REDS – Blu-ray review

Warren Beatty is an Academy Award winning director. I’m certain the majority of people are not aware of this fact. Of course, considering his 1981 film “Reds” that earned him his golden statue has just now debuted on DVD, it has been over a decade since the general public has been able to experience the film. Nominated for an amazing twelve Academy Awards, but losing the Best Picture statue to “Chariots of Fire,” “Reds” is now ready to be discovered by an all new audience. However, does the film compare to “Gone with the Wind” and “Doctor Zhivago” among the great period romantic dramas, or does it simply bore its audience to death with its strong pro-Communist political statements?

“Reds” is not “Gone with the Wind” and it is no “Doctor Zhivago.” Once you cut through all of the political themes of the film, it is a well crafted picture that certainly has merit. The cast assembled by screenwriter / producer / director Warren Beatty is very impressive. The three principal actors, Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson are all worth the price of admission. Supporting actress Maureen Stapleton took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts and Paul Sorvino, Gene Hackman and the late Jerzy Kosinski are effective as well in supporting roles. Familiar faces M. Emmett Walsh, Max Wright, George Plimpton and a blink and you’ll miss him cameo by John Ratzenberger add to the very large cast.

Beyond those carrying SAG cards, the most amazing actors in “Reds” are the Witnesses filmed against a black backdrop. These witnesses are actual people who were familiar with John Reed and Louise Bryant in history and were alive during the filming of the film and assembled by Warren Beatty to provide insight into the true story behind the film and add character and narrative to “Reds.” This unique device used by Beatty certainly helped him bring home his coveted Best Director statue and helps “Reds” rise above becoming another three and a half hour long snoozefest with a topsy-turvy romance built around historical fact. Where the witnesses were originally to be superimposed against the films actual scenes, the decision to retain the black background brings their aged and animated faces to life and, in my mind, this is one of the more imaginative and original ideas in cinematic history.

The story of “Reds” is about a Greenwich Village writer, John “Jack” Reed (Warren Beatty) and his feminist wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). The two writers struggle in their relationship and eventual marriage as Jack puts his work ahead of his loving wife and Louise is too stubborn to accept any advice from Jack. They make love. They fight. They make love again. They fight. They separate. Their free love relationship that keeps in tune with the bourgeois attitude of the times lands Louise in bed with playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), a close friend of Jack Reed. The strain of trying to balance their writing careers with their love brings about a split between Jack and Louise.

After losing a kidney and hearing word that Louise has been fired by her publisher, Jack entices her to join him in Russia, where the Bolshevik Revolution is under way. He agrees to become her partner, working together, but sleeping separately. They both find great success covering Lenin’s (Roger Sloman) socialist revolt and Jack becomes swept away by the Communist movement. Upon returning to America, Jack tries to start his own Communist party and becomes an enemy of his own nation. He travels to Moscow to get the necessary blessings to support his own Communist party, but his trip to Moscow again separates him from his wife and will forever separate him from his homeland.

Fueled by Warren Beatty’s own political views, “Reds” is by far a more political drama than it is a romantic drama. Where it tries to push the values of Lenin’s movement and detail some of the key points of his social movement, “Reds” does get lost in its political agenda, but does serve as a great document to the Russian Revolution, as well as early attempts by Reed and others to start a Communist Party in the United States. The ups and downs in the relationship between Jack and Louise get tiresome and both of the lead characters flaws brought about negative feelings towards my perception of their love. Eventually, the characters do achieve redemption and the romance part of the story finally gets a strong wind when Louise must flee America to save her husband, but the first two and a half hours of the film is far from being heartfelt.

I look at “Reds” as being a wonderful historic drama that documents the life and times of the only American buried in the Kremlin Wall. With the early anti-communist stance taken by our government during the 1915-1920 era depicted by the film and the eventual era of McCarthyism, Communism is not something easily accepted by our society. This film was made during the height of the Cold War. I grew up looking at Russia as being the Evil Empire and it does say something that Warren Beatty was able to succeed with a film that glorified the Russian Revolution and its plunge into Communism and featured two characters that are accurate depictions of two American Communists who had forsaken their own nation to take part in the Communist Revolution.

“Reds” is not a film that can easily be sat through and watched more than once in any given time frame. It is a very long film at 195 minutes. Time does not move very fast as the plot progresses. The final third of the film is by far the most entertaining and easily digested. There is not a lot of humor in the film and much of the film’s dialog centers around politics and Communism. Nicholson plays it straight through most of his performance and where the veteran actor is known for chewing up the scenery and animating any film; his low-key performance perfectly fits the film, but only adds to the low energy feeling received while watching “Reds.” As a period film, the trains look very nice, as does the Finish cities that act as stunt doubles for Russia, a nation where filming was impossible during the Cold War. “Reds” is a good history lesson and a well crafted film, but is as easy to digest as a nicely done history book.

Video:

As I mentioned in my review of “Reds” on DVD, the film had strong levels of detail, very good coloring and what quite striking considering the age of the film. Now that the film has been released simultaneously on both Blu-ray and HD-DVD, the DVD now looks a little dated. On Blu-ray, “Reds” finds its 1080p 2.35:1 widescreen image mastered with MPEG-2 compression. Detail is increased notably over the standard definition version and colors are far better saturated and more vibrant. The painted murals on the Communist Train stood out and I noted them on my standard definition review. Well, on Blu-ray they are even more impressive and I found myself watching the scene twice to enjoy the colors and detail provided by the sequence.

The source materials used for the high definition release looks to have been quite pristine. There were no scratches or other flaws to be found. Film grain was slightly more present in the high definition transfer over the DVD release and this is partly due to the increased resolution of the 1080p mastered print. As already stated, detail is very strong. Colors are nicely saturated, though bright colors were not commonplace during the Communist Revolution, but when the film allows for them, they look spectacular. Black levels are very strong, as exhibited by the Witness scenes and the whites nicely contrast the deep blacks during the snowy scenes in the Russian wilderness. After watching the film again on HD-DVD and Blu-ray, I wish I would have experienced it here first and not on standard definition DVD.

The Blu-ray release and the HD-DVD release streeted day and date with each other. Doing a direct comparison between the two versions resulted in practically identical visuals. The HD-DVD transfer appeared to have a very slight edge in its imagery, as the Blu-ray had a few edges that looked every so slightly harsh when compared to its HD-DVD sibling. This difference was not very noticeable and it could be a case of mind over matter, but I do have a feeling the VC-1 compression codec handled the film slightly better than the Blu-ray’s MPEG-2 codec. The HD-DVD version also looked a minor amount brighter in coloring, but I have always attributed this to the difference in hardware between the Toshiba HD-DVD player and the Samsung Blu-ray player. Overall, the differences are so minor, most would not notice them.

Sound:

The original Mono soundtrack and a re-imaged Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack are provided on the 25th Anniversary standard definition release of “Reds.” These are carried over in the form of a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack at 1.5 Mbps for the Blu-ray release. French and Spanish mono tracks are also included. When compared to the standard definition release, there was a minor improvement with the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray releases of “Reds” and most of this could be attributed to the higher bitrate that is afforded to the next generation Blu-ray format.

The vast majority of the film takes place solely in the center channel and though the multi-channel surround mix is an improvement, it is not nearly as much as the numbers would suggest. There were many scenes when the LED indicator light on my Infinity front channels was red, indicating that no sound was being sent to them. This was during 5.1 playback. Flipping between the mono mix and the surround mix did show that the 5.1 mix had a more spacious sound to it, but there were long periods where the difference was minimal. A few times, however, the 5.1 transfer livens up nicely. The train assault is one moment. During some of the more lively scenes, the rear surrounds wake up, though the .1 LFE channel is hardly noticeable. Sound was very clean and dialogue was good, but this 1981 vintage soundtrack is quite subdued.

Extras:

As was the case with the 25th Anniversary Release on DVD, “Reds” is spread across two discs for both of the High Definition releases. The first hour and forty-odd minutes of the film are found on the first disc, along with the New DVD Trailer that tries to explain the political importance of the film and its forthcoming release to DVD. I’ve found it odd that the DVD advertised itself, but now the Blu-ray release is advertising the DVD release. Still, I always find it odd when a film advertises itself. I guess if you rent the title, it may make some sense, but if you by the disc, do you really want it to advertise itself to you? After the intermission, the remaining hour and a half is found on the second disc.

An hour-long documentary, Witness to Reds is broken down into six chapters and presented on the second disc of the two-disc set. The first chapter, The Rising finds Warren Beatty discussing how he does not like the idea of doing interviews for DVDs. Thankfully, he decided to provide an interview in this newly created documentary on the film. The second chapter, Comrades discusses the casting of the film and how Beatty writes a story with the actors in mind.Testimonials details the finding of the witnesses and the manner in which these segments were filmed. The March discusses the locations used to substitute for Mother Russia in the film. It is rather interesting to hear the sheer number of locations used as Beatty tries to count them on his fingers. Revolution – Part 1and Revolution – Part 2 detail the historical background of the film and the actors approaches to the picture. Propaganda discusses the marketing and the public acceptance of the film. Featuring Jack Nicholson, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, producer Dede Allen and others, this newly created documentary is a nice inclusion for this long film, though considering it is the only supplement, makes the this new edition set feel a bit thin for spanning two discs.

Closing Comments:

I didn’t know what to expect with “Reds.” I was excited by the cast and I love good historical period films. The romantic element in “Reds” was lost at times by the political aspirations of the characters and the strong plotlines related to their writing careers. Nicholson is low-key, but typically brilliant. Both Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton shine. The film is wonderfully crafted and credit must be given to Academy Award winning directory Warren Beatty for the idea of the witnesses. The film is a little too politically strong for my liking, but I felt it was a wonderful history lesson on the Bolshevik Revolution. The Blu-ray release is an improvement over the standard definition DVD release I have previously (and carbon-copied here) reviewed. The picture quality is a solid improvement over the DVD release, though nearly identical to the HD-DVD release. The sound track sounds pretty good considering the source materials, but was hardly an improvement over the DVD release. The supplements were limited to a one hour documentary freshly created and featuring many principals from the cast and crew. I would have loved a History Channel or A&E documentary on the real events from the film, but only the discussion with Warren Beatty and others is provided. “Reds” is a good film, but very strong on politics and light on action, humor or engaging scenery.

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