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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Howards End

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Howards End
1992 (2009) - Merchant Ivory (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 3rd, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A

During the 1986-1993 period, Merchant Ivory produced its three most well-known films - A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day. All are absorbing period pieces with A Room with a View being the most intimate and The Remains of the Day the most accessible and successful from a box office point of view. Howards End is, however, the most fully-rounded and impressive of the three.

It chronicles the intersection of the worlds of the Schlegels (a family of three siblings who are all cultured people immersed in the London intellectual scene) and the Wilcoxes (a family of the aristocracy with business interests in London and property in the country including the romantic home called Howards End). When Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) loses his wife (Vanessa Redgrave) to illness, he falls in love with Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) who had befriended his wife while the couple was in London at the time of their son's marriage. The happiness of the Henry/Margaret union is complicated by former insurance clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West) whom Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) had tried to help, based on a business tip from Henry Wilcox. When Henry's advice proved to be inaccurate, Bast becomes destitute and Helen's efforts to help him and his wife lead to a heightening conflict with her sister and new in-laws.

Set in the very early part of the 20th century, the film is more than an absorbing story set against a faithfully recreated urban and rural England. It effectively mirrors the changing world that was Edwardian England at that time - the gradual loosening of the power of the aristocracy, the rise of the lower classes, the beginnings of the transfer of property from the old moneyed set, and the increasing role of mechanization. The film's depiction of the period is persuasive in its ability to make it not just look right, but feel authentic. The characters have the air of real people living in a real world rather than actors performing on an artificial set. Part of this is due to the superb production design by Luciana Arrighi who justifiably won an Academy Award for her work. Credit is also due to the work of the impressive cast who uniformly breathe life into E.M. Forster's myriad characters. Emma Thompson's work as Margaret centres the film's array of impressive acting performances, just as the character itself is at the core of the whole story. Thompson's Oscar-winning performance is one that builds in intensity and warmth just as the character itself gradually reveals its inner strength and fortitude. The supporting work by Hopkins, Carter, and particularly Redgrave is all superior. For Anthony Hopkins, the impressive characterization of Henry Wilcox was just one of many such in the 1990s, the actor's most impressive decade of work (Silence of the Lambs, Dracula, Shadowlands, Legends of the Fall, Nixon, The Edge, Meet Joe Black, The Mask of Zorro, and others).

Howards End is a film that draws attention to itself not through flashy action sequences or extensive use of CGI, but in the best way possible - by employing great story telling, well-crafted dialogue, nuanced acting performances, gorgeous cinematography, and sterling production values all marshaled by a director (James Ivory) who values substance over individual style. The film was never anything less than a major production, yet the budget was only $8 million. Major productions that could get away with spending such a low sum nowadays should be so lucky to be one-tenth the film Howards End is!

Criterion, which previously released Howards End on DVD four years ago via its Home Vision Entertainment subsidiary, has brought the film to Blu-ray with a 2.35:1 HD transfer supervised by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and approved by director James Ivory. The results are impressive. Colours are vibrant and true; blacks are deep; image sharpness and detail are very good. Scenes in London and in the English countryside are equally impressive. There is light natural film grain evident and no sign of edge effects. Age-related speckles, scratches and other debris have virtually all been excised. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is derived from the original 6-track magnetic soundtrack and delivers a rich and subtly enveloping experience. The score by Richard Robbins has never sounded more vibrant or immersive. Dialogue is always clear and is well balanced with the rest of the soundtrack.

The supplement package is basically the same very fine one that was on the 2005 DVD with the addition of a 13-minute HD featurette in which James Ivory reminisces about his now-deceased partner Ismail Merchant. The carry-over extras, now all in HD, include a 42-minute making-of documentary that includes in-depth interviews with Helena Bonham Carter and production designer Luciana Arrighi; a 50-minute 1984 documentary on the history of Merchant Ivory until then; a 9-minute featurette focusing on the production design; a short, vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; and the original theatrical trailer. There a new essay on the film by film critic Kenneth Turan, included on a booklet in the disc's case.

Criterion has done the superb film that is Howards End proud in its new Blu-ray edition. Very highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell

Wings of Desire

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Wings of Desire
1987 (2009) - Road Movies Filmproduktion/Argos Films (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 3rd, 2009
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: A

On a single first viewing of Wings of Desire, it is easy to understand how some viewers might be turned off by the film's ethereal nature. Others will be entranced immediately by what director Wim Wenders has accomplished, but many like myself I suspect only come to appreciate fully the film's magic with repeated viewings.

The film spends almost an hour and a half in the mode of observation to begin with, as it follows the movements of two angels through the city of Berlin. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are privy to the thoughts and sounds arising from the hopes and dreams, the successes and failures, and the profound and mundane activities of the city's inhabitants - something the angels have seemingly experienced for all eternity. They empathize; they caress; they silently encourage with sometimes positive and sometimes negative effect. Their attention is equally directed to the young and the old, the successful ones and the failures. But eventually Damiel realizes that he is missing something - the experience of what it's really like to be a flesh and blood human being. His desire is intensified by his observation of a young trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) with whom he eventually falls in love. The possibility of giving up his angelic life for human reality is quite possible, as exemplified by an actor (Peter Falk) who made the same decision many years before and offers positive guidance to Damiel. The film's last half hour documents Damiel's transition to flesh and blood (one paralleled by the film's switch from B&W to colour), and his search for and eventual union with Marion.

The film itself is an entrancing, even inspiring, experience that offers one of the finest observations on film of the human condition. Its compact main cast is uniformly excellent, particularly the close relationship between Damiel and Cassiel as espoused by Ganz and Sander's sympathetic performances. You really believe that if angels exist, they would indeed be beings like those that Ganz and Sander project. Solveig Dommartin's beauty and the wistful way in which she plays Marion are such that the inspiration she raises in Damiel is easy to understand. Peter Falk seems to be providing a form of comic relief at first that seems at odds with the rest of the film, but when you eventually become aware of the true fallen angel nature of his character, you realize how perfectly cast he is the role.

For director Wim Wenders, the film is an ode to Berlin and something he greatly wanted to make after spending more than half a decade in the United States. The process involved in structuring his poem as he did in the end is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Let's just say that seldom have actors had as little to work with from the beginning as they did here, and probably never has a writer (Peter Handke) trod such an unusual road to have his words brought to life. Contributing immeasurably to the film is the superb photography of the legendary Henri Alekan. His work on the film's black and white passages is mesmerizing, and if the colour sequences at the end aren't quite as entrancing, that seems appropriate for it's then that overly flowery exchanges between Damiel and Marion in the film's script let us down just somewhat.

Wings of Desire is presented on Blu-ray by Criterion with a 1.66:1 HD transfer created from a 35mm interpositive and 35mm internegative. The black and white sequences look superb with crisp images, exacting image detail, and a very impressive grey scale. Film grain is modest and realistic looking. The colour sequences are almost as impressive at least in terms of vibrancy and accuracy, but just don't suggest quite the punch that the black and white sequences do. There is no suggestion of edge effects and the image cleanliness is admirable. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has been newly created for this release, remastered and remixed from the original 35mm stereo stems under the supervision of the director. The result is a clear, clean sound that offers some modest front separation, but little surround experience. Jurgen Knieper's beguiling music is well conveyed.

The disc offers an impressive suite of supplements including a combination of audio commentary and edited interview featuring Wim Wenders and Peter Falk; a very revealing 43-minute making-of documentary; almost 40 minutes of deleted scenes (with Wenders commentary) and outtakes; a 27-minute featurette on the film's lighting with input from Wenders and Alekan); several shorter featurettes; several photo and stills galleries; and two trailers. Most of the documentaries and featurettes are presented in HD. A 30-page information booklet including a fine essay by film critic Michael Atkinson concludes the package.

Criterion's Blu-ray effort is a definitive release of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
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