Valentino, Goodbye, But Way Up In the Sky (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

It's a good time to be a Ken Russell fan. New blu-rays are coming out left and right. Crimes of Passion from Arrow, many of his BBC docs over in the UK, Women In Love just came out in a finally anamorphic special edition blu (I know.  Blu-rays aren't technically anamorphic, but you know what I mean).  It's hard to keep up with them all. But one I just had to cover, if for the extras alone, was BFI's new dual format special edition release of Valentino.
1977's Valentino is another biopic, this time of silent film star and one of cinema's first sex symbols, Rudolph Valentino, played interestingly enough by Rudolf Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer known for defecting from Russia to become a worldwide star... but not known for, you know, being an actor. Valentino was a bit of a flop, theatrically, and did some damage to Russell's career.  And in different interviews, you hear him go from describing it as his best screenplay ever, to his least favorite film, to it rising again in his estimations (as I think it has for many critics and audiences in general).  Still, I think I see why it got flack - I myself wouldn't recommend it to many people who weren't already established Russell fans.
There's a weird, unreality to it.  And I don't just mean the usual flair for kitsch and exaggeration Russell displays in a lot of his work.  This time, it's more about the performances.  I actually think Nureyev is quite good as Valentino, and didn't deserve the derision he sometimes got; but it just seems like an awful lot of the dialogue was loosely ADR'd.  So when you've got the modern actors putting on broad period dialects with this added layer of disassociation, where it doesn't always sound like their voices are coming out of their mouths.  It gives the whole film a fake or cheap/ amateur feeling - like a local theater company production - which it really doesn't deserve, considering how lavishly and carefully it was otherwise produced (just look at the images in these screenshots!).  You have to be open and patient with the film to form any kind of connection with the characters because of this barrier, and that's just too much to ask of general audiences.
But if you are willing to meet the film halfway, it's pretty great. Russell's kitschy visual style is perfect for bringing this romantic vision of Valentino's rise to Hollywood stardom to life. It's got a great cast, including Seymour Cassel, Michelle Phillips, Carol Kane, and keep your eyes open for a young John Ratzenberger. And it's a smartly written story, riding the line between the truth and the legend, with a nice satirical touch. It opens with an authentic, vintage song dedicated to Valentino called "There's a New Star In Heaven Tonight," but later in the film we hear another song about him, which I'd always assumed to have been equally authentic until I heard on the audio commentary that it was written by Ken Russell for the film. And now that people are finally getting to see it in widescreen, as opposed to its VHS and early DVD life, we can see that it looks great.
So yes, this film spent many years only being available on a crappy UK-only fullscreen DVD from MGM.  Finally, in 2010, it got an updated master from an HD scan of the 35mm inter positive, which MGM released as an MOD here in the USA. Over in the UK, though, Optimum gave the updated version a proper, pressed disc, and that was the definitive release for a long time.  But finally in 2016, that 2010 HD master has gotten released on an actual, HD disc release in both the USA (from Kino) and UK (from BFI).  And for the first time ever, Valentino's also getting the special edition treatment.
Optimum's 2010 DVD top; BFI's 2016 DVD mid; BFI's 2016 blu-ray bottom.
Yeah, you can really tell the 2016 is using the same master as the 2010 disc; BFI's DVD is a very close match to the Optimum DVD. This is not a new scan; we're just finally getting it on blu.  But that said, it really does benefit from the increased resolution.  This film is full of detail that looks almost out of focus on the DVDs compared to the blu. And the framing is almost identical, except you can see the Optimum crops the top a tiny sliver more, giving it a 1.86:1 ratio, as opposed to BFI's 1.85.  But it's so slight you'd never notice it outside of a direct comparison like this.

In the audio department, the DVD gives you a nice stereo mix, but that's it. BFI's blu gives you the original mono track as well as the stereo mix. And both are naturally lossless LPCM tracks on the blu.  Neither release has subtitles, and if you're wondering, the Kino release doesn't either.  Sorry, hearing impaired fans!
Extras are where BFI's new release really shines.  The Optimum disc only had the fullscreen trailer.  But BFI's release?  Where to begin?  I guess Tim Lucas's excellent audio commentary would be a good place to start.  If you're familiar with his past commentaries (most famously on Mario Bava's early DVDs), you know he comes prepared with a lot of research that really pays off. Almost as good is a rich, substantial interview with character actor Dudley Sutton.  He only has a tiny part in this film (he was also in The Devils), but he's got plenty of great, funny stories anyway.  actress Lynn Seymour, who wasn't in Valentino but starred opposite the real Valentino, gives a brief but nice, audio-only remembrance of the silent film star as well.

Then you get into the vintage stuff, including a very interesting television interview with Rudolf Nureyev.  As for Russell himself, there's an 89-minute audio only interview which they play as a second audio commentary over the film.  He only briefly mentions Valentino, but for Russell fans, there's a lot about his other work, including Gothic, which he had just filmed at the time.  Then BFI goes definitive, giving you lots of extra odds and ends from their vaults, including 9 minutes of original newsreel footage of Valentino's funeral in HD, some of which was used in the film's opening credits.  And they give you the opening and closing credit footage with the titles printed over them.  And there's a stills gallery, two widescreen trailers and 6 TV spots (one missing sound). It also comes with an 18-page booklet, including notes by Paul Sutton, author of Talking About Ken Russell.
And even though I don't have the recent Kino release for a proper comparison, I'd be derelict if I didn't talk about it, because it has some exclusive extras, and unless you're region locked, you're surely wondering which version to get.  Well, I looked into it and confidently chose this one.  It has Tim Lucas's audio commentary, 3 minutes of Valentino's funeral in SD, two trailers and a stills gallery.  It doesn't have anything else from the BFI material above.  But it does have two exclusives: a Trailers From Hell version of the film's trailer and a vintage television program on silent films with footage of the real Valentino's work.  Personally, I'd say the BFI's package leaves Kino's in the dust (though I am a Trailers From Hell fan), and not only would I recommend BFI's blu over Kino's, I wouldn't even say Kino's exclusives are worth double-dipping for if you're a serious fan.  If you're region A locked, though, at least you get something, and the commentary is there.  Oh, also Kino's disc doesn't have the stereo mix, just the mono.  So there's that.
So this might not be one of Russell's greatest films, but I think it's much better that its unfair reputation as one of his worst (I mean, come on, did you ever watch Dog Boys?), with cinematography that really ought to be seen in a proper widescreen presentation. And BFI really came through for this film, even more than it maybe deserved.  A strong recommendation for BFI's release if you're even somewhat into this film, although if you're DVD-only and not the type to watch extras, I suppose you could do just as well getting the Optimum disc on the cheap instead, since it's basically the same transfer.  Just avoid the 2003 disc.

No comments:

Post a Comment