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Blu-ray Review HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: The Last Emperor

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Matt Hough, Dec 20, 2008.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Well-Known Member
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    The Last Emperor (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1987
    Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1 1080pAVC codec
    Running Time: 165 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
    Subtitles: SDH
    Region: A
    MSRP: $ 39.95

    Release Date: January 6, 2009
    Review Date: December 20, 2008


    The Film

    4/5

    Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor won nine 1987 Oscars including Best Picture. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, but it’s a somewhat flawed epic. All of its awards and plaudits notwithstanding, it’s an easy picture to admire but a difficult picture to love.

    Pu Yi is brought to Peking’s Forbidden City at age three where he will eventually become the last emperor of China. He is unexceptional in every respect, and yet his story is told by screenwriter Mark Peploe (with an assist by director Bernardo Bertolucci) in a most interesting fashion. We begin in 1950 with Pu Yi in a prison camp (where he attempts suicide and is thwarted). From there we go backwards and forwards in time alternating events from his growing up years (at ages 3, 8, 15, and adult) with his interrogation, rehabilitation, and eventual release from prison in 1959. From there we continue briefly into his life as an unassuming gardener finally free from the prisons he has lived in or made for himself his entire life.

    Because the main character is not a particularly intriguing individual, it falls to Bertolucci to surround him with colorful, fascinating, and attention-grabbing people and events, and in this, he magnificently succeeds. Peter O’Toole’s entry into the film as Pu Yi’s tutor gives a third of the movie an unusual grace and a Western point of view which often serves as an ironic dynamic to Pu Yi’s life and behavior. Later events during the deposed emperor’s life as a playboy or as a puppet emperor of Manchuria bring with them their own drama and character, though those scenes are among the least interesting in the picture emphasizing all too obviously the alternative prisons he’s residing in without being bright enough to realize it.

    Four actors play Pu Yi during his life, and all do well with the character as written. John Lone, who was one of the movie chameleons at the time of the filming moving easily between playing villains and heroes in other films, does magnificently well toning down his natural spark to play this near-nonentity. (For all of the film’s Oscar notoriety, it’s hard to fathom why neither Lone nor O’Toole garnered award nominations for their work here.) Joan Chen makes a haunting Wan Jung, the wife whose loveless marriage leads her to drug addiction and disgrace.

    Bertolucci has always said that he loves all of the characters in his movies, but he seems to keep his distance from Pu Yi, and his coldness seems to affect to movie, too, as the viewer feels somewhat removed from the events and from Pu Yi’s plight. The scope of the epic storytelling is there, and all the views of the Forbidden City are awesome to behold, but with a central character who’s rather inert and a director who’s not engaged with him either, we end up with a sterile epic that’s easy to admire but hard to embrace.


    Video Quality

    4/5

    The 2.00:1 Vittorio Storaro-approved aspect ratio which was a reformatting for Criterion’s DVD release of this film is retained in this Blu-ray release, presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. In terms of sharpness, solidity, and color depth, the Blu-ray is leagues ahead of the DVD with no line shimmer on those rooftops in the Forbidden City and more than adequate fine object detail in close-ups and many medium shots. (The Manchurian sequences look particularly striking in high definition.) Long shots have a tendency to go soft, however, and are the most disappointing aspect of the encoding. Of course, not to beat a dead horse, but the altered aspect ratio simply does not work with every shot in the film, and sometimes it’s so off (Lone practically lopped off the right side of the screen in a car scene where he’s speaking but barely visible, for example) that the off-kilter compositions call attention to themselves, surely not the award-winning cinematographer’s intent. The film has been divided into 29 chapters.

    Audio Quality

    3/5

    The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track (1.8-2.1 Mbps) sounds surprisingly thin in quite a few places but occasionally rises to unnecessary levels of sound which gives the track an erratic quality. Though true to the era of sound recording for the movie, the audio track here seems just a bit unsatisfying for such an epic film.


    Special Features

    4.5/5

    An audio commentary has been pieced together with contributions from director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer Ryaichi Sakamoto. Even with four men commenting on their roles in the production of the film, there are gaps in the commentary, and some of it is slow going, but each man does offer some unique perspective to what he brought to the table in bringing this movie to the screen.

    All of the supplemental material on the Blu-ray release is presented in 480p.

    “The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci” finds the famous director at loose ends when his planned 1984 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest fell through. As he wanders the world looking for inspiration, he muses over some of his past triumphs including ‘1900,’ Last Tango in Paris, and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (with clips from each worked into the featurette). The second half of the documentary has him in China working on scenes for The Last Emperor. The 4:3 documentary was directed by Fernand Moskowicz and runs 53 minutes.

    “Postcards from China” is a home movie documentary shot by Bertolucci as he scours the Chinese countryside looking at potential shooting locations for The Last Emperor. The 4:3 short can be played with or without Bertolucci commentary and runs 8 minutes.

    “Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure” is a 1986 documentary directed by Paolo Brunetto which is a true “making of” feature showing Bertolucci directing the actors (and then showing us the scenes from the finished film), blocking movement for the actors and for the camera, editing the film alongside the film editor, attending the music scoring sessions, and going to the first private screening of the finished film. This 4:3 feature runs 51 minutes.

    “Making The Last Emperor gathers in 2007 four of the production team’s Oscar winners: costume designer James Acheson, art director Gianni Silvestri, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and film editor Gabriella Scarfiotti to talk individually about working with director Bertolucci and their own contributions to the finished film looking back twenty years since the work was completed. This featurette runs 45 minutes.

    “The South Bank Show,” the ITV cultural arts show, aired a special length 66-minute episode on The Last Emperor. The show basically steps through the film section by section offering clips and comments from the main actors and the director.

    Composer David Byrne, one of three who earned Oscars for music composition used in the film, contributes an interview filmed in 2007 and offers demos of several pieces of music presented for use in the movie and then the scenes in the movie showing how the themes were adopted for use. This interview runs 25 minutes.

    “Beyond the Forbidden City” is a 45-minute lecture by historian Ian Buruma explaining in detail the tumultuous events going on in China during the life of Pu Yi which we see only snippets of during the film as they affected him. Though the talk can be a bit dry, the information offered is quite revelatory in understanding the political unrest during the years of his life.

    “Late Show: Face to Face” is a 1989 interview by Jeremy Isaacs in which Bertolucci talks about winning his Oscars, his father and mother, his political beliefs, and his memories of Brando, Godard, and other film greats. This 4:3 program runs 30 minutes.

    The original theatrical trailer is in 4:3 (no widescreen trailer was available?) and runs for 2½ minutes.

    The set features a 15-page booklet which features color stills from the movie and an appreciation of the film by critic David Thomson.

    The Criterion Blu-rays are now including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.


    In Conclusion

    4/5 (not an average)

    The Blu-ray release of The Last Emperor is certainly the best looking version of the film available on home video. This set does not contain the longer TV-version of the film which was featured on Criterion’s DVD set for the movie, and the booklet’s contents are greatly reduced. Still, the step-up in video quality with an accompanying lossless audio track will be all fans of the movie need to know to want this version of the film.


    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC
     
  2. Rachael B

    Rachael B Well-Known Member

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    I'm very jealous that you got a copy already and I don't. You make it all sound good as a plate of Kung Pow chicken.
     
  3. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    Thanks, Matt.

    Having seen Criterion's SD version of this, I'm curious to see the BD to see just how much of a difference there is between the two. I'm watching on a rather small HDTV set...and sometimes the differences are not all that perceptible, while sometimes it is quite surprising.
     
  4. JoshB

    JoshB Well-Known Member

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    I have the Criterion 4-disc set, and as much as the BD seems very appealing, I must pass...

    The lack of the extended version (despite its PQ being weaker compared to the Theatrical Cut) and the fact that the aspect ratio has not been, and will likely never be, corrected to the way it was originally shot and shown, it makes it hard to justify the purchase.

    I, and I'm sure others, feel that the release of Apocalypse Now will stir feelings on the same issue. All respects to Storarro, he is a great cinematographer and has created and shot some truly beautiful films, but his justification into why he alters the AR of his films for home viewing just doesn't fly IMO.

    Not to get into the whole AR issue though. Great review of a great film, and Criterion is doing well with the BD transition.
     
  5. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    So, for $25 you can slide the BD into your 4-disc packaging, still have the extended version and all the extras of the SD version.
     
  6. JoshB

    JoshB Well-Known Member

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    Hmm, interesting. I wasn't aware of this at all. I might have to check it out then. Sounds like Criterion is taking alot of the right steps with the BD transition.

    Right now, I just have Chungking Express and Bottle Rocket on BD. I had thought about upgrading from Third Man, Last Emperor, and the Man Who Fell to Earth (depending on what improvements were made), so I may have to check this out now...Thanks again!
     
  7. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    An update. While researching this coming week's RoundUp, I see that amazon has priced this at $24.99...pretty much the same price as sending Criterion $25 (plus Disc 1 of your SD set!).

    So, you might be better off just ordering through them.

    That way you still have the entire SD set at your disposal (to keep for the features and for use in a non-HD player...or to re-gift!)

    [​IMG]
     
  8. EnricoE

    EnricoE Well-Known Member

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    urgh ... what is with cinematographers who want to update a film to fit "better" on 16:9 display?

    sorry criterion, no sale for me!!!

    i really like this film but i want it, just like apocalypse now, enjoy in it's original aspect ratio.
     
  9. Dennis Nicholls

    Dennis Nicholls Well-Known Member

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    Guess which version of The Third Man I have? [​IMG]

    And of course my The Man Who Fell to Earth is the Fox-Lorber version.

    At least I put off getting The Last Emperor all these years due to poor quality reviews.
     
  10. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    So, Yossarian, now you have the choice of beautiful quality but cropped image...or crappy quality and full image.
     
  11. Dave H

    Dave H Well-Known Member

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    Agreed.
     
  12. Dennis Nicholls

    Dennis Nicholls Well-Known Member

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    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Cats .22? [​IMG]
     
  13. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    Exactly.

    Except in this case, Storaro would have you think he actually composed the frames like this:

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
     
  14. Rachael B

    Rachael B Well-Known Member

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    I've just watched the disc and I never really felt I was watching a very cropped image. I expected to feel that way atleast a few times but never did. So, I'm pleased with the disc. The colour is very stunning at times. Some of the red and gold outfits, curtains, and banners in the Forbidden City are off the chart booti-ful. No regrets here.
     
  15. Peter Neski

    Peter Neski Well-Known Member

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    "I've just watched the disc and I never really felt I was watching a very cropped image. I expected to feel that way atleast a few times but never did. So, I'm pleased with the disc. The colour is very stunning at times. Some of the red and gold outfits, curtains, and banners in the Forbidden City are off the chart booti-ful. No regrets here."

    No regrets ...well watch it after watching the Pal version,then you will
    have regrets !! Knowing that the film is changed from the Original,and
    not by the Director
     
  16. Brandon Conway

    Brandon Conway captveg

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    Since Bertolucci flatly insisted that Storaro's will be done, Bertolucci is as responsible for the change as Storaro is. Saying that the film was not changed by the director is simply false. Bertolucci had control over whether or not he allowed Storaro to change it, therefore it is ultimately Bertolucci's change to his film.
     
  17. Rachael B

    Rachael B Well-Known Member

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    I have a DVD of Last Emperor with the original aspect ratio and I did watch it a few months ago when the BD was announced. It's a tad wider, no doubt. I'm fine with the BD as done. Somehow I think the director does approve or it wouldn't have happened...?

    I expected to find some shots that would look awkward. I certainly felt that way seeing Lonesome Dove recut to 16-9 from 4-3. I didn't though. This reframe job is more like a slight haircut than the shearing we've seen exacted on some films in the video dark ages.

    I enjoyed the disc and that's what counts the most.
     
  18. Brandon Conway

    Brandon Conway captveg

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    He did. Criterion specifically said that Bertolucci said to do as Storaro indicated, with no hesitation.
     
  19. Jeff Ulmer

    Jeff Ulmer Well-Known Member

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    Or you could just pay a couple of dollars more (Amazon had this for $26ish) and get the retail version, keep the DVD intact, and get the BR packaging without the hassle of mailing (and possibly losing) your old discs.
     
  20. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    Jeff: You quoted Post #7...but somehow missed Post #9! [​IMG]

    It's always nice to have options...especially when some options are better than others! [​IMG]
     

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