Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostFri Oct 28, 2011 5:04 pm

Okay, getting back to a couple of black-and-white classics now on Blu-ray in good ol' 2k scans, one with a pretty good transfer and the other with an excellent transfer.

Two notable but very different classic French films came out on Blu-ray from Criterion this past May and July, respectively, and the latter coinciding with its 50th anniversary. Both adapted from novels, one is an archetypal thriller while the other is an intriguing philosophical character study that also recreates life in a French village during the Nazi occupation. DIABOLIQUE I had not seen since I was in college, and had forgotten almost all of it except the basic premise and the memorable bathtub scene. Now, over 30 years later, while still feeling it drags in spots, I found it far more involving than I did back then, with more to admire of its intricate details (both in setting and in plotting). LÉON MORIN, PRIEST is a film I'd never even heard of, much less seen, before the new Criterion release, and was pleasantly surprised by. I was not at all familiar with Melville as anyone but a name in passing discussion of French New Wave directors, but the more I see of his work (all within the past year from Criterion's releases), the more I want to see of him.

LES DIABOLIQUES (1955) ***
Henri-Georges Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE is one of the world's great murder-mystery suspense-thrillers, an inspiration for countless films that followed. Without giving away its surprise twists (as many reviews have done), it's safe to say that it's influenced directors from Alfred Hitchcock to the Coen brothers, as well as numerous lesser filmmakers. The love triangle that leads to murder and coverup is a staple of film noir, here involving faculty and staff of a bleak boys' boarding school. Clouzot, however, avoids the classic low-key "look" of noir films until the final thrilling sequence, giving most of the film a more mundane and drab everyday appearance that serves to make the last section stand out all the more. Another unsettling technique is the film's lack of background music except for the opening credits -- only silence, dialogue, and natural sound effects accompany the ever-rising tension, whether scenes are at the school, a nearby town, or the city morgue. The film's long, slow buildup may sometimes seem a bit sluggish before the intricate murder plans go into action, but the slowness of similar sequences in the last half of the film make it that much more suspenseful.

The picture quality on Criterion's Blu-ray is good and sometimes outstanding, but oddly is just as frequently slightly soft-focus, despite being scanned from the original camera negative. It's hard to tell at times whether this is due to too much digital noise reduction/grain removal or whether the film was too warped to stay in focus. The sound, remastered from a 35mm magnetic track, is fine. Bonus features are not plentiful but are good, and all in HD. There's an introduction to the film by Serge Bromberg, who reconstructed Clouzot's INFERNO, an illustrated interview with a novelist/film critic, and a partial audio commentary (on three segments totaling about 45 minutes) by a scholar of French film, plus the original French theatrical trailer and Criterion's usual booklet with credits, photos, and a nice essay. Those who have not yet seen the film should wait until after watching it before going through any of the extras other than the trailer.

DIABOLIQUE on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: B+



LÉON MORIN, PRÊTRE (LÉON MORIN, PRIEST) (1961) ***½

A vivid recreation of life in a French town during German and Italian World War II occupation, LÉON MORIN, PRIEST originally ran 193 minutes. Before release, director Jean-Pierre Melville decided to cut it to its present 117 minutes, deleting mostly the first hour of the original cut to concentrate on the title character and his unusual (for the movies) relationship with a persistent woman. Jean-Paul Belmondo, near the start of his career, plays very much against his typical screen persona as the devout and dedicated young Father Morin. Emmanuelle Riva plays Barney, a sexually frustrated young widow with a daughter, who decides to challenge a priest with her espousal of atheism and picks Father Léon Morin because of his peasant-sounding working-class name. To her surprise, he agrees with some of her comments, rapidly counters her arguments, offers her some books to read, and recommends they meet on a regular basis to continue their discussions. Naturally, over the course of time her deep philosophical dialogues with him start to sway her feelings and she falls hopelessly in love. However, through all her overtures, both subtle and direct, he remains steadfastly and maddeningly friendly but aloof, despite an obvious attraction to her and close rapport with her little girl. Meanwhile, the ongoing war continues to affect the town and its residents as first the Italians, then the Germans are driven out and American troops arrive.

Melville and his cast present such innately human and believable portraits of the two protagonists, that the film has provoked some diametrically opposite interpretations of its supposed message and intentions. The Catholic Church lauded the film for its accuracy, sensitivity, and approach to the subjects it treats, yet Melville himself was an avowed atheist raised as a Jew, wanting largely to show "an amorous priest who likes to excite girls but doesn't sleep with them." Some critics found the film to be cynically denouncing religion and various personal beliefs, while others found it a moving reaffirmation of faith. As with Ingmar Bergman films like THE SEVENTH SEAL, it contains material that might support either argument. And like Bergman films, supported by striking use of setting and camera, it is the thoughtful intensity of its characters and the philosophical issues the film raises rather than any major plot actions (or lack of them) that make it so timeless and interesting.

Criterion's hi-def transfer, made from a 35mm finegrain master, is excellent, with the Blu-ray reproducing a film-like sharpness, grain structure, and wide contrast range. Audio is also very good. There are several interesting bonus features, but again not a wide selection and this time mostly in standard-definition. Two brief but interesting deleted scenes in HD run about three or four minutes, showing a bit more of the subplots dealing with the occupation and the Resistance. There's a roughly five-minute interview from 1961 with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Melville. A partial audio commentary is included for three segments totaling about 35 minutes, and heard over a dupier-looking standard-def rendition of the scenes. The original French trailer is also a dupey-looking SD transfer. The enclosed booklet includes a new critical essay from a distinctly secular point of view, and an interview with Melville conducted in 1970 for a book.

LÉON MORIN, PRIEST on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: B+
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Nov 06, 2011 2:57 pm

Here are comments on a couple of more recent Criterion Collection releases (both October) from one of our favorite decades, including one Pre-Code title and one 3-strip Technicolor feature.

The 1930s are widely considered the “golden age” of Hollywood, yet barely two dozen features from that decade are currently available on Blu-ray (in November 2011). With steadily increasing popularity of the new high-definition format, however, this situation is starting to change, as about half of those titles just came out this past year and an additional half-dozen 1930s classics are due on Blu-ray before January 1st. Last month two very different (yet unexpectedly related) 30s films made their Blu-ray debut from Criterion, one of which had never even appeared on DVD before. Each had been filmed previously and was remade later, but these versions both stand up remarkably today, one a creepy and unusually timely horror/sci-fi thriller dripping with studio style, and the other a lavish Technicolor action-adventure shot largely on location in Africa. Both appear on the surface to be primarily exotic escapist entertainment, yet both turn out to have similar pervading themes regarding "the white man's burden" and cultural imperialism, all the more unusual as movies released by major studios in the pre-World War II era.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) *** 1/2
Before the rise of pulp science fiction, H. G. Wells wrote five "scientific romances" in the 1890s that have inspired filmmakers for over a century. "War of the Worlds," "The Time Machine," "First Men In the Moon," and "The Invisible Man" all were adapted into popular and classic films, typically taking great liberties with the text. Arguably the best of the books, however, was “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” dealing with a mad scientist who was attempting to alter animals surgically into human beings -- without using anesthetic. Hollywood produced flawed but effective movie versions in 1996 and 1977, but moodier and rather more disturbing was the first sound version, made in 1932 under the title ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Each of the three has a different ending, none following the original novel.

Even though made before the strict enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, Paramount's 1932 film was extremely controversial, banned outright in ten countries (including England), heavily censored in many cities and states, and not widely seen to this day. The first film by a mainstream studio to exploit torture and pain as a major plot element, it may not be able to shock blasé 21st-century moviegoers like today’s gory, sadistic horror movies, yet still contains disturbing sequences with some deeply unsettling implications, as well as metaphoric sociopolitical subtext glossed over or missing in later incarnations.

Versatile character actor Charles Laughton is perfect as the demented, satanic Dr. Moreau, with horror icon Bela Lugosi as the “manimal” who becomes the “Sayer of the Law.” Richard Arlen co-stars as the naïve shipwrecked young man that Moreau hopes to breed with his “Panther Woman” (Kathleen Burke in her movie debut). Potentially overshadowing the actors are the evocative art direction by Hans Dreier, the shadowy cinematography by Karl Struss, and of course the grotesquely spectacular makeup effects by the legendary Wally Westmore. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a film that not only prefigures today’s Discovery Channel documentaries and sci-fi fantasies of genetic engineering but dares to go beyond them.

Because the original 35mm negative has been lost and the film had to be reconstructed from several sources, picture quality on the Blu-ray varies. Much of it, transferred from a 35mm master positive, still looks quite good, but a number of scenes are a generation or two removed from the original and a few previously-censored segments were copied from an uncut 16mm collector’s print, so appear somewhat grainier than the rest. Sound is reasonably good for this era of early talking pictures, mastered mainly from the uncut 16mm print.

Criterion has supplied a nice collection of supplements -- a great audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank, four new HD featurettes including discussion by filmmaker John Landis with makeup expert Rick Baker and a genre specialist, comments by film historian David Skal, filmmaker Richard Stanley (who'd hoped to direct the 1996 remake but was replaced), and two members of the band Devo (whose catchline “Are we not men?” was taken from the film). There’s also a 1976 music video of two Devo songs (in SD), a stills gallery, the original trailer, and a 16-page illustrated booklet.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: B+
Audio: A-
Extras: A-


THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939) ****

Although seemingly drastically different in genre and syle, watching ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and THE FOUR FEATHERS back to back reveals how both treat some of the same implicit issues of British colonialism, the forcible attempts to mold subjected races into images of Western culture. The former film depicts this literally as a gruesome allegory, the latter subtlely and perhaps subversively implying it through characterizations and directorial choices.

A. E. W. Mason's popular 1902 adventure novel was filmed numerous times including, coincidentally, a 1929 version starring Richard Arlen, a 1955 reworking of the 1939 script by the same director, later a 1978 TV movie with Beau Bridges, and most recently a 2002 revisiting of the story with Heath Ledger. While each version has its good points, the best by far is this first-rate Alexander Korda production directed by his brother Zoltán for their London Films studio. The plot is a typical British Empire war story of a young officer accused of cowardice by his comrades and fiancée when he resigns his commission before a major mission in the Sudan. He then sets out on his own to redeem himself, disguised as a native, proving more resourceful and successful than his old friends in their ill-fated commands.

While the various other films of the story dramatize the hero’s personal bravery and persistence against the backdrop of military honor and discipline, the Korda brothers’ version has a complex depth that resonates today, arising in part from the two brothers’ opposite sociopolitical viewpoints and the impending start of World War II. Producer Alex intended a staunchly pro-British film extolling the virtues of the Empire, while director Zoltán’s sympathies were with the colonial natives. His hero leaves the army not out of personal fear, but because he objects on moral grounds to the campaign. Prefiguring Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker's equally powerful ZULU by a quarter-century, the result is a highly effective balance that honors British fortitude and military tradition while simultaneously showing the horrors of war, the admirable tenacity of the enemy, and the dignity of Britain’s conquered peoples. Acting is excellent all around, especially John Clements in the lead, with strong support from Ralph Richardson as his friend and romantic rival, and the young June Duprez as the fiancée, with C. Aubrey Smith contributing effectively ironic comedy relief as the blustery old retired general. Shooting in many of the original locations where the actual events occurred does much to increase the film's impact.

The picture quality on Criterion's Blu-ray is generally excellent, reproducing the distinctive rich Technicolor look, scanned from a 35mm preservation negative made from original 35mm material in mostly outstanding condition. Occasionally that preservation copy, however, suffers from slightly misaligned color records, likely due to some variable shrinkage in the three separate original color records. Likely because a preservation negative was scanned instead of the three Technicolor camera negatives, the image is just a touch grainier than the Blu-rays of such other three-strip films as GONE WITH THE WIND and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. The mono sound is good.

Bonus features are very good, although relatively sparse for Criterion. There’s an excellent audio commentary by film historian Charles Drazin, a fascinating 2011 interview with the director’s son David Korda (in HD), an enjoyable 10-minute short (also HD) giving a tour of London Studios while “Four Feathers” was in production, plus the original trailer and an enclosed 10-page pamphlet with an interesting essay and production credits.

THE FOUR FEATHERS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B+
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Nov 19, 2011 8:53 pm

THE GUNS OF NAVARONE on BluRay

Columbia/Sony recently released The Guns of Navarone on BluRay, at a very affordable price. It's one of the great World War II films from the 1960s, and it has been much imitated even up to today. Gregory Peck leads a team of specialists who have to blow up a pair of giant artillery guns in the sea between Greece and Turkey. They have a short deadline as 2000 British soldiers are stranded on a island and the Germans are about to overrun it. The team have to make many suspenseful escapes before they make it to their target. Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven (who is probably too old for his role) turn in excellent performances, but we don't really get to know the other members of the team very well.

The screenplay by blacklisted writer Carl Foreman is generally excellent, although a machine-gun duel left me scratching my head. Foreman rarely lets the tension let up, as the team has to endure an ocean storm, a climb up a cliff in bad weather, being boarded by the German navy, strafing by airplanes, captured by soldiers, a scary interrogation, a betrayal, and many other great scenes. At the same time the crew has to debate whether to kill or surrender Anthony Quayle's character, who is injured and is holding up the team. Later Peck's character lies to Quayle's Major Franklin in a ruse to confuse the Germans, but his teammates argue about the ruse.

Although Peck doesn't even try a British accent, he still is excellent in his role as a frenemy of Quinn's character. Unlike later imitations of the formula, the movie's three leads are well -shaded characters, rather than super-men like the many later films that followed the same formula. Apparently Foreman wrote the book adaption as an anti-war film, but the film is very conflicted. Most of the German as faceless guards who are quickly killed, although
the German commandant who captures the team is a sympathetic soldier. Several of the characters express remorse about the killing that is required, but this usually just ends up putting the crew in danger.

The extras on the disk go into the extraordinary restoration work that was required, as Columbia didn't take very good care of the original negative. The four-track soundtrack was also lost, but luckily a collector's print was found that still had the magnetic soundtrack. (The back speakers are infrequently used, mostly during the strafing scene and the ocean storm.) The surviving elements make the opening scenes look like they took place in daylight, rather than night, due to color fading. The original dialogue tracks were edited to remove the use of the word "bloody", as it was considered offensive by British audiences, but the original track was also lost. There is more information on the restoration in the DVD Savant review.

The extras also have a lot of historical information about the Greek theater of the war. The story was totally fictional, as it would have taken years to actually build guns like these and hollow out a cliff to protect them. There are two commentary tracks, one by the director J. Lee Thompson and another by film historian Stephen Rubin, but I have not had a chance to listen to them yet.

THE GUNS OF NAVARONE on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: A
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostThu Dec 01, 2011 12:44 am

Good to see another Blu-ray review! I recently ordered GUNS OF NAVARONE and it should be arriving in the next day or two (along with a bunch of other titles), so I'm looking forward to it.

Here are a couple of mid-1950s films that made it to Blu-ray back in September...


GENEVIEVE (1953) *** 1/2
Arriving on Blu-ray in September 2011, this cute British comedy follows the adventures and antics of two couples on a weekend excursion for an antique car rally. John Gregson and Kenneth More are best friends but highly competitive rival car owners, with Dinah Sheridan as Gregson's long-suffering but supportive wife and Kay Kendall as More's latest girlfriend, a fun-loving fashion model who enjoys alcohol, playing the trumpet, and her very large dog. When they set off on the annual London to Brighton run in their 1904-vintage automobiles, each man bets the other his car will beat the other, and along the way each takes steps to insure it -- much to the chagrin of the women. There are also memorable scenes at a nightclub and at a small limited-service hotel one couple is forced to use.

Apparently the Rank studio executives believed the film was not particularly funny and had such a limited appeal that it was unreleasable. However, circumstances resulted in it being used as an emergency replacement for some other film that was dying at the boxoffice, and it became a surprise hit that wound up being widely beloved and one of their biggest money-makers worldwide, with Oscar nominations for its script and music score (composed and performed by Larry Adler on the harmonica). While very British in many aspects, and perhaps too focused on dry domestic satire for some who might prefer more broad comedy, it's a universal story of personal relationships, both friendly and romantic, and a delightfully irreverent but still sensitive look into the passion for antique car collecting. The high-definition image and lovely Technicolor also make it a vivid record of early 1950s Britain.

Presented pillarboxed in 1.33:1, the picture quality is generally quite good, with a clean image, rich contrast range, beautiful color, and very nice detail. However there are some minor compression artifacts visible on a 1080p projector (not really noticeable on a 720p monitor). The three-strip Technicolor also has slight but sporadic alignment issues at times, mainly during the first half. Like some other VCI Blu-rays, the HD picture has some jerky playback problems on certain players, notably a recent LG model, but plays perfectly fine on others. The audio is decent, without a lot of frequency range, especially the low-end, but always has crisp dialogue. There's an alternate soundtrack in 5.1 simulated stereo that gives a bit more presence to music and sound effects without adversely affecting the dialogue.

Bonus features include a very informative and enthusiastic 24-minute retrospective documentary from 1999 in standard-definition, a 7-minute series of stills and lobby cards in high-definition, and HD 16x9 widescreen trailers to two Betty Box/Ralph Thomas films starring Dirk Bogarde (CAMPBELL'S KINGDOM from 1957 and HOT ENOUGH FOR JUNE from 1964) which VCI also happens to have available on Blu-ray. The latter film I used to have on 16mm under its American release title AGENT 8 3/4, and is a modestly amusing cold-war spy comedy that the trailer makes look much funnier than it actually is.

GENEVIEVE on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A-
Audio: B+
Extras: B-



THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) ***

The acting is the main attraction for this classic Bogart film, with an iconic Oscar-nominated Bogart performance as well as strong roles for Jose Ferrer, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson, Tom Tully, E. G. Marshall, and the whole cast, really. The story of a young ensign (the ill-fated Robert Francis) on his first assignment to a rundown ship with lax discipline takes another turn when a dictatorial veteran captain (Humphrey Bogart) replaces the previous captain (Tully, who got a Best Supporting Actor nomination), but gradually demonstrates he's no longer capable of handling the stress in various situations until Van Johnson finally relieves him of his command during a typhoon. Adapted from both a novel and a stage play, the plot bogs down at times, especially when it gets to the court martial scene, and may seem occasionally way too heavy-handed, but the cast pulls it off. The lush Technicolor photography, some of it on actual locations, also helps, as does Max Steiner's music.

Picture quality is quite good, generally sharp, with rich colors close to the 16mm I.B. print I remember seeing back in the 1970s and drastically better than later Eastmancolor prints, and now cropped to 1.85:1 as it was originally shown. Audio quality has quite a bit of frequency response for a mid-50s film (perhaps sourced from magnetic masters?) and has a mildly effective stereo presence added as well as the original mono and several alternate language tracks.

The only bonuses are a nice audio commentary, a very good half-hour 2006 documentary on the film in standard-definition, and two different original trailers in HD. There's also a new HD trailer for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI after you sit through Sony's promo for the Blu-ray format itself.

THE CAINE MUTINY on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: C+
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Jan 07, 2012 2:23 am

My Blu-ray of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE finally arrived, but so far I've only watched the bonus features, most of which are standard-definition, but are all enjoyable. A couple of the old promo featurettes are actually in HD, although were produced as black-and-white 1.33 prints rather than color/scope. There is a curious introduction to the feature in HD of Carl Foreman addressing the audience (in CInemaScope, no less) for the Australian premiere. I saw the feature a few years ago on DVD, but hope to watch it again in HD with the two different audio commentaries and then try the interactive feature, and then probably watch it again with the stereo sound, though I'm debating whether to use the optional intermission card used for the first roadshow engagements or to play it straight through as most playdates did.

Meanwhile, I've been catching up with a number of recent Blu-ray releases over the past month, and watched the following two films last week...

Last month the Criterion Collection released Blu-ray editions of two quirky Japanese B-grade “yakuza” films from the 1960s that were boxoffice disasters when they opened, and the second of the pair even prompted the studio to fire their director, Seijun Suzuki, who had been under contract for over a decade grinding out low-budget genre pictures. However, the films eventually built a cult following and 30 years later premiered in the U.S., where they became critically acclaimed hits that have influenced several modern directors (notably Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch). Both TOKYO DRIFTER and BRANDED TO KILL themselves show a strong influence from the 1960s trends in British pop-art films (including the James Bond craze), French new wave, American B-movies, and more. They’re CinemaScope time capsules of 1960s world culture, yet appear remarkably fresh in style, in some part due to the popularity of films from Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, Christopher Nolan, the modern indie movement, the best of the comic-book action movie directors, and the current fad for “retro” looks. Both films demonstrate that strict logic and sense are not always necessary for movies to be fun.

TOKYO DRIFTER (1966) 83m *** ½
Seijun Suzuki remarks in an interview included on the extras that he was not intending to make “art” films, just films that were entertaining while following the guidelines he was assigned. TOKYO DRIFTER has a typical plot about a gangster who wants to go straight, but of course an inevitable chain of circumstances won’t allow that to happen, but rather than join another gang he decides to become a free-lance drifter, getting revenge on his various adversaries through his almost super-human skills as a hit man. Suzuki uses the plot as an opportunity to create a triumph of art design, color, lighting, and camera framing, exploiting pop culture references with a panache of the early Jean-Luc Godard. Required to include a pop song in the soundtrack, Suzuki incorporates it into the character’s persona and repeats it to such an extent that it becomes a running gag. The hero’s girlfriend is a singer in a stylish nightclub, so we’re treated to a few songs that almost make this a gangster musical.

Picture quality on Criterion’s Blu-ray is excellent, with bright, rich colors and deep contrasts that make things pop out in the numerous night scenes without losing details. The opening black-and-white sequence (one of several similarities to Tarantino’s KILL BILL), however, has a dupier high-contrast look that may have been intentional or may be due to processing or just Suzuki using up some outdated film stock (or all of the above). Audio quality of the mono soundtrack is also fine.

Bonus features include Criterion’s usual illustrated booklet with credits and an interesting critical essay, a new July 2011 HD interview with the director and assistant director, a 1997 interview with the director in SD, and a trailer.

TOKYO DRIFTER on Blu-ray –
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B


BRANDED TO KILL (1967) 91m *** ½

After TOKYO DRIFTER came out, Suzuki’s studio reduced his budgets, forcing him to shoot in black-and-white, but his dramatic use of the wide CinemaScope frame and carefully designed lighting contrasts is no less striking. The simple film noir plot follows a professional hit man obsessed with raising his ranking while balancing his relationships with two femme fatales (one of them his sex-hungry wife, the other a mysterious beauty with a deathwish). Botching a job and accidentally killing the wrong person does not help either his reputation or his self-esteem, and gets him into even more danger. He’s also got an erotic fetish about sniffing boiled rice, and there’s a diamond-smuggling ring that figures prominently, not to mention a butterfly, but Suzuki avoids wasting time with standard crime-film exposition. Instead he usually jumps right into action scenes without explaining things in advance, leaving the audience to figure out what is going on by absorbing details of the props and settings. Continuing his pop-culture references, he uses even more jump-cuts and elliptical editing than in TOKYO DRIFTER, as well as occasional graphic designs sometimes superimposed over the image, resulting in an even more Godardian new wave feeling to the film. At one point there seems to be a distinct reference to the then-popular British TV series “The Prisoner.” One critic described BRANDED TO KILL as more like “a 91-minute trailer” that is “a delirious, absurdist deconstruction of the crime genre.” Often more challenging to follow than TOKYO DRIFTER, it’s also more audaciously provocative and wildly unexpected. It was this film that so outraged Suzuki’s studio bosses as “incomprehensible” that they pulled it from distribution and promptly fired him. A modern viewer might interpret both films about independent-minded gangsters working for fatherly but traditional and ruthless mob bosses as metaphors for the director’s own relationship with his studio.

As usual, Criterion’s picture and sound quality are outstanding, the film-like HD transfer made from a 35mm finegrain print. Extras again include an illustrated booklet with credits and critical essay, new HD video interviews with the director, assistant director, and star, part of a 1997 interview with Suzuki in SD, and a trailer.

BRANDED TO KILL on Blu-ray –
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Jan 08, 2012 2:11 am

Small niche label “Twilight Time,” a new subsidiary of movie soundtrack specialists Screen Archives Entertainment, has recently started licensing off-beat and often obscure older titles from Columbia and 20th Century Fox and just put several onto Blu-rays in limited editions of only 3000 units, available only from them and not in any stores. The company’s low profile and low budget means they go with only the transfers and bonus features the studio provides them, rather than producing their own , but they take care to include isolated music scores, in keeping with their soundtrack album heritage. Their titles are also available only at the standard suggested retail prices (typically $30-$40 plus shipping), as even at that price they need to sell half to two-thirds of the small total run just to break even on production costs and have no illusions that there is enough demand to support the $10-$20 discount prices (and even lower net wholesale earnings) commonly seen on mass-marketed major studio product. For people who like the particular movies, they’re certainly well-worth the premium cost, as like Criterion they make sure the picture and sound are collector-conscious quality (which explains why for certain titles they decide to issue only standard DVDs rather than Blu-rays), and have a three-year minimum exclusivity in the unlikely case that the studio might decide to release the same title later. Note that they’re a bit cheaper directly from the company’s website than through their Amazon Marketplace third-party listing (owing to Amazon's cut). The following two Blu-rays came out November 8th and December 13th, respectively.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) 101m ***
Cy Endfield’s entertaining version of MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, a completely different story from the 1929 version, is a decently produced Charles H. Schneer sequel to Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi adventure 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Perhaps not as flashy as the Disney film of the latter title, this film has a strong cast of British character actors including Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, and Herbert Lom, to support American leads Michael Callan and Gary Merrill. It has a good share of action but benefits greatly from the special effects of Ray Harryhausen. A substantial chunk of the first half involves a daring balloon escape from a Confederate prison during the Civil War (a plot element incorporated into the 1916 version of 20,000 LEAGUES… but not in Disney’s 1954 version). The rest finds the men trying to survive on a deserted island, dealing with gigantic plants and animals, and soon discovering two shipwrecked women to help them. Memorable scenes include conflicts with giant crabs and giant honeybees. When pirates attack, they need the help of Captain Nemo, who has retired to this island after his submarine was damaged. It’s a good Saturday matinee type of movie in the tradition of the other Schneer-Harryhausen films.

Picture quality is generally outstanding. The sharp, colorful, and film-like HD transfer in 1.66:1 reveals the extra grain in the special effects shots that might be less noticeable in a standard video version, but also shows just how sharp much of the “Dynamation” process of filming animated models in front of a rear projection of live-action (instead of the other way around, as usually done) could actually be. Audio is excellent, with the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track showing off the great Bernard Herrmann music score, and an original mono track option. Bonuses are sparse, including a nice little 8-page color illustrated pamphlet, an isolated music track (in 2.0 DTS stereo with sound effects at a few portions where the separate score no longer survived), plus the original trailer and a B&W TV spot, both in HD. There are English closed captions available, making it possible to watch the film without the dialogue track but still following all the dialogue. Random copies also get a free refrigerator magnet!

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND on Blu-ray
Movie: B+
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: C+



RAPTURE (1965) 105m *** ½

This off-beat independent production directed by John Guillermin for 20th Century Fox’s pre-“Searchlight” artfilm subsidiary, International Classics, deserves to be much better known, both for its stunning black-and-white CinemaScope cinematography and its brilliant performance by the barely 15-year-old Patricia Gozzi (who had recently starred in SUNDAYS AND CYBELE). Gozzi stars in this touching coming-of-age story as Agnes, an emotionally fragile and suppressed teenage girl who lives with her strict old retired-judge father (Melvyn Douglas) and their earthy house-maid (Gunnel Lindblom) in a remote house on the coast of Brittany. For companionship, Agnes builds a scarecrow from an old suit of her father’s to place in their garden, treating it like a living being. Only a week later, an escaped convict (Dean Stockwell) takes the scarecrow’s clothing and hides in their barn, and Agnes is convinced her scarecrow has come to life just as she wished. For various reasons of their own, all of the house’s inhabitants want to protect the young fugitive, and the plot quickly develops into a much more complex character study of all the central figures. The film virtually disappeared after a brief release, despite a few good reviews. It remains, however, the director’s own personal favorite of his career, though he’s better-known for films like THE BLUE MAX, THE TOWERING INFERNO, and the 1976 version of KING KONG, and did interesting work in 1950s England like SONG OF PARIS and THE CROWDED DAY (both on Blu-ray from the BFI).

Picture quality is absolutely superb on this Twilight Time Blu-ray, crisp film-like textures and rich contrast range doing justice to Marcel Grignon’s lovely, atmospheric images. Audio is the original mono, with decent clarity but not quite the range of the MYSTERIOUS ISLAND soundtrack. The only bonus features are an 8-page booklet and the isolated music track of Georges Delerue’s excellent score (which does sound louder and a bit richer on the music-only track).

RAPTURE on Blu-ray –
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: C-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Jan 22, 2012 2:58 pm

I recently caught up with a couple of British Blu-rays, films interesting for various reasons and far more impressive in high definition than in previous so-so video versions. Luckily both are region-free (although their standard-definition supplements are in PAL, which may or may not be compatible with North American Blu-ray players but usually work on cheaper models like LG, Philips, and Insignia).

Two late-1960s films widely dismissed as trashy genre pictures when initially released have since gained greatly in critical esteem. Their naturalistic approaches, often overlooked at the time, make them hold up quite well today while most other films of the era that made the rounds of drive-ins and grindhouses now look badly dated. Barbet Schroeder’s MORE and Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL both came out on region-free Blu-rays last fall in restored director’s cut versions that finally permit modern audiences to re-evaluate them properly. Both films get better on second and third viewings. Released only in the U.K., they can easily be ordered on line through amazon.co.uk at roughly $30 U.S. for the pair of them, including shipping from England and after the VAT tax is subtracted.

MORE (1969) 116m ***
While acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival, young actor-producer Barbet Schroeder’s first feature as a director was nevertheless treated as a notorious counter-culture exploitation film at the time it came out. This was largely due to its full-frontal nudity and especially its detailed, matter-of-fact depiction of drug use. Censors around the world seemed convinced that MORE would inspire young people to imitate the bohemian, drug-fueled lifestyle of its two central characters, a lifestyle pervading many youth films of the era. Even in its various cut forms, however, the film soon became a cult hit, partly due to its popular soundtrack music by Pink Floyd (which helped the band increase its following).

A young German college graduate (Klaus Grünberg) just wants to relax and see the world instead of getting a job with his mathematics degree, and hitchhikes to France where a new-found friend gets him into petty robberies to raise cash. He becomes involved with an American girl (Mimsy Farmer) he meets at a party in Paris, following her against his friend’s advice to an island off the coast of Spain. There he also gets mixed up with an ex-Nazi drug dealer (Heinz Engelmann). In some ways the basic plot parallels the classic film noir theme of a manipulative woman entrancing a young man and leading him to his doom. The film is no glamorization of drugs, and is rather the exact opposite. Schroeder mentions in the bonus featurette that the script was inspired by what might have happened to him had he actually followed the advice of a former girlfriend who was an ex-junkie, and who was constantly encouraging him to try heroin just to see what it was like.

The British Film Institute’s region-free Blu-ray/DVD combo has a beautiful film-like picture that intensifies the island scenery so strikingly photographed by Nestor Almendros. There’s also very good mono sound that helps show off the innovative soundtrack which only uses music from natural sources within the scenes (i.e., “diegetic” music). Dialogue is mainly English, and there are optional English subtitles for the periodic German, French, or Spanish conversations. There is sadly no audio commentary, but there’s an informative illustrated booklet with several interesting essays, and three trailers to early Schroeder films (MORE plus THE VALLEY and MAÎTRESSE). There’s a nice new featurette of Schroeder giving background on the film, but strangely and unfortunately it is only on the included PAL DVD (which may not play on all US players even though it’s region-free) and not on the Blu-ray, even though he specifically comments on the film now being available on Blu-ray!

MORE on Blu-ray (c. $19 from the U.K.) --
Movie: B+
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B-



WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) 87m ***

In WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the English Civil War between Cromwell’s Puritans and the Anglican royalists of King Charles is a major factor leading to government-sanctioned tortures and executions of dissidents by accusing them of witchcraft. Vincent Price plays a lawyer named Matthew Hopkins (an actual historical figure), who has been appointed “Witchfinder General” in 1645. He has legal power to extract confessions from accused witches by whatever means he deems appropriate, usually leaving the details to his sadistic assistant Stearne (Robert Russell), and since they are paid a handsome fee for each confession, they never fail. An outspoken rural priest (Rupert Davies) is seen as a troublemaker and targeted for “interrogation” and execution, with the pleas for mercy by his niece (Hilary Dwyer) only leading to her own rape and torture. However, her fiancé (Ian Ogilvy) happens to be a soldier in Cromwell’s army and vows to get revenge.

This British historical drama set during the mid-17th century was marketed as a horror film in the United States by American International Pictures under the title THE CONQUEROR WORM. The American release also had alternate opening and closing credits with a voiceover of star Vincent Price reading the Edgar Allen Poe poem used for the film’s American title. Far from a standard horror film, it’s really an uncannily timely and still unsettling study in organized terror under the anarchy of civil war, with each faction using religion as the excuse for ruthless political and/or personal advantages. In many ways the plot formula of lawlessness in a rural locale, a town plagued by corrupt officials and helpless citizens, is a British variation on the American Western. It might be seen as symptomatic of the growing urban violence during the sixties or a metaphor for the rampant corruption in Central American revolutionary countries. Today it seems a chillingly closer parallel to the religiously-inspired atrocities going on in the Middle East against anyone perceived as a potential threat to those with power, often merely to terrorize any opposition rather than to punish documented crimes.

Production executives and distributors were expecting an exploitation film they could sell on its sex and violence, but writer-director Michael Reeves instead intentionally depicted violence, especially sexual violence, in a way calculated to repulse viewers rather than to entertain them and dramatized violence as a corrupting force. While not nearly as graphic as today's typical horror movies, its violence can still be wince-inducing. Used to the American International series of Poe-inspired films, which had become more comedic over the years, like the AIP producers Price was also expecting another campy horror movie and only reluctantly went along with Reeves’ attempts to tone down his performance into a more realistic (and resultantly more terrifying) character. Ironically it’s now seen as one of his most effective portrayals, which Price himself realized after seeing the completed film. A highly personal project, this was only the third and final feature of its troubled, ill-fated young director, who died of an accidental drug overdose at 25 less than a year after the film was made.

The region-free Blu-ray from Britain’s Odeon Entertainment has generally strong picture and audio quality. There are occasional white specks or scratches from wear on the negative but overall it’s in fine shape. The transfer seems to have a few minor digital compression issues, mainly with low-light scenes, but is very sharp and clear throughout. The mono sound is good, while not particularly great, likely due to the film’s modest budget.

Odeon has put together a nice selection of bonus features, including an interesting audio commentary, the alternate American opening and closing, and a good image gallery of production stills, American lobby cards, and British pressbook pages, all in high-definition (so the pressbook articles are easily readable). There are also a trailer, deleted European-version sexploitation shots (with lots more nudity), a couple of interesting documentaries, a Vincent Price 1970s talkshow appearance, and an early short by the director, but these are unfortunately standard-definition and are in the PAL format, which will not play on some American players.

WITCHFINDER GENERAL on Blu-ray (c. $11 from the U.K.) --
Movie: B
Video: A-
Audio: A-
Extras: A-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostFri Feb 03, 2012 6:27 pm

The past couple of weeks I've been able to catch up with two more classic films released to Blu-ray back in December, along with their impressive collections of bonus materials. THE LADY VANISHES has long been one of my top five favorite Hitchcock films and was great to see in HD. Much to my surprise, by the end of watching MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, I suddenly realized that I may never have actually seen it straight through from beginning to end until now. Of course clips are often featured in documentaries, and I'd seen substantial chunks on TCM but usually tuned in too late or had to leave too early to watch the entire film. I'll definitely be watching it again, however, possibly soon! Here are some reactions...

THE LADY VANISHES (1938) 96m *** ½
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, this mystery-comedy continues his established themes and sets the prototype for much of his best American work over the next few decades. An English girl (Margaret Lockwood) vacationing with friends in a small eastern European country before her impending wedding boards a train with an eccentric old lady (Dame May Whitty) whom she befriends. Soon after they’re underway, however, the lady is nowhere to be found and none of the other passengers will admit she even existed, although a young British musicologist (Michael Redgrave) agrees to help her investigate. Naturally they both get into more than they bargained for, as sinister motives by various other passengers and dangerous plans gradually become revealed.

Picture quality is outstanding on this Blu-ray, extremely sharp with fine contrast range and only minor wear visible. Sound quality is very strong for the era. Criterion has one of its better collections of bonus materials for this release, including the usual illustrated booklet of illuminating essays, plus a good audio commentary, an interesting featurette on Hitichcock and the film, an audio clip of François Truffaut’s 1962 interview with Hitchcock, a nice stills gallery, as well as the full-length high-definition feature comedy CROOK’S TOUR (1941), which was a spinoff starring two of THE LADY VANISHES’ comic-relief characters.

THE LADY VANISHES on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: A



CROOK’S TOUR (1941) 81m ** ½

This entertainingly silly wartime spy comedy could just as well have been a vehicle for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, or any other comedy team. Instead it’s a British production with the very British team of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, the two cricket fanatics who became so popular in THE LADY VANISHES that the characters were put into three more films and starred in a radio serial. That radio show was adapted into this film, with the pair on vacation in the Middle East accidentally getting mistaken for spies (not unlike Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST). They wind up traveling across the Middle East and Europe, narrowly evading death as the bad guys and a mysterious female entertainer follow them, trying to recover the information that was mistakenly given to them instead of the real spies. There’s a lot of standard slapstick and predictable shenanigans, but there are some clever lines and Radford and Wayne’s characterizations are still a delight.

The high-definition picture is very sharp, but is somewhat lower contrast than the beautiful LADY VANISHES image, and also seems just a bit too light. The audio quality is fine. The film itself is a bonus on Criterion’s LADY VANISHES disc, so it doesn’t have much in the way of its own special features, but it does have a title screen explaining some of the background of the Charters and Caldicott characters, as well as a chapter menu for the movie.

CROOK’S TOUR on Blu-ray --
Movie: C+
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: F+



MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) 113m ****

This nostalgic musical piece of Americana is one of the most entertaining movies ever made and arguably the best of Judy Garland’s career as well as Vincent Minnelli’s. Set in 1903-04 middle America, the very slight plot is little more than a gentle domestic situation comedy with a touch or romance. As the new World’s Fair is being constructed, a middle-class father announces to his family that he’s been offered a promotion and they’ll all be moving to New York, upsetting the rest of the family who would rather stay in St. Louis. But the earnest sincerity of the cast, the lush details of the costumes and setting, some witty dialogue, along with the wonderful songs skillfully incorporated into the story, all combine to make it a vivid recreation of the era and a timeless portrait of family life. And made during World War II, there’s also the strong undercurrent of homefront support for the family values that the far-away loved ones were fighting for (besides just a bit of swing music finding its way into the old standards sung in the party scene). The wistful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is especially poignant in light of the film’s wartime release.

Picture quality is excellent, with a few very minor digital artifacts barely noticeable amidst the crisp, film-like high-definition image and rich Technicolor hues. It looks nearly as good as the AMERICAN IN PARIS Blu-ray. The audio has been tastefully remixed to stereo surround and the lossless DTS-HD track reproduces an amazingly full range for a recording made nearly 70 years ago, sounding substantially better than the track on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

The illustrated “digibook” has brief write-ups on the major actors and director, with lyrics to the songs as well as an enclosed CD with four of the soundtrack’s hit songs (the title tune and the three Martin and Blane compositions). Bonus items on the Blu-ray include a nice heartfelt introduction by Liza Minnelli, a very good commentary incorporating audio clips from interviews with people who worked on the film, an isolated music score, and an audio recording of the Lux Radio Theatre version of the story. Those all that are listed on the boxcover, but there are many more bonuses actually crammed onto the disc: a half-hour documentary on the making of the film made for its 50th anniversary and narrated by Roddy McDowell, the early 1970s hour-long TV special about MGM “Hollywood: the Dream Factory” narrated by Dick Cavett, a TCM “Becoming Attractions: Judy Garland” selection of movie trailers hosted by Robert Osborne, a half-hour 1966 TV pilot for a sitcom version of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the 1930 Vitaphone short “Bubbles” with the Gumm Sisters and the Meglin Kiddies, a 1941 “soundie” of the same Martin & Blane “Skip to My Lou” arrangement later used in the movie, a reissue trailer, and an audio-only recording of Judy Garland’s deleted song “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” (which ironically had been bought for the film after it had been deleted from the stage production of “Oklahoma!”) Bonus features are unfortunately all standard-definition, but there is a generous selection of material that helps justify the premium price (typically discounted to around $25).

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS on Blu-ray
Movie: A+
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Feb 12, 2012 2:58 pm

One of the most respected and best-known directors of the 20th century, Alfred Hitchcock amazingly was not represented on Blu-ray until Warner Home Video’s 50th anniversary release of NORTH BY NORTHWEST in late 2009, with his most famous film PSYCHO showing up for its 50th anniversary in 2010 from Universal Home Video. Last December the Criterion Collection released one of his best British films, THE LADY VANISHES (reviewed above) and have THE 39 STEPS scheduled for release this June. To tie in with their studio centennial celebrations, this March Paramount will release IT TAKES A THIEF (1955) and Universal has promised THE BIRDS (1963) for later this year.

And three more American Hitchcock classics, all produced by David O. Selznick in the 1940s (and all one-word titles), just made their Blu-ray debuts on January 24th from MGM-Fox Home Video. The first two were originally released theatrically by United Artists, and the third was through RKO. All show Hitchcock as a well-established auteur, exploring the themes that made his films distinctive throughout his career. The three MGM-Fox Hitchcock Blu-rays compare quite favorably with Criterion’s standards for picture quality and interesting bonus features, lacking only the booklet inserts Criterion always provides, and irritatingly using only popup menus rather than including a master menu page for each disc. Like other recent MGM Blu-rays released by Fox, the discs start playing as soon as they load, so bonus features can only be accessed while the movie is running. Bonus features, while plentiful and informative, are unfortunately all in standard-definition.


REBECCA (1940) 131m ****
REBECCA was Hitchcock’s first American film and won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, as well as earning nine other Oscar nominations including Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s popular novel, it’s a stylish and expertly crafted gothic romance that is a bit more Selznick than Hitchcock but gradually turns into a more Hitchcockian mystery-thriller. To describe much more would spoil some well-executed plot twists for anyone who has never seen it before or read the book. Putting over the sometimes heavy-handed melodrama is its brilliant performance by Joan Fontaine as the shy, insecure second wife of moody aristocrat Laurence Olivier, with a strong supporting cast led by Judith Anderson and George Sanders.

MGM-Fox’s Blu-ray boasts superb, film-like picture quality, with reasonably good audio quality. There’s an adequate audio commentary by critic Richard Schickel (the weakest of the three discs’ commentaries), an isolated music/effects track, a very good featurette on the making of the film and another on the novel’s author, plus a trailer and complete screen tests of Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh for the part that went to Joan Fontaine. There are also three audio-only radio dramatizations (including one starring Sullavan, directed by Orson Welles in 1938 shortly after his infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast), and audio interviews with Hitchcock by Peter Bogdanovitch and François Truffaut.

REBECCA on Blu-ray --
Movie: A+
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: A



SPELLBOUND (1945) 118m ***

MGM-Fox’s Blu-ray of SPELLBOUND includes about four minutes of overture music and two minutes of exit music heard before and after the feature during its original release. This mystery-thriller was the first major Hollywood film to use psychological theories as a central element of the plot, rather than merely as the background basis for characterizations. Ingrid Bergman plays a sexually repressed psychiatrist who falls for an amnesiac patient (Gregory Peck) who may or may not have murdered the man he’s been impersonating. Famed surrealist artist Salvador Dali designed an elaborate dream sequence central to the story, providing clues for the psychoanalysis that ultimately leads to the truth. SPELLBOUND received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Director, and won the Oscar for Miklos Rosza’s evocative music score.

The Blu-ray has very good picture quality and decent sound. Bonuses include an informative commentary by two film professors, interesting featurettes on Salvador Dali (and how his sequence for SPELLBOUND was sadly shortened from a much longer one that was shot), on the film’s use of psychology, and on Rhonda Fleming (who had one of her earliest screen roles in SPELLBOUND as a psychotic nymphomaniac Bergman is treating), as well as a trailer, a radio play version, and a Hitchcock audio interview.

SPELLBOUND on Blu-ray –
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: A



NOTORIOUS (1946) 102m *** ½

Another top-notch Hitchcock romantic thriller, NOTORIOUS earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Ben Hecht (who’d also scripted SPELLBOUND), and a nomination for Claude Rains as Best Supporting Actor. Ingrid Bergman stars again, this time as a world-weary notorious party girl whose Nazi-sympathizer father was convicted of treason. Cary Grant plays the dashing government agent who recruits her to infiltrate a group of ex-Nazis in Brazil to learn what they’re plotting. Of course he unwillingly falls in love with her in the process. Rains plays the urbane rich industrialist she must seduce to obtain her information.

Image quality is mostly excellent, though many brief sequences suffer from the higher contrast, grain, and softness that results from the optical duplication needed for special effects. Audio is good, with occasional mild distortion. Bonus features this time include two separate audio commentaries by film experts, an isolated music/effects track, featurettes on the making of NOTORIOUS and Hitchcock’s spy films, plus one on Hitchcock’s American Film Institute Award. There’s also a trailer, a radio play version, audio interviews with Hitchcock, and a brief restoration comparison.

NOTORIOUS on Blu-ray –
Movie: A
Video: A-
Audio: A-
Extras: A
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Mar 07, 2012 2:40 am

And more Hitchcock on Blu-ray this week! Just got Paramount's new Blu-ray of TO CATCH A THIEF today (actually yesterday, now) and it's pretty late so this will be fairly short.

TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) 106m *** 1/2
Perhaps incredibly, I had never seen TO CATCH A THIEF all the way through until a couple of hours ago. I'd only seen clips and occasional scenes whenever it showed up on TV, and was never particularly inspired by those to seek out the whole movie. But seeing it now from beginning to end, I'd rank it as a strong Hitchcock, not quite up to REAR WINDOW or NORTH BY NORTHWEST (to both of which it bears a strong resemblance, due to cast and/or screenwriter), but like both of those, immensely entertaining throughout. There are also a number of similarities to the later non-Hitch but extremely Hitchcockian CHARADE. The jewel-thief plot creates Hitchcock's trademark suspense angle, and Cary Grant and Grace Kelly make one of his all-time best screen couples with some of his best Production Code-defying innuendos. And not knowing the ending in advance, I was still able to get a good idea of the real masterminds from various hints throughout, and had pretty much suspected the culprit(s) but in true Hitchcock fashion there is always a certain amount of doubt that makes for a satisfactory resolution when everything is finally revealed.

Picture quality on Paramount's HD transfer of this VistaVision film is absolutely superb, as good as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and better than many current films on Blu-ray. Details are amazingly crisp, especially the spectacular location footage shot in the south of France and the climactic costume ball, with only some brief shimmering of the horizontal line pattern on Grant's shirt in a couple of early scenes detracting somewhat. Audio quality is okay, with 2-channel stereo but not a lot of frequency response. There's a nice selection of bonus material, including an audio commentary, and numerous interesting featurettes (all in SD, unfortunately), plus an original trailer in HD. Amazingly, this great Blu-ray is selling for only $12.99 at Amazon and at least for this week at Best Buy (couldn't find any copies at Target or Walmart), one of the best Blu-ray bargains currently out there.

TO CATCH A THIEF on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: A-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Mar 07, 2012 9:58 pm

CLEOPATRA (1963, Fox)

I finally had a chance to watch the blu-ray Fox “Cleopatra” that I bought through Amazon-Britain. The disc is region-free, and it’s curious that Fox hasn’t released the BD in the U.S.

Many people seem predisposed to denigrate the film. I’ve loved it since first seeing it in ’63. It has witty, crackling dialogue, presents believable characters in dramatic situations that are fairly close to the historicity, and has eye-popping set designs and spectacle without benefit of CGI.

The BD looks spectacular. Although some have questioned the accuracy of the color, the only palettes I found questionable were some of the scenes shot outdoors, in which the flesh-tones appeared somewhat dark, as though everyone had a sun tan (perhaps they did?).

The film, even in its original 70mm version and its 35mm four-track cut-down never featured much surround sound, restricting it largely to occasional ambient sound effects such as crowd roars or battle noises.

Most of the extras seem to have been ported over from the previous DVD, including an excellent documentary of the making of the film. I didn't have the opportunity to see if the extras were standard or HD. A new short documentary traces the probably fate of the film and trims from the original rough cut.
-Rich
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostTue Mar 13, 2012 1:24 am

My region-free Blu-ray of CLEOPATRA also recently arrived from England. Although I've only spot-checked the feature (which looks amazingly sharp), I have watched a few bonus features, all in HD, which are quite illuminating. I'll probably get around to watching the entire feature during finals week, perhaps watching the Blu-rays of THE EGYPTIAN and/or THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, here are comments on a few other Blu-rays I've watched over the past week or so, a pair of John Huston titles that aren't in the league of THE MALTESE FALCON or THE AFRICAN QUEEN, but are still worth seeing, plus a much lesser-known melodrama freely inspired by an actual incident involving Lana Turner (though heavily fictionalized). All are in "scope" and really need to be seen on a big screen for proper impact. The increased clarity made possible by the Blu-ray format, combined with a large projected image, makes even minor films substantially more enjoyable, films that on a standard TV set would be little more than time-killers, as the large, wide image was part of their original design and no less critical to the story than the dialogue.


THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN (1958) ** ½ 126m

This John Huston African adventure has a good cast, beautiful CinemaScope scenery, and some strong sequences (notably a section that builds up to an elephant stampede), but suffers too much from heavy-handed sermonizing to be entirely effective. Trevor Howard is sincere as a rabid environmentalist trying to outlaw hunting of elephants, which at the time was done almost solely for the ivory. Errol Flynn isn’t bad at all as an alcoholic ex-soldier who joins his cause. Likewise Juliet Greco as a barmaid/prostitute impressed by Howard’s single-mindedness. Orson Welles is great fun in a small but crucial part as an American journalist.

Picture quality on this Twilight Time release is good, if sometimes a bit too soft for “reference quality” and with colors that are somewhat understated. Much of that is likely due to the limitations of the 1958 CinemaScope lenses used and Eastmancolor film stock. Audio is fine, though with 2.0 stereo instead of 20th Century Fox's usual CinemaScope standard of 3.0 or 4.0 as it likely originally played in 1958. The only extras are an enclosed pamphlet with a nice essay, and an isolated music score (plus a menu with chapter stops).

THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN on Blu-ray –
Movie: C+
Video: A-
Audio: A-
Extras: C-



THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975) *** 129m

John Huston is back in form with this semi-comic action-adventure set in 19th century India and Afghanistan. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are ex-British army sergeants who decide to seek their fortune in this Rudyard Kipling tale by taking personal charge of the primitive tribes north of India where Alexander the Great once made his presence felt. Christopher Plummer plays Kipling and the story alternates between high adventure with a comic touch and darker psychological and socio-political commentary as the plot progresses. It may not be entirely satisfying but there are several clever twists along the way and once again the acting is first-rate while the wide-format cinematography greatly adds to the impact of the story.

Some slight digital noise reduction softens the picture a bit, but it’s still reasonably sharp and far better than a DVD, especially projected eight feet wide. The original mono audio is decent if not really memorable (there's no remixed stereo option and the impressively mounted but still modest-budget Allied Artists release was not made in stereo). Extras consist of a vintage making-of featurette, a trailer, and Warner Home Video's attractive if superficial digibook packaging with photos and brief background on the key personnel.

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING on Blu-ray –
Movie: A-
Video: A-
Audio: A-
Extras: C+



WHERE LOVE HAS GONE (1964) ** ½ 111m

Edward Dmytryk directed this entertainingly sordid, no-holds-barred Harold Robbins soap opera, adapted by John Michael Hayes with location filming in San Francisco. Sculptor Susan Hayward and architect Michael Connors star as an estranged couple whose teenage daughter (Joey Heatherton) has killed her mother’s lover. Jane Greer is a low-key, sympathetic parole officer and Bette Davis pulls out all the stops as the domineering grandmother who needs to have her own way to protect the family name. DeForest Kelley, of all people, plays an art critic and close friend of the family. Even Whit Bissell shows up in a lengthy flashback to World War II (which shows period cars and a B-17, but the color design, hairstyles, and most costumes still look like 1964). The film is alternately engrossing, campy (especially when Bette Davis is on screen), outrageously over the top, tear-jerkingly touching, and socially conscious. This is generally a fun but easily forgettable movie that was a fairly low-budget Paramount - Embassy (Joseph E. Levine) co-production.

Shot in the half-height Techniscope process (like Leone’s spaghetti westerns) to get a widescreen image at a bargain price, the Blu-ray’s picture quality reflects its grainy source, but sometimes seems a bit softer than it should be even given the source. Still it’s probably pretty close to the way it looked when it was new. The widescreen image is constantly used to the max, and the extremely horizontal compositions would be destroyed by a “full-frame” version cutting off the sides. Sound is fine, an adequate reproduction of the original mono soundtrack. As usual for Olive Films releases, there are no bonus features other than a main menu and chapter stops.

WHERE LOVE HAS GONE on Blu-ray –
Movie: B-
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon Mar 26, 2012 3:30 pm

Milestone Film & Video released its first title on Blu-ray this February (at least I think it's their first Blu-ray), an interesting documentary double-feature from the 1950s and 60s. The high quality bodes well for Milestone's planned Blu-ray releases of Mary Pickford titles in April. Here's my review of the documentaries, either of which would make an appropriate second feature with certain fiction films -- anything with scenes set in seedy New York streets or dealing with alcoholism in the case of one (BARFLY, THE LOST WEEKEND, and even SCARLET STREET come to mind), and any thoughtful Cold-War or WWI or WWII stories in the case of the other (DR. STRANGELOVE or FAIL SAFE would be ideal, but also ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, or even the original GOJIRA).


ON THE BOWERY (1956) *** 65m
One of the most highly acclaimed independent films released by Milestone, which opened in New York’s Film Forum in September 2010 to sold-out shows and rave reviews and has played around the country over the past year, is now on Blu-ray in an edition that also includes a second disc containing a short and another feature by the same director. ON THE BOWERY is the first feature by documentary filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, and had a major influence on independent filmmakers (notably John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese) while being almost unknown by the general public. It was actually made in 1955-56 and won a number of awards at international festivals, as well as an Oscar nomination, but received mixed response from American critics and found little success with American audiences until its restoration and re-premiere over a half-century later.

ON THE BOWERY presents a side of American life that many Americans still don’t like to admit exists. It depicts a few days in the lives of incurable alcoholics in Manhattan’s low-rent Bowery Street district. It’s not done in the standard documentary style usually seen today, however, which tend to rely on interviews, facts and figures presented by a narrator or titles, and newsreel-style coverage of actual events. Instead, Rogosin and Greenwich Village writer Mark Sufrin first lived among the drunks and bars of the Bowery for a while, getting to know the atmosphere and befriending several of the regular patrons. They convinced three of the men to work with them on a loose script that would dramatize their everyday lives, and to play themselves in the film. The approach is similar to that used by pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty in films like NANOOK OF THE NORTH, LOUISIANA STORY, and others.

The result blends scripted dialogue, improvisation, and potent documentary footage of the neighborhood and various unplanned occurrences, all captured in beautifully photographed 35mm black-and-white images. ON THE BOWERY is a poignant narrative following a Ray, young part-time railroad laborer between jobs as he drinks away his time and meets others like him, including the aging and ailing Gorman, who may or may not have once been a successful newspaper man and/or surgeon in happier years. While the “acting” may sometimes seem awkward, the combination of dramatic and documentary styles using real people playing themselves gives the film a haunting power on a different level from what either a purely fictional story or straight documentary could produce.

This Blu-ray set is subtitled “The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1,” and the second disc includes his 1964 anti-war feature GOOD TIMES, WONDERFUL TIMES, and OUT, a half-hour short Rogosin was commissioned to make in 1956 by the United Nations after the international acclaim of ON THE BOWERY. With OUT he follows a young widow and her two children who escape to Austria after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, depicting their attempts to adjust to their new surroundings and find a new country to emigrate to.

ON THE BOWERY on Blu-ray –
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: B


GOOD TIMES, WONDEFUL TIMES (1964) *** 70m

GOOD TIMES, WONDERFUL TIMES is a bitingly effective and bitterly satiric plea against nuclear war and war in general, which again found no American investors or distributors during the height of the Vietnam war, although Rogosin found many colleges willing to rent 16mm prints in the late 60s and 70s. In GOOD TIMES, WONDERFUL TIMES Rogosin staged a partly improvised cocktail party in London made up mainly of shallow yuppies in the advertising industry, and intercut their comments with newsreel footage he had collected from various war archives around eastern Europe, Moscow, and Japan. As with ON THE BOWERY, the film is just as eerily topical today as when it was made, if “perhaps a bit crude,” as the film’s editor admits in a bonus featurette.

Milestone’s Blu-ray release features excellent high-definition transfers of the two features from restored original 35mm film elements. The picture is superb, and the audio is good given the films’ low budgets. Bonus items (unfortunately almost all in standard-definition) include a Martin Scorsese introduction to ON THE BOWERY, a making-of documentary for ON THE BOWERY (which explains what later happened to the film’s major participants) and another for GOOD TIMES, WONDERFUL TIMES, both directed by Rogosin’s son Michael. There are also a few other documentary shorts about New York’s Bowery district (only one in HD), as well as a trailer.

GOOD TIMES, WONDERFUL TIMES on Blu-ray –
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: B-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostTue Mar 27, 2012 11:47 pm

And now back to some classic dramatic films recently released to Blu-ray (one RKO and two Universal pictures), two last month in the U. S. and one that may be out here by the end of this year for Universal's centennial but it showed up late last year in the U.K. in a nice region-free edition and actually quite a bargain including shipping from England!


FORT APACHE (1948) **** 127m
John Ford’s FORT APACHE (1948) is at once an archetypal Western and a cynical commentary on Western myth (it’s loosely inspired by the legend of Custer’s battle at the Little Big Horn), decades before such deconstruction became fashionable in Hollywood. The first film of Ford’s Cavalry trilogy (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBONand RIO GRANDE followed in 1949 and 50) is among the best of his career, with an all-star cast in top form. Henry Fonda stars as a bigoted, by-the-book colonel reluctantly taking command at a frontier fort whose mission to keep peace with the Apaches he feels beneath his talents. John Wayne is the veteran captain who understands the Native American frustration at U.S. Government policies, especially the double-dealing Indian Agent (Grant Withers). A 19-year-old Shirley Temple plays Fonda’s daughter who falls for a young lieutenant (her real-life husband John Agar), who is the son of the post’s crusty Master Sergeant (Ward Bond). Other familiar character actors, many from Ford’s stock company, include George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran, Mae Marsh, Irene Rich, and more.

The plot may seem a bit leisurely at times, especially during its first half as it establishes the atmosphere at the remote army post and sets up various character relationships. But it’s loaded with memorable imagery and builds to a couple of key action sequences that become all the more effective after we’ve come to understand the complexity of the main characters. Fonda is excellent as a vaguely sympathetic villain, and Wayne is wonderfully understated as the film’s voice of reason.

The HD transfer on Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is outstanding in every way, a crisp, film-like image that shows no age-related damage, yet does not hide the fine grain structure. Details and textures are vividly reproduced, although the opening and closing superimposed credits are slightly softer than the main portion of the picture. Audio is also fine. Bonus feature include an excellent and informative commentary by F. X. Feeney, a moderately interesting featurette about Monument Valley and Ford’s usage of it, and a trailer (unfortunately both in SD).

FORT APACHE on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: B



SCARLET STREET (1945) *** ½ 101m

Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET is arguably his best American film, a brilliantly plotted noir drama full of ironic twists. The beautifully moody black and white cinematography is faithfully reproduced in this edition, unlike many of the cheap Public Domain copies around. Edward G. Robinson is perfect as the mild-mannered cashier and frustrated self-taught artist who becomes infatuated with a scheming masochistic prostitute played with relish by Joan Bennett. Dan Duryea is appropriately smarmy as her boyfriend/pimp. Some predictable plot directions soon become subverted with several unexpected turns of events that dramatize Lang’s dark take on human nature, crime, and punishment, and people’s general eagerness to jump to mistaken conclusions.

The picture on Kino’s Blu-ray, mastered from a 35mm negative preserved at the Library of Congress is an excellent film-like transfer with rich blacks and wide contrast range, very sharp and clear although it does show some light scratches along the edge a few times. Sound quality includes a few clicks and pops but generally is okay except for a sporadic minor “warble” that sometimes sounds as if a bent takeup reel is jerking the film against the sound drum. The bonus features are the same as on Kino’s DVD: a nice commentary by David Kalat and a small photo gallery including ad material and a few stills from deleted scenes.

SCARLET STREET on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: B
Extras: C



CAPE FEAR (1962) *** ½ 106m

J. Lee Thompson’s original version of CAPE FEAR is a masterpiece of mood and suspense, unusually ominous and intense for a Hollywood production made in 1961. An idealistic southern lawyer (Gregory Peck) becomes terrorized by a vengeful ex-con (Robert Mitchum) who has just moved to town and blames Peck’s testimony for the eight years he just spent in prison. As the sadistic harassment against his wife and daughter builds, the lawyer is torn between pursuing legal methods of protection and resorting to criminal tactics himself, leading to a dramatic showdown on a remote houseboat at night. Mitchum has rarely been better, even more menacing than his evil minister in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Peck is great at balancing respect for due process of justice with personal desire for retaliation. Martin Balsam plays the sympathetic local police chief and Telly Savalas is a private detective who helps set up the climactic trap, with Polly Bergan and Lori Martin as the wife and daughter.

The HD picture quality is generally very sharp with lots of fine detail in the stark black-and-white cinematography, especially in closeups, although some slight digital noise reduction sometimes makes the film grain look unnatural or hard to see. The English DTS-HD Master 2.0 audio is very good, and there are eight other language tracks and 21 different subtitle options! Other than that and chapter stops there are no bonus features on this British Blu-ray from Universal. Still at only about $10 from Amazon.co.uk, it’s a great bargain unless Universal comes out with a U.S. release that has some bonus features in lieu of all the multiple language dubs.

CAPE FEAR on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Mar 28, 2012 5:19 am

I just watched the blu-ray of "Fort Apache" and agree with most of the review above. To me, it was a little too unfocused to deserve four stars. Twenty minutes could have been cut out of the film (all in the first half) and it would have been the better for it. I kept wondering why SO much time was given to silly scenes involving drunken Irishmen, while John Wayne's character is being given barely any screen time. There's also very little character development, and not much of a plot (and what there is of it takes a full hour to show itself). Still, the lead actors were impressive, and the film was beautifully shot.
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Mar 28, 2012 12:46 pm

Doug Sulpy wrote:I just watched the blu-ray of "Fort Apache" and agree with most of the review above. To me, it was a little too unfocused to deserve four stars. Twenty minutes could have been cut out of the film (all in the first half) and it would have been the better for it. I kept wondering why SO much time was given to silly scenes involving drunken Irishmen, while John Wayne's character is being given barely any screen time. There's also very little character development, and not much of a plot (and what there is of it takes a full hour to show itself). Still, the lead actors were impressive, and the film was beautifully shot.

I was debating whether to give a 3 1/2 or a 4-star rating, as I agree that the first half seems to meander aimlessly when it should have been giving more back story to Wayne's and/or Fonda's character, especially their relationships with George O'Brien's character. However I'd actually never gotten around to seeing this film after all these years (only excerpts) and just happened to be in the mood for a full-out John Ford production, so all of its dragged-out excesses and sentimental male bonding seemed more endearing than annoying. YMMV, of course, but the sense of entertaining fun that all the many character actors convey kept me involved. Had I been more in the mood for a tight 65-minute Warner programmer or two, I probably would have been bored to death, except for the gorgeous scenery (and sparkling picture quality). Gance's J'ACCUSE (1919) is another film that really drags in the first half, but sets up the characters in a way that makes the last half far more powerful than a shortened cut would have done (now there's a movie that would be nice to see in a new Blu-ray edition).
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Mar 31, 2012 2:03 am

As promised in another thread, here are brief reviews of the three Jerry Lewis films released to Blu-ray by Olive Films back on Valentine's Day. Each has its good and bad points (more of one or the other depending on your reaction to Lewis), but all are tremendously more enjoyable in these sharp Blu-ray editions on a big screen than the rather run-of-the-mill and quickly forgettable entertainment the same movies would be on a standard TV set. Two were shot in the high-resolution double-frame size horizontal 35mm format called VistaVision, and the third is also extremely sharp, being made nearly a decade later when film stocks had become better.

THE GEISHA BOY (1958) ** ½ 96m
Comedian/filmmaker Jerry Lewis has his fans, and is something of an acquired taste. THE GEISHA BOY casts Lewis as a mediocre stage magician, “The Great Wooley,” desperate for a booking who takes a gig to perform at a military base in Japan. There are a few scenes spotlighting his trademark zany slapstick, especially during the first half-hour, but for the most part he tries to play his character fairly straight. Once he meets an orphan Japanese boy, the script and Lewis’ performance push heavily towards the sentimental. Suzanne Pleshette in her first screen role is quite good as the military liaison for Lewis’s character, but the script never develops her character effectively as a potential romantic interest. Instead Lewis becomes immediately preoccupied with the little boy and only peripherally attracted to his aunt played by Nobu McCarthy. When the film isn’t dwelling on the cloying relationship between the boy and Lewis, it often seems to verge on a travelogue of Japan. Even though a number of scenes are dragged out rather too long, the ending seems a bit rushed and overdone. Some kids (perhaps because of the little boy) love the film, but it may be tough going for adults at times.

There are still some nice moments, however, including a brief guest appearance by the Gil Hodges and the Los Angeles Dodgers playing against a Japanese team, and especially an appearance by Sessue Hayakawa as the boy’s grandfather, with an in-joke referencing “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” In fact former animated cartoon director Frank Tashlin gets in a number of fun movie-related in-jokes and off-the-wall cartoon-like gags with the magician’s rabbit, the best parts of the film. The film is worth seeing for Tashlin’s touch and for the fact that the fine detail now visible in the picture greatly enhances its entertainment value.

Picture quality on this Blu-ray from Olive Films is not as dazzlingly crisp as VistaVision titles scanned directly from the camera negatives (for example THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, WHITE CHRISTMAS, and TO CATCH A THIEF). However, this HD transfer from a standard 35mm interpositive is still very good after the opening credits sequence, which is rather soft, and most of the film looks so sharp that occasional intercutting of grainy old stock footage (and which was from standard 35mm instead of VistaVision) is immediately obvious. Colors periodically seem to have a slightly blue feel, likely the color timing of certain shots rather than any fading problem in the print as they are generally natural-looking. The mono audio is good. Like other Olive releases, there are no bonus features other than a main menu and chapter stops.

THE GEISHA BOY on Blu-ray --
Movie: B-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: F




ROCK-A-BYE BABY (1958) *** 103m

Jerry Lewis produced and stars in this pleasant and more sentimental (and very 1950s) reworking of Preston Sturges’ classic MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, rewritten and directed by Frank Tashlin with many of his own trademark touches (movie in-jokes, satiric jabs at TV, cartoon-like actions by live-action characters etc.). In this heavily altered variation on the story, Lewis plays a small-town TV repairman who agrees to care for the babies of his old sweetheart (Marilyn Maxwell), now a Hollywood star who had a brief fling in Mexico that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, but who has no time for children if she wants to keep her career. The teenage sister (Connie Stevens) is now hopelessly in love with Lewis while Lewis pines for Maxwell, and the girls’ father (Salvatore Baccaloni) disapproves of all the goings-on until he realizes that the mysterious triplets who turn up on Lewis’ doorstep are actually his own grandchildren. Hans Conried, Reginald Gardiner, James Gleason and others help round out the cast. A few individual sequences (most notably the conclusion) are lifted closely from the original Sturges script but most of the story is new, loosely inspired by the original. This “remake” is likely the reason Paramount still owns the rights to the 1944 original

One of Lewis’ first slapstick routines in the film seems inspired by the Lumière brothers’ L’Arroseur Arosé by way of Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, but dragged on far too long to stay funny. Most of Lewis’ trademark schtick is predictably forced and overdone, but luckily it’s largely confined to the first half-hour or so before the main plotline takes over and satire and sentiment start to rule the day. Lewis has a fun bit doing a variety of satiric characters inside of a TV cabinet in Stevens’ room, trying to pretend for her drunken father that the noises he heard was just the TV and not him in her bedroom. A very funny segment sequence has an old lady glued to a TV, more interested in the commercials than the program (which is a movie starring John Bunny and Flora Finch!!) and using every product that’s advertised. Later the same lady has a portable TV with her during a courtroom scene.

While there aren’t quite enough songs to call it a true musical, every so often the plot stops for a song by Lewis, Stevens, or Maxwell, with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Sammy Cahn. What musical numbers there are were staged by Nick Castle. An amusing and the most elaborate musical production number is supposedly being filmed in Egypt for Maxwell’s film called “White Virgin of the Nile” (whose title was one of her reasons for dumping her kids on Lewis). ROCK-A-BYE BABY doesn’t hold a candle to the original MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, but remains a very entertaining example of 1950s Hollywood product with something for everyone: slapstick, satire, music, comedy, drama, romance, and self-consciously colorful contemporary art direction. There’s also a great in-joke sight-gag with a newspaper photo near the end that will appeal to fans of old radio and TV (and movies and vaudeville). It’s easily the best of the first wave of three Jerry Lewis comedies to make it to Blu-ray, one that even non-Lewis fans might enjoy. The sentiment is more genuine and less annoying than it becomes in THE GEISHA BOY, yet Lewis’ performance is not quite as far from his typical screen persona as his character in BOEING, BOEING.

Picture quality on this Olive Films release is very good to excellent throughout, sourced from a beautiful-looking 35mm interpositive reduced from the original VistaVision negative, often looking almost as crisp as if it had been scanned from the VistaVision elements. While the opening title sequence shows some wear and a bit more contrast, overall colors are incredibly bright and fine detail of things like sweater fuzz and fabric patterns is amazingly clear. All this combines with Tashlin’s pop culture sensibility and the unashamed overlit 1950s soundstage/back-lot production style to give a wonderful feeling of being back in 1958 seeing this film for the first time. Audio is also very good, in lossless DTS 2.0 mono. Sadly once again Olive provides absolutely no extras other than a menu and chapter stops.

ROCK-A-BYE BABY on Blu-ray –
Movie: B+
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: F



BOEING, BOEING (1965) *** 102m

This leering, winking bedroom farce adapted from a stage play is not the mediocrity or disaster declared by some others, but neither is it the masterpiece a few critics have asserted. While certainly no Lubitsch, it is easy to take. It's the kind of show that the cast can obviously have a lot of fun with, and all of them seem to be enjoying it here. The extremely un-PC sexist plot may put off many modern viewers (right from the opening credits sequence), but looking at it in the context of the 1950s-60s reveals an amusing and perhaps reasonably accurate depiction of prevailing attitudes and might play well as more of a pop comedy counterpoint to such films as THE APARTMENT or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (both also recently out on Blu-ray). Sex comedies are certainly far more crude these days, even when they attempt to be PC and/or have a "happy" romantic resolution. But despite the film's gleeful amorality, it's not really that far off from the classic precode sex comedies of the early 30s or even the 20s.

Tony Curtis is fairly entertaining throughout as he tries to juggle the schedules of three different stewardess girlfriends on three different airlines, and Jerry Lewis is amazingly restrained as the visiting friend who helps him out when the airline schedules suddenly change and everybody's running in and out of doors. It's just a bit strange seeing Lewis acting like a real actor playing a genuine character rather than like Jerry Lewis trying to be funny. Doubtless his fans were sorely disappointed by his performance and the whole film when it came out, but non-Lewis fans may well prefer this film to ROCK-A-BYE BABY and many of his other films. The female characters are also fun (as well as attractive) but are very much underwritten except for Thelma Ritter's perfectly-played long-suffering housemaid.

Picture quality on this Blu-ray is mostly superb, with an extremely sharp, crisp image except during occasional opticals and a few stock footage shots. Colors every now and then seem a bit on the magenta side, but are usually quite natural. The extreme clarity of the picture, especially seeing it six feet wide, adds immensely to the film's enjoyment, and it would seem far more routine on a standard TV set. The only "extra" is the fact that the disc has a main menu and chapter stops. Olive's small-label niche release price point will likely keep this one from becoming an impulse purchase, but for anyone who enjoys the period, the genre, or the stars, it's certainly worth a look.

BOEING, BOEING on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Apr 01, 2012 12:28 pm

DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS blu-ray

This is a limited release by boutique label Twilight Time. It was always one of my favorites, and in my film collecting days I had a nice 'scope print. The sequel to "The Robe," taking place during the reign of Roman emperor Caligula, continues the story of Victor Mature's "Demetrius," his falling from the ways of righteousness and eventual redemption. Unlike many of the mock pious religious epics of the time, including its precursor, DatG doesn't have any higher aspirations than to entertain. Its few actual historical characters provide a historical background for the drama without reflecting much historical accuracy.

I felt the blu-ray was only marginally superior to the previous standard dvd. The audio goes badly out of sync around twenty minutes into the film and only gradually and partially catches up nearer the end of the film. On other forums there have been similar complaints, while some said there was no problem. Apparently Twilight Time only uses the masters that the studios have prepared, so presumably they can't correct a problem of this type.

The early part of the film is soft, becoming more crisp around the same time that the sound goes out of sync. The audio quality is very good, but DatG, like many early Fox 'scope films, uses the surround channel sparingly.

At $29.95 available exclusively through screenarchives.com, a decision to purchase may depend on whether you already own the standard dvd. If you're a fan of the film as I am you'll probably buy it, my critique notwithstanding.
-Rich
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostFri Apr 06, 2012 3:51 am

The new Blu-ray of Frank Capra's LADY FOR A DAY dropped from $30 to $19 last month, so I ordered it and it arrived this week. Now, of course, it just dropped again on Amazon to only $15, and is really a bargain at the price. This is one of the few Capra films I'd never gotten around to seeing in its entirety. I'd never bought the DVD and kept putting off watching the old VHS recording I'd made in EP mode off of AMC during their Capra marathon. It's nice to see it for the first time in this lovely new restored HD transfer, which apparently has an extra four minutes or so that for some reason couldn't be included in the DVD version some years ago.

LADY FOR A DAY (1933) *** ½ 96m
Frank Capra hoped to win Oscars with this highly polished and heartfelt precode comedy-drama based on a Damon Runyon story. The film was able to earn nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress, but lost out to other films. May Robson gives a touching performance as Apple Annie, an alcoholic old street peddler who has managed to send her daughter (Jean Parker) to a European school, sheltered from the truth of her impoverished, seedy origins. Annie’s letters pretend she’s a respectable lady active in New York’s high society, and everything goes along fine until the daughter writes that she’s coming home with her fiancé, the son of a Spanish count (Walter Connolly) who wants to meet her family. Panic-stricken, she appeals to gangster Dave the Dude (Warren William), who cooks up a scheme with his lovable mob to borrow a fancy hotel room and make it look like she’s everything she claimed to be. Of course things soon start to go wrong, but with Damon Runyon and Frank Capra (and a script by Robert Riskin), everything has to work out by the end, with plenty of wit, wisecracks, social commentary, and raw humanity on display in the process. As usual in a Capra film, the supporting cast of character actors is superb all around, including Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Glenda Farrell, Nat Pendleton, Hobart Bosworth, and many more.

Picture quality is extremely good on this Blu-ray from Inception Media Group, especially considering the original negative was lost. This was restored from a dupe negative made off Frank Capra’s personal print back in 1977. Overall sharpness is quite strong, a bit better than ISLAND OF THE LOST SOULS, at least on a level with the Blu-rays of KING KONG, perhaps even DESIGN FOR LIVING, if not quite up to the amazing crispness of REBECCA, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, or THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. There is a beautiful contrast range on the Blu-ray, although sometimes detail does disappear into dark shadows. The brief restoration demonstration shows the original film element not only having more dust, scratches, and missing frames, but being a lower contrast and flatter-looking gray, although including a few details that get lost in the restored version's darker portions. Audio quality is not bad, about as good as can be expected, and the lossless PCM track has a decent frequency range.

There are only a few bonus features, but all are nice to have, even if most are ported over from the DVD. There’s an audio commentary track by Frank Capra Jr., an optional standard-def video introduction by Frank Capra Jr., a modest stills gallery, and a restoration demonstration on the disc, plus a nice little pamphlet insert with an illustrated essay by historian Scott Eyman. There is also a main menu and numerous chapter stops.

LADY FOR A DAY on Blu-ray –
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: B-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostTue Apr 17, 2012 12:18 am

I watched my Twilight Time Blu-ray of DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS on Easter night, right after revisiting the old Fox Blu-ray of THE ROBE. Initially the picture quality was a big disappointment, quite dark with a heavy static grain pattern superimposed over the fairly heavy but constantly changing film grain. However, when I changed my projector setting from the "Color2" preset (which reproduces the SMPTE standard) to the "Normal" preset (designed for viewing in a brightly-lit room or for most TV broadcasts), it both brightened the image to match what the picture on THE ROBE had looked like and also seemed to eliminate the overlay of static grain. Thus, brightening up the monitor settings improved the image so dramatically that it was pretty much on a par with the very good but not always spectacular image on Fox's restoration of THE ROBE (early Eastmancolor negative stock and the very first anamorphic lenses contribute to an inherently grainier and often softer-focus image than films from several years later). The picture seems to get sharper as the film progresses, however, whether due to condition of the surviving print or use of better lenses, film stocks, and/or printing when the original elements were created, I really don't know. As for the audio problem, the original 4-track stereo is nice, but I also noticed some sync problems starting in the gladiator-school scene. However, they were relatively minor with my player and eventually corrected themselves.

Extras include Twilight Time's usual isolated music track and illustrated booklet, but there's also a trailer this time (although only in SD, unfortunately). The film itself is an example where the sequel is at least as good if not better than the original. There's more action, a more interesting plot, and a bit more character development. Fans of the film will probably want to get it, as the edition like all Twilight Time exclusive releases is limited to 3000 copies and does look better than a DVD. Others may rather borrow a friend's copy, as at $30 plus shipping it's a bit pricey compared to typical major studio mass-market releases (though still no more than a 16mm black-and-white one-reel dupe of some old cartoon!!).
DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: B-
Audio: B+
Extras: C



I also finally watched the other two Jerry Lewis films that recently came out on Blu-ray from Olive Films. Here are reviews of those...


IT’S ONLY MONEY (1962) *** 83m
This enjoyable if familiar comedy-mystery has Lewis as a TV repairman again, but this time he’s trying to become a private detective. At some point he discovers he’s the long-lost heir to a recently-deceased millionaire, but naturally the family lawyer is plotting to get the fortune for himself by marrying the elderly widow. Meanwhile, the household nurse inexplicably falls for Lewis.

Lewis is in top form here, playing the comedy and the romance without always coming off as if he’s trying too hard to be funny, like he so often does. Mae Questel, better-known as the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, is loads of fun as the widow, and Jack Weston is great as the evil henchman. Zachary Scott, Jesse White, and Joan O’Brien round out the cast. One scene shows posters to THE GEISHA BOY and THE ERRAND BOY in the background, but Frank Tashlin’s approach is not so frenetic or surreal in this film. Like Lewis, he seems to be a bit more mainstream here, and he sometimes even gives the darker moments a look that borders on film noir with its black-and-white cinematography.

Picture quality is quite good with plenty of detail, although it sometimes seems to be slightly grainier than one might expect from 1960s black and white film stocks. The mono audio is fine. Once again Olive has included absolutely no bonus features besides a main menu and chapter stops.

IT’S ONLY MONEY on Blu-ray –
Movie: B+
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: F


WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? (1963) ** ½ 90m

This is a rather typical Jerry Lewis film that should please his fans, and provide some harmless diversion for others. It’s got plenty of his trademark slapstick and facial contortions, plus a wholesome, heartwarming romance. As usual, much of the comedy is wildly broad, obvious, and overdone, but there are also a fair number of genuinely amusing moments. Director Frank Tashlin, as usual, works in a number of borderline surreal cartoon-like gags using props and live actors, and there is just a bare hint of social satire from time to time, mostly regarding the business world and genre roles.

The story is an improbably romance between working-class klutz Lewis, and beautiful department-store heiress Jill St. John, who is masquerading as an elevator girl to find a man who’ll love her for herself and not her money. John McGiver has a good time as her sympathetic but henpecked father, with a delightful Agnes Moorhead as her domineering mother, the real head of the company, who thinks Lewis is below her daughter’s consideration. Ray Walston is just as entertaining as Moorhead’s store manager, ordered to hire Lewis and assign him the worst possible jobs available. Of course that only leads to the slapstick and mayhem everyone expects, but none of that discourages the romantic couple or hinders the inevitable happy ending (which is just a bit much as it finally plays out).

The Blu-ray’s picture quality is mostly very good. The opening credits sequence is soft and colors are relatively muted, doubtless due to the optical printing process. After that, however, the rest of the film looks much crisper and colors are very intense, with some sporadic and very minor color fringing due possibly to the Technicolor separations not registering perfectly when making a new interpositive. Reds and flesh tones almost leap off the screen and it all looks very much like a theatrical print would have appeared in 1963. The lossless mono audio is just fine. As usual, Olive has no bonus features other than a main menu and chapter stops.

WHO’S MINDING THE STORE on Blu-ray –
Movie: B
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Apr 25, 2012 1:41 am

Here's a review of one title from my latest order from Amazon.co.uk, which for some reason seems to be shipping most of its titles from Germany now instead of from England, taking several weeks instead of the week or less it usually takes from England. Since I learned how to convert my old Insignia Blu-ray player to multi-region, I included several region B-locked titles in the last order, and this is one of them. I had never seen the film before, and don't recall having even heard of it until the Blu-ray release was announced. Like FORT APACHE (reviewed above), I debated whether to give the movie itself 3 1/2 or 4 stars, but it was so unexpected that I went with the 4-star rating although also like FORT APACHE, I kept it to a regular grade A rather than an A+, except for the image quality.

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937) **** 92m
Leo McCarey may be better remembered for films like THE AWFUL TRUTH, THE RUGGLES OF RED GAP, GOING MY WAY, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and his Laurel & Hardy silent shorts, but his personal favorite film was the decidedly less commercial but far more heartfelt character drama MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. It’s a story even more timely today than it was in 1934 when the original novel (entitled "Years Are So Long") was published, soon followed by a stage adaptation and then the film. What’s even more amazing is how it survived being turned into a Hollywood movie without being diluted into a sentimental, feel-good parable with an obligatory happy ending. This is especially noteworthy since it was made at a time when the movies celebrated family values and mutual support among family members, and largely provided escapism from the difficulties of economic depression or reassurance that things would eventually get better. Paramount’s reluctant release of the film caused a critical sensation, but predictably was a boxoffice failure.

The plot of MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW begins like any number of films, with a family of grown children with very different personalities reuniting at the picture-postcard home of their elderly parents. It seems as if it could easily develop into a screwball comedy, but very soon we realize something is wrong. The bank has foreclosed on the house and the children must suddenly decide how to handle the situation. We soon realize even further, that none of the five children is particularly able to bear the financial burden of having their parents move in with them, nor are any particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of having one or the other live with them for any length of time, disrupting their social lives and interfering with daily routines. We quickly see this realization on their faces and on the faces of the parents. And even though no less than Orson Welles once proclaimed it “the saddest film ever made” and declared it “could make a stone cry,” McCarey never lets the film turn into a heavy-handed sermon about heartless children and victimized senior citizens.

McCarey’s sensitive touch and the superlative cast of character actors allow the people to be believable individuals, each with his or her virtues and faults, each completely understanding of the situation yet each knowingly and stubbornly selfish in the face of it, with varying degrees of guilt. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi give perhaps the performances of their careers as the elderly parents. Thomas Mitchell is outstanding, as usual, as the eldest son who is not proud of his siblings nor himself for their attitudes. Fay Bainter, Maurice Moscovich, Louise Beavers, and the rest of the cast, likewise give a depth to characters that could easily become stereotypes. Various subplots (such as escapades of the wild teenage daughter/granddaughter played by Barbara Read) might be the main focus of any other film, but here serve to make the story that much more textured.

Without casting any blame, the film dramatizes the effects of children being raised in a way that leaves them with a certain undeniable familial affection but little sense of personal duty. It depicts families that have grown apart and scattered across the country, a phenomenon gradually being felt since World War I and which would become the norm in the decades following World War II. And despite the uncomfortable pessimism about human nature, there are comic moments, and the film still celebrates the intense love of the parents for each other that has lasted through ups and downs for 50 years, and the innate decency of the average person, even a fast-talking car salesman (showing tender-hearted kindnesses perhaps more likely to be extended to strangers for a brief moment than to family members for an indefinite period). The film delivers plenty of food for thought and reflection on each of the characters’ motivations and past experiences.

The Blu-ray from Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” series has a stunningly sharp and film-like HD transfer with good, solid sound (despite some very evident background hiss) in a lossless 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio track. Bonus features include a nice illustrated 36-page booklet with an insightful essay and a reprint of the original novel’s concluding paragraphs, quite different from the film but no less touching and just as devastating in a different way. On the disc itself there is sadly no audio commentary but there are two interesting 20-minute discussions about the film and McCarey, recorded with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins, respectively, originally for the Criterion Collection (and upscaled to 24p HD), as well as optional SDH English subtitles. Unfortunately while its price is surprisingly reasonable (about $21 including shipping from Europe, which is cheaper than Criterion’s DVD), Eureka’s release is encoded for Region B (and region 2 for the DVD also included in the package), so North American viewers will need a multi-region player to watch it. However, because of the fact it is region-locked there may yet be hope that Criterion could release it on Blu-ray in the future (as the transfer is obviously Criterion-quality and it’s doubtful copyright owner Universal would ever do it on its own).

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW on Blu-ray –
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: B
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 06, 2012 12:33 pm

Now back to a few imported but region-free Blu-rays well-worth adding to one's home screening schedule...

Once a fixture in major cities and even larger towns, repertory, revival, and “artcinemas” have been fewer and further between since the growth of home video the past 30 years. While there are more and more film festivals around the country, even award-winners rarely get much if any theatrical distribution. On the other hand, the rapidly evolving “home theatre” phenomenon over the past decade has made it much easier to approximate the movie-going experience at home rather than merely catching up with films on a TV set.

Several video distributors specialize in the kind of films that never show up in mainstream multiplexes. In the United States, Criterion, Kino, and Image Entertainment are most likely to release high-quality editions of the sort of independent, foreign, and classic films that once were the staple of artcinemas. But even they don’t have the resources to release everything a viewer might want to see. Three major British video distributors have aggressively devoted themselves to “art house” titles both obscure and well-known, often releasing them on region-free Blu-ray editions that can easily be imported (often at the same or lower prices than new Criterion or Kino discs).

Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” series, Arrow’s “Arrow Academy” series, and the British Film Institute are all excellent sources for often-overlooked examples of archival and world cinema on Blu-ray. Like the Criterion Collection, each release is accompanied by an informative illustrated booklet and interesting selection of bonus items. The introductory explanation in one of Arrow’s booklets is worth quoting: “As the once common repertory cinema dies off Arrow Academy aims to be your at-home repertory cinema, where you can make rich cinematic discoveries and enjoy films with optimal picture and audio presentation, special features to contextualize and comment upon the film for that essential post screening discussion as well as a celebration of the art of the film poster with alternative poster designs…” Arrow’s boxcovers are cleverly designed to permit any of four different cover designs by reversing the printed sleeve to display the poster from your country of choice or Arrow's own artwork.

Below are comments on three interesting and somewhat inter-related releases from the past 10 months, one from each British company spotlighting productions from four countries made roughly a decade apart. One I had seen back in college (ASHES AND DIAMONDS), but the other two I’d never heard of until the Blu-ray releases, and then seeing a few quick comments on-line prompted blind buys. They can be ordered through amazon.co.uk for approximately $20 each including shipping from England (after VAT is deducted).

LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949) 87m *** ½
Jean-Pierre Melville was a member of the French Resistance during World War II, and when he read the 1942 autobiographical novel by a fellow Resistance fighter, “Le Silence de la mer,” decided it would become his first feature-length film. He made the complex character study of a naïve Francophile German officer in occupied France boarding with an elderly but strong-willed Frenchman and his niece completely independently, shooting during 1947-48 as funds permitted. Melville’s use of natural lighting and actual locations (mostly the real-life home of the author), in addition to his guerilla nature of clandestine production, inspired the “New Wave” filmmakers of a decade later, and result in the film having a much more timeless look today than studio productions of the same era. The frequently low-key interior lighting now appears as an effective, noirish salute to German expressionism, but was apparently derided as “amateurish” by film industry professionals miffed at Melville’s completing the film outside of the mainstream “rules” and officially sanctioned procedures.

The performances by Howard Vernon as the “good German,” Jean-Marie Robain as the uncle, and Nicole Stéphane as the niece are all outstanding examples of subtle facial and body movements bringing depth to their characters that may contradict their monologues. As their own means of passive resistance, the uncle and niece refuse to speak with their uninvited guest, no matter how friendly and sympathetic he might seem. The niece barely says a word in the entire film, and we hear the uncle’s thoughts in voice-over only, yet the character interactions are skillfully suggested through the acting and the editing while the officer holds his one-sided conversations. The implicit romantic tension between him and the young niece is brilliantly presented, as are the reactions when he relates the shattering importance of what he learned from his fellow officers on a trip to Paris. Sometimes the music underscoring seems a bit overdone, but other times it is spot on, and overall the film is an amazingly self-assured first feature that retains its dramatic power.

Eureka’s Blu-ray has a very sharp film-like image and reasonably good sound (considering the low-budget production). Bonus features include a 56-page booklet with cast and credits, a lengthy extract from a 2003 book on Melville, and a 1971 interview with Melville. On the disc are the original trailer in HD, a 40-minute documentary on Melville (in HD), and a 20-minute discussion by a Melville scholar (in SD).

LE SILENCE DE LA MER on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: B



ASHES AND DIAMONDS (1958) 99m *** ½

Andrzej Wajda is one of the major young directors to come out of Poland in the 1950s, and amazingly is still working (his devastating 2007 film KATYN ranks among his best). The film that brought Wajda to international attention was ASHES AND DIAMONDS (1958), freely adapted from a popular Polish novel and filmed after the death of Stalin permitted a slight increase in artistic freedom under the Communist regime. Wajda’s influences were decidedly American, including Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (notably all the wide-angle shots revealing ceilings in sets) and the then-recent James Dean hit REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (especially in the riveting performance by charismatic star Zbigniew Cybulski).

With a number of thematic similarities to LE SILENCE DE LA MER, ASHES AND DIAMONDS is a more explicit dramatization of the World War II Resistance, metaphorically (but with enough ambiguity to pass the censors) making a rebellious statement against the Communist regime, unquestioned loyalty to superiors, and war in general. On the final day of the war, when Germany finally signed its surrender, a young Resistance fighter has been ordered to assassinate a Communist official, but accidentally kills the wrong person. When he discovers the official is still alive, he decides to finish the job at the hotel where a victory celebration is planned, but doesn’t count on falling in love with a cynical barmaid and re-evaluating his life priorities in light of the war’s end.

Wajda changed the novel’s focus from the party secretary (whose own son has become an anti-communist rebel) and various other characters to the disillusioned assassin. He also condensed a week’s plot down to a single day and night, giving the events and decisions a stronger urgency and poignancy. He managed to inject the film’s subversive subtext through brilliant visuals (notably the finale in a city dump), carefully keeping the dialogue within communist censors’ acceptability, since dialogue would have been much easier to censor.

Arrow’s Blu-ray has a superb transfer of the stark, low-key cinematography, and decent audio. Extras include a 40-page booklet containing two interesting essays on the film (including one on the poem that gave the film its title, used by the novel as an epigraph but actually worked into the film’s plot and dialogue), a statement by Wajda, and a 2001 speech by Wajda on the state of national cinemas in competition with Hollywood, but oddly no page of film credits. The only bonus on the disc is a 25-minute interview with Wajda (in 4x3 SD, with anamorphically squeezed 16x9 film clips that do not automatically expand to fill the wide screen).

ASHES AND DIAMONDS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: B-



DEEP END (1970) 91m ***

Another Polish filmmaker, Jerzy Skolimowski, co-wrote Roman Polanski’s KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962), but left the country in the late 1960s after Polish authorities banned one of his films. In 1969 he managed to get an American producer to set up a feature dealing with modern London culture, but filmed primarily in Germany. The result was DEEP END (1970), a darkly satiric and somewhat disturbing coming-of-age story very much in the mold of Polanski films like REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC, yet just as much a colorful look at contemporary working-class British life, particularly the new sexual freedom and the emerging dominant female. Now regarded among Skolimowski’s best work, it’s also a psychological study in emotional cruelty and its far-reaching effects on an impressionable mind. Paramount distributed the film in the United States, but rights problems have kept it difficult to see until recently.

The story follows an eventful week in the life of Mike (John Moulder-Brown), a teenage boy who leaves school to get a job at a rundown bath house. There he falls for a self-assured co-worker Sue (Jane Asher, possibly best-remembered for MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and ALFIE), a decade older than he is, who explains how he can earn extra tips from middle-aged female customers, one of whom is played with wicked relish by former British sex-symbol Diana Dors. Although Sue often encourages Mike’s attentions, she has a fiancé (Chris Sandford) and has been carrying on an affair with a married swimming instructor (Karl-Michael Vogler) who himself regularly indulges with his adoring teenage female students.

Much of the film has a sort of comic exuberance, celebrating the lifestyles and sense of freedom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but there’s an underlying bitterness and emptiness in the characters that comes through more and more as it continues. Largely scripted but partly improvised, DEEP END also relies mainly on hand-held camera, with vividly evocative color art direction (by Anthony Pratt, nephew of Boris Karloff!) intensifying the believable performances and various recurring motifs (notably the color red) that foreshadow darker things to come. There’s also appropriately trendy music by Cat Stevens and the German rock band Can. It’s a film that is likely to be more impressive after reflection and possibly re-watching than it is while seeing it the first time through.

The BFI’s Blu-ray has a superb HD transfer from the recently-restored film and original magnetic mono soundtrack. Special features on the disc (all in high-definition) include a very informative new 74-minute documentary retrospective on the film, a featurette about scenes that were deleted (but don’t survive), the original trailer, plus an interesting (and just as disturbing) 10-minute student short from 1976, also starring Jane Asher. There’s also a 28-page booklet with essays about the film, the soundtrack music, the director, and the bonus short, as well as credits for the feature and each bonus item.

DEEP END on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed May 09, 2012 2:36 am

Getting back to vintage American films on Blu-ray, here's one just released this week...


THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA (1958) 105m ** ½
Possibly inspired by the sudden acclaim and easier availability of Japanese cinema after 1950, the late 50s saw a number of Hollywood productions centering on relations with Japan. In 1956 there was TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, in 1957 there was SAYONARA and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and in 1958 came THE GEISHA BOY and THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA, the latter directed by no less than John Huston and starring John Wayne, of all people. Huston frequently shot his exotic adventures on location rather than studio back lots, and filmed THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA almost entirely in Japan.

The posters and trailer make the film look like another exotic action-adventure. In actuality, it’s a rather leisurely paced historical drama depicting the 1856 arrival of America’s first Consul General to Japan, Townsend Harris, the political intrigue among the isolationist Japanese aristocracy, and the legendary romance of Harris with a geisha girl named Okichi. Japanese ancient traditions and honor are what clash with America’s insistence that the country bring itself into the modern world community. Huston disowned the film after re-edits by Fox, claiming the studio destroyed his vision. Regardless of Huston’s claim and advertising hype, however, the existing film is anything but a typical sprawling Hollywood epic full of action-packed episodes and predictable romance. On the contrary it retains a very Japanese flavor in its cinematography, color art direction, and editing style, as well as themes, characterizations, and plot developments – which was exactly Huston’s original intention. Fans of Japanese cinema should find THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA to be very familiar-looking territory. The use of meticulous CinemaScope image compositions with frequent long takes shot from a long distance gives an elegant dignity and lyrical beauty that are largely lost on a small television screen. It’s another of those late 50s widescreen films that is truly designed for a very large and wide screen and cannot truly be appreciated without it.

THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA often gets a bad reputation as well from the supposed miscasting of John Wayne. It is true that Wayne gets very little chance to be the “John Wayne” character his fans expect (especially playing a fairly liberal politician rather than a hardline military man), but he delivers a more than acceptable and unjustly maligned performance as Harris-san. His general understatement in the role effectively plays against his stereotyped screen persona while simultaneously gaining a dramatic tension derived from the audience’s very preconceptions about how “John Wayne” should react. It’s actually a welcome change of pace. Sam Jaffe is as usual quite good as Harris’ translator, with Eiko Ando pleasant and sometimes touching as Okichi, the geisha sent to spy upon Harris who winds up falling in love with him. So Yamamura is excellent as the conflicted Governor Tamura, easily the strongest character and strongest performance in the film, and the rest of the Japanese cast is likewise impressive.

While it may not be either Huston’s or Wayne’s best work, THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA is an admirable effort that is certainly not the disaster proclaimed by some critics. Somewhat reminiscent of the TV miniseries SHOGUN, it’s well-worth seeing for a number of reasons, whether for cultural, historical, auteur/star completist considerations, or merely for its widescreen photography and stereo sound.

Fox’s HD transfer represents the original film very well, with little if any noticeable digital noise reduction, although the inherent softness of the 1950s CinemaScope lenses and optical dissolves keeps it from looking quite as sharp as 1950s films shot in VistaVision or other large-format negatives. Colors are lush and saturated, but well-controlled by Huston. The nice original four-track stereophonic sound is beautifully reproduced in a DTS-HD 5.1 track with rich bass in the subwoofer channel, rich music, and effective stereo separation of some of the dialogue as well. Bonus features are not especially impressive, but still a welcome addition: four Fox Movietone News reports about the film’s various premieres (all 1.33:1 in SD), the original trailer (in 1.85:1 and SD), and an HD photo gallery of about 30 stills. Best of all, the Blu-ray sells for only $12.96 (though is available exclusively at Walmart)!

THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: C
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostThu May 10, 2012 8:52 am

As a Huston fan that needs that Wayne title, I wonder if Wal-Mart only also applies to the chain's stores in Canada? Guess there's only one way to find out... (Should I assume it'll surface elsewhere eventually?)
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon May 14, 2012 2:15 pm

Moving forward a few years but staying in the anamorphic widescreen category, here are three unspectacular but diverting 1960s Paramount programmers all filmed in Panavision, and released to Blu-ray by small niche distributor Olive Films over the past few months. Picture quality varies from pretty good to excellent, and while entertainment value of each film is adequate (and will vary according to one's tastes), all are considerably enhanced by seeing their original full widescreen framing in high definition (and on a very big screen).

WHO’S GOT THE ACTION? (1962) 93m ** ½
Essentially an extended sit-com, this reasonably pleasant Dean Martin vehicle co-stars Lana Turner, Eddie Albert, and Walter Matthau. It may be more entertaining as a time capsule of the early sixties style and attitudes than as the cutesy romantic comedy plot with a dash of Damon Runyonesque organized crime subplot that takes over by the last half. It’s also enjoyable for its well-composed widescreen Panavision cinematography.

Martin plays a well-to-do lawyer with Turner as his loving but frustrated wife who’s worried at all the odd-hour phone calls he’s been getting. Afraid he’s having an affair, she turns to old flame (and Martin’s law partner) Albert, and is relieved to learn that Martin’s preoccupation is really just a new addiction to betting on the horses, and has been losing heavily the past eight months. She arranges for Albert to take all of Martin’s bets for a “mysterious bookie” and give her the cash, which she’ll then save up to pay off his debts. Unfortunately, every long-shot Martin picks from then on turns out to be a winner, forcing Turner to sell off their fancy apartment furnishings to the upwardly mobile nightclub floozy who lives across the hall, so she can pay off his winnings. Then miffed mob boss Matthau gets involved, since his bookie loses three more regular customers to the mysterious competitor, all placing their bets through Albert. It gets even more complicated by the ultimate showdown and requisite resolution, but is mostly good, smile-inducing if forgettable fun with the quaint sense of innocent edginess that was popular in the 50s and 60s until the ratings system eliminated the pretenses of innocence.

The Blu-ray from Olive Films of this Paramount picture is somewhat problematic. It appears to be an accurate, sharp, and film-like HD transfer, but from a print with uneven, mostly mediocre lab work. The higher than expected graininess may have been due to using a faster original film stock, but looks more like a new print made off a dupe negative, thus a few extra generations away from the original. Colors are sometimes perfect but often have yellowish cast, and the picture is just contrasty enough that highlights frequently seem washed-out. It looks like what you’d expect from a quick answer print run off a preservation negative rather than a camera original, and probably would not look any better without careful color timing, if not a digital restoration from earlier generation elements. The mono sound is fine, but not outstanding, presented in 2.0 DTS-HD. There are no bonus features beyond a main menu and chapter stops.

WHO’S GOT THE ACTION? on Blu-ray --
Movie: B-
Video: B+
Audio: A-
Extras: F



COME BLOW YOUR HORN (1963) 112m ** ½

Frank Sinatra is a loose-living playboy son of a New York Jewish businessman (Lee J. Cobb) in this Norman Lear reworking of Neil Simon’s play. Tony Bill gets his first big screen role as Sinatra’s younger brother who moves in with him and learns how to live the life of a swinging Kennedy-era bachelor. It’s all a sort of affectionately bittersweet comedy-romance with the inevitable stereotyped stubborn Jewish parents serving as the nagging conscience of the protagonists.

Though its stage play origin results in mostly interior, dialogue-heavy scenes (beautifully composed for the wide Panavision screen), there are also some nice exteriors of early 1960s New York City, and the film suddenly and briefly becomes a musical when Sinatra sings the title song while giving Bill a trendy makeover to get rid of his naïve schoolboy image. There’s also a fun cameo by Dean Martin. The high point comes towards the end with the by now disillusioned older brother coming home to a wild beatnik party hosted by the younger brother posing as a Paramount Studios producer, featuring a party of pseudo-intellectuals who play “strip-Scrabble” and practice hypnotism pranks.

Like many of Olive’s releases, the picture quality looks as good as can be, with a vividly film-like transfer showing the natural grain (which is not quite as heavy as that in WHO’S GOT THE ACTION, but coarser than that in ASSAULT ON A QUEEN). The mono audio in 2.0 DTS-HD is very good. Again Olive includes no bonuses but a menu and chapter stops.

COME BLOW YOUR HORN on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: F



ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966) 106m ** ½

Rod Serling wrote a variety of excellent scripts for “The Twilight Zone,” but wasn’t quite in top form with this moderately entertaining, off-beat heist picture for Frank Sinatra Enterprises. Adapted from a novel by Jack Finney, the film incorporates familiar Serling themes of ironic twists, poetic justice, nostalgia for the past, and people who don’t quite fit in to present-day life, notably World War II navy veterans. The action and adventure promised in the studio ad campaign are virtually non-existent. Instead we get a rather dark and seedy drama of modern outcasts who decide somewhat reluctantly to work together towards a common goal -- first a hunt for sunken treasure, and then the salvage and restoration of a well-preserved sunken U-boat they hope they can use to become seafaring Robin Hoods to loot ocean liners for their personal gain. The climax comes in the final sequence where they attempt to hold up the Queen Mary in mid-ocean but it serves less as an action showcase and more as a resolution to the various character dynamics that have been gradually building throughout the previous hour and a half.

The original 1960 OCEAN’S ELEVEN spent its first hour introducing the characters and developing their relationships before getting into the main heist plot, its long setup, and finally its execution and inevitably unplanned resolution. It’s possible Serling was trying to follow the same formula, but the obviously amiable chemistry between the characters (and actors) in that earlier hit is missing here. In ASSAULT ON A QUEEN, none of the characters are very likeable. And except for Sinatra and sidekick John Errol, none of the characters particularly likes or trusts any of the others, and some are outright hostile toward each other. Alf Kjellin does a good job as the former U-boat commander who gets a new chance to do what he loves best, Richard Conte is fine as the dedicated navy mechanic with a shady past, and Virna Lisi provides adequate romantic interest with a hint of a troubled past. There’s even a nice bit part by Reginald Denny as a Master-at-Arms. Tony Franciosa, however, is so melodramatically smarmy that he drags down the story whenever he’s on screen (which is a lot). Nevertheless, the film has some good moments, the U-boat is kind of cool, and for those more interested in the mid-sixties character studies than the putative heist plot, it’s worth sitting through, especially in the nice HD transfer.

Picture quality is excellent on Olive’s Blu-ray, the very sharp image making the wide Panavision cinematography a joy to watch. The mono sound is fine, but without a subwoofer channel the bass potential in Duke Ellington’s jazz score is lost. As with other Olive releases there are no extras other than a menu and chapter stops.

ASSAULT ON A QUEEN on Blu-ray --
Movie: B-
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: F
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 27, 2012 1:11 am

The semester is over, and as I expected in my post way back in March, I finally got around to watching the recent Blu-ray of CLEOPATRA during finals week, watching THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE the following night. I expect to have a bunch more Blu-ray reviews ready over the next week, as I've been catching up with quite a few recent purchases after grades were turned in (and since I couldn't get to the Columbus Cinevent this weekend, I am currently in the middle of my own weekend-long marathon of 20 features and 10 shorts down in my basement theatre, some Blu-rays I've already seen and reviewed (like the unexpectedly amazing RAPTURE and the reasonably amusing IT'S ONLY MONEY), others either brand new releases, like Twilight Time's SWAMP WATER and DESIREE, Fox's Grandeur version of THE BIG TRAIL, and some of Criterion's Lean/Coward Criterion set, or older Blu-rays I've never gotten around to watching yet, including THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and a few Region B releases like WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER, THE INNOCENTS, and COEUR FIDELE). Now back to ancient Egypt and Rome via big-budget movies of almost a half-century ago...

Two massive 1960s epic film recreations of ancient history came out on Blu-ray in the past year, but currently can only be bought from Europe. Luckily the better of the two not only has magnificent picture quality but is also region-free, while the slightly lesser film has a substantially lower-quality transfer and is locked to Region B, playable only on European or multi-region Blu-ray players. The enormous budgets of both films and their subsequent boxoffice disappointments had disastrous effects on their studios.

CLEOPATRA (1963) 251m *** ½
This spectacular remake of the long-lost Theda Bara classic received much of its original publicity from the scandalous off-screen romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (both married to others at the time), and from the combination of production disasters and lavish spending that drove its budget from two million dollars constantly upward over several years to close to forty million dollars. When finally released it was the most expensive movie ever made, and adjusting for inflation, it still is.

Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz envisioned the historical epic as a two-part film running six hours. The studio, however, cut the feature by a third, premiering it in New York as one four-hour picture, and quickly cutting it to about three and a quarter hours for a wider general release. The four-hour CLEOPATRA still provokes mixed response from critics, and was denounced by director and star as merely disjointed highlights from the total work. This is perhaps an overreaction, as it is definitely a stronger film dramatically than the three-hour-plus release (which although shorter, actually seems longer). The spectacular recreation of ancient Egypt and Rome tends to overpower the characters and the drama (much of which evidently wound up on the cutting room floor), but it remains an impressive dramatization of events that changed the course of history forever.

Burton and Taylor give perhaps the definitive screen performances of Antony and Cleopatra, and Rex Harrison makes a fine Julius Caesar. Roddy McDowall is okay as the young Octavian. A strong cast of character actors includes Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, Cesare Danova, and many more.

The new high-definition scan from the 65mm original negative provides a stunningly sharp image on Fox’s new Blu-ray release, and the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack is likewise very strong. Like the DVD set from 2001, the Blu-ray presents the four-hour film on two disks, complete with overtures and intermission music, the natural break between the Caesar/Cleopatra and the Antony/Cleopatra halves occurring at the end of disk one. The Blu-ray includes most of the bonus features from the DVD, and adds a few more.

A detailed audio commentary runs the entire length of the feature on an alternate soundtrack. Spread over both discs are an informative two-hour documentary (perhaps more interesting than the film itself), original production featurettes and theatrical trailers (in standard-definition). Long-lost snippets from the six-hour version can be glimpsed in one of the documentaries, but a newly produced HD featurette explains how a search for the deleted two hours has sadly proved fruitless. Another new featurette presents a history of Cleopatra herself.

Fox will likely release a US edition of CLEOPATRA for its 50th anniversary next year, but their region-free Blu-ray that came out this past January can easily be ordered from amazon.co.uk for about $17 including shipping from England.

CLEOPATRA on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A-



THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964) 179m ***

Anthony Mann’s lavish spectacle was filmed in Spain, where the studio constructed the Roman forum in such accurate detail that it was also used by historians for educational films and became a tourist attraction. A huge Roman frontier fort is no less imposing. The plot is set during the second century A.D., dramatizing the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus. The 2000 film GLADIATOR follows it rather closely except for adding the Russell Crowe gladiator plot, editing action scenes with numerous fraction-of-a-second shots, and heavily using CGI instead of actually building real full-scale sets and hiring real people for gigantic crowd scenes like this film did. The solid physical authenticity of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE is one of its most impressive aspects.

Alec Guinness makes a venerable and tragic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, with Christopher Plummer outstanding if a bit old to be historically accurate as the increasingly unbalanced Commodus who succeeds him. The main plot of this story, however, focuses on Sophia Loren as Lucilla, daughter of Marcus Aurelius, and Stephen Boyd as the fair and rational Livius, whom Marcus Aurelius would prefer to rule Rome instead of Commodus. Other stars rounding out the major characters include James Mason, Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif, Mel Ferrer, and John Ireland.

The film’s political implications, idealizing a peaceful one-world philosophy, and stressing how a great empire collapses slowly from within before it can be conquered from without, resonate strongly today. However this did not make a cheerful subject for 1960s American audiences in the midst of civil rights and campus turmoil, the Kennedy assassination, and the polarizing shift in youth culture going on, doubtless contributing to the film’s boxoffice failure. Like CLEOPATRA, the original cut was substantially longer, with some of the character complexities and subplots simplified to bring it down to three hours.

The HD transfer, frustratingly, is only fair to good, and often rather contrasty. While it’s a bit sharper than a DVD, it’s nowhere near as crisp as a film should look that was shot in 65mm, and was apparently sourced from a 35mm reduction print. A fair amount of digital noise reduction softens that image even further, and there are a number of instances of noticeable edge enhancement that degrades the image quality on a large screen.

All bonus features are on the second disc, which is just a standard DVD. Included are a trailer and five interesting documentaries on the film plus three Encyclopædia Brittanica educational films about Rome that were filmed on the same sets. The Starz/Anchor Bay Blu-ray disc is missing the audio commentary that was on the DVD version and the English subtitle option, as well as about five extra minutes of overture, intermission, and exit music included on several other foreign video editions.

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE is an important film, certainly worth seeing, and many viewers may well prefer it to CLEOPATRA. With any luck, its copyright owners will see fit to give it the full-scale restoration and high-quality U.S. Blu-ray release it deserves. In the meantime (for those with Region-B capability), this U.K. release from May 2011 is adequate, selling for only about $11 including international shipping. French and German Blu-ray editions (also Region-B) use the same mediocre video transfer but include a few extra bonus features.

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: B
Audio: A
Extras: A-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 27, 2012 6:26 am

Just out of curiosity Christopher, what are you playing your Region B blu-rays on? I have a Seiki that I picked up for around $80 three years ago, and it's still going strong, despite being a no-name player. I just punched in the same 4-digit code that Philips products use, and it unlocked the region menu (although I have to manually switch between region codes for blu-rays, while it's Region 0 for DVDs and plays anything in that format).

I don't even know if these China-made machines are available in the U.S., anyone else I've asked about region-free players tell me they have a hacked LG player (or a more expensive Momitsu).
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 27, 2012 2:44 pm

Here is a thread about multi-region players. It includes some comments from Christopher:

viewtopic.php?f=17&t=8916

Rick
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 27, 2012 3:14 pm

Like the 2001 DVD set, the Blu-ray presents the four-hour film on two disks


This took me a couple of seconds to read correctly... for a moment I thought maybe they'd found the bushbaby sequence or something...
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 27, 2012 11:53 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:
Like the 2001 DVD set, the Blu-ray presents the four-hour film on two disks


This took me a couple of seconds to read correctly... for a moment I thought maybe they'd found the bushbaby sequence or something...

Yeah, yeah... at quick glance it's easy to think 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, so I just now edited it to be a bit more clear.

As for Region B-locked Blu-rays, I'm using a cheap Insignia player I bought a couple of years ago after reading that they could be easily switched to any region, but by the time I got it that feature had already been disabled. Then a few months ago there was a thread on Blu-ray.com about Insignia region-free hacks with a link to download the older firmware and instructions on how to make it work. I followed the instructions and it worked! It's great! I just ordered UGETSU and SANSHO DAYU from Amazon.co.uk and this weekend thoroughly enjoyed WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER and a few other Region B discs. My Insignia player also plays VCI Blu-rays with no problem that seem to play in slow-motion and slightly out-of-sync on my LG player, and plays many new discs straight through that like to skip forward a few chapters every now and then on the LG player (especially Disney and newer WB discs). I hope the player lasts. Apparently it's been discontinued.
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