With Easter right around the corner, I figured there's no better time than to take a look into (mostly the technical side of) Criterion's recent release of Martin Scorsese's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" on Blu-Ray. Easter is a important day for some, for others it's just an excuse to paint eggs with their kids, I think either side of that field can find something in this film, if they go in open minded. Jesus is one of the most mis-understood and often mis-quoted figures in all of history, as is this film, so let's dig in...
Personal Bias/Quasi Film-Review: If you've talked with me about film at all in the last 10+ years or so, you'll know my affinity for Scorsese's work, so keep that in mind in this review. I'm also a person of Christian faith (I don't use the term religion, as that's something entirely different, an explanation of which that's something for entirely different conversation) so I do enjoy seeing Biblical epics, though some might be surprised my liking of this film due to the controversy the crazy side of the right-wing stirred up during this picture's original release. They sort of try to make it like a "Christian" shouldn't like this film, and also judge it without seeing it. I originally saw a portion of it many years ago, before I knew who Scorsese was, I turned it on TV once, seeing a scene where Christ, on the cross, talked to a young girl. I thought, "well, this is strange." I watched it later on DVD with an open mind and it touched me a lot. I really enjoy the way the film tackles the temptations Jesus went through, his struggles as a man to understand his purpose and what exactly God is telling him. For Jesus to truly take on our sins and to truly deserve the right to exclaim "it is accomplished" on the cross, he HAS to understand what we all go through, he has to overcome it. I also like the relationship built between him and Judas (Harvey Keitel, one of my favorite underrated actors) and Jesus' mixture of self-doubt and confidence as he finds his place in his father's plan. The way it paints the differences between the ways Jews and Christians view Jesus, in fact the core difference of those two religions, is something so many glanced right over. It's one of the most uncompromising works of faith put to celluloid. Perhaps Scorsese's lost masterpiece...
I wanted to kill them for what they were doing to Mary...but I open up my mouth, and out comes love...
History Class: Real briefly, let's just say this is a controversial movie. Real controversial. If you thought Gibson's Passion of the Christ had some controversy, well, it didn't exactly lead to fires and destruction of old theaters in France, violent threats and people being injured. Crazy stuff. Most of them didn't even see the film, so they didn't realize it clearly states it's not a literal adaption of the Gospels, but based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis and delves into the study of battling our spiritual side with our human, flesh side. It's interesting that some of what I'll gently term as "douchebag Christians" will look at Jesus as "all man, all divine" as the Bible says, but after stating that, when digging into Jesus they like to just throw the man part of the window and ignore his doubts and temptations (which the Bible doesn't ignore, for those who actually take the time to read it) and look at just the divine part, and that's why this film pissed a lot of them off. It took Scorsese years to get it off the ground (having read it in the early 70's and always wanting to do a Biblical epic) and even when starting the project in 1983, it was cancelled due to early controversy and he ultimately made it for Universal a few years later on a much stricter budget. This is a bonus, as the tighter budget made the film more gritty and visceral, plus the casting changes were a plus: Willem Dafoe as Jesus and David Bowie as Pilate.
Aesthetically Speaking: On one hand, as per the norm, Criterion always goes above and beyond what most normal studio releases get. On the other hand, it's a bit disappointing as unlike
most (thought not all) blu-ray editions of Criterions that got new artwork and some more in-depth/updated booklets, we don't really get that here. I do like the simplistic yet powerful cover image, so I won't complain much. Unlike most Criterion's that get 30+ page booklets, we get little more than a leaflet here. It's been updated since the 2000 DVD, but the update mostly involves the writer slagging on Gibson's Passion of the Christ, which opinions on that film vary, but let's have a little more class when writing about someone's work for a major release. The inner insert on the cover is all black with the scene selections listed. I would have liked a still from the film in there too, but hey, as I said, better than most releases.
The menu, like all Criterion's, and ironically, Universal (being the studio that originally produced Temptation and licensed it to Criterion) Blu-rays, the menu is the same generic layout just with the background video/audio from the specific film. While it's lazy on Universal's part, I do understand Criterion's want to make these releases feel as part of a series, a collection if you will (hence, Criterion Collection - brain wrinklier!) and they are nice, clean menu's that are more than easy to navigate through.
Aesthetics & Packaging: 3.5/5
Visually Speaking: The film is presented in a 1.86:1 aspect ratio, so while there are black bars the top and bottom o the screen, they are much smaller than films presented in 1.85:1 or especially 2.35:1. According to the booklet editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese's secret weapon for decades) and the film's original DP Michael Ballhaus (a Scorsese favorite, having throughout the years shot After Hours, The Color of Money, GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and The Departed for the director) oversaw the transfer and color correction of the final master for the blu-ray. They used a 35mm inter positive (no mention of doing 4K scans of the film) and used a Spirit Datacine to not use heavy DNR (digital noise reduction), but to clean up dirt and debris, scratches or warps, mediate film flicker, ect. I'm sure a LITTLE DNR was used to make it more of a fine-grain, but this transfer was really well done. The colorists did a great job of holding the film to the original somewhat soft, lower-saturated look intended it to be. Just as the 2000 Criterion DVD was a massive upgrade over the laser-disc, this is a REALLY massive upgrade in terms of quality of image. The film isn't an overly sharp film, but as I said, it was a shot a bit soft as part of artistic look and design. So why it's not a demo-disc in the form of say The Dark Knight or Criterion's release of The Thin Red Line, the source never really meant it to be, but this a fantastic transfer of what that source provides. Can't complain at all.
One of the biggest plusses Blu-Ray has over DVD is using intraframe (as in, literally a separate frame for every frame) codecs instead of GOP (group of picture) codecs full of macro blocking. It makes a world of difference in faster cut or fast moving scenes, such as here where Jesus decides to turn the temple upside down, stupid money changers!
You know JJ's mind's turning at the thought of the lens-flare possibilities of his own Biblical epic, 'The Last Temptation to Shoot Anamorphic Flares'
The Sound: Likewise, the booklet states that they went back to the original six-track magnetic audio masters to clean up and create this new, uncompressed 5.1 mix. Using Pro-Tools HD they cleaned up unwanted clicks and hisses and hums and anything else that was detrimental to a as perfect as possible audio mix. The DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix is such a pleasure though, dialogue is crisp with depth, and the unique score Peter Gabriel did for this film can truly be appreciated and felt now. Scenes where the audio does strange things - like where John the
Baptists asks Jesus if he's the messiah and the chanting around him completely vanishes, and all we hear is the sound of the water creek and Jesus' voice, or when Jesus is walking with the little girl (Satan! oops, spoiler) in front of the crucifixion scene and all you can hear is their voices and no background noise - have even more impact now, especially when they first start or when audio goes back to normal.
A/V Bitrates: Being such a long film, at 163 minutes, it was nice to see an AVC-encoded nitrate of 30Mbps on the video. The uncompressed audio track is quite the revelation, as it should coming in at 4.450Mbps (the DVD was 480Kbps!) at 24-bit and 28kHz.
Bonus Goodies: Like the aesthetics and packing, on one hand it's more than a normal studio
release would have been for a film such as this, but it would have been nice to get more of an upgrade than just porting new HD-masters of the old DVD bonus stuff over...
Audio Commentary - with Martin Scorsese, Willem Dafoe, credited screenwriter Paul Schrader and uncredited (due to WGA rules) screenwriter Jay Cocks. This was originally recorded in 1997, and still stands as one of the finer audio commentaries you can hear. Very well edited and pieced together, and very interesting and informative. Some folks forget it was Criterion's laserdisc releases that first really took advantage of that format and brought to light the ideas of bonus material and audio commentaries.
On Location in Morocco - Scorsese himself shot some handheld VHS footage of the filming. While I have no idea why they transcoded and uprezzed this to HD (just a higher SD bitrate would have been fine) but this is a fun 15 minutes. You see a bit of the serious side and light side, both to Scorsese making a film, and making a film in general.
Costume Designs - Some sketches by the costume designer
Peter Gabriel Interview - Recorded in 1996, Gabriel talks in general about coming up with the score, first meeting Scorsese and more. Doesn't overstay it's welcome at 13 minutes.
Stills and Research - Production & Publicity Stills, also some Scorsese drawings.
Leaflet Booklet - Mentioned in the aesthetics section of this review.
Bonus Overall: 3.5/5
Overall: Despite not getting the complete upgrade and overhaul in the aesthetics and bonus department some Blu Criterion releases have, the title more than makes up for it in what bonus material it does provide and especially the upgrade in the video and audio department. This is a must have for any hardcore Scorsese fans, film buffs looking to see some of the most controversial films of all-time, and those who enjoy Biblical epics or well acted period pieces.
The Nice Price: Deep discount had an amazing pre-sale on this, with a coupon, that brought it in under $15, unfortunately that is gone now, and right now look to spent $25-30 on this anywhere, including Manny's blessed Amazon. Luckily, Criterion's don't depreciate much in value, and skyrocket in value if they happen to go out of print...
More Blu-Ray Screen Grabs:
Taken from Sony BD Player into Avid Media Composer at 1080P
Blogger Re-Sizes images to well below 1920x1080
All images under fair use for Discussion, Critique and Review