Titled Woody Allen Project 2016: Café Society (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Once again, it's that time of year... the new Woody Allen is here!  It's a great, reliable traditional.  Each summer we get a new Woody Allen film in theaters, and each Fall/ early Winter, we get it on DVD and blu-ray.  Even this year, when he paused production to write and direct a (quite good!) mini-series for Amazon "television," he still delivered another top quality film right on time.  And just to bring home how impressively consistent this is, Allen hasn't missed his one-film-a-year schedule since 1976!  And you bet, "Untitled Woody Allen Project 2017" is already listed on the imdb as filming, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  What's our movie for 2016?  Café Society!
So let's start by answering what we all want to know about a new Woody Allen picture?  Is he starring in it?  No, though he does narrate.  Instead we have Jesse Eisenberg (To Rome With Love) essentially in the Woody role.  He starts definitely giving a Woody-like performance, though the character evolves into something I don't think Allen could really play as the film progresses.  In our story, Eisenberg leaves Manhattan for California with dreams of hitting it big in late 1930s Hollywood.  That's not as unrealistic a goal as it might seem, because his uncle, Steve Carell (in a role originally cast with Bruce Willis, who got replaced), is a big shot film agent.  So he gets a job doing small jobs for his uncle and swiftly falls in love with his secretary, Kristen Stewart, not knowing that she's having a secret affair with Carell.  When she chooses Carell over him, he moves back to New York to go into the nightclub business with his gangster brother and Blake Lively.  But of course you know their paths will cross again...
This is a beautiful looking film, shot by the Academy Award winning DP of Reds and Apocalypse Now, Vittorio Storaro, and full of long, sharp tracking shots.  This is a great cast, also including Parker Posey and a cameo by Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee.  Even Stewart, though not exactly a surprising scene stealer, was more than capable and certainly superior to her time in those Twilight movies.  The old Hollywood stuff lends itself to some nice moments and costumes, but this movie doesn't get caught up in tribute like Midnight In Paris; it's just focused on the effective, if familiar, story.  You've seen all these themes in Allen's work before; but it's still an excellent execution.
I was a little worried that Amazon acquiring Allen's latest film for distribution meant it would be trapped in streaming-only limbo or something, or just an MOD thing like they did with Wiener-Dog.  But no, they promptly issued DVD and blu-ray releases through Lions Gate.  In fact, the blu is a combo-pack, so I can give us an SD/ HD comparison, too.
2016 Lions Gate DVD on top; 2016 Lions Gate blu-ray on bottom.
2016 Lions Gate DVD left; 2016 Lions Gate blu-ray right.
Let Allen start shooting digitally, and he gives us a film in 2.00:1.  Unusual, but the compositions look great, so no complaints.  And the image quality looks terrific in HD, with lots of excellent detail and color.  It's sharp and looks filmic except for the lack of grain.  In SD, though, you get a lot of compression smudginess and you lose a lot of small detail.  If you're a viewer who only sometimes springs for blu-ray and other times still picks up DVDs to save a few bucks, you'll find it's worth the extra cost on this one.  Audio is a nice 5.1 mix in DTS-HD on the blu, and we're given English, English HOH and Spanish subtitle options.
It tells you how starved we've become for extras on Woody Allen releases that I'm actually excited for the tiny little promo featurette they've started including on Allen's last couple releases.  This one is the shortest yet, clocking in at two minutes and thirteen seconds.  At least it's not padded with film clips!  It's just very brief interview clips with Posey, Stewart and Lively on the red carpet before the film's premiere.  There's also a stills gallery of promotional and behind-the-scenes photos.  No trailer.  It does come in a nice slip cover, though.
Lions Gate has given us an excellent release of a very good film.  Sure it's light on extras, but it's Woody Allen; that's par for the course.  So besides that, there's not much more you could ask for than what we've got.  Now, hopefully they'll give us a physical release of Crisis In Six Scenes.  If not, I'll see you all here next year for Untitled Woody Allen Project 2017.

What To Get the Errol Morris Fan Who Has Everything: First Person

Errol Morris's First Person is probably my all-time favorite television series, so naturally I'm going to cover the DVD set from MGM.  But if you're at all interested in documentary films, you're probably at least familiar with it already.  So I also want to dig a little deeper, because there's also a much more obscure, slightly older First Person DVD self-released by Morris's own company, Globe Department Store, that has an extra treat for the really serious fan.
First Person is an interview-focused documentary series that plays just like Errol Morris's later films.  In fact, the only reason why The Unknown Known or Fog of War couldn't have fit right into the series as additional episodes is that they have longer run times.  Sure, in his earlier films he tended to go out on locations and talk to a ton of people.  But since he created the Interrotron, he's definitely moved into a style of singular, concentrated and, well, first person interviews.  And the show also incorporates his usual editing style of cutting between multiple angles of the interviewee, often looking directly into camera, with silent clips of vintage film footage and occasional cut-aways played to music.
Errol's certainly mastered his presentation, but what makes these episodes so fascinating and endlessly rewatchable are the interviews themselves.  Some are a little famous, but more often than not he finds the most compelling people you've never heard of.  But it doesn't matter; by this time I've learned if Morris wants to talk to them, you're going to want to hear what makes them tick.  A psychologist who used to write letters to the unabomber, a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire contestant who forged his personal records so he could go back to high school a second time, a cryogenic scientist (a known passion; he's been trying to make a movie on the subject for many years) who froze his mother's head.  Things definitely tend to veer into the odd side, but it's never a freak show; it's just interesting people who are going through life a little bit differently than the rest of us.
So First Person ran from 2000-2002 on Bravo/ IFC, and for several years, we were calling out for a DVD release with no response insight.  And remember this was in the heyday of the DVD era, not like today, where many shows don't get physical releases.  Finally, in 2004, Morris took matters into his own hands and released a single episode (One In a Milliontrillion) through his own company, Globe Department Store.  This was to show labels how successful it could be, and apparently it was enough, because in the following year, MGM released the full series in a 3-disc set.
Ugh.  These came out in 2004 and 2005, but they look like they're from 1998 and 1999.  Non-anamorphic widescreen, interlaced, soft and full of artifacts.  The aspect ratio shifts between seasons, from 1.63:1 to 1.77:1, and it doesn't get any more anamorphic in the second season.  The Globe and MGM discs look basically the same and share all the same issues, except the blacks are a little light on the Globe disc, one minor thing MGM fixed, at least.  Both have strong stereo tracks and no subtitle options.
Bonus scene only on the Globe Department Store DVD
So why should anyone care about the Globe Department disc if it's just one episode that's already in the set, where it actually looks slightly better?  Just to have a collector's item?  No, because the MGM set is completely barebones.  Like, not even chapter breaks.  And, each disc in the set starts with that awful "YOU WOULDN'T STEAL A CAR, WOULD YOU?" commercial.  Really, the discs are so poor, it's like MGM made them out of spite.  But the Globe disc does have extras, at least a little.  And it's quality stuff; not like some generic promo feature.  There's 11 minutes of additional footage from the episode.  And it's really interesting, just as good as anything that's in the final cut.  Clearly this stuff was cut for time because of television's rigid time slots, not because of content.  If you loved the episode, you definitely want to see this footage.  Oh and yes, the Globe disc has chapter breaks and no "CAR" commercial.  Oh, and both releases do include inserts, if those even blips on anyone's radar.
First Person is the most criminally underrated show ever.  The MGM discs suck, an especially poor show from a major studio, but they're still essential by virtue of being the best we've got of an amazing series.  And if you're a fan, there is an amazon listing for that Globe Department DVD, and it's surprisingly still reasonably priced all these years later.  I think just because nobody really even knows about them.  Oh, and just for the record, there is one episode of the series (Mr. Personality) included on MGM's DVD of The Thin Blue Line as like a bonus feature, but that episode's in the set and is just as non-anamorphic and crappy looking there.  Maybe we could talk Criterion into taking these on?  Restoring these in HD would be a huge difference, we know Morris could provide some great interviews for extras, and if every episode has extra footage like One In a Milliontrillion, oh man; it could be one of their top releases!

Lions Gate Just Got Serious About Waxwork 1 and 2! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Anthony Hickox's Waxwork for a while, as part of my coverage of Lions Gate's Horror Collection 8 Movie Pack DVDs, but I've been meaning to expand it. I wanted to bring in the common US disc from Artisan, look more closely at the differences between the import and the domestic releases, and I wanted to cover the sequel, Waxwork 2: Lost In Time, as well. That one's an even wilder ride.
So, I've had some stuff up on

Update 10/13/16: And speaking of expanding on the Waxwork movies, Lionsgate has done just that with their new 2-disc blu-ray set of both films in their new Vestron line! That's right, special editions, in HD and, finally, in widescreen!
Professional villain David Warner owns a waxwork museum, where each of its tableaus are taken from classic monster movies: a vampires' castle, graveyard full of zombies or a mummy's tomb. But when a bunch of high school students, including Gremlins star Zach Galligan and Twin Peaks' Dana Ashbrook, pay a nighttime visit, they discover its darkly magical secret. When you cross the velvet ropes, you're teleported into the world depicted in the exhibit. Look too closely at the wax werewolf and you find yourself in its cabin with a real life werewolf and no way to escape.

A great cast of supporting character actors bring these scenes to life, including Patrick Macnee, Miles O'Keeffe and John Rhys Davies as the aforementioned werewolf. It's a fun romp, with the film changing its style to match the world they're in (the zombie scene is in black and white a la George Romero's classic Night Of the Living Dead), but without ever getting too serious. At one point, Galligan breaks into an impromptu Maurice Chevalier impression, a la the Marx Bros. But it doesn't play it too safe either, with some gruesome deaths (the film opens with an impressive murder by fireplace) and an appearance by the Marquis de Sade himself. I can't say I'm a fan of all of Hickox's output, but his early work is always a good time. And for his first attempt at directing, the production values, effects and execution are all impressive.
Of course, Waxwork was included in the aforementioned 2012 8 Movie Pack from Lions Gate, but it was also previously released as a double-bill with Waxwork 2 from Artisan in 2003. That same year, though, I was buying the German import from Dragon Film Entertainment, because it was the only version with extras. I say "was" because of course that's no longer the case, thanks to the new Vestron blu-rays, which are fully loaded. So let's stack all four editions up against each other and find out exactly how much better this new one is.
2003 Artisan DVD 1st; 2003 Dragon DVD 2nd; 2012 Lions Gate DVD 3rd; 2016 Vestron blu 4th.
Whoa! The Dragon and Artisan DVDs are pretty close. I mean, the color timing's a bit different (Dragon's a bit lighter; Artisan's a bit redder), but they're both so soft and video tape-ish, it's hard to pick out a clear winner. It's easy to pick out a clear loser, though! Lionsgate's Horror Collection disc is way too dark, black crushing a lot of information away, including the mummy's face. And the kids sitting on the couch look like a couple of heads and limbs sticking out of a giant blob of oil.

And it only gets worse for owners of the Lions Gate set - their disc is cut! Yes, ever since the VHS days, Waxwork has existed in two different cuts, the R and Unrated versions. Well, Artisan and Dragon have both wisely selected the unrated version of the film to release, but Lions Gate, probably out of sheer lazy ignorance, have included the softer R-rated cut in their disc, losing several shots of blood during the vampire sequence.
A shot only seen in the Unrated versions.
But thankfully, they were paying full attention for the blu-ray, which is the proper uncut Unrated version. And visually, of course, it leaves every past edition behind by a mile. It's no small thing that Waxwork is finally being presented here in widescreen. And in actual 1.85, not 1.78 with "1.85:1" on its packaging like some other recent releases, including a previous Vestron blu. Admittedly, the previous fullscreen DVDs were at least open matte, but it's still important to preserve a film's proper framing.  Plus, we are actually gaining a little information on both sides.  And just look how much cleaner and clearer the image is: fine grain, nothing's too black or murky. This is really the first respectable transfer we've had of Waxwork.

Audio-wise, all the old DVDs just have your basic stereo 2.0 track, and no subtitles. Vestron has that same stereo mix but in DTS-HD, and is the first release to offer an English subtitle track as well.
Which brings us to Waxwork 2: Lost In Time. The sequel came out in 1992 and thankfully, it's still written and directed by Hickox, as it's all his crazy, undiluted vision. Zach Galligan returns as well, with Monika Schnarre replacing Deborah Foreman as his girlfriend Sarah. They thought they'd escaped the terrors of the waxwork, but something followed them out; and now they've got to get proactive and fight the evil directly. And they do this by hoping through worlds based on classic horror set-pieces - just like the first one, of course. It's got another wonderful cast of cult actors, including Bruce Campbell, David Carradine, Juliet Mills, George "Buck" Flowers, John Ireland as King Arthur and the return of Patrick Macnee. The tone has shifted a bit further from horror to fantastic adventure, and maybe it drags a little in the third act; but if you liked the first one, I can't imagine not enjoying Lost In Time.
So of course, Waxwork 2 is available as the second half of that Artisan double bill with the first one (they're both on one single-sided disc, but two relatively short films with no extras isn't such a strain). But again I've got an import version: this time a 2004 DVD from the Netherlands, courtesy of Dutch Film Works. This time, though, importing may not have been such an improvement (but dig that From Beyond-style DVD cover). Not that it matters anymore; they're all piddling compared to the brand new, 2016 Vestron blu. Let's have a look.
2003 Artisan DVD on top; 2004 DFW DVD middle; 2016 Vestron blu below.
Once again, the DVDs are just soft, crappy VHS-like fullscreen transfers. There's no important distinctions to be made in terms of detail, framing or colors. It's all a dead tie except for one thing, the DFW disc is horribly interlaced. Like, not even every sixth or so frame like a pull-down conversion problem like most interlaced disc. This one's interlaced all over.  So both discs are disappointing, but the win goes to Artisan this time around.

It's an entirely academic win though, naturally, as we now have the far superior blu-ray edition. Again, it's an actual 1.85:1 transfer, and while the DVDs were pretty much open matte, like the first one, we do get a little more along the sides. Not that the HD image wouldn't blow the old DVDs away in any aspect ratio. 

The Artisan DVD and Vestron blu both feature the original stereo mix as the sole audio option, though on the blu it's in DTS-HD. Again, the Vestron blu is the first release with English subtitles. The DFW disc did have optional Dutch subtitles if you need those, and a 5.1 mix, which is interesting; but I can't imagine anyone bothering to track that disc down now over the Vestron blu.
Special features are easy to talk about on the old DVDs, since there really isn't much. The Dragon Special Edition of the first film is really the only blip on the radar. It's got something, which is a lot more than I can say for Artisan, Lions Gate or Dutch Filmworks discs, which don't even offer a trailer. Dragon does offer the trailer, and far more importantly, it has a vintage 25-minute 'making of' featurette. It's rather heavy on clips from the film, but it's still more substantial than your average 7-9 minute promo. There's lots of behind-the-scenes footage, on and off set interviews, and an amusing wrap-around hosted by Macnee. There's also a silly but not terribly relevant featurette called The Real Waxwork, made up of footage of an actual waxwork someplace, presumably in Germany. It's not connected to the film, apart from being another waxwork, but it's amusing if you like that sort of thing. There's also a collection of six bonus trailers. It comes in a slipcover and includes a cool little 16-page booklet, though the text is all in German.
That was at least kind of a big deal until Vestron came along and crushed everything with a fully-loaded special edition.  First of all, that 25-minute featurette from the Dragon disc?  That's here, as well as the trailer.  Plus, part 2 also finally gets a trailer.  But that's nothin', because then there's also a full-length documentary by Red Shirt Pictures.  It's credited on the case as six featurettes; but also viewable as one 90-minute documentary feature, which covers all aspects of production.  And if you're looking at the case disappointed that Lost In Time didn't get any documentaries, don't worry, they spend more time on the first, but actually cover both films in the one on disc 1. Both films also have great audio commentaries with Hickox and Galligan.  And, a really nice surprise, each film also have second, hidden/ uncredited audio commentaries with the film's composers - Roger Bellon on the first one and Steve Schiff on the second - where they're interviewed for the first half, and then the second half is the full, unedited and score tracks.  The Lost In Time disc also includes the full LA Posse (an actual, credible rap group who produced some big hits including LL Cool J's "I Need Love") music video from the film's closing credits, in 1.78:1, with Zach and the rest of the cast dancing together with the posse on the film's sets, without the credits and junk running over it.  Both films also include stills galleries, and the set comes in another slick Vestron slipcover. For the first time (for Vestron), they've included reversible interior artwork, too, with part 1 on one side and part 2 on the other.
So there's really no question which version of both films come out ahead... by a country mile. Admittedly, there is actually an anamorphic widescreen DVD in the UK, put out by Lions Gate, that I don't have and so didn't include in my comparisons. But it's the censored version; so it's really not worth our time to consider. And there's no way it would look as good as the new, HD presentations, let alone their impressive stack of features.

It's funny.  I first posted about the Waxwork movies being very critical about how Lions Gate had been sitting on their catalog for so many years.  After all, these are such fun, well made and fairly popular horror films, it was hard to believe we were still looking at such grubby, decades-old DVDs.  But as we now see, Lions Gate have come around in a big way, and with this killer 2-disc set, Vestron just hit their biggest home run yet.  The most infamous studio is becoming the best.  It's like when Dr. Doom became the new Captain America... or something.  I don't read comic books anymore; that might never have happened, but you get the idea.  Villain to hero, super awesome.

How Good Does Mark Of the Witch Look?

Today we have another new release from Code Red - in fact, it was sold in the same bundle as Lord Shango.  This one's a little different, but sort of in the same vein as well.  It's a subtle, talky little chiller called Mark of the Witch; and while it was technically released in 1970, it's super 60s. This isn't it's first release (Code Red spine #84, if you're keeping track of these things... Wow. Even if you count the long-delayed Electric Chair, have they really released eighty-three previous blu-rays?), but it is the film's debut in HD.
Did I mention that this film was talky? This movie could easily be produced as a stage play. That's not necessarily a criticism, but if you're looking for cheap thrills, this is not your movie.  It reminds me in a way of Richard Matheson's Burn, Witch, Burn, but without the class.  After a prologue where a witch curses her coven for not intervening as she's being hung, we cut to a "modern day" (read: pure 60's) college campus, where a professor teaches his students about "the psychology of superstition." His best and perkiest student decides to hold a seance with the class to summon a witch, but it doesn't seem to work. Except of course it really did, and now that student is possessed by the witch from the opening, and it turns out her prof is the ancestor of one of the cursed coven.  Can he stop her before she performs she hatches her nasty Satanic plot, even though she's already enslaved him to do her bidding?
The fun of this movie is partly in the script, which feels like a smart but not ingenious TV movie, and partly in lead performance of Anitra Walsh, who goes from bubbly do-gooder to a 300 year-old murderous mastermind. It's not an amazing performance, but it sure is a great part.  The rest of the cast is all fine, and the film leisurely gets to a fairly rewarding conclusion.  It's not a great movie, but it's on par with a good episode of Tales From the Crypt.  The soundtrack has a kind of theramin thing going on, and the opening credits play an acappella "witch's rune," which is both interesting and irritating at the same time.
Now, there's been some talk about this being the "uncut version," which it is. But just the concept of this film having an uncut version might be surprising to viewers who've seen this film before, because it's so chaste.  However, there are two quick, successive shots, a split second each, of nudity that's often cut out of the film (the online version I'd watched before ordering this didn't have it).  They're both inserts of a woman who's obviously a body double, though they do a good job of matching the wardrobe and location.  Personally, I think it almost goes against the film's tone, which is selling ideas over shocks, but I know Code Red audiences don't want to be denied their to topless shots, so you'll be relieved to know they're in here.  Also a parakeet explodes.  That's a highlight.
So, like I said, this one's been released a few times before, including by Code Red.  It debuted on an old, 1.66:1 Image double-bill DVD, paired with The Bride Wore Blood.  And that was the cut version, by the way.  Then, in 2009, Code Red release the R-rated cut on DVD in 1.78:1 on a double-bill with the fullscreen version of Devil Times Five.  In 2014, they released it a second time, on their first 6-Pack DVD collection.  Personally, I never bothered to pick up this film before in any version, so I'm meeting it for the first time here on Code Red's new 2016 blu-ray.
And it looks great! Presented again in 1.78:1, this transfer is in excellent shape, and the picture is beautiful. It's a new 2k scan of the original negatives and looks it. There are the occasional specks and flecks, but it's surprisingly clean, and the colors are super vivid. Detail is strong. I mean, this film almost shouldn't look as good as it does here. I'm really impressed.

The original mono is presented here in DTS-HD and sounds very clear and untreated, maybe carrying a very slight, natural hiss with it. Occasionally the volume dips at random, and then pops back up, but that's the only real trouble. And it's pretty minor; you're always able to make out all the dialogue clearly. Oh, and of course there are no subtitles.
There also aren't any extras on here, except for the trailer, which is at least better than nothing. An interview or something might've been nice, but I can't imagine it would be very easy to scare anybody up from this film 46 years later. I was starting to get used to having Katriana wrap-arounds on all these Code Red titles, and while I was never terribly taken with them, I do kinda miss her.

So do I recommend this? It's a good little film that's worth a watch, and the blu-ray presentation is excellent. So it's a very respectable pick-up; I like it. But if you're holding out for really great or cool films to add to your collection, this ain't exactly Hellraiser, or even Burn, Witch, Burn.