The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened? The Blu-ray!

Here's another fun, Kickstarter-funded documentary on cinema: The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?, telling the story of the unfilmed Superman movie that was to star Nicholas Cage and be directed by Tim Burton. And unlike the recent That Guy Dick Miller, they've offered a blu-ray option, so we're not again stuck with the collectors' edition in SD while casual viewers are watching it online a lot cheaper in HD. And more than that, it's a very substantial special edition, promising "over 8+ HOURS of EXCLUSIVE content."

This film is very reminiscent of Jodorowsky's Dune, and I mean that as a compliment. I was a little worried at the very beginning, with the director putting himself onscreen as the focus, like this was going to be about a documentary filmmaker with an obsession over a lost Superman movie rather than just being about the lost Superman movie. And when it cut to candid convention footage of comic book fans offering not particularly insightful or interesting thoughts on the idea of Nicholas Cage playing Superman, who are all hard to hear with the loud convention-goers chattering behind them, I started to feel pangs of buyer's remorse. Especially since they charged ten blucks shipping when it only cost them about three. Visions of Paypal charge-backs started dancing in my head...
But the film immediately kicks into high gear from there, and really everything else is great. Everything's professional and looks and sounds great, including a subtle and effective score. There's a bunch of in-depth interviews with pretty much everybody you could hope for: Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Jon Peters, Grant Morrison and a heap of special effects, costume and design people, as well as comic artists, all come together to really burrow into the details of what went on in the pre-production of this film. One highlight was getting to hear Jon Peters refute parts of Kevin Smith's infamous tale of working on Superman Lives from An Evening With Kevin Smith, while justifying others.
There's also lots of artwork, models and screen-tests and even recreations to really give you the feel of what this film would have been and get you as close to seeing the actual film as possible without it actually existing. The only big guy they couldn't get, understandably, was Nicholas Cage himself; but they have a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage of him and archival interview clips of him talking about Superman Lives from other sources, so his voice really doesn't feel absent. And considering he wasn't really involved with the designing and most of the pre-production like the people directly involved were, I definitely didn't feel shorted of Cage. The entire film was very satisfying.
Speaking of satisfying, this is a pretty great blu-ray for the film, too. It's properly pressed, not a BD-R, and it's region A B and C. It's a 1080p 16x9 image (normally I wouldn't even bother specifying that on a new release these days, but when it's a scrappy little self-funded release from a first time company, it's good to be safe) framed at 1.78:1 with DTS-HD 2.0 audio. And you wouldn't normally expect subtitles on an indie title like this, but yeah they've got English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.
And thank goodness it's a dual-layer disc, because they're a really impressive amount of extras on hand. There are two audio commentaries, one by the director John Schnepp on his own and one with him and his editor and three producers. Do you like Kevin Smith and wish there'd been more of him in the movie? Well, there's two features, about 45 minutes each, just talking with him, plus a one hour and fifteen minute Q&A with him and Schnepp, giving you about three solid extra hours just with Kevin Smith. That ought to be enough to keep any Smith fan happy, but he pops up a bit more in some of the other extras, too.

There's a 45+ minute featurette which is almost a sequel with all new footage and artwork, plus another brief 5 minute follow-up with several of the interview subjects. There's about 50 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, a ton of additional and extended interviews, including more with Tim Burton and Grant Morrison, more convention footage, another Q&A, red carpet premiere footage (which is a full half hour itself), and the trailer. I definitely come back to the word "satisfying" here. It's all the extras any fan would want and probably more to the point where most viewers will find themselves picking and choosing rather (and if so, may I suggest skipping the second commentary, where they repeatedly devolve into just talking in silly voices) than pouring through every second of it. But if you want it, it's all there.
I was worried about this film coming off as amateurish and lacking, but TDOSLWH rose to the challenge. There is also a DVD option, which is missing most (but not all) of the extras and of course squishes the picture down to SD. But considering the quality of this release, I'd say go for the blu if you've got the player. And if you've already streamed the film online, there is definitely more than enough great, additional content to justify still ordering a physical copy. Just, you know, be ready to take a hit on their BS shipping.

While We're Young, Not From Criterion But Still Pretty Solid (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

You know, when trailers for While We're Young first appeared online, I was a little nonplussed. I knew I was going to get it, because I've been a fan of Noah Baumbach's since I found him through his earliest films with Chris Eigeman, hoping for more Whit Stillman films. But it looked pretty generic, as if Baumbach was shooting for a broader audience with a more typical, mainstream comedy. Ben Stiller was back (not that I have anything against Greenberg), and the jokes and the situation all just sort of felt like typical Apatow-lite fare. So, alright, that would be fine. I was confident I'd still be amused by the film - hey, Charles Grodin's in it - but maybe I was letting my collector inclinations get the better of me, pushing me to pre-order a blu-ray of a I only really needed to watch once just for the sake of being a Baumbach completionist. That can be a bit of a bad habit of mine; I don't even want to tell you how many lame Hellraiser sequels I purchased before put the brakes on that.

Update 5/9/17: Added the DVD edition, just because I could.
But happily I was wrong. The trailer, I think now, was a bit misleading. Not that this film is lacking the light-hearted wit it displayed, like all of Baumbach's work has; but the film has more heart, substance, and just flat-out good writing than the more casual fare I was bracing myself for. It's a smart story with issues you don't usually see other filmmakers handling, or at least not the finer points. In one sense, the film is about three documentary filmmakers with conflicting ideologies, which reminded me a lot of Crimes and Misdemeanors. And any film that manages to remind you of Crimes and Misdemeanors is probably on a very good track. Then, in another sense, the film's really about three married couples, and how they relate to each other and outsiders differently when they're together and when they're apart. There's also more familiar themes of growing pains, technology and generation gaps. In fact, this film makes great use of a scene from Ibsen's Master Builder, the Wallace Shawn version of which has been very conveniently concurrently released from Criterion, and makes for a terrific double bill. Admittedly, one or two scenes (the bit with the yoga, or the hip-hop class shown in the trailer) do feel like they're born of some more mainstream Tina Fey/ Steve Carrell-style comedy, but that's not really a bad thing; possibly pandering, they're still funny, and Baumbach makes them fit effectively within the rest of the story.

So yes, now I'm very glad I've got Lions Gate's brand new blu of Wile We're Young in my collection, and didn't waste money renting a stream of it first or something. It comes in a slipcover which doesn't mention any extras on the back. But then the inside cover with alternate artwork (matching the DVD) shows there is at least a little bit. No loaded special edition, but a nice little package.
2015 Lions Gate DVD on top; 2015 Lions Gate blu on the bottom.
The slightly matted 1.85:1 image looks great, as you'd expect from a brand new release where the filmmakers probably handed off a finished digital transfer for Lions Gate to slap directly onto disc. Detail looks so crisp and clean on the blu, it's a little to look at the compressed DVD.  I mean, it's not a huge difference, but when you get in close, it's definitely more on the ugly side.  This film has a nice, sharp but low contrast look, with light darks and whites that are consistently downright tan.  So the DVD struggles.  Audio is a nice 5.1 track (DTS-HD on the blu), with optional English, Spanish and English SDH subtitles.
The extras, which are the same on the DVD and blu, are divided into four featurettes and two behind-the-scenes segments. Honestly, the distinction between the two categories is pretty arbitrary, but they're listed separately on the menu. All six segments are short and clip heavy, but still include interviews with most of the leads and Baumbach and do feel like they're saying at least a little more than the typical hollow promotional filler. They're satisfying in that they feel worth watching, but all together I think they run less than twenty minutes and you definitely won't feel like you've finished a special edition. There are also a couple bonus trailers, but disappointingly, not one for the actual film on hand.
One interesting little detail: in the film, the hip-hop class is dancing to 2Pac's "Hit 'Em Up," the song where he and his crew diss Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy team. But in the featurette about that scene, they're dancing to "Do What I Do" by someone named William Davies featuring Nino Bless. They made the right decision using 2Pac in the film, it's a funnier contrast with the darker, violent lyrics as opposed to the more generic, upbeat track by Davies; but I wonder why it's different here. Did Baumbach songs late in the game, or maybe Lions Gate just didn't want to pay to license 2Pac for the featurette, who knows?
So yeah, if any fellow Noah Baumbach fans were holding off on this film at all, I'm happy to report this film won't let you down so go ahead and jump right in. And the blu is a good little disc, even if most of us were probably hoping Criterion would do another fancy edition like they have for several of his past tiles. And if you're not particularly a Baumbach fan coming into this, I'm not sure this is the movie to really jump in and start discovering... I'd suggest maybe The Squid and the Whale. I mean, this film will still work as a charming little "we're no longer in our 20s" comedy either way; but then you'll probably be more than happy just catching this on Netflix. But the blu will be right here waiting for anyone with their laminated fanclub card.

Today, Let's Be Ken Russell Completists!

What do you get the Ken Russell fan who has everything? Oh, sure, the Russell lover in your life already has BFI's fancy but woefully incomplete restoration of The Devils, the BBC Collection boxed set and a loaded special edition of Tommy. But I bet they don't have this pair of DVDs on their shelves: Tales of Erotica and Women & Men: Stories of Seduction. They probably passed on them because they look like cheap, late night cable TV softcore from the 80s (Tales of Erotica is even bundled in a boxed set with three other DVDs of presumably genuine softcore flicks called The After Dark Collection). Well the cable TV part, but the fact that these are clearly being sold as softcore, or trying to be sexy, is pretty misleading. They're both anthologies, somewhat based around the topic of sex or romantic relationships, but you'd have a hard time finding anything less steamy than these flicks. And anyway, far more most important than degree of steam is that they each have a segment directed by the great Ken Russell. So let's look and see what we've got.
I remember when HBO was advertising the heck out of their original 1990 movie Women and Men: Stories of Seduction. They were trying to get a lot of mileage out of the fact that Molly Ringwald was making a comeback in it, and she had - gasp! - short hair. There's actually a bunch of noteworthy name actors in this, including James Woods, Beau Bridges, Melanie Griffith and Peter Weller. They also have the high minded concept of being based on stories by famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemmingway. I already made this point in the last paragraph, but just to hammer it home, you'll never find anything less sexy than James Woods and Melanie Griffith meandering around an old train station flatly reciting Hemmingway to each other for 30 minutes, or Elizabeth McGovern do voice over narration about suicide in a terribly put-on "20s lady" accent.

Anyway, you can buy Women and Men on its own; but for the same price you can get Women and Men and its 1991 follow-up Women and Men 2 packaged together, so you might as well get that one. I did, but honestly, I never even watched part 2 until the other night for this review. There's one slightly interesting segment by Mike Figgis, where he Juliette Binoche and Scott Glenn in a bit taken from one of Henry Miller's novels. Other big names in part 2 include Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgwick, Ray Liotta, Andie MacDowell and Johnathan Demme. But enough about all that, let's get to the Ken Russell.
Happily, Russell has the most fun source material: Dorothy Parker's "Dusk Before Fireworks." Ken Russell leaps at the opportunity to splurge on wild 20s fashion and set design - I guess there's a reason why HBO marketed this film around Ringwald's look after all. The story is classic Parker: frivolous and fun. There's not a lot of substance, but a good handful of entertainment to be drawn out of this silly story about two lovers who to have an affair but are constantly interrupted by the telephone. It's a stage play for the small screen, but Russell gives the film a look that justifies seeing it filmed rather than in person at your local community theater.
Unfortunately, but predictably, both films are just videotape-sourced fullscreen transfers, soft and interlaced. Ghost frames, too, yup. They're made for TV back before widescreen televisions were a thing, so it's the right OAR. But these could look so much better today if anybody who owned the rights cared. That's never going to happen, though, so I recommend just taking what we can get. The upside is these DVDs can be found dirt cheap. And of course there are no extras or anything, except both films have the option to view them dubbed into Spanish. I think it actually makes McGovern's performance better.

And now we move away from adaptations of classic literature disguised as softcore to ridiculous comedy disguised as softcore. Tales of Erotica is a film made up of four short films. In fact, they're really four episodes of a German television series called Erotic Tales, packaged as one little movie for the USA. This stuff is really ridiculous. Mira Sorvino stars in the first segment where she has no lines, because all the action is instead narrated by her two New York nurse friends from who "tawk laik dis" in cartoonishly exaggerated accents. The week before she's to get married, Mira falls in love with a man in a painting, and winds up entering into its dull, dreary world. Amazingly, this episode won an Oscar as a stand-alone short film in 1994, which just blows my mind.
It almost blows my mind as much as Melvin van Peebles segment, which starts out as a long hip-hop barbecue music video. Eventually the dancing stops and we find out there's one guy at the party who's essentially a parody of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and nobody wants him to come to the after party because he's such a goofy hick. He's bummed until he helps an old lady out of a car wreck and she turns out to be a genie who grants his two greatest wishes: a motorcycle and sex. But it's really more of a double wish than two separate wishes, because he just has sex with the motorcycle, which transforms into a half-human hybrid in a scene which must be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, there's a condition to the wish, and I guess irony ensues.

There's also some terrible thing where a woman seduces a jacuzzi salesman by behaving in the most obnoxious way possible. And then it all turns out to be a conspiracy of some convoluted sort that makes no sense. The best thing about it, I guess, is a small role by Witchboard's Kathleen Wilhoite.
The only good thing about this film is Ken Russell's segment, and even that's far from his greatest work. It's called "The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch," and it tells the story of a young man staying at the same hotel as a beautiful woman, but he hears strange buzzing sounds coming out of her room at night. This is just Russell being playful with a silly little story that suggests sometimes maybe erotic fantasies do come true, when you chance upon that one in a million like-minded partner. It rolls around in its beautiful ocean-side scenery like a pig in mud, and has some classically over-the-top imagery, like a woman turning an entire field into a crude illustration of a naked man with a huge penis... which she does jumping jacks on. It's not exactly one of his greatest artistic achievements, but it's quite charming.
Again, there's no extras except for four horror bonus trailers from Trimark's catalog. And again, it's another fuzzy full-screen video sourced transfer. But, like Women and Men, you can get it for pennies, so what could you expect?

If you want to go even farther, the entire, original Erotic Tales 30-episode series has been issued on DVD overseas. There's a collection of ten(!) now hard to find, individually released German discs by WVG Median released back in 2005. And in 2011, Madman released two boxed sets, Erotic Tales and More Erotic Tales (also sold together as one larger set) in Australia. These are all listed everywhere as being anamorphic widescreen, but I've checked them out, and the OAR actually varies episode to episode. And all the eps featured on Tales of Erotica are fullscreen on the Madman sets, too.  So don't bother tracking them down just for a widescreen Russell episode. The rest of the series involves some other noteworthy filmmakers, though, including Nicholas Roeg, Hal Hartley and Bob Rafelson, so who knows? There may be another genuinely good episode or two in there if you have the temperament to go digging.

But this post is about being a Russell completist, not a Roeg completist.  So I recommend just picking up the Women and Men and Tales of Erotica discs wherever they're cheapest. They're not amazing, but speaking as a Russell fan myself, I was pleasantly surprised.

The Integral Re-Animator From Capelight (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

Re-Animator is in the weirdly unique position where its unrated version is actually shorter than its censored, R-rated version. By several minutes, too; not just a few seconds. I remember holding both VHS tapes in my hands back in the day and thinking they had to have been mislabeled; but no, it's true. Why? Because the R-rated version, though missing the most extreme, controversial shots like you'd expect, features a bunch of less shocking scenes trimmed out of the unrated version. I guess for pacing. But I grew up with both versions, and so, while horror fans naturally gravitate towards the bloody unrated version, I always thought something special was missing from it. Of course, something special was missing from the R-rated version, too; and if you've seen the film, you know exactly what moment I'm thinking about.  heh
When Elite Entertainment released their excellent 10th anniversary Re-Animator laserdisc, it included, amongst many other things, the unrated version with all of the deleted scenes as extras and a detailed timeline of where each of those would fit into the complete film. I always wanted to use those to make a composite cut, but back in those days, getting a digital recording of a laserdisc and trying to edit a high quality movie file on a personal computer was technically possible, but rather daunting.

So, when Elite came out with their Millennium Edition special edition, I got that; and when Anchor Bay came out with their re-release, including a new 70-odd minute making of documentary I switched to that version. And I've still got that one, so we can use it for a comparison here. Yeah, Image put out a blu-ray; but I never felt compelled to upgrade. And I'm glad I didn't, because a year later, the German DVD company Capelight came out with their own 3-disc special edition blu. And not only did it feature a new and much improved 4k scan and restoration from the original negatives, which frankly would've been enough, but they used that new transfer to create "the Integral Cut," which combined all of the extra R-rated version's footage with the essential unrated moments. It's the Re-Animator I've always wanted... although admittedly some of those long scenes of Bruce Abbot and Barbara Crampton could've been left on the cutting room floor. But still, this is now my definitive Re-Animator; it's great.
Now, Capelight's released a couple different versions of their new Re-Animator blu. A cheaper single disc edition, a combo pack with Bride of Re-Animator, and the one I opted for: the 3-disc mediabook set. The disc set is two dual-layer blus and one DVD, containing all the extras (more on that later). It has the Integral cut, of course, but also the traditional unrated version from the same 4k scan, in case you're not as sure of the new cut as I am. And it a standard def presentation of the TV cut as well, for completists, or yaknow, just for fun. Let's take a look.
Top to bottom: Anchor Bay's 2007 DVD, Capelight's 2013 Integral cut blu,
Capelight's unrated blu, Capelight's unrated DVD and Capelight's TV cut.
I threw screenshots of all the transfers into the mix for the sake of being as informative as possible, but most of the story is in the first two (although, am I crazy, or is the Integral cut a smifgen darker than the unrated?). Obviously Capelight's version trumps Anchor Bay's because we're comparing an HD blu to a SD DVD; but it beats it in a lot more areas than just that. Look at the framing. Does Dean Halsey have a hand or no? And that AB transfer is the same one the US blu used, too, because it predates the new 4k scan. So the 1.82ish framing has been opened up vertically to 1.78:1, but there's also a good deal of new picture information on the sides, too. The older master just looks to be overly zoomed-in. The new colors are more natural, too, than the red-heavy look of the past. Grain is very real here, too; I'd say the new 4k scan really pushes this film to its limits.

Also interesting is the TV cut, included on one of the blu-rays, but in standard definition. Sure, it's the fuzziest and worst looking of the lot, but it's also open matte. So while it has all the same picture on the sides (compared to the old framing, of course, as seen on the AB shots), but additional picture on the tops and bottoms, even more than the new 4k scan introduces. So serious fans may want to at least pop it in and scan through it as a curiosity piece.

Besides the multiple German audio tracks, the unrated version (on both the blu and DVD) sports 5.1 and 2.0 stereo English mixes. And it's got optional English subtitles as well. The Integral cut doesn't have the subs or 2.0 mix, but does have a DTS-HD 5.1 English track. Capelight has also added an isolated music score
Extras are a pretty solid lock for the Capelight blu, carrying over everything from past editions. Re-Animator covered itself in the special features department pretty early on. The old laserdisc already had two excellent audio commentaries with all the major players, plus the long list of deleted scenes and trailers. Then the Millennium DVD set added interviews with just about everybody, plus some storyboards and odds & ends and even an isolated music score; and those extras have stuck with just about every subsequent release. Anchor Bay, being Anchor Bay, of course added something new to the mix: that 70 minute documentary I mentioned earlier. And that, along with all those other extras have been ported over to Capelight's release. No, they didn't really come up with any new extras, but there's not left that needs to be added that wouldn't just be redundant at this point. Re-Animator already came fully-loaded.

The media book packaging includes a nice 24-page booklet, but the text is all in German. Looks nice, though. There's also a couple inserts and autoplaying bonus trailers for other Capelight releases on each disc. But that's the only non-English friendly content. Every cut of the film and all of the extras are in English.
You can tell the people at Capelight really cared about this film, and came up with a blu-ray package that didn't just upgrade our old DVDs to HD but was a major upgrade over the previous US blu-ray. Other countries are starting to pick up on this new 4k scan and integral cut and release it around the world, including Second Sight in the UK and Umbrella in Australia. So depending what country you live in, you might want check to see if your local edition is suitable and cheaper to obtain. Like, I know there's a Japanese one, too, but I'm not sure what transfer they're using because honestly I stopped paying attention. Nobody's topping this sweet Capelight set. And unfortunately here in the US, I think we'll be stuck with the old scan as our only blu for a while, so American fans should definitely be importing.

The REAL Bergman Island

In 2009, Criterion announced they were upgrading their old 1999 DVD of Ingmar Bergman's film classic Seventh Seal. They had a new 2k scan of the original 35mm negative, which they were releasing on both blu and DVD; and they had new extras, too. In fact, they made it a 2-disc set because one of the new extras was actually the feature-length Swedish documentary Bergman Island. You know those great little intros to most of Criterion's Bergman DVDs, where he's sitting in a theater, says a few words about the film and then tells the projectionist to start the film? Those were all culled from these sessions. And for anyone who didn't care to upgrade their old discs or just weren't big Seventh Seal fans, they also released it as its own, separate DVD release. I was all for the Seventh Seal upgrade, so that's the version I got (I also got the DVD version because I wasn't buying blu-rays yet in 2009. Whoops! Oh well). Well, the Seventh Seal restoration was great, Bergman Island's a great doc, and it's pretty cool that they gave you the option to pick up the doc together or individually. A great day for Bergman fans, right? What could go wrong?
Well, how about if it turns out the Criterion version of Bergman Island (both the one packaged with Seventh Seal and released on its own - they're the same) was cut, missing more than half of its running time? Criterion has a re-edited, 83.22 minute version, which is not just missing half the movie, but the pieces that are there have been edited differently. The original documentary is 173.09 minutes. And no, the footage that's been cut isn't all junk or filler just stretching out the running time. It's as strong as what you see on the Criterion discs. I've seen reviews where people are saying Bergman Island is alright, but feels like a glorified DVD extra as opposed to a compelling documentary on its own right. Well, sure - the version they're watching is missing over 90 minutes! They removed more footage than they left in; of course it feels rushed. But fortunately, the complete, un-dismembered documentary is available on DVD from SVT in Sweden, and has been since 2005.
The complete film, unlike the abridged version, is divided into three 58 minute sections: one on Bergman and his relationship with film, one with his relationship with theater and one with Fårö, the titular island Bergman lived and frequently filmed on. I couldn't blame you if you said, I mostly just care about the film part, so maybe the Criterion cut is better for me. But the Criterion version isn't just one of the three thirds; it's a mix of everything. And even the Swedish version isn't that clear cut. The subjects all bleed together; there's plenty about his films in the Fårö segment, for example. The sections just dictate where the bulk of the focus lies - certainly the bulk of the theater talk is saved for part 2 - but as with Bergman himself, it's really all inextricable. It's one long film; not three television episodes, even if it was divided up that way probably specifically for Swedish television.
Picture quality varies, naturally, as different types of archival footage is included in the doc.
This version doesn't feel like a DVD extra. It gets quite personal, showing us his day to day life and intimate interviews. I'm sure it's all the more poignant when he speaks dying seeing it now, after Criterion introduced this doc to the world, than if you'd caught in back in 2005 when he was still alive. But even then, it certainly felt more substantive than just "oh yeah, it was so great to work with everybody" like your average promotional featurette. Granted, it doesn't romanticize everything to the degree of Liv and Ingmar; but it's just that type of film, choosing instead to delve deeper into his work than his marriage(s). And that's the even bigger reason why this film excels in its uncut form; it's able to be so much more thorough.
Criterion's 2009 DVD on top; SVT's 2005 DVD below.
So, okay, the Criterion does look a little better than SVT's older DVD... and presumably more so if you procured the HD version on blu-ray. The little upgrades in resolution and color, of course, pale in comparison to seeing the entire film in its complete form, but credit where it's due, Criterion did make it look a little nicer.

Criterion also added a nice little extra, a roughly 30 minute featurette called Bergman 101, where their resident Bergman scholar Peter Cowie talks you through the great man's film career. This feature is included both on Criterion's Bergman Island solo DVD and in their Seventh Seal package, the latter of which naturally also includes some more Seal-specific extras. The Swedish DVD doesn't have any extras, although it does have English subtitles and menus - surely you didn't think I'd run you through all this if it wasn't English-friendly? Again, though, Bergman 101 is nice, but it doesn't compare to seeing this film in its complete, more than double length form.
Honestly, I'm not one to try to convince people to overspend, but in this case, I think it's more than worth owning the Seventh Seal package and the original uncut Bergman Island (which, interestingly, doesn't actually seem to title it Bergman Island, but simply Ingmar Bergman). Seventh Seal would be an excellent, easily recommendable package without Bergman Island even entering into it. And while I guess the little bump in picture quality is nice, are you really going to want to sit down to watch the cut in half version just for that? It's definitely 100% worth seeing the complete version and forgetting about the truncated version. And doing it that way lets you get the Bergman 101 piece, too, without having to buy Criterion's stand-alone Island disc.

Contamination: Arrow Vs. Blue Underground (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)


Alright, a fun one has just landed from Arrow Video, another one of their dual US and UK releases, Luigi Cozzi's Contamination. They're updating what was already a pretty excellent DVD from Blue Underground - which I already had, giving us the opportunity for a nice comparison here - so let's take a look and see what convinced me to double dip; and if there's any reason to hang onto our old BU discs.
Whenever I read about this movie, I see it referred to as an Italian Alien knock-off, which I think is interesting. There are clearly some images and concepts from Ridley Scott's original rolling around in this movie, but I've seen a number of Alien rip-offs, and I wouldn't count this among them. I mean, if you're looking to watch a movie that has a similar, if cheaper, viewing experience to Alien, you won't find that here. We're on Earth, no in space. We're not following a few characters trapped in a tight, claustrophobic environment, spaceship or otherwise, and there's not a scary alien stalking and killing them off one-by-one. It's more like the alien eggs, which had a small but memorable role in the original, were given their own spin-off movie in a different genre. This is more like a violent espionage movie.
We actually learn from the extras that Cozzi originally wanted to make a much more direct Alien knock-off, just set on Earth and titled, appropriately, Alien Arrives on Earth. But his producers wanted to make a film more like or The China Syndrome or James Bond. Well, they never really saw to eye and wound up pulling in both directions, ultimately creating a weirdo hybrid-compromise film that I think is actually much more engaging than their individual concepts would have been. It's The China Syndrome but with space aliens and tons of gooey effects, all elevated by a terrific Goblin soundtrack. I was honestly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this film the first time I saw it, having heard it get dismissed by most fans. I found it to just be much more enjoyable than it ever gets credit for.
So this movie's had plenty of budget, "public domain" releases from the usual parties (Mill Creak, East West, etc) under the title Alien Contamination, but for serious film fans, the only real contender in the DVD market was Blue Underground's 2003 edition. But now Arrow has taken it into the HD realm with a brand new 2k restoration and a whole bunch of new extras. It's also a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, so I'm throwing both discs into the mix, as we compare Contamination: Blue Underground Vs. Arrow.
Arrow's blu on top; Blue Underground's DVD mid and Arrow's DVD bottom.


So the first thing I noticed actually, is that Blue Underground's disc really holds up. Arrow is still the clear winner just by virtue of presenting an HD version of the film on blu-ray, which clears away all the compression when you look at the image close-up, leaving only a natural film grain. But if you compare the two DVDs, just for the sake of making the playing ground equal for a moment, there's not a very visible improvement in the new scan. BU's looks very similar. The most notable difference is the color timing, with BU's disc leaning more towards the yellowish green side. In the shots above, the lab rat's eyes and ears look pink in the Arrow shots, but orange in the BU shot. Besides that, there is a sliver more picture info gained on the sides of Arrow 1.85:1 framing (both are just slightly letterboxed anamorphic transfers0, but you'd probably never notice the difference if you weren't doing a direct side-by-side comparison like this. It's certainly no fault of Arrow's, it's just that BU's transfer was already quite strong, so the improvement isn't so dramatic.

One really nice aspect of the Arrow disc, though, is that they provided both the English and Italian audio options in their original mono tracks. And on the blu, they're uncompressed PCM tracks that. The BU disc gave you several mix options, including DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround and the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. But, as usual with Lustig's Italian releases, you could only view the film with the English dub. Arrow's Italian, with English subtitles, is a really nice option.
Arrow brought a lot more to the table, too, in the extras department. Not that Blue Underground's release was bare bones. They had a really nice, straight forward on camera interview with Cozzi which gave you the basic, all-you-need-to-know run down on the film and its creation. And they also had a really cool, vintage half-hour Italian television special on the making of Contamination. Those were the two main things, though there was also a photo gallery, the trailer, and a graphic novel adaptation of the original screenplay which was interesting, though not something I was going to attempt to click and read through on my television. I skimmed it a bit, though; and one interesting thing was that it started out in space, which of course the movie doesn't (probably hampered by budget considerations).

Well, the Italian TV special, the trailer and the graphic novel all made the transition to Arrow's release, leaving out only the Cozzi interview. And they added a brand new on-camera interview with Cozzi to replace it, as well as a Q&A session with him and star Ian McCulloch speaking at a film festival, and a cool interview with Goblin's Maurizio Guarini on the scoring of the film, including a cool moment where he plays the main theme on piano. Also, Fangoria editor Chris Alexander provides an audio commentary that starts a little slow, but winds up providing some interesting info you won't find anywhere else. Oh, and there's an oddball little featurette where two English film critics talk about Italian exploitation films for a few minutes. Arrow's release also comes with a nice little booklet (BU also had a neat insert with some crazy foreign cover art) and a very cool slipcover. 
I hate to say this and discourage anyone in future, but as much as I appreciate the effort and expense, I'm not sure this new 2k scan was really necessary here (although, of course, the blu IS an improvement, and a very appreciated one). I certainly want to see many more new scans and restorations of Italian genre films, and Arrow did a pretty perfect job. But it seems like the existing transfer was already pretty sweet. Still, Arrow did an excellent job on this and came up with a bunch of great new features and some sweet packaging. There's no way I can't whole-heartedly recommend this, especially if you're buying it for the first time or are keen to upgrade to HD. If you're just going DVD to DVD, it basically boils down to the new extras, which are actually quite tempting in their own right, although BU's do a pretty good job of holding the fort on their own. And finally, if you've got Arrow's awesome new blu, is there any reason to go back and pick up the BU disc just to have more extras? I'd say no, it's pretty redundant as Arrow did a good job of pulling Cozzi and that info with their new features. Since I've already got the BU disc, I'll hang onto it; but I wouldn't buy it now if it wasn't already in my collection.