Arrow Academy Award Winner Gosford Park (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Arrow, of course, has been a main staple on this site; we've looked at one cult horror title of theirs' after another.  But let's also take a minute to appreciate their Arrow Academy line.  It's the same Arrow company, but a brand they keep wholly separate from the Arrow Video that we've known and loved all these years.  They describe the Academy as specializing in "Catalogue and New Release independent, arthouse and world cinema, releasing prestige edition films by the absolute masters of cinema from across the globe."

Admittedly, the distinction makes me bristle a bit... I regard some of the crazy cult and exploitation titles they've released over the years as truly great films in their own right.  I prefer the Criterion's way of saying, hey, we feel films like The Brood, House, and maybe even Equinox deserve to stand alongside all these others.  But the disappointing fact is that, as physical media shrinks, cult and exploitation films are the only ones thriving.  I love The Evil Dead, but it's frustrating it to see it re-released for the fifty millionth time, when many of cinema's greatest dramas, comedies and documentaries have yet to get even one single, satisfying DVD.  So I really appreciate Arrow attempting to steer the market out of its narrowing constrictions.
Not that I've never covered an Arrow Academy title before... we've already done their excellent Eric Rohmer Collection as well as The Sorrow & The Pity, and if the line existed back then, Spirits Of the Dead probably would've gone in it.  But it's hard to imagine a more quintessential Academy title than Gosford Park, Robert Altman's trek into highbrow English drawing-room mystery.  Now, Altman's career was in a bit of a slump during this period... his previous five films were Dr. T. and the Women, Cookie's Fortune, a TV movie called Killer App, Kansas City and Ready To Wear.  Now, fans could rightly point out that there's merit to be found in at least a couple of those, but it had been a while since his works were celebrated.  I think what brought him back up to peak levels here was his collaborators.
Altman first devised this film with Bob Balaban, who gets executive producer and "Idea By" credit in addition to the role he plays on screen.  As they determined this film was to be an Upstairs, Downstairs-style study of Britain's class system (with a heavy to Agatha Christie), they originally were going to have series creator Jean Marsh write the script.  That fell through, though series co-creator Eileen Atkins stayed on to play the cook, Mrs. Croft, and screenwriting duties then fell to Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, who also associate produced on Gosford.  Fun Fact: Downton Abbey was originally intended to be a spin-off of Gosford Park, though it ultimately developed into its own thing.  And of course, you can't talk about Altman and collaborates without mentioning his uncanny ability to continually assemble some of the grandest casts in all filmdom.  In this case, besides the ones we already mentioned, we get Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Emily Watson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, I, Claudius himself: Derek Jacobi, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Swift, Ryan Phillippe (who doesn't always impress but is perfectly cast here), The Singing Detective Michael Gambon, and Jeremy Northam as the non-fictional character set in an utterly fictional story, song-writer and movie star Ivor Novello.
The result may be Altman's greatest film of all time.  It certainly bears a lot in common with his also highly beloved The Player, another murder mystery used to explore and satirize its surrounding culture (in that case Hollywood).  But while certain elements could certainly be labeled as staples of soap- or melo-drama, I can't help but feel The Player ultimately lacks the heft of the history between the two sisters we discover is ultimately driving everything.

Quality doesn't dictate a robust home video life, however.  It was initially released as a fairly robust DVD by Universal in 2002.  But that's been pretty much it.  The only blu-ray was a Canadian blu-ray, which by all accounts was barebones and used the same old master.  It wasn't until the end of 2018 that Gosford Park was restored in 4k that we got any real upgrade over our decades old DVD.  Studio Canal put it out in Germany, but Arrow is handling it in the US and UK, and they've turned it into a fancy, new special edition.
1) 2002 Universal DVD; 2) 2018 Arrow blu-ray.
So I left the negative space around the first set of images so you can see the funky bit of dead air the DVD left on the left side in the overscan area.  Now you're looking at the edges, though, you should notice the dramatic amount of extra picture the new scan reveals.  It's not just the fact that the DVD was slightly off at 2.30:1, which the blu corrects to 2.35:1; we can see the new scan zooms out further, showing more on all four sides.  And it's nice to see such obvious improvements in comparison, because the blu by itself, on first glance, might seem a little underwhelming.  It has a low contrast, low saturation that doesn't exactly "pop," and the black levels never make it to true black.  But these are presumably quite intentional, artistic choices.  This transfer goes back to the original negatives, and was approved by the DP.  And indeed, when you're able to compare the blu to the old DVD, you can see how how the color was corrected, damage cleaned up (like that big white spot next to Clive's head in the first shot), and the distinct grain makes it pretty clear all the detail's been pulled out that possibly could be.  It's an excellent transfer, just not one you'll want to use to show off your new 4k TV to your friends.

Now, the DVD gave us a very nice 5.1 remix, which has been preserved by Arrow, and bumped up to DTS-HD.  But Arrow has also gone and restored the original Stereo mix in LPCM, which the DVD had dropped, so that's pretty sweet.  Both discs also include optional English subtitles, though if it matters to you, Universal's DVD also had Spanish subs.
The DVD wasn't too shabby in the special features department, I have to say.  They include two excellent commentaries: one by Altman and one by Fellowes, both of which have a lot to share, and compliment each other rather well.  There are then fifteen deleted scenes, most of which don't add too much, also with optional commentary by Altman.  Then there's a series of three featurettes: your standard promotional 'making of,' a short one specifically focused on the three genuine servants from that era who served as technical advisors, and a screening Q&A with a bunch of the major players.  And there's the trailer, a series of bonus trailers, and an insert with production notes.

Arrow thankfully keeps all of that... though I wish they would've upconverted the old featurettes to anamorphic size.  Surely nobody in the world is watching this blu on a 4x3 TV?  But anyway, it's all here plus more.  There's a new, third commentary by two critics, which is okay.  They spend an awful lot of time repeating anecdotes from the old DVD extras, which gets real tedious.  But then they also have some new, interesting stuff to share, as one of them actually spent a few days on set during the filming, and the other has read the original screenplay and is able to point out some interesting differences.  And they even solve a few mysteries the older special features hinted at (i.e. on the DVD, they kept mentioning that another actor was originally intended to play Phillippe's part, but only this new commentary actually says who).  Better still, Arrow has solicited two, excellent on-camera interviews, one with actress Natasha Dwightman and an even better one with executive producer Jane Barclay.  She has a great story of how she stumbled upon Werner Herzog in the Amazon as a young woman, and then is refreshingly frank about the ins and outs of producing an Altman film in 2002.  Arrow also replaces Paramount's insert with a 44-page booklet, with notes by Sheila O'Malley and David Thompson, throws in one of their usual cards (mine's for Orchestra Rehearsal... a blu I'd like to get one of these days) and reversible cover art with the original poster art.
So yeah, this wasn't a title I was expecting to see announced this winter, so kudos for Arrow Academy.  Hopefully there's enough audience interest in films that aren't 80s slashers to filled with zombies in the coming years.  And I'll end with a tiny anecdote.  I dropped by the local mall's FYE store the other day, which I haven't done in dog's years.  For anyone who doesn't know, it used to be a movie store, but now almost exclusively sells T-shirts and Funko Pops, having relegated DVDs, blu-rays and CDs to a small corner in the very back, almost all of which are used discs.  But, you know, I hoped maybe I'd find a good deal on something mainstream.  I was surprised to find, though, that their movie selection was as barren and depressing as ever, except... they had a bunch of new, high-end Arrow titles, including this one.  Could it be a sign that something, somewhere is changing for the better?  Probably not, but it's an interesting little development.

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