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Sunday, 1 October 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare revels in the 80s with new editions of Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER (1982), Karel Reisz's WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN (1978), and Ivan Passer's CUTTER'S WAY (1982) plus solid words for Denis Villeneuve's ARRIVAL (2016)

Screens below are from the new Warners 4K/HDR Blu-ray of Ridley Scott's groundbreaking Blade Runner (1982), photographed by Jordan Cronenweth, from Philip K Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?". The screens were taken manually by Iphone of my Panasonic 4K screen, a hopelessly compromised way to get caps, because no software is yet available to do direct lossless screens on a PC with a regular hard disc drive.

Blade Runner
I was intending to be brave and hold on until general release of the Blade Runner 2049 sequel which seems to be opening at every cinema in the world next Thursday, including our own here in Masterton via DCP 4K, but an early review by Peter Bradshaw in the Grauniad has pushed me back into the here and now to review this new 4K/HDR disc from Warners of the original 1982 movie.

The movie itself barely needs speaking to at any length, so well covered is it, although there will undoubtedly still be others who see it more as spectacle than art, or a triumph of production design and breathtaking high contrast color photography. All those positions simply keep feeding discussion of a film that possibly even more commentators feel guilty about admitting they like, than are perhaps willing to admit. Its influence on later movies, especially sci-fi and spectacle pictures after 1982 is simply immeasurable.

Blade Runner
Even in the earliest days of then blue screen tech for some process shots, Ridley Scott simply blasts the screen into the stratosphere with both sheer mouth agape spectacle for which he is a master, as he continues to do so in sequels to the Alien trilogy, notably Prometheus (2013), IMO an underrated near masterpiece, and the hugely entertaining and self-reflecting Alien: Covenant from 2017.

Scott also displays a complete command of shape, dramatic architecture and narrative control which is as classical in its manipulation of surprise, tension, exposition and resolution as you could hope to get these days. And whatever weaknesses he shares with another Alpha director like James Cameron, including spotty dialogue writing, it hardly seems to matter when he displays so much collaborative goodwill to the extent of handing over direction of the new 2049 film to French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, almost certainly based on his admiration for the latter's superb 2016 sci-fi meditation film Arrival, with Amy Adams which is a later subject of this review.

But in anticipation of the new 2049 picture, I want to go into a little depth about the new 4K Blu-ray, hopefully without boring the pants off everyone. Within this story is an encouraging development for the future of movies themselves. When Warners were looking for additional elements to make a revised "complete Director's edit" of the film prior to 2004, their crew including restoration maestro Robert Harris discovered among other pristine 35mm and 70mm film elements a longer print from the UK which had additional footage and a number of other elements that now constitute the revised "director's cut" we know today. It included the reinstatement of the full Vangelis score, the removal of the voice over (which I always liked) at the end to cement the Noir mood, superfluous as it now seems, and other bits and pieces.

Even better, Warners addressed restoration issues using the then relatively new and forward looking 4K scanning technology, and did all their harvest and mastering in the 4K domain. Thence to a 4K intermediate for 35mm prints, as well as a 4K for eventual DCP theatrical master. This was then downrezzed in 2007 to 1080p at the comparably inferior but still regular BD AVC encoding format and those Blu-rays have been the premium video standard until now.
Scott came to help Warners with this new 4k disc encode this year and they were able to add the dramatically higher specced dimension of 4K compliant HDR (High Dynamic Range) for color spacing (12 bit over 8 bit, color spacing for 4K Rec.2020 standard over 1080p spacing of Rec.709), and massively increased contrast from dead white at more than 1000 nits measurement to pure dead black zero nits, not the regular blacker than black that is usually obtained from even premium Kodak 35mm stock like the Vision series.

The result is an image of incomparable contrast, depth, resolution, finesse, nuance, color spectrum and original fine film grain which you can now play at home (on a 4K player and the largest 4K screen you can possibly afford to give yourself). This is thus the exact equivalent, lossless viewing experience of the very same master 4K DCP being projected with carbon arc lamps under the most optimal conditions possible to a physical cinema onto the largest screen possible.

This is the first time in the history of movies that this has been feasible for home viewing at prices that now seem, if not initially, laughably reasonable. ($400 up for the player, 4 grand or less for the optimum 65 inch screen.)

If ever a movie needed and received such premium treatment in a technologically nurtured process that parallels the sort of magnificent restoration and archival work we are seeing these days at Bologna and elsewhere every year, this is it. Watching Blade Runner in 4K/HDR at home is like the first time over again, but amazingly even better than that.

Amy Adams, Arrival
Next up, Amy Adams in a field with an alien craft carrying Heptapods at the centre of Denis Villeneuve's moving and intelligent adaptation of Arrival, a 90s short novel by Ted Chiang, "The Story of your Life". The material is the sort of grown up, semi-philosophical quest that has been germane to the genre for some years now, ever since people recognized Philip K Dick, Aldiss, Sagan and others as serious writers of intelligent fiction in the sci-fi realm. The question of time is at the center of Arrival, and the narrative of alien visitation with a confluence of fortune, planning and sheer aesthetic pleasure at the meeting of two alien cultures, humans and the heptapods, whose purpose seems to be gifting a frankly unworthy and stupid species like us a completely radical way of perceiving time and life and the whole nature of memory and prediction.

Time and prediction are not new themes, certainly and concepts of simultaneous dimensions of time as it were, are also prominent in numbers of Aboriginal and other prime cultures, the Aborigines of Australia for example and the dreamtime, the Swedish/Nordic Sami, the Native Americans and others. The joys of the novel and film are many, even down to the predictable if narratively "logical" outcome of human hostility in the last act of the movie propelling what should have been a friendly visitation into warfare. We are hopeless. .And who can disagree?

But we can be thankful for enlightened humans like Amy Adams (Louise) and a very agreeable secondary male character in Jeremy Renner, as Ian, in an admirably gender leading role reversal for Hollywood.

An equally gratifying pleasure is the direction of Denis Villeneuve, none of whose earlier films had I seen and which I must now catch. Villeneuve directs classically well with such oft ignored basics as setup , blocking, staging , composition travelling shots and every other imagineable tool of mise-en-scรจne firmly under the belt to maximise the intimacy of the show while playing off the spectacle which indeed carries its own particular personal intimacy, one which Louise constantly shares with the audience.

Villeneuve apparently dislikes blue or green screen CGI material intensely and he built actual scale sets for the internal space ship and other sequences, which were then lit and filmed "naturally" without optical processing. The result is a picture quality that dazzles with almost impossibly humble elegance and simplicity. The director also storyboarded everything down to the physical scale of the visitors to their habitat and to the natural human world. The movie was shot with Arri Alexa cameras and Arri and Zeiss primes, in the 2.8k domain and DI was executed in 2K which was then used for 35 Scope Deluxe film prints.

If I suggest a very, very slight disappointment with the visual quality of the Australian Blu-ray disc from Roadshow, it's probably because it follows multiple viewings of a truckload of 4K native material here recently. The movie and disc come highly recommended.

Tuesday Weld, Nick Nolte, Who'll Stop the Rain
And now here's to rescuing from the just viewed pile two superb Twilight Time Blu Rays of 2017 from new masters of both titles. Karel Reisz's 1978 literally raging Nam/Heroin gig, Who'll Stop the Rain, and Ivan Passer's fantastic, barely released Cutter's Way from 1981.

The latter film was issued on a very fine Twilight Time BD much earlier this year and is still in print (the label does runs of 3000 which sometimes sell out quickly.) I acquired an earlier Blu of this on the French SIdonis label a year or more ago. That transfer unfortunately suggested a less than ideal 35mm source which appeared to be digitally scrubbed to erase both grain and surface emulsion damage, which was then given the usual high frequency "sharpening" process, one which simply creates artefacts, haloes and other awful digital noise that make viewing on a large screen basically unbearable. 

The new TT disc is from another much better source, mastered very nicely with a warmer color temperature, relatively little emulsion damage and a very balanced digital encode. This is typical of the care this label always gives to the materials they use. The movie has a Blade Runner link via Jordan Cronenweth as DP, who shot this the year before Scott's movie. The picture gets an added period bump, to share with Wenders and others, in the form of a Jack Nitszche score.

John Heard, Cutter's Way
The lead acting trio includes the late John Heard as Cutter in career peak as the damaged Vietnam vet, Lisa Eichorn his alcoholic girlfriend who shares their bed with a spineless gigolo and boat salesman Jeff Bridges who is eye-opening in a role which revels in shallowness and smug self-regard. The sheer rage of Cutter alone as an oppositional figure to a probable murder by an establishment "pillar of society" in their town drives the film to an end with the trio's ill executed and doomed raid on one of the Bigwig murderer's massive garden parties, ending with Bridges dead, and Cutter smashing his way through the house into the sitting room on a white horse. It's a literally stunning final shot.

I remember seeing this for the first time in 1982 at a small rep theatre in the West Village in NYC with a near empty house. All of us left the theatre shell shocked after the screening - no one could speak. Passer made a number of other movies in America but I can't really rate any of them at this astonishing level.

Another expat, the Brit Karel Reisz made the equally rousing and off the wall post-Nam picture Who'll Stop the Rain in 1978, a film whose subject matter must have scared the literal shit out of then distributor United Artists. Not only were Vietnam War pictures BO poison, unless they were cheer fests like the misguided The Green Berets (John Wayne, Ray Kellogg & Mervyn Leroy, USA, 1968) but they were even more untouchable if they fingered one of the major cores (if hidden) of the "secret" war, the massive heroin trade the CIA introduced into the Vietnam scenario from the mid-sixties, a neat little trick which addicted a generation of young poor white and black conscriptees into smack and sent them home doubly or triply crippled, if not in a body bag.


The picture remains probably too tough for most modern audiences, even allowing for the calming manifestations of cinema goddess, Tuesday Weld an actress of supernatural powers to heal the soul, and Nick Nolte in peak pre-convulsive hysteria who wears the bulk of the picture's motivation. The Twilight TIme Blu-ray uses a near pristine 35mm source and grading and rez are, as always with this fine label, beyond criticism.

Editor's Note: For some more of David's unique Blade Runner screen shots Click here

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