ned Beatty, in a nice turn). His detached demeanor throughout conceals a psychopathic nature that eventually spells misfortune also for his girlfriend (Kate Hudson) whom he brutally uses in order to counter a blackmailing witness to his first crime. The film is definitely not for the faint of heart, and unfortunately neither is it for those seeking substance along with style. It certainly has the latter in spades, particularly in the evocation of the dusty west Texas of Jim Thompson's novel of the same title. There is style too in the acting of the three principals who all deliver interesting work. In Affleck's case, upon whose shoulders falls the bulk of the work, his low-key acting style is on the surface well-suited to the placid Ford, but his approach is so laconic that we never connect with the character on any level that reveals his inner feelings or turmoil. Ford remains a virtual cipher whose placid mask only occasionally slips to register barely-revealed arrogance when dealing with the investigator (Simon Baker) probing Joyce's murder. We get snatches of Ford's past, notably his relationship with a troubled stepbrother, but that's it. We're left to guess at the details. The film does hold the attention, but it could have been so much more. E1 Entertainment's 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer reflects the film's subdued look and muted colours quite well. There's a nice sheen of grain and image detail is very good. The DTS-HD sound conveys the dialogue-heavy film well, with surround usage restricted mainly to good ambient effects. The supplement package consists of a disappointing trio of very short promos for the film, each featuring one of the principal players. Recommended as a rental.

In 1972, director Peter Bogdanovich reached into the past of the many classic directors he admired to make his own screwball comedy - What's Up Doc? - a film probably most inspired by Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby.

What's Up Doc? (Blu-ray Disc)

It stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal - he as a bewildered professor pursuing a scientific prize with his theory of music derived from prehistoric rocks, and she as a failed university student who insinuates her way into his life. I remember the theatrical experience generally with fondness, particularly the chase sequences and courtroom conclusion. In viewing Warner's new Blu-ray release, the same parts of the film remain highlights. They have a combination of exuberance and absurdity that reflect some of the best elements of classic film noir. Less successful is the plot's set-up and initial execution. A collection of identical travel bags and the inevitable mix-up they cause is handled clumsily. The motives of the individuals after the contents of the bags are not entirely clear and the bags' eventual misplacement at a hotel looks contrived with the actors trying for comedy rather than letting the situations generate mirth in themselves. As a result, one watches with bemusement rather than finding genuine amusement in these initial sequences. The two stars try hard throughout and Streisand is quite effective. O'Neal seems to be going for a wide-eyed Cary Grant look of bafflement and disbelief at what's transpiring, but his success is inconsistent. Madeleine Kahn as O'Neal's fiancée provides strong support, a la Ralph Bellamy in classic screwball. Warners' 1.85:1 Blu-ray presentation is a great success. The image looks perfectly natural with mild grain and no evidence of digital manipulation. Colours are strong and accurate and image detail is noticeably good. Sharpness is very good most of the time, with only a few softer-looking shots intruding. The DTS-HD audio provides nice balance between the dialogue and sound effects. The use of the song "You're the Top" for both opening and closing credits is marked by impressive fidelity. The supplements from Warners' earlier DVD release are all carried over. They're highlighted by Bogdanovich's typically informative and entertaining audio commentary and by Streisand's screen-specific commentary on a handful of the film's key sequences. Not a consistently successful film, but when it works, it really does and that makes it better than almost all comedy fare made these days. Recommended.


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