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All Quiet on the Western Front
(February 14, 2012)
This is the oldest movie on this list, so old in fact that it marks the very first time that a Universal Studios film would claim the top honor at the Academy Awards. This powerful anti-war statement adapts the book by veteran Erich Maria Remarque, humanizing the conflict by daring to depict World War I from the enemy’s point of view, released at a time when Germany was regrouping in the years before World War II. It remains an incredibly courageous literary and cinematic achievement.

Seemingly all of the dirt and noise that could be expunged from the 4:3 black-and-white image has been, leaving a healthy layer of authentic film grain. Tiny elements such as raindrops are discernible, and in one scene we can plainly make out a dead soldier’s French documents. As we should expect on an 82-year-old title, the quality of shots can vary from cut to cut, and more edge enhancement was apparently necessary in order to pull out the exceptional details. Video noise pops up here and there, but really only on clouds and such, where we should expect some. However, shadows are exquisite, and the restoration tackled some ambitious but tricky shots that demand a difficult balance of lighting between simultaneous interior and exterior action. These shots had previously been tainted by flicker, now corrected, and picture information that virtually no one had seen before has been revealed. We need only take a gander at the Library of Congress’ respectable but not stunning archival silent version, included here among the supplements, to see how much better Universal’s anniversary refurbishment looks.

Despite origins dating back to the dawn of the talkies era, the soundtrack displays a remarkably wide dynamic range without that unpleasant thinness in the highs, as we often find in old movies. The disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 dual-mono rendition possesses an undeniable hiss just about everywhere, the volume levels could be more consistent, and the dialogue is sometimes hard to make out, but the apparent LFE is adequately strong within the vintage mix.

Buck Privates
(April 17, 2012)
Though not their first onscreen pairing (the comedy duo appeared together in A Night in the Tropics a year earlier), Bud Abbot and Lou Costello became Hollywood stars with Buck Privates. In this quaint but remarkably entertaining romp, they’re a couple of two-bit con men who enlist in the army to elude the long arm of the law, and patriotic hilarity ensues. Like most movies circa 1941, this one is 4:3 black and white. Unlike most, it looks like it could have been made yesterday. The palpable detail is spectacular, right down to the different weaves of cloth on a uniform versus civilian garb. We can even spot a fly zipping around one scene; we might have mistaken it for a speck of dirt, but every last one of those has ostensibly been removed. Blacks are deep and inky, with only the slightest traces of edge enhancement, while the high bitrate assures minimal compression artifacting. If you ever watched Buck Privates in one of its countless inferior-quality TV airings over the decades—Abbot & Costello are a syndication staple—the improvement here might just erase that memory and replace it with a more attractive one.

The DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel mono is respectably spruced up as well, favoring the lows a bit more than the highs. Apart from some war games late in the story, there’s nothing in the movie that requires an especially complex mix. Thankfully, the dialogue is always easily discernible. No new bonus materials are provided, but a 1994 TV tribute to the boys from Jerry Seinfeld tags along. Sadly and rather curiously, Buck Privates is the only title in this group to arrive without a Digital Copy, but it is packaged inside another lovely DigiBook.

Pillow Talk
(May 1, 2012)
As with Bud and Lou, Doris Day and Rock Hudson proved that the right pairing of talent can create enduring Hollywood magic. Day and Hudson only headlined three movies together, but they’re still considered an iconic screen couple, and it began with Pillow Talk. Although perfectly tame by modern standards, this charming sex comedy pits Hudson’s frisky songwriter against Day’s plucky Manhattan career gal in this time-capsule tale of mistaken identities, naughty behavior, and all-conquering love. (I had to double-check my facts, but yeah, it really did win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.)

As America transitioned from the 1950s to the ’60s, so much of pop culture was about perpetuating an idyllic illusion, and so this widescreen folly has been purged of virtually all imperfections. Day was 35 at the time of the movie’s release, older than her pretty co-star and reportedly per a clause in her contract, her close-ups needed to be shot through a softening filter that made her wrinkles less obvious. At Blu-ray’s high resolution, her superhuman aura is even more striking. Just a few persistent scratches can still be spotted, but they are surely less severe than in previous editions. Split screens and other process shots are marked with a (less) noticeable, nigh-unavoidable shift in grain and color. But overall the amped-up palette of the conspicuous production design is well served by the ample color space of high definition. Pillow Talk had suffered from harsh fad- ing that gave the film element an ugly yellowish tint, a prob- lem beautifully solved for this year’s model.

To Kill a MockingBird
(January 31, 2012)
Another black-and-white classic, Mockingbird celebrates its own half-century anniversary in 2012. Presented with a respectably high bitrate, the rejuvenated 1.85:1 image lays bare all manner of detail from the original film element. Often the beneficiaries are simply the mundane but essential environmental trappings of the rural South, but every actor’s face shows its unique character, too, down to wrinkles and pores. Blacks are rich and organic, and fine patterns in clothing for the most part manage to avoid any distracting blur or flicker.

Director Robert Mulligan employed push-ins, basically zooming into a scene already shot to enhance its dramatic effect. These artistic decisions are made during the post-production stage and have the unwelcome consequence of enlarging the film grain. But Universal’s digital video mavens went beyond a traditional cleanup to shrink and equalize the perceptible grain, keeping our attention on the scene itself.

The mono audio has been remixed for 5.1 channels. We might hear some birds chirping in the surrounds, but for the most part surround usage is limited. Elmer Bernstein’s lovely music at least is now able to envelop us.

The Sting
(June 5, 2012)
Butch and Sundance reunite for another archetypal buddy flick, with the added allure of a singular, career-defining caper. As charismatic grifters in the midst of the Great Depression, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are out to exact revenge on a ruthless crime boss (Robert Shaw), hitting him where he’ll feel it most: his wallet. (OK, actually a briefcase packed with stacks of his ill-gotten cash.) The script is exceedingly clever and funny, with twists galore.

This disc might be proof that there’s only so much that modern equipment can do to erase the sins of the past, however. Soft, even erratic focus and heavy grain inherent to the original film element must have led to a series of judgment calls. “How much do we clean the image? Will we risk losing detail? How much digital trickery will be visible in the final product?” It’s tough material at times, too, with fine patterns that don’t always translate well to the rigors of 1080p without artifacting. Despite the less-than-reference-caliber HD value, it is unquestionably clearer than any home video version before it.

By contrast, the redesigned 5.1 audio is terrific—and not just Marvin Hamlisch’s adaptations of Scott Joplin’s ragtime standards, which elevate the Oscar-hogging Sting even further. Some pleasing, discrete cues help to establish the colorful 1930s Chicago setting in 360-degree space, while the newfound sonic fullness is gratifying throughout.

Out Of Africa
(March 6, 2012)
Magnificently photographed on location, Out of Africa shares the personal odyssey of Danish baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (writing as Isak Dinesen, portrayed by Meryl Streep), who moved to faroff Kenya in 1913. Although previously released on Bluray a mere two years ago, Out of Africa impresses in its Centennial incarnation thanks to a similarly extensive restoration process.

The Best Picture winner of 1985, it is the most recent film on this list, but I’ve noticed on Criterion remasters, for example, that the latest technology and expertise can significantly benefit a movie even if it’s relatively young and not overtly decrepit. This high-profile redux painstakingly banishes a great many odd instances of dirt and damage, while more sophisticated tools enable a new stabilization of the sometimes bobbing and weaving image. In all honesty, the flaws were never especially egregious here, and so the improvements might not be as night-andday dramatic as on some of these others. Rather, the overall boost to the resolution yields a crisper, more natural presentation that makes this seductive movie that much more engaging from beginning to end.

I suppose that’s the point of Universal’s 100th Anniversary restoration commitment, not to alter or reinvent motion pictures that have undoubtedly passed the test of time, not to wow us with blatant home theater flash, but to deliver the studio’s finest work in its purest form, for us to enjoy today and for years to come.

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