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    Fearless

    Warner Bros./Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 122 mins . M15+ . NTSC

      Feature
    Contract

    The best things come to those who wait, or so they say. And certainly fans of Australian director Peter Weir’s work have had to learn the fine art of patience, particularly in recent years. Having built up a solid reputation at home during the tail end of the '70s with The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Weir kicked off the '80s with the remarkable Gallipoli and then started looking further afield, quickly gaining himself American success with Witness and The Mosquito Coast, both starring Harrison Ford. And then came Dead Poets Society, a massive hit that put Peter Weir onto the directing A-list and gave him the chance to make the gentle romantic comedy Green Card (also a hit). Since then, though, Weir’s only made two films. One of them, 1998’s The Truman Show, was a global success. Its predecessor, though, was 1993’s Fearless, which was a rare relative flop in box office terms. Don’t think for a second that means the film isn’t up to much, though. Quite the opposite - Fearless is, in fact, one of Peter Weir’s best films to date.

    Through a smoke-filled field of tall corn, a man walks purposefully, a baby in his arm and a young child clutching his hand. The child looks dazed and, as he looks around, we see there are other people wandering through this jungle as well, also in a trance-like state. When they finally find their way out of the cornfield, what’s just happened becomes clear - a plane has crashed and exploded, and these people are the survivors. The man is Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) and as he calmly surveys the scene of the crash and comforts passengers there is a clear sense of detachment about him. Max takes a cab to a nearby hotel and then heads off for a day or two to “revisit his past”, all the time possessed by an almost eerie serenity that belies the trauma he has just been through. He cannot lie, he can no longer play the games people play in order to navigate “normal” life - having accepted that he is not afraid of death, he has no fear at all. Eventually found and reunited with his family, Max is persuaded to meet with another crash survivor, a woman named Carla (Rosie Perez) who lost her infant son as the plane hit. He helps her to slowly rebuild her life… but Max, meanwhile, seems to have completely retreated from his.

    Weir’s beautiful, poetic and ethereal film is based on a novel by Rafael Yglesias, who also wrote the screenplay and appears to have been inspired by a real-life crash some years ago where survivors were found in similar circumstances. Many films and TV dramas have dealt with the subjects found here; the cataclysm and raw terror of a plane crash, the impossible grieving and guilt that follows a personal disaster, the very question of the point of life itself. But rarely are such subjects handled with such grace, genuine emotion and dramatic honesty. It’s a straightforward enough story, but two hours inside the head and emotions of Max Klein is a devastatingly visceral experience; it’s a rare person indeed that won’t genuinely feel when watching this film.

    The cast is flawless. Jeff Bridges, absolutely perfect for the part, plays Max with such depth, sensitivity and passion that you forget you’re watching an actor whose face you’ve known for years; the character he creates redefines him. Supporting him is a first-rate group of actors - Rosie Perez gets her character’s emotional rollercoaster exactly right, Tom Hulce is magnificently leery as a money-hungry lawyer, John Turturro typically three-dimensional as an airline-hired psychologist and Isabella Rossellini gives Max’s earlier life a home base that we can see. Keep an eye out for Benicio Del Toro, too - this was one of his earliest films.

    Weir puts the whole thing together as though it were a long audio-visual poem, taking his time over the little things that matter and leaving the bigger stuff from the wider world to be stated by implication. Allen Daviau’s expressive cinematography is impressive enough, but the use of audio throughout is absolutely stunning. So many things are conveyed by the sound mix here - subtly, for the most part, but crucially. A sudden absence of sound is critical to the success of several scenes, while the constant use of music (both original score and classical) is anything but mere background noise. Indeed, the long final sequence and end credits are soundtracked, extremely effectively, by a big slab of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 that says as much as the actors do.

    Peter Weir is due to make a long-awaited return to cinemas this year with Master and Commander, which hopefully will continue his apparent policy of making fascinating, well-crafted and durable movies. Fearless, though, is certain to be remembered as one of the best of his career. Critically lauded but publicly underrated at the time of its release, it plays every bit as well (if not better) a decade later. A modern classic.

      Video
    Contract

    Well, the good news is that after all this time, Fearless is out on DVD in Australia. The bad news is that, after we’ve waited nearly four years since a disc showed up in the US, this new local release is not the salvation we’d been hoping for. This release is far from being the fresh transfer that the film sorely needs. It is, in fact, the exact same DVD that came out in the US in 1999 (the raw video files on the disc still bear their March ’99 creation date), a budget title that presents the film in 4:3 pan-and-scan via a video transfer that dates back to the analogue age - and which is in the NTSC format, which creates the usual judder problems but at least allows the music-heavy audio to play at the correct speed and pitch...!

    Fearless, according to cinematographer Allen Daviau, was shot hard-matted to 1.66:1 in the camera but with both 1.66:1 (Europe) and 1.85:1 (US/Australia) projection in mind. What is presented here is an image that appears to retain the full height of this hard-matted negative, but in order to do so in a 4:3 format the sides of the image have been chopped off. Now, the difference between the two ratios is not as great as you might imagine and little of critical importance has been lost from the sides of the picture. But Weir and Daviau’s shot composition is ruined, and the picture sometimes feels cramped - all for the sake of avoiding the “black bars” that terrify suburbia so. The US laserdisc of this film used a different 1.85:1 transfer that was probably done at the same time; in some ways this would have been a better option for the DVD, though it still would not have been 16:9 enhanced and would have cropped the top and bottom of the image more than necessary.

    In the case of this film, the main visual problem isn’t the aspect ratio anyway. It’s the age of the video transfer. Done way, way back in 1993/94 (a millennium ago in technical terms) this was a perfectly competent transfer in its day. But its day has gone, and now we see the “gauze”, the grain and the assorted other visual gremlins clearer than we ever could before. Colour resolution is solid enough for a transfer of this vintage, and it’s perfectly watchable as long as you don’t expect modern-day clarity and crispness; black levels are good, detail is reasonable and aside from a few spots of shakiness the image is very stable. Ten years ago this would have been rated as a gobsmackingly lovely transfer for home video. Though the 122-minute film is crammed onto a single layer there are few (if any) problems with MPEG compression.

    But Fearless needs - no, it deserves - a state-of-the-art transfer for DVD, and we’d rather have seen it as a full-priced disc with a brilliant new video image, instead of the budget-tagged and budget-assembled half-arsed afterthought that this is.

    Ironically, the film’s so good that you can actually forgive the transfer its faults for much of the running time. But just imagine if this was done with today’s equipment…

      Audio
    Contract

    Phil Judd’s excellent Dolby Surround audio mix is faithfully reproduced on this DVD, with the surround flag correctly set (and no, he’s not the same Phil Judd that used to be in Split Enz, in case you were wondering!) While constrained a little by the limitations of both the technology in use in the early '90s and the tendency even then for non-digital films to be targeted at “run of the mill” cinemas, there’s a great sense of dynamic range and subtlety here. Tape hiss is a problem early on, but settles down after a while; surround use is subtle, as is typical of matrix mixes, but decidedly effective.

    We’d have loved to have seen a discrete 4-channel version of this surround soundtrack, but that would have meant Warner would have had to make an effort…!

      Extras
    Contract

    There are no extras at all. Not even a trailer. Hell, not even subtitles…

      Overall  
    Contract

    Okay, you can pick this one up for as little as $15, but I’m willing to bet that there’s not a single fan of this film that wouldn’t rather have had a new transfer and a disc with some attention paid to it, even at more than double the cost. Fearless is a treasure of the Warner Brothers back catalogue, a brilliant film that will eventually find its place as one of the jewels of cinema history. When it does, let’s hope someone’s kept useable negatives around so we get to see it the way it deserves to be seen. In the meantime, grab this cheapie pan-and-scan version, sink into the story and ignore the inferior technology. You’ll be glad you did.


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      And I quote...
    "...beautiful, poetic and ethereal... the film’s so good that you can actually forgive the transfer its faults for much of the running time"
    - Anthony Horan
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