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Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up 2

White Christmas

White Christmas was a Christmas tradition in the Powers household, though I rarely made it past the half way point before falling asleep with Christmas Eve anticipation exhaustion. Looking back on the film, it’s Danny Kaye’s performance that sells the film beyond the song and dance. Kaye is infectiously funny, and fills the film with life every time it threatens to fold back into its uncontrollable plot, that chugs along without any real thought. I hadn’t noticed over the years how inconsequential the story is, or how non sequitur so many of the songs are (‘Choreography’ being of special note, as its really a snotty indictment of modern dance that has nothing to do with Christmas or WWII). But those willing to float along with the goofiness of the whole thing are treated to some mesmerizing Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney songs (beyond that title piece), and Vera Ellen’s impossibly perfected dance steps. With that extra added punch that is Kaye’s comedic performance it’s a whole lot easier to forget that the film is practically an ad for Bing Crosby: Entertainer (it’s the third of a trilogy of movies where he sang the title track), and forgive the lack of story, convincing characters, and genuinely affecting pathos. It certainly isn’t the best musical of its era, but there’s no other Christmas themed musical that touches its colourful grandeur.

Last Christmas, I lamented the lack of a high definition release of White Christmas, since the film was the original Vista Vision release, a process made to compete with the other widescreen formats that comes in second only to the three-strip Technicolor process in terms of colour quality. The DVD special edition was wrought with edge-enhancement, blotchy grain, and worst of all, a misalignment of the blues. This misalignment caused all blues to float above the other hues. This 1080p transfer corrects these problems, and is the best representation of what the film is meant to look like. Colours are beautiful, details are sharp without halos, and grain is fine and manageable. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn’t particularly impressive, or different than the restored Mono track. Even the musical moments are particularly centric, exception some of the sung dialogue, which bleeds into the stereo channels. ‘Snow’ is a good example, where the music is still centred, while the vocal performances work stereophonically according to the actor placement. The extras include a commentary from Rosemary Clooney, taken from an older release, the informative ‘Backstage Stories from White Christmas’ (12:00), ‘Rosemary’s Old Kentucky Home’ (13:30), ‘Bing Crosby: Christmas Crooner’ (14:20), ‘Danny Kaye: Joy to the World’ (13:15), ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’ (7:30), ‘ White Christmas from Page to Stage’ (4:30), ‘ White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney’ (17:00), and two trailers.

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up 2

The Peacemaker

The Peacemaker is sort of the textbook example of a late ‘90s action thriller. Hollywood was slowly dragging themselves out of the Cold War inspired hole that was created, patented, and driven into the ground over a decade. There was no Matrix or Bourne Supremacy to change the rules, and Jon de Bont’s Speed was still considered the most exciting thing ever put to film. There are always exceptions to every rule, and in this case the minds behind Peacemaker appear to have taken some cues from the Jack Ryan films, and Martin Campbell’s first Bond reboot ( Goldeneye). But for the most part this film is extra weight for Nicole Kidman and the then very green George Clooney’s resumes. If you like clichés and capable filmmakers creating something that probably belongs on television, The Peacemaker is just the film for a lazy Saturday night space out. Director Mimi Leder ( Hill Street Blues, LA Law) shoots action scenes well, and exerts a great control over the steady-cam (working with cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann), but the whole film could use a good kick in the ass. Clooney effectively impersonates his future, more accomplished self, his chemistry with Kidman is next to nil, and the major villains are nearly impossible to tell apart from all the other angry East Europeans. The dialogue occasional sounds like it was written with an espionage movie Mad Lib, but the occasionally oomph of Leder’s slightly less pyrotechnic take on actual action (like a solid car chase in the middle), and Hanz Zimmer’s aggressive score make it worth the time though. I guess.

I haven’t seen The Peacemaker on digital media, so I have no real means of comparison, but this is more colourful and detailed than an unconverted DVD could manage. It’s a pretty modest showing all around, with moderately sharp and consistent details, and a couple lush jungle scenes to fill out the otherwise dull palette. Grain is prevalent but consistent, and fair considering the whole film is shot pretty softly and mostly in medium shots. The general lack of sharpness is clearly part of the intended look, but in wider shots leads to a bit of blotching, with background images sort of blending into one another. This Blu-ray debut comes fitted with a solid, but not exactly bombastic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Thanks to the presence of war machines and lots of excitable Hanz Zimmer music, the mix is rarely dead, but the stand out moments stand out a little more than they probably should. The early train scene features a brisk, burly mix of Zimmer’s thrusting score, multi-channel train effects, bassy pumping steam power, and even a few neat little tricks like the sounds of a hail of bullets disappearing into the sound of passing slats on the track. The extras are brief, including ‘Stunt Footage’ (2:00, SD), and ‘From the Cutting Room Floor’ (2:00, SD).

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up 2

Shrek Forever After

Shrek was a amusing spoof of fairy tale culture. Shrek 2 was an unnecessary cash grab, that occasionally eked out a laugh. Shrek 3 was a droning bore that was more concerned with high definition computer graphics than story or jokes. The odds were not good for the fourth, and seemingly final film in the series. Shrek Forever After (or Shrek: The Final Chapter, or Shrek 4ever After, whatever it’s called) is better than Shrek 3. It has a stronger story (Shrek is taken to his logical conclusion – he’s a bad person who misses being a bad person), and a stronger villain (who still doesn’t compare to John Lithgow), but the whole script, from jokes to morals is massively predictable. I respect the film’s dark side, am happier with the character animation (especially the human characters, who were so drab in the previous films), and have to admit the series went out on a higher note, but the characters feel almost anachronistic in this new world where DreamWorks Animation actually makes good and relevant movies like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. It’s not very funny, but I have to admit there’s something more behind this Shrek, and hope fans were happy with the last story. I also hope the title keeps its promise, and DreamWorks moves on to more original projects instead of endless sequels (looks at the release schedule)…oh, never mind.

Originally made for 3D, Shrek Forever After looks gorgeous on Blu-ray, featuring incredible, deep set details, mega-bright colours, and sharp contrast. The major details are the sharpest of all three films (this is the first time I’ve noticed Shrek’s facial hair), and includes more of those photo real background elements found on the Shrek 3 Blu-ray. Like Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After works just fine in 2D, and the vibrant, clean transfer makes for a rich visual experience. Though they’ve been opting for DTS-HD lately, DreamWorks continues the audio theme set by the other Shrek Blu-rays and opts for a Dolby TrueHD surround track. I wasn’t able to experience all 7.1 channels myself, but my 5.1 set-up was plenty busy with aggressive directional effects (which augment the depth of the image), a punchy LFE, and a rich, warm musical track. The character dialogue features an occasional inconsistency in volume, but it’s a very minor blemish. The Blu-ray exclusive extras include an extra dull video commentary with the animators, an interactive map of the film with original concept art, ‘A Conversation with the Cast’ (9:20, HD), and ‘The Tech of Shrek Forever After (7:30, HD). Other extras include ‘Spotlight on Shrek’ (13:50, HD), ‘Secrets of Shrek Forever After’ (4:00, HD), three deleted scenes with director intros (5:40, HD), ‘From Swamp to Stage: The Making of Shrek the Musical’ (8:10, HD), two music videos (HD), ‘Shrek’s Yule Log’ (30:20, HD), and ‘Donkey’s Caroling Christmas-Tacular’ (5:10, HD).

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up 2

Dinner for Schmucks

There were many reasons for me to be extremely apprehensive of Dinner for Schmucks. First, the concept is rife with the kind of awkward situation comedy I tend to hate. Then I discover it’s a remake of the French film Le Dîner de Cons (released as The Dinner Game in the US), and I’m always weary of American remakes of successful foreign flicks. The cast is impressive, but made up of comedic heavyweights that are known for ignoring taste in favour of money. But the real warning was the box art, which cried ‘From the Director of Meet the Parents’. It might as well say ‘From the Guy that Invented Flesh Eating Bacteria’, that’s how much I hated Meet the Parents. So here’s the surprise – Dinner For Schmucks actually manages to be a sizably more frustrating and obnoxious than even I was anticipating. What a terrible movie watching experience. The jokes miss ten times more than they hit, the plot is incredibly predictable, the characters are thinly drawn mock-ups of characters the cast members already played in better movies, and the film’s ultimate success hinges on the audience having an emotional investment in these pitiful people. The only positives I came away with were the strange joys of the little dead mouse dioramas (created by practical effects wizards and Killer Clowns from Outerspace directors the Chiodo Brothers), and the fact that Zach Galifianakis got himself another paycheck.

It sucks, but Dinner for Schmucks is a pretty good looking movie, at least in terms of low expectations. This 1080p transfer is very colourful, crisp, and clean. Lighting is soft without sacrificing contrast levels (the blacks are solid and rich). There isn’t a whole lot of deep background details thanks to stylistically shallow focus, but the foreground elements are sharp and effectively textured. The pastel pallet is warm, though not particularly vibrant. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t particularly impressive by anyone’s standards, but it gets the job done. The dialogue track features a few minor buzzes, but is otherwise clear, and features some decent surround effects during the goofy art installation sequences. Theodore Shapiro’s calipee inspired musical score is much more effectively than I’d like to admit, and undercuts the dialogue and action quite well on this track. Extras include ‘The Biggest Schmucks in the World’ (13:30, HD), ‘The Men Behind the Mouseterpieces’ (11:40, HD), ‘Meet the Winners’ (3:50, HD), ‘Schmuck Ups’ gag reel (8:20, HD), six deleted scenes, and ‘Paul and Steve: The Decision’ (3:50, HD).

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up 2

Case 39

Case 39 was really close to going in my ‘ignore’ pile, but the publicity people sent me a oven mitt in preparation for the release. I actually use the oven mitt. Clearly I owe it to them to spend 109 minutes of my life on their STV Blu-ray release. The A-List cast, including Renee Zellweger, Bradley Cooper, and personal favourite Ian McShane, certainly acts as a warning against watching the pretty much unreleased film (it was made in 2008), but German director Christian Alvart raises an eyebrow. Alvart directed Antibodies and Pandorum, both great looking, effectively dark (in tone and image) thrillers, with generally bland, derivative scripts. Case 39 fits this mould, but isn’t as visually interesting as Alvart’s previous features, and the plot is even more predictable than usual. I went into this particular experience about as blind as possible (clearly I knew an oven mitt would come into play at some point), and I still made mostly correct assumptions while watching it (and I’m really not all that bright). The bulk of the acting is strictly B-grade, even the A-List stars (child actor Jodelle Ferland pretty much carries the whole film), which is a bit of a surprise, as working with actors appeared to be one of Alvart’s stronger skills. The director manages to produce a few decent, Omen/ The Believers inspired horror scenes, but these are a lot more amusing than frightening. Overall Case 39 is a messy waste of time. Poor Ian McShane.

This 1080p transfer is not among the better I’ve seen. The image is somewhat smudgy looking, grain is not only prevalent, but occasionally overwhelming, and there’s a pretty big flickering issue. Some of this can be placed on the film’s style, which depends a lot on soft focus, but the blobby backgrounds and muted colours don’t strike me as the intended look. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t exactly a blast, but there are some effectively loud scare moments (don’t mess with alarm clocks in horror movies guys), and the bulk of the production sounds pretty natural. The majority of the noise comes from the center channel, but the other channels are occasionally busy with soft ambience, and even some well placed directional effects (usually cars moving from off screen). There are three standout surround moments, but these are among the movie’s only good moments, so I won’t spoil the specifics. Extras include ‘File Under ‘Evil’: Inside Case 39’ (8:00, SD), ‘Turning Up the Heat on the Chill Factor’ (4:20, SD), ‘Inside the Hornet’s Nest' (3:00, SD), ‘Playing with Fire’ (4:20, SD) and 18 deleted scenes, including an alternate ending (which is less bombastic, but generally better).

Paramount Blu-ray Wrap Up 2

True Grit (1969)

The original True Grit would be a good film, had it been made in the ‘40s or early ‘50s, but as a film released in 1969 it’s woefully old fashioned. I mean this in the worst possible sense. Hell, it could even have been released in the ‘80s or ‘90s as a throwback, but the year 1969 saw the release of two of the best and most important American revisionist westerns ever made – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch – not to mention it was made after Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and a host of other Italian filmmakers had already re-envisioned the genre in Europe, with films like The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Django and Once Upon a Time in the West (even Wayne himself had made two early revisionist Westerns with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers). In this, the silver age of all cinema, not just western cinema, True Grit stumbles through the genre like a dinosaur. It’s based on a great story (which is clearly the reason the Coen’s saw fit to remake it in 2010), the narrative moves well enough, and there are a few hearty laughs, so it’s not a pain to sit through, it just has no real significant place in history or Wayne’s filmography, besides the obvious Oscar win. Frankly, and I know I’ll probably offend someone with this (there is a comment section below), Wayne’s acting verges on terrible, like his best impression of himself, and his performance distracts from Kim Darby’s effective and low-key work. It’s pretty obvious finally seeing the film that the Best Actor Oscar was awarded to Wayne more as a career retrospective reward. The surprise appearances by future superstars like Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper (who had just drawn Hollywood’s attention to the silver age with Easy Rider).

This new Blu-ray presentation of True Grit is a hit and miss affair. It hits in terms of colour vibrancy, contrast levels, general cleanliness, and most details. It misses in terms of mid-to-wide shots, where details are smudged and edges feature halo effects. There are few obvious artefacts besides the haloes (which do appear in a lot of the close up shots as well, just in the form of a much finer line), and grain is small and sharp, though a bit inconsistent from scene to scene. At its best this 1080p transfer nearly matches Warner Bros. beautiful Wild Bunch Blu-ray, and at its worst it looks like an up-converted DVD. Overall this must be an upgrade on the DVD, and worth the double dip for fans. The remixed 5.1 soundtrack, presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio, is a bit of a waste, as the vast majority of the track is still quite centered, but I’m happy to report I didn’t notice any sound effects obviously added for this release (unlike the MGM 5.1 revamps of the Leone’s westerns). Elmer Bernstein’s score and gun shots give the stereo channels something to work with, but the surrounds and LFE rarely do much. The original mono track is included (in 2.0), and besides being a bit quieter, there isn’t much of a difference. The extras start with a commentary track featuring film and American West historians Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell and J. Stuart Rosebrook, who don’t really have that much to say between them, but occasionally score with a really cool factoid. Other extras include ‘True Writing’ (4:20, SD), ‘Working with the Duke’ (10:10, SD), ‘Aspen Gold: The Locations of True Grit’ (10:10, SD), ‘The Law and the Lawless’ (5:40, SD), and the original trailer.