Once again, my weekly report on the new Blu-ray releases is being delivered a touch late. You can chalk this recent tardiness up to a tough batch of reviews and the fact that I’m on vacation. Yes, that’s right, I’m busting out reviews on my vacation. That’s how much I love you!
In addition to the selections I’ve highlighted for you, be sure to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the post for additional excellent titles like Spielberg’s Hook, Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the Blu-ray debut PBS favourite Brideshead Revisited.
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Blu-ray disc of the week: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925/1929)
- “Lon Chaney‘s magisterial performance as Erik, the disfigured “phantom” who lives in the catacombs and dungeons beneath the Paris Opera, has become an icon of modern culture. Twice remade and subsequently adapted into one of the most successful musicals in theatrical history, this 1925 super-production is a landmark of the silent era, often regarded as the first great horror film.
This Blu-Ray is newly-mastered from by far the best 35mm film material ever available for a video edition. It includes two complete high-definition transfers of the 1929 reissue, three specially-commissioned musical scores, a standard-definition presentation of the surprisingly different 1925 edit and many other extras. This is as stunning and faithful a rendering of the silent classic as has ever been seen.“
There’s just so much to say about the new Phantom of the Opera disc from Image. This is one of the Blu-ray discs I’ve been looking forward to most of all this year and on a lot of levels it doesn’t disappoint. It features three versions of the film – one in 1080p, running at 24fps, one in 1080i running at 20fps and a final version in standard def. Let me just start by saying that I’ve never seen the film looking sharper and more detailed than in the HD presentations on this disc. From that standpoint, these are outstanding transfers, the 1080p/24fps being slightly superior across the board. Honestly, I found the clarity to be stunning. But for all the wonder of these new presentations there are a host of issues to report.
Now, you have to understand here that the producer of the disc, David Shepard, has announced that there are problems with this initial pressing of the Blu-ray disc, so it’s tough to criticize the Blu-ray without taking that into account. The problem is that, aside from the announcement that a stereo score was mistakenly mastered in mono, we don’t know which issues will be addressed in Phantom’s second pressing. So, please take these criticisms lightly, as they might simply be errors on this pressing, which Shepard claims should be “rarer than an upside-down airmail stamp“, that the label intends to fix moving forward. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of my issues with what I’ve seen.
Yes, there’s a stereo score in mono. But it still sounds pretty solid, despite the lack of separation. It’s unfortunate but it’s not an issue that jumps out and grabs you. Problems with the image, on the other hand, are obvious, even to those with a less-than-discenring eye. The first thing I noticed is that the tinting of the image is a bit out of control. Not only does it often run too hot, contrast boosted to the point of eating into image detail, but it compromises the stability of the black bars that form the ‘pillar-boxes’ on the sides of the screen. That black should be pure. Black as pitch. But when the image is tinted – the deep red tinting being the most obvious – that black shifts in tone – in the case of the red tine, the black bars become black/red. It’s clear that the production facility applied the tint to the entire anamorphic image instead of just the 1.21 aspect ratio content. That’s just sloppy work. Other than that, the 24fps/1080p version looks like a million bucks. Great stuff.
The interlaced version, running at 1080i, doesn’t offer as much clarity though it’s apparently a transfer from the same 35 mm source. That’s all right. The real issue comes in the form of the strange way the film speed has been handled. According to Shepard, the production facility didn’t simply slow down the 24fps transfer but created it anew from the source at much greater cost. It’s curious then that frames often freeze on screen for a moment. It’s a jarring effect that happens too often to be a random glitch. If you ask me, this is a critical issue with this pressing that should be resolved. While we’re on the subject of timing, the Gaylord Carter score on the 24fps version of the film and the Gabriel Thibaudeau score on the 20fps seem to be out of synch. Maybe it’s just me but that also seems like something to be resolved. (UPDATE: Shepard reports that the timing of the scores are issues that are being resolved.)
My final gripe about this disc (sorry for the laundry list of issues – I just really want this one to be perfect and a lot of these problems just seem like issues of sloppiness that can be addressed) is the appalling menu. Navigating The Phantom of the Opera Blu-ray is like being transported back to the frustrating early days of DVD. The various versions of the film are presented on the menu screen, organized by score composer. That would be all right, I guess, if the initial selections didn’t omit the 1974 Gaylord Carter score and the commentary option. In order to reach those audio tracks one must click into the “parent” audio option – for instance to watch with the Carter score, you’ve got to click on the “Alloy Orchestra Score” option, which then opens a window offering to play the feature, a selection of bookmarked scenes and then finally, the option to turn the Carter score “On” or “Off”. And don’t get me started on the fact that there’s no mention of which score allows you to watch the HD version of the film, taken from the 1929 35 mm print and which is the very different 1925 version, presented here in standard definition from an old “Show at Home” 16 mm print. If you’re looking for that info, you better have the Blu-ray case handy. Aside from all that, it’s all just very clunky and difficult to move back and forth between items. Just terrible work.
With all of these issues plaguing this pressing of the disc, I’m sure you can’t help but wonder why it’s my Blu-ray Pick of the Week. Well, there’s a lot of reasons to pick The Phantom, really. First off, I just love this film. It’s one of the first Universal Monster films ever produced and The Phantom is now the very first one of those characters to debut on Blu. That’s reason enough for me. I guess my affection for it should be reason enough for you too? But there’s so much more to love here. Like I said, the 1080p/24fps transfer from 35 mm is a revelation in just about every way. It’s just incredible to see this classic looking so vivid in HD. The inclusion of so many wonderful scores is also a real treat (I have to admit being partial to Gabriel Thibaudeau’s work, after experiencing it live at the Fantasia Festival this past summer.) The special features on the disc put it over the top for me. Jon Mirsalis‘ commentary track is a definite highlight, packed with details about the production, various versions of the film and the state of the surviving print sources as well as an odd mention of a DVD version of Phantom from another publisher, which Mirsalis just happened to supply the score for. The Thibaudeau interview from 2004 is a brief but welcome addition to the disc, as is the gallery, program reproduction, script and trailer.
This is a must-buy for fans of the film and of the Universal Monsters. Whether you grab it up now (if you can find it) and keep an eye open for an exchange program or have patience and wait for the second pressing is the only issue at hand.
- All-new HD restoration of the film, with the Bal Masque sequence in two-strip Technicolor and other scenes hand tinted
- 1925 and 1929 versions
- New score by The Alloy Orchestra
- Gaylord Carter’s famous 1974 score released for the very first time in stereo
- Gabriel Thibaudeau’s 1990 score
- New audio commentary by Dr. Jon Mirsalis
- Gabriel Thibaudeau Interview
- Photo Gallery
- Phantom Script
- Phantom Souvenir Program Reproduction
- “High-spirited high jinks on Christmas Eve put Frank Cross (Bill Murray) in a ghostly time warp in this hilarious take-off of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Cross, who has made the meteoric rise from the depths of the mailroom to TV network president, is mean, nasty, uncaring, unforgiving and has a sadistic sense of humor – perfect qualities for a modern-day Scrooge. Before the night is over, he’ll be visited by a maniacal New York cab driver from the past, a present-day fairy who’s into pratfalls and, finally, a ghoulish seven-foot-headless messenger from the future.“
If you don’t love Scrooged, we can’t be friends. Seriously, this is one of those Christmas movies that’s on my must-watch list every year. It might be a predictable take on Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol but the casting and the comedy spice things up enough to make it timeless. Bill Murray is brilliant in the lead role, in one of his finer comedic performances of the ’80s (and that’s saying something.) Carol Kane is every bit his equal, though her screen time as the looney, masochistic Ghost of Christmas Present is criminally limited. David Johansen‘s taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past is also a standout. And who can forget the decaying, walking ghost-corpse of John Forsythe – the Jacob Marley of the story – filled with holes and disgusting, dangling bits of flesh. Yeah, Scrooged is good, old-fashioned Holiday times!
I’m almost in disbelief at how solid Scrooged looks in its Blu-ray debut. This is probably the finest work I’ve seen on a catalogue transfer from Paramount to date. Can we expect this level of work on all forthcoming catalogue titles from the studio? One can only hope. There’s detail a plenty, colours are rock solid and the whole thing looks far more film-like than I was expecting. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also a winner, sporting surprisingly active surrounds and thunderous bass, while maintaining clean, clear dialogue and a dynamic representation of this early, yet iconic Danny Elfman score.
The only crime of which to speak on this exceptional release is the lack of supplemental material. I mean, I’ll take a good transfer over a commentary track any day, but it stinks to not have director Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon) chime in on the film in any capacity here. It’s really a missed opportunity. The only extra to be found on the disc is the original theatrical trailer.
- “From the creators of “Cars”, “Up” and “Toy Story 3” comes a new Pixar classic for the entire family. Star racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the incomparable tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) take their friendship to exciting new places when they head overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car. But the road to the championship is filled with plenty of potholes, detours, and hilarious surprises when Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage! Experience all the fast-paced fun with an “all-car” cast – plus enjoy the hilarious, never-before-seen short film “Air Mater.” It’s pedal-to-the-metal excitement from start to finish.“
I haven’t seen Cars 2 but honestly, how bad can it be? Really bad, if critical reviews and my friends are to be believed. But hey, kids seem to dig it, so what do we adults know? As this is another digital-to-digital transfer from Pixar and Disney, the Blu-ray disc should be demo quality. I have no reservations in recommending the disc, sight unseen, on the basis of its technical merits. But I’m not going to speak for the film itself, in this case.
Also available: CARS DIRECTOR’S EDITION
- “From the director of The Joy Luck Club, and based on the best-selling novel, comes a timeless portrait of female friendship. Centuries ago, two “sworn sisters” are isolated by their families, but stay connected through a secret language written in the folds of a white silk fan. Now in modern-day Shanghai, their descendents must draw inspiration from the past as they struggle to maintain their own eternal bond in the face of life’s complications. “
I had the opportunity to watch a DVD screener of Wayne Wang‘s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It’s a film I can appreciate but didn’t necessarily enjoy. I’ve always felt Wang had a truly great film in him but I’ve yet to connect with any of his work. In particular, I had high hopes for his collaborations with writer Paul Auster back in the ’90s, but again, there’s just something in the way he puts a film together that keeps me at arms length. The same can be said for his latest, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
It’s a gorgeous, often sumptuous film that ping-pongs between the early 19th century, the ’90s and the present day, telling parallel stories of a pair of women bound to each other through myriad hardships. I feel like the work leaves me cold as a result of Wang’s camera not lingering long enough in the right spaces and the performers moving between an uptight, classical style that limits them and a contemporary style where they could flourish, if they weren’t saddled with a language they’re not entirely comfortable with (the English dialogue between the two friends in modern day Shanghai is often too cardboard to elicit any pathos.) I was really pulling for this film, hoping it would deliver but it, sadly, falls short of the mark.
As I said above, I screened a DVD of the film, provided by Fox, so I’m not able to comment on the quality of the Blu-ray disc itself. I’ll update the post when I get a look at it.
- “George Bailey has so many problems he is thinking about ending it all – and it’s Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he ends up rescuing his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all of his good deeds over the years. Will Clarence be able to convince George to return to his family and forget suicide.“
DId you pick up Paramount‘s It’s a Wonderful Life 2-disc Blu-ray set a couple of years back? If so, you’ve already got the disc content of this gift pack. If not, this might just be the set for you if you can grab it up at a good price. This is, without question, the finest presentation this classic holiday film has ever seen. And now it’s available in a double-disc set in a bulkier package with a collectable ornament inside.
Disc one is the original black and white version of the film while disc two is the garish colorized abomination that I refuse to ever, ever watch. The transfer of the original version is more attractive and film-accurate than ever before on home video (well, if you don’t count the previous identical Blu-ray release) but is far from perfect. There’s been a fair amount of digital tampering here but not of the variety that most will notice or be bothered with. Those with a keen eye for film-like HD transfers will notice the telltale signs of DNR, with waxy complexions and shifty grain. But like I said, there isn’t a better looking version of the film on the market. The lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is fine but should be presented in a more robust lossless track at this point in the life of the format. Not swapping this compressed track out for a newer lossless one is a real missed opportunity on this re-release.
There aren’t a ton of bonus goodies here but “The Making of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘” 20-minute featurette, a made-for-tv tribute from 1990 hosted by Tom Bosley is better than nothing. You can also consider the colorized version an extra, if you like, as it’s not the ideal presentation of the feature. There’s also a trailer and an included 8-page commemorative booklet that doesn’t fit into the Blu-ray case.
Only in Canada: BEGINNERS
- “Golden Globe® nominee* Ewan McGregor (Star Wars I, II, III ), Academy Award® nominee† Christopher Plummer (Inside Man), and Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) star in Beginners, an uplifting comedy about how funny and transformative life can be. When graphic designer Oliver (McGregor) meets free-spirited Anna (Laurent) shortly after his father (Plummer) has passed away, Oliver realizes just how much of a beginner he is when it comes to long-lasting romantic love. Memories of his father, who, following the death of his wife of 45 years, came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life, encourage Oliver to open himself up to the potential of a true relationship. Inspired by writer/director Mike Mills’ own father, it’s an original love story that critics cheer is “smart, poignant and often hilarious!” (Karen Durbin, Elle)“
Mike Mills’ Beginners is a watch-twice film for me. It’s one of the special ones. It’s one of the movies that has a number of elements at play during its runtime, some of which rub me the wrong way until it wraps up and I get a better feeling for how the whole thing fits together. It’s at that point that my feeling about the whole endeavour shifts and I just want to watch the film over again, to fully appreciate it. Mills work is pitch perfect here, inspired by his own life filtered through the inspiration of the films of Jørgen Leth and Errol Morris, NPR’s This American Life and author Milan Kundera, among others. I initially found the collage sequences in the film to be pretentious and unnecessarily prosaic in nature but by the end of the film, I had warmed to them and the art of the overall work. Performances are out of this world, as is to be expected with thespians the likes of McGregor, Plummer and Laurent (though I might add that McGregor’s American accent is, at times, quite forced and somewhat distracting.) Kasper Tuxen‘s cinematography is beyond reproach, looking fantastic in every frame, shot on the RED camera.
Speaking of fantastic visuals, Beginners looks amazing on Blu-ray. I can honestly say, I was taken aback by the crystal clear digital transfer. Detail is out of this world, colour is rock solid and blacks are deep. Fantastic! The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also just about pitch perfect, though there’s not a lot of need for the kind of dynamism you’ll find on the big Hollywood action films.
I reviewed the Canadian version of Beginners from Alliance which appears to mimic the US version from Unniversal in every way, right down the studio’s signature menu system and logos. The only difference is in the pre-menu branding and the Alliance logo on the package. Extras on both discs include a 15-minute making-of featurette, an illustrated/animated promo which runs around a minute in length and a brilliant, very informative director’s commentary track that’s definitely worth a listen.
The US edition of the Blu-ray disc will be released on November 15th.
ALSO AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY THIS WEEK
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