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'Ben-Hur': Still going well beyond the material

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Pity the poor film lovers who blew their entire month's movie budget on the latest "Star Wars" box set. This week, for roughly the same price, they could have owned a cinema milestone superior to "Star Wars" in just about every way — William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" (Warner Home Video, Ultimate Collector's Edition three-disc Blu-ray box set, $64.99; five-DVD set, $49.92; two-DVD anniversary edition, $20.97).

Don't misunderstand. The original "Star Wars" trilogy is a lot of fun and George Lucas corralled future generations of movie fans with his films' youthful spirit of wonder and adventure. But "Ben-Hur" is profound and ageless — not to mention challenging and stirring in its full-blooded depiction of man's capacity for both cruelty and redemption.

Like the Lucas fantasies, Wyler's screen classic turns on the eternal opposition of good and evil. But the big difference in the two visions is that one is set in a comic book universe of masked fiends and light sabers and matinee heroics, and the other takes place in a universe of family bonds and societies populated by fallible individuals trying to keep their balance on a plane constantly pitching between the degradation of tyranny and the possibility of liberation.

It's sad that film schools today are full of students who know all there is to know about Lucas but dismiss films like "Ben-Hur." If they looked deeper, they might see that Wyler did not view cinema as an end in itself, but as just another powerful artist's tool for digging into ultimate relationships between the mortal and the everlasting.

That is also the field in which General Lew Wallace once toiled with his original novel. It is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," but you don't really have to be a Christian or a Bible student to find nourishment in its suggestion of values that extend well beyond our material world.

For the film's Blu-ray debut, technicians have returned to original negative elements to create a 1080p transfer that captures both the epic scope and the intimacy of Wyler's Oscar-winning masterwork.

"Ben-Hur" was one of only two films photographed in a process called MGM Camera 65, the widest aspect ratio (2.76:1) ever used theatrically. At nearly three times as wide as it is high, its picture has always posed challenges for video technicians.

But high-definition finally allows for the best resolution of picture details yet possible. There is none of the irising or shimmering of unresolved lines here, and both the brightness and color are pushed to their peaks with stunning vibrancy.

At last we can see into the dark recesses of the Roman slave galleons and note every bead of sweat on the muscles of the oarsmen as they speed into a sea battle with pirates. For the first time at home, Judah Ben-Hur's team of chariot horses is snowy white again, and not some cream- or wheat-colored offshoot as in past video versions.

Best of all is the new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track, flawlessly reproducing the awesome Miklos Rosza musical score and dispersing it around the 5.1 stereo soundstage. (There's an option for listening to the isolated score on its own, though this is only in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and not quite as satisfying.)

Bonus extras are included on each of the box set's three Blu-ray discs. These include commentaries and "making of" documentaries from previous editions, along with various release trailers, rare screen tests, newsreel footage and the complete 1925 silent film version with Ramon Novarro — not presented in true high-def but commendably sharp and intact and good to have in the set.

New and exclusive supplements begin with a 78-minute "personal journey" through the film via Charlton Heston's 16mm home movies and reminiscences by the late actor's wife and grown children. Also included is a facsimile of a bound "diary" and scrapbook kept by Heston during the film's production, and a 64-page hardcover book of rare photos, movie stills and production art.

The five-disc DVD set contains all of the same extras plus the remastered feature in standard definition. The two-DVD "special edition" has just the remastered film and running commentary, plus a poster mail-in offer.

Fox World Cinema launch

"The world is more than we know," is one of the great lines from "Ben-Hur" that still resonates with movie-goers. Aiming to narrow the knowledge gap a bit is a new cinema line from 20th Century-Fox carrying the label Fox World Cinema.

We screened its first three releases, all available this week priced at $29.98 but offered at 37 per cent off at http://www.foxworldcinema.com. In general, we were more impressed by the three film's technical reach and storytelling inventiveness than by their mundane subject matter.

From Italy, Michele Placido's "Angel of Evil" is based on the memoirs of a Milan criminal, played here by sultry male model Kim Rossi Stuart. Like the recent "Carlos" and a hundred other films, this is one more attempt to glamorize gangsters and raise them to the level of sexy rock stars.

From China, "The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman" is an ambitious, multi-parted epic that follows the journey of a mystical blade through the hands of three different owners. Debuting filmmaker Wu Ershan goes way overboard on burlesque and stylistic flourishes but the look is often very interesting.

My favorite of the three was Rohan Sippy's Bollywood entry, "Dum Maaro Dum," another ambitious screen effort about a determined rogue cop's campaign to flush out an underworld drug czar and free the innocent college kid who is caught between them. Besides having characters you can root for, it presents dazzling musical interludes and action scenes with an array of flashy visual techniques.

Also new on DVD

"Sesame Street: Spoofs! Volume 1 and 2" (Warner Home Video, not rated, DVD $19.98). The lovable "Sesame Street" muppets present a variety of their best skits and songs sending up movies, TV shows, ads and more. The bits are culled from the series over the years but not all play equally well, though they should keep kids and fans of all ages chuckling and humming along.

"The Tempest" (Miramax Home Entertainment, rated PG-13, DVD $29.99; Blu-ray Disc $39.99). Julie Taymor has had some stunning successes in both theater and film with her staging of "Disney's The Lion King" and such movies as "Titus" and "Frida." Here she offers a film adaptation of her earlier staging of Shakespeare's genre-hopping classic to decidedly mixed results. The setting for the film (actually shot in Hawaii on the island of Lanai) is a truly magical location for the numerous interconnected stories, but the characters seem to dissipate in the open air. Helen Mirren breaks new ground as a female Prospero (renamed Prospera), but there's no narrative hook here to draw a viewer into the story.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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