06 April 2012

Classic Blu-Ray Joy!

Classic Blu Ray Joy!
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve written previously on the fountain of youth and magical restorative powers of blu-ray for classic film.  Thanks to plenty of Christmas and birthday gifts, I have even more must see evidence!

Ben-Hur – I’ve spoken briefly on this spiritual essential before, but the massive 3 Disc Limited Edition 50th Anniversary set needs a conversation all its own-and then some.  Not only is the 1925 silent Ben-Hur also restored on blu-ray, but the 1959 1080p feature glory takes two blu-ray discs along with two commentaries and an isolated score. Sweet Jesus indeed the three documentaries are long, and there are more storyboards, vintage trailers and newsreels, screen tests, 1960 Oscar footage, and 2 books!  Of course, we can’t forget the rousing main attraction itself- Best Actor Charlton Heston’s embittered quest for revenge and his freeing encounter with Christ never looked so good.  I’ve seen this film- low balling it- at least fifty times, and I’m finding things I have never seen.  From the grand Overture’s first bars to the final chorale, it’s as if we’re watching a contemporary film made to look old.  Yes, there’s mid century over acting and melodramatic stylings that perhaps give it away, but 50th Anniversary my foot.  We believe this is real stonework, vintage armor, and truly a cast of thousands- for now you can count every single one of them hearing the Sermon on the Mount.  Such clarity and attention to detail- the patina on the golden plates, the stitching on Judah’s robes, sweat and dirt flinging from men and horse, oh heck even the eyebrows!  Already colorful and full of zest, the opening Nativity sequence is stunning, the galley scenes and naval battle epic- models and painted backdrops this cannot be!  CGI cannot recreate this kind of atmosphere. Do you believe I found myself tilting my head to the rocking of the Arrius’ ship?  The white stallions in Ilderim’s tent, the Roman mosaics, sets and locations- you just have to witness the chariot race for yourself because I’m running out of adjectives! Director William Wyler knew how to use the scope of his physical sets, and it finally shows as it was meant to be. The internal depth of scenery, perspective, performance, and inspiration is incredible- distant plants and Roman plumes blowing in the breeze, townsfolk in the far marketplace and the hills of Jerusalem beyond, the awesome healing power of God- this is how you make a film three-dimensional!  Avatar?  F*ck Avatar! You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Ben-Hur on blu-ray.  Jesus wept…and so did I.

Casablanca – The package design of this Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray is cumbersome, but the treats are so, so delightful.  Two discs worth of features, with introductions and commentaries from Lauren Bacall and Roger Ebert, deleted scenes, audio and score accompaniments, trailers, and television adaptations.  Not to mention four documentaries, cartoons, a photo book, reproduction poster cards, and Warner production notes, wow! Of course, this Best Picture winner is already spectacular as far as the spectacular of cinema spectacularness goes- and yet this digital renewal adds a new pinnacle. The onscreen locales are simple awesome; the smoke and arching walls of Rick’s CafĂ© create a physical illusion to represent the tense claustrophobia of the titular town and times.  Remember, this film was made during World War II with a lovely international supporting cast of expatriates and refugees, and the tragedy, danger, and heart of it all still comes across stunningly. Everyone looks so suave yet untouchable, too- white dinner jackets, uniforms of all flavors and every button, medal, and insignia upon them.  It’s so formal and yet reckless- the perfect shadows and lighting design say everything that can’t be said in this most amazing Oscar screenplay. You can practically feel every slick in the men’s hairs and wipe Peter Lorre’s sweat from his brow. It’s so easy to be swept up in the incredible music, too. The layered montages are clear and defined as well, but somehow hazy and hypnotic- as if we are going back to Paris, too. Seeing all these details anew…it’s just like watching a new film for the first time! Just to think, I haven’t even mentioned the performances yet. That sparkle from Ingrid Bergman’s earrings, the tears in her eyes, the fog as she and Bogie…well, I can’t give everything away to the two people on the planet who haven’t seen Casablanca!  What’s wrong with you two? “Play it!”

The Maltese Falcon – Also already reviewed at length previously, you would think I have nothing more to say- or that black and white doesn’t cater to the wonders of blu-ray.  But no.  The palette from director John Huston is crisp and truly silver, indeed. The depth of the monochrome breaks free from the colorless full screen frame with dimension and layers for every fabric and decoration onscreen.  The pinstripe in Humphrey Bogart’s suit, the pattern in Mary Astor’s fur stole- Bogie looks better than that Tales from the Crypt stunt!  The classic uses of shadow and light are increased ten fold, and I feel as though I can walk into this picture ala Pleasantville. Okay, the white subtitles are tough to see in some spots, but the sound is pitch clear to hear all the double-talk and melodrama.  And the features! There’s a ‘One Magnificent Bird’ half hour retrospective with author Dashiell Hammett experts and stars of today singing their praises, a 45 minute TCM collection of Bogart’s film trailers and dozens more vintage previews. Radio clips; commentaries; forties bloopers and outtakes with the likes of James Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart; test shots, and more. These rarities look sweet and are a real treat – and it’s all subtitled, too!  Thanks to this lifelike facelift and appreciation, it’s very easy to be caught up in the quintessential noir mystery all over again. This disc is a must for any classic film connoisseur.

The Ten Commandments – And you thought I talked too long on Ben-Hur! Another epic that needs to be recognized again and again- and usually is thanks to yearly network airings for Passover- this 2 disc blu-ray release is simply magical! Growing up, I think I was actually more partial to this 1956 Cecil B. DeMille magnum opus over any other Biblical epic. From the dirty Vincent Price with his silk hanky ready to wipe any offending grease and his wicked snake successor Edward G. Robinson to the dry and bitchy perfect Judith Anderson versus the snarky and wonderful Anne Baxter, top to bottom everyone in this awesome cast comes to play.  Beautiful Lily Munster- er Yvonne De Carlo, true flower Debra Paget, strong Henry Wilcoxon- I’ve shown my share of Heston love! Though I confess, I do prefer Yul Brynner’s voice and presence. I still speculate his 1956 Best Actor Oscar is really for his work here and in Anastasia in tandem with The King and I. And oh my, look at that oil lathered up on John Derek! Despite the 1956 over the top acting style, the script is profoundly solid with touching quotations and sentiments.  This is a vivid world of inspiration, love, jealousy, and deliverance.  It’s a perfectly personal and intimate drama amid an epic, ancient scale with one of the best booming, rousing, almost voluptuous scores ever to tidy it all up!  All these classics on blu-ray have very pleasing, easy to navigate menus and presentation, I must say; one more thing the modern jumbled and flashy discs should learn.  Although DeMille’s introduction would never fly today.  After all, he tells us how long we have, that there’s an intermission, and it’s all divinely inspired.  Any one of those would scare contemporary audiences!  Fortunately, the Oscar winning color cinematography and divine scale speak for themselves on blu-ray: inlaid stonework, Egyptian jewelry, what color and flamboyant hieroglyphics! That fire upon Mount Sinai, the glow of the Burning Bush, the plagues and that freaky green mist coming for the first-born. I can’t stop- the Exodus, Ramses’ chariot pursuit, and that parting of that so, so blue Red Sea.  The blues alone in this picture- every shade of the spectrum indeed for Edith Head’s costumes. Of course, dramatic liberties are taken, the sound is big and the voices are low, and framing lines on the matte paintings are visible. There’s a simplicity to the original editing as well, with the master track only cut for a reaction or spectacle shot. It might jar some today, but this style allows longer stage drama scenes to play. The Ten Commandments is not without flaws, no, but it’s a truly complete picture nonetheless.  Who knew that a little grain, sand, mud, and water could do so much for a viewer’s soul?  

Yes, the prices of these collector and special edition blu-ray sets only seem to be getting higher, and they are delicate indeed.  Quicker editions are cheaper, but often deny the viewer all the bells and whistles. However, for the classic enthusiast or film historian, the movie restoration and complimentary material are essential pieces in the celebration and preservation of vintage cinema. 

For more classic blu-ray evidence, here are a few more of our reviews (so far!):

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