Popatopolis, The Jim Wynorski Story Is Terrific!

Guys, guys!  If you haven't seen Popatopolis yet, the 2009 documentary about B-movie director Jim Wynorski, you must.  It's so good.  And listen, I didn't rush to see it either.  It popped up on my radar because, as you can tell from this site, I'm pretty big into cult films and documentaries.  But I wouldn't call myself a Jim Wynorski fan.  I'm a Chopping Mall fan, and there are elements I appreciate from a few of his other films... Everybody should probably watch Lost Empire once in their lives.  But usually, honestly, seeing Wynorski's name attached to a project means not for me.  It means renting Evil Toons and finding out the evil cartoons have about ten seconds of screen-time in the whole movie.  It means cynical, direct-to-cable TV softcore porn with titles like Busty Cops & The Bare Wench Project (not to be confused with The Erotic Witch Project), and bewildering, unconnected sequels to franchises that weren't so great in the first place.  I mean, who knew the Ghoulies franchise could sink so much farther than it started out?
Plus the title (if you don't get it, just read the "let's pop some tops" quote from Wynorski plastered right across the top of the poster), trailer and even the film's opening scenes make it look kind of a like a cheap, misogynistic exercise, inviting us to laugh at the airhead babes of Hollywood B-movies.  From the very beginning where Jim repeatedly calls an actress auditioning for a role in his latest "erotic thriller" stupid for showing up late and neglecting to bring a resume, to him showing off the Howard Stern books in his pantry, I was buckled in for a fairly sleazy experience.  But this film is really an insightful, compelling piece of filmmaking.
This film really comes at us from two angles.  One half is an immediate documentary of Wynorski making his latest feature (at the time), The Witches of Breastwick, which he is determined to complete in three days.  The documentarians are on set the whole time, and it's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a level of filmmaking that we don't usually (ever?) get to see.  This is very far removed from the 4-hour Prometheus blu-ray doc.  As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong shooting a feature in three days with plenty of nudity out in the woods, and we get a very funny, thorough first-hand perspective of that experience.  Even if The Witches of Breastwick is the last sort of film you'd ever find yourself watching, the 'making of' is an entirely different, fascinating experience.
And that's just one half of what's on offer here.  The other is a career-spanning retrospective of Wynorski, with clips from his biggest films, interviews with his biggest peers and collaborators from Andy Sidaris to Julie Strain to Roger Corman, and even a visit to his mother's house.  Popatopolis does a great job in finding the joy in his body of work and unraveling the layers of an ultimately charming curmudgeon who clearly loves film and takes pride in doing the best he can with the dwindling budgets he's given to work with.  There's some sad discussion about the death of roles for softcore B-movie actresses who are being replaced by hardcore pornstars that don't have a problem doing whatever they're asked.
And that brings up another great strength of this picture.  This is no puff piece.  I mean, sure the cast and crew complain about the hardships and stress they're under making a film in three days.  In a scene where several of the actresses are reading over the script, Monique Parent comments that the man who wrote this clearly hates women.  And Julie K. Smith replies, yeah, when they start drinking "the anger comes out," later pointing out where the stage directions refer to her as "the cow."  But beyond just those candid little moments, people like Smith and Corman really open up about their long histories working with Wynorski, and the disappointments he's had in his career.  Corman talks about the popular "I'm sick of all these Jim Wynorski movies" reaction his films were getting in the 90s.  It's certainly an affectionate look, and you'll probably come out of this liking Wynorski more than you did going in, but it's far more honest than your usual DVD documentary where everyone answers softball questions and calls each other brilliant.  In Popatopolis, Jim calls everybody stupid.
So, the 2009 DVD from Imaginaut isn't the most amazing PQ to look at, but I imagine it's about as good as the film can be presented.  During the film we watch Jim shoot his film with an old HD camcorder on DV tapes, and we know the filmmakers are using smaller cameras.  So I think the image is what it is and that's why there's no blu-ray version.  Still, it's a fine DVD presentation: anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with no interlacing or other issues.  This is just a micro-budget 2009 digital film, this DVD is probably exactly the same image that they screened at festivals.  Some shots would've certainly looked nicer with a more modern camera to add more detail and gloss, and as an often impromptu documentary, sometimes the lighting was just whatever they could grab in the moment.  But even on my large screen TV, it still looked fine.  It even has a 5.1 mix with optional English and Portuguese subtitles.  Care was taken to do this release right.
And that's especially evident in the special features.  You're really going to want to pick up the DVD as opposed to just catching this on some streaming site.  First of all, there are two audio commentaries.  One in by the filmmaking team, and it's pretty solid; they're certainly in good spirits.  Also in good spirits are actresses Monique Parent and Antonia Dorian, but their commentary is very skippable.  They have little to say, leaving long stretches of silence or simply laughing at the film, and it also doesn't help that their commentary is mixed so low that it's often very hard to hear them over the sound of the film "in the background."

But more importantly than either commentary are the deleted scenes.  There's some great stuff in here, including interviews with some people who never even made it into the finished film.  There's also a festival talk where Jim goes into some great stories working on his biggest films, and during the Deathstalker 2 clip, we suddenly cut to a whole exclusive interview with its star John Terlesky, which is exclusive to just that deleted scene.  And there are more deleted scenes tucked away as easter eggs, which are also great (Julie Strain takes you on a tour of her house, dances for us, and talks to her maid who once cameo'd in a Wynorski film), so you should definitely hunt those down, too.  Finally, there's the trailer and a cute Chopping Mall-related video where a remote controlled killbot travels around the UK promoting an upcoming screening.
Now, you might've already taken a look and been disappointed that Popatopolis seems to be out of print and selling for $50 (as of this writing at least) on Amazon.  Happily though, this DVD is still available brand new from the film's official website popatopolis.com for just $14.99.  I was a little worried it might be a long abandoned deal, like the I Don't Know Jack DVD offer on jacknance.com, but I took a gamble and ordered it myself just a couple weeks ago, so I'm happy to report they're still fully operational.  They even threw in an autographed postcard.  I really can't imagine any of you guys who've found yourselves on this site not appreciating this one.  I would honestly rate this even higher than Electric Boogaloo or other, recent popular docs along these lines.

The Impossible Quest for a Proper Tabloid (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Collecting DVDs shouldn't be this hard.  Tabloid is a fairly recent Errol Morris documentary, that first debuted on DVD in 2011 from IFC Films.  It's super entertaining.  But here's the thing: the DVD itself?  It's not so great.  So I decided to try my hand at importing, and it turns out, with this title at least, you just can't win.

But you can at least do better than the US DVD.
It goes without saying that an Errol Morris documentary is a great documentary; but in recent years, he's been doing a lot of very serious, sometimes rather depressing, war films.  However, as Morris put it in his director's statement, "Tabloid is a return to my favorite genre - sick, sad and funny."  It's a completely crazy story about a beauty queen who fell in love with a Mormon, hired a pilot and a couple of heavies to sneak into the UK, kidnap him at gunpoint for a weekend of love-making and then smuggle him out of the country.  And there's no way you'd guess all the crazy turns this true story takes.  I certainly won't spoil it for you here, but it's a real "you can't make these things up" kind of show.
The only release we have of this film in the US is that 2011 IFC Films DVD.  I had it pre-ordered well before it came out, but after being disappointed by the disc, I figured there had to be something better in another region.  2012 saw new DVDs in the UK and Australia, so I went with Dogwoof's UK disc, because it promised a unique set of extras.  It was an improvement but still a disappointment, so later on I put out the feelers for another search.  Surely a recent film this good has to be available in HD, right?  And sure enough, there was a 2013 blu-ray released in the Netherlands from Remains In Light (yes, that's the company's name) that even seemed to include the UK special features.  Perfect, right?  Third time's the charm?  Nope.  Here's why.
2011 US DVD top; 2012 UK DVD mid; 2013 NL blu bottom.
Gah!  Look at the interlacing in that first pic!  How does that happen on a modern day release from a legit, mainstream studio?  The answer, of course: it doesn't.  Clearly the devil had to have been involved.  Moving down to Dogwoof's UK disc and thankfully that's fixed.  It's decidedly darker (look at the "Manacled Mormon" block in the second shots), with some slightly crushed blacks; but otherwise it's not too bad. But that's alright, the blu-ray should be the best of both worlds and take care of all of those issues, plus boost us up to a crisper HD image, right?  And it does.  It's pretty great, except... what?  It's in the completely wrong aspect ratio.  The DVDs are in their original, very wide 2.40:1 ratio, but the blu-ray, well, it claims to be 1.85:1 on the case, but is even wrong about that, coming in at 1.78:1.  It's a bit of a split, partially opening up the mattes to give us more vertical information, yet also cutting off some of the sides.

Audio-wise, the US DVD comes through alright, giving us a solid 5.1 mix with optional English and Spanish subs.  Dogwoof gives us the same, minus any subtitle option.  Remains In Light gives us two audio tracks, Dolby 5.1 and DTS-HD 5.1, both in English, so that's nice.  Their only subtitle options are Dutch and French, though.
So let's talk special features.  The US DVD has nothing but the trailer, which is another reason why I was so keen to search elsewhere.  The UK DVD promises multiple things, as you can still see on the label's official and the back of the case, including:
* Trailer
* Director Statement
* Deleted Scenes
* Extended Interviews
* Additional Trailers
But that's pretty misleading.  The director's statement is just a short bit of text written on the inside of the case, not an on-disc extra of any kind, and the deleted scenes and extended interviews are both referring to the same brief things.  There are four (total) deleted scenes, which are extra little clips from the interviews. The DVD packaging says the extras are "15 min. approx," but they must be including all the bonus trailers and ads, because it really totals five and a half minutes, generously eight including the film's trailer.  I don't know if maybe the DVD was originally going to have more extras that got pulled at the last minute, and just wound up in the disc's notes, or if Dogwoof was deliberately trying to trick buyers into thinking they had more substantial features than they actually did, but either way it's kind of a bummer.
deleted scene
With that said, though, a few extras beat no extras; and I'm always happy to see deleted scenes from Errol Morris films.  The ones included on Standard Operating Procedure and the First Person solo episode DVD were amazing.  These, well, one is quite compelling, but the other three don't add much at all.  I'm glad to have them, though.  And yes, these four extra scenes are also included on the blu, as is the trailer and some more bonus trailers.  I should also point out that the Dogwoof DVD comes in a slim case made entirely of recycled materials.  The design's alright, but it doesn't look too pretty spine-out on a shelf.
Remain In Light's disc is the only blu-ray release of Tabloid in the world, so basically you have to choose.  Which one is going to bother you less: watching this film in SD instead of HD, or watching it in the wrong aspect ratio?  Whatever your answer to that question is will determine whether the Dogwoof or Remain In Light disc is the right one for you.  Whatever you do, though, don't get the US DVD from IFC Films.  That's the worst.

How To Take the Ultimate Vacation (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

Alright, four horror films in a row, including the infamous "video nasty" Anthropophagus and possibly the most mean-spirited Texas Chainsaw Massacre flick of all.  We've gotta lighten the mood.  How about one of the most beloved American family comedies of all-time?  I've been meaning to tackle this one for a long time, actually, because the extras situation is frustrating, and I'm not sure how many fans even realize.  And any opportunity to drag people down into my frustration and annoyance is an absolute must, right?  But seriously, there's some compelling info about this title and its many editions that doesn't get discussed, so I wanted to spread the word.
Of course, for a "family comedy" - one written by John Hughes at that - Harold Ramis's Vacation sure is R-rated.  Must be the National Lampoon influence.  They later softened up the sequels to PG, but this original film has an edge.  Granted, the remake went back to R; but the only funny thing about that film was the younger son's insane, terroristic relationship with his older brother.  The original, on the other hand, works on so many different levels at the same time.  On the one hand, it is that sentimental, Hughes comedy about family, but it also gets pretty dark, undercutting any mainstream schmaltz with harsh comic reality at almost every turn.  Vacation gives us one of Chevy Chase's greatest comic performances, if not his literal all-time greatest, while also pulling together a terrific ensemble of supporting players including Beverly D'Angelo in her quintessential role, John Candy, Imogene Coca, Eugene Levy, old Hollywood star Eddie Bracken, Brian-Doyle Murray, a very young Jane Krakowsi, and of course Randy Quaid.  It's got an unforgettable soundtrack (despite Warner Bros being too cheap to keep paying for "I'm So Excited" over the years) with an iconic theme song and one scene after another that's forever embedded in a generation's memory.
Naturally, Warner Bros has put out Vacation a number of times, starting with a barebones fullscreen DVD in 1997.  But there was a much more compelling 20th Anniversary Special Edition released in 2003 (and also included in the 2003 Ultimate Vacation Collection boxed set), that's still relevant to this day.  It was alternatively bundled up with Police Academy, as well as released as a 2-disc set with European Vacation in 2006, then the Ultimate box and the double feature were both reissued with new art in 2009.  2010 then saw us the first version since the 2003 20th Anniversary that we actually got a different disc and not just a repackaging, because that's when Warner first released the film on blu.  But curiously, they took a step backwards in the extras department, losing some stuff.  There was also a DVD edition of that version, naturally, and in 2011, there was a National Lampoon's Vacation Collection which included just parts 1, 2 and 4 on DVD, which seems a little odd.  And a "Bromantic Comedies" DVD which included the first two Vacation movies and a can cooler... even though I don't see how either Vacation film qualifies as bromantic.

If nothing else, we get a sense of this movie's popularity just because it's apparently profitable for Warner to keep reissuing the same disc over and over again with variant, tacky packaging.  They just keep selling; and this doesn't even include the dozens of other Vacation discs Warner has released in every other region around the world.  Meanwhile, Looking for Mr. Goodbar can't get a single DVD in the history of the format.  It was nominated for two Oscars for chrissakes.  Anyway, refocusing, Warner even included Vacation in a couple of 4 and 5 Film Favorite DVD collections as recently 2016, but at this point the blus are of much more interest.  So after the original 2010 DVD, it was re-released on blu in 2013 as the 30th Anniversary Edition, with an all-new "featurette."  That edition was also included in a 2014 3-disc set with European Vacation and Planes Trains and Automobiles.  So out of all those releases, the two versions to care about are the 20th Anniversary DVD and 30th blu-ray.  We'll take a look at those, plus the original 2010 blu-ray.
2003 WB DVD top; 2010 WB blu-ray middle; 2013 WB blu-ray bottom.
All three discs feature a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, despite the blu-ray cases claiming 1.85:1.  Still, the framings of the DVD and blu-rays are not exactly the same.  The DVD is a little zoomed in, with the blus displaying a little extra picture information along all four sides.  The DVD also has a slightly redder push.  Looking at little Anthony Michael Hall in the first set of comparisons; I'd say I prefer the blus colors.  The DVD also has a little haloing and natural SD smudginess that I'm happy to see cleared up on the blus.  But the two blus themselves are essentially identical; they're clearly using the same transfer.

All three discs feature the original mono track, in DTS-HD on the blus, with optional English subtitles.  And as usual with Warner Bros, they also include a number of foreign language options.  The DVD throws in both French, Spanish and Portuguese dubs and sets of subtitles.  But what's a little bit interesting is that the 30th Anniversary blu has more language options than the 2010 edition.  2010 has French and Spanish dubs and subs, while the 2013 has Spanish, Castillian and German dubs, plus Castillian, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish subtitles.  But who cares about foreign dubs, let's get to the important difference between the blu-ray editions.
The 20th Anniversary DVD came up with a pretty strong, if decidedly imperfect, selection of extras.  The biggest selling point is the packed audio commentary by Harold Ramis with, producer Matty Simmons, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron and Randy Quaid.  They do a great job walking the line of having fun with all those people cracking jokes but still being informative.  The only thing is that they mention deleted scenes in the commentary that they say will be on the DVD but aren't, and to this day have never been released.  But okay, let's stick with what else we do get.  There's a brief video introduction to the film by with Chase, Quaid and Simmons kidding around, the theatrical trailer and a "Family Truckster Featurette Gallery."  We've go to talk about that.
So it's kind of a big collection of easter eggs.  You click around the image of this car and get different, short video clips.  For example, if you click on the front bumper, you get a brief interview with Dana Barron talking about why she didn't appear in the sequel, or if you click on the front tire, you get an interview with Christie Brinkley.  If you click on the front windshield, it takes you inside the car where you get another layout of the radio, and clicking each station button gives you more little videos.  Now, these videos really range in quality.  One of them is a great little featurette with Matty Simmons and stunt coordinator/ driver Dick Ziker talking about the famous station wagon.  But then clicking on the roof rack just brings up a montage of Aunt Edna gags from the film with no new footage.  One radio button just gives you a clip of Brinkley introducing the 20th Anniversary, apparently an alternative they would've used to the film intro if they couldn't get Chevy.  There are also three outtakes from that video recording with Chevy joking around, Sana Barron introducing a clip of the family singing in the car, and a featurette where Brinkley and Simmons talk about the hotel dinner scene.

I can see why they left it off later editions as-is.  The novelty/ chore of clicking around hunting for easter eggs has gone out of fashion, and while some of the clips are great, and feature interviews with people who weren't included on any of the other extras, others are pretty worthless, like the clips from the film.  Plus, most of them are really short, and they don't exactly cut together into a cohesive documentary.  But it's really a shame to see some of them go, and they could've at least strung the more substantive interviews into a single featurette for future editions.  It's even got its own IMDB entry as if that had been the case.  But nope, they just scrapped it all.
So the 2010 blu-ray is just a straight step backwards.  They have the commentary and the introduction, but that's it.  Yup, they even lost the trailer.  That's just straight-up lazy in my opinion.  But the 30th Anniversary Edition, while still not restoring the Truckster stuff, coughs up something new.  First of all, they recover the trailer, which is a good start.  But the important thing is "Featurette: Inside Story: National Lampoon's Vacation."  On the plus side, this "featurette" is almost 90 minutes long, and includes interviews with just about everybody, from the main stars to the crew and supporting cast who have been left out of the other special features.  But in the minus column, this isn't something new or original, this is an episode of Biography's regular Inside Story series, full of commercial breaks and "coming up next" bumpers.  So it's full of great interviews and content, but it's horribly edited to the point of being seriously annoying, playing the same soundbites over and over.  But at the end of the day, despite the problems, it's well worth having.  But it's the only new thing we get for this fancy new Anniversary Edition.
Ultimately, we fans still can't get rid of our 20th Anniversary DVDs (which comes in an ugly snapper crapper case, but at least has the terrific poster art, instead of the photoshop abominations on the blus).  And even if you kept that and double-dipped on the original blu-ray with the new one for the television special, it still feels like kind of a light special edition for a such a classic, beloved film.  Where are those deleted scenes?  How about some original retrospective content as opposed to the awfully edited television piece?  Or at least cut out all of the bumpers and constant repetition from that.  But on a more positive note, both the 20th and 30th Anniversary editions can be had for pretty cheap (WB knew their double-dip was a slim upgrade), and for all its flaws, there are a lot of funny anecdotes, memories and serious insight into the making of this film, so long as you know to get the right editions. And if this was the worst treatment any film got in the home video market, we'd be in a pretty happy place.