Blu-Ray Review: Capote, In Cold Blood, and Gandhi

Here's one of the sweet things about Oscar season -- each year the studios release new home video editions of their previous Academy Award winners. If you don't already own a particular Oscar-grabbing favorite that's getting a new edition, now's a chance to add it to your collection. On the other hand, if you already own one of the newly re-released titles on an old DVD, perhaps you're considering an upgrade to an improved digital transfer that looks and sounds better on your new big screen. Either way, the weeks before Oscar night are a prime time to scan the store shelves for movies that have taken home that gold statue.

Case in point: This week Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings four Academy Award caliber films to high-def Blu-ray for the first time. Along with Kramer vs. Kramer, which Glenn looked at in-depth here, new on our shelves is the two-fer double feature package combining Capote and In Cold Blood, plus a historical epic that surprised even its director when it swept its Oscar night.

Capote stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote, who bends both artistry and ethics when on the trail of his fact-based crime novel, In Cold Blood. Hoffman won so many awards for Capote that he probably added a new wing to his house just to make room for them, although I'm willing to bet that his 2006 Oscar for Best Actor is still out front on the fireplace mantel. The film itself also received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Bennett Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener as Tru's lifelong friend Harper Lee), and Best Adapted Screenplay (actor/writer Dan Futterman).

Revisiting the film on Blu-ray, I was struck yet again by how blessed we are in having Hoffman out there working. He pulls us through Capote's beautifully explored themes and textures without a hint of the artifice that could come from anyone "doing" Truman Capote, one of the most easily caricatured high-profile personalities of his generation. About halfway into his tour de force performance here, I locked down my conviction that Philip Seymour Hoffman is among the few actors today who will be watched and studied and admired fifty years from now, at least. And already a Philip Seymour Hoffman film festival would be one wildly mixed collage of titles and roles. (Although I'd be careful about programming Capote alongside, say, Twister.)

In a smart stroke, Sony has bundled their new Blu edition of Capote as a double feature with the first high-def release of In Cold Blood, the 1967 murder masterpiece based on Truman Capote's best-selling "nonfiction novel." Director Richard Brooks re-created the nationally publicized and documented murder of a Kansas farm family, giving the film a brutally effective, vice-like reality. His obsessive drive for detail included shooting scenes at the actual murder site and other true-to-life locations, casting some of the murdered family's neighbors as extras, filling the courtroom scenes with seven of the original jurors, and hiring the original Kansas hangman for the inevitable climax.

In Cold Blood provided a breakout role for former child star and future "Baretta" Robert Blake as low-life killer Perry Smith (a role played by Clifton Collins Jr. in Capote). Smith is abetted by his more sympathetic partner, Scott Wilson's "Dick" Hickock. (Columbia Pictures had wanted Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the roles, two years before Butch Cassidy, but tough-guy Brooks would take none of that.) After their plan for a straightforward robbery goes to pieces, shotgun blasts lead to an entire family found murdered, execution-style, the next day. The movie follows the police investigation closing in on the killers, who head to Mexico with a mere $43 in their pockets.

In Cold Blood was Oscar-nominated for Best Director, Cinematography (the great Conrad Hall), Adapted Screenplay (Brooks himself), and Original Score (Quincy Jones).

CapoteOn Blu-ray, Capote really shines out in 1080p. As you'd expect from a recent film of this quality and stature, its arrival on Blu-ray presents a clean, sharp image and crisp Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 audio.

In terms of a vintage film given a new home-vid transfer (1080p, 2.35:1 aspect ratio), In Cold Blood is even more impressive. Conrad Hall's stark, moody black-and-white imagery delivers vivid definition with smooth tones and contrast. No detail is lost in all the shadowy atmospherics. The high-def treatment adds a new dimensionality I've never encountered in the film before, contributing to its unnerving "you are there" docu quality. Likewise, the TrueHD 5.1 audio is remarkable given that more than 40 years have passed since the original track was laid down. Predictably, the surround channels don't kick in throughout every scene, but the stereo separation is well placed and Quincy Jones' score gets a clear, powerful presence.

When it comes to the extras, there are none, unfortunately, on the In Cold Blood disc. However, the Capote disc ports over the bonus material we find on the 2006 DVD edition. Two informative commentary tracks start us off. The first sits us down for a viewing with Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who talk in some depth about on-set memories as well as the craft of acting and what Hoffman went through to bring such a singular character as Capote to the screen believably. The second track gives us Miller dialoguing about the production with cinematographer Adam Kimmel, who provides a decent primer on how to achieve certain visuals within a constrained budget. It turns out that Miller and Kimmel once shared a house, so the two former roomies bring out a natural casualness in their scene-by-scene commentary.

Also here is a pretty standard two-part, half-hour featurette, The Making of Capote, with "talking head" interviews with the cast, Miller, and others on the production team. Then there's Truman Capote: Answered Prayers, a seven-minute collection of interview footage of Truman Capote, including a 1960s segment in which the image-conscious author reminisces about all the friends he says he made in Kansas during the long process of researching In Cold Blood. The only disappointment here is that Answered Prayers would still be compelling at an hour's length, so the seven minutes go by too quickly.

There's also BD-Live functionality, but as far as I can tell that's a gimmicky digital boat anchor that will be fading away soon.

CapoteLord Richard Attenborough's epic-sized, "cast of thousands" 1982 biopic Gandhi ran away with the Oscars in its big year, taking home the gold for Best Picture, Best Actor (Ben Kingsley in the role that still defines him), and Best Director (Attenborough), not to mention Best Original Screenplay (John Briley), Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, and Costume Design. Among its six Golden Globes was the Best Foreign Film award.

Kingsley got the role of a lifetime as Mohandas K. Gandhi, the revolutionary resistance leader whose philosophy of peaceful nonviolence helped end British colonial rule in India and changed the course of the newly independent nation. The film opens with the elderly Gandhi's assassination and funeral, then flashes us back to witness the injustice and hard-fought rebellion that turned the unassuming lawyer into an internationally renowned pacifist leader, and the struggle that led to him being on the deadly side of a gun. Besides the obvious merits of the film itself, of particular interest for us lately is its depiction of the religious friction between the Hindus and Muslims, a friction that leads to the Partition of India and ultimately to the India-Pakistan tensions that are no small concern today.

Gandhi as a movie remains an impressive achievement, the sort of vast, sweeping historical epic that David Lean was so good at. More than 300,000 extras appeared in the funeral scene, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Yet Attenborough had to struggle to be allowed to make it so many years after three-hour features of this sort were out of vogue. Gandhi didn't prove to have the staying power in our movie-loving memory that Lean's epics still possess, but the dedication of both Attenborough and Kingsley paid off in a breathtakingly produced -- if emotionally and dramatically flat -- labor of love. Interestingly, in one of the extras here Attenborough himself expresses his surprise at the film's big Oscars sweep, and he remains of the opinion that the year's most favored Best Picture contender, Spielberg's E.T., taken on purely cinematic terms, was "miles ahead" of his own winning nominee.

For visual presentation, Sony's new Blu-ray of Gandhi is a noticeable upgrade from the 2007 25th Anniversary DVD. The cinematography is lush and vivid and lends itself perfectly to high-definition. The TrueHD 5.1 audio isn't as immersive as I was hoping or expecting it to be. It's still quite good, but there's not as much distinct-channel separation as there could be, even though the musical scoring by Ravi Shankar is perhaps treated too generously by the rear surrounds. It's by no means a showstopper, naturally, but fans of the film looking for an all-new sound mix won't quite get it here.

This two-disc Blu-ray edition carries over all the extras found on the 2007 DVD release. Disc One gives us a brief Introduction by Lord Richard Attenborough and the director's info-packed and enjoyable commentary track. My, Sir Richard does like to talk, but he's terrific at it and manages to keep the three-hour run time engaging and enlightening. This disc adds the "Blu-ray Exclusive" picture-in-picture track called Gandhi's Legacy. (BD-Live is also available.)

The rest of the production and historical material packs Disc Two. Four of the making-of retrospectives, ranging between nine and 18 minutes each, are in high-def. These are Reflections on Ben, Looking Back, Shooting an Epic in India, and The Funeral. Other standard-def material here includes Sir Ben Kingsley Talks About Gandhi (20 mins.), In Search of Gandhi (nine mins.), Vintage Newsreel Footage (10 mins.), The Words of Mahatma Gandhi (two mins.), Attenborough discussing the film's casting and music (seven mins.), and more.