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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Quo Vadis



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#1 of 14 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted March 16 2009 - 03:32 PM

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Quo Vadis

Release Date: March 17, 2009
Studio: Warner Home Video
Packaging/Materials: Single-disc Blu-Ray case
Year: 1951
Rating: UR
Running Time: 2h51m
MSRP: $28.99

MAIN FEATURESPECIAL FEATURES
Video1080p high definition 1.33:1480i or 480p standard definition
AudioDolby Digital: English 1.0, French 1.0, Spanish 1.0 (both Castillian and Latin), German 1.0, Italian 1.0Stereo and mono
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish (movie and select bonus material)None


Note: This review contains portions of Ken McAlinden's HTF review of the "Quo Vadis" DVD release. The entirety of his review can be read here.

As Ken did not assign numerical scores for the feature and extras, I have assigned scores based on my interpretation of his remarks.


The Feature: 4/5
"Quo Vadis" tells a story of the early days of Christianity during the reign of Emperor Nero in Rome. General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) returns victorious to Rome after years of campaigning with his Army regiment. While residing with a retired general, Plautius (Felix Aylmer), he falls for Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a Lygian hostage adopted by Plautius as his daughter. Despite their mutual attraction, Marcus is baffled by her Christian faith. Marcus' fascination with Lygia brings him in contact with early Christian teachers including Paul (Sofaer) and first Apostle Peter (Finlay Currie). As these events transpire, mad Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) conceives a plan to raze the city of Rome and rebuild it to his own specifications. Nero conceals his plan from one of his top advisors, Marcus' Uncle Polonious (Leo Genn), until Rome is already aflame. The citizens of Rome prove less than understanding of Nero's intent. At the urging of his empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), who is secretly jealous of Marcus' romantic interest in Lygia, and in the interest of quelling a rebellion, Nero decides to scapegoat the Christians, stirring up prejudice against their fledgling religion, and sending scores of them to their deaths.

The original cinematic rendering of "Quo Vadis" from 1902 was the progenitor of all subsequent biblical epics. MGM's 1951 remake served a similar purpose by rebooting the dormant genre as a vehicle for big-screen spectacle at a time when films were struggling to compete with television. The tremendous commercial success of "Quo Vadis" would lead to a resurgence of the genre that would extend well into the 1960s. MGM was struggling as a studio since the late 1940s and "Quo Vadis" has been portrayed by historians as both the last blast of Louis B. Mayer, who had presided over the picture's difficult genesis going back to before World War II, and the first blast of Dore Schary, who replaced Mayer as MGM president shortly before it was released. It is much more the former than the latter, although it does serve as something of a hybrid of the cinematic preferences of both men. It is certainly a high-class grand spectacle in the Mayer tradition, but it also has more then enough subtext to be read as a "message picture" in the Schary vein. Stories abound about Mayer rebuffing the desires of Schary and original slated director John Huston to make the parallels between Nero's Rome and Hitler's Germany more explicit. I will leave interpretations of the significance of the film's prominent presentation of Christians being devoured by the beast symbolic of the MGM studio as an exercise for my readers.

In any event, the resulting film is a sprawling epic with an emphasis on big screen spectacle. The film was produced largely at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, and almost no expense was spared. It features a literal cast of thousands, opulent production design, top of the line special effects, amazing set-pieces, a lavish and memorable Miklós Rózsa score, an affirmation of basic Christian values general enough to appeal to non-Christian filmgoers, violence severe enough to result in "not for children" labels on posters and censorship in the UK, and, of course, a little sex. While it at times seems a bit plodding to modern eyes, the film becomes more interesting as the size of the screen on which it is viewed increases.

Robert Taylor gives his typical stiff yet sturdy lead performance, but is hamstrung somewhat by playing a man who is supposed to be a great warrior in a script that more or less makes him a passive hero. Other than a chariot race on the road to Rome in the middle of the film, Marcus Vinicius is kept on the sidelines for all of the film's major action set pieces. Taylor was a versatile old-Hollywood leading man whose stagey acting style would normally seem ideally suited for a lead role in such historical/biblical epics. By giving Taylor so little to do physically, though, the task of conveying Marcus Vinicius' philosophical and spiritual progress throughout the film must be accomplished through variations in tone and expression. This requires a type of nuanced performance which is far from Taylor's strong suit. This also somewhat undermines the chemistry between Taylor and Kerr. Kerr gives a wonderfully expressive performance as Lygia in which her eyes frequently sell her attraction to Marcus Vinicius even when she is verbally rebuffing him, but it sometimes feels like she is playing against a brick wall.

That being said, the performances in this movie that register most strongly are those of Ustinov and Genn. Appearing in his first major Hollywood production, Ustinov gives a career-making performance. His Nero is a strangely sympathetic nightmare of absolute power and complete self-absorption. He commands the viewer's attention whenever he is on screen not simply because he is attired as an emperor, but also because Ustinov conveys an inherently suspenseful sense of capricious insanity that leaves viewers simultaneously fascinated and frightened about where his unchecked ego will take him next. He is quite convincing as a man who could almost literally do anything. As Petronious, Genn is a perfect foil, portraying an extremely self-aware man of keen intellect who has made an art of manipulating his mad emperor through left-handed flattery. Genn gets most of the film's best lines and arguably the best exit, but far from coasting on the strength of the material, he truly seems to revel in the opportunity to play such a character. -- Ken McAlinden


Video Quality: 4.5/5
The film is accurately framed at 1.33:1 and presented in 1080p with the VC-1 codec. Colors have a wonderful vibrancy and depth - purples, golds and reds being especially noteworthy - and flesh tones look pleasingly warm. Sharpness and detail are equally excellent; though there can be some source related softness, costume textures, strands of hair and background foliage are all quite remarkable for their clarity and definition. Black levels are adequately deep, though shadow detail can be a little limited in the darkest of scenes. Overall contrast is quite good though, looking its best in the outdoor, sunlit scenes. Ultimately the only notable imperfections appear to be source related - a bit of white "sparkle" here and there and some mild color fluctuations. There are also no indications of undue digital manipulation like edge enhancement or noise reduction.


Audio Quality: 3/5
The disc's sole English audio option is a 192 kbps Dolby Digital 1.0 track, something that will likely befuddle and annoy collectors. Indeed, it's hard to understand why the audio is ultimately no better than what's found on the DVD release, the additional options of Spanish, German and Italian notwithstanding. Given the film's vintage, mono is understandable, but why not a lossless option?

For what it is, the track, consisting primarily of dialogue, sounds sufficiently detailed and clear, with no glaring problems with strain or distortion. The audio shows its age at times in terms of sound effects, but there's nothing that seems out of character.

Ken's remarks from the DVD release:

Audio is provided via a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track which appears to have been transferred carefully to disc. While pops and scratches have been eliminated, the Warner Bros. audio folks were unusually light handed with the noise reduction. This results in slightly higher background noise/hiss, but improved fidelity due to the relative absence of audible noise reduction artifacts. Source limitations are evident, with somewhat limited dynamic and frequency range, but it is a solid track overall and nothing harmful appears to have been done to it in the digital domain. A Dolby Digital 1.0 French dub is also presented and is of comparable quality to the English track in terms of music and effects.


Special Features: 4/5
The special features package carries over all the items from the previous DVD release, in standard definition. Content review by Ken McAlinden.

Commentary by Critic/Film Historian F.X. Feeney: This is a very well researched commentary, and critic/filmmaker Feeney delivers his information in a very listenable and well-prepared manner. He covers a broad range of topics relating to the film, MGM, the filmmakers, and the source novel. He never seems to be rushing to get information in, and also he never seems to be talking simply to fill in space. As hard as this may seem to believe, this track is definitely worth the two hours and fifty minutes it takes to listen to it.

Theatrical Trailer (5m10s): The trailer starts off with a silent text notice to theatrical patrons declaring the film to be universally acclaimed as "the Greatest Motion Picture of our lifetime," and the hyperbole only ramps up from there. My favorite bit of voiceover refers to Robert Taylor: "Through a performance of masterful artistry, he will have lost his own identity and become Marcus Vinicius..." Another good one refers to a quote from Life magazine, also used in the teaser trailer, calling "Quo Vadis" "The most genuinely colossal movie you are likely to see for the rest of your lives." This is a great trailer for fans of vintage Hollywood marketing chutzpah.

Teaser Trailer (1m01s): Attempts to pique audience interest multimedia-style by referring to a production photograph that was published in "Life" magazine and then revealing a snippet of the massive Roman parade scene that was the subject of the still photo.

"In the Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic" (43m51s): The retrospective documentary is an above average talking heads, film clips, and behind the scenes photo montage assemblage that provides a nice overview of the film. Topics covered included the appeal of biblical and Roman Empire stories to Hollywood, Henryk Sienkiewiez's Nobel prize-winning source novel, the popularity and influence of previous adaptations, the long pre-production history of the MGM film, Hollywood's fondness for British actors in Roman epics, background information on Mervyn LeRoy, the matte paintings and special effects of Harrison Ellenshaw, the music of Miklós Rózsa, the promotion of the film, the film's commercial success, awards nominations, and the film's influence and legacy. On camera interview participants include University College London Professor Dr. Maria Wyke, "Gladiator" writer/producer David Franzonio, critic/filmmaker F.X. Feeney, USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor Dr. Drew Casper, London Royal College of Art Rector Sir Christopher Frayling, the American Film Institute's Patricia King Hanson, film critic/historian Richard Schickel, USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor Dr. Richard Jewell, son of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw Harrison Ellenshaw, motion picture historian Rudy Behlmer, and "Epic Films" author Gary Smith.

While few in number, these extras are high in quality and assembled thoughtfully. While there is some unavoidable overlap between Feeney's commentary and the documentary featurette, there is a lot less than I expected, and both seem designed to complement each other nicely with plenty of interesting production anecdotes and information exclusive to each.


Recap

The Feature: 4/5
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Audio Quality: 3/5
Special Features: 4/5
Overall Score (not an average): 3.5/5

A historical epic about the early days of Christianity gets an excellent video transfer, an acceptable audio presentation and a thorough special features package.
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#2 of 14 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted March 17 2009 - 03:08 AM

I've never seen this film but always loved the music, my parents used to play the soundtrack a lot, this and Exodus. Will pick this up!

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#3 of 14 OFFLINE   RobertSiegel

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Posted March 17 2009 - 06:32 AM

Too bad.....no lossless audio. I will never understand Warner Brothers. And then to give us a 192kbps Dolby Digital track on top of it, not even 640kbps. Now I am debating on whether to purchase it. Finally a few real classics on blu-ray and Warner skimps on the audio. I've said it before and I'll say it again, whether it be one channel or 5.1 channels, films like this deserve audio so we can hear them as close to the studio master as possible. I don't understand the studio way of thinking at Warner, which is that just because a film is mono, why not give the audio the lowest possible bitrate and lots of compression. We finally have a format that offers 3 different lossless options, Dolby True HD, PCM and DTS MA. Someone at Warner who is making these decisions needs to be removed from his/her job. Heck, I've even purchased a few titles recently in 5.1 that are compressed DD (Journey to the Center of the Earth is one that comes to mind). Hey, I am not saying this will sound terrible, but it would have sounded better in lossless. It just goes without saying.

If I am to purchase a blu-ray for a higher price than the dvd, I expect improvements in not only the picture but lossless audio. I wonder what they did for American in Paris...probably another 192 kbps DD transfer.

Classics on Blu-ray is what it is all about!


#4 of 14 OFFLINE   Robert George

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Posted March 17 2009 - 09:38 AM

While I understand people will always complain about Warner's choices for presenting audio on their discs, 192 kb/s for a 1.0 track is really much better than it sounds (no pun intended). If one extrapolates this bit rate, an equivalent 5.1 track would have a bit rate over a megabit a second. For Dolby Digital, that is very high, and well beyond the point of diminishing returns. Considering the limited fidelity of 1952 film sound elements, a single channel of ac-3 audio at 192 kb/s is essentially transparent to the (mono) source.

I know some will make the argument that with the capacity of Blu-ray disc, why NOT use lossless audio. I would only answer that if it is not a technical necessity, Warner has never been a company to waste resources just to appease a small group of consumers that don't know any better anyway.

#5 of 14 OFFLINE   OliverK

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Posted March 19 2009 - 01:35 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert George
Warner has never been a company to waste resources just to appease a small group of consumers that don't know any better anyway.

This is certainly the kind of stance that makes Warner so popular these days Posted Image

#6 of 14 OFFLINE   RobertR

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Posted March 19 2009 - 04:09 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert George
Warner has never been a company to waste resources just to appease a small group of consumers that don't know any better anyway.
Is it "appeasement" or simply satisfying potential additional customers? Since it would hardly be the case that those people who aren't bothered by lossy audio generally "know better" (and therefore would have no reason to not want to buy a release with lossless), there's no downside to providing lossless, any more than there's a downside to not cranking up DNR to "appease a small group of consumers".

#7 of 14 OFFLINE   Bryan Beckman

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Posted March 19 2009 - 05:28 AM

Furthermore, the type of people who know about and will seek after this release are also the type who also frequent sites like HTF, AVS, and Blu-ray.com (among others), and are more likely to expect/demand a lossless soundtrack on all titles.

Heck, if Criterion can put a lossless mono soundtrack on The Seventh Seal, then certainly Warner can do the same with its older classics as well.

(In fairness to Warner, this title was probably quite a while ago, before the chorus of "lossless only" became a din.)
 

#8 of 14 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted March 19 2009 - 05:49 AM

Because of the above information on the audio track, I believe I will probably simply seek out a DVD copy of this, rather than blu-ray. It depends on what I see the cost differences to be at retailers.

But I'm not going to pay a premium price for an audio track that is the same on the two releases. My monitor is too small to only make such purchasing judgments based on video improvements.

I expect to "go bigger" on my screen size in the future...but I would like to know now that I am getting a product that will make a difference on my current gear.

There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!


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#9 of 14 OFFLINE   OliverK

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Posted March 19 2009 - 05:50 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bryan Beckman
In fairness to Warner, this title was probably quite a while ago, before the chorus of "lossless only" became a din.

That is probably right but there are other things like 16/48 lossless instead of 24/48 lossless and low average video bitrates compared to pother studios that seem to indicate that Warner is not as aware of the fact that more and more buyers look for these things.

This is not meant to start a debate with regard to the merits of higher bitrates and lossless per se but I wonder why with sufficient space available Warner does not use it to increase bitrates for both audio and video.

Might be that we have to wait longer to see a change of policy at Warner ? It definitely seems to take longer for them to change things than it does for the other studios so maybe this discussion will be futile 6 months from now.

#10 of 14 OFFLINE   Brian Borst

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Posted March 19 2009 - 06:17 AM

Warner said they would provide a lossless track on every title from the ones they were working on. Creating everything for a blu-ray/dvd takes a long time, so it can take a while for the change to take full effect. But if they stated they would change their ways, I believe them.
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#11 of 14 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted March 22 2009 - 08:51 AM

I just got around to watching this today, and not having seen the entire film in decades, I enjoyed it despite a couple of slow places. Even as its star began to wane, MGM still knew how to put on a grand show.

Yes, there were a few speckles especially early on (compared to THE ROBE which I watched last night and was pristine in its clean image), but the color and dimensional feel was lush. I can't wait for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS in a couple of weeks.

#12 of 14 OFFLINE   Stephen_J_H

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Posted November 02 2009 - 05:12 AM

Bought this on the weekend ($9.99 @ Future Shop) and watched it yesterday (ideal Sunday viewing). This is as good as Technicolor gets without Ultra Resolution, and as Cameron failry pointed out, this movie belongs more to Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov than Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr (as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as she is in HD). Ustinov nails Nero's madness without gnawing needlessly on the scenery. In some scenes, he actually reminded me of Mike Myers, who is the only modern movie actor I can think of who could deliver this type of performance today with a straight face. Whine all you want about lossless, but this sounds like a movie from the 50s as projected on a theatre sound system, plain and simple.
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#13 of 14 OFFLINE   benbess

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Posted November 02 2009 - 07:33 PM

yes--I thought this film worked surprisingly well. I enjoyed it. Pretty darn good when it comes to pq and aq for a film of this era...


#14 of 14 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted November 03 2009 - 11:03 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Stephen_J_H 

...and Deborah Kerr (as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as she is in HD).
I just watched her in An Affair to Remember (in SD).  She was quite fetching.  It was nice to see her in something other than The King & I.   

I should seek out Quo Vadis.  I just haven't seen it at a retailer yet.  No surprise there. 


There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!


HTF Rules | HTF Mission Statement | Father of the Bride

Dieting with my Dog & Heart to Heart/Hand in Paw by Peggy Frezon






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