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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

The Best of 2006, New Reviews, and New Announcements

It's a pleasure to welcome readers to this third High Definition Classics column and the first of 2007. As those who looked in on the first two columns will know, I have to date concentrated on HD-DVD releases, but I'm pleased to let you all know that I will be expanding my HD coverage to include Blu-ray releases this year. The emphasis will continue to be on classic titles although they're a little sparse on the ground for the early part of 2007. Fortunately as far as this edition of the column is concerned, I have a few left over from 2006 with which to deal. They include Casablanca, Forbidden Planet, and Mutiny on the Bounty from Warner Bros. and Spartacus from Universal. As far as the "Beyond" part of the column is concerned, coverage this time out includes Black Rain and World Trade Center from Paramount; and Casino, Field of Dreams, The Interpreter, and King Kong from Universal. Bookending the review sections are some brief comments on the best of 2006 and the latest new classic HD announcements.

Best of 2006

It was pretty easy to list the top classic HD-DVD discs for 2006 since there were less than ten classic releases in total. I've restricted myself to a top five list, but as with my standard definition lists, have restrained myself from trying to pick a number one (although you wouldn't go far wrong giving the honour to either of the first two).

Top Five Classic HD-DVD Discs of 2006

The Adventures of Robin Hood
Forbidden Planet
Grand Prix
The Searchers

I haven't had time to look at nearly enough of all the non-classic HD-DVD releases to be able to come up with a best-of-2006 list of them, but I feel comfortable in mentioning a number of such releases that you won't go wrong on, either from a film content point of view or HD audiovisual experience. Such titles would include Apollo 13, Batman Begins, Casino, Field of Dreams, Good Night and Good Luck, The Interpreter, The Manchurian Candidate, The Polar Express, Ray, Seabiscuit, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Reviews of Classic Titles in HD

Casablanca (HD-DVD)

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1942 (2006) - Warner Bros.
Released on HD-DVD on November 14th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A+
Video (1-20): 19.5
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: A+

Specs and Features:
102 mins, PG, VC1 1080p standard (1.33:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all 2-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 (English, French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

[The following discussion of Casablanca first appeared 4 or 5 years ago in a column written for the website DVD Verdict. It makes for a long review, but I can't think of a film that deserves the attention more.]

"The stuff... that dreams are made of."

Yes, I know that's from another rather famous film. But it's hard not to think of Casablanca in such terms. After all, suppose you went to sleep and dreamt about the perfect movie. What might your dream include? Top stars (how about Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman)? Favourite character actors (maybe Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, and S.Z. Sakall)? Intriguing foreign setting (North Africa - Morocco maybe)? Intelligent script with snappy, memorable dialogue - drama with a liberal dose of romance and a touch of comedy (the Epstein brothers have to figure in there, don't they)? Pleasing musical score, rousing when needed, yet something hummable to remember the film with pleasure afterwards (Max Steiner perhaps)? Brisk, atmospheric direction drawing on good production values that emphasize both substance and style (could that be other than Warner Brothers, with perhaps Michael Curtiz at the directorial helm)? Is that enough? Well, wake up! Doesn't Casablanca sound more than a little familiar?

But enough of dreaming, let's try to get a handle on the real thing. How often has someone asked you "So what is it that's so great about Casablanca"? People seem to realize that the film is something special, but can't articulate exactly why. Perhaps the simple reason for that lies in the embarrassment of riches that the film possesses. You just start to think about one thing in the film that's so great when that jogs your mind about another great aspect that in turn reminds you of... well, you get the idea. That's certainly what happens to me when faced with the question of Casablanca's reputation. Just what does the almost endless list of positive characteristics of Casablanca include? Well just go back to your dream and you've got a good chunk of such a list right there. But it's more than a list of such attributes. Some films have comparable attributes, but for some often-indefinable reason, they just don't work. The whole is not greater and may in fact be less than the sum of the parts. That is emphatically not the case with Casablanca. The film is the supreme example of that amalgam of art, commerce, and hard work, plus a dose of good luck, that defined Hollywood's golden age.

Now there's been a lot of nonsense written about Casablanca including one suggestion that the film is a political allegory for the times (Rick as Roosevelt - after all, casa blanca is Spanish for white house) or another that it's a repressed gay fantasy (wherein Rick rejects Ilsa, preferring instead an affair with another man, Louis Renault). These are typical of the sort of irrelevance that pervades the analysis of so many academics who seem to prefer the obscure to the straight-forward. No, Casablanca began simply as another typical Warner Brothers war-time project - a romantic melodrama intended to contribute to the war effort, based on "Everybody Comes to Rick's," a play whose screen rights producer Hal Wallis had purchased. The scriptwriting process was almost worthy of a book in itself, as the script got lobbed back and forth repeatedly between Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein. Every lob, however, helped to sharpen the script -tightening the dialogue and clarifying the characters' relationships. Of course, some parts came more easily than others. Most notoriously, though, the ending seemed unlikely ever to be satisfactory. An ending in which Ilsa would leave with her husband rather than stay with Rick never seemed seriously in doubt, but just exactly how and where to accomplish it was the problem. At one stage, the ending was to occur over a chess game at the café. It was only after numerous conversations between the three writers and with Wallis involved himself that the ending we now know came to be.

With Casablanca, what we also have is a touch of serendipity to go with the appreciable amount of good planning. Case in point: How about George Raft and Ann Sheridan as Rick and Ilsa? Now Raft was never actually seriously considered for the part of Rick, but he lobbied strongly for it, enough so that Jack Warner was prompted to write Hal Wallis about the idea. In this instance, though, Wallis had already made up his mind that the part was Bogart's. Ilsa was a different matter. When Sheridan was first cast, there was no Ilsa; the character was an American known as Lois Meredith, and Sheridan's bold, sassy style was thought appropriate for it. As the script changed and the character metamorphosed into the European heroine, Ilsa, Wallis turned to the likes of Hedy Lamarr and Ingrid Bergman. Lamarr could not be pried out of MGM's arms, so negotiations began with David O. Selznick to use Bergman whom he had under contract. In the end, an exchange involving Warner's Olivia De Havilland allowed the use of Bergman in the Ilsa role. Even Casablanca's director, Michael Curtiz, was far from the first choice. To be sure, Wallis sent the script to three Warner directors (Curtiz, Vincent Sherman, and William Keighley) for their comments, but his preference was William Wyler. Obviously, for whatever reason that prospect didn't materialize (it's not known whether Wyler even read the script) and Wyler was in the armed forces by the time production started on Casablanca. Vincent Sherman was excited about the project, but Wallis preferred to go with the more experienced Curtiz with whom he'd had a long relationship and from whom he knew what to expect.

"What of it? I'm going to die in Casablanca. It's a good spot for it."

"Oh, I don't know what's right any longer. You'll have to think for both of us, for all of us."

"...Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."

It is, of course, easy to talk about the top-billed cast members such as Humphrey Bogart - how the role of the cynical, world-weary Rick Blaine fit him like a glove and confirmed his star status after The Maltese Falcon (1941, WB) - or Ingrid Bergman who played Ilsa Lund and did so convincingly despite worrying constantly during shooting that she had no clue where her character was headed since the script ending never seemed to get finalized - or even Paul Henreid who, having just completed his best work to date in Now Voyager (1942, WB) with Bette Davis, took on the somewhat thankless yet essential role of Ilsa's husband, the freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. Several books have been written about these players and their roles in Casablanca. So, let's turn instead to three talented supporting actors whose abilities are most emphatically on display in Casablanca: Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and S.Z. Sakall.

"You despise me, don't you?"

"If I gave you any thought, I probably would."

As Ugarte, Peter Lorre is at his whining, obsequious best. By 1942, Lorre was recognized as one of Warners' prime supporting assets, particularly when teamed with Sydney Greenstreet. That was technically the case here, although the two have no scenes together. The Ugarte character is a critical one in Casablanca as his stealing of the letters of transit is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick's and sets in motion the events that follow. Ugarte is basically an unprincipled black marketeer whose only real interest in the letters is how much they'll sell for. He does provide one of the first clues that Rick is someone in whom to put one's faith, for he is willing to entrust the letters to Rick while he passes the evening entertaining himself in the bar. The Ugarte role seems to fit Lorre like a glove. The unlovely face with the protruding, sympathetic eyes seem the hallmark of a man who's been unable to get society's respect through honest means so has sunk to dishonest ones to command some measure of power in the community. In his film characters, Lorre always seemed to be in search of acceptance by others. But just as in the cases of those characters, he never really seemed to get the level of respect in the industry that would have resulted in his landing the top parts that his great skill and the earlier promise of his work in Fritz Lang's M (1931, Germany) should have warranted. Despite that, what he did get, he managed to make as persuasive as anyone could. With Ugarte, despite limited screen time, he succeeds memorably, and for that we should be grateful.

"Well, Ricky. I'm very pleased with you. Now you're beginning to live like a Frenchman."

"I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."

If you've read reviews of mine before, you're probably aware of the high regard that I have for Claude Rains. To me, he was one of Warner Brothers' crown jewels, adding a touch of class to virtually every film he was in whether period piece or modern drama. After Rick and Ilsa, Louis Renault is probably the character in Casablanca that people most remember. (For some, he's the first they think of.) With the moustache, a hint of a French accent in his cultured voice, and a twinkle in his eyes, Rains brings Louis majestically to life - patriotic yet prepared to blow with the prevailing wind, a man of his word yet open to a bribe, and sophisticated yet susceptible to sentiment. While building towards the film's conclusion when we find out where he really stands in the conflict, Rick has chosen to mask his feelings with a brooding cynicism. That fit Bogart's acting persona. Louis has preferred the path of laughter and submissiveness, masked by an easy urbanity. That fit the adaptable Rains' style. We like Louis so much that it's relief then to find that both he and Rick are really two of a kind, for that appeals to the realist in us. We like to see ourselves as embodying the good qualities, yet we're sometimes weak and fall prey to temptation - just as Louis does. But in the end we like to think that we'd do the right thing when everything's on the line, just as Rick and Louis do. We might like to think that we're most like Rick, but it's more likely that we're really like Louis, and so he in fact is the character that we most readily identify with. Without Rains' adroit playing of Louis, that wouldn't be the case.

"Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies."

"I have already given him the best, knowing that he is German and would take it anyway."

People seldom talk about S.Z. Sakall when discussion turns to Casablanca and that's a shame. Sakall, a Hungarian who had become popular in German films before being banned from working in Nazi Germany, arrived in America in 1939 and appeared in more than two-dozen films in the 1940s. He plays the ever-present Carl, the head waiter at Rick's Café Américain. Carl is a member of the official underground, but at the same time he almost appears to be an unofficial guardian to all the various refugees fleeing their home countries in hopes of escaping to America via Casablanca and Lisbon. For as they congregate at Rick's, Carl seems to know them all and have a personal concern for their future fortunes.

No matter what he played, Sakall always seemed like a big cuddly bear (Jack Warner even nicknamed him "Cuddles"), jowls flapping whenever he became animated. Although he would later become almost a caricature of himself in his film roles, early in his career this was not the case. In Casablanca, the jowl-flapping was at a minimum and he was used throughout to provide relief from the drama. Remember such vignettes as the pickpocket who bumps into Carl causing him to pat his pockets quickly, or the drink shared with the elderly couple who proceed to check their watches as they show off their newly-learnt English. Throughout, Sakall is a sheer delight.

"...(We) are speaking nothing but English now - so we should feel at home when we get to America... What watch?" [glancing at her wristwatch]

"Ten watch"

"Such watch?"

"Er, you will get along beautifully in America"

One of the great strengths of Casablanca was its use of dozens of expatriate foreign actors who had managed to make their way to Hollywood in the late '30s and early '40s as their homelands in Europe came under the Nazi influence. The authenticity that this added to Casablanca's atmosphere should not be underestimated. A problem that Hollywood sometimes had with films with foreign settings was their unrealistic look and feel, partly due to the studio-bound nature of the filming and also to the frequent use of American players made up to look like foreigners. Casablanca was made in the studio but this was less of a problem because of the preponderance of interiors called for in the film script. The real plus was the use of this contingent of expatriates which made the set look and sound like an international gathering place. What they brought was more than a look and sound though; there was a realistic atmosphere borne of these individuals' real-life experiences in Nazi camps and prisons, of being on the run, of fearing what might happen next, of hoping for a better future. There's a sadness, however, in the realization of the very small roles most of these individuals have in Casablanca as compared to their importance in their home countries. Ilka Gruning, the woman who has the exchange of words with her husband over their watches, had run the second-most-important drama school in Berlin. Helmut Dantine, the young husband at the roulette table, was the leader of Vienna's anti-Nazi youth movement. Marcel Dalio, the croupier at the same roulette table ("...well, a couple of thousand less than I thought there would be"), had starred in two classic French films for Jean Renoir - La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle du Jeu (1939). These are but three examples of more than two-dozen such instances that populate Casablanca.

When Casablanca was completed in early August 1942, WB had six other movies in production and all but one were more expensive to make. Casablanca's final cost was $1,039,000. In charge of production was Hal Wallis who earlier that year had signed a contract with WB to make four pictures a year for the company. 1942 was, one could say, not a bad year for him; his productions included Desperate Journey, Now Voyager, Casablanca, Watch on the Rhine, Air Force, and Princess O'Rourke - all money-makers and two of them nominated for the Academy Award as best picture of the year (Casablanca and Watch on the Rhine). Casablanca was very much Wallis' baby. He approved purchase of the play it was based on; he brought on the Epstein brothers to hone the script and contributed to it himself; he decided on Michael Curtiz for direction and regularly provided comments to Curtiz following screening of the dailies; he saw the film as a Bogart picture from the start and negotiated for Ingrid Bergman. He in fact had his finger in virtually all parts of the pie and must be given a significant share of the credit for Casablanca's success.

In Michael Curtiz, Wallis had a director that he knew well and was comfortable with, even if Curtiz wasn't his first choice for this particular film. The Hungarian-born Curtiz's history with WB went back to 1926 when he had been recruited in Europe after a series of successful Austrian pictures. He would come to be a versatile workhorse director for the studio as well as being entrusted with most of WB's top stars and most prestigious films including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, with James Cagney), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939, with Bette Davis and Flynn), The Sea Wolf (1941, with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, with Cagney). Once assigned to Casablanca, Curtiz proceeded to ensure his own contributions to the finished product. Much of the casting of the minor parts appears to have been Curtiz's doing and it seems unlikely that Bergman would have finally been selected to play Ilsa had Curtiz not been supportive. Curtiz's most significant contribution, however, lay in the look and urgency he brought to so many scenes in the film - from the initial round-up of suspects that lead off the story, to our first look at Rick's Café and its various characters, to Ugarte's arrest, to the Paris railway station sequence in the rain, and certainly last but not least the scenes between Rick, Ilsa and Victor at the airport. Curtiz also loved to use shadows and their movement to heighten the impact of scenes and this too is frequently evident throughout Casablanca.

Take a look at those final scenes again and pay attention to the camera placement during Rick and Ilsa's conversation - the use of two-shots and then close-ups of Rick and Ilsa over each other's shoulders. Can anyone argue but that this is one of the romantic moments in cinema? Both actors are superb and Curtiz's camera work makes the most of it. Seconds later, we have Rick's explanation to Victor and again the same magical combination of actors at their best delineated beautifully in Curtiz's choice of frame composition and the use of shadow cast on the actors' faces by their hats.

Perhaps unlike any that of any other dramatic film, the music of Casablanca has come to take on a life of its own. The signature tune - "As Time Goes By" (originally written by one Herman Hupfeld for a now-forgotten 1931 Broadway show) - immediately evokes images of the movie, as does one of the film's lines of dialogue referring to that music - "Play it, Sam." However, the use of "As Time Goes By" almost didn't happen, for Max Steiner who wrote the score for Casablanca didn't particularly like the song.

Steiner was another WB workhorse and Wallis wanted him for the film. Steiner had just finished a very successful score for Now Voyager which would win him the 1942 Academy Award. His approach was always to watch a particular film assigned to him a couple of times before commencing to write the score. This time, however, Steiner was stuck with working around the song "As Time Goes By." Ingrid Bergman had been filmed by Sam's piano humming the first few bars of the song, but by now it was too late to have her come back to the studio to hum something different that Steiner might have composed in its stead, for her hair had been radically shortened for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Paramount). So Steiner made the best of it and proceeded to make the song the centerpiece of his score, a love theme for Rick and Ilsa that echoed throughout the film in different variations and stylings. Similar use is made of "La Marseillaise." Both converge in the final airport scenes.

It has been suggested that the music of Casablanca is almost a character in the film in itself. I think there's a great deal of merit in that suggestion, for so many of the film's great moments seem inseparable from the music. As you play them over in your mind's eye, the music is automatically there too. Much of Casablanca seems inconceivable without it.

Although it was not unanimously acclaimed as any masterpiece at the time of its release, Casablanca received very favourable reviews for the most part and went on to win the Academy Award as Best Picture. It also received the Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director.

Despite the idea of a sequel, attempts to develop a musical stage version of the film, and a short-lived television series, it was only with Bogart's death in 1957 that Casablanca really started to be recognized for the very special film it was. The Bogart cult that first surfaced on American college campuses in the late '50s and early '60s seemed to be the impetus for the film's rediscovery and reassessment. During the 45-odd years since then, Casablanca's ranking of at or near the top of lists of the best films made to date has continued unabated. Certainly voting on such lists tends to be dominated by enthusiasts and industry types as opposed to historians or critical analysts, but I get the sense that even the latter are starting to recognize Casablanca's merits. It's nice to see that academics may finally be catching up with what true film enthusiasts knew all along!

Several years ago, Warner Bros. produced an excellent two-disc SE of Casablanca and that has formed the basis of this new HD-DVD release. The HD picture (pillar boxed in accord with the film's 1.37:1 original aspect ratio) looks superb and proves that black and white material can benefit every bit as much from the enhanced resolution as colour does. With an image that's spotless, you can see every detail of facial features and clothing textures certainly better than ever before on home video and possibly better even than they looked in the theatres originally. The initial scenes of the round-up of suspects in the streets of Casablanca is beautifully detailed and eye-popping, setting a standard that is maintained for the rest of the film. Blacks and whites are faithfully rendered and an excellent gray scale is in evidence throughout. The image only falters on some of the process shots, but then that's a function of the film's production, not its HD presentation. The mono sound is also in excellent condition - clear, clean and free of tinniness - thus yielding as good a presentation of a mono track as could be expected. Overall, viewing this HD-DVD is a mesmerizing experience and makes for a disc of demonstration quality.

All the two-disc standard DVD supplements have been retained and are presented in 480i or 480p standard definition. They include two equally good audio commentaries by historian Rudy Behlmer and critic Roger Ebert; three documentaries (Bacall on Bogart [the best of the three], You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca [a making-of doc.], and As Time Goes By: The Children); additional scenes and outtakes; a production research gallery; the homage cartoon Carrotblanca; Who Holds Tomorrow - the premiere episode from a 1955 Warner Bros. TV adaptation of Casablanca; scoring session outtakes; an audio-only radio adaptation with the film's three stars; and theatrical trailers. All in all, this is an excellent package of materials, particularly for a vintage film, and one that provides pretty well everything you could want to know about the production.

Even if you have the superb two-disc standard DVD version, this new HD-DVD rendition is easily worth the upgrade. It gets my highest recommendation.

Spartacus  (HD-DVD)

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1960 (2006) - Universal
Released on HD-DVD on October 24th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A
Video (1-20): 14
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: E

Specs and Features:
197 mins, PG-13, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.21:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, none of the previous DVD features are included, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English and Spanish) & 2.0 (French), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

The film Spartacus was Kirk Douglas's major contribution to the cycle of ancient and biblical epics that graced Hollywood for a decade beginning in the mid-1950s. He was the film's executive producer and its star in the title role, and the resulting production was one of the most literate and exciting of such epics despite a running time that exceeded three hours. The film tells the story of the slave Spartacus who escapes from a gladiatorial school and gradually builds up a force of fighting men that is able to defeat various Roman legions. Emboldened by success and urged on by his men, Spartacus and his revolutionaries then take on the main body of the Roman Army. Throughout the story, Spartacus's chief nemesis is a Roman patrician named Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his main romantic attachment is to Varinia whom he first meets at the gladiatorial school (Jean Simmons). The story line follows the main lines of the life of the actual historic figure reasonably closely although the ending differs in the details. Douglas delivers a very powerful performance as Spartacus, giving the character the grit and determination necessary, while Olivier, Simmons, Charles Laughton (as a calculating Roman politician), and Peter Ustinov (as the owner of the gladiatorial school) all deliver polished and appealing efforts. Douglas also had the confidence to hire a young Stanley Kubrick to direct (he demonstrated equal adeptness with both the large-scale action sequences and the more intimate person-to-person screens) and to give an on-screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for the script (Trumbo had been persona non grata since the HUAC days and although continuing to work, had received writing credit through pseudonyms only). The climactic battle between Spartacus's men and the Roman Army (one for which the film went on location to Spain and employed some 8000 Spanish soldiers) is still an impressive spectacle, much more so than the similarly epic battle sequences of more recent films whose sense of grandeur and personal connection to the audience is compromised by excessive cutting and use of close-ups that essentially make such sequences almost incomprehensible. A couple of reels cut out of the original film (including one in which Crassus attempts to seduce the young slave Antoninus [Tony Curtis]) have been reinserted in the version presented here, which derives from 1992 restoration work performed by Robert Harris and James Katz.

Spartacus has been released on standard DVD twice in 2.2:1 widescreen - once in a non-anamorphic and fairly bare-bones version by Universal and the other an anamorphically-enhanced two-disc effort from Criterion loaded with supplements. Both transfers derive from the same source material, but the Criterion effort is much the better one with its sharper and cleaner image and more accurate colours. Universal's HD effort is a mixed blessing and seems to reflect the studio's standard DVD deficiencies. The colours look generally appealing with very good saturation and skin tones that appear reasonably accurate. On the other hand, the overall image is seldom as sharp as the best HD efforts look and it never really jumps out at one as the best HD presentations do. Also, the image seems to suffer from a measure of shimmering that is noticeable enough to be irritating at times. There's little evidence of source material defects and much of the edge effects that characterized the standard DVD has been minimized. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track is quite impressive and gives the film a dynamic feel that almost compensates for the visual deficiencies. There's little in the way of low frequency effects, but that reflects the original sound mix. The film's overture and intermission music is included, contributing to the air of gravitas that the best historic spectacle films of the era achieved.

Shockingly for a film of this caliber and reputation, Universal has provided no supplementary material whatsoever. That's less than even the studio's own standard DVD release. In view of what Criterion was able to muster for its standard DVD release, and considering the effort that should be going into such discs if the format is to gain acceptance, Universal's effort in this regard is very hard to comprehend.

For a film that's one of the best of the historic epics, I'm quite disappointed in this HD-DVD release. It's not that it looks terrible, but I expected much better on HD given the time that Universal has had to mull over the lack of acceptance of its original standard DVD release versus Criterion's effort. If you have the latter, Universal offers no compelling reason to upgrade to its HD-DVD version.

Mutiny on the Bounty  (HD-DVD)

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Mutiny on the Bounty
1962 (2006) - MGM (Warner Bros.)
Released on HD-DVD on November 14th, 2006

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: B-
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 17.5
Extras: C-

Specs and Features:
185 mins, Not Rated, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.76:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English and French) & 1.0 (Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

The Nordhoff and Hall novel "Mutiny on the Bounty" was previously filmed by MGM in 1935, yielding a widely praised version starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable that later won that year's Best Picture Academy Award. The story has drama, action, and an exotic locale that made the film a favourite then and an obvious candidate for a remounted version during the widescreen era. Unfortunately, the remake suffered from numerous delays in its production (building the Bounty, completing the script, changing directors from Carol Reed to Lewis Milestone, filming in Tahiti delayed by the rainy season) and questionable casting choices, more than doubling its initial budget to in excess of a then-exorbitant $18million. The film's most obvious misstep is the selection of Marlon Brando to play Fletcher Christian (the Clark Gable role). Brando's Christian is a foppish aristocrat with an affected English accent, a presentation that is interesting, but ultimately just proves to be a continual distraction from the story throughout. The choice of Trevor Howard to play Captain Bligh (the Charles Laughton role) is less of an issue as Howard remains true to the spirit of the part while giving it his own spin (less demonstrative, but equally as demanding and vicious). MGM chose to commission a new script (partly to secure Brando's participation) and the result was one that expanded the Tahitian scenes (already the weakest part of the story, as evidenced by the 1935 version) to the point of boredom while doing away with the much more dramatically interesting events of Bligh's captaining of an open lifeboat safely to port after the mutiny. Despite all these issues, there is no doubt that the resulting film is wonderful to look at. The production values are impeccable, from the specially commissioned and built Bounty which served as the filming platform as it was actually sailed to Tahiti, to the south Pacific location shooting, and to the adherence to detail in set decoration and costuming. The film's greatest difficulty is the 1935 version. A viewer who sees the new version after having already seen the older one is likely to be disappointed. A viewer without the experience of the 1935 one will likely be more tolerant.

Whether you're a fan of this version of the Bounty story or not, you should be very pleased with how it looks and sounds on HD. The 2.76:1 widescreen imagery, drawing on restored 65mm elements, looks sumptuous whether it be shots of the Bounty at anchor or in sail, the stormy ocean, or the tropical paradise of Tahiti. Detail is very good except for a few soft sequences. The image looks very clean and replicates the minor level of film grain very nicely. Not the very best work that Warner has done on its classic HD releases, but well up there. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio track is impressive too, with the film's score thundering around one at times. The surround work is modest but effective, and some very fine LFE are achieved. There is one short shipboard sequence during which the sound appears to be slightly out of sync.

For a film of such an epic nature, the supplement package is a bit of a letdown. It's the same as was included on the standard DVD two-disc SE. The presentation of alternative prologue and epilogue sequences not seen theatrically is of interest, but the rest of the material is too focused on one aspect of the film - the Bounty itself. Thus we get a new featurette on the building of the ship specifically for the film and its eventual fate. Accompanying this are four vintage featurettes from the 1960s which also focus on the building of the ship and its promotional use. It's all interesting stuff, but really provides little insight into the making of the film itself - the production issues, its crew and the casting - or the film's subsequent reception. The supplement package concludes with a Marlon Brando trailer gallery.

Forbidden Planet  (HD-DVD)

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Forbidden Planet
1956 (2006) - MGM (Warner Bros.)
Released on HD-DVD on November 14th, 2006
Also available in a Collector's Edition Tin.

HD-DVD Format1080p - Analog Full ResolutionDolby Digital Plus

Film: A-
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: A

Specs and Features:
98 mins, G, VC1 1080p widescreen (2.4:1), HD-30 DL, Elite Red HD packaging, all two-disc SE DVD features included in standard definition, audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English) & 1.0 (French and Spanish), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Given the caliber of many science fiction films of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet looks like the Citizen Kane of the genre, for that time period anyway. It's less impressive now given all we've learned over the past 50 years and the numerous science fiction films and TV shows that have been released since. At the time, the film was a major production filmed in CinemaScope and Eastman Color, starring Walter Pidgeon, and featuring some impressive art direction. Even the story showed intelligence in its conception of space travel to distant stars and an advanced race called the Krell, the remnants of whose knowledge have been discovered by an Earth scientist (Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon) previously marooned on the Krell's planet, Altair 4. Intruding on the scientist, his daughter (Anne Francis), and a Robot named Robby is a spacecraft sent from Earth to investigate. The crew of the latter is headed by Leslie Neilson and includes the likes of Warren Stevens as the ship's doctor, Jack Kelly, and Earl Holliman. Neilson and Stevens and their byplay seem like the prototype for the Kirk and McCoy relationship of later Star Trek fame. The film's production values are top-notch and benefit especially from the excellent representation of Altair 4 as conceived by art directors Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan. The colours and vistas of the planet are very reminiscent of the artwork of Chesley Bonestell, one of the most revered illustrators of science fiction magazines of the time. On the negative side of the ledger, the conception of Robby the Robot shows less originality, owing much as it does to the hackneyed ideas of whirring dials, flashing lights, awkward movement, and stiff protruding arms. Also tiresome is the usual mini-skirted innocence and romantic angle of the Anne Francis character, as well as the so-called comic relief work of Earl Holliman as the ship's cook. Still, these are minor quibbles considering the film's considerable achievements. The only really unfortunate aspect of the film is the fact that it didn't really lead to more productions with the same intelligence and production value. Most subsequent science fiction films of the 1950s and early 1960s seemed content to settle for second-rate plots and cheap special effects, and why not, since many viewers of the time didn't seem to discriminate between a good science fiction film and a bad one.

Warners released this HD-DVD version at the same time as the standard DVD two-disc SE and the quality of the restoration efforts is readily apparent. The film, presented in 2.4:1 widescreen, sparkles in HD with a beautiful colour palette and a strong three-dimensional look virtually throughout. Skin tones look very realistic. The source material appears to be in excellent condition as there is very minimal evidence of any dirt or debris. The image has some very mild grain inherent to the original film stock, but it's never intrusive. The sound is a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix that delivers a pretty decent audio experience. As is typical of such efforts, it's strong across the front, but has minimal bass or surround effects. The supplement package replicates what was provided on the standard DVD two-disc SE and it's very impressive. It features three documentaries including the TCM Original Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us (an hour-long perspective on the science fiction film genre that was such a significant part of the 50s film landscape); Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet (a half-hour making-of featurette that includes comments from many of the film's stars); and Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon (a quarter-hour featurette whose title says it all). Also included are various deleted scenes, lost footage, excerpts from The MGM Parade TV series featuring Walter Pidgeon extolling the virtues of Forbidden Planet, and a science fiction movie trailer gallery. Last but not least are two follow-up vehicles that featured Robby the Robot: The Thin Man TV series episode Robot Client, and the full-length feature The Invisible Boy (which is quite enjoyable in its own right).

The Forbidden Planet HD-DVD release is highly recommended to fans of the film, but even lukewarm science fiction adherents will find the release a beguiling package.

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