BEN-HUR — BEST BLU-RAY OF 2012?
THE HOBBIT OVERWHELMS IN 5 VERSIONS
This week a reader asked, What’s the best Blu-ray release of the year? The question caught me off-guard. Best looking? Best movie? After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best and best looking hi-def release of 2012 for home video is BEN-HUR, William Wyler’s 1959 epic of revenge and redemption.
First of all, the movie has been meticulously restored in picture and sound. It is a ravishing sight to behold this still thrilling, old-school movie melodrama. No question about that. And the fabled chariot race that unfolds in real time is, in my opinion, the best sustained action sequence of all time. The entire race from set-up to crowned winner is about 45 minutes and took over three months to shoot. According to one of the movie’s sound editors I spoke with, he used 50 different analog audio tracks to get that sustained thundering of horses’ hooves, chariot crashes, whips snapping and crowds cheering. It’s a visceral rush you can feel on your skin that is even more intense on the clarified and enhanced Blu-ray disc played on a great audio system.
That kind of handcrafted sonic attention is not done today since movie sound is often synthetically created and/or digitally designed. The rich color in every frame has been saturated back to its original level and all the negative flaws, fades and scratches have been individually and precisely removed. The resulting image dazzles. I think, and this is subjective, that BEN-HUR looks a little better than the new release of David Lean’s stunning Blu-ray LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Both films are worthy of any digital home library.
Shortly after its release for home video, I had the pleasure of watching BEN-HUR with the late production artist Robert Ayres (1913-2012) who designed the look of the chariots as well as the beautiful opening nativity sequence that includes not only the birth of the Christ child in a cavern-like manger but also the visit and look of the wise men. Their costumes and physicality leave no doubt as to their regal and wise origins. The whole intro is a living Christmas card! Such an iconic and familiar event is given both reverence and grit in unexpected ways that set the tone of the entire film. It was fun hearing Ayres’ memories as he watched this film for the first time in 50 years. Then something struck me about BEN-HUR. Now I know why I think it’s the best Blu-ray of 2012: It is supremely relevant.
In a world that struggles with the heavy burden of a warring humanity under the guise of religion, here’s a movie that speaks directly to the hottest flash point in our world. Before he started production, director William Wyler said he wanted to out-do Cecil B. DeMille in creating the ultimate Biblical epic “and who better than a Jew to make a movie about Jesus Christ”? The movie (there was a spectacular silent version Wyler also worked on) is based on Civil War General Lew Wallace’s nearly unreadable novel that itself began as a bet on a train. Wallace is said to have made the claim that he could write a story that would destroy the alleged divinity of Jesus and His message of Love. Or so the story goes. But of course, the novel did just the opposite.
At the heart of Wyler’s movie, the plot centers on a justifiably angry Jew on the road to revenge who crosses paths with the Man of Peace. It’s a pretty radical theme that probably would not be green-lighted today.
I met Charlton Heston several times socially. I liked him. His best roles represented an element of himself. He has been criticized for his gun advocacy and his wooden acting, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the iconic role of Judah Ben-Hur. And he did win a Best Actor Oscar©.
In a world tense with issues of Jewish, Muslim and Christian conflicts at their most basic levels, BEN-HUR offers much more than a melodramatic come-to-Jesus solution. In fact, it’s not really “A Tale of the Christ” as much as it is a tale about humanity. Here’s a movie that dares to suggest we are all one family and that it is in our shared best interest to find common ground in an increasingly small world. After all, the notion of “Love your neighbor, do good to those that hate you” may be the one thing that has not yet been tried in the world. So it’s not about embracing a religion, and certainly not about converting Jews to Christianity. Remember, Judah Ben-Hur is not a convert, but he is a changed man: his hate has vanished. And what better message for this season that brings celebrations of hope and peace and love to a world in turmoil and pain? It’s an idea embedded in all the great religions as well as ethical non-religious advocates. We are one family, and that is the message of BEN-HUR. As Hugh Griffith’s Sheik Ilderim says, “It’s good for my people and yours.” BEN-HUR is not just the best-looking Blu-ray of 2012, but also the most dangerous.
ON THE BIG SCREEN:
THE HOBBIT, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Big, beautiful, funny, scary and looooong. And this is only one-third (!) of Tolkien’s 1937 children’s book that’s set 60 years before the events of the sprawling RINGS trilogy. For me, the big thing that stands out about Peter Jackson’s guaranteed global hit is the astonishing Hobbit world resurrected in even more detail and splendor than before, if that’s possible! Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey, slightly younger, is more congenial here, even as he warns Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins he may not return from the adventure on which the wizard is sending him.
I liked the Goblin King and the jovial, bearded, bulbous-nosed Dwarves who are determined to recapture their land from Smaug the dragon. In this prequel, Sauron is called the Necromancer since his evil reign is yet to come. I liked the giant spiders and the muddle-headed old wizard Radagast the Brown that no one takes seriously (mistake?). But it’s Andy Serkis and his incredible performance as the pathetic but frightening, conflicted, schizoid creature that lingers longest in my mind. Sirkis, utilizing the remarkable motion capture upgrades, makes Gollum a more flesh and blood creature than in the previous films. And that is something indeed.
It’s hard to believe that film technology and the special effects, digital and otherwise, that envelope the audience in an alternate and utterly believable world can get any better. For the discerning fan, this first installment in a contrived trilogy (where one film would be more than sufficient) can be seen in five different versions. You’ve got your 2D and 3D as well as the Imax iteration. And then there’s the much discussed and debated 48 frame rate (also in 3D). Normal movie frame rate is 24 frames per second so the faster film speed enhances the clarity to a surreal level that is at first a little unsettling. Tolkien’s stories are so well known that I will not discuss the plot other than to say the movie abruptly ends just when it really gets going. Jackson’s a genius and clearly a true Tolkien fan, but there’s a sour taste in the enterprise in that a seemingly greed-driven decision has been made to squeeze as much money from audiences as possible by stretching out the slender, single volume children’s tale to three massive films.