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  12 October 2012

BOND 50 Blu-ray set review

BOND 50
So what’s good, what’s bad, what’s ugly, what’s new, what’s missing?
KEVIN HARPER runs his expert eyes and ears over the new BOND 50 Blu-ray sets from both sides of the Atlantic to give 007 MAGAZINE readers the most comprehensive review available.

The UK Blu-ray set is a mixed bag containing most of what has already been released with a mere 15 minutes of completely new material added. As a Bond fan who has purchased the films in every format from VHS video, through laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray, I am now resigned to the fact that I have to double, treble and quadruple dip to get my favourites in the best available format. The previous Ultimate Edition DVD versions (from where the Lowry Digital Images restored video masters for all but the two most recent films in the BOND 50 set originate) were far from perfect, or indeed ultimate. The original UK release in August 2006 highlighted some unfortunate errors which have for the most part been corrected in the new Blu-ray releases. The Bond films started being released in the new high definition format from 2008. 11 titles have so far been released individually on Blu-ray with two of those (The Man With The Golden Gun and Licence To Kill) only being available in the US and certain European countries. With the bankruptcy of MGM the series was put on hold, so Bond fans had an incomplete series of films. The new BOND 50 box set uses exactly the same discs for the titles already released rather than re-authoring titles to match the new ones being added to this collection. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were also previously released individually on Blu-ray, with Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007 being subsequently reissued in a Deluxe Edition with new extra features. The version of Casino Royale included in the UK BOND 50 set is now completely uncut and adds most of the extra content from the Deluxe Edition (this was not originally advertised as being included on BOND 50 and appears to have been an afterthought). However, in order to fit all of this material on one disc, the Martin Campbell/Michael G. Wilson picture-in-picture video commentary has been dropped, and the extras downgraded to standard definition. So hang on to your Deluxe Edition if you want these features or to see John Cork’s superbly produced documentaries in high definition. The Quantum of Solace disc in the UK BOND 50 set is identical to the original release so features a different menu to the other films in the series. Consequently this disc is coded Region B only, so any US purchasers wanting the uncut Casino Royale (the film is still re-edited on the US version of BOND 50) will be unable to play Quantum of Solace without a multi-region player. All discs with the exception of Quantum of Solace are region free.

BOND 50 Packaging

There is another caveat with the UK/European edition of BOND 50 – not all the films have their original soundtrack available as an option. Dr. No to The Man With The Golden Gun all originally had mono soundtracks, whilst The Spy Who Loved Me to Licence To Kill were issued in Dolby Surround. Since the release of the Ultimate Edition DVDs in 2006 it has been impossible to hear the James Bond films as they were originally mixed and released in cinemas if you bought the UK/European discs. For some reason (presumably space issues) the original mono/stereo tracks were dropped in favour of more international dubs and subtitles. The US discs had the choice of a DTS 5.1 remix or the original mono or Dolby Surround soundtrack but were coded Region 1, so a multi-region player was needed to view them. This practice was also followed with the UK releases of the Blu-rays, so this is what we still get for the 9 titles included in BOND 50, which are straight duplicates of those already available individually. If you buy the UK BOND 50 set you cannot hear the original soundtracks for Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only and Licence To Kill. The titles new to Blu-ray in the BOND 50 set do have the option to choose between a fake DTS 5.1 remix or the original soundtrack as released theatrically. In the case of some of the films this is a major deal-breaker as the 5.1 soundtracks have not been sympathetically remixed and include all manner of new or changed sound effects/music. This practice is of course nothing new, as You Only Live Twice had a six-track stereo soundtrack when released in a blown-up 70mm version in Japan in 1967. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had its final reel mixed in stereo for its original 1969/1970 Odeon Leicester Square engagement, and Octopussy was also treated to a 70mm six-track stereo release in London in 1983. However, these remixes were from original sound stems, not new ones as is often the case on some of the Blu-ray soundtracks. They did not have new effects added; the sound was merely spread across the tracks to give a more immersive experience.

You Only Live Twice/Live And Let Die Blu-ray menus

The US edition of BOND 50 includes an option to listen to the original soundtrack for the film in all cases. So, overall, the BOND 50 set is not the definitive collection it should have been. If you choose to import the US set you get the same content as the UK but Casino Royale is a cut version. Additionally, and most importantly, you can hear the early films as they were originally released. However, as the US set also replicates the eleven titles already released, these discs will be Region A coded, so a multi-region player is required.

If you buy the UK BOND 50 set you will benefit from an uncut version of Casino Royale but a mish-mash of discs where some have the original mono soundtrack, and others have a bastardized version with a new 5.1 remix. In the case of Goldfinger this is particularly troubling as you are denied the chance to hear Norman Wanstall’s Oscar-winning sound mix in favour of one that is re-engineered for a modern home cinema environment, by someone not even connected to the original film!

Read Norman Wanstall's comments on the BOND 50 Blu-ray set.

If one is going to remix the soundtrack of an older film so that it fills the sound-space, and has loud whizz-bang sound effects during the action sequences, then at least we should be able to listen to the original as an option. It is not like it doesn’t exist anymore! This is sadly the situation if you buy the UK set, and just because MGM (or whoever is behind the release of this set) didn’t bother to use the US masters and create a set that is uniform worldwide. It is frankly an insult to the creative talents of many of the behind-the-scenes technicians who made the Bond films stand out in the 60s and who won awards for doing so. The titles new to Blu-ray now all have the option to watch and hear the film with its original soundtrack if desired, but it is unfortunate that these tracks are not encoded as the same quality as their DTS Master Audio counterparts. This is a criminal oversight as the original tracks could sound so much better if given a higher bit-rate. As they are, the mono tracks sound a bit thin compared to the DTS remix when they could sound as punchy and well-rounded as they did on their original release. With a decent sound system the mono tracks can sound very good; but would have benefited from a lossless audio option. Some titles fare better than others but on the whole they lack the bass response and sound a little flat compared to the remix. Probably constrained by space issues on the disc, the original mono/stereo tracks are there for purists only as a sort of bonus, when in fact they should be the defacto option instead of the faux remix which now becomes the default setting for all the films.

BOND 50 packaging

As the Bond series is a world-wide phenomenon, many different tracks and subtitle options are required, and the disc producers are obliged to provide a multitude of options for each market, but doing so on a budget and within the constraints of the available space on the discs. This is not a release from a niche label such as The Criterion Collection, who care deeply about how classic films are presented for the home cinema audience. This is a mass-market cash cow where the original intent of the filmmakers is overlooked in favour of a state-of-the-art presentation which somehow falls short of replicating the film as originally released.

The home cinema revolution has made armchair experts out of millions of viewers who think they know better than the filmmakers. Internet forums are filled with these so-called experts denouncing the latest releases of their favourite films if the image has been tinkered with, but many are apparently oblivious to the fact they are being forced to watch a film without the original sound mix. I suspect most viewers simply insert a disc and listen to whatever sound comes out of their speakers, not knowing (or possibly not caring) that it isn’t authentic in most cases.

Audio comparisons

Dr. No James Bond Theme fadeout Diamonds Are Forever opening credits Thunderball Largo enters SPECTRE HQ
Dr. No
James Bond Theme fadeout
Diamonds Are Forever
Opening Credits
Thunderball
Largo enters SPECTRE HQ
*For amusement only - the remixed track does not appear on the BOND 50 version.
Original Mono Remixed DTS/5.1 Original Mono Remixed DTS/5.1 Original Mono *Remixed DTS/5.1

The remixed 5.1 soundtracks were created by Mi Casa Multimedia and some of their choices defy logic. The opening titles of Goldfinger for instance should begin with a loud slam as Bond closes the door of Bonita’s dressing room on his way out, which segues seamlessly into John Barry’s main title. The remixed soundtrack omits the door slam effect and now simply uses a stereo version of Shirley Bassey’s iconic opening song. This is not how the film sounded on its 1964 record-breaking cinema release or in any subsequent re-release, TV showing, video release or DVD up until 2007. And this is not the version Norman Wanstall mixed, nor the version the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed worthy of an Oscar in 1965.

It should be noted that Mi Casa’s horrendous remix on Thunderball, heard on the Ultimate Edition DVD, has been consigned to the rubbish heap of history and the BOND 50 version (and earlier Blu-ray release) uses the more sympathetic 5.1 mix created for the 1995 laserdisc. Thunderously stupid sound effects were added to the opening of the secret door when Largo enters SPECTRE’S Parisian HQ early in the film. Obviously Norman Wanstall’s original sound effects (such as the sinister sound of Largo's footfall as he walks confidently across the deep pile carpet) were deemed not good enough for modern audiences, robbing them of many of the wonderfully creative uses of sound he spent exhaustive hours achieving at Pinewood Studios in the Sixties. Worse still, one of John Barry’s most effective uses of music is all but lost from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when whoever remixed the safe-cracking scene has dialled down the music level so low that it is overpowered by the new sound effects and clock-chiming which have been added to the soundtrack. Thankfully, the original mono mix is now available for this film. Numerous other changes have been made to the 5.1 mixes on the early films such as the completely new machinegun effects added to the end of OHMSS, just so the engineer can get the sound to ricochet around someone’s lounge. Birds now chirp after the murder of Tracy – surely the sound of machinegun fire would have made them fly away! A strange noise is heard in the background as Bond walks across the lawn towards Tanaka’s house in You Only Live Twice. Is it a bird, a coyote, a werewolf?!? Who knows? It wasn’t in the original mix. Presumably this same sound engineer thought it was also a good idea to add a ‘whoosh’ sound effect to the end of the gunbarrel as it opens out onto the US spaceship in the same film. Why? No other film had or has ever had this sound effect. The opening credits of Diamonds Are Forever now have a completely different sounding cat meow in the remixed version, while the original mono track preserves the sound originally dubbed for the film. Right idea....but wrong pussy!

In summary, the image and soundtracks (where original released sound is available) are excellent. The films benefit from the upgrade to high definition and exhibit a wonderful depth and detail previously lost from the rather flat standard definition transfers. Do they look like film? Not really… on the whole the 60s films look a little too digitally scrubbed... they look clean and glossy, and frankly, like a new film that has been set in the period. A lot of the original grain has been removed and they don’t have the organic feel of a projected 35mm print. Some films, such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and Octopussy, are a huge upgrade from the standard definition version and look superb. Others don’t fare as well with the digital tinkering removing a lot of detail that would look a lot better without digital noise reduction (DNR) being liberally applied. None of the films ever looked this good in the cinema unless you were lucky to see one projected from a print struck from the original negative. I am all in favour of cleaning up films and presenting them in their best light, but not at the expense of a lot of digital revisionism that changes them from what they once were intended to be, into the default version that now perpetually exist in subsequent screenings and home cinema releases.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) Blu-ray/DVD comparison

Viewers will be pleased to hear that nearly all the faults inherent in the original Ultimate Edition DVD releases have been corrected. The red blood wash which fills the screen after the death of Quist in the shark pool in Thunderball is now present, and the overall colour palette of the film is closer to Ted Moore’s original lush Technicolor cinematography seen in release prints. You Only Live Twice also features a slightly altered colour palette but falls short of replicating Freddie Young’s saturated hues and looks a little more flat (read modern) for my taste. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has also been tweaked to tone down the blue-hued dawn beach sequence, which looked nothing like it should on the Ultimate Edition DVD version. This change, whilst not perfect, is a step in the right direction. OHMSS also retains its ‘window-boxed’ and horizontally squeezed main titles (as do Thunderball, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me and The World Is Not Enough), whereas its successor doesn’t (although it did on the UE DVD!). Diamonds Are Forever has also been tweaked and its colour scheme slightly altered from how it has looked in the past. The results are a little constrasty but nothing that would stop the most pedantic of viewers from enjoying the film. The Spy Who Loved Me (sporting a new 4K master different from that used on the Ultimate Edition DVD) and Octopussy are huge upgrades from their standard definition predecessors - with the latter looking far better than it ever did in the cinema. The rather washed-out soft look of cinema prints is replaced with an eye-popping colour palette and pin-sharp images, which I suspect are the result of digital trickery rather than something that was ingrained in the original negative.

GoldenEye (1995) Blu-ray/Ultimate Edition DVD framing issue

Another notable change is the remastering of GoldenEye, which is now correctly framed in its original 2:35:1 ratio instead of the TV version previously released, which zoomed-in on the image and cropped out a large proportion of cinematographer Phil Meheux’s compositions. Unfortunately the transfer has been subjected to an egregious amount of digital noise reduction (DNR) which removes a lot of fine detail from the image. DNR is used to smooth out the grain inherent in the film stock to maintain a more balanced image from shot-to-shot. Once again, a studio more sympathetic to the actual authentic look of the film, rather than its commercial value, would have addressed these issues instead of releasing a version that subtracts instead of adding to the high definition experience.

Unfortunately the only error not corrected is the camera-shake inserted to simulate an earth tremor in A View To A Kill. This has been mistakenly stabilised by Lowry’s software which interpreted it as an error in the film! Incidentally Duran Duran’s music video has also now been corrected. The Ultimate Edition DVD version cropped out the cameras overlaid on the image so they disappeared into the black background of the widescreen matted but full frame image!

I expect that most purchasers will be very happy with BOND 50, being oblivious (or apathetic) to how the films should look or sound in their original release form. I think they do look very good, as most Blu-rays do, I just wish a little more care had been taken in making the set uniform across all territories and including a little more in the way of new material; a complete ‘Whicker’s World’ would have been nice, or the ability to see the text-less credit titles for all of the films (this option was available on the Ultimate Edition DVDs).

In terms of extras, the vast majority of the material previously released on the Ultimate Edition DVDs has been carried over, and in some cases upgraded. The 11 films already released have John Cork’s definitive ‘Inside…[substitute film title]’ making-of documentaries upgraded to high definition. This means that the film clips are now taken from the HD master, stills were re-scanned for higher quality, and interview footage is now window-boxed in the middle of the screen with a suitable background to fill the width. Overall they do look much better and belie their age. The films new to Blu-ray, which now sport a new high definition transfer, have the making-of documentaries as they were originally presented on the Special Edition DVDs from 2000. Consequently, these now look exactly what they are: 13 year old standard definition 4:3 video features with un-restored film clips and all manner of digital artefacts. The section called Mission Control which consists of a series of very short themed film clips have now been dropped on the films new to Blu-ray, but remain on the other 11 titles so all the discs are not consistent in their menu structure. This section gave the viewer the ability to watch the credit titles without text and in high definition – a nice idea, now sadly only available on selected films. Other documentaries such as Welcome To Japan Mr. Bond (on the You Only Live Twice disc) and Swiss Movement on OHMSS, are presented in HD, which is a nice bonus, as it gives viewers the chance to see how the 1960s films looked in period before being digitally remastered. An interesting curio, but welcome nonetheless. Some trailers now appear in HD, with others looking decidedly rough. The curious absence of many teasers/trailers makes the set less than definitive. For instance, where is the original UK trailer for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or Maurice Binder’s very amusing original Moonraker teaser?

So, if you are a purist and want the definitive BOND 50 set, with original soundtracks as an option and uncut versions of all films, you’ll have to make your own. This will of course depend on your Blu-ray player's capabilities as many discs remain region locked and a good deal of research is needed before purchasing. This means buying the UK set and then adding individual discs of the films you want original soundtracks for (these are currently available individually in the US through selected retailers), or buy the US set and add the uncut Casino Royale separately... all in all a very expensive undertaking. Or you could wait until 2022 when the '60th Anniversary ultra-even-higher-definition 4D mega set' is released with the exclusive bonus disc featuring a CGI Sean Connery in OHMSS...

Cynical? Moi? At the end of the day it is all about money. They want it… will you part with it? Of course you will… but how many times?

Dr. No Blu-ray menu/BOND 50 interior design

The 22 official James Bond titles come in two book-style disc holders housed in a sturdy box containing the films 1962-1981 in one book, and 1983-2012 in the second. The interior book design is typical of the airbrushed photo-montages used on most film advertising nowadays... generic, uninspired and dull. Where is the superb 1960s and 1970s poster artwork? Why have the Bond actors been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives? The discs themselves are housed in card slots which, depending on your patience or length of your fingernails, are either easy or impossible to remove. Perhaps a free pair of plastic tweezers is the answer!

Also included are two free coasters.

One of the coasters in the set is made of card and resides in the space reserved for Skyfall, so you can slot that film in when it is released on Blu-ray in March 2013. Nice idea but what are we supposed to do with the case that Skyfall comes in…throw it away? What if Skyfall is a 2-disc set?

The other coaster is a so-called ‘exclusive bonus Blu-ray disc’. It contains:

  • World of Bond: Title Sequences (1080p, 1:02:32): The ability to watch all 22 titles sequences as standalone items or as a continuous one-hour feature. Why? If these had been the text-less versions included on 9 of the earlier releases this would have been a nice addition. As it stands probably something you will watch once… if at all!

  • World of Bond: Gadgets (1080p, 3:03): A nicely edited montage of themed clips from the films.

  • World of Bond: Villains (1080p, 2:22): Another nicely edited montage of themed clips from the films.

  • World of Bond: Bond Girls (1080p, 1:24): Surprise, surprise... yet another nicely edited montage of themed clips from the films.

  • World of Bond: Locations (1080p, 1:40): Guess what? Another nicely edited montage of themed clips from the films.

  • World of Bond: Bond in Motion (1080p, 1:43): Cars and boats and planes… in a nicely edited montage of themed clips from the films…

  • Skyfall Videoblogs (1080p, 10:51): All the videoblogs for the upcoming Skyfall which have already been released on-line. Includes Skyfall: Behind the Scenes, Sam Mendes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Production Update from Shanghai, Dennis Gassner Takes Us Inside the Look of Skyfall, and Jany Temime on Dressing 007 for Action.

  • Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style (1080p, 4:01): Curator Bronwyn Cosgrave guides us through Designing 007, a retrospective exhibition held recently at The Barbican in London looking at all 23 Bond films from a design perspective. Also includes interviews with a few Bond alumni and more film clips.

  • Being Bond (1080p, 3:08): All six James Bond actors comment on their time in the role. Sourced from vintage interviews all available elsewhere in the special features on respective films.

With the exception of the text-less main title sequences on the 9 new to Blu-ray discs, and the several features on Casino Royale, all extras from previous editions have been carried over – with some now in HD or corrected from earlier versions. Die Another Day is still missing much of the supplemental material available only on the original 2-disc DVD edition. Personally I would rather have watched this than the film itself!

BOND 50 should have been the definitive box set containing all previously released material – high quality original soundtrack options and some tantalising exclusive new features. As it is, BOND 50 is a compromised set of films – some looking wonderful, some less so, and a collection of old documentaries not upgraded to high definition. It is not uniform across all titles so therefore falls way short of being a ‘must buy’. I suppose in the final outcome it all depends on how much of a Bond fan you are, and how much you are willing to spend.

Oscar-Winning sound editor Norman Wanstall

Exclusive comments from Oscar-Winning sound editor Norman Wanstall
I guess it was inevitable that I would read Kevin Harper’s article with a mixture of interest and disillusionment, although I admit to previously being contacted by a dedicated Bond fan who complained that the sound-effects on one of my early Bonds had been conspicuously tampered with. I assumed at the time that it was an isolated incident rather than an indication of future developments, but I was more than impressed that a Bond aficionado would be perceptive enough to detect any deviation from the original soundtrack. Quite by chance a recent opportunity to view the BOND 50 version of Goldfinger revealed to me the reality of the practise Kevin has described. I was even more shocked by a scene in Thunderball where the refined sound of the door opening to reveal SPECTRE’s conference room had been replaced by a heavy rumbling noise that was totally inappropriate for the scene in question, although I understand this has now thankfully been replaced with the original sound-effects on the BOND 50 Blu-ray sets. When one considers the dedication and creative team-work involved in producing a movie soundtrack it seems inconceivable that anonymous bit-players can re-vamp at will, regardless of whether the result is retrograde. Apart from the concerns of those who created the original tracks one can imagine the reaction of the dedicated Bond fans who have memorised every aspect of their beloved movies by heart. Even though one can be treated to the additional original soundtrack by acquiring the US BOND 50 set, it seems inevitable that countless viewers will settle for the re-vamped version, which is not good news for those who were originally at the helm. It’s a sign of the times. What more can one say?


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