JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS On Blu-ray. Simply Stunning.

Sony Pictures’ new Blu-ray release of the Ray Harryhausen spectacular JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is a joy to behold. The film has never come close to looking this good in any previous home release. Colors are vibrant yet never pushed and flesh tones appear natural. From first frame to last, JASON wows with its imagery and the clarity of this Blu-ray release will surprise and delight those who have only seen it in old TV prints or sub-par video releases. It is, truly, a different movie on Blu-ray.

An influential film for many filmmakers including Peter Jackson who adds his voice to one of the Blu-ray’s two commentary tracks, JASON is widely considered by many to be Harryhausen’s masterwork. Directed by Don Chaffey (who went on to direct ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. as well as a host of Disney films and more TV series episodes than you can shake a stick at) JASON was also produced by long-time Harryhausen partner Charles H. Schneer.

Coming just three films after the other popular Harryhausen favorite, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (see my review HERE), JASON shows not only an improved sense of storytelling all around, but the effects have made a giant leap forward showcasing Harryhausen’s ever-increasing inventiveness and imagination. Todd Armstrong as Jason is wonderful, strong and vulnerable all at the same time, and Nancy Kovack as Medea is sumptuous and otherworldly. And the moment when Talos turns his head is still one of the greatest moments in cinema history, and the army of fighting skeletons sprouting from the earth will send chills of delight up your spine!

JASON is presented on Blu-ray in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is a compromise between the 1.85:1 theatrical release ratio and Harryhausen’s desire to NOT make films in any of the widescreen formats. The film fits comfortably in this framing and never looks as if it were meant for any other. Sony has transferred JASON using the MPEG-4 AVC Video codec at a bitrate of 27.92 mbps.

The audio is also superior to any previous release and is, surprisingly for the age of the film, quite aggressive. Bernard Hermann’s score envelopes in its lossless DTS-HD Master Audio presentation and ambient surrounds, such as the creaking of the Argo and the surrounding sea, are vivid and breathtaking.

Extras include:

• Commentary with Ray Harryhausen and film historian Tim Dalton

• Commentary with Peter Jackson and visuals effects artists William Randall Cook

• Original Skeleton Fight Storyboards

• The Harryhausen Legacy (25:32)

• The Harryhausen Chronicles narrated by Leonard Nimoy (57:58)

• Landis interviews Harryhausen (11:53)

And for those L.A.-based readers, don’t miss the Ray Harryhausen exhibit over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences running now through August 22nd. Many of the original creature models from JASON can be seen on display there.

JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS On Blu-ray. Simply Stunning.

DNR Madness. Fox’s New PREDATOR Blu-ray Offends

Fox’s new Blu-ray release, PREDATOR: ULTIMATE HUNTER EDITION, sadly tries to correct complaints that the previous Blu-ray release was a bit too grainy by overcompensating and making this 1987 film look like it was shot on modern HD video. For those interested in their films actually looking like film, this is not good news. DNR, when over applied, ends up removing not only a film’s natural grain, but important details as well (for more on this, check out my article over at Examiner.com BLU-RAY KVETCH SESSION).

Below are two identical shots from PREDATOR. The top one is from the original Blu-ray release, the bottom from the new “fixed” version.

Notice how in the bottom image, Arnold’s face looks waxy, fake. Even his stubble has lost its texture. Yes, it’s sharper, but it no longer looks like film.Now this is clearly apparent on a small image. Imagine what it might look like on your large TV or front projector. It would be nice if the studios that are still over-applying DNR would listen to the folks that buy their products and stop making film look like video. One need only visit any web site devoted to DVD and Blu-ray to find such complaints.

Thanks to The Digital Bits for pointing this out.

DNR Madness. Fox’s New PREDATOR Blu-ray Offends


1776: The Restored Director’s Cut, while not yet available on Blu-ray, is thankfully available on Standard DVD. Though based on the popular Broadway show with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone (who also wrote the screenplay here), the film was not well received at the time of its release. This type of Hollywood musical was in its death throes by the early 70’s to make room for more “realistic” musical fare like CABARET (which beat out 1776 at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture and Best Cinematography).

But now, lo these many years later, 1776 has found its fans and is slowly being recognized for the extraordinary film/musical that it is. Cut down substantially in its initial release by producer Jack Warner, the film was extended on its original laserdisc release using found footage of varying quality. However, that release was not considered the desired cut by director Peter Hunt who, after finding better quality materials on the missing footage, restored the film to its current Director’s Cut for DVD. And what a cut it is!

Back is the powerful and frightening number “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” (see below) which was originally cut from the film at the behest of then-president Richard Nixon because he felt the number was an insult to conservatives. Oddly enough, the greed and self-serving nature of the characters in this number rings quite true, perhaps today more than ever.

This is not a musical for those who hope to leave the experience tapping their toes and humming a memorable tune. This is not CATS. Though many of the songs are incredibly fun and filled with terrific episodes of humor, there are also some very dark and disturbing numbers. This is a musical that does not talk down to its audience. The libretto and musical numbers use portions of dialogue and text from actual letters and memoirs of many of the story’s real-life participants. This is also the only musical to sport a more than 30 minute sequence without a single musical number. And it is downright riveting.

William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson were all members of the original Broadway cast and are simply mesmerizing. They are the centerpiece of the film along with John Cullum as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina and Donald Madden as John Dickenson of Pennsylvania. The film also treats us to a young and quite dashing Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson.

While this standard definition transfer of the film is a far cry from a true film restoration or offering the kind of clarity and depth of picture and sound that Blu-ray would allow (the print is marred by occasional speckles and scratches and the soundtrack is a bit muffled at times), 1776 is still one of the smartest and most engaging musicals ever made and this Sony Pictures release is, for the moment, the most definitive version currently available. It is presented here in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer.

1776: The Director’s Cut gives us a deep sense of the efforts and struggles, both personal and political, that took place to finally turn this once British colony into the United States of America through the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence.  It is a must-see.

Happy 4th everyone.


CONTACT On Blu. Worthy Despite A Few Stumbles.

Warner’s 1080p VC-1 Blu-ray release of Robert Zemeckis’ CONTACT is a healthy improvement over its earlier DVD counterpart. That said, there is still a somewhat noticeable amount of DNR applied, though not as distracting as some other recent titles (e.g. Universal’s SPARTACUS). Film grain is still present, but one gets the feeling there should be more. Backgrounds are a little soft now and then, but faces never look waxy. So while a less-manipulated transfer would be nice, this one still looks good enough not to distract from the film’s enjoyment. Warner’s presents it here in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

Audio is also improved over the DVD release with a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. While not as dynamic as one might expect, the sound does kick in strong in some of the more crucial effects-driven sequences. However, basic ambience during the quieter scenes is somewhat lacking. Again, nothing that will distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.

CONTACT was originally scripted by scientist Carl Sagan, who also authored the novel. It took nearly 15 years for the script to find its way to the big screen and, sadly, Sagan died six months before the film’s release. But many of Sagan’s messages and questions remain intact despite some studio tampering that knocks the intelligence of the film down a few notches. And it’s a shame because truly smart and provocative science fiction films are rare these days. And while CONTACT is still among the better of the last 20 years, there are a few unfortunate decisions that were made during the film’s creation that result in the story being somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading now as there are spoilers afoot!

The first and least offensive unfortunate moment comes later in the film when Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss visits Jody Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway to confess that the reason he did not vote for her to go on the mission was because he couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. This is a man who puts truth before all else. The idea that he would make any selfish decisions based on his feelings for a woman he slept with once and conversed with half a dozen times is insincere and unmotivated. It completely betrays the integrity of Joss and reads as nothing more than a manufactured Hollywood moment. It also highlights a lack of faith in the film’s ability to convey the intricacies of a romance that was, up until this moment, both believable and layered.

Then there’s the climax of the film, which would have been challenging enough for any director to successfully pull off, but Zemeckis’ choice to play it out on an effects-heavy landscape almost completely squeezes the life out of the film. What should have by all rights been a simple beach setting becomes a weak effects extravaganza that not only takes away from the intimacy of the moment, but looks downright awful. Not even Foster’s staggeringly emotional performance, so raw and honest throughout the film, can save this scene. The characters simply take a back seat to all the toys at play.

And finally, the most damaging of all script decisions is the one in which the filmmakers let you know, unequivocally, that what Ellie believes happened to her actually did. When it is revealed that her camera filmed 18 hours of static, the possibility for the audience to walk out with questions and opinions was instantly taken away. Even Foster’s performance, which was so clearly in the service of setting up these ambiguities, is undone by this simple revelation. One can hear the studio execs complaining that audiences “need to know whether or not it was real!” God forbid we should think for ourselves.

So while CONTACT still remains one of the more engaging, thoughtful and entertaining science fiction films of the past 20 years, it still suffers from some unfortunate decisions in the film’s final third that take a small but painful bite out of the movie’s intelligence and reason. Luckily, there’s enough of Sagan’s thoughfulness and imagination left, in addition to Foster’s honest and heartfelt performance, to make it well worth seeing.

CONTACT On Blu. Worthy Despite A Few Stumbles.

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD On Blu-ray & Local Exhibit

The 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD is universally considered one of the best of all the Sinbad films. And a large part of the reason for that is the masterful effects work by Ray Harryhausen. Anyone who saw this film as a child knows that the images and effects are unforgettable, burned into our collective psyches.

This was Harryhausen’s baby. He shopped the idea around from studio to studio for a number of years to no avail, but finally found a comrade in producer Charles H. Schneer, who had produced earlier films for which Harryhausen had done visual effects. This would be the continuation of a long and fruitful relationship that went on to bring us such wondrous classics as THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, the much beloved JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, as well as THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, the original CLASH OF THE TITANS and many, many others.

It’s hard to say exactly how this film should look, but the Blu-ray for VOYAGE is quite lovely. Flesh tones appear more or less accurate, if not a little pushed, but never to the point of distraction. Film grain is present and that’s a great thing given that excessive grain removal has been used on other transfers to horrendous effect. VOYAGE maintains its natural film grain with no apparent manipulation. Most of the images are quite sharp and detailed, and those images that do appear softer are clearly products of the original elements and not an anomaly due to a poor transfer. Sony’s MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer won’t disappoint fans of the film that want the film to look like just that: film.

Sony has chosen to release VOYAGE in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio despite the fact that it was shown theatrically in 1.85:1. The most likely reason for this is that Harryhausen never liked the wider screen formats and wanted to make VOYAGE in 1.33:1. There are those who sensed that the 1.85:1 frame always felt a bit tight for this pic, so Sony’s re-framing is a compromise that opens the frame up just a bit more and allows it to breathe.

Sony’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix is a joy and creates a solid sound field that is quite surprising for a film of this age. Wind and ocean sounds are truly immersive and the LFE channel even gets a bit of a workout (check out the Cyclops banging on an invisible wall!). The original mono track is also included.

All in all, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is still a terrifically entertaining film and this Blu-ray will not disappoint its legions of fans.

And to add to the Harryhausen celebration, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles is currently holding a Ray Harryhausen exhibit running through August 22nd. There you will find original models, drawings, storyboards and behind-the-scenes photographs, as well as clips from the many films themselves. This is NOT to be missed!


THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD On Blu-ray & Local Exhibit

LEGION a waste of celluloid that looks great on Blu

There is good news and bad news when it comes to Sony Screen Gems’ Blu-ray release of LEGION. The good news is the MPEG-4 AVC 1080P picture and DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio is pretty spectacular. Framed at 2.40:1, the image is sharp and clean and flesh tones appear natural. The sound mix will give your system a nice workout with tons of appropriate surround action and a strong LFE channel to boot. Exactly what one would hope for from an action/horror film such as this.

The bad news is the film itself is treacherously bad. A series of stilted scenes held together by the thinnest of plot and some of the weakest dialogue in recent memory. There is no subtext whatsoever to be found in a single word uttered here. Characters are nothing more than stick figures moving aimlessly though a series of non-events. Meaning, that despite threats/promises from the main characters that things are about to get seriously intense, you’re gonna have to wait a whole lot longer than the 100 minute running time this film uses up for that to happen, because it never takes place within the boundaries of the film itself.

Logic is a stranger to LEGION. It’s hard to know whether or not there may have been something there at one time, but what made it to the screen defies any attempt to actually tell a story. Sadly, Screen Gems has a bit of a reputation for dramatically altering films in post-production from the filmmakers’ intent, so it’s altogether possible there was once a story and characters to be found here. But if so, they have become victims of the Hollywood marketing apocalypse that destroys films as if on a mission of creative genocide.

This is a film that could have, and perhaps should have, been made on a shoestring budget. As it is, the film was made cheaply by Hollywood standards and that would have been impressive on its own if they had maintained some semblance of a script. But even terrific actors like Dennis Quaid, Paul Bettany and Charles S. Dutton have no clue how to make the dialogue seem anything less than painful. The film essentially takes place in one location and could have been quite claustrophobic and exciting. And though the film has tons of digital effects, most of them have nothing to do with the story and the biggest moments are reserved for men in angel costumes walking through doors with lots of backlight. In other words, the digital effects are the film’s biggest shaggy dog story. They simply serve no purpose in the film, but look great in the trailer.

Knowing what it takes to get a film made, any film, makes it that much harder to give it a negative review. But in this case, Screen Gems has, once again, insulted its audience by offering them nothing of value. Not even mind-numbing entertainment. And if something of value had once existed in LEGION, Screen Gems has systematically stripped it bare. Not even the bones remain.

LEGION a waste of celluloid that looks great on Blu

Grateful Dead Philadelphia 1989 Comes To DVD In CRIMSON, WHITE & INDIGO

Rhino’s newest Grateful Dead concert release, “Crimson, White & Indigo” is a DVD/CD combo set, this time from Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium on July 7, 1989. This was the last event at the old stadium before it was torn down and the Dead seemed intent on making her final moments memorable. And so they were.

Somewhat past their prime, the Grateful Dead nonetheless came together on this night to deliver a show that was not only uncharacteristically tight for its period, but showed the band members having more fun on stage than had been seen in a while. The band had been in the studio working on their newest (and, as it would turn out, final) studio album, and this may have something to do with the fact that the boys seemed more connected and present here than they had in the years leading up to this tour and, sadly, in the years to follow.

The DVD is presented in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio as it was displayed on the big screens at the stadium itself. Len Dell’Amico’s direction, while not particularly inspired, is rarely distracting and allows us to watch the band at play. Thankfully this time without the annoying psychedelic visuals that accompanied some of the Dead’s earlier video releases.

The sound is offered in both 2.0 and 5.1. While we hope Rhino will eventually begin offering these releases on Blu-ray for the benefit of lossless audio, the sound here on both mixes is quite clean. That said, there is something a bit odd about the 5.1 mix. While all instruments are present, the mix uses the surrounds in unconventional ways, often throwing a percussion beat here or a drum beat there. It is oftentimes more distracting than enveloping. And while the audience is somewhat present in the surrounds on this release, they are quite distant and place the viewer more on stage with the band as opposed to being in the audience itself. A stronger soundboard/audience matrix might have been welcome, but at the end of the day, it boils down to personal preference and there is certainly nothing here to complain about on a technical level.

Rhino’s new release offers a glimpse into the Grateful Dead’s inconsistent later years on a night when everything came together to illuminate a special moment and the band seemed poised to take the music to new heights. Sadly, a little more than a year later, keyboardist Brent Mydland would die of an overdose. Six years later would see the staggering loss of lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia. The rough roads ahead were paved with ups and downs and the struggles took their toll both musically and personally. But for a moment, the Grateful Dead stood before a crowd of fans at Philly’s JFK and played their hearts out. And Rhino has done fans the honor of allowing us to relive that moment with their new DVD/CD release. Hopefully, they will do the same for some of the great shows videotaped in the 70’s so that later generations can see and hear what the Dead were like at their peak; before the massive crowds following the popularity of “Touch of Grey” changed the scene dramatically, and before the signs of substance abuse and personal struggles started to take its toll on the music.

Please visit the Grateful Dead’s official site at Dead.net for more audio and video releases (many unavailable elsewhere), current news, and all things Grateful Dead.

Here is the trailer for “Crimson, White & Indigo” that was put together for a last minute theatrical run of the concert that played here in Los Angeles, as well as other cities across the country:

Grateful Dead Philadelphia 1989 Comes To DVD In CRIMSON, WHITE & INDIGO