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High-Definition Classics and Beyond by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Click here for the Classic Coming Attractions portion

The Christmas Column 2007

Welcome to my last column for this year. I've taken the liberty of combining both high and standard definition content on this occasion. Before jumping into this outing's material, let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas, a joyous holiday season, and the very best for a happy and prosperous 2008. I've enjoyed exchanging email with many of you over the past year and I look forward to continuing to do so. Let's hope that 2008 is another good year for classic releases.

High Definition Section

Classic film enthusiasts sure aren't high on the priority lists of those making decisions about releases in high definition, either in the HD-DVD or Blu-ray camps. As we approach the second anniversary of the high-def era, fans can point to a mere handful of titles dating from the Hollywood Golden Age (stretched to about 1965 when the old Production Code finally was shattered) that are available to us. Predictably, Warner Bros. has been the most classic-fan friendly; in fact if it weren't for them, we'd be pretty fed up with watching Spartacus and 20 Million Miles to Earth (the only two non-WB classic releases available in Region 1, from Universal and Sony respectively, and each in a different format to boot).

Here's a list of the 15 classic titles so far available in Region 1 or announced with a definite release date:

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957, a Columbia release available on Blu-ray from Sony)
Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1938, a WB release available on HD-DVD from WB)
Casablanca (1942, a WB release available on HD-DVD from WB)
Forbidden Planet (1956, an MGM release available on HD-DVD from WB)
Jailhouse Rock (1957, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, an MGM release available on HD-DVD from WB)
Rio Bravo (1959, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Road to Bali/Road to Rio (1952/1947, Paramount releases available on February 19th on an HD-DVD double feature from BCI)
Searchers, The (1956, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Spartacus (1960, a Universal release available on HD-DVD from Universal)
That's Entertainment I, II, III (Compilations of 1929-1960 MGM material available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Viva Las Vegas (1964, an MGM release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)

We can take things a step further by extending our net through the mid-to-late 1970s, sometimes referred to as Hollywood's second Golden Age before films like Jaws and Star Wars focused the studios' attention on to the lure of the blockbuster and its high profile sequels and away from the filmmaker-centred approach that immediately preceded it - a situation that more or less continues to this day.

Into this group fall some 23 releases so far available in Region 1 or announced with a definite release date:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, an MGM release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Battle of the Bulge (1965, an MGM release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Blazing Saddles (1974, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967, a WB release available on March 25th on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Bullitt (1968, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Clockwork Orange, A (1971, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, a Columbia release available on Blu-ray from Sony)
Cowboys, The (1972, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Deer Hunter, The (1978, a Universal release available on HD-DVD from Universal)
Deliverance (1972, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Dirty Dozen, The (1967, an MGM release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Enter the Dragon (1973, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Getaway, The (1972, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Grand Prix (1966, an MGM release available on HD-DVD from WB)
Halloween (1978, an independent release available on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay)
Omega Man, The (1971, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Rocky (1976, a UA release available on Blu-ray from MGM)
Sting, The (1973, a Universal release available on HD-DVD from Universal)
Superman: The Movie (1978, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Warriors, The (1979, a Paramount release available on HD-DVD from Paramount)
Wild Bunch, The (1969, a WB release available on Blu-ray and HD-DVD from WB)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, a Paramount release available on HD-DVD from WB)

Given that there have been almost 400 titles in total released to date on HD-DVD and over 400 on Blu-ray (and allowing for some overlap where titles have been released in both Blu-ray and HD-DVD), classic titles at best make up less than 2% (pre-1965 films) or less than 7% (pre-1980 films) of all high definition releases. Those are pretty sobering totals for classic fans. (Even extending the net to beyond Region 1 doesn't help much, as it adds only a few additional titles, such as The 400 Blows and The Seventh Seal.) Of course, these results are not that surprising. Naturally, the releases that are going to get attention first, given the perceived priorities of most early adoptors, are those that can offer impressive sound experiences and pristine picture elements so as best to show off a high definition image - in most cases the current or very recent theatrical titles. Yet, properly restored classic films can look every bit as good, witness the impressive efforts on Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Searchers, and Grand Prix plus you have the advantage of a film experience than bears almost endless repetition unlike so much narrative-poor current fare. In fact, it would be hard to go wrong with any of the above releases as virtually all (even giving Universal the benefit of the doubt on Spartacus) benefit from careful attention to detail by the releasing studios.

Do classic fans have anything to look forward to on the high definition front? Well, there's nothing definite in terms of actual release dates beyond the few announced titles already included in the lists above, but there are a few likelihoods worth mentioning.

Sony, for example, has been sitting on its David Lean titles, but it now appears that 2008 will be the year for A Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India. What's taken so long? Well, Sony knows these Columbia productions have countless fans and wants to make no mistakes with their Blu-ray debuts, hence the lengthy delay. We should expect A Passage to India to be announced in the first quarter of the year along with another Columbia favorite, The Guns of Navarone. A Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia will follow later in the year.

Warner Bros.' ongoing program of restoring key classic titles for DVD using its Ultra Resolution process has also borne fruit for high definition fans and that seems likely to continue in 2008. Two new titles anticipated are Quo Vadis? and Raintree County, and it would be a surprise were both not accorded day and date HD-DVD and Blu-ray releases along with the standard DVD versions. Warners also has the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Ben-Hur, Gone with the Wind, Singin' in the Rain, and Meet Me in St. Louis sitting in the wings. Any would be welcome high definition releases. Of course, Blu-ray advocates await their format's version for several of the classic titles that Warners has so far only made available in HD-DVD.

Fox's ambitious standard DVD classic release schedule has not been reflected in its high definition release program. The closest they've come is an announcement of a 2007 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid release, but that's since been since delayed. A planned international Blu-ray release early in 2008 in Japan may mean we'll see it in Region 1 next year too. Fox has done a lot of fine work restoring its many Technicolor musicals and CinemaScope films from the 1950s, not to mention the dramatic classics that have appeared in its Studio Classics line and the recent two-disc SEs of such favourites as Patton and Twelve O'Clock High. There's no hint that any of these titles are coming to Blu-ray anytime soon, but Fox has no end of possibilities to choose from.

Disney has not released any of its classic animation in high definition so far, but that will change in 2008 with the appearance of Sleeping Beauty, currently set for October.

MGM has been dangling Blu-ray classic releases in front of us, only to delay them, for the past year or so. The latest titles to suffer the fate were The Battle of Britain and A Bridge Too Far, both now apparently targeting a spring 2008 release. Other titles in the same boat, but even less tentative though still likely 2008 candidates are The Graduate and A Fistful of Dollars (and perhaps the others in the "Man with No Name" trilogy).

The closest Paramount has come to a high def classic release was its delivery of Reds last fall. Since then there's been nothing and there's little hint of any change in the foreseeable future - sort of like how the studio approaches classic releases on standard DVD. If Paramount ever does decide to take the plunge, I suspect that it'll be with a classic title they've worked to death on standard DVD such as The Ten Commandments or It's a Wonderful Life. As per current studio policy, such a release would only be in HD-DVD.

Universal is another conundrum. Its classic release pattern on standard DVD has been better of late, but very unsystematic - we get titles released within various series, but the series then seem to disappear (such as the recent classic collection [two waves, then nothing] and the older film noir collection [one wave then nothing since]). How is this pertinent to Universal's high def pattern? Well, for a while, it looked like we might get the classics released in the standard DVD Legacy series on high def when titles such as The Deer Hunter and The Sting appeared on HD-DVD. Unfortunately other Legacy titles such as Double Indemnity and To Kill a Mockingbird haven't appeared in high def and there's no hint that they will soon. Any bets though that Universal's bread and butter classic monsters (Frankenstein and Dracula for starters - both also Legacy releases) will make it to HD-DVD before any other classic titles?

Well, it being Christmas time, a few high def recommendations are in order. It goes almost without saying that any of the classic titles mentioned above are worthy of your attention this holiday season. Of this fall's releases, the That's Entertainment trilogy from Warners and 20 Million Miles to Earth from Sony are both highly recommended. More current fare is also worth considering, however, as there are several superior releases, mainly in respect to disc caliber but also to film content as well in some cases. These include Sony's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Spider-man 3 (each on Blu-ray), Warner Bros.' Harry Potter Years 1-5 box set (on both Blu-ray and HD-DVD) and Blade Runner: Ultimate Collector's Edition (on both Blu-ray and HD-DVD - see Bill Hunt's detailed review here), Fox's The Day After Tomorrow (a guilty pleasure) and Live Free or Die Hard, both on Blu-ray, and Paramount's Transformers on HD-DVD.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition is a particularly welcome arrival. Released contemporaneously with Star Wars, it has never achieved the same massive devoted following, but for true science fiction enthusiasts it is the superior film. I love Star Wars myself, but that doesn't alter the fact that it's simply a B western in space while Close Encounters provides more of a thinking person's experience. The film has been available in several versions over the past 30 years including the original theatrical cut, a slightly shortened Special Edition, and a slightly lengthened Collector's Edition. The beauty of the new Sony release is that all three versions are included and all look impressive delivering with aplomb what is rather difficult source material characterized by significant grain. The DTS HD Lossless and Dolby TrueHD are equally up to the task.

Fans of the Harry Potter films should be thrilled with the Harry Potter Years 1-5 Giftset - equally desirable in Blu-ray or HD-DVD. It's particularly rewarding to watch the five films together as one gains a new appreciation for the story and character development arcs. As one might expect, the Harry Potter and his friends of year 5's Order of the Phoenix bear little resemblance to the young students of year 1's Philosopher's Stone, either physically or in terms of emotional development - an obvious expectation you might say, but one not always met in a series of films, or books for that matter. The story arc also grows increasingly complex and dark, and its presentation in the films stretches special effects capabilities to the maximum and to spectacular effect. In this regard, I think my favourite of the five films to date is year 4's Goblet of Fire, a true feast of imaginative invention and execution on film. If somehow you've thought these films are just for youngsters, think again - every adult and every parent will recognize development passages they may have seen in themselves or in their own children. Containing these human elements in a story with the grand scope and level of imaginative detail of the Harry Potter world, these films are entertainments of the highest order. Matching them are Warners' high definition transfers. All are very good, but Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix are both reference quality, both visually and sonically. The packaging of the box set is also impressive; it comprises a sturdy box with a metal clasp, the five films each on a separate disc, a bonus DVD of supplementary content, a DVD with an interactive game, a set of metal bookmarks, and four packs of Harry Potter collector's cards.

Spider-man 3 is a worthy follow-up to the series' first two entries in terms of its entertainment value, although plot contrivances and an overabundance of plot threads (should one actually complain about that in a film that is basically a special effects blockbuster?) leave one vaguely disquieted at the end of the film's 139-minute running time. There's no concern over Sony's Blu-ray transfer, however. It delivers a beautifully detailed and colourful image throughout backed up by a powerful sonic experience (either in Dolby True HD or uncompressed PCM). There's also a second disc of extras that delivers the sort of detailed content missing from the discs for Spider-man and Spider-man 2. The film Spider-man 3 is available separately or as part of set containing all three films in the series.

The Day After Tomorrow, Live Free or Die Hard, and The Transformers all have plots that strain one's patience to the breaking point (some would say beyond), but each offers outstanding special effects and all look and sound terrific in high definition (the former two in DTS master lossless). Live Free or Die Hard is available separately or as part of a set containing all four Die Hard films (including a good transfer of Die Hard with a Vengeance finally). Beware though that those seeking the unrated cut of the latest Die Hard film will not find it on the Blu-ray version. The Transformers is a two-disc set with an abundance of very good supplements.

Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Click here for the High-Definition Classics portion

Standard DVD Classics

Perhaps the classic release of the year is Fox's massive effort Ford at Fox which was released earlier this month. I didn't receive a copy of the impressive box set for review, but do have at hand several of the mini-sets that were also released. The complete box set includes a nice coffee table book on Ford as well as 24 films that Ford directed at Fox all housed in a special folder plus a new documentary on Ford himself. The supplements on each disc vary from nothing to extensive packages including audio commentaries, featurettes, restoration comparisons, newsreel footage, and trailers. The film titles are: Just Pals/The Iron Horse/3 Bad Men/Four Sons/Hangman's House/Born Reckless/Up the River/The Seas Beneath/Pilgrimage/Doctor Bull/Judge Priest/The World Moves On/Steamboat 'Round the Bend/The Prisoner of Shark Island/Wee Willie Winkie/Four Men and a Prayer/Drums Along the Mohawk/Young Mr. Lincoln/The Grapes of Wrath/ How Green Was My Valley/Tobacco Road/My Darling Clementine/When Willie Comes Marching Home/What Price Glory? For those not wishing to invest $300.00 less the usual on-line discounts on the whole box, an alternative is the three mini-sets each selling at $50.00. Of course these only comprise 16 of the films in the big box set. A few other titles are also available individually, but that still leaves about 5 films only available in the big box set. The three mini-sets are: John Ford's Silent Epics (Just Pals/The Iron Horse/3 Bad Men/Four Sons/Hangman's House); John Ford's American Comedies (Up the River/Doctor Bull/Judge Priest/Steamboat 'Round the Bend/When Willie Comes Marching Home/What Price Glory?); and The Essential John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk/The Grapes of Wrath/How Green Was My Valley/My Darling Clementine/documentary Becoming John Ford). While I haven't been able to look at all this material in detail, here are a few comments. The silent films have all been mastered from 35mm material, include newly created scores, and are all more than acceptable-looking. The Iron Horse has been given considerable attention with the inclusion of both the international and U.S. versions of the film plus audio commentary by film historian Robert Birchard and a new score composed and conducted by Christopher Caliendo. The American comedies are notable for the inclusion of the first feature film for both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart - Up the River. It's a minor but engaging comedy that tends to showcase Tracy more than Bogart. Tracy went directly on to bigger and better things at Fox and then MGM, while Bogart languished at Fox thereafter before returning to the New York stage prior to his WB contract days. Other highlights of this mini-set are two superior Will Rogers films Doctor Bull and Judge Priest. Among the Essential films, only Drums Along the Mohawk appears to have received a new transfer with the colour somewhat corrected to present more realistic skin colours. The other three titles are the same as the earlier Studio Classics releases with one important exception - My Darling Clementine now includes a second disc which contains the complete film Frontier Marshal, a 1939 Fox version of the Wyatt Earp story starring Randolph Scott and directed by Allan Dwan. This is not included in the main Ford at Fox box set. It's clear that Fox has put its best foot forward with the Ford release and they are greatly to be congratulated for getting so many silent and early sound titles out on DVD and available on home video for the first time in any format. The main set or any of its lesser mini-sets and individual releases are highly deserving of our support. Very highly recommended.

Milestone has released an impressive new version of I Am Cuba designated The Ultimate Edition. Dating from 1964, the film is a lengthy Soviet paean to the glories of the Cuban Revolution, focusing on four intertwining stories about it. Unfortunately for Soviet and Cuban propagandists, the film wasn't deemed to deliver the forceful revolutionary message hoped for, as it tended to focus on style (emphasizing hand-held photography responding to the direction of Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky) rather than substance. Consequently the film was shelved for three decades only resurfacing after the fall of Communism and has since been championed by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Seen in the new century, the film's narrative structure is still problematic and some of the propagandist angles are handled in a ham-fisted way, but the photography continues to impress and one can see the hand-held approach now well represented in current film. Milestone's presentation consists of three discs packaged attractively in a cigar box style case. The film has been newly remastered for high definition from the original Russian 35mm fine grain interpositive yielding a very nice black and white image subject only to some mild speckling and miscellaneous debris. The sound is in Russian or Spanish with English subtitling. The supplementary material is extensive and includes feature-length documentaries on each of the making of the film and the director. Recommended.

New Announcements

As usual the classic release database has been updated to reflect this column's new announcements.

In very welcome news, Criterion has plans to release the fine Paramount/Anthony Mann western The Furies (1950, with Barbara Stanwyck and the great Walter Huston) although no specific date has been announced. Meanwhile, the March release plans include Alberto Lattuada's dark comedy Mafioso (1962), a single disc release featuring a 1996 interview with the director and new interviews with his son and wife.

Flicker Alley (in association with Film Preservation Associates) will be releasing Saved from the Flames on January 22nd. This is a three disc set containing 54 rare and restored films from the period 1896-1944, culled from the collections of Lobster Films in Paris and Blackhawk Films.

MGM will have some goodness for classic fans on March 25th with the release of three United Artists films - Taras Bulba (1962, with Tony Curtis), Kings of the Sun (1963, with Yul Brynner), and Solomon and Sheba, 1959 - the film during which Tyrone Power died during shooting). A 12 Angry Men: 50th Anniversary Edition is also set for the same date, as is a director Billy Wilder gift set which will include The Apartment SE, Some Like It Hot SE (what, again!), The Fortune Cookie, and Kiss Me Stupid.

Paramount will release The Fugitive: Season One, Volume Two on February 26th and has added The Untouchables: Season Two, Volume One to its March 18th release plans.

Shout! Factory has McHale's Navy: Season Three on the docket for March 18th.

Sony will offer two more two-disc sets of Ray Harryhausen films. It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers will both appear on January 15th. The two disc sets will be similar in scope to the recently released 20 Million Miles to Earth, with B&W and colourized versions being offered along with audio commentaries by Harryhausen and others, an extensive range of new featurettes, and various press and publicity materials. A really surprising bit of news (as reported on several internet fora) is the hint that a set of six Jungle Jim films and a Johnny Weissmuller documentary is apparently in the works for 2008. No details beyond that though. Considering the really good series films that Columbia is sitting on (Boston Blackie, Lone Wolf, Whistler, etc.), it's unfortunate that Jungle Jim may be the one to get the go-ahead. For if it doesn't sell well, we may never see the others.

Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume 3 arrives on April 8th courtesy of Warner Bros. Nine films are included in the set which features three 1950s musical extravaganzas - Hit the Deck, Kismet, and Deep in My Heart. Also included are two double bills with Eleanor Powell - Broadway Melody of 1936/Broadway Melody of 1938 and Born to Dance/Lady Be Good - and one double bill with Jane Powell - Nancy Goes to Rio/Two Weeks with Love. Each of these six discs will also be available separately. Extras to be found on all discs will be the usual blend of vintage shorts, audio outtakes, and theatrical trailers. New Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks will be available on the three separate 1950s titles as well as their original audio mixes. The Jane Powell disc will include a Powell TCM interview with Robert Osborne.

Well, that's it for 2007. See you all again in the new year.

Barrie Maxwell
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