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Miramax/Lionsgate Wrap-Up

Cold Mountain


Before his untimely death in 2008, Anthony Minghella was the mastermind behind a series of stunningly beautiful, yet laboriously cold films of the late 1990s. Chief among these were 1996’s The English Patient, and 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, the second Hollywood adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Minghella re-teamed with Bob and Harvey Weinstein in 2003 to make another patented piece of Oscar-bait called Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain is a prime example of mindless ‘prestige’ filmmaking at both its best and worst. The poster alone reads like a spoof of the type – the giant, frowning heads of the stars float, wearing period garb above the title and a silhouetted battle scene. Any viewer okay with the thought of being placated this excessively (I know I am on most occasions) should find plenty to love about Cold Mountain, from its glourious photography, expansive scope, and spectacularly stylish, if not infrequent, action sequences. Those immune to the trials of the militantly po-faced tone should easily survive the entire experience based solely on the quality of these colourful and highly decorative images. The story is consistently dull, dopily politically correct, and not novel on any level (it’s pretty much a Civil War take on The Odyssey, like O Brother Where Art Thou?, which it also shares some soundtrack credits with), but Manghella’s flashback storytelling structure over the first half helps curb the boredom by forcing the audience to participate in the unraveling of events. Manghella also keeps the story moving quickly despite the oppressive runtime, but begins to lose control around the second hour. The performances are largely over-praised. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are both fine, but also occasionally unintentionally funny (such as the scene where Kidman is attacked by a rooster), and Renée Zellweger, who won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role, overacts so loudly she threatens to crack the screen (Robin Weigert did basically the same thing better in Deadwood for years without winning any awards). Only Philip Seymour Hoffman fully gets away with his charming brand of ham, and gives the film a much needed comedic boost. Catching a glimpse of a pre-famous Cillian Murphy is another brief thrill.

Lionsgate continues to do well by Miramax with these relatively cheap, catalogue Blu-ray releases. Cold Mountain is, as stated, a beautiful looking film, and this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer does well by that look. Minghella and frequent cinematographer/collaborator John Seale (yes, the man behind the equally beautiful images in Kidman’s other super-prestige film, BMX Bandits) go to massive lengths to capture the period in every pretty, gritty, grandiose frame. This transfer excels in terms of fine detail and vibrant colour, and features only minor issues with clarity in a handful of the widest wide-shots, a mere smidge of sharpening effects, and occasional edge haloes during the snowy bits. The smoke and dirt covered battle that opens the film looks particularly great in comparison to what I’ve seen before, where the sequence became too murky to discern. Here the use of colour is especially abstract as well, though not quite as lush or sharply separated as the hues in other sequences. Grain is present, but is even and fine in thickness, adding an extra level of texture to the images. There are some problems with this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, most revolving around minor issues with sound placement throughout the channels. On a few occasions I noticed vocal and effects bleeding out of their intended channel. Outside of this the soundtrack gets the proper job done. The war sequences stand apart from the more subtly tinged dialogue sequences. These are aggressive, full-bodied, and loud, but also crystal clear, making it easy to discern and appreciate the directional effects work and heavy LFE punch. Gabriel Yared’s super-dramatic, Oscar nominated score sounds rich and full, and features more in the rear channels than I’m accustomed to, which is a pleasant surprise, even if the effect isn’t always entirely successful. Extras include a commentary with Minghella and editor Walter Murch, Climbing Cold Mountain, an extensive behind the scenes documentary (74:40, SD), a series of deleted/extended scenes (21:00, SD), The Words and Music of Cold Mountain concert footage (93:00, SD), A Journey to Cold Mountain featurette (29:40, SD), Sacred Harp History (4:10, SD), three storyboard to film comparisons, and trailers.

Miramax/Lionsgate Wrap-Up

Frida


If you grow up in Tucson, Arizona you will learn all about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in art class. I learned the agony and the ecstasy of this particular story in elementary school (yes, including the less age appropriate bits), and found myself transfixed by Kahlo’s dark and beautiful art at a relatively young age. Salma Hayek’s dream project was a story I waited decades to be realized on the big screen, and in the end there was no way anyone could live up to my personal expectations for the tale. Director Julie Taymor had just come off of a popular avant garde stage productions, and an extremely arty adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the time of Frida, which made her an ideal, but possibly destructive candidate to usher the project to fruition. Taymor is on a bit of a leash here, and sticks to the script’s forward moving narrative (which was notoriously written by way too many people, and which covers perhaps too wide a swath of Kahlo’s life), but finds plenty of excuses to experiment with the visuals. Her visual collages and moving paintings make sense for the story, playing a significant part in the narrative, unlike her other films, which are often brought to a standstill by her ostentatious imagery. Hayek is just about as good as her Oscar award dictates. It’s easy to poke holes in any award winning performance this many years after the fact, but the truth is that it’s quite easy to forget that voluptuous screen vixen, and just accept Hayek as a cipher version of Kahlo. Most notably she doesn’t waste the audience’s time and attention with too much humourless melodrama, which would’ve been very easy given the breadth of horror in Kahlo’s life. The rest of the cast ain’t too bad either. Alfred Molina, despite his racial handicap, was born to play Diego Rivera, and Geoffrey Rush was born to play Trotsky, which is enough to help you forget how woefully miscast Ashley Judd is. An uneven film overall, but artistically a solid effort.

Like all of Julie Taymor’s films, Frida looks absolutely fabulous in 1080p HD. This transfer shines most brightly in terms of its vibrant hues and contrasts. The colour quality is breathtaking in comparison to the DVD version, especially the rich and consistent greens and super-poppy reds. Taymor and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto do interesting things with the 1.85:1 frame, often filling the edges from top to bottom, and left to right with highly decorative décor and clothing. Contrast levels are quite high throughout the film, which makes for some really rich blacks and sharp close-up details though regularly shallow focus makes for some blurry backgrounds. Even when blurry, however, backgrounds are plenty complex. Grain plays a heavy role in the composition, and there are flecks of white dirt throughout the transfer, but given the film’s recent vintage and Taymor’s obvious affection for period imagery, I’m assuming this slightly rough look is true to the source. The sound design is generally a mix of realistic and massively abstract noise. This uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 comes to life more effectively when reveling in the abstract, including some very effective use of the rear and stereo channels. The more natural sounding scenes feature plenty of basic ambience, but not a lot of it moves beyond the front channels. Dialogue levels could do with a volume increase during a few odd moments. Elliot Goldenthall’s musical score, which follows Taymor’s visuals throughout periods and country origins (Mexican in Mexico, big band in New York, Russian when Trotsky shows up), sounds big and rich, and is well represented throughout every channel, including the occasional directional effect. Extras include a commentary with Taymor, A Conversation with Salma Hayek (38:20, SD), AFI Q&A with Julie Taymor (30:20, SD), a Bill Moyers interview with Taymor (19:10, SD), a Chavela Vargas interview (15:40, SD), The Voice of Lila Downs (5:20, SD), The Vision of Frida (6:10, SD), The Design of Frida (2:30, SD), The Music of Frida (5:00, SD), Salma’s Recording Session (2:40, SD), Bringing Frida Kahlo’s Life and Art to Film (5:10, SD), Portrait of an Artist (14:10, SD), two visual fx break downs, and a trailer.

Miramax/Lionsgate Wrap-Up

The Piano


Of these three films, Jane Campion’s The Piano is the one I have the least memory of originally seeing. Prior to the Blu-ray rewatch, I really only had memories of a wee Anna Paquin running around screaming, and Harvey Keitel’s penis (tee hee hee), so I was looking forward to this. Campion, one of only four women ever to be nominated for the best director Oscar, displays an incredible tactile sense throughout the film. Outside the utter beauty of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s lighting and foggy photography, the film’s subtext lies in the feel of each scene, be it warmth, coldness, soft, or damp. Aesthetically speaking I have issues with the script’s incredible melodrama, but Campion is less concerned with traditional storytelling than creating a palpable, physical experience that plays out with such utter intimacy it’s easy to overlook the almost satirical sentimentality. Frankly speaking, I find The Piano largely oppressive in terms of story and character. Eddie Izzard does a bit about British films being about people opening the wrong doors and awkwardly excusing themselves, and if it weren’t for Campion’s expressive physicality I might not be able to deal with the excessive ‘Britishness’ (in Izzard’s terms) of the whole thing. In keeping with the feeling over storytelling theme the performances are occasionally overwhelming in their theatricality. Holly Hunter, who really earns her best actress award here, squeezes every ounce of emotion out of her silence, skirting the line between film acting and Kabuki theater. Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill are occasionally lost in the dueling quality of underplaying and melodrama, but little Paquin really is the revitalizing centerpiece for the entire film.

The Piano shows its age on this new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. The image is quite grainy, and the grain is not often a consistent hue or thickness. The discolouration is a bit of a problem, creating Moiré effects I’m sure aren’t meant to be a part of the original image. When not suffering the effects of grain and Moiré effects, the colours are quite vibrant, evoking gorgeous blues and lush greens. Warm highlights don’t pop all that much, but are relatively pure. Detail levels are beyond SD levels (skin and clothing textures, complex backgrounds and patterns), but not overly impressive, and the stark contrast levels (blacks are quite pure and deep) create some sizable edge haloes and other sharpening effects. Overall this is pretty disappointing transfer. The Piano is old enough to have been released in Dolby Surround 2.0, and this disc preserves that track in the form of an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. I suppose a 5.1 remix would be fun, but the basic sound here is so expertly mixed it would be unfortunate to have anything misaligned. ‘There’s something to be said for silence’, says Sam Neill’s character Alistair Stewart, and that seems to be the prevailing aural theme. Within the silence (which does feature a hint of hiss at times) are oodles of sharp and realistic sound effects, many of which feature a convincing stereo spread, and plenty of back channel support (especially during rainy bits). Ironically enough, for a movie where piano music plays such a prevalent role, Michael Nyman’s score is pretty dopey, but it sounds plenty warm, even without the benefit of a discreet LFE channel. There appears to have been an error made in the authoring of this disc in that there are no subtitles for some of the sign language and Maori dialogue that I’m assured was present on the original release and DVD versions. Extras include only a trailer, and trailers for other Miramax/Lionsgate releases.


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