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To Kill a Mockingbird: Commemorative Limited Edition Collector's Series (Blu-ray)
Universal / 1962 / 129 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: January 31, 2012
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Reviewed by David Krauss
Monday, February 06, 2012
Some novels are sacred. At a young age, the right book can make an indelible impression, speaking to us on a variety of emotional and intellectual levels, and often the impact remains etched in our consciousness throughout our lives. 'Catcher in the Rye' is one such book, and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is another, a work of deceptive simplicity yet far-reaching power. Harper Lee's sole literary contribution explores with grace and insight such universal topics as racism, coming of age, tolerance, domestic violence, the binding ties of family, and the unique discoveries of youth, and has earned the author a degree of reverence and renown reserved only for the most elite men and women of letters. The two juvenile characters, six-year-old Scout (the spunky tomboy who narrates the novel) and her 10-year-old brother Jem, are among the most recognizable and beloved in American literature, as is their father, the stoic, honorable, courageous, wise, yet tender Atticus Finch, a widowed attorney who passionately defends a black man accused of rape by a white woman in a prejudiced, small-minded Alabama town in the 1930s. And then there's Boo Radley, the mysterious recluse that both fascinates and frightens the neighborhood children. Such a rich array of personalities and events coalesce to produce that rare piece of fiction that inspires, educates, and entertains without affectation or conceit.
Filming such a book is always, to put it mildly, a tricky endeavor, and the finished product more often than not disappoints the original work's legion of admirers. The 1962 adaptation of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' however, is that rare exception, a movie that humbly honors its source and strives to personify the prose as faithfully as possible. Director Robert Mulligan and writer Horton Foote take great care to express the novel's ideas and themes with a delicate hand, so they gently emanate from the dialogue and characters. We may not be able to identify with all the circumstances depicted, but the spirit and values of those who inhabit the scenario strike several personal chords and touch us deeply. And the film weaves such a deft and seductive spell, it's difficult not to become completely invested in the action on screen and feel a part of the family and community that reside there.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' is all about integrity and restraint. Understatement defined Mulligan's direction throughout his 35-year career, and he's a master at capturing small moments with a minimum of fuss. Lingering on reaction shots for just that extra second or two deepens their meaning and helps lend his stories a languorous quality that mirrors real life. Even scenes of suspense in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' are never overwrought or overplayed. The sequence in which Scout (Mary Badham), Jem (Phillip Alford), and their nerdy friend Dill (John Megna), a character based on the young Truman Capote (a childhood pal of Lee's), attempt to catch a glimpse of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) by creeping up to his dilapidated home one dark summer night possesses all the elements of a taut thriller, but lacks any fancy tricks or manipulative touches. Likewise, the courtroom scenes exude a sober weight based on thoughtful argument, not wild histrionics. Some might categorize 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as slow and too methodical, but ideas and feelings need time to sink in and percolate, and Mulligan provides us that luxury.
If Mulligan and Foote are the film's heart and mind, then the first-rate cast is its soul. Mention actor Gregory Peck and the first movie that springs to mind is 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' Atticus Finch is such a vital part of Peck, it's sometimes difficult to differentiate the man from the role. Resolute yet flexible, firm yet understanding, passionate yet controlled, Peck personifies all the pieces of Atticus, and his performance is a marvel. Subtle, controlled, and brimming with texture, it's both finely etched and utterly natural, and justly earned the star a Best Actor Academy Award. (The film also won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Art Direction, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Score.)
Of course, much of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' hinges on the children. The story is seen through their wide eyes, and their intrepid explorations, small yet meaningful discoveries, gradual maturation, and ardent desire to understand the complexities of the adult world frame the film. Unaffected portrayals are essential to maintain the slice-of-life realism, and all the juveniles comply. Their expressive faces always register the right amount of emotion, and their bickering, bonding, and thoughtful reflection never seem forced. In addition, Duvall, in his film debut, is achingly sincere as the gentle giant, Boo Radley. Without the benefit of a single line, he plays the picture's most difficult role, conveying an enormous range of feeling and providing perfectly pitched closure to a richly woven tale.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' is that rare literary adaptation that doesn't demean its source. The book, of course, still reigns supreme, but with reverence and perception Mulligan's film captures its flavor as it explores a tapestry of potent themes. At its most basic level, it's a simple portrait of a middle-class family in a small Southern town. Some of the circumstances they confront are extraordinary, others mundane. Sage advice is dispensed, mischief is made, and relationships change and deepen. The best and worst of mankind is exposed, as characters both overcome and succumb to fear, vengeance, and prejudice. As Atticus says, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, and this great movie makes us appreciate the small and big moments of life, and how both can impact us equally. It's truly one of the most human films ever made.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'To Kill a Mockingbird' comes attractively packaged in a limited edition digibook that contains both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film, as well as an insert with instructions on how to download a digital copy. The 46-page book is printed on high-quality stock, and opens with a heartfelt introduction by Peck's widow, Veronique. There's also a tribute to Peck by author Harper Lee; selected pages of the shooting script, complete with Peck's handwritten notations; five pages of storyboards; a collection of lobby card and international poster reproductions; excerpts from the film's press book; several rare photos; reproductions of congratulatory letter and telegrams from such icons as Fred Astaire, Charleton Heston, Gene Kelly, and Lauren Bacall; and two pages devoted to Peck's Legends of Hollywood stamp. Video codec is 1080p/VC-1 and default audio is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,' 'Pariah,' and 'Being Flynn,' as well as a promo for Focus Features, precede the full-motion menu with music. Disc load time is slow, but the content is worth the wait.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a clean, lush 1080p/VC-1 black-and-white transfer that's "digitally remastered and fully restored from high resolution 35mm original film elements." As one of the inaugural releases in Universal's 100th Anniversary Collector's Series, this disc possesses a lofty quality quotient that bodes well for subsequent entries in the line. It also vastly improves upon the previous Legacy Series DVD, which looks grainy and flat by comparison, and is littered with faint print marks and scratches.
The Blu-ray hits a homerun right off the bat. The innovative opening titles sequence features crisp close-ups of keepsake items, superior contrast, and a wide gray scale that lends depth and detail to the image. Once the action begins, the picture exudes a pleasing brightness that reflects the hot, lazy days of Maycomb's summer. Light grain preserves the film-like feel, yet never intrudes, and nary a speck of dirt or errant scratch mar the pristine source material.
Black levels are rich and inky, but crush is never an issue, even during nocturnal scenes. Close-ups are sparingly employed, but always make a statement, especially those of Boo Radley. Peck's chiseled features are well rendered, and the children look appropriately fresh-faced and innocent. Background elements are always easy to discern, and no banding, noise, edge enhancement, or other annoyances creep into the picture. A few instances of softness here and there keep this effort from earning a perfect score, but it's impossible to imagine this film looking any better or receiving a more loving treatment.
The addition of a lossless audio track also boosts this release, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies clear, nicely nuanced sound that subtly complements this quiet film. Any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been erased, allowing us to appreciate the many instances of clean silence that add power and impact to several scenes. Surround activity is limited, but Elmer Bernstein's unobtrusive music score fills the room with pure tones and lovely tonal depth. Stereo separation up front is also delicately mixed, with atmospherics, such as chirping birds and rustling leaves, enjoying fine presence.
Dialogue is always well prioritized, but some of the townsfolk and children possess enough of a Southern twang and lazy drawl to make some exchanges difficult to comprehend. Effects are also distinct, and broad dynamic range allows the track to put forth solid audio without any distortion or stress. This isn't a flashy presentation, but it serves the film well, and its invisibility is one of its major strengths.
A comprehensive supplemental package complements this excellent movie, celebrating the material, actor Gregory Peck, and the restoration of many Universal classics. All the extras from the previous Legacy Series DVD have been ported over to this release, with the exception of 12 oversized, beautifully appointed postcards, featuring an introduction by Harper Lee and several examples of international poster art. These items are reproduced within the body of the digibook, but if you want tangible elements, you'll have to remove the envelope from the DVD before discarding it.
- Audio Commentary – They're both gone now, so it's especially meaningful and historically important to have this commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula. While their remarks aren't quite as substantive and probing as I might have liked, the pair provides an interesting look inside the production of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and the discussion is always intelligent and focused. They talk about the casting of the juvenile parts and how they intentionally shunned professional child actors; explain their technique of working wih children; and laud Peck for his contributions and how he developed relationships with all the young actors. Pakula recalls how he met Mulligan, both discuss the nuances of directing and how essential it is to back off occasionally and let go of the reins, and how much discipline was involved in obtaining the level of restraint that characterizes the film. The supporting cast is also addressed (as well as the inspired casting of Duvall) and a key deleted sequence (that sadly no longer exists) is outlined in this leisurely yet thoughtful track that the film's devotees will certainly find worthwhile.
- Documentary: "Fearful Symmetry" (SD, 90 minutes) – More than a making-of documentary, this 1998 feature-length examination of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' also looks at Southern and small-town sensibilities, and how they shape the characters and attitudes depicted in the novel and film. Long-time Alabama residents remark on their way of life, and scholars weigh in on the African-American experience during the 1930s. Mulligan, Pakula, Peck, Duvall, writer Horton Foote, composer Elmer Bernstein, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters, and others discuss such topics as casting, the decision not to shoot on location, pivotal scenes, and thematic elements. Filmed in black-and-white and featuring pretentious narration, the documentary feels overly reverent and a tad artificial at times, but conveys a wealth of substantive ideas and makes a fine companion piece to the movie.
- Documentary: "A Conversation with Gregory Peck" (SD, 98 minutes) – An intimate portrait of the actor, this feature-length 1999 documentary follows Peck as he tours the country with his one-man show, in which he reminisces about his career and fields questions from the audience. When off-stage, we see Peck interacting with his wife and family, meeting heads of state, attending the birth of his grandson, working in the greenhouse, encountering fans on the street, and watching basketball in his home. He also poignantly recalls the suicide of one of his sons. Intermingled are clips from many of Peck's best-loved films, including 'Gentleman's Agreement,' 'Roman Holiday,', 'Twelve O'Clock High,' 'Duel in the Sun,' and, of course, 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' The documentary runs a bit long and its leisurely pace dilutes its impact somewhat, but the piece succeeds in providing an in-depth and personal look at the man behind the roles, and Peck's humor, integrity, and warmth always shine through.
- Vintage TV Clip: "Academy Award Best Actor Acceptance Speech" (SD, 90 seconds) – Actress Sophia Loren presents Peck with his Best Actor Academy Award for 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and the star graciously accepts it with a few humble, simple, and sincere remarks.
- Vintage TV Clip: "American Film Institute Life Achievement Award" (SD, 10 minutes) – The 1989 AFI honoree, Peck commands a room of his peers as he accepts the distinguished Life Achievement Award. The actor ruminates on his career and co-stars, shares anecdotes, thanks his family, and makes a plea for the proliferation of original, quality projects. Part of the fun of this 23-year-old clip is spotting various celebrities, such as Charlton Heston, Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli, Sidney Poitier, and Lauren Bacall, in the audience in their younger days.
- "Excerpt from the Academy Tribute to Gregory Peck" (SD, 10 minutes) – Peck's daughter, Cecilia, honors her famous father with a heartfelt speech, relating him to Atticus Finch and sharing personal anecdotes about his generosity, his devotion to his wife and family, and the special times they enjoyed while working together on a couple of films.
- Featurette: "Scout Remembers" (SD, 12 minutes) – Actress Mary Badham, who portrayed Scout, recalls her audition for the film, the accessibility of Peck on the set, and how the role of Atticus fit the actor like a glove in this 1999 interview with NBC News. She also discusses her favorite scene in the movie and praises Robert Mulligan's understated direction.
- Featurette: "100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics" (HD, 9 minutes) – This promotional, yet reverential, piece examines the importance of film preservation and the painstaking process of restoration as it provides a cursory look at how technicians manage film grain, reduce flicker, enhance faded color, repair damage and tears, and clean up audio. Clips from such classics as 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Dracula,' 'The Bride of Frankenstein,' 'Jaws,' 'The Sting,' 'Pillow Talk,' and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' demonstrate the challenges restorers face and the miracles they often pull off.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) – The original preview for 'To Kill a Mockingbird' features a sober introduction by Peck, followed by clips from the movie and testimonials from various newspapers.
A couple of Blu-ray exclusives enhance this release, though the bulk are negligible gadgets.
- U-Control – This picture-in-picture option provides pop-up mini featurettes that correspond to various scenes in the movie. Some are interview excerpts from the 'Fearful Symmetry' documentary (augmented with production photos), while others are biographical pieces devoted to members of the cast and crew narrated by Peck's children, Cecilia and Anthony. An icon in the lower right corner of the screen denotes when content will appear, and a timeline displays which chapters contain material.
- pocket BLU – Download the pocket BLU app to your smartphone or tablet and use the remote feature to navigate through the disc, download a digital copy, or watch special features on the go.
- BD-Live – Internet-enabled players can access Universal's online portal to watch trailers, interact with others, and view exclusive content. At press time, however, the trailer for 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was the only accessible feature for the film.
- My Scenes – This bookmarking feature allows viewers to save favorite sequences for convenient replay later.
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This year marks Universal's 100th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and this superior release will make any serious film buff want to celebrate both events. Robert Mulligan's thoughtful, intensely affecting adaptation of Harper Lee's immortal novel receives the red carpet Blu-ray treatment, thanks to Universal's meticulous restoration. Top-notch video, excellent audio, and an absorbing array of worthwhile supplements - all housed in a handsome, beefy digibook - revitalize this classic tale of discovery, enlightenment, and familial bonding. Though not as powerful as it surely must have seemed in 1962, Lee's story can still teach us volumes about tolerance, racial harmony, and standing up for what is just and true. Such words as "rewarding" and "inspiring" don't begin to describe this quiet film that speaks softly, but carries a big stick, and contains arguably the finest performance of Gregory Peck's illustrious career. Without a doubt, this is a must own release. Watch it with your kids, watch it by yourself, but by all means experience 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
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