Reds Review (Blu-ray)

Of all the titles to hit both the HD DVD and Blu-ray formats so early in their existence, Reds, the 1981 epic co-written and directed by Warren Beatty, was not one I or many others expected. With the majority of titles being offered on both Blu-ray and HD DVD being of the action/adventure, sci-fi or comedy genres, a three-hour plus, dialogue-driven, political romantic period drama (especially one that wasn’t a huge box office hit) would hardly seem to be an ideal candidate for the fledgling HD formats.

Reds chronicles the five-year relationship of John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). We are first introduced to them in Portland, Oregon in 1915. Bryant is a photographer struggling for respect and freedom from a constrictive marriage, and Reed is a globe-trotting, ambitious young journalist from a wealthy socialite family. The two meet at a dinner party and embark on a tumultuous relationship (and marriage) that finds them drawn into events such as American left-wing politics, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (which served as the basis for Reed’s claim to fame, the novel Ten Days That Shook The World) and the ensuing struggles between factions of the American Socialist Party and the newly-formed American Communist Party that followed.

Reed and Bryant went through many periods of being together, then apart, for various reasons: two being an affair Louise had with alcoholic playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Jack putting his work ahead of his wife. After Jack takes a failed trip back to Russia in 1919 in an effort to get backing for his political party (one that lands him in a Finnish jail for quite some time), he and Louise eventually reunite. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late. Reed, who had health issues for most of his young adult life, died in a Moscow hospital with Louise by his side, in October of 1920. To this date, he remains the only American to be buried within the walls of the Kremlin.

A labor of love if ever there was one, Reds was one of the last of the old-school Hollywood epics (people always seem to forget about Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant 1987 film, The Last Emperor). Vittorio Storaro’s handsome cinematography and Richard Sylbert’s great production design give the movie the epic feel it needs, but Beatty’s solid directing, smart screenplay (which he co-wrote with Trevor Griffiths) and great use of interviews with actual people from that era (including novelist Henry Miller) gives it the level of intimacy it needs to connect with the viewer. Like the best historical epics, Reds never loses sight of the characters or their personal stories.

The relationship of Jack and Louise is the emotional core of the film, and Beatty and Keaton’s excellent performances enrich that. Beatty plays Reed with a nice mix of charm, seriousness and welcome comedy, which makes him less of a stoic, Historical Epic Figure and more of a relatable everyman. Keaton matches Beatty with a performance that is a perfect combination of beauty and brains. The duo are backed by superb supporting turns from Nicholson, the late Jerzy Kosinski as Communist Party member Grigory Zinoviev, Edward Herrmann as Max Eastman, Paul Sorvino as American Communist Party leader Louis Fraina and Maureen Stapleton in her Oscar-winning role as Emma Goldman.

Reds is presented on Blu-ray in a fine 1080p, MPEG-2 encoded, 1.78:1 ratio (slightly modified from its theatrical 1.85:1 ratio). In doing comparisons between the HD DVD and the Blu-ray editions, there were differences to be had, albeit very small. As with the HD DVD, the master used here is in excellent condition. Due to the age of the film (25 years old is considered old in movie years), an occasional line or mark is to be found here and there, but overall this print is in much better condition than some of Paramount’s more recent releases, such as The Italian Job or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography style for the film ranges from being as sharp as a razor (namely in the interview segments) to having a soft, nostalgic feel (the segments set on Cape Cod). This would normally prove to be an authoring nightmare, but the MPEG-2 encoding handles it rather well. As on the HD DVD, the color palette, contrasts and black levels are all decent (Storaro’s use of a bluish filter in a few dusk scenes is more obtrusive than attractive). And as is the case with the HD DVD, compression artifacts and macroblocking are non-issues on this release.

So, what are the differences? Two words: film grain. The HD DVD transfer, via its VC-1 encoding, seems to filter the movie’s film stock grain to present a smoother, less grainy picture. The MPEG-2 presents a more film-like presentation that exhibits more of the film stock’s grain. Personally, I don’t find natural film grain to be such a bad thing and truth be told, the grain level in Reds is neither overwhelming nor obtrusive.

What it comes down to is this: if you don’t like high-definition transfers looking grainy and own machines for both formats, then go for the HD DVD. If you don’t mind grain and want a closer representation of what viewers saw back in 1981, then pick up the Blu-ray. It’s just as much a beauty as its HD DVD counterpart.

Audio-wise, it’s a draw between the two formats. Reds has never been nor ever will be an aural experience. In fact, it was in mono sound if you saw it in the theater (Paramount”or was it Beatty?–has been nice enough to include that original track). A 5.1 remix has been created for the anniversary release, and while it may not knock your socks off the way M:I-III or Tears of the Sun does, it certainly gets the job done. The center dialogue channel is decent, while the occasional surround sound effects and .LFE use, namely in big crowd moments, are acceptable but not overwhelming.

There has also been some Internet grumblings regarding the fact that the film is spread across two discs. The film breaks at a forced intermission (103 minutes on disc one, 92 minutes on disc two). Yes, we all know that both HD DVD and Blu-ray could easily handle the film’s 195-minute running time on one disc, but Beatty and Paramount obviously felt otherwise and I support their decision to place this on two discs. Trust me, at the end of the first act, you will want to get up and stretch for a minute or two before settling in for the conclusion.

Evoking the style of the interview segments that show up throughout the film, the sole extra is an interesting documentary entitled Witness to Reds, which can be watched either in seven parts (The Rising, Comrades, Testimonials, The March, Revolution (Parts 1 & 2) and Propaganda. Right at the outset, Beatty makes no bones about his dislike for DVD extras or doing interviews about his movies (which he loving refers to as Acts of Insanity), but he is nonetheless quite talkative and informative about the film, its production history and aftermath.

Joining Beatty are Jack Nicholson, former executives from Paramount Pictures who were in charge back during the production history, as well as Vittorio Storaro, editor and co-producer Dede Allen, and film costars Edward Herrmann and Paul Sorvino. Sadly, Diane Keaton doesn’t appear (Nicholson comments that Keaton would most likely dismiss waxing nostalgic about the film or this period of her life, during which she was romantically linked with Beatty). As a whole, Witness to Reds runs a little over an hour and is an honest, involving look at filmmaking worth checking out after seeing the feature.

The other extra on the disc is an outright lousy Trailer touting the DVD release. In lieu of the original trailer, Paramount Home Video has created a DVD Promo trailer that tries too damn hard to make this film come across as a political hot potato and does nothing to mention the film’s romantic aspects. Paramount must have slipped this dud of a commercial (to a film we are already have bought or rented since it’s in our players already) onto the disc at the last minute when Beatty wasn’t looking.

Reds is a unique epic. Full of political and historical grandeur and heart, it transports the viewer to a time and era seldom seen or discussed about anymore and it does so without talking down to its audience. Beatty has only been involved in seven motion pictures since, and only two of those came close to the quality level of this film: 1991’s Bugsy and 1998’s Bulworth. Paramount shows its respect for the film via a Blu-ray release with a solid audio and video transfer and a small but solid section of bonus materials. Be it a rental or purchase, Reds comes highly recommended.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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