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Classic Coming Attractions & High-Definition Matters by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

The Christmas Column 2008

Welcome to my final column of 2008. I've taken writer's prerogative to combine my efforts on classic coverage and my Blu-ray snapshot reviews under one umbrella for Christmas. Separate columns will return in the new year. This time I have reviews of three standard DVD releases (Classic Holiday DVD Collection: Volume 2, Murnau, Borzage and Fox and The Sights and Sounds of Christmas) and six Blu-ray release (Band of Brothers, Becket, Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition, Coach Carter, Tropic Thunder and The X Files: I Want to Believe). As usual, I've updated the classic announcements (a light list of new titles this time) and the Blu-ray release databases. I hope you'll enjoy it all.

At this time, I'd like to thank all who have taken the time to read my columns in 2008 and especially those who've followed up with their thoughts and questions. I enjoy receiving your emails and do respond to everyone although it might take a little longer than you might like at times. My apologies to those who've written and never received a reply. Your emails have likely slipped into the spam filter cracks so that I never saw them.

With that, I wish a very Merry Christmas to all of you, and may I offer my hopes for a peaceful, happy and prosperous 2009.

Reviews - DVDs

We begin with a Christmas-themed set - Warner Bros.' Classic Holiday DVD Collection: Volume 2. It contains four films with varying degrees of Christmas pedigree. Holiday Affair is the one title that most people will recognize as a true Christmas film.

Classic Holiday DVD Collection: Volume 2

It's a 1949 RKO release starring Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. Mitchum plays an out-of-work department store employee who buys an electric train as a Christmas gift for a child whose mother (war-widow Leigh) he has just met and become attracted to. She's touched by the gesture and finds her feelings increasingly drawn to Mitchum despite the prospect of a secure future with a prosperous attorney played by Wendell Corey. The film plays out much as one might expect, but the main characters are well-drawn and warmly played by the principals. Mitchum's character is a typically laconic one for him and he gains our sympathies even though we know Corey's fair-minded attorney is going to suffer for it. Leigh's role is an early one for her and she handles it professionally. The film is filled with typical Christmas trappings and really develops a warm feeling for the season. Unfortunately, the DVD image is disappointing and the most ragged looking in the set. Sharpness is inconsistent and there is a fair amount of wear and tear. I'd say it was one of Warners' weakest-looking transfers for a classic title so far. It Happened on 5th Avenue is a 1947 Allied Artists release that finds a number of different people inhabiting a boarded-up Manhattan mansion over the Christmas season. They include a philosophizing hobo, several GIs and families unable to find accommodation in the post-WW2 housing crunch, the mansion-owner's daughter, and eventually the mansion owner and his ex-wife. The situation has all the elements of a 1930s screwball comedy and even one of the genre's leading character actors in Charlie Ruggles, but it lacks leading players like a Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, or Jean Arthur to put it over. Instead we have to make do with Don Defore, Victor Moore, and Gale Storm who just don't have the range to make the material come to life. The film does have its moments most of which involve Ruggles and including a welcome appearance by Ann Harding, but at 115 minutes it's a good quarter-hour too long. The Christmas angle is an incidental rather than an integral part of the story. The DVD image is noticeably better than Holiday Affair, but still has some softness and occasional contrast issues. Modest grain is evident. All Mine to Give, a 1956 RKO release and supposedly based on true events, tells the story of a young Scottish immigrant couple (Cameron Mitchell and Glynis Johns) arriving in 19th-century Wisconsin and raising six children. Unfortunately misfortune takes the lives of both parents leaving the eldest boy charged by his dying mother to find suitable homes for all the children. The film is an earnest effort, but its credibility suffers right from the start with Cameron Mitchell mouthing a terrible Scottish brogue. Other than stereotypical old wives wagging straight-laced tongues, virtually all of the other characters are paragons of virtue and the young boy's efforts to place his brothers and sisters are preposterously orchestrated. The latter occurs on Christmas Day, hence the film's holiday tie-in for this set. The Technicolor film has been given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks quite presentable. Colours are vibrant and the image is quite sharp overall, although some shadow detail is lacking at times. The final film in the set, Blossoms in the Dust, is for some reason advertised as a bonus disc, perhaps because its Christmas aspect is more tenuous than that of the others. The 1941 MGM production, a biography of Edna Gladney, founder of the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society, was the first teaming of the later very popular duo of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon's character dies partway through the film, leaving Garson to carry the picture and she does a superb job. Her scenes with a little boy whom she nurses to health and is then faced with giving up at Christmas time are a joy to behold. They're full of grace and compassion. The film was a glossy Technicolor MGM production of the time that received four Oscar nominations, winning for art direction. I mention the latter because the DVD transfer does full justice to the lavish sets and costume design. Colours are very bright and vibrant and the overall impact is very positive despite some debris and a couple of minor registration issues. The mono sound on all four films is in good shape, free of hiss and distortion. The only supplement in the entire set is the theatrical trailer for Blossoms in the Dust. The only way to get Blossoms in the Dust is in the set ($30 list). The other three titles are also available separately ($20 list each). Obviously the set is the way to go if you want at least two of the films. The set is far from one of Warners' best efforts, but given on-line discounts that will get the four films for little over $5 each, it's worth a recommendation.

Murnau, Borzage and Fox

It was quite a pleasant surprise when Fox issued the impressive Ford at Fox set last December, but now I believe the studio has topped that with Murnau, Borzage and Fox. In one package, we are presented with 13 films (only one previously available on DVD) from the late silent and early sound era that document the relationship between the great German director F. W. Murnau, William Fox - head of Fox Studios and proponent of sound-on-film and the Grandeur widescreen process, and American director Frank Borzage whose work was much influenced by Murnau. Murnau's work is represented in the set by DVDs of Sunrise (1927) and City Girl (1930). A third film Murnau did for Fox between these two - 4 Devils (1928) - is lost but is documented by a fine coffee-table size 130-page book about the production as well as the featurette 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film. Borzage is represented by Lazybones (1925), 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), the surviving parts of The River (1929), Lucky Star (1929), They Had to See Paris (1929), Song O' My Heart (1930), Liliom (1930), Bad Girl (1931), After Tomorrow (1932), and Young America (1932). From 1926 when Murnau joined the Fox studio until the end of 1932 by which time Murnau had died in a car accident and Borzage had left Fox, only two films by the two directors are not included in the set - Borzage's Young As You Feel and Doctors' Wives (both 1931). There is no reason given for their omission and I am only speculating when I suggest that adequate source elements may not have been available. The best way to view this suite of films is chronologically. One gets a wonderful sense of Murnau's mastery of the medium in Sunrise (often regarded as the zenith of silent film) as well as his immediate influence on Borzage (compare the camera work and lighting in Lazybones to that in 7th Heaven). Borzage's peak work in the set is probably that of the three films he did with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star) although The River (what we can see of it), Bad Girl (Best Director Oscar), and After Tomorrow (Farrell again) are not far behind. Borzage is also entrusted with the sound film introductions of such performing artists as humorist Will Rogers (in the light and enchanting They Had to See Paris) and Irish tenor John McCormack (Song O' My Heart - featuring sound recording outdoors for one of the first times and also filmed in both 35mm and 70mm Grandeur though the latter version is not known to exist today). The final film represented is Young America, about troubled youth and with a Warner feel to it. Spencer Tracy is the nominal star, but he takes second place to two impressive young actors playing the young boys in trouble - Tommy Conlon and Raymond Borzage (the director's nephew). Most of the films get their own DVD. Sunrise is a two-sided disc containing both the Movietone version as well as the European silent version. 7th Heaven (presented in the full 119-minute version with short overture) is also on a two-sided disc with The River reconstruction on the flipside. After Tomorrow and Young America also are on the flipsides of a two-sided DVD. Fox introduces each DVD with the notice that it has brought the films to DVD from the best available sources. For the most part those sources are very good. There are a few instances of nitrate decomposition (They Had to See Paris, for example) and missing dialogue (Young America, for example), but overall given the age of the elements, the look of the images is gratifyingly well detailed and fairly crisp. There are some contrast issues here and there, but nothing to deter one's enjoyment. 7th Heaven and Street Angel are rather soft at times, but Lucky Star, City Girl, Bad Girl, and Liliom are noticeably good. The one title previously available on DVD - Sunrise - has received a new transfer, but the improvement over the previously-good effort is minor. The European version is better-looking than the Movietone one. The mono sound (on most films) is equally satisfactory. Most of the films include photo galleries and several have new music composed and conducted by Christopher Caliendo (presented as Dolby5.1 tracks). Audio commentaries by film historians Robert Birchard and Anthony Slide are included on Sunrise and 7th Heaven as well as a second commentary on Sunrise by cinematographer John Bailey, but the main supplement is a new 1 hour documentary on the Murnau, Borzage, Fox relationship. It's an engrossing presentation utilizing extensive stills and footage from the era in addition to well-integrated comments by film scholars, historians, and critics. Complementing the documentary is a second 130-page coffee-table-style book of text and stills. The set's content is packaged in a sturdy book format enclosed within an even sturdier and attractively-designed slip case. This effort by Fox is easily the classic release of the year and is very highly recommended.

The Sights and Sounds of Christmas

I suppose there is a market for a DVD that provides a selection of popular Christmas music played over a collage of Christmas scenes, and VCI's release of The Sights and Sounds of Christmas may even satisfy undiscerning souls, but it definitely leaves plenty of room for a quality production of similar nature to cater successfully to that market. VCi's 70-minute compilation delivers 22 Christmas favourites, including "Deck the Halls, White Christmas, Jolly Old St. Nicholas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, What Child Is This?, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Is There a Place?, O Tannenbaum, Winter Wonderland, March, In Dulci Jubilo, O Come All Ye Faithful, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, The First Noel, Sleigh Ride, The Christmas Song, and Joy to the World". Some are sung by the likes of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, and Connie Francis, but most are instrumentals by the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Philharmonic. Accompanying the music are some 1000 images of urban Christmas decorations, cards, nature in winter time, magazine covers, and so on. The assemblage of music and scenes is dated 1986, which suggests that VCI may have first put this together for a VHS release. The translation to DVD appears to have benefited from little rehabilitative work, as the full frame images lack crispness and the music often suffers from hiss and generally poor fidelity. Seven vintage video featurettes have been added as supplements (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Silent Night, Christmas Customs Near and Far, Christmas Is, The City that Forgot Christmas, When the Littlest Camel Knelt, The Stableboy's Christmas). Most of these look to be little better than VHS quality, and are frequently plagued by scratches, debris, washed-out colour, and general softness. Overall, you'd be just as far ahead to put on the Fireplace Channel, turn off the sound and add your own musical background with your favourite Christmas music CDs.

Reviews - Blu-ray Snapshots

Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers (HBO Video)

This superb 10-part series dramatizing Stephen Ambrose's book on Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, has received an equally fine Blu-ray treatment by HBO. Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in an inspirational follow-up to their work on Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers exhibits the same degree of dramatic power, attention to detail, excellence in recreating the feel of battle, and ability to explore the personal struggles of individual soldiers as well as the extraordinary comraderie between them in the face of such shattering shared wartime experiences. Watching the series is an affecting experience itself, for it is one of the few such documents that brings the true horrors of war to life for people who have never had to go through similar trials themselves.

Presented on six discs, the Blu-ray release does the series full justice with a crisp, highly-detailed 1.78:1 image that replicates the series' desaturated look accurately. Modest grain is in evidence at times. The DTS Master audio is a highlight of the release with a thoroughly engaging surround experience during the many battle sequences. Yet quieter passages are equally striking with subtle use of ambient sound. The release includes the previous standard DVD extras such as the very fine 80-minute documentary on the real men of Easy Company and a 30-minute making-of featurette, but added are a PIP commentary by the men of Easy Company and an interactive field guide that consists of a scrolling timeline with pop-up icons that allow viewing on demand of various bios, historical info, and the like. The release comes attractively packaged in a metal tin. One of 2008's best Blu-ray releases and very highly recommended.

Becket (Blu-ray Disc)

Becket (MPI Video)

In the days before Blu-ray, we had to wait quite a while to get MPI's fine standard DVD release of Becket. Fortunately, Blu-ray advocates have not been subjected to the same wait. The film itself is an excellent production dramatizing the relationship between two close friends, Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), that becomes increasingly strained once the king appoints Becket his Archbishop of Canterbury. Both O'Toole and Burton deliver mesmerizing performances and the interactions between their characters are a pleasure for historical film enthusiasts to behold and listen to. Those with short attention spans need not apply! The film's other strengths - its cinematography, art direction, and script - are undeniable, but all pale in comparison with two master actors at work.

Becket was restored with the support of the Film Foundation and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and it shines on Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 image looks very film-like with modest grain, and a very detailed and vibrant look. The PCM Lossless audio is very dynamic although it's heavily concentrated across the front for this dialogue-rich film. I didn't have the standard DVD to hand, but my recollection suggests that its supplementary content has been duplicated on the Blu-ray with the audio commentary by Peter O'Toole being the highlight. Highly recommended and another example of how Blu-ray is making classic titles shine.

Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

Casablanca: Ultimate Collector's Edition (Warner Bros.)

I previously reviewed Casablanca in some depth at the time of its HD-DVD release, as found here. In terms of image quality, audio, and supplementary content, the Blu-ray release is essentially identical and for delivering a Casablanca that looks and sounds astoundingly good, is very highly recommended. The only caveat lies in the nature of the packaging. Now if you're looking for an elaborate release version that includes lobby card and poster reproductions, a 50-page photobook, a Casablanca-embossed passport holder and luggage tag, a somewhat superficial documentary on Jack Warner, as well as all the rest, then this Ultimate Collector's Edition is the one for you.

But not everyone wants to spend $40-45 ($65 suggested retail) and for the many like them, Warners should have made a simple single-disc version replicating the HD-DVD effort available at the same time (or at least announced the timeline for the inevitable arrival of such a version).

Coach Carter (Blu-ray Disc)

Coach Carter (Paramount)

There's a fair degree of familiarity in this film's story - basically about the difference that a committed teacher can make in the lives of his or her students. In this case, and based on a true story, it's a coach who demands as much academic commitment as he does basketball skill from a group of students at a high school in Richmond, California even going to the extreme of locking his players out of the court and forfeiting their games until they live up to the academic standard they contracted with him to achieve. Despite the familiarity, however, this is an involving film, hinging on a strong performance from Samuel L. Jackson as Coach Carter but equally benefiting from appealing work by the ensemble playing the basketball player/students.

The effect is uplifting without being cloying, and everything does not necessarily play out as expected. While the film is a little long for the material at 136 minutes, one is so well drawn in by the drama that it's really not an issue. The basketball sequences are particularly well staged. Paramount delivers a strong 2.35:1 Blu-ray image, characterized by some real depth, crisp detail, and excellent colour fidelity. Modest grain gives this one a nice film-like feel. The Dolby TrueHD sound is nicely enveloping without being overly aggressive. It's particularly effective in generating an arena surround feel during the basketball games. Supplements include several featurettes on the film production and the real coach Ken Carter, six deleted scenes, and the theatrical trailer. Certainly worth a rental.

Tropic Thunder: Director's Cut (Blu-ray Disc)

Tropic Thunder: Director's Cut (DreamWorks/Paramount)

I know some people were quite impressed by this comedy about a group of Hollywood stars who are shooting a Vietnam war movie and find themselves transferred from the back lot to the real location in order to get the realistic footage that the director and producer are after. Unfortunately, several of the principal players' characters, notably those of Jack Black and Ben Stiller, are either objectionable or just not interesting to the point that the bad taste they leave in the mouth lowers the overall film experience to mediocrity at best. Fine work by Robert Downey Jr. in virtually a blackface role and by Tom Cruise as a prosthetically-enhanced producer are the only shining lights in the effort.

The comedic actor Ben Stiller has also been given the directorial reins, as though to taunt those of us (like your faithful correspondent) who have not yet seen a Stiller film in which he plays a character that merits the film stock used to shoot it. For those who did like the film, the Paramount Blu-ray release delivers a two-hour director's cut whose 2.35:1 image is at least impressively crisp and nicely detailed with fine colour fidelity. The Dolby TrueHD audio is very enveloping with excellent use of the surrounds. Two audio commentaries and a number of featurettes (most in HD) about the production highlight the supplement package. Ben Stiller fans will doubtless like this film and for them, the Blu-ray delivery is well done. Others should feel free to take a pass.

The X Files: I Want to Believe (Blu-ray Disc)

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (20th Century Fox)

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reunite for this tale that mixes mystery with paranormal powers and a whiff of Frankenstein thrown in for good measure, all sparked by the disappearance of an FBI agent. While the film is engrossing enough, it seldom rises above the level of a good TV police procedural such as CSI at its more adventurous, however. Its strengths are the fine performances of Duchovny and Anderson who seemingly slip into their Mulder and Scully personas with ease and the atmospheric use of the winter setting filmed in the southern British Columbia interior. The old bite of the interaction between Duchovny (Fox Mulder) and Anderson (Dr. Dana Scully) is intermittently in evidence, but the relationships between their characters and others in the film (Billy Connolly as a psychic pedophile and former priest, and Adam Godly as an administrator at the hospital where Scully works) are actually more interesting.

I suspect X-Files fans will have mixed reactions to this effort. Those looking for the continuing conspiracy theory aspects of the X-Files will be disappointed while those who enjoyed the old stand-alone monster episodes will be more satisfied. The film has many dark sequences or ones in which objects are obscured by snow, but these difficult situations are mostly well handled by the 2.40:1 transfer. Much of the film has a desaturated look so don't expect vibrant colour. The many grays and muted colours look realistic, and though I don't have the standard DVD version to compare, I suspect the Blu-ray is substantially better in dealing with this sort of difficult material. The DTS Master audio provides a very satisfying sound experience with crisp dialogue and nice spatial surround, but obviously this is not the sort of film that demands an aggressive mix. The supplement highpoints are an audio commentary by director Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz (co-writer and co-producer with Carter) and a three-part documentary on the making of the production. Certainly worth a rental.

New Classic Announcements

Please note that I've updated the Classic Announcements database to reflect all the following release news. I've also taken this opportunity to update the Blu-ray Release Schedule too.

Criterion will release The 400 Blows (1959) on Blu-ray on March 24th. It will be a single-disc release containing the same supplementary content as the present standard DVD version.

Fox will bring out the new edition of The Robe (1953) on Blu-ray and on standard DVD on March 17th. Contrary to early indications, Fox does not appear to be giving us both the CinemaScope and flat complete versions of the film, only the former. According to the press release, the standard DVD version will present the film in the Fox CinemaScope version with commentary by film composer David Newman and film historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Virgo, and Nick Redman as well as a making-of featurette and the isolated music score. The Blu-ray edition will add several introductions, The CinemaScope Story featurette, a comparison of CinemaScope and standard versions of the film, featurettes on the real-life search for The Robe, and various Movietone News sequences. March 31st will bring a Blu-ray edition of South Pacific (1958). It will be a two-disc release including the extended road show version of the film and a BD exclusive new feature-length making-of documentary plus other previous standard-DVD supplements. There's a possibility that we may see a Blu-ray version of The Sound of Music (1965) this spring too.

Infinity Entertainment will bring out Route 66: Season Three on February 10th.

One Koch Vision release that I overlooked mentioning in my last column, as pointed out by a reader, is the 1961 film Misty (with David Ladd). Koch made the CinemaScope production available on November 25th in a widescreen transfer. Coming on March 10th will be The Baron: The Complete Series. The Baron was a 1960s British crime drama (based on a character created by the prolific John Creasey - Gideon of Scotland Yard was another of his creations) starring Steve Forrest as an American antiques dealer living in London who also works for Diplomatic Intelligence. The series' 30 episodes will be delivered on 8 DVDs.

There are some rumours surfacing that MGM will release the complete director's cut of John Wayne's The Alamo (as previously available only on the special edition laserdisc) by mid-2009. This would be a delightful release for the film's devoted fans, so let's hope there's some truth to it, especially if a Blu-ray version is also in the works.

MPI has announced the February 10th release of Lucy and Desi - A Home Movie. It's a 1992 Emmy-Award-winning documentary by Lucie Arnaz that should interest many I Love Lucy fans.

Although a little recent for this column's classic mandate, the traditional Hollywood epic feel of Gandhi (1982) makes it worth noting that Sony will give the title a Blu-ray release on February 17th. Coming on the same date is the Blu-ray release of another Columbia Best Picture winner - Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979).

After several more comprehensive collections of Woody Woodpecker cartoons, Universal will release Woody Woodpecker - Favorites on March 10th. It will contain 15 Woody cartoons, and as a bonus, 5 cartoons starring Chilly Willy, Andy Panda and other characters from the Walter Lantz library plus 2 episodes from The Woody Woodpecker Show TV series.

Unknown Video ( recently (November 15th) released Sand on DVD, a 1920 William S. Hart western. The disc includes a Snub Pollard and Billy Barty short from 1928 - No Kidding, plus a gallery of stills of Mary Thurman, one of the featured players in the Hart film.

VCI's February plans include British Cinema: Renown Pictures Literary Classics Collection. Arriving on the 24th, this three-disc set will include The Pickwick Papers (1952), Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951), and Svengali (1954). Each title will also be available separately. Also coming on the same date is Gasoline Alley and Friends. This will include, on two discs, Gasoline Alley and Corky of Gasoline Alley (both 1951, and starring Scotty Beckett and Jimmy Lydon); As You Were and Mr. Walkie Talkie (1951,1952, service comedies starring Joe Sawyer and William Tracy); and Stop That Cab and Leave It to the Marines (two Sid Melton comedies from 1951). Finally, Martin Luther (1953, with Naill MacGinnis) will also appear on the 24th.

Warner Bros. in conjunction with HBO will offer the original TV series Get Smart: Season 2 on March 10th. It will be a four-disc set containing the season's 30 half-hour episodes. Set for April 7th in conjunction with TCM, Warners will release TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection. It will contain five new-to-DVD titles including April in Paris (1952), It's a Great Feeling (1949), Starlift (1951), Tea for Two (1950), and The Tunnel of Love (1958). Each disc will have a selection of classic cartoons, vintage shorts, and /or trailers. The five films will only be available as a set.

Well, that's it for 2008. See you all again in early 2009.

Barrie Maxwell
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