Ringing In the New Year with Columbia Classics... Volume 2

Welcome to 2022, guys!  I've got so much stuff I want to cover this year, including finishing up on this massive 14-disc UHD/ BD boxed set, Columbia Classics Volume 2.  First post of the new year is appropriate for this one, though, as it may well take the prize for Best Release of 2021.  Anyway, I've now covered four of the main features on their individual movie pages:
...which leaves two more: 1959's Anatomy Of a Murder and 1968's Oliver!  See, it's one film for each decade from the '50s to the 2010s.  Well, almost.  But the gap is happily filled with a bonus disc of 20 short films, ranging from the early 1930s to the late 2010s.
Here's my review of Otto Preminger's Anatomy Of a Murder in eight words: important film, still engaging but hasn't aged well.  When people like Paul Schrader talk about The Searchers, they tend not to mention the "aw shucks" homestead scenes, the goofy comic relief, sappy romance or the cornball musical number.  But it's all there, right alongside everything great about the film.  And it's kind of the same here, except where in The Searchers it feels almost like two different movies cutting back and forth to each other, here it feels more inseparably stirred into a single stew.  You've got some of the most authentic court room scenes on film for its time, an envelope pushing jazz score by the one and only Duke Ellington (which sometimes works great, and sometimes sounds like it's intended for a completely different movie), and a solid story at its core, based on the John D. Voelker novel, which in turn was based on an actual 1952 murder trial.  But for all its touted authenticity, they certainly took some big, Hollywood liberties, including adding a very old Hollywood femme fatale plot twister.  You can read about the real story here; it's much more down to Earth.
Ain't no rule that says the dog can't practice law!
But that old Hollywood sensibility really feels out of place when we meet Arthur O'Connell as the comically drunken stumble-bum sidekick.  It's so hokey.  George C. Scott probably comes off the best, though non-actor Joseph N. Welch, who in real life was the chief counsel in the historical Army-McCarthy hearings, is memorably affable as the judge.  Jimmy Stewart is Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazzara gives more of a presence than a performance and Lee Remick, well, feels like she's still performing in Days of Wine and Roses rather than a true crime story.  At the end of the day, Anatomy's still eminently watchable, but I don't think it packs nearly the same punch it would've in the 50s.
Anatomy's been released multiple times before, first in 2000 as a fullscreen Columbia Classics DVD, which was later included in their 2007 Best Of 50's Collection and 2008 James Stewart: Columbia Screen Legends 3-disc boxed sets.  It was the same disc in all those cases.  In 2012, Criterion released it on DVD and Blu in 2012 with a new widescreen transfer.  And in 2013, Sony released that version as a widescreen MOD DVR in their Choice Collection line.  And of course, most recently, it's here in this set, on both BD and UHD.
1) 2000 DVD; 2) 2012 DVD; 3) 2013 DVR; 4) 2021 BD; 5) 2021 UHD.
The original 2000 DVD is somewhat open matte at 1.32:1, with more on the top and bottom, but cropping off a little on the sides.  All the rest are 1.85:1... well, except for the 2013 Choice Collection disc, which is ever so slightly horizontally stretched to 1.84:1.  But basically, they all seem to be based on the same scan, which was restored in 4k from the original 35mm negative and the duplicate 35mm negative.  So yes, it's the same master on all of these, even the newest release.  But it looks great in HD - grain is very finely captured even on the BD - and new grading was of course performed for the UHD's HDR.

Even the old 2000 disc includes not only the original English mono track with optional subtitles (both standard and HoH), but a Spanish dub and Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai subs.  Criterion stripped away all the foreign options but kept the English mono and subtitles, and adding a new 5.1upmix to boot.  The Choice Collection took it all away apart from the original mono, but what do you expect from a DVR?  But the boxed set really went all out, giving us the original mono, newly restored for this release, and that 5.1 track, both in DTS-HD on the BD and UHD, with an all new Atmos mix on the latter to boot.  It's also got multiple foreign dubs and well over 20 foreign subs, with both standard and HoH English subtitle tracks.  In other words: all you could ask for and more.
The initial DVD of this film was barebones apart from the trailer, but Criterion cooked up a nice collection of new and vintage features.  They conducted a series of on-camera interviews with experts, each of which is rather smart and devoted to a particular topic (i.e. one on Saul Bass, another on Duke Ellington).  As to the vintage, they have an old television interview with Preminger and a newsreel about the film with some behind-the-scenes footage.  But best of all are the "excerpts" from the Anatomy of Anatomy documentary, which visits the town where the film was shot and interviews the locals who witnessed or even participated in the filming.  I put excerpts in quotes because the feature on the disc is over 30 minutes long, and the complete doc itself is less than 45, so we're really getting the bulk of the documentary.  There's also a photo gallery and a 28-page booklet with notes by Nick Pinkerton.

The Columbia set keeps many of the Criterion extras, but sadly loses Anatomy of Anatomy, the newsreel and the gallery.  Sony does come up with something in their stead though, an audio commentary by one of the experts interviewed on the Criterion (which, again, has been ported over).  It's quite good and informative, and  a refreshing alternative to the current trend of self-indulgent expert tracks on many cult films these days.  But serious fans would still do well to hang onto their Criterion discs for those excised supplements.

Watching the lavish musical Oliver! for the first time, I was surprised to realize it's the source of "Food, Glorious Food," that song from all the silly commercials in the 80s.  It's also the home of "Consider Yourself," that song theater kids have been singing to themselves for decades.  The first - and unfortunately, last - thing that struck me, however, were the immense production values, where even the city exteriors are constructed sets, including London streets with a working training running through it.  And when the time comes, they're able to fill it all with massive crowds of singers and dancers.  You can't help but be impressed.  It also sports an expert cast, including Ron Moody from the original stage show and the inimitable Oliver Reed.  But while all the songs are first rate, musically, lyrically, they often feel like the first words that popped into the writer's head.  Like, the one verse in "I'd Do Anything," when Faigin sings to his kids is on point, but everything else is simple and unimaginative like "would you lace my shoe?  Would you paint your face blue?"  Mrs. Johnson's Fourth Grade Class could've come up with more amusing suggestions.  A little touch of Porter or Berlin would've gone a long way.  As soon as Twist sings "I could see it at my leisure," in the "Who Will Buy" song, you just know the rhyme is going to be "treasure," and sure enough, there are no surprises.  And even when Faigan sings his perfectly crafted "Reviewing the Situation" song, you just can't escape that this is a children's movie, and it doesn't hold enough dramatic weight for adult viewers.  And this is Dickens.  Very heavy issues here are turned into light forth, and having a grown woman lip sync the title character has an unfortunate distancing effect for viewers old enough to take a critical view.
Oliver! was first released on DVD by Sony in 1998, and again in 2005, this time packaged with a soundtrack CD.  In 2008, they included it in their mammoth Columbia Pictures: The Best Pictures box.  Twilight Time gave the musical its HD debut on blu in 2013, limited as always to 3000 copies, and Sony later released their own BD edition in 2018.  I haven't got any of those editions, because frankly, I wouldn't even own this one if it wasn't part of the set.  But it is, so I do, and it's a new 2-disc BD/ UHD set giving us the film in true 4k for the first time with all new special features. 
1) 2021 BD; 2) 2021 UHD.
The book tells us this restoration was done in 2020-21, so it's not the same master used on any of the previous blu-rays.  It's been freshly scanned in 4k from the OCN, apart from two missing reels that had to be taken from a 35mm interpositive.  I can't speak to how the older editions stack up, but this one's framed in 2.35:1 and looks stellar.  As always, the UHD is darker because HDR is displayed brighter, but the BD might actually be a pinch too bright here, with some of the whitest highlights losing tiny bits of detail that the UHD recovers.  The increased resolution also restores natural curves and rounded edges to small detail that is blocky and pixelated on the BD.  So it's a very fine BD, but the UHD is an improvement on top of that in every natural way that you'd expect.

Both discs share the same, lossless choices of stereo and 5.1 mixes, as well as nine foreign language dubs, some of which are lossless on the UHD (but are all lossy on the blu).  The pair also include both English and English HoH subtitles, as well as a slew of foreign subs.
Oliver all grown up.
Oliver! comes with a hefty collection of sing-alongs, dance-alongs and sing- & dance-alongs that's mostly just repeated footage of the film with lyrics and dance steps on the screen.  But there's also a healthy dose of quality content, including another excellent expert commentary track.  There are excellent on-camera interviews with stars Mark Lester and Ron Moody, a brief featurette comparing the elaborate sets with the original locations they're modeled after, a promotional behind-the-scenes featurette, the original screen test footage of Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger) and several trailers.  Even if you're not interested in the musical itself, you might well find the story behind such a massive undertaking intriguing.
Finally, we come to the bonus disc, itself a collection of twenty beautifully restores short films, mostly ranging from 1933-1956, with three more from 2002, 2016 and 2017.  There's a Three Stooges short, two Charley Chases and a 1950's travelogue with a big music number.  The animated entries include a lot of childrens' stuff, naturally, including several I remember being shown in grade school.  There's an adaptation of the children's book Madeline that mirrors its distinctive illustrations, a dark and eclectic illustration of Edgar Allen Poe's Tell-Tale Heart, an early Tom & Jerry/ Sylvester & Tweety-style backyard adventure, a couple Mr. Magoos, and even modern CGI features that've popularly played before Columbia blockbusters, including a Hotel Transylvania short.  But the jewel in the crown is 1933's Um-Pa, an utterly insane musical short starring vaudeville star Jack Osterman that's been touted on the internet for years, and exceeds the hype with every unpredictable new twist.  It's one you've really got to see for yourself.  And now, for the first time ever, it can be seen in the level of quality it deserves.
What? You didn't think Jar Jar Binks would be in at least one of these films?
So this is a pretty damn essential set.  Six irrefutably classic films, all making their debut on UHD, many with all new special features to boot.  Stripes also includes never before-seen deleted scenes and The Social Network is being released for the first time ever with its original, unrated audio.  And the bonus disc is a treasure trove, even if not all of them are apt to be to your interests.  It's all housed in a very sturdy box with an impressively sized, full-color, 80 page hardcover book with essays on all six films and write-ups on each of their restorations.  It's 14 discs in total, with each film given its own case and slipcover and a sleeve in the back of the book for the bonus disc.  A download card is also included.  So yeah, if you ask me what was the best home video release of 2021, this was probably it.

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