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Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre is among the most enviable in Hollywood history and almost every one of the films he made as director has made its way onto Blu-ray disc within the past decade. Some of his less popular films – Amistad, The Terminal, Hook – have taken longer than others. Apparently, Universal Studios noticed they still had the rights to a handful of those unreleased, less popular films – Duel, Sugarland Express, 1941, and Always – and weren’t sure any of the titles would sell on their own. So, they coupled them with four substantially more prominent movies that were already available on the HD format and released them all under the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection title. If only they would’ve noticed they also had the rights to Munich, which is now the only feature-length Spielberg film not available on Blu-ray.

Because there was a delay on my screener Blu-ray (not to mention the fact that I had no idea it was on the way), I’m going to glaze over the four previously released movies. I had already reviewed Jaws and the Jurassic Park Trilogy (including Jurassic Park III, which is not part of this collection, obviously), so I welcome readers to check those out for clarification purposes, but I’m afraid E.T., which is arguably the best movie that the director has ever made, is getting the shaft. I’m sure most of you already own and love it, anyway.

Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

Duel

(1971):
Spielberg’s first movie was originally made for television and aired as part of ABC’s Movie of the Week anthology series. He scored the gig after directing for a number of weekly television shows, including a feature-length episodes of The Name of the Game and Columbo. It remains one of the most beloved entries from the ‘golden era’ of stand-alone TV movies – a time before the invention 24-hour cable television or straight-to-video releases. Most of Duel’s contemporaries were clearly limited by budgetary constraints and studio censorship. Even the memorable ones, like Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983) or Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975), are usually obvious imitations of their theatrical counterparts. Spielberg’s success with Duel is all the more impressive, because he’s just as limited as his peers, yet was still able to achieve spectacularly dynamic, theater-friendly imagery (which explains Duel’s eventual jump to matinees). Spielberg’s energetic direction might not have worked, had Twilight Zone regular and I Am Legend author Richard Matheson not supplied him with a unique, clever script that feeds into the innate anxieties of modern human beings that don’t have to worry about other animals eating them. Despite the 40-plus year gulf between the film’s release and now – a period that saw a plethora of technological advancements in both motor vehicles and telecommunications – Duel’s basic premise still works, because we’re all still afraid that the guy we just passed on the highway might be a psychopath. Road rage, it seems, is both a universal and eternal struggle.

As mentioned, Duel was original shot for television with a television-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio in mind. It has been released that way on both VHS and DVD. Even the HD transfer that has made the rounds on cable TV the last few years is 1.33:1. However, it was also released in theaters (mostly overseas), so the 1.85:1 ratio that appears on this new 1080p Blu-ray is not without precedent – though Spielberg claims that there was an expanded version in theaters and that some shots had to be cropped, only because he could be seen sitting in the back seat of the car. Perhaps there were both expanded frame and hard matted versions? The visual information missing from the top and bottom of this version is largely incidental, but, because the hard matte doesn’t float from shot to shot, some images are a bit too tight. I’ve included a single comparison image taken from an HD TV rip to illustrate this occasional snugness. This actually appears to be a new transfer all-around, not just a reframing of the older HD scan. The 1080p upgrade has really tightened the details in wide-angle images and the sharper textures reveal more in the way of fine film grain (the HD TV versions were sort of smudgy in close-up). The colour timing has been shifted a bit as well. The overall tint is warmer, including yellower desert backdrops and oranger skin tones than previous versions. The gamma/contrast skews harsher, too, leading to minor crush effects. I don’t think these changes have been taken too far (save some particularly orange & teal shots towards the end of the movie), but they are certainly noticeable.

Duel was remixed into 5.1 sound for its DVD release and that track is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The remix is good fun and does a great job approximating the sounds of intense driving action – though the mix’s finest moment is the subjective, in-car sound of monotonous driving out of the city and onto the highway. However, for the sake of this five-channel immersion, the remix includes a number of added sound effects that weren’t part of the original mono version. Some of these are quite obvious and overly digital-sounding, which will certainly put off some of the purists. Thankfully, for authenticity’s sake, Universal has also included the original mono track, in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (complete with the full bore ‘dinosaur scream’ as the truck meets its end).

The extras (all of which were on the previous DVD) include:
  • A conversation with Steven Spielberg (35:40, SD)
  • Steven Spielberg and the Small Screen (9:30, SD)
  • Richard Matheson: The Writing of Duel (9:20, SD)
  • Photo and poster gallery
  • Trailer


 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection


Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

Sugarland Express

(1974):
After making two more TV movies ( Something Evil and Savage), Spielberg was finally given the reins on a theatrical release. Sugarland Express is based on the true story of Ila Fae Holiday and Robert Dent, a Texas couple that leads law enforcement on a cross-country chase in the summer of ’69 (making it the first of many true stories in the director’s collection). Spielberg helped refine the screenplay himself at the story phase, but left scripting duties to Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, both of whom would work with the director again when he developed Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Despite starring a culturally hot and young Goldie Hawn, Sugarland Express wasn’t a break-out success and has since suffered comparisons to the era’s other movies about star-crossed lovers on crime sprees, specifically Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967, which often cited as the film that kicked off the Hollywood’s Silver Age that Spielberg inadvertently helped kibosh when he made Jaws). It does deserve credit for expanding themes of criminal celebrity in the media, however, long before Oliver Stone overwhelmed audiences with the heavy-handed efforts of Natural Born Killers.

What’s particularly interesting about Sugarland Express – besides the fact that it’s so well made (even at this early point, his compositions are incredibly dynamic) – is that it feels like a proper ‘movie brat’ feature. Though Spielberg is always grouped with contemporaries (George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, et cetera), his career trajectory and interests were completely different. Sugarland Express is wrapped in the same unromantic reality as movies like Taxi Driver and The French Connection without the focus on bleak existential crises and/or ugly violence. Rather, it’s a consistently sweet-natured, not to mention funny (to a point), portrayal of criminal life, which keeps it compatible with Spielberg’s other ‘70s and ‘80s work. It’s fun to look at this turning point and imagine what might have happened to the rest of the director’s career, had Jaws not worked out for him. Sugarland Express is also notable for featuring William Atherton in his first starring role, many years before he became cinema’s favourite slimy antagonist in Ghostbusters and Die Hard.

Spielberg didn’t mess around with 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 aspect ratios for his first theatrical release – he went balls to the wall with 2.35:1 and anamorphic lenses. This new 1080p transfer meets the expectations of one of the director’s most obscure movies -– it’s a bit rough and dirtier than the other films in the set, but still a sizable upgrade over the anamorphic DVD versions. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who also shot Close Encounters of the Third Kind) uses natural lighting throughout the film, which obscures some of the finer details in darkness and overblown highlights, though this is clearly an intended effect (Spielberg has continued using similarly dark lighting schemes and backlit silhouettes throughout his career). The image’s clarity is uneven, sometimes due to the dim imagery, but the patchy grain levels and occasionally muddy/blobby black contrasts appear to be basic wear and tear. Still, there aren’t any notable compression artefacts and even the sharpest, most high-contrast image doesn’t have edge enhancement problems. The colour quality is rich, including natural skin tones, blue skies, lush greens, and some nicely cut, poppy highlight hues (car paint, wardrobe items, et cetera).

Sugarland Express wasn’t only Spielberg’s theatrical debut, it was his first collaboration with composer John Williams. Williams’ country and folk-inspired score has almost nothing in common with the rousing sentiment of his latter Spielberg collaborations, but it is perfectly intergraded into this low-key, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack. The lack of stereo effects and LFE support is never problematic, because the simple instrumentations and compositions only require clarity to work. The rest of the track is without high-end distortions (even the roaring car engines, police sirens, and gunshots tend to keep from peaking) and features a surprising amount of depth, though the dialogue and incidental noises can alter in pitch/tone between cuts. This is likely a side-effect of noise-reduction and ADR work, as the bulk of the film was shot on location, where engine noise and the elements made recording difficult.

The only extra is a trailer.

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection


Steven Spielberg Director's Collection 1941(1979)
Following the astronomical box office successes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg could do no wrong. Until he made 1941 and did all kinds of wrong. On paper, it sounds like a slam-dunk – the most popular filmmaker in the world directs a superstar cast in a WWII comedy co-written by future superstars in their own right, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (with a little help from John Milius). It was Animal House meets high school history class on a big budget and released in time for Christmas. 1941 could’ve been Spielberg’s Dr. Strangelove. Unfortunately, it’s nothing more than an ambitious failure. Few of its key problems are technical, as Spielberg was given an ample budget, which he used to great effect for some genuinely spectacular action sequences (though it is an inordinately foggy film). The fault, instead, lies with the fact that it’s an unfunny, tone-deaf comedy. The ham-fisted dialogue, embarrassingly crude (often racist) jokes, and broad slapstick are occasionally softened by the purity of Spielberg’s nostalgic affection for the era, but the screenplay is so busy that the characters and plot points smear into a boring, overlong mess. Fans would lead you to believe that the extended version included here is preferable, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to sit through a 30 minute longer version of a movie that’s already about 30-minutes too long.

Spielberg himself has sometimes claimed that he just wasn’t capable of doing comedy at the time, but both Sugarland Express and Jaws are consistently funny movies. It’s more a matter of his strengths not lying with the kind of spoofy, Saturday Night Live sketch-style joke-telling used here – he’s better with dry irony, situational comedy, and character work. In the context of his career, 1941 is usually noted as Spielberg’s first and biggest failure. But it’s also his first period piece and the first of his professional movies to take place during WWII – both of which would become trademarks as the director’s career righted itself.

1941 has the budget and technical talent behind it to blow the Duel and Sugarland Express transfers out of the water, but (as mentioned above) it’s also an inexplicably foggy and dark movie, which makes problems for this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. For whatever reason, Spielberg and cinematographer William A. Fraker (most famous for Rosemary’s Baby) decided that the period look should be perpetually caked in a soupy gloom and that the majority of the weirdly limited light sources should be heavily diffused. The fog and diffusion leads to some uneven grain and, at worst, chunks of greenish grit (usually over the wide-angle establishing shots), but the smudgy bits seem in keeping with the photographical choices. Though the darker scenes are generally muddy, daylight images (of which there are surprisingly few) look quite vivid and are brimming with fine detail. Sometimes, the sharpness is over-cranked, likely in an effort to ‘correct’ some of the fogginess, leading to considerable, but not abrasive edge haloes and shimmer effects. The colour palette is busy, considering how dimly lit so many scenes are and includes some incredibly vivid reds and nicely graded blue backdrops.

1941 was blown up to 70mm for some theatrical showings (and was reframed at 2.20:1), but its native format was 35mm. The 70mm blow-ups included a 6-Track stereo soundtrack, while the 35mm versions had standard-issue stereo soundtracks. This Blu-ray features only a DTS-HD Master Audio version of the DVD’s 5.1 remix. The extended cut opens with a title card, which warns that, besides some jumpy cuts (missing frames, you see), viewers will have to contend with the fact some of the dialogue is distorted due to damage to the deleted scenes. It also alerts us to the fact that the original effects have been augmented to ‘take advantage of modern sound systems.’ The dialogue is pretty regularly distorted at high volume levels (lots of shouting), but I found the occasionally awkward shifts into the stereo channels more distracting. The stereo/surround augmentations are usually obvious, especially when it comes to immersion effects. The 5.1 remix does do wonders for John Williams’ bombastic score, however. The music has no issues with distortion at high volume levels.

The extras match those of the collector’s edition DVD and include:
  • The Making of 1941 (1:41:10, SD)
  • Deleted scenes (8:40, SD)
  • Production photos
  • Trailers


 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection


Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

Always

(1989):
1941 was long considered Spielberg’s biggest folly, but, in subsequent years, he made a number of other critically derided films, including Hook (1991), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and Amistad (also 1997…rough year). Still, these films have their defenders (I happen to enjoy The Lost World, myself) and there’s only one ‘golden era’ Spielberg film that is so lifeless and dull that it doesn’t even garner the attention required for its defense. That film is Always – a movie so easily forgotten that I already forgot what I was talking about. Always was a loose remake of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe (1943) and was adapted by Jerry Belson and Diane Thomas, who changed the WWII setting to an airborne firefighter setting, which gives the film its only high points – a number of dynamic and truly exciting flying and fire-fighting sequences. Otherwise, we’re left with long, low-energy scenes full of sarcastic bickering, thinly written, surprisingly unlikable characters, and dialogue so sappy, it could drown an oak. John Goodman tries very hard to be funny and Audrey Hepburn does her best to infuse her brief scenes with authentic heart that is otherwise missing, but Richard Dreyfuss is consistently obnoxious and Holly Hunter is left to weep her way through scene after scene, like Demi Moore in Ghost (which Always resembles in more ways than one).

Always wasn’t only a wash as a standalone production – it encapsulates a disappointing period of Spielberg’s career where he lost his nerve and retreated into the bland sentiment that his critics derided him for. As a producer, he was spitting out every other family-friendly fluff-fest to the point of parody, but his career as a director had evolved into more mature films, like The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). Always helped set his adult side behind another couple of years until he finally mustered the strength the make Schindler’s List in 1993. The period wasn’t a complete loss, though. We did get the juvenile fun of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade out of the deal and his fear of commitment to darker material put his planned Cape Fear remake in the hands of a very capable Martin Scorsese.

Universal released Always on DVD in a few different countries, but never anamorphically enhanced, which makes this new 1080p, 1.85:1 a substantial upgrade, regardless of its more specified qualities. That’s good, because it’s not a very good transfer, otherwise. There are some minor issues with DNR enhancement and uneven sheets of grain during the really wide establishing shots (which tend to pulse), but the key problem here is with over-sharpening. Contrast has been pushed to crush out all the shadows into complete black during daylight scenes and most of the edges are encrusted with white haloes. The sharpening is so bad that the film grain itself has little haloes in some scenes. The best comparisons I can recall off the top of my head are Fox/MGM’s In the Heat of the Night disc and Universal’s Topaz disc. The colour quality is very good, though. Cinematographer Mikael Salomon saturates the night sequences with stylized oranges, reds and blues that sometimes block up a bit around blends, but are otherwise nicely cut against the blocky blacks.

Always was also blown-up to 70mm for some releases, which included a 6-Track stereo mix. That mix was given a proper LFE enhancement on DVD and was released in 4.1 throughout various world territories. This Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has added the extra stereo spread to make a full 5.1 version. The center channel dialogue sometimes bleeds out into the stereo channels, but I assume this is an artefact of the original 4 channel mix (either the sound technicians were showing off or the center channel wasn’t completely discrete). Otherwise, effects are well separated and the mix includes plenty of directional enhancements. The flying scenes are the obvious highlight and the opening sequence sets the stage wonderfully. The key here is the way the mix contrasts the bombastic buzz of the plane’s engines with the understated whistle of wind when those engines fail and Dreyfuss’ character has to glide in for a landing. John Williams’ music is largely held back during the flying scenes and saved for the sad scenes, where it wisps and melts around the stereo channels.

The only extra is a trailer.

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection

 Steven Spielberg Director's Collection


* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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