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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Legacy

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Now that DVD has proven its profitability to the studios, we've seen a huge increase in the number of double, triple and in some extreme cases, quadruple dips of titles. This is a mixed blessing at best. Often these upgrades are barely worth the effort it takes to come up with new cover art. Even when the titles in question are given a truly impressive make-over (and Warner Bros. has been leading the pack in this regard), it can be a good news-bad news situation. If you've been patient and didn't fall for the bare-bones release the first time around, it's great. If you weren't, you can end up with a shelf full of multiple copies of the same movie.

Warner's success with their often superlative line of two-disc special editions is most likely the reason Universal has inaugurated their Legacy Series. Upgrading the crown jewels of their catalog into handsome two-disc packages, Universal's choice of films to kick off the line can't be faulted. Multiple awards and kudos have been heaped on each of them, from Oscars to places high up on virtually all of AFI's "100 Years" lists. I got my hands on two of them (the third release, 1973's Oscar-winning The Sting did not make an appearance at Bottom Shelf Central). Both are beautifully packaged but appearances can be deceiving. One is a top-notch example of how to upgrade a DVD, superior in almost every way to the original. The other suggests that Universal still has some kinks that need ironing out. Let's start with the good news, eh?


To Kill a Mockingbird: Legacy Series

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

To Kill a Mockingbird: Legacy Series
1962 (2005) - Universal

Like a lot of people my age, the first time I saw To Kill a Mockingbird was not by choice. It was a high school English class that introduced me to both Harper Lee's novel and the beloved movie adaptation. I liked that class a lot. I was introduced to a number of great books that I might not have discovered on my own that year. Thanks, Mrs. Russell.

However, not everybody had to read or watch To Kill a Mockingbird in school, although they probably should. Harper Lee's book is a masterpiece, rightly considered one of the best books of the 20th century. And while watching Robert Mulligan's film is no substitute for reading the novel, it must be said that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the finest adaptations of literature ever captured on film. It retains the elusive flavor of the book while standing on its own merits as a great movie.

Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a widowed small-town Southern lawyer assigned to defend a black man (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white woman. Peck's performance became the defining role of his career and I imagine any actor would kill to be so closely identified with a part like this. Peck radiates nobility, intelligence and compassion and certainly no other actor could have filled this role so well. But the fact that we, the audience, see him as such a hero is due in large part to the filmmakers making us view the story through the eyes of Atticus' children, Scout and Jem (two outstanding performances by child actors Mary Badham and Phillip Alford).


We see Atticus the way they see him and the film is remarkably consistent at keeping that point of view throughout. Major credit for that must go to Horton Foote's screenplay, as well as Elmer Bernstein's hauntingly beautiful music. Director Robert Mulligan brings together all of these contributions from experts working at the top of their game and makes To Kill a Mockingbird into a film that feels remarkably organic and whole. Most movies, even the best of them, feel assembled. To Kill a Mockingbird feels as if it was grown, from the ground up.

For its Legacy Series release, Universal has pulled out all the stops. The movie looks as beautiful as I've ever seen it, providing an excellent showcase for Russell Harlan's black-and-white cinematography and Henry Bumstead's detailed production design. The audio is offered in everything from its original Mono to a 5.1 DTS track. It sounds great, although obviously this leisurely, dialogue-oriented movie isn't going to be a real surround sound showcase. The package itself is a handsome, book-like affair that folds out to reveal an envelope tucked away, containing 11 postcard-sized reproductions of the film's posters from around the world.

The extras turn this into a special edition that's actually special, impressive considering that the first release of Mockingbird wasn't bad. The extras from that release have been ported over, including the trailer and production notes. The best of these original extras is Fearful Symmetry, an outstanding 90-minute documentary on the making of the film, shot in black-and-white and unfolding at its own genteel pace. Also from the first release is an audio commentary by director Mulligan and the late Alan J. Pakula, the film's producer. It's an informative, though hardly lively track.

The first disc also throws in a number of new bonuses. Peck's Best Actor acceptance speech from the 1962 Academy Awards is included in its entirety, as is his speech to the AFI upon receiving their Life Achievement Award. The excerpt from the Academy Tribute to Gregory Peck shows daughter Cecilia Peck's fond remarks from that event. Finally, Scout Remembers is a 12-minute interview with Mary Badham taken from a 1999 episode of Dateline NBC. Sometimes corporate synergy has its advantages.

The best extra on this set is disc two's 97-minute film A Conversation with Gregory Peck. Co-produced by Cecilia Peck and directed by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple, Conversation offers an intimate and moving look at Peck, both at home and on the road with his one-man Q&A lecture show. This is a great documentary and should be mandatory viewing for all celebrities. Here's Gregory Peck, a much bigger star than anybody today can ever hope to be, talking with fans and admirers backstage and on the street, listening to their stories and appreciating them as much as they appreciate him. A Conversation with Gregory Peck is a lovely documentary and its inclusion immediately makes this disc a must for any Peck fan.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a true American classic, both on the page and on screen, and both the book and the film should be in your library. Universal's Legacy Series DVD is the definitive release of the movie, providing a top-notch presentation of the film and some of the finest bonus material you'll find on any DVD. This is an upgrade done right.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A+



The Deer Hunter: Legacy Series

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

The Deer Hunter: Legacy Series
1978 (2005) - Universal

It's taken me a long time to be able to appreciate Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter. When I first saw it, it suffered from being one of those films whose praise arrived far in advance of the movie itself. You know the type. You're having a conversation with a group of people. Talk turns to movies and somebody brings up a title you haven't seen. You admit this fact and suddenly, jaws drop and eyes bulge. "You haven't seen it?!?! Ohmigod, it's only the best movie ever!" Next thing you know, your friends are pulling in strangers from off the street to share in their disbelief and to prove that yes, you are the only person on the face of the planet who has not seen this movie. If and when you do finally get around to seeing it, it's rare for any movie to live up to this kind of advance praise.

Anyway, the first time I saw The Deer Hunter, it in fact did not live up to its praise. Maybe it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. Or maybe, and I think this is probably true, I was just too young to get it. Not that I was six years old or something at the time, I was probably around 20 or 21. And rewatching it now, I found the movie made more sense to me than it did back then.


The movie revolves around a group of friends in a small Pennsylvania steel-mining town. It opens just as three of them (Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken) are about to ship out to Vietnam. Savage gets married before they go and the others (including three who are staying home) go out deer hunting one last time. The Vietnam experience is profoundly life-changing for all three and only De Niro returns home physically intact. He tries to return to his old blue-collar life but finds it almost impossible. Nothing is the same.

When I first watched this over three-hour film, I thought it was almost unbearably long. I enjoyed elements of it but it takes over an hour before they're even in Vietnam. At times I thought that wedding sequence was playing out in real time. I still think The Deer Hunter is probably a bit too long but I appreciate it more. Now that I've seen movies like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Deer Hunter makes sense as a blue-collar American epic, giving these ordinary men the same scope and grandeur ordinarily reserved for larger than life figures like T.E. Lawrence. It's a bold and often moving film, with brilliant performances across the board. Walken deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here and co-stars De Niro and Meryl Streep were each nominated.

I'm still not convinced that The Deer Hunter is the best film about the Vietnam war, which I've heard many times. Granted, I wasn't there so I really have no way of knowing, but the war sequences, while gripping and intense, don't ring entirely true to me. They work better as metaphors for the horrors of war than as actual documentation of specific events. Anyway, I don't think those scenes are necessarily what The Deer Hunter is about. It's the material at home that matters in this film and those scenes are often brilliant.

Another reason I may not have enjoyed The Deer Hunter much the first time around was the lousy pan & scan VHS tape I had to watch. One thing Universal's new release does right is to provide a beautifully remastered version of the film in its proper aspect ratio. Now that I've seen it correctly, I'm appalled that it was ever presented in any other way. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is truly stunning and the DVD does a great job with it. Also very good is the audio track in Dolby 5.1 Surround. But on the special features, Universal drops the ball big time.

Disc one includes an audio commentary by Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher. In their defense, it's extremely difficult to maintain a commentary for a film this long and kudos to them for giving it the old college try. But odds are your interest in this will fade before the film even gets to Vietnam. It's intermittently interesting but it's littered with far too many gaps and moments with Fisher asking questions like, "What's going on here?" Even worse is disc two, with so little going for it you'll be annoyed that you had to spend the extra money for the second disc. The 17 minutes of "Deleted and Extended Scenes" are a cheat. These are actually just raw, unused alternate takes and while it can be interesting to see De Niro and Walken at work, Universal really should have called these by their proper name. The only other extras are the original trailer and some production notes. No documentaries. No interviews. No participation by Cimino or De Niro or Walken or anybody else. Now if you've got a region-free DVD player, you can get a two-disc special edition that includes some of that. Overseas distribution rights to The Deer Hunter are handled by guess who? Surprise! Warner Bros.! Oh, what a lovely world this would be if the studios could cooperate and pool their resources from time to time.

The Deer Hunter is a moving, adult drama that deserves the royal treatment on DVD. Unfortunately, Universal's Legacy Series edition ain't it. It's a marked technical improvement over their last release, no doubt about it. And Universal's original release had absolutely no extras, so if you're of the belief that something is better than nothing, then yes, this is an improvement in that area too. But if you believe that something worth doing is worth doing right, you'll be plenty disappointed by this release.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/D+



Shelf Space - The African Queen / The Jazz Singer

Since both of these movies have been honored (and re-honored) by the American Film Institute, I thought I'd do the obvious thing and demand that the remaining two movies from AFI's original Top 100 Films list be released. Neither of these movies is controlled by Universal, which may be a good thing all things considered, but they fit thematically with the rest of the column. I absolutely cannot believe that John Huston's African Queen hasn't been released yet. I adore this movie, as do most people who see it. It's one of Humphrey Bogart's finest performances in a career checkered with unforgettable highlights. The same can be said for Katharine Hepburn. Together they make one of cinema's most enduring odd couples, a template for movie match-ups for decades. Last time I checked, Fox owned the rights to this one but at this rate, it'll fall into public domain before it gets out on DVD. Well, maybe not, but it has taken an absurdly long time.

As for The Jazz Singer, this really isn't a great movie and even the most die-hard film snob would probably admit that it's not really that entertaining to watch. But if you're interested in film history, there aren't many movies more historically and culturally important than this one. A restored special edition would put this 1927 curio into its proper historic context, going into the technical details of how sound was introduced to film, the amazing popularity of both the film and Al Jolson, and so on. Seriously, folks, if Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer rates a special edition DVD, surely Jolson's Jazz Singer deserves one, too.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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