Thursday, June 02, 2005

HBO's Empire Falls

The new HBO miniseries Empire Falls, with a stellar cast headed by Ed Harris, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Helen Hunt, is the first made-for-TV movie I've watched on my new HD cable box-cum-DVR. It's a two-parter (2 hrs./1:30) based on a quirky novel by Richard Russo, who also did the equally quirky screenplay.

As a quick Google around the web tells me, many armchair critics have found it boring, yet the IMDB listing rates it at a high 7.8 of 10, based on (currrently) 207 votes. I found the acting so good, the relationships revealed by the plot so subtle and intricate, and the visual quality so excellent that it decidedly held my interest, even though I don't usually go for such "serious" fare.

Paul Newman
in HBO's
Empire Falls
Besides, how often do you see Paul Newman look this disreputable? The crumbs in his beard show up nicely in hi-def, and you can almost tell how bad his character smells.

This production was apparently shot on film, like a movie, but designed especially for transfer to 1080i HDTV. It exactly fills a 16:9 screen with luscious color in most segments, while flashback sequences are intentionally washed out to a pastel look. There is little if any film grain apparent on my 61" 720p Samsung. Nor do any digital or compression artifacts mar the view. Certain images feature post-production special effects that are very "TV like," such as the red X'es that appear over an old photograph, crossing out Indians who succumbed to "various European diseases" during the town of Empire Falls's colonial era.

All in all, I would say Empire Falls is quite representative of the state of the art in made-for-HDTV film work — but what do I know, it's just about the first such effort I've viewed. It deserves a look by all who don't consider nuanced psychological relationships a yawn. HBO-HD will be repeating it often over the near-term time frame.

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