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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

I'm a strong supporter of Blu-ray technology. Having said that, despite the momentum that Blu-ray has gathered since its victory in the high definition competition with HD-DVD, it is still not a slam dunk that it will reach the same widespread acceptance compared to standard DVD that the latter did over VHS. Yes, Blu-ray does offer a superior image to that of DVD, but in general the incremental gain apparent to one's eyes is not as great as that of DVD over VHS. An analogy is sometimes made that Blu-ray will be to DVD what laserdisc was to VHS. There may be some truth in this, although the studios' and manufacturers' attention to and publicity surrounding Blu-ray is greater than anything laserdisc ever enjoyed and increasingly Blu-ray pricing on software and hardware especially is becoming more attractive - something that never happened with laserdisc.

Digital formats have driven a fair amount of restoration work by the studios, partly because the improved resolution has necessitated it if classic and more recent catalog titles are to look acceptable. One has only to look at how many nits are picked in some DVD image reviews even of titles that have been restored to realize how important that part of the equation is. That need is only intensified with Blu-ray's heightened resolution. Tightening budgets cause one to question how much of the needed restoration will continue in the future. With respect to when DVD entered our consciousness, classic fans have even graver concern about seeing their desires met by Blu-ray because there's been another ten years of films produced that studios will be more interested in releasing than older titles. With fewer classic choices being allowed to fill the release schedule, one can easily anticipate that when we do see one, it'll more likely be one of the usual suspects than not - much as I'd love to be proven wrong!

For the time being, however, Blu-ray offerings are finally starting to provide a somewhat enticing variety for film fans of all persuasions. Yes, the schedule is still top heavy with current offerings, too many of which are sub-standard films whose production in the first place provokes amazement never mind their release on Blu-ray, but at least there are some classic and more recent catalog releases plus a few independent offerings that suggest hope for continued variety in the future.

Over the past three or four months we've certainly seen some high profile catalog titles made available - The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration and The Ultimate Matrix Collection (both previously reviewed on The Bits) are but two that have more than addressed many fans' desires for those particular films. In addition to these, among the titles crossing my desk over that time have been classic titles (The Adventures of Robin Hood, How the West Was Won, Sleeping Beauty, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, Cool Hand Luke); westerns (Pale Rider, Lonesome Dove); miscellaneous catalog titles (The Omen Collection, L.A. Confidential, Poltergeist, Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile, The Final Countdown); new releases (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Bank Job, The Love Guru); and a documentary set (Scenic National Parks). Following are some brief comments on each.

Please note that I've also updated the Blu-ray Release Schedule, which is now available for download as a Word.doc file (zipped) like the usual Classic Coming Attractions Database. This effort is becoming ever more time intensive as the number of Blu-ray announcements increases. Your feedback on how important you feel this resource is would be welcomed. While continuing the feature as is remains a possibility, it might be more useful to see it mounted as a separate resource on The Bits main page. Alternatively it could be discontinued completely, leaving that sort of effort to sites that have more time or mandate to do it. So please let Bill or myself know your thoughts (billhunt@thedigitalbits.com or barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com).


Capsule Reviews


How the West Was Won (Blu-ray Disc)

How the West Was Won (Warner Bros.)

A long and at times cumbersome film, How the West Was Won was one of only two narrative feature films made in the true Cinerama process (the other was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm with the rest being more documentary-based). The film's title pretty much tells the tale as the film knits several story lines together covering the 50-year period of western expansion from 1839-1889. Much the best part of the film is the concluding third in the far west where really effective use is made of the Cinerama process to envelop the audience in Indian attacks, buffalo stampedes, and the railroad expansion. The introductory third seems somewhat artificial and parts at times put me in mind of Davy Crockett and the Riverboat Pirates rather than the beginning of a western epic.


The Civil War section also seems rather flat and reportedly that section's director, John Ford, had little time for the framing necessary to meet Cinerama's needs. Still, overall the effect is impressive, if only for the sheer magnitude of the resources, both people and materials, that were marshaled in order to make the production as true to life as possible.

The 2-disc Blu-ray presentation, packaged in Warners' digi-book-style, provides both a standard 2.89:1 widescreen version and a "Smilebox" one. The latter is the way to see the film in terms of best replicating the three-panel wrap-around theatrical experience. The standard widescreen version is impressive looking too, but just doesn't convey the Cinerama effect, as one might well expect. Warners has done an outstanding job at rehabilitating the image in order to minimize the lines where the three images join and matching up colours as accurately as possible. Colour fidelity is excellent. Modest grain has been retained resulting in a nice film-like experience. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound also captures the multi-channel sound of the original. The results are not only dynamically impressive but also suitably immersive if not quite up to the potency of current surround mixes. The supplements are entrancing as well, highlighted by Cinerama Adventure - a full-length feature on the history of the Cinerama process, and an audio commentary. Highly recommended.



Lonesome Dove (Blu-ray Disc)

Lonesome Dove (Genius Entertainment)

Closing in on 20 years of age, this Emmy-Award-winning western mini-series grows only better, if that's possible, with time. Larry McMurtry's saga of Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones), two former Texas Rangers who drive a herd of cattle northward from Texas to Montana, has been dramatized with great skill and commendable attention to detail by director Simon Wincer and a memorable cast that also includes Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, D.B. Sweeney, Anjelica Huston, and Ricky Schroder. The six-hour-plus running time allows time for fully-developed characters that we care about to emerge. What happens to them all is exciting, thoughtful, moving, surprising, and at times brutal. It's a program that you never want to end, but when it does, one is left fully satisfied that each character has been fully explored and received his or her due.


Genius has provided the title a two-disc release that presents the original full frame presentation in a 1.78:1 widescreen format. While purists may decry the altered aspect ratio, the original filming appears to have been protected for such an eventuality as the framing looks very good, opening up the image to deliver a more expansive feel appropriate to the story's western setting without compromising the intimacy of its strong emphasis on character development sequences. The Blu-ray image is a marked improvement on the DVD version and looks remarkably detailed for a production with its TV origins. The Dolby 5.1 sound does a satisfactory job except for a few dialogue sequences that are somewhat overpowered by ambient sound effects. The release essentially carries over the DVD's supplementary content, with a 50-minute making-of documentary being the highlight. Highly recommended.


Pale Rider (Blu-ray Disc)


Pale Rider (Warner Bros.)

In the wasteland that was the 1980s for theatrical westerns, Pale Rider, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, stood out with its Shane-like plot and nameless hero reminiscent of earlier Eastwood westerns. The immediate supporting cast (Michael Moriarty, Carrie Snodgrass) gives Eastwood no great run for his money, but the appearance of John Russell (star of the TV series Lawman) as Eastwood's antagonist for the final shootout more than compensates.

The 2.35:1 image looks very film-like and conveys Bruce Surtees' somewhat hazy cinematography quite accurately. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound track is quite dynamic though mainly rooted in the fronts with only brief but effective use of the surrounds. The only supplements are a couple of trailers (Pale Rider, Unforgiven). Recommended.



The Adventures of Robin Hood (Blu-ray Disc)


The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros.)

This new Blu-ray release is one of Warners' catch-up releases for titles previously made only available on HD-DVD and I previously reviewed the film and its HD-DVD version here.

The Blu-ray improvement over the already superior DVD special edition with its Ultra-Resolution transfer remains the same as for the HD-DVD. In a word, this release is superb. Very highly recommended.


Sleeping Beauty (Blu-ray Disc)

Sleeping Beauty (Disney)

For me, this along with Snow White, is at the top of Disney's list of animated features. So it's indeed a pleasure to see it appear as the first in Disney's line of Platinum Blu-ray releases. The film's fairy tale origins are ideal for the Disney treatment. The protagonists (Princess Aurora, Prince Phillip) are impossibly good, the chief villain (the evil witch Maleficent) is all bad, and the climactic confrontation between Phillip and Maleficent is larger than life. The settings allow full reign for Disney animators to create contrasting moods of both contentment and foreboding so that a full range of emotions results in enjoyment for both child and adult, especially when it all zips along in an efficient 75-minute running time.


The Blu-ray presentation presents the film in its originally-intended ratio of 2.55:1 for the first time. The image looks magnificent in terms of detail, colour fidelity, cleanliness, and colour alignment (a reflection of the film's Technirama successive exposure rather than 3-strip Technicolor origins - see Robert Harris's column on this issue here). Disney has created an impressive new 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track to supplement the original 4-track theatrical sound track (also included on the disc). The 2-disc release also offers an amazing collection of supplements highlighted by Grand Canyon, the original short that accompanied Sleeping Beauty's theatrical run, in high definition and 7.1 sound too; an audio commentary by Leonard Maltin, Pixar's John Lasseter, and Disney animator Andreas Deja; and a new three-quarter hour making-of documentary. Very highly recommended.


Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball (MGM/Fox)

Dr. No (Blu-ray Disc)From Russia with Love (Blu-ray Disc)Thunderball (Blu-ray Disc)

Over the past ten years, it sometimes seemed as though every time a year passed, MGM released new DVD editions of the various James Bond films. It's no surprise then that among MGM's earliest Blu-ray offerings, we have six Bond titles now available. Of that six, it will also be no surprise that I focused on the best of them - three of Sean Connery's efforts.

Each has received a Lowry Digital 4K-mastered high definition transfer and in every case the results are noticeably superior to the best DVD editions. From Russia with Love fares best of all offering excellent colour fidelity and image detail along with modest film grain. Thunderball is very good too although black levels are not quite as impressive. Even if it's a cut below From Russia with Love, Dr. No - given its originally modest budget and attendent look - has been upgraded substantially by its Blu-ray presentation so that it probably presents the greatest improvement over its previous best DVD incarnation. All three discs offer the original mono tracks and new DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless audio - the latter providing a decent enhancement without being overpowering. The supplement packages available on the previous DVD Ultimate Editions have all been ported over to the Blu-ray versions. Recommended. (Note that there have been some reports of difficulties with playing these Bond discs. I can only report that I experienced no problems as played on a Panasonic BD30 player.)



Cool Hand Luke (Blu-ray Disc)

Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros.)

One hopes that Paul Newman's recent passing will be a catalyst for more of his films to appear on Blu-ray. While we wait for that to happen, we do have one of his best-loved and most iconic roles in Cool Hand Luke from 1967 to enjoy. Newman's persona was ideally suited to the unbending non-conformist character sentenced to the chain gang and it is among his best film performances in a career of fine ones. Two character actors highly identified with the late 60s/early 70s - Strother Martin and George Kennedy (Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) - both shine in meaty supporting roles. In the hands of a cast with pros like these (including a memorable turn by Jo Van Fleet as Martin's mother), this film has no ‘failure to communicate".


Warner delivers another strong effort on a classic title here. The 2.4:1 image is characterized by strong accurate colours, reasonable image detail, and a very clean look. The original mono sound is in decent shape with all dialogue quite clear. The disc boasts two good supplements - a fine audio commentary by Newman biographer Eric Lax and a new making-of documentary that clocks in at about half an hour. Recommended.


L.A. Confidential (Blu-ray Disc)

L.A. Confidential (Warner Bros.)

The film that should have received the Best Picture Oscar of 1997 (with apologies to Titanic fans, one of whom I am also) at least makes it to Blu-ray first. Based on James Ellroy's novel, the film which depicts an engrossing tale of police corruption amid the glamour of 1950s Hollywood has been meticulously directed by Curtis Hanson. It superbly recreates the era and gradually unpeels a complex and layered tale that offers plenty of surprises in its first viewing. The acting (by, at-the time, lesser known players such as Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, James Cromwell, and Kevin Spacey) is of such a high level and the film's attention to detail so great that it bears repeated viewings with ease.


Warner continues its superb record with catalog titles here. The 2.4:1 image is wonderfully film-like, with excellent detail, very mild grain, and top-notch color fidelity. The source elements used have yielded a very clean transfer also. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is a good one though more atmospheric than aggressive in its surround effects. The disc offers an in-depth selection of supplements adding substantially to those on the previous DVD edition. Highlighting them is a series of four new making-of featurettes (each between 20 and 30 minutes in length) that focus variously on the overall production issues, the visual style, the casting, and the screenplay writing process. Highly recommended.


The Omen Collection (Blu-ray Disc)

The Omen Collection (Fox)

I well remember seeing the well-made and truly chilling tale that was 1976's The Omen at the time of its original release. The appearance of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the parents of the Satanically-possessed Damien seemed like inspired casting against type for these two excellent players. The film told its tale briskly and with conviction, laying out a conclusion that obviously cried out for a sequel. That duly appeared two years later in Damien: Omen II - a continuation of the story with Damien now enrolled in a military academy that suffered somewhat from repetition of some of the plot twists of the original but at least had good work from William Holden to compensate.


With another open ending, a second sequel was also inevitable and in 1981 we got Omen III: The Final Conflict - a film of truly diminishing returns featuring a smirking Sam Neill as the adult Damien. At least, mercifully, we got closure on the story of Damien (although there was an effort to cash in further with a forgettable made-for-TV movie in 1991 - Omen IV: The Awakening). Then in 2006, the original film was remade almost scene-for-scene with Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles in the Peck and Remick roles. There is nothing about the remake that will make you forget the original. Schreiber particularly lacks the gravitas and conviction that Peck brought to the lead role. Frightening sequences are over-telegraphed by the updated and obvious sound track.

Fox obviously feels The Omen films are an important part of its catalogue by virtue of its supporting publicity material for this release, but the packaging belies that. A flimsy box contains an even flimsier fold-out digipac that uses sponge plastic hubs to hold the four Blu-ray discs (one for each of the three original theatrical films and one for the 2006 remake). The integrity of one of the hubs was already destroyed after removing its disc only two times. This leaves such a bad taste in the mouth that even the fact of some pretty decent Blu-ray transfers can't overcome it. The best way to go is to seek out the individual Blu-ray release of the best film of the bunch, the 1976 The Omen which offers quite a satisfying transfer and a raft of good extras, and leave it at that.



The Final Countown (Blu-ray Disc)

The Final Countdown (Blue Underground)

The premise of The Final Countdown, that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz is transported in time to the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is an intriguing one. In fact, a film about almost any time travel-related theme stirs the imagination, for the paradoxes that can result from such events are truly mind-boggling. An early science fiction short story by Robert Heinlein ("By His Bootstraps") still remains one of the best investigations of such paradoxes to be written. As far as films go, however, there are precious few good examples to be found and The Final Countdown isn't one of them.

It's not that the film doesn't bring a decent cast to the effort (Kirk Douglas, James Farentino, Katharine Ross, Martin Sheen) or utilize an impressive setting with many of its scenes actually shot on the real Nimitz.


The problem is a script that sets up the intriguing situation and then essentially does nothing with it, leaving one with merely a "you mean that's it?" reaction. The final shot is presumably meant to be the film's kicker, but you can see it coming and then when it does, the make-up involved is so poor that its effect is more laughable than anything else.

Of course, I know the film does have its boosters and at least for them, the Blu-ray version looks pretty decent - definitely an upgrade in both image and sound over Blue Underground's 2-disc DVD version, although overall it's not among the best catalog efforts. The most important supplements from the DVD have been retained (commentary and several featurettes), but why not all of them?



Romancing the Stone & Jewel of the Nile (Fox)

Romancing the Stone (Blu-ray Disc)Jewel of the Nile (Blu-ray Disc)

The success of the Indiana Jones films inspired a number of adventure/action films in exotic locales with smart-talking protagonists. 1984's Romancing the Stone was one of the best, featuring Michael Douglas as a fortune hunter and Kathleen Turner as a romance novelist mixed up in a hunt for a priceless jewel in Columbia. The two stars work very well together, with Danny DeVito mixed into the brew to good effect, and with some snappy dialogue and well-mounted though not over the top action sequences, the film leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth and good repeat viewing potential. Predictably, such success led to a sequel with the same lead players but the north African desert doesn't hold the same appeal as the Columbian jungles and the whole thing lacks wit or invention.

Fox's Blu-ray presentations, both 2.35:1, mirror the film quality. Romancing the Stone looks quite strong with frequently vibrant colour and very good depth and detail while Jewel of the Nile literally pales in comparison in all areas. Both discs offer reasonably effective DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio remixes of the original 3 or 4 channel Dolby tracks (also included). Each title is supplemented by some featurettes and deleted scenes, with Jewel of the Nile also having an audio commentary by director Lewis Teague. Romancing the Stone is recommended.



Poltergeist (Blu-ray Disc)

Poltergeist (Warner Bros.)

I first saw and much enjoyed Poltergeist at a time when I was dabbling in some film courses whose professors seemed more interested in delivering murky diatribes on subconscious film sub-texts and convoluted film theory than actually talking about the reality of what appeared on the screen. The nominal direction of the film by Tobe Hooper (nominal because it is much bandied about that producer Steven Spielberg actually directed much of the film himself) allowed me to write a paper for one of the courses comparing Poltergeist to Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre - a film with little redeeming value or interest in my view.


I've seen Poltergeist several times since then and it stands up well as a tale of the supernatural, especially with its idealized suburban setting contrasted with the scary events that develop behind the walls of one suburban home. The special effects still look effective without being overdone as so many CGI efforts currently are.

Warners' 2.4:1 Blu-ray transfer (presented in digibook packaging) is more than satisfactory. Colour fidelity and image detail are improved over last year's DVD release. There is some variability in the image sharpness during the course of the running time, but it's a minor quibble. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound track is only occasionally immersive with the front channels dominating for the majority of the film. The music by Jerry Goldsmith is well conveyed. The supplement package beyond the background information contained in the digibook is very disappointing. Recommended.



The Love Guru (Blu-ray Disc)


The Love Guru (Paramount)

Being a Canadian and from Toronto where Mike Myers grew up, it pains me to say that this latest effort of his is depressingly bad. He plays a self-help guru aspiring to be the best in the field who tries to sort out the marital difficulties of the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs (which just happens to be Myers' favourite team in real life). With Jessica Alba infathomably cast as the owner of the Leafs, Sir Ben Kingsley embarrassing himself as a guru teacher, and Myers floundering through a sea of tasteless jokes and depressingly bad double entendres, this exercise in self-indulgence is an unmitigated disaster.

Technically, the disc looks quite good and it does have a few supplements in HD. It even provides a digital copy of the film if you really want to blow your brains out. Remainder bin, here we come!



Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Blu-ray Disc)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount)

The fourth Indiana Jones film arrived early this summer after a long gestation period and proved to be a worthy successor to the original three. The best aspects of the film are a Harrison Ford in good form and still able to make the character completely credible despite his 60+ years, the welcome return of Karen Allen, and a number of good action sequences very much in the Indiana Jones tradition. On the down side, there are a ridiculous episode involving a lead-lined refrigerator near the beginning and an excessive use of CGI dampening the enjoyment particularly of the film's concluding sequences.


Some people have derided the science fiction theme of the film, but anyone familiar with serial plots and the science fiction films of the 1950s both of which the film draws inspiration from would recognize that such a theme is fully appropriate. I'd rate the film third among all the Indiana Jones efforts - behind The Last Crusade but ahead of Temple of Doom.

Paramount's Blu-ray presentation is admirable from the vibrant highly detailed image to the demonstration quality Dolby TrueHD audio. The 2-disc set is packed with production detail spread over numerous featurettes all presented in HD. Recommended.



The Bank Job (Blu-ray Disc)

The Bank Job (Lionsgate)

Jason Statham eschews his standard high-octane action flics to star in one of this past summer's most entertaining films. It's a British-made, old-fashioned heist movie based on a real-life event - one that involves a group of small-time crooks out of their depth as they carry out a robbery that unknown to them is really being orchestrated by MI-5 in order to avoid the public disclosure of information and photographs compromising to the Royal Family. The film's strengths are the top-to-bottom quality of its British cast and an intelligent script that requires constant attention. It's all orchestrated efficiently by veteran director Roger Donaldson. Statham does get to strut his stuff in a few limited action sequences, but he shows here how effective he can be in a more character-driven and at times vulnerable role.


Lionsgate's disc looks very impressive - colours are vibrant and accurate, blacks are very deep, and image (2.35:1) detail is quite good. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Lossless audio is also most impressive with both aggressive and subtle surround effects standing out. A decent suite of supplements is highlighted by a good audio commentary from Donaldson, actress Saffron Burrows, and composer Peter Robinson. A digital copy of the film is also included. Recommended.


Scenic National Parks (Blu-ray Disc)
Scenic National Parks (Questar)

This is a 3-disc set that presents documentaries on each of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Each disc also has a supplementary program - Grand Teton (on the Yellowstone disc), Wild National Parks (on the Yosemite disc), and National Parks of the Southwest (on the Grand Canyon disc). In all there's almost 5 hours of high definition material that shows off America's best-known natural areas to the best advantage of any home video presentation so far.

The set's image quality is for the most part on a par with the typical Discovery Channel sort of presentation although there is some minor inconsistency in sharpness as softness intrudes on occasion. Colour is quite vibrant and image detail is very good. Three-dimensional "pop" is only intermittently present. The Dolby 5.1 surround sound is unremarkable. Available through questarentertainment.com.


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