Controversial Blus? The Virgin Suicides + Lick the Star (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I came really close to importing the 2012 French blu-ray of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, even though it has forced French subtitles, so many times because it took forever for us to finally get another HD option.  But you know what?  Criterion may be slow, but they always seem to come around eventually.  And when they do, it tends to be worth it... if maybe a little green.  Let's see how this one came out.
Suicides is Coppola's first feature, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides.  She may've found her audience more with her second film, Lost In Translation, but between the two, this is the one I find myself going back to.  They share that same charming recreation of a moment in time that Coppola brings to all of her work, but maybe it's just the heft of the overt melodrama adding some lasting weight to this one.  It's the relatable tale of an implausible scenario, where a group of neighborhood boys try to penetrate the romanticized veil of five beautiful sisters who all took their own lives in a small 70s suburb.  The kids are all perfect, from the known (Kirsten Dunst) to the unknown, and the rest of the cast is full of heavy hitters like Kathleen Turner, James Woods and Scott Glenn.
Paramount first put The Virgin Suicides out on DVD back in 2000.  It was a pretty decent, anamorphic widescreen edition, and so that's been my sole copy of this film all the way up until 2018.  But Criterion has now given it a pretty sweet 4k restoration from the original 35mm negatives, and with all new extras to boot, including Coppola's first short film, Lick the Star.
2000 US Paramount DVD top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
So, a couple of interesting things here... let's see, where to start?  I left the negative space around two sets of comparison shots this time, to highlight a curious shifting AR on the DVD.  It's anamorphic, and essentially presented in a full 1.78:1, but with a little matting on the side making it about 1.77:1.  Or 1.76, depending on the shot, because sometimes there's matting on the left, on the right, or on both sides, just randomly throughout the film.  I assume they figured it didn't really matter since it was in the overscan area (remember, this was 2000), but it's a little weird.  Anyway, the new blu is presented in what we're assured is the original aspect ratio, 1.67:1, which gives us a little extra vertical information, and sometimes loses a sliver on the sides, depending on what the DVD is doing with its aspect ratio in any given shot.

Apart from that, the blu is heaps clearer.  Maybe you don't see it so much embedded in the post, but click through to compare them full size, and you'll really see the difference.  Grain is very present and natural, and the distinction is pretty strong despite the fact that the compression's actually pretty decent for such an old DVD.  And the colors?  Well, it's hard to miss the heavy green shift in that first set of shots, but as the others show, that's not consistent throughout the film.  Or, at least, not to the same degree.  Even in the second comparison shots, like the scene with Danny Devito and a stronger bluer hue; you can still see the additional yellowish green, too. 
2000 US Paramount DVD top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
Now, this movie plays with its colors and hues a bit... there's a scene towards the end where a party is filtered to be very heavily and purposefully green.  But you can see, this blu leans into that yellowish green at all times; and given Criterion's recent history, really makes me think it's their issue again.  But, with that said, it's probably not something you'd notice if you weren't doing a comparison or looking out for it.  There are some shots in this film where, taken out of context, Criterion really looks like they've gone off on a green bender alright.  But there are others, like the second pair above, where you'd say "there's no green push here at all!"  The colors just look improved over the washed and paler DVD, with the whites nicely differentiated from the pinks and the blue doorway saturated up and an overall broader palette.  So I'd say just don't let it bother you, and it's fine. Clearly some creative decisions are inherent to the color correction process, and I guess Criterion's tastes just happen to run a little green.  So making Josh Hartnett's skin downright orange was a choice. 🤷

Audio-wise, both discs give us the single English 5.1 mix, though bumped up to DTS-HD for the blu.  The DVD also had a French dub, and both provide optional English subtitles.
In terms of special features, Paramount's DVD was already decent.  Not exactly a packed special edition, but it included a really good, 23-minute behind the scenes doc that gave some really good, and sometimes funny, insights into the filming.  And they had a few other minor bibs and bobs, like the music video for the Air song that Coppola also directed, a stills gallery, insert and trailer.  Criterion kept all of that, so thankfully there's no need to hang onto your eighteen year-old DVDs any longer - yay!
And they've also created some great new stuff.  Primarily, they've put together an excellent new, 26 minute documentary with Coppola, Dunst, Hartnett and cinematographer Ed Lachman.  And possibly even more excitingly, there's an on-camera interview with the novel's author, Eugenides.  Then there's an interview with Tavi Gevinson, who runs a fashion website or something that was influenced by this movie?  I wasn't entirely clear on that, but she did have some good insights into the movie, effectively acting as a critic's take.  There's an attractive, fold-out/ leaflet style insert with an essay by novelist Megan Abbott, a second trailer and of course, there's Lick the Star.
It's a black and white, only fourteen minute short; but it's actually quite good and contains a lot of what makes Coppola's features so compelling.  This isn't like Todd Haynes' Suicide, where it might be interesting for devotees to get a peak at his origins, but that's it.  This is a surprisingly dark film about the cut throat social hierarchy of high school that I watch and enjoy for its own artistic merits, not just because it's some minor film history artifact.  In fact, it's not even the first time I've owned it on disc.  I suppose this is a bit of a deep cut, but it was originally included as "This Month's Short Film" on the 2003 Film Movement DVD of Hop.
What's Hop?  Oh, it's a completely unrelated, low budget Belgium movie about an immigrant boy and his father living in the country illegally.  They get caught and the father is deported, but the kid winds up living with some old, retired revolutionary white guy who teaches him the ways of terrorism in the most literal, make bombs to blow up buildings and make the government capitulate sort of way.  It doesn't sound like it, but it basically plays like a feel good movie, and after some bombings, the government brings the kid's dad back.  I think I'm making it sound more interesting than it is, though.  It's decently acted and directed, but it's the sort of move I've watched several times over the years because I keep forgetting what it's about.

As you can see, it's slightly window-boxed in the overscan area, leaving it with about a 1.83:1 aspect ratio.  It's got removable English subtitles and interlacing problems.  The only extras are the trailer, a booklet with brief notes about the film, and of course Lick the Star.
2003 US Film Movement DVD top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
Because this was shot on rather gritty 16mm film, the old DVD was reasonably passable.  The only real issue it had was being interlaced.  But Criterion seems to have given this one a new scan, too, with ugly digital artifacting turned back into natural film grain. The aspect ratio has subtly adjusted from 1.30:1 to 1.33:1 (revealing tiny slivers around edges) and the contrast has been greatly improved.  Subtitles would've been nice, and I'm a little surprised that Criterion cheaped out on them; but otherwise it's a worthwhile upgrade for us few DVD owners and a really attractive presentation to all you first-timers.
So, in a way this blu is controversial for its role the on-going Criterion green debate.  But that's with a question mark at best because outside of that context, we're talking about a minor possible flaw on an otherwise terrific, top-notch release.  High quality scan, terrific new extras, even a restoration of Lick the Star.  It's a must for Coppola fans no matter how you look at it.

Bowling for Columbine Enters the Criterion Collection + The Big One (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Here's a new Criterion release that seems to've come out of left field, in more than one sense.  I'm not even sure why it struck me as odd, to be honest.  It's a very famous documentary, won the Academy Award, broke box office records for documentaries... and of course, if Criterion has important and political docs like Hearts and Minds, The Kennedy Films and The War Room in their collection, why wouldn't they have Bowling for Columbine?  I guess Bowling just sat in my mind as a very particular artifact of an exact moment in time, and it felt strange to see it out of its element fifteen years later.  But of course, revisiting this new restoration, it speaks even more to 2018 than it did to 2003.  Just replace Bush's name with Trump's and add a couple digits to the number of school shootings we've had across the country.  If anything, Michael Moore's mission to discover the root cause of this horrifying trend is more important than ever.
And if you haven't visited Bowling, or any of Moore's work, in a long time; it really holds up.  For me, at least, the quality of his recent work cast a bit of a shadow over his early triumphs.  I mean, I'd never lose sight that he's the guy who practically reinvented documentary filmmaking with Roger & Me.  That while he's not the first documentarian to invite audiences into the filmmaker's situation and make the story of creating the doc the subject, I think it's safe to say he's the one who perfected it to the point that it became a reliable tool in the documentarian's arsenal.  But, you look at his last film and it's just a lecture that he happened to film.  And even if you say Trumpland doesn't "count," Where To Invade Next is just barely opened up any further.  It's like he enlisted a bunch of fans from different countries to say what he wanted to say so he could present his lecture in an interview format.  You could see it when he shifted from TV Nation to The Awful Truth.  Now, instead of being entirely a collection of envelope pushing, man on the street documentary segments, it's a segment or two sandwiched between talks he gives to an in-studio audience or directly to the camera.  Some of the humor and ideas are still there, but the exploratory thrill is dead.
Contrarily, this might be Moore's ultimate masterpiece.  Sure Moore obviously has his political opinions and agendas like anybody who sets out to make a movie ever.  But in Bowling, you really get the feeling he's filming to ask questions and seek answers, not just use the silver screen to pontificate.  In Criterion's new feature, which we'll look at more a bit later, he talks about how they set out with an overall message about control in mind when they started filming, and how that changed as he talked to everybody he met in the filming process.  Just on a more simple, basic level, I think you can see that when he talks to people, from his man-on-the-street and run-and-gun ambush interviews to his scheduled sit downs with celebrities and politicians, he doesn't really know what they're going to say to him in this.  When Charlton Heston stands up and walks out on him during his interview - to go and hide in his own guest house - that's at least as much of a surprising and crazy moment to him as it is to us.  Revisiting Columbine in 2018, I feel like I learned that it's not the times that've changed, or that we've gotten too used to his bag of tricks; it's his material that had the power to surprise, and it's damned effective.
So, I've wound up buying this film a couple times now.  MGM originally released this as a 2-disc special edition DVD in 2003, which I copped right away.  They later substituted it in the marketplace with a cheaper single disc edition, which I never had cause to bother with.  But in 2004, MGM put out another one of his movies, an older one called The Big One, on DVD.  You could get it just by itself, or in a little boxed set where it was packaged with Columbine (the 2-disc version, happily) and an exclusive bonus disc.  So I bought the the same Columbine release twice, so I could get that bonus disc.  And then of course, just now in 2018, I picked up Criterion's new special edition blu-ray, if only for curiosity's sake.
2003 US MGM DVD on top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
So, this isn't exactly a fancy, new 4k restoration.  You don't need to read Criterion's booklet to gather that they just got this HD master from MGM; it looks just like they used for their original DVD.  But that's not terribly disappointing, because at least half of this film is made up of old, vintage footage taken from various, lower quality sources.  Mind you, that's not to say that there's no benefit to be gained in taking this film to HD.  The DVD has all the usual fuzzy compression issues of a 2003 DVD, that the blu-ray smartly clears away in the crisper, original footage.  Take the comparison shots above - the first pair is of some news footage taken at a press conference.  Comparing the DVD to the blu, yes technically the compression's still better, but because it's inherently SD footage, there's basically no appreciable difference.  The level of detail is baked into the source material.  But the second pair shows their original footage that genuinely does clean up nicely.  You can see how much sharper and finer it gets in 1080p.  So it's there.  But I'm not sure how much of an effect it will have on your viewing experience when most of the movie, you're going to be watching shaky, underlit or flat-out duped video footage.  Just something to bear in mind.

Of course, getting the audio bumped up to lossless DTS-HD might be a more concrete reason for some people to upgrade.  Interestingly, the DVD had a 5.1 mix.  So, I did go turn to Criterion's booklet with questions here, and apparently theirs is "the original 2.0 surround soundtrack... remastered from the 35 mm magnetic printmaster."  Both versions also include optional English subtitles, and the DVD also had Spanish.
So, now let's get into the extras.  As you might imagine, the 2-disc DVD set had a bunch of stuff... only about half of which was preserved on the Criterion release.  But, with that said, maybe it's not such a terrible loss.  The first and most obvious MIA extra is the audio commentary.  But as Moore explains elsewhere, he felt like most of what he had to say was already in the film, so he let his "receptionists and interns" do it.  I've seen extras like this get a lot of slack or just treated like jokes - "ha ha the lady who answers the phone is going to do a commentary?!" - but I don't think it's a bad idea on its face.  All these people worked on the film and have plenty of boots on the ground experiences and anecdotes they could share about working on the film you'd never hear otherwise.  What was it like being the actual person trying to convince the survivalists to let you film them out in the woods?  Unfortunately, this is only a little bit like that, and a lot more like a big room full of young people giggling, talking over each other, and talking about things that only amuse each other ("remember when we stayed up all night in your apartment?").  It's not completely without value; there are fun and interesting bits to glean; but for the most part, I think most everyone on both sides of the fence considers it a failed experiment, which is why we don't see any more of these being created.
DVD-only special feature.
So, okay, that's out.  Also missing is Moore's introduction, and it's obvious why Criterion dropped that one.  He talks about the DVD itself, including the special features Criterion didn't include.  How much would it suck to hear Moore say, "watch this great interview" only to have that interview not be there?  So fair enough.  Then there's an interview, followed by an audience Q&A, with Moore and former press secretary Joe Lockhart at a comedy festival.  I'm not sure why they dropped this one, but apparently it was an HBO event, so possibly a rights/ licensing thing.  I'm sure that's why the music video for Marilyn Manson's song from the film was also dropped.  That's basically about all that was entirely cut, apart from like a photo gallery, text and DVD-Rom only features like a "teacher's guide," and a pair of inserts.

I say entirely cut, because there's also one featurette that was shortened.  The "Film Festival Scrapbook" features a collection of moments from Moore at film festivals, including portions of three different press interviews, a speech from David Lynch, Moore on the red carpet and accepting his award from Naomi Watts at Cannes.  Criterion cuts it down to just the three interview segments, removing Lynch and the rest of the bits.  And the rest of what has been carried over is Michael Moore's Academy Award acceptance speech, complete with an intro/ defense filmed in his backyard, an interview with Charlie Rose, a segment from The Awful Truth that we saw glimpses of in Bowling, the trailer, and finally a feature called Return To Denver/ Littleton.  Unfortunately, this sounds like a Pets Or Meat-style follow-up to the doc, where Moore returns to the scene of his documentary to see where the people have progressed or remain the same.  But really it's just a pre-screening speech he gave... not terrible, but kind of a let down.
And speaking of DVD-only let downs, let's get into The Big One.  It's been just as long since I revisited that movie as Columbine, and as much as that one holds up, this one doesn't.  It's explained (eventually) that the title is a reference to a joke Moore made on the radio that America's nickname, given its collective attitude, should be "the big one."  But really, we all know the title, like the entirety of the film, is just hyping up Michael Moore's first book.  This film is a documentary of the book tour he goes on across the country for Random House after writing Downsize This.  And yeah, there are some interesting moments in here, like when the employees of a Borders bookstore he's signing autographs at ask to meet him in secret because they're attempting to unionize.  In another city, he stops by to talk to strikers at a Payday (as in the candy bar) factory.  But really, mostly, it's just about him marketing his book.  Think of comedian's road movies like David Cross's Let America Laugh.  It's one of those, right down to him playing pranks on his security detail and hugging fans.
The only real substantive element comes right at the end, where the CEO of Nike, apparently pressured by his wife who's a big Moore fan, offers to meet with Moore, and winds up looking terrible trying to explain his child labor policies.  That's peak Moore, but it's like ten minutes at the tail end of a feature length film, and would've been better placed in an episode of TV Nation or Awful Truth.  Or he could've just released it as its own, short film.  I think it would've won awards and gotten a lot of praise on its own.  But instead it's a mildly entertaining (it's overall light-hearted and occasionally addresses some genuine, serious issues with a degree of wit) ego wank.  I mean, I get it.  If you're a serious Moore fan, hearing him speak could be its own reward, like An Evening With Kevin Smith.  And there are moments that work like that, including where he basically performs the first chapter of his book, showing prank checks he wrote to various presidential campaigns.  But overall, this is much more Let America Laugh than An Evening With Kevin Smith, with a few highlights spread out across a lot of filler.
2004 US MGM DVD.
As disappointing as the film itself might've been, the DVD presentation was worse.  It's fullscreen, seems to be taken from a tape source, and and badly interlaced.  And you might think it's supposed to be fullscreen, like it's just shot on cheap video cameras while on tour.  But no, this film was released theatrically with a proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio and only looks like it was shot on cheap video cameras because of the way it's been preserved on disc.  The compression is poor, even by DVD standards.  It's just a cheap, no care given disc.  It's also completely barebones apart from the trailer (which you should watch, since it's all original footage created just for the trailer) and some bonus trailers.  The Dolby Stereo track is standard stuff, but at least it has subtitles, in English, French and Spanish.

Oh, and what about that bonus disc?  Ugh.  We're just sliding further and further downhill.  It's an eleven minute featurette of little snippets from one of his later book tours.  It's like a mini-The Big One, except he never talks to any strikers or CEOs; he just promotes his book.  It's basically clips from the talks he give, most cut so short, you never sink your teeth into whatever he's got to say anyway.  You've really got to have your head shoved awfully far up Moore's rear to care much about this.
But after coming down pretty hard on some of this stuff, I'm happy to do a complete 180.  Because, going back to the new Criterion blu-ray, there's one new feature they created that far outshines any of the other specials created for Bowling on any edition.  It's a 35-minute documentary called Michael Moore Makes a Movie, which interviews Moore, his producers and other collaborators on the making of Bowling for Columbine in a much more compelling, candid fashion.  They go through the documentary, basically scene for scene, explaining what each interview and experience was really like.  Why they talked to who they did, changes they made mid-filming, from what really happened when that conspiracy theorist put a gun to Moore's head to how Charlton Heston tried to physically trap them on his property after the interview.  Some of the other features were decent.  Moore and Rose had a smart discussion, and it was interesting to hear him address his little controversy with his Academy Awards speech.  But none of it holds a candle to this; I'd happily throw it all away and just keep Michael Moore Makes a Movie.  Oh, and it also comes with a long fold-out booklet with notes by critic Eric Hynes.
So if you're questioning whether it's worth upgrading your old DVD when maybe you've lost interest in the film, and the PQ gains aren't so impressive... I had my doubts, too.  I had pangs of buyer's remorse before I even completed by purchase.  But now that I've been reminded of just how strong the film is, and how pleased I was with the new feature, I have to say I'm really happy to have it now.  If you're on the fence about this one, I think I can safely say you won't regret it.

Discover the Hidden Secrets Of The Church (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Say, speaking of 90s horror classics that should've had special editions since the early days of DVD but are only just getting them now, how about Michele Soavi's The Church?  Scorpion Releasing's two disc set that's been pending for so long I was seriously beginning to doubt it would ever arrive has finally arrived.  If you're thinking, wait a minute, hasn't it already been out half a year or something, you're thinking of the single disc edition.  Just like with The Sect, Scorpion released a single disc edition first, with a two disc special edition to arrive months later, not just with more extras and better packaging, but both the English and Italian audio tracks (the single disc version only has the English).
If you're looking for something stylish and cool, The Church is it.  There's a bit of a weird schism to it, but depending on your attitude, that can be as much a part of its charm as a critical fault.  You've got the original intention for this film: to be Lamberto Bava's Demons 3, and then you've got Soavi's re-imagining.  And for the first hour or so, while there may be material from the original script active in it, it feels like Soavi's vision.  A historical opening in the 12th century or so, with the Templar Knights committing and then burying their sins.  We then move forward to modern times, where a great gothic church has been built upon the site, and several characters get caught up trying to unlock its mysteries.  Dramatic camerawork of them fetishistically translating cryptic messages, unlocking secret panels, discovering hidden passageways, ultimately leading to a face off with mankind's dark past in a fantastical way.
Then in the last half hour, a whole bunch of extra characters plow into the church and suddenly we're in Bava and Sacchetti's Demons.  A bickering elderly couple, a teacher with an entire class of students, fashion photographers, one of Dario Argento's daughters and a romantic pair of bikers all find themselves trapped inside and desperate to escape as they get killed and possessed one by one.  So ultimately, The Sect is probably the better film; but The Church could be more fun, even upping the giant rubber monster quota of Bava's previous efforts.  The story's maybe a little inconsequential, but hey, who's counting?
So, The Church's story on disc is pretty similar to The Sect's, too, except that The Church at least had a proper US DVD.  Anchor Bay put it out in 2002 as part of their "Dario Argento Collection" (he produced and co-wrote the film), a barebones but anamorphic widescreen release that was later reissued by Blue Underground in 2007.  But on blu, the story is almost exactly the same.  There was a questionable barebones Japanese disc in 2016, and then Shameless released a remastered version later that year, featuring a new interview with Soavi (The Church's first proper special feature).  Oh, and there's an Italian blu, but it's not English friendly.  Anyway, then Scorpion released their single disc edition in the US in early 2018, and now their 2-disc special edition has just come out!
2002 US Anchor Bay DVD top; 2018 US Scorpion 2-disc blu bottom.
What an major improvement!  Where to begin?  Well, the first thing that stood out to be is that sickly yellowish/ greenish hue that seems to hang over the DVD has been scrubbed from the blu, giving it a much more vibrant energy.  Scorpion's packaging tells us this is a "brand new 2017 2k scan with over 45 hours of color correction," and that's certainly paid off.  Being in HD, of course, the detail is a lot clearer - grain appears natural here where before it was utterly invisible.  But really the second biggest thing after the colors is the framing.  The DVD is slightly vertically matted to 1.85:1, while the blu-ray restores it to the filmmakers' presumably preferred ratio of 1.67:1.  So are we trading horizontal information for vertical?  No, the new blu reveals considerably more picture on all four sides.  There's very minimal damage to be spotted if you're paying attention?  See that vertical line running through the first screenshot of the pile of bodies?  That recurs intermittently.  But the overall effect is quite clean and sturdy.

Anchor Bay just gave us the English dub, in our choice of Dolby stereo or 5.1, with no subs.  Scorpion's new blu (again, as opposed to their first single disc release) provides both the English and Italian stereo mixes in DTS-HD, without any of the light hiss we heard on The Sect, and with optional English subtitles "translated from the Italian track."  Now, on The Sect, I preferred the Italian audio, but here, I think the English dub is actually a little more natural.  Neither wins in every department - I'm not a fan of the voice they dub star Barbara Cupisti with in English - but overall, I'd say the English track is the preferable one here.
Now, like I already mentioned, the US DVD is barebones.  All they gave it was the trailer.  Ironically, that's all the Scorpion blu is missing (they list the trailer on the packaging, and it was on their single disc edition, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  But you won't care once you see all the great stuff they've got.  First of all, there's a pretty great audio commentary by Nathaniel Thompson and Cupisti.  They list him as a moderator, but it's more of an even mix, with Thompson speaking as an expert and Cupisti providing the personal, first hand knowledge.  After that, there's a whole slew of smartly edited, on-camera interviews, averaging 15-20 minutes apiece, with Soavi, Dario Argento, Asia Argento, Cupisti, Tomas Arana, Giovanni Radice, set designer Massimo Geleng, screenwriter Franco Ferrini and makeup artist Franco Casagni.  Between all of them, they pretty much cover everything you could want to know about this film.  Most are in Italian with burnt-in yellow subtitles (as shown above), but a couple are in English.  Scorpion's 2-disc set also features reversible artwork, a slipcover and a poster.
This release is a little pricey, but Scorpion does, after all, feature the more budget-friendly single disc release as an alternative.  This is a limited edition (1500 copies) for us serious fans who've been dying for a Church special edition for decades.  If you're not so fussed about extras, the single disc should do you just fine, especially since the English track is probably the one you'll stick with most of the time anyway.  But me?  I needed this.  😁