Paramount Properly Presents Ordinary People

So I've mentioned a couple times now about how some long-awaited Paramount catalog titles have been popping up on blu for the first time in Australia.  I've been praising Via Vision for their work, but they're not the only Ozzie Prometheuses liberating classic films from the ViacomCBS company.  It's hard to dispute that Ordinary People is a great and important film.  It won Best Picture in 1980, along with three other Academy Awards and two additional noms, plus five Golden Globes, based on a best selling novel.   But somehow it's only been available as a barebones DVD the world over... until this summer, thanks to Australia's Shock Entertainment.

Update 9/20/20 - 4/1/22: Paramount says thanks for the stop-gap release, Shock, but now we've restored the film in 4k and it's part of our fancy Paramount Presents line.
I wrote in my last post that the stars of Marriage Story "never stop digging to reveal intimate truths Hollywood rarely gets near."  Well, Ordinary People is one of those rare exceptions.  Granted, it's hard not to notice that both films' idea of relatable people seems to be the unusually financially privileged, which may strain some viewers' empathy.  But if you can get past that, it's a powerful drama that builds slowly as characters' backstories and the stakes they're playing for are carefully revealed.  As a filmmaker, Robert Redford can always be depended on to deliver a respectable level of mature quality in his work, but I think Judith Guest's writing allows him to reach heights he's never been able to in the rest of his typically more conventional body of work.  But then Redford is able to come back around and compliment that writing by getting performances out of his brilliant cast few other filmmakers could deliver.
Like, obviously veterans like Donald Sutherland and M. Emmet Walsh were always going to be great, but I don't think anybody expected Mary Tyler Moore to jump into the award races so late in her career.  Of course Timothy Hutton was a newcomer who Redford essentially discovered here (though I looked it up, and he had done a couple TV movies already).  And after getting used to him in all those sitcoms and trash roles like Independence Day, this film's a fun reminder that Judd Hirsch actually can act when he's given the opportunity.

If I had one criticism, it's that the film short thrifts Moore's character a bit in the long run, almost concluding with the suggestion that everything would've been fine if she wasn't always such an uptight bitch.  I haven't read the novel, but I bet a little charitability was lost between the original (female) author and the men adapting it for the screen.  But Moore is able to squeeze in some depth between the lines, and of course she's ultimately a supporting character in Hutton's journey, so it's not a crippling flaw.  After all, it's impossible to ignore how moving all the other material is.
Paramount released this as a basic, barebones DVD in 2001, and that's pretty much been the whole story of Ordinary People on disc for twenty years.  The closest thing to any kind of special edition was a 2009 VH1-sponsored "We Love the 80s" edition that came in a colorfully tacky slipcover and included a bonus "Music From the 80s" CD.  The DVD inside is still exactly the same.  It wasn't until early summer 2020 that it made its HD debut on blu-ray, as we've said, from Shock Entertainment in Australia.  It's Region B locked, so its potential reach was fairly limited, but it was better than nothing.  Nothing's no longer the bar, though, because this week Paramount has issued it on blu in the US, and this time it's been restored in 4k as part of their Paramount Presents line.
1) 2001 Paramount DVD; 2) 2020 Shock BD; 3) 2022 Paramount BD.

Part of the mystery as to how such a successful, critically heralded and truly important film could've been relegated to an obscure import is that most labels would've looked at the existent master and said wow, this film needs a restoration before it could be released in HD today.  Sometimes I'll point out how a recent blu doesn't hold up to the modern standard of fresh 4k scans, but looks fine for an older BD.  Well, Shock's blu would get low scores even if it came out in 2006.  First of all, it's clearly using the same master as the original DVD, which was at least anamorphic widescreen and free of interlacing issues.  Moreover, their BD's image is hazy, colors are dull, and there's a bit of a "screen door" effect presumably brought on by an attempt to sharpen film grain that is soft and barely captured.  There are also flecks and spots of film damage, but that's a minor complaint.  Want another major complaint?  Obviously some kind of edge enhancement or unsharpening tool has been applied to try and correct this funky old transfer.  To be fair to Shock, this was probably baked into the master by Paramount decades ago, but that fact doesn't help us viewers now.

So does that mean their BD was some kind of worthless side-grade?  No, we did gain ground here.  The DVD is slightly windowboxed to 1.82:1, which the BD corrects to a properly matted 1.85:1.  I left the borders around the first set of shots so you can see the difference, but the most important difference is that it means Shock's blu winds up revealing more information on the right-hand side (and a sliver along the bottom) that the DVD shouldn't have been cropping.  And while the blu appears to be artificially sharpened, we can see that the DVD's compression makes it even softer; so the blu-ray is preserving at least a smidgen extra detail and clarity.  It's a slight boost, but it's still a boost.

But now, forget about it.  No more screen door effect or other artificial tweaks; no more fuzzy and barely visible film grain.  This is a very attractive restoration, with a generally brighter image, stronger colors and more natural skin tones (people are no longer so red in the face).  I also hadn't really noticed the vertical compression in the older transfers until Paramount fixed it.  I first noticed it in the framing, which surprised me by still being 1.85:1, but cropping tighter on the top and bottom (notice Hutton's disappearing hand in the first set of shots), but not really on the sides.  Now, just a quick glance at Sutherland's face makes the difference obvious, but I didn't realize how off the old master was until I saw this corrected one.
Now, the back of Shock's case lists 5.1 audio, but I'm actually happy to report that is incorrect.  They in fact provide the original mono track in Dolby Digital 2.0, just like the DVD.  I'm less pleased to tell you that they're both also lossy, though.  Oh, and there are no subtitles.  The DVD had subtitles (and also a French dub).  But once again, Paramount Presents solves all of this.  Now they have the original mono in TrueHD; plus the French dub is back, along with German and Japanese.  And the English subtitles are back, along with a second HoH track, and more for French, German, Japanese and Spanish.  You can even select your preferred language for the menu screen.

Shock's blu is also completely barebones.  The DVD at least had the trailer, but I guess Shock couldn't hold onto that either.  In fact, there isn't even a menu screen; it's just the one movie file on a single-layer disc.  They've really done the bare minimum.  Paramount's blu brings the trailer back, but they also do much better.  First up is a brand new interview with Tim Hutton, who talks about everything from his experiences filming to his Oscar memories.  There's also a nice new interview with author Judith Guest, though I wish it was longer.  She talks about her experiences with the film, and also her Oscar experiences, but unfortunately she's never asked about the original novel and the story at the heart of everything.  It just runs over five minutes long, and what we have is great, but I wish they would've given us more.  Paramount's new blu also comes in a fancy slipcover that opens up to reveal the film's original poster artwork.
So credit where it's due to Shock, for at least giving us something to tide us over.  But Paramount Presents has blown it out of the water in all departments.  This is finally the blu-ray edition Ordinary People deserves.  Now we just need Rachel River, but I don't think that's with Paramount.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that in parts the movie is very slightly soft, but sharpness overall is good and what you'd expect from a 1920x1080 rendering of the master. It's an amazing movie that is looking better than ever before on home video.