HTF HD-DVD Review: Viva Las Vegas

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by PatWahlquist, Oct 3, 2007.

  1. PatWahlquist

    PatWahlquist Supporting Actor

    Jun 13, 2002
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    Viva Las Vegas (HD-DVD)

    Studio: Warner Home Video
    Rated: Not Rated
    Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Video Codec: VC-1
    Audio: Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1; Dolby Digital: English 5.1, English 1.0; French 1.0 and Spanish 1.0
    Subtitles: English; Spanish; French
    Time: 85 minutes
    Disc Format: 1 SS HD-DVD
    Case Style: Keep case
    Theatrical Release Date: 1964
    HD-DVD Release Date: September 18, 2007

    Note 1: some of the information of the film itself was sourced from Peter Guralnick’s exceptional second book on the life of Elvis Presley, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Elvis fans, and music fans in general are encouraged to seek out this book and the companion book, tracing the first half of Elvis’ life, Last Train to Memphis.

    Note 2: Portions of this review were also part of the Blu-Ray review of this title, also available on Home Theater Forum.

    Having lived in and grown up in Las Vegas since 1981, I’ve seen a ton of changes to the landscape of the town. Even when I first saw Viva Las Vegas on a lousy old video tape around 1986, it was still interesting at that time to see what the city looked like in the early ‘60’s. In the picture, Elvis Presley plays “Lucky” Jackson, a carefree race car driver who’s come to Las Vegas to race his car in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. The only issue is Lucky needs to get a motor for a car. When lady luck smiles on him at the craps table, Lucky wins the cash he needs to buy the motor. Back at the garage outside the convention center (with the now gone Landmark posing in the background), Lucky meets the suave Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova) who sets himself up as not only a racing rival but soon, a rival for the heart of the lovely Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret).

    As the boys check out the underside of the Count’s car, a pair of legs struts in, with Rusty announcing she is having a whistling problem with her car (to which Lucky replies, “I don’t blame it”, perhaps the best line in the whole movie). The boys fall over each other to set up a date with Rusty, but she denies them then speeds off, car seemingly fixed. Smitten, the boys take on the unenviable task of searching through every showgirl in Vegas to find her, only to find her at the Flamingo as a swim instructor. Lucky seizes the opportunity to tell the lady she loves him, but she doesn’t know it yet, to which Rusty replies, “The gentleman is all wet”. The competition, both professional and personal, between Lucky and the Count only intensifies with Rusty caught in the middle. Along the way, we see Rusty and Lucky’s relationship change via clever songs, but will these musical machinations prove to be enough to win the race and the heart of the girl?

    The answer to that question is pure Elvis and Vegas magic. Being a huge fan of Vegas history, this picture has it in spades: I had a blast seeing the vintage Strip and Downtown areas as well as watching the race around the area and following its impossible geography. Simplistic though the plot may be, Elvis’ animal charm oozes out of the screen and there would just be no way poor Ann-Margaret could resist him (as evidenced by the off-screen affair that was the fodder of the tabloids, much to Pricilla’s dismay). I watched this picture to see the sparks begin to fly between the characters and the actors making this much more of a historical document in the life of Elvis that just another picture. Elvis’ performances show how in command he was of his talent at the time, belting out tunes with precision and impact like that of a sniper. During the talent show/ contest, Elvis does the title tune, accompanied by a small band and a few showgirls. He dances around, swings his hips and his head, and accentuates the lyrics with hand gestures given as if commanding the audience to pay attention to him. When it’s time for the end of the song, Elvis uses the beat, the surroundings and his acting (yes, he has some great acting moments in this one) to capture the audience’s attention. He cocks an eyebrow to highlight the look of sadness on his face, mirroring ours that this particular performance is now over. The screen goes to black, and there is a short second before the audience erupts in applause; in that second, we are left breathless and enthused by what we have just experienced, reliving it and clamoring for more. Such is the power of Elvis Presley.

    As much as Elvis is on display here, we should not discount the contributions of Ann-Margaret to the picture. She comes across as a far more accomplished actor, but she guides Elvis (or Lucky, there’s not a lot of difference) down paths that will make him better: she makes him grow up and she settles him down. Director George Sidney was also smitten with Margaret and he added more close-ups and another tune to the picture to highlight his female (co-)stars considerable talents. While parts of the picture border on pure camp, specifically Rusty’s penchant for slapping her legs when she sings and dances, we are still treated to exciting dance numbers with quick steps and sharp beats. It may have been easy for Sidney to take these pictures more towards the way of bigger production numbers, but he retains the rock-n-roll roots of his star while allowing Margaret the chance to perform in a different manner. This combination of stars and their competition for and against each other, elevates Viva Las Vegas above that of most of the other Elvis pictures.

    Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 11-S1 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 1080p. I am using a Toshiba XA2 player and utilizing the HDMI capabilities of both units. The projector is doing the scaling to 1080p due to some technical issues with the Toshiba player.

    The picture is in VC-1, encoded at 1080p and it is framed at 2.40:1. There has been some talk on various sites so far about the quality of this picture, and I can confirm that this is an excellent, stunning video presentation. From the moment the movie starts with the pan over and into downtown Las Vegas and the Strip, where we see the bright, warm neon of the various Vegas hotels contrasted to the darkness outside, color fidelity is the true star. The sets, both on location and in the studios, pop with vividness and accuracy, with many colors making up the sets themselves and the lighting used to convey certain moods. I was struck by how well the 1080p HD-DVD was able to draw out so much subtle shades in this picture that I had never been able to see on past videotape and DVD releases. Black levels were excellent with good shadow detail. While the HD presentation seeks to enhance and portray how good a vintage film can look, it also tends to show that this was originally meant for film stock and not the intenseness of home video. By this I mean when there are close-ups of the actors faces, it is quite easy to see the makeup they are wearing. It also reminds you at many times the action was taking place on a set. Detail in the picture is excellent as well and you can make out the waves in Elvis’ hair and the small details on clothing and costume patterns. The picture remains just a little soft throughout, but this is as it should be so we are reminded this is a film after all. There was no dirt or debris in the picture and I did not notice any edge enhancement. We should all applaud and support Warner’s by buying this excellent release if for nothing else the care that was put into this transfer.

    Note: The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack was attained by a 5.1 analog connection.

    I watched the movie with the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track engaged. Again, having only seen this movie on videotape and SD-DVD, I had only heard the mono soundtracks and their limited fidelity. Warner has seen fit to re-master this soundtrack in a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 presentation that opens up plenty of new detail. The immediate thing I was struck with was how many new elements I noticed in the songs, much more detail in the individual instruments, and tonally, they sounded more accurate. The new soundtrack also does a new separation of the music, so we are finally treated to a stereo (and then some) mix. This mix is not distracting, but it opens up a new dimension to the movie, giving it a much better “you are there” feel, so you can hear Elvis’ vocals right where they are supposed to be, and separates Margaret’s “HAH!HAH!” slaps just to the left. The soundtrack stays primarily in the front soundstage with the vocals adding more ambience and echo to the rest of the sound field. Bass effects are minimal, but noticed, and this is not the type of musical score that would really need booming bass. Clarity is excellent in the soundtrack, with no hint of hiss or dirt. Since this new soundtrack is so clean, ADR is very noticeable, as is the segments featuring pre-recorded music. This is a very small complaint to the overall presentation and you will soon forget about it as you become engrossed in the number itself. I noticed no differences between this disc and its Blu-Ray counterpart.

    Bonus Material:
    With the advent of HD-DVD, we are faced with several different audio and video codecs being used on each disc. Due to this, I have begun adding the encoding details as part of the explanation of bonus features when applicable and relevant. For this release, the extras are in MPEG-2, 480p unless otherwise noted.

    Commentary by Steve Pond, author of Elvis in Hollywood: Pond’s commentary does a great job of dealing with history as much as the picture itself. I don’t think it is fair anymore to simply talk about the work alone when it comes to Elvis, so this commentary is very satisfying. Pond rehashes some of what is in the featurette below, but then he expands on many key points. Unfortunately, there are numerous lengthy pauses in the commentary, enough to make me want Guralnick or some of the other doc contributors to fill in.

    New Featurette: Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas (20:34): This is a mighty fine albeit short primer about Elvis, the time surrounding this movie and his time in Las Vegas. It starts with the making of the picture and the impact it had on Elvis’ career, but then it shows how it gave him a better foot hold to set up his historic run at The International in the 70’s. The aforementioned Peter Guralnick contributes, as does other Elvis historians and some of the musicians who played with him. There are also a couple interviews with members of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’ posse if you will. I sincerely hope Warner’s is doing this type of doc on each of the HD Elvis releases.

    Theatrical Trailer: the trailer is nowhere near as stunning as the feature, but it did remind me of what the previous video versions looked like.

    The extras are the same on both the HD-DVD and the Blu-Ray.

    Viva Las Vegas is as much a motto and an attitude as it is a movie and a song, and it’s much better than the far sleazier “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas”. In this picture we see Elvis in his prime, full of raw energy and wooing the girls as he goes. As is noted in the bonus features, Elvis may have met his match in Ann-Margaret, who Elvis had referred to as “the female me”. The sparks of their personal relationship bounds off the screen making the characters budding relationship that much more interesting. Warner’s has done an amazing job with the video in particular, but the audio portion is also excellent, and I wish there were a few more extras. Regardless, this gets the very rare for me…

    Highly Recommended!

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