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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Reds (HD DVD)
Reds (HD DVD)
Paramount // PG // November 7, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $36.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 16, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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"Politics sure plays hell with your poetry."

Warren Beatty's 1981 epic Reds opens with a series of testimonials by contemporaries of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, introducing the journalists and political activists before Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton ever step foot in front of the camera. Reed would one day be renowned for penning Ten Days that Shook the World, an account of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising in Russia that he witnessed firsthand, but he's merely an idealistic, politically charged writer barely scraping by at the film's outset. Reed's determination to spark a workers' revolt and establish a viable Socialist party in America threatens not only his health but his tumultuous relationship with Louise Bryant. A frustrated artist whose talents were never in quite the same league as her aspirations, Bryant buckles under the strain of her lover's lengthy absences and the din of the omnipresent Greenwich Village intelligentsia. Neither of them are entirely faithful throughout his travels, but despite such infidelities, Reed and Bryant are unable to fully escape their passion for one another. Still, Reed can't ignore his perceived obligations to impoverished American workers or his political hunger. While in Russia to convince the Bolsheviks to endorse his American Communist Party, Reed is ensnared as a propagandist and prisoner, a world removed from his devastated wife.

As deeply involved in the political landscape as its writer, director, and leading man had been and despite the whirlwind of controversy surrounding the film's politics, Beatty doesn't use Reds as a $35 million soapbox. Reds doesn't demand that its viewers share Reed's mindset nor does it make much of an attempt at preaching politics; you're merely asked to believe that Reed believes. Reds is far more of a sweeping love story than a political drama, deftly balancing an epic scope with the intimacy it devotes to its two leads. Reed and Bryant were living, breathing people, and the film draws them as such. Beatty and Keaton, themselves lovers at the time, naturally have the spark of a genuine couple, and their romance rarely feels contrived and doesn't ooze with oversentimentality. Intellectually, I feel as if I should groan when Bryant risks life and limb traveling to the ends of the earth for a reunion with her husband, but damned if it isn't effective anyway.

Beatty surrounds himself with an exceptional supporting cast, including Maureen Stapleton in an Academy Award-winning role. Although Jack Nicholson didn't take home a statuette, he delivers perhaps the most memorable of these performances as profoundly cynical playwright Eugene O'Neill. Nicholson exchanges his trademark manic energy for dry wit and an unexpected restraint, stealing each and every scene in which he appears. Keaton and Nicholson sparkle together on-screen, and even though I enjoyed Beatty's performance, I wasn't especially eager to see O'Neill and Bryant's affair come to an end. The supporting cast also features turns by Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, Paul Sorvino, George Plimpton, and an uncredited Gene Hackman.

One of the more intriguing creative choices that Beatty makes in Reds is the intercutting of 'witnesses'. More than a half-century after the film's events, Beatty interviewed a number of people who knew Reed and Bryant personally, and excerpts of these conversations are interpersed throughout the film. Aside from lending an additional sense of authenticity, the witnesses are extremely personable and maintain quite a presence during their brief moments on-screen, and the fact that they don't always agree with one another's recollections reflects how fluid and unreliable history can be. They also unencumber Reds from having to awkwardly dole out exposition, allowing the movie to flow naturally instead of continually having to explain. The interviews are used sparingly but effectively, doled out infrequently enough to prevent Reds from feeling like a documentary.

A three and a half hour film about a Communist who falls in love and dies may sound agonizingly tedious, but its pacing is surprisingly nimble. Indeed, Reds is a success in nearly every conceivable way, from Beatty's restrained direction to its outstanding supporting cast. Unavailable on home video for quite a number of years, Reds is a film long overdue for this sort of release, and thankfully, Paramount has seen fit to issue this twenty-fifth anniversary edition simultaneously on DVD, Blu-ray, and HD DVD.

Video: Like its Blu-ray and DVD counterparts, this HD DVD of Reds is spread across two discs, using the film's intermission as the break point. Reds' handsome 1.85:1 high definition presentation belies its age, remaining sharp and crisply defined throughout. The film grain may vary in weight but is consistently natural in appearance, devoid of the blockiness that sometimes accompanies less adept compression. I couldn't spot any flaws of note in the source material either. Only two brief moments disappoint. One of them is a very brief insert shot of a freighter tossing about in some particularly nasty weather, and for all I know, that could be battered stock footage. Much more lengthy is the meeting of the Liberal Club early in the film which boasts an unusually processed appearance. This sequence exhibits the oversmoothened signs of digital noise reduction, and its whites are blown out. I didn't have that reaction to any other shot in the three hour-plus film, and I found this HD DVD release of Reds to otherwise sport a much stronger presentation than I went in expecting. Nicely done.

Audio: It's to Paramount's credit that along with the expected Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix, they've seen fit to include the film's original monaural soundtrack. The six-channel mix is faithful to its monaural origins; the surround channels are reserved primarily for ambiance, and as this is a dialogue-heavy film, much of the activity is naturally rooted in the center speaker. Unlike the film's impressive visual restoration, the audio reflects Reds' age, particularly in the flat, edgy quality of its dialogue. That's hardly unusual, though, and there isn't any background noise to distract. An all-out sonic assault it's not, but the multichannel remix is certainly serviceable.

Along with the pair of English soundtracks, Reds also includes monaural dubs in French and Spanish as well as subtitles in all three of the disc's languages.

Supplements: The set's second disc features the 65 minute documentary "Witness to Reds". Divided into seven distinct parts, "Witness..." consists almost entirely of interviews, all of which have been appropriately shot against a black backdrop. Warren Beatty wore nearly every possible hat throughout the course of the film's production a quarter-century ago, and despite his distaste for these sorts of extras, he's by far the documentary's dominant presence. Along with fellow cast members Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, and Paul Sorvino, Beatty is joined by a wide variety of collaborators, including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, composer Stephen Sondheim, former Paramount head Barry Diller, a small army of editors and producers, and even an advertising executive.

Not surprising given its length, "Witness to Reds" is extremely thorough, covering nearly every possible topic of discussion from Beatty's initial germ of an idea to the film's blitzkrieg at the Oscars years later. Among the subjects are how Paramount had been convinced to invest tens of millions of dollars into a three hour movie about a dead Communist, the exceptionally global shoot, the neverending struggle between art and politics, and its unique promotional campaign leading up to its astonishing twelve Academy Award nominations. Beatty comments at length about his approach as a filmmaker, including the mutually exclusive mindsets necessary to succeed as an actor and a director as well as the arguments he had with Storaro over camera movement. He also compares and contrasts the way different actors take direction, especially the surprisingly consistent Jack Nicholson versus the far more volatile Diane Keaton. "Witness to Reds" is anchored around newly recorded interviews, but Beatty has also dusted off outtakes from the witnesses' testimonials that are incorporated into the third segment, and his voice can be heard offering questions off-camera. Beatty also briefly comments on what Reds might be like if he were making it in today's climate of computer graphics and monolithic corporate bean-counting.

"Witness to Reds" is presented in standard definition at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The only other extra is a standard definition trailer, also provided on the set's second disc.

Conclusion: Reds competed in the Academy Award race for Best Picture against Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that I have to admit comes closer to my usual taste in movies than a 195 minute star-crossed romance against the backdrop of American Socialism. Those turned off by its daunting length or politically suggestive title are doing themselves a disservice; Reds is a remarkably engaging, superbly acted romance, as intimate a film as it is epic in scope. Although it's mildly disappointing that its documentary wasn't produced in high-definition as the extras on the studio's other two-disc HD DVD set had been, Paramount has done a commendable job with Reds' HD release, and this set is very Highly Recommended.
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