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High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

What I've Looked At Recently (Continued)

Film Chest via Virgil Films has added several titles to its HD Cinema Classics line of public domain titles. I've taken a look at The Terror, a 1963 Roger Corman film that stars Boris Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson.

The Terror (Blu-ray Disc)

The film was somewhat of a knock-off, filmed quickly for AIP at the time of and taking advantage of the sets of more ambitious efforts such as The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. Nicholson plays a Napoleonic Army soldier who after awakening on a beach finds himself a pawn between a strange but beautiful woman who may or may not be alive and an aging baron (Karloff) who presides over a towering, gothic castle. Directed by committee (including Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Monte Hellman among others), the film makes little sense at times, but one watches to revel in the atmosphere created and of course, Karloff's presence. Those aspects are sufficient in themselves to enable one to enjoy the experience. And at 79 minutes, it certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. The film has never looked particularly good on its various home video incarnations, but this new 1.78:1 Blu-ray presentation from Film Chest isn't bad at all. Yes there is certainly clear evidence of DNR application in the smoothed facial features, but the clean-up efforts on blemishes and scratches is very welcome. Colours are quite nicely saturated and look accurate except for a pinkish tinge to skin tones at times. Image sharpness is variable. There's no lossless audio; instead we get a repurposed 5.1 Dolby Digital track that delivers a reasonably robust sonic experience that has little surround component. The track remains rather noisy with hiss, pops and crackle clearly evident at times. An English 2.0 track and Spanish subtitles are also included. Supplements include a before-and-after restoration demo, the theatrical trailer, a DVD copy of the film on a separate disc, and the inclusion of an original movie art postcard in the Blu-ray case. For those who like the film, this is the version to have. Others new to it should try a rental first.

I come late to The King's Speech, having somehow managed to miss seeing it when it initially was in the theatres. Its receipt of the Best Picture Academy Award and all the on-line punditry about its relative merits leading up to that award vis-a-vis such titles as The Social Network was an amusing spectacle to follow in the early part of this year.

The King's Speech (Canadian Blu-ray Disc)The King's Speech (U.S. Blu-ray Disc)

Of course everyone has his or her own opinion, and being a reflection of personal preferences and points of view, those opinions are equally valid. Here's mine - The King's Speech Best Picture Oscar was richly deserved as were the additional ones its cast and crew received. I've always said that one of the most difficult things to accomplish on a contemporary film is an evocation of the 1930s and 40s in colour. It's an era we're so used to seeing in B&W whether in a film made in those decades or on documentary footage of those times, that colour representation of it can look unreal particularly if proper attention is not paid to era-appropriate make-up techniques, hair-styles, costuming and physical props, and the way in which people held their bodies. That The King's Speech avoids those pitfalls is one of its chief merits. Its other merits are obvious to anyone who knows what to look for in a film - a fresh story with a strong narrative, a subject of importance, and a cast that delivers both individual excellence as well as creating an air of unity that lends credence to the whole effort. The film exudes warmth and humanity while revealing an inspiring episode little known within the broad canvas of events connected with World War II. That episode of course is the stuttering difficulty that dogged the Duke of York/future King George VI for much of his life. Through the help of an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, he was able to overcome the difficulty enough to allow him to be a voice of calm as the British monarch during World War II. Both individuals are played with excellence by Colin Firth (Best Actor Oscar winner) and Geoffrey Rush (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee) respectively, but Firth's immersion in the personage of King George VI and the tortuous effect of the speech impediment on his daily life and royal responsibilities has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Helena Bonham Carter (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee) provides a superb evocation of George's wife Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) and the rest of the cast is well chosen and equally effective, including Guy Pearse as the abdicating King Edward VII, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, and Michael Gambon as King George V. Orchestrating the whole affair with obvious enthusiasm and attention to detail is well-deserved Best Director Oscar winner Tom Hooper (who also gave us 2009's impressive The Damned United). A film doesn't have to have a contemporary story to be relevant to a contemporary audience. Relevance comes from heart, inspiration, and intelligence, and The King's Speech has all that in spades. The film was a British production distributed theatrically by The Weinstein Company and released by Anchor Bay on Blu-ray in Region 1. Distribution of the Blu-ray in Canada is through Alliance Films. The 1.78:1 image captures the film's look accurately. Don't expect some ersatz Discovery Channel pop and you won't disappointed. The image has modulated colour and excellent detail with the result beautifully conveying the times. Interiors and exteriors are equally well handled. Mild grain is evident and there's no indication of untoward digital manipulation. The dialogue-driven film is well served by its 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track. Dialogue is crisp and strong, well-centred with occasional directionality. Surround usage is subtle but effective in drawing one into the environment. One example that's particularly notable is the reverberation of the microphone around Wembley Stadium as the Duke of York attempts to address the crowd. A French 5.1 Dolby Digital track and English, French, and Spanish subtitling are provided. The disc's supplements are highlighted by a superb audio commentary by Tom Hooper. He conveys enthusiasm and a deep well of information that has no slow spots and entertains and informs throughout. There's also a 28-minute making-of featurette that feels a little EPK-like, a good Q&A with cast and crew, a short interview with Lionel Logue's grandson, and pre- and post-war speeches by the real King George VI. Absolutely recommended!

Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer's Night (1955) has been described as a tragic comedy and that's a pretty fair way to categorize it.

Smiles of a Summer’s Night (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

It's certainly not funny in a ha-ha kind of way, although it does invoke the odd chuckle or two at least in the early going. Four women in turn-of-the-century Sweden finds themselves at a country estate intent on clarifying their love lives with four men who have varying degrees of interest in one or more of them. The relationships are sharply observed and the audience is initially kept entertained by various flirtatious propositions on both sides. The women are clearly in control while the men seem mere pawns, and pathetic ones at times. This type of film was a departure for Bergman from his more heavy-handed dramas, and one that seemed to stem from events in Bergman's personal life. But even with a comedy, Bergman cannot get away entirely from the idea of the humiliation of men, a not-infrequent motif in his work. Here at least he tempers it somewhat with a little well-placed humiliation of women too. Despite the efforts to open things up with exteriors of the country estate, the film retains an air of theatricality throughout. That air is reinforced by the aspects of farce, comedy of manners, and even a little slapstick that continually make themselves felt. The peripatetic combination of different comic styles mixed with drama makes for a film that's ambitious but ultimately of uncertain intent. At the very least, though, one can appreciate the work of Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, and Margit Carlkvist on the female side and Gunnar Bjornstrand and Jarl Kulle on the male side. Criterion's full frame Blu-ray transfer is derived from a new 35mm print struck from the original camera negative and makes the film look better than I've ever seen it in a theatre or on home video. Blacks are deep and contrast is excellent. Details of facial expressions, clothing, and interior locations are impressive. Grain is well-modulated throughout and the gray scale apparent is nicely graduated, yielding a very film-like look. The Swedish LPCM mono track is in good shape. Dialogue is clear throughout, reflecting the considerable clean-up of hiss, pops, and hum that was undertaken. English subtitles are provided. The Blu-ray ports over the previous Criterion DVD supplements: a video introduction by Bergman, a video conversation between Bergman scholar Peter Cowie and writer Jorn Donner on Bergman's career with specific reference to Smiles of a Summer Night, and the theatrical trailer. There's also a good booklet containing essays and reviews. Highly recommended for those who know the film. For those new to Bergman, I'd rent this one first before making a purchase decision.

Finally, I offer a definite thumbs up on each of three catalogue titles that all should be quite well known to film enthusiasts.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Blu-ray Disc)Fiddler on the Roof (Blu-ray Disc)Taxi Driver (Blu-ray Disc)

Steven Spielberg's impressively thought-provoking and at times disturbing A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a joint Dreamworks/Warner Bros. 2001 theatrical release, has received a very fine Blu-ray release via Paramount that is a giant step forward beyond the mediocre DVD version. The 1.85:1 transfer is film-like, capturing the theatrical look accurately with no hint of digital tampering. The film offers a good sonic challenge - one that's ably met in all respects by the 6.1 DTS-HD Master audio track. The previous DVD supplements are all ported over. Fiddler on the Roof (1971), one of Norman Jewison's many masterpieces, has certainly received its share of attention on DVD with at least three incarnations. The first Blu-ray release is cause for great joy for the 2.35:1 image hits all the marks in terms of great colour saturation, impressive image detail, appropriate grain levels, and a dearth of digital manipulation. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master audio gives great presence and warmth to the musical numbers. The bulk of the supplements on the most recent DVD version have been carried over to the Blu-ray, but inexplicably a couple of minor featurettes and various galleries didn't make it. Finally, regular readers of the Bits will have already seen Tim Salmons' recent in-depth review of Sony's Blu-ray restoration of Taxi Driver. He found it to be superb in all respects and I concur heartily. All three of these releases are highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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