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It's a Wonderful Life [Blu-ray]
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It's a Wonderful Life
Now perhaps the most beloved American film, It's a Wonderful Life was largely forgotten for years, due to a copyright quirk. Only in the late 1970s did it find its audience through repeated TV showings. Frank Capra's masterwork deserves its status as a feel-good communal event, but it is also one of the most fascinating films in the American cinema, a multilayered work of Dickensian density. George Bailey (played superbly by James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls, dreaming dreams of adventure and travel, but circumstances conspire to keep him enslaved to his home turf. Frustrated by his life, and haunted by an impending scandal, George prepares to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. A heavenly messenger (Henry Travers) arrives to show him a vision: what the world would have been like if George had never been born. The sequence is a vivid depiction of the American Dream gone bad, and probably the wildest thing Capra ever shot (the director's optimistic vision may have darkened during his experiences making military films in World War II). Capra's triumph is to acknowledge the difficulties and disappointments of life, while affirming--in the teary-eyed final reel--his cherished values of friendship and individual achievement. It's a Wonderful Life was not a big hit on its initial release, and it won no Oscars (Capra and Stewart were nominated); but it continues to weave a special magic. --Robert Horton
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* All other special extras, i.e., the 1990 standard definition "The Making of 'It's A Wonderful Life'" featurette hosted by Tom Bosley - and a re-release theatrical trailer now rendered in high definition (but not cleaned) - have been carried over to the 2009 two-disc Blu-ray.
* As the cost of Blu-ray players and discs continues to fall through the floor, more buyers are taking the plunge and replacing selected titles in their DVD libraries with high-definition Blu-ray discs. Although the Blu-ray edition DOES boast the sharpest images to date - in my view, it's not necessary to make the upgrade. There IS a difference in image quality between the DVD and the Blu-ray - but it's not dramatic enough (especially if you're already using an upscaling DVD player) - to junk your 2006 or 2007 DVDs of this title. Also note that this film is presented on Blu-ray in its original 1:37:1 semi-square aspect ratio format. Like "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," and the equally wonderful "The Best Years of Our Lives" - the latter which beat "It's A Wonderful Life" as the Best Picture of 1946 - this film was NEVER shot with wide screen cameras.
ORIGINAL 2006 and 2008 PRODUCT REVIEWS BELOW.
* Rather than review the content of this almost universally beloved film, I'm just going to comment about the quality of the 2006 60th Anniversary Edition DVD itself. I've since written an updated review about a new edition of this title, now available in a "Two-Disc Collector's Set." Please find that review -- which was posted on December 13, 2008. (Amazon has posted my 2006 review in both places -- even though the "60th Anniversary Edition" DVD is DIFFERENT from the "Two-Disc Collector's Set". Read my write-up for the "Two-Disc Collector's Set" -- to better decide which product you prefer.)
* I've owned nearly every version of this title in almost every format available on home video during the past 25 years. It's true that the CONTENT of this Viacom/Paramount DVD -- including its special features -- is identical to the Republic Pictures Home Video release more than 10 years ago.
* However, this 60th Anniversary edition is spectacular for several different and extremely important reasons. (I'll address the criticisms some people have leveled about the sound on this 2006 DVD in a little bit, so stick with me.)
* You don't have to be a technical expert to immediately notice the striking improvement of the picture AND sound in this 2006 edition. The print is crystal-clear and in my view, has more vividness and sharpness than ALL other previous releases of this title on home video.
* Proof? I put my "old" THX-version DVD issued by Republic Pictures / Artisan Home Video (the former DVD gold standard for this title) -- into my Sony multi-changer DVD player -- and watched and listened to every frame of this film AND its special features. I stopped and started this "older" DVD in several spots -- and stopped and started the new 2006 Paramount edition repeatedly -- so I could compare quality almost "side-by-side."
* Hands down -- this 2006 version is fabulous. The spots and dirt have been wiped clean, the sharpness and contrast are arguably better than what film audiences saw 60 years ago. There are no ragged spots, no jumped frames and no lint, fiber or hair fragments along the edges or jumping across the screen. I believe the technicians at Paramount (which acquired Republic Pictures Home Video) -- digitally cleaned EVERY frame of the last DVD release -- so that the film now looks like a million dollars. It's almost too pristine, if there is such a thing. No jump cuts, no "jump ahead" sound breaks, no fogged-out scenes, nothing ragged -- with the result being the cleanest and purest version of "It's A Wonderful Life" ever issued in home video history.
* It gets better. English subtitles were available on older DVD versions of this title, but the 2006 version has a cleaner typeface, wiping out some of the confusing and unnecessary attributions of "who's saying what" that were disruptive to some hearing-impaired viewers. In this 2006 version, you'll get a mostly straight, line-by-line reading of what's being said -- as it's being said.
* Meanwhile, the DVD's special features - which includes the same pair of documentaries produced in 1990 and 1991 - are identical in that they were shot on video tape hence there isn't much improvement in picture quality. However, subtitles that WERE NOT available for these special features - are NOW available in this 2006 edition. The only "extra" that remains unchanged - is the original 1946 trailer. Subtitles are not available and it has the same raggedness and dirt commonly seen with vintage trailers stored separately from the films they used to advertise.
* I'm highly critical of re-issued DVDs that seem nothing more than an excuse to squeeze more dollars out of buyers for the same material with new packaging. But this 2006 Paramount DVD version of "It's A Wonderful Life" is the best to date. It is NOT in color. (I own a colorized version for younger people who can't stand black-and-white. Despite controversy surrounding colorization, know that the 2007 "Two-Disc Collector's Set" has the same 2006 60th Anniversary black-and-white edition you see here - plus a new "colorized" version. This version uses the same pristine print - but has the added bonus of boasting the best "color" hues ever seen for this film, using the latest image technology available. Despite my preference for black-and-white, the quality of this new colorized version is impressive.)
* Meanwhile, let's address the criticisms about the sound on this new DVD. Go back a little bit. Much was made when Republic Pictures Home Video got the THX LucasFilm sound system seal of approval for "It's A Wonderful Life" during the 1990s. But it was still two-channel mono with negligible equalization of sound effects. In this 2006 DVD, you'll get consistent two-channel mono and decent sound equalization to minimize "booming" and over-modulated portions in the film. In the old versions, you had to turn down the volume a notch during the musical portions -- and turn it back up when the dialogue came back. It's a nit-pick, but you really notice the difference if you're crazy enough to do a side-by-side comparison like I did.
* As for the digital sound "pops" that perfectionists keep bringing up -- they're right. They're even in the spots noted by another fine reviewer who listed time codes where you can find them. But in my view, unless you brace yourselves for them to arrive like a booming train - unless you purposely crank up your speakers to carry sound throughout your house - yeah, you "might" be annoyed if you demand the same perfection for a film made in 1946 as you would for a film made in 2006. Honestly, the disproportionate attention given to these digital "pops" is, in my view, giving fence-sitters the impression that they're supersonic cracks of lightning that will make people jump out of their seats. I didn't twitch at all. They almost "blended" into the 60-year-old soundtrack. Yes, I know they're digital defects, but do you remember the zillion "pops" scattered throughout dirty prints of "It's A Wonderful Life" with filthy optical soundtracks? The audio on this 2006 DVD still wins. You have EVERY RIGHT to demand perfection for your dollars. But as a person who's more fastidious than average - I don't believe most buyers will care about a few "pops" in a film that's this old. Combine the overall improvements with the relatively low cost of this DVD - and I still say this is the BEST experience of "It's A Wonderful Life" I've ever SEEN and HEARD on home video.
* Finally, another reason to buy this DVD. It's old news to some, but it's not widely known that this version of "It's A Wonderful Life" can only be broadcast by NBC. It used to air a zillion times during the holidays on every TV station on earth. It was a quick way to get tired of even a super film you think you know by heart. But Viacom/Paramount now owns this version of "It's A Wonderful Life" and NBC has exclusive licensing rights to air it just once or twice after Thanksgiving. This is a good thing for future generations to appreciate.
* So junk the old, buy this version and be happy. It may feel painful, but it's worth it. And no, I DON'T work for Amazon NOR for Paramount Home Video.
The "Two-Disc Collector's Set" is a different product. While it contains the same 60th Anniversary DVD in pristine black-and-white - is ALSO includes a second DVD - a colorized version of "It's A Wonderful Life" that boasts the best color hues I've seen to date!
If you're like me -- and you prefer black-and-white films to stay black-and-white - fine. But I bought this 2-disc set because I was curious about how FAR digital image technology has come - since the controversial practice of colorizing black-and-white films began more than two decades ago. In short, the colorization here is spectacular.
DISC ONE -- There are NO differences between the first disc in this "Two-Disc Collector's Set" and the superbly restored black-and-white DVD released in 2006. Disc One is EXACTLY THE SAME as the 60th Anniversary Edition of "It's A Wonderful Life." It has the SAME special features, documentaries, trailers and improved subtitles. The three-to-four VERY MINOR digital sound pops that tekkies brought up in 2006 are still present - but as I wrote then - they WON'T be a big deal for most families watching a film like this made more than 60 years ago.
DISC TWO -- This disc has the same pristine movie in "COLOR." The results are stunning. Disc Two offers optional subtitles and NO extras - and NO digital sound pops!
In my 2006 review of the 60th Anniversary Edition, I noted why I kept a "colorized" version of "It's A Wonderful Life" on video tape (Republic Pictures Home Video, 1989). Most youngsters prefer color. As they get older, they come around to appreciating the artistry of black-and-white. But early on, they still find it "boring."
I recommend fans AND critics of colorization to at least "preview" how much has changed since those chalky crayon efforts of the 1980s. A high-tech company founded in 2001 called Legend Films, which specializes in restoring, colorizing and adding digital special effects - to NEW and OLD films - was commissioned to colorize "It's A Wonderful Life" for this "Two-Disc Collector's Set."
While the results don't match the color of today's live action films, they're still remarkable. Given the titanic advances in digital special effects since 1989, I shouldn't have been surprised. It isn't Technicolor, but the skin tones and background colors are more lifelike, enabling "It's A Wonderful Life" to JUMP off the screen like never before. It looks brighter, cleaner and more beautiful. You can almost smell Donna Reed's hair and see the panic in her brown eyes when James Stewart hovers over her when they're on the phone in the scene just before they get married.
Think of well-preserved color movies made during the 1940s or 1950s that weren't in Technicolor, but shot on different color film stock that's still beautiful today. That's what the new colorized version of "It's A Wonderful Life" looks like. It's "vintage" color, not "contemporary" color. And unless you're a technician who understands things like fading or shifting colors, you might not be able to tell the difference between what's original or colorized. Why? Because most of us are conditioned to expect LESS technical sophistication from films made in 1946 vs. 2006.
Yes, colorization does alter an artist's "original vision." But the technology behind it has improved tremendously in 20 years. What this means to the future of colorizing black-and-white films, including "untouchable" classics - is a subject for another day.
The solution for tekkies? Buy this "Two-Disc Collector's Set," put colorized Disc Two into your player and simply turn down the color on your TV! You'll now have the cleanest SOUND and PICTURE of "It's A Wonderful Life" ever - better than it was for audiences in 1946! Moreover, it'll be easier to get your kids to watch the colorized version - before "they graduate" to the black-and-white original. I hope this helps.
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