Hey, How About Howards End?

Alrighty, well I did Remains Of the Day, so I might as well do the other one!  Not that Howard's End and Remains are particularly similar once you get past the repeat personnel.  James Ivory, Ismael Merchant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins all collaborated on this the year before.  But this one's based on a novel by E.M. Forster and has nothing to do with Nazis.  Actually, it might have more in common with Sense & Sensibility, as we've got Thompson playing a sterner, wiser older sister at ideological odds with a more romantic and naive younger sister, this time played by Helena Bonham Carter.  Anyway, I've been itching to cover this one since it came out as an import-only UHD last year.
This time our protagonists are not in service.  Vanessa Redgrave is a romantic, upper class lady who makes a fast friendship with the middle class Thompson.  When she passes on, she leaves her estate, the titular Howards End, to Thompson and her family.  But Redgrave's own family, headed by Hopkins, cannot accept this and secretly manage to keep the property for themselves.  Carter, meanwhile, takes pity on a decidedly lower class London couple and struggles to support them.  Things seem complicated enough, but get much more so when Thompson and Hopkins fall in love and marry, unaware of the lies that bind them.
This is Merchant/ Ivory at their best.  The plot may be a bit predictable (even from my very brief description above, you can probably guess who ultimately ends up with Howards End), but it takes some unexpected turns along and delivers some powerful drama along the way.  It won three Oscars and was nominated for six more, including best picture.  And while I'm not one to place a lot of stock in the Academy Awards (I mean, they named Crash best picture of 1994!), it's hard not to find what they saw in this picture.  Sure, the excellent period production values and lush costumes, but the performances and writing are peak cinema.
Howards End debuted on DVD way back in 1999 from Columbia Tri-Star.  It was a strong presentation (as their releases typically were), but quite barebones.  This was rectified in 2004, when Home Vision reissued this film as part of their Merchant Ivory Collection, with a nice collection of extras.  In 2009, Criterion brought it to blu, albeit with the same selection of special features.  I skipped that edition, but pounced in 2018, when Concorde released an all new, 4k restoration of Howards End as a proper 4K Ultra HD (and BD in the combo pack), with an all new crop of extras to boot.  That 4k restoration was released it in the US, too, by Cohen Media Group, but it was BD only, and apparently had issues with its aspect ratio and black levels to boot.  So importing Concorde was a no-brainer.
1) 1999 Columbia Tri-Star DVD; 2) 2004 Home Vision DVD;
3) 2018 Concorde BD; 4) 2018 Concorde UHD.
Even the oldest 90s DVD is anamorphic widescreen, non-interlaced and really quite respectable.  It does have a slight pillarbox matte along the left-hand side, framing it to a slightly off 2.31:1, though it actually shows a sliver more information on that side than any other release.  The Home Vision DVD is still 2.31:1, but now fills the full horizontal frame and pushes in just slightly tighter.  Then Concorde pushes in a little tighter to finally meet the proper 2.39:1 framing.  What you probably first notice, though, looking at these comparisons is the shift in colors.  The DVDs have a red push to them, particularly the Home Vision disc, which is decidedly too orange where even the skin tones get weird.   The Concorde transfer gives it a more natural, cooler tone.  And between the two Concordes, the UHD has a more attractive, bolder tone than the BD, which is essentially the same timing but paler.
1) 1999 Columbia Tri-Star DVD; 2) 2004 Home Vision DVD;
3) 2018 Concorde BD; 4) 2018 Concorde UHD.
And to see the benefits of the increased resolution, just look at the flower from the first set of shots come to photo realistic life from left to right.  Grain is naturally captured even on the Blu, but you see how much more naturalism there still is to be mined from the image.

One minor bummer is that only the first 1999 DVD includes the original stereo mix (plus a French dub and English and French subs).  From the Home Vision DVD on (and yes, the Criterion, too), the stereo track is replaced with a new 5.1, which is quite good, but not the original audio.  Home Vision also has English subtitles, and Concorde bumps the 5.1 up to DTS-HD on both discs, and also includes German 2.0 and 5.1 tracks and optional English subtitles.
"Wiedershehen in" means "Meet again in"
There is one language-related point I have to make about the Concorde release, though.  Their disc is completely English friendly (you can play the film with the English audio and no subs, and all of the special features are in English, too), even the credits are in English (it's "A Merchant/ Ivory Film" not, "un filme de") but the film itself has language-specific title cards.  So "four months later," is written on screen in German.  Usually most films take on that expense, and only subtitle the film's cards.  So it's classy that they went to the trouble to make foreign cards for foreign markets.  But it does make it a little weird for English-speaking audiences to suddenly be confronted with a bit of German.  There are only a handful of title cards, indicating the title and dates on-screen, so English audiences will be able to figure it out.  But I could see US viewers being annoyed by it, so I wanted to be sure to point it out.
Now, over the years, we've Howards End's gotten some sweet extras.  The 1999 DVD was barebones apart from the trailer, but The Merchant Ivory Collection DVD introduced some great stuff.  Primarily, they created two 45-50 minute documentaries.  One on the making of the film, which interviews pretty much all the cast and crew, and the second about the Merchant/ Ivory/ Jhabvala trio and their long history in film.  Then there's a nice interview with the production designer, and two brief, vintage promo featurettes, one about the film and one about Merchant/ Ivory.  The Criterion release kept all of that, and also added a new, on-camera interview with Merchant.

But instead of licensing all of that, Concorde chucked all those extras out and came up with their own stuff.  First up is an audio commentary with two film critics.  It's generally pretty good, well paced and informative, but one of the two critics has basically watched all of the previous extras and is repeating all of the trivia and anecdotes from them.  In a way, that's good, because if we're losing those extras, at least we still get all of that info.  But it's painfully redundant if you already have one of the older editions, and also, several of the anecdotes, particularly the humorous ones, don't really work as well being told second-hand as they did when the actual cast and crew were sharing their moments in the documentary.  But okay, I'll take it.  Then, there are three new interviews with James Ivory.  One is a straight-forward one with a critic, one is a Q&A with an audience filmed at a screening, and one is a brief conversation with Vanessa Redgrave.  All good content, but some stuff stuff does get repeated over and over.  They also add a second trailer (so, two total) and a couple of bonus trailers, plus reversible artwork so you can hide the big ratings logo.
So, overall, Criterion still has the best set of extras, but not by a particularly wide margin.  Meanwhile, the Concorde UHD, with the obvious advantage of being a higher level format in general, offers the best presentation of the film.  I'd say the ideal way to go is the Concorde (unless that small handful of title cards really bother you) and then just copping the DVD version of the Criterion extras, if you're a big enough fan.  Many people will probably find just the Concorde extras alone are good enough, but it is great to hear from the other cast and crew members.  Me, I've got the Concorde and just holding onto my Home Vision DVD was close enough (I only miss out on one Merchant interview, and he's already interviewed in most of those older docs and featurettes).  It's another build-your-own ideal special edition scenario, but you can wind up with a pretty awesome one.

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