From the Earth to a HD Moon

e2mbluThe new blu-ray edition of HBOs classic From the Earth to the Moon arrived today, and eager to see how good/bad it looks I gave it a quick spin. Specifically, I loaded up the two episodes I’d watched on DVD late last year– episode five; Spider,  and episode six; Mare Tranquilitas. 

I’ll get the negative out the way (and while its a biggie for some, it is pretty much the only negative I can see), and as widely expected, it’s the aspect ratio. Originally filmed in the 1990s when most everyone had a 4.3 television, and a cathode ray tube one at that, the show was filmed for a 4.3 (square) ratio (although thankfully on 35mm film I believe, certainly not on video). So purists baying at losing visual information on the top and bottom of the screen (HBO having expanded the whole image to fill a 16.9 widescreen ratio panel in the majority of homes today) will no doubt carry on their baying. The ideal solution would have been to preserve that original ratio as did HD remasters/presentations of the original Star Trek series and shows like The Prisoner and Space: 1999, but HBO no doubt had their eyes on HD presentations on HBO and worldwide sales to foreign networks, where Joe Public likely switches off aghast at black bars on the left and right of the image on their shiny big televisions. Die-hard fans buying shows on disc or download are the minority audience for shows like this, unfortunately (physical sales very much the minority, it’s the world we are living in, and I feel lucky to have the show on disc at all).

This aspect ratio issue was also true of the last DVD edition of the show, but at least this edition has a saving grace, of a sorts, and that’s the newly-executed visual effects, something I really hadn’t expected when news of this HD edition broke.

Possibly one of the deciding factors against preserving a 4.3 ratio is that the majority of the visual effects (and all of the original CGI shots) have been redone, in full HD to replace the original SD effects, and these have been formatted specifically for the wider frame, so couldn’t have been placed in the 4.3 original. I suppose they could have retained those old original effects shots for the 4.3 presentation but that would have negated any benefit from remastering the original negatives of the live-action material as the effects would have stuck out like a sore thumb (we are fortunate to have the option to keep the original effects shots for the 1960s Star Trek Blu-rays – it’s likely we wouldn’t even have that option were they released today, I doubt the studios would make the effort).

I’ve only seen sections of the episodes but on the whole the new effects shots, while certainly not typical of a modern blockbuster movie due to a no doubt limited budget, look very fine indeed. Much better, anyway, than the original effects shots looked, and definitely succeeding in HBOS intentions of giving the show a fresh update and leaving it more like what viewers expect today. They definitely look more cinematic in composition thanks to them being designed for a  widescreen image. When I watched that DVD last year, the visual effects looked horribly dated, particularly on my unforgiving OLED panel- they looked horrible, almost unwatchable, so I commend HBO making that effort. I appreciate some would have liked better CGI but you can hardly expect a remaster of an old tv show to be afforded hugely expensive and time-consuming effects. As it is, what I have seen looks pretty fine and certainly makes the show easier to watch.

The rest of the image has been remastered very well indeed. Colour, contrast etc have been boosted and adjusted brilliantly, and there is plenty of grain for the film purists- likely a result of the image being slightly ‘blown up’ to fill the widescreen frame. Regards this, I’ll have to reserve judgement until I can compare scenes from my DVD but I suspect some care has been given to the framing, I don’t expect it is a simple hack job. A remastering featurette on disc three suggests that considerable care has been given. Skin textures, clothing textures, lighting and colour range are all improved, certainly to my eye (albeit I guess my panel is upgrading the HD image to pseudo-4K anyway). There definitely is a great deal of added detail on the screen, and it definitely looks much better than that horrible DVD did last year- it’s a pretty great HD picture overall; the only real downside I suppose is for those fans who prefer the original 4.3 ratio image. I suppose they can keep (and rewatch) the original DVD edition that was in 4.3 but really, the new remaster is leaps and bounds superior in image quality and they’d be missing out on something here.

So anyway, on the basis of this quick spin I’m very happy and looking forward to really putting HBO to the test with a full rewatch of the series.

Now, if only La La Land can have some really good news for me tomorrow…

 

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The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Blu-ray)

pris1Thanks to Warner Archive over in the States we have a newly restored release of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and on Blu-ray no less. Naturally as I’m a huge fan of the film I ordered a copy and it arrived yesterday, so I watched it that evening. I can report that the film looks absolutely gorgeous, a beautifully detailed HD image with fine grain, incredible detail, no DNR, lovely colour- its damn near perfect, and the best I have ever seen this film look. As the physical formats continue to decline, it makes releases such as this all the more special and treasured, and I thank my lucky stars this is region-free, as I’m pretty certain fairly lowly-renowned films such as this is extremely unlikely to get released over here in the UK (which is a great shame, frankly, and I’d love some UK distributor to prove me wrong and release this and some other Jack Lemmon films in HD over here).

So I watched the film last night and I was quite overcome with how wonderful the experience was – this is one of my very favourite films and to finally have it in this splendid Blu-ray release is just wonderful. To say this release was worth the added expense of having to import it from over the pond is an understatement. The 2019 master is pretty amazing and gives the film a whole new life and vitality, you could be forgiven for thinking its a fresh new film shot last year, except for the fact that it being shot on film gives it a tactile grain and image superior to many modern films shot digitally. The film also features some really impressive widescreen composition, certainly that old pan and scan version I first saw must have been pretty horrific.

Its no doubt some indication of my adoration of this little film that I have mentioned it so many times here on my blog. Its one of those films that I had an instant and intense emotional attachment to- I was in a very low place in my life when I first saw this film by chance on an afternoon tv airing, and it certainly struck a chord in me. Indeed, over the years as I have returned to it that connection, and my love of the film, has remained undiminished- perhaps even heightened as I have grown older and been able to appreciate it even more. Sure, there are better films out there- but few films, in all honesty, mean quite so much to me.

pris3A study of a middle-aged man who becomes unemployed and has a nervous breakdown is perhaps a strange one to describe as a comedy, but it is – its funny and it is sad and there is a feeling of truth and honesty about it, of ordinary people just trying to survive in a cold and indifferent modern city. Jack Lemmon of course is probably my favourite actor and he’s excellent here as the wounded Mel, displaying fragility and pride and, as usual, uncanny comic timing delivering his lines or reacting to others. Anne Bancroft playing his wife Edna, has really good chemistry with him and is no slouch herself with the comedy, and she engenders great sympathy during her characters moments of stress and concern. We really feel the warmth between this middle-aged married couple (I’d hate to imagine how young and physically utopian a modern film versions casting would be).  Thanks to some fine location shooting, the film also serves as something of a time-capsule, capturing a mid-1970s America and New York that does not exist anymore. Its familiar but also there is a distance, a sense of innocence lost: an interesting New York double-bill would be this followed by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released only a year after and seemingly light years away from this films Second Avenue- it’s a double-bill I really shall have to try sometime.

pris4The film even features the first on-screen performance of an incredibly young-looking Sylvester Stallone. The fact that this year Stallone celebrates his 72nd birthday is a sober reminder of how old this film is and the years that have passed since, and of those we have lost. Jack Lemmon died in 2001, Anne Bancroft in 2005, Gene Saks in 2015, Ed Peck (you may not know the name but he’s a familiar face from a lot of 1960s and 1970s television) in 1992. Infact, of all the cast, I think only F. Murray Abraham (who appears in unlikely cameo as a taxi driver) and M.Emmet Walsh (the apartment buildings inept and  lazy doorman, later a hero of mine from Blade Runner of course), are still alive, other than that young turk Stallone. Behind the screen, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon passed away in 2018 and the films director, Melvin Frank, passed away in 1988. Composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away in 2012; how I would love to own a copy of the films marvelous score on CD, something extremely unlikely to ever happen as I don’t believe any of the score was ever released, but you never know, stranger things have happened.

I only write about all the talent we have lost as an indication of the films pedigree and worth, and it’s unlikely place in film history as a little film that could – and a film I absolutely adore. Film fans can attach to films more easily and more faithfully than they can people. This film is proof of that.

 

Whats coming in July

Hey, welcome to July- and it’s going to be an interesting month, so I thought I’d add a post that looks ahead.

armOf course, the big thing this month (other than my wife’s birthday, hey, I know what’s most important) is that we going to have the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and as something of a space nut, it should indeed be a pretty fascinating time. So expect to see me post another look at First Man on 4K UHD, and review the documentary Armstrong on Blu-ray that’s due in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the widely-praised documentary Apollo 11 recently released on disc in America is region-locked, and its limited run in cinemas currently doesn’t include one near me, so I have to wait for its November disc release over here (unless I get pleasantly surprised by an airing on tv, as you never know with these things). I’m really excited about HBO’s brilliant series From the Earth to the Moon getting a HD release shortly, and really, really excited that it appears to have been properly remastered with a Dolby Atmos track and new visual effects shots. As I remarked awhile ago, the old DVD I have looks pretty much unwatchable, especially on an unforgiving OLED panel, so having this show in a great release is more than I could have hoped for, really.  You never know, if whispers are to be believed, we might even be getting a proper soundtrack set too, something which I’ve been wishing for since, well, I first saw the show back in 1998 (if I remember correctly, the show’s original dvd release in old-fashioned 4:3 was also my very first international purchase on the internet). I also intend to dust off some of the Spacecraft Films DVDs that I have, particularly the Apollo 11 set.

The same day that Armstrong and From the Earth to the Moon land on disc, so too does Captain Marvel, which I missed during its theatrical release. I’m curious to see what I think of it, as I gather it got a mixed response from fans (something also apparently true of Spiderman: Far From Home, making me wonder if the bubble is finally bursting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, considering I had such misgivings regards Avengers: Endgame). The following week we get Alita: Battle Angel, which I saw back in February– I enjoyed it enough to have ordered the 4K release, so maybe I’ll post a review of how it looks at home, and see if I’m still hoping for a sequel.

gloryBeyond that, July 29th sees the release of Glory in 4K UHD and Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky limited series that everyone at work has been raving about. I guess those will be reviews posted in August.

Now, anybody who had the curiosity to read my post summarizing June will have noticed that I have reached 83 in my tally of ‘new’ film/television experiences. I also have a fair few items already waiting to be watched- films like The Nun, Rampage, Zathura, Lady Bird, Unsane, all kinds of stuff piling up on the Tivo or on Netflix/Amazon, and I really want to catch up with the second seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Stranger Things.

But I really do think it’s time to go back and rewatch some of the discs/films that I’ve seen before that I just, well, kind of miss. I’ve quite enjoyed my (albeit limited so far) series of posts rewatching films from 1989 that are currently getting anniversary releases, and I’d certainly like to continue with that more, to which end I’ve got the 4K UHD release of Field of Dreams on the way and Spielberg’s Always on Blu-ray sitting on the shelf. So if all goes to plan, I will likely refrain from watching too many ‘new’ films in favour of going back and revisiting some of those oldies over July and August. If only to maintain my sanity. Good lord I’ve been watching some rubbish lately.

Part of that of course will be my rewatch of From the Earth to the Moon, so yeah, I hope to relax with some od favourites over the summer.

Unfortunately, this month is also the month of Wimbledon, and anyone reading this blog over the years may remember Claire is a big fan of Wimbledon and commandeers the television for the tournament, usually relegating me to Wimbledon Widower status, so it’s anybody’s guess how much of this stuff I have planned that I’ll get to watch this month all this month… Possibly none of the above. Hey ho.

 

Isle of Dogs (2018)

I’m not really at all familiar with Wes Anderson’s work- I haven’t seen a single one of his films prior to this. I gather he’s an auteur who makes quirky self-aware films that appeal to the arthouse crowd- not that there’s anything wrong with that, but none of his previous films have really appealed to me. A film about dogs, though?  That’s just impossible to resist.

Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated film, and a surprisingly dark one. In that sense, it’s quite subversive, as its form would suggest a childrens simple light-hearted adventure, akin perhaps to such vehicles as the CG-animated The Secret Life of Pets or Bolt, but in reality it has this dark sense of humor, a toughness to it. Its also as much an ecological story as it is a canine adventure, functioning on several levels really. There are murders, political conspiracy and lies, an unlikely partnership and fight for survival on a rotting dump of an island in which medical experiments were made on dogs in hidden labs, and behind it all, all sorts of Japanese culture references that likely flew right past me.

Its one of those rare cases where you watch a film not quite believing it even exists- it’s too strange, too perfect, too confounding. Some films are oddities, and it’s very true that such films seem rarer all the time. Love them or hate them, we should just be thankful they simply are. I really quite liked this film- to suggest I actually loved it might be a stretch really, as somehow I felt more intellectually stimulated by it than emotionally. I suspect this might be a trend in Wes Anderson’s work, glancing at his filmography. Isle of Dogs is beautifully animated and really quite imaginative, and I’m certain it rewards future viewings, so I’m glad I jumped on the Blu-ray price-drop Amazon just gave it. But Bolt, for all its safe and familiar comforting charms, just might be a better movie, whatever the intellectual arthouse crowd might say as they sneer on the more typically family-orientated animated films.

 

The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

terror2I’ve finally gotten around to what is, as expected, the weakest link in an otherwise surprisingly high-quality set of movies in Indicator’s third Hammer collection, Blood & Terror (the three other entries being The Camp on Blood Island, Yesterday’s Enemy and The Stranglers of Bombay). While the film is at heart an old-fashioned potboiler of hidden menace in the Far East in the vein of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu yarns, it’s a pretty mediocre and predictable story, further tarnished by the unfortunate casting of a mostly English cast of Hammer thespians playing Chinese characters, wearing dodgy ‘slitty-eyed’ makeup that looks decidedly un-PC in our enlightened age and also limits the actor’s attempts to emote, instead making them look like wooden actors playing aliens in ‘sixties-era Doctor Who. That being said, Christopher Lee chews up the scenery in his role as the leader of the Red Dragon Tong, as if he’s auditioning for Macbeth or something. I guess he was doing something right, as he’d later be promoted to the role of Fu Manchu in some genuine Sax Rohmer-based flicks later on.

Its also a sign of the times in which it was made, that even though the film seems pretty tame nowadays, it was pretty brutally trimmed by the censors of the time and the cuts, which are really jarring, have never been restored. One death is not so much blink and you’d miss it as much as, well, the character is alive one moment and dead the next- it’s almost quite bewildering and almost breaks the scene its in entirely (surprised they never bothered to try reshoot a censor-acceptable version, but that’s possibly just an indication of how casual the Hammer chiefs were rushing these flicks out as cheaply and efficiently as possible).

terrorPositives, few as they are, are the colourful cinematography and the beautiful Yvonne Monlaur in one of her two Hammer roles, probably the highlight of the film for me- she’s a much better actress than this hokey script, and Hammer in general, deserves, and I think it’s rather odd she didn’t have a more successful career in film. Even in a poor film with a poorly written character, she has a connection with the camera and a presence that really resonates. If ever I decide to rewatch this film again, it’ll be largely just to see her performance (and that of Christopher Lee, of course, chewing up the scenery as only he could- like Peter Cushing, he had a way of elevating Hammer to some kind of Shakespearean tragedy, as if he’s making a film no-one else can see).

Criterion Badlands

bad1Put this one the 2019 list for sure; Criterion are releasing their edition of Terrence Malick’s Badlands on Blu-ray over here in the UK in May. I’ve never owned the film on any format -VHS, DVD, Blu-ray- so at least it’s not a double or triple-dip. In fact I haven’t seen the film in many years, not since I really caught the Malick bug with his later films (Thin Red LIne etc) and I’ve always been curious if I’d fall in love with it now I’m older (back then I had a distinctly ambivalent feeling towards it). Well, this is certainly the perfect opportunity to put that to the test.

Avanti! again

avantiSo I returned to Billy Wilder’s Avanti! again. Its widely considered one of Wilder’s lesser films, and of course when compared to some of his greatest films (a list, remember, that includes Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard) I suppose that’s inevitable, but the film has a certain charm that draws me to it, perhaps more so than some of those ‘greats’ oddly enough. The fact that it stars Jack Lemmon is likely part of that, since he’s one of my favourite actors. But Avanti!… is strangely magical.

Even when it was first released, back in 1972, it was considered old-fashioned which was understandable looking at that era of 1970s American cinema – your Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Jaws, The Exorcist etc. But the funny thing is that once divorced from their original release, films like Avanti! (and certainly you could include Its A Wonderful Life alongside it, decades earlier) become utterly timeless in a way their contemporaries can’t. Avanti! is also so endearing, it really feels like love, my affection for it. Its a little bubble of romantic, sweetly funny joy and has frozen in time a sense of time and place forever. Revisiting Avanti! is just like revisiting a favoured place or fondly remembered friend that you haven’t seen in a long while.  It doesn’t hurt that the film features a gorgeously romantic score by Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli that can literally break your heart or laugh with joy- it plays almost throughout the film and gently seduces you without you even knowing it’s doing it.

avanti ostSome people have issue with the films languid pace and think it runs too long- clocking in at 2 hours and 24 minutes it is perhaps a little indulgent but when its a film you love, you just enjoy the extra time to wallow in it. As it is, rewatching it this time I felt the ending came just too soon, feeling rather abrupt. I wanted more of Lemmon and Juliet Mills (who in particular is so achingly bewitching and beautiful here), more of the island, the Rustichelli score, the gentle comedy Its one of my regrets that at the end, when Lemmon and Mill’s new lovers agree to repeat the routine of their parents and meet again at the islands hotel the next summer, I won’t ever be able to see it, rejoin their affair or see the adventures each yearly rendezvous brings. I want to feel what they feel, again, and again, but its locked away (well, at least I have the DVD and the Blu-ray and the soundtrack). We can but dream of what happened the next year, and the one after, and the one after that…

I came back to Avanti! by way of a German blu-ray that matches a US release from a year or so ago that was region-locked. Why we have to rely on German HD releases of quality films like this I don’t know- I would have thought this kind of thing (anything Wilder, frankly) was a sure thing for boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka over here. As it is, the two short cast  interviews included are slightly marred by burned-in German subs but the film itself is perfectly fine with English soundtrack and optional player subs. The HD image is a little problematic, likely derived from the same source/master as the earlier DVD but it looks fine with stable grain and no DNR: a fine filmic image with superior detail to the SD version. No doubt a fresh new master would sharpen things up better still and enable some improved colour ‘pop’, but really, a new master for a niche film such as Avanti! is unfortunately highly unlikely (but I’d like to be proven wrong).

I learned from the interview with Juliet Mills that the part of US STate Official J.J. Blodgett, played by Edward Andrews in the film, was originally written for Walter Matthau, but at the time Billy Wilder and Matthau were having a feud which nixed the actor appearing in the film. In hindsight you can tell it was written for him, some of that dialogue just drips for Matthau’s personality and comic timing, and him in it would just have made Avanti! even more perfect. Chalk that bit of casting up as another of movie history’s great ‘what ifs’.