Dawn Of the Mummy (US Vs. UK Editions)

I was talking on a forum recently about Dawn Of the Mummy, saying how the UK disc is so much better, with the anamorphic widescreen print and the commentary. But I've been thinking about that discussion for the last couple days. Was the UK disc really so much better? I was operating from some pretty old memories. It was time to break out both versions and give 'em the full DVD Exotica treatment.
If you've never seen Dawn, don't let it's title and artwork fool you. This is not one of those mummy movies where a bunch of stuffy English professors stand around in a drawing room warning each other about the mummy they'll finally confront in the last five minutes. This has more in common with Fulci than Hammer or the Universal classics. It's not Italian, though; it's an Egyptian movie in English with some American stars. The set-up is traditional: in ancient Egypt, a king is buried with his treasures and a curse. Cut to modern times and an American is excavating the tomb with his local guides. So naturally the mummy wakes up and is out for blood.
But things start to get very 80s when a group of attractive young models stumble into the same pyramid, looking to smoke, screw and have a photo shoot. And the mummy, who's a freakishly tall, bad-ass looking mummy, also happens to command an army of the dead, who pure zombie flesh eaters. Everyone winds up at an outdoor Egyptian wedding in a small village, and it's practically war between the living and the dead. Things move at a pretty good clip here; you won't be bored at long, dry scenes of exposition. It gets right down to the exploitation. And while this movie definitely looks and feels cheap, it's also got some pretty impressive production values. The film was shot in both NY and Egypt. Some interiors are shot on sound-stages, but they're often out riding on horses and camels in and around real pyramids. And the special effects for the mummy, the kills and explosions are all pretty strong. The acting and the dialogue are poor, but that almost adds to the fun.
So Dawn Of the Mummy was released in both the US and the UK in 2003. Only Anchor Bay's UK disc had the anamorphic widescreen transfer, though, so the word was out avoid Madacy's US DVD. But looking back at my UK disc, it's not too pretty. So I borrowed a Madacy disc to see how they really do compare, and I was somewhat surprised.
Madacy on top, Anchor Bay fullscreen mid, and AB widescreen bottom.
One surprise is just that I forgot Anchor Bay gave you a choice: even before the main menu, you get to pick 4:3 or 16x9. Okay, cool; I'll take that. The 4:3 (on both discs) is open matte, not a pan & scanned or chopped off sides deal. The widescreen appears to be the OAR and generally looks better, but some shots, like the one above where the pyramid tip isn't cut off, almost looks better composed for 4:3. So I'm not mad at us having the choice. Even the widescreen is slightly pillarboxed to about 1.72:1.

All three transfers are actually ugly, murky, soft videotape-looking images. The two Anchor Bays are identical except of course for the matting. But the Anchor Bay and Madacy transfers are noticeably different. They both basically have one big, unique flaw, in addition to the aforementioned ugly, murkiness they share. Madacy has stronger colors and is a bit brighter, though it's also slightly black crushed. But mainly, it just looks softer and even more VHS-like. Anchor Bay is a little duller, more film-like with additional visible detail - and it looks like they cleaned off some flecks and dirt - but it has a serious ghosting/ interlacing problem.
BOTH of these shots are the Anchor Bay fullscreen version (explained below).
I think now might be a good time to address interlacing and ghost frames a little further, since they come up in so many of my posts (surprisingly even on some newer DVDs). The two shots above are from the same Anchor Bay transfer. Usually, I've been showing the straight ghosted frames, since that's how many of your players will display it. But it's all a result of interlacing, and depending how you're set up, you might see it like the second show, below. See how it's broken up into horizontal lines where there's all the motion? That's interlacing, and that's what's really on these discs.
The other surprise for me was that Madacy also had the commentary on it. The primary extra on both discs is a light but very illuminating commentary by director Frank Agrama and moderated by the guy from Dark Delicacies (they're the people who got my Crystal Lake Memories blu-ray autographed!). You don't find a lot of Egyptian horror flicks on your video store shelves, so it's good to have such a detailed account of this film's history. But that commentary is pretty much all there is. Madacy's only other extra is a bonus trailer for some movie called Road Ends. Anchor Bay at least has the actual Dawn Of the Mummy trailer, which is worth a watch for some fun narration ("Egypt, home of the pyramids. A nice place to visit... but would you want to DIE there?"). But that and a photo gallery are the only other extras. Oh, and Anchor Bay has a nice, fold-out insert. All told, a tiny improvement, but nothing to go out of your way for.
So apparently Anchor Bay's Dawn isn't the vastly superior presentation I remembered it being. It's still preferable, primarily for the OAR, and especially since it gives you the open matte fullscreen version as a bonus anyway. Both are ugly as sin and in serious need of an upgrade we're not likely to see anytime soon. It's a flip of a coin whether the softer image or interlacing is more offensive, and the really important extra is actually on both releases. It's nice to have the trailer, but I don't think I'd say it's worth the trouble of importing for. It's a fun movie, so it's worth having in your collection even looking as low-fi as this. But while the Anchor Bay version wins the competition, I'd say just go for whichever is cheapest and easiest to score.

THX-1138: The Other Movie Lucas Lucas'd (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Even people who don't care about movies know about how George Lucas "Lucas'd" his Star Wars trilogy by using CGI to go in and change the movies decades later, and robbing the world of the original films. "Han shot first," right? But it's a little bit less well known that he did the same thing to his other science fiction film, THX-1138. And just as with the Star Wars film, you can get the latest blu-ray, the 2-disc special edition DVD, the older DVD, import DVDs, it doesn't matter. The only way to see his 1971 sci-fi flick on disc and un-doctored is via the laserdisc.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Part of the reason Lucas's changes to THX-1138 are less widely known that Star Wars, is of course, because THX-1138 is a lesser known film to begin with. I mean, it's a pretty substantial, major studio (Warner Bros) science fiction film, but Star Wars is an epic cultural landmark. It's just a far more accessible, mainstream kind of film as well: a fantastic, interstellar romp full of laser gun battles and wacky aliens. THX-1138 is more classic science fiction, where the purpose is to make commentary on current sociopolitical situations. I suppose both films are dystopian, but Star Wars lets the characters out to fly around all kinds of colorful planets, where here we're trapped with the lead characters in a seemingly hopeless 1984-style, prison-like world.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Of course, the world's not hopeless and Robert Duvall is broken free of his drug-induced trappings of mindless labor and thoughtless consumerism, along with the lovely Maggie McOmie and the more devious Donald Pleasance, who steals the show every scene he's in. It's hard sci-fi, sure, but it's actually rather funny and very attractively designed. From SS-like robot police clad all in black marching around these wild, all white interiors comes these very friendly, helpful voices. They stop pursuing THX (minor spoiler, I guess; but I don't think this reveal will actually spoil any aspect of the movie for you) when the budget to arrest him runs out. There's some action, especially towards the end, with some impressive car and motorcycle racing, and there's some obvious catharsis. But it's mostly a pretty intellectual, which I think is really its strength, especially as it might come as a welcome to surprise to modern audiences who've developed lower expectations from Lucas over the years.

But that's not to say he doesn't live up to any of the more negative aspects of his reputation with this film... Particularly his revisionism. Like with Star Wars, he's used CGI to create a new director's cut and made the original film unavailable. Now, the changes he's made to THX-1138 are admittedly maybe a little less egregious. Okay, maybe he tweaked the colors, brushed away some seams, cleaned up a few spots. But there's no terrible looking "Jabba walking" scenes, right? Maybe the changes here aren't so dramatic. I don't know, is this a dramatic change?
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Whoa! The opening shots of Duvall's assembly line sure have changed! Lucas has used CGI to really create some images that were not present in the original, that's for sure. Story-wise, he's barely changed anything. There's a bit of dialogue replacement going on in one or two points, and some shots swapped with other shots; but by and large, almost all of the changes stay in sync with the original film's audio. It's mostly about using computer graphics to improve the picture. And probably, many would argue that they do.

And for a lot of it, I'll even agree. It's a bit of a shame the original film isn't available in its original form. This was a very creative, inventive film, and some of that has been washed away with much more typical CGI. The film does have an early 70s, young filmmaker rough-around-the-edges vibe, and it's kind of a shame we can't see that film anymore, but smoothing those edges away could easily be described as flat-out improvement. Nobody wanted to see Hayden Christensen pasted into the finale of Return Of the Jedi, but how many of us really mind that the blocky matting around the model spaceships flying through space was cleaned up in the original?
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
In that sense, it's a mixed bag. When the creatures pictured above first jumped Duvall near the end of the film, the film has thrown a real surprise at us. The new CGI monkey versions they've been replaced with definitely don't have that surprising impact. For the most part, they look good (they're mostly obscured by low lighting and fast moving action), but they do suffer being the creations of early CGI. Some of their animation, especially their tails, don't match the natural movement of Duvall and the rest of the scene. They look CGI'd in. On the other hand, the originals are clearly midgets in funky fuzzy suits which would derive laughs from modern viewers. I still find the dropped impact the most significant loss, so I prefer the original; but I could certainly see people preferring the remade shots.

Also, notice that the white lines on the pavement have been erased for whatever reason.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Yeah, plenty of the changes on hand are just puzzlingly arbitrary. Why is a big 3 on the door preferable to the more complex and depressing code on the door in the original version? Is it some kind of in-joke? I don't know, but they spent the money to change it. And that door opens and closes throughout the shot, with characters walking behind it, so it was no simple, zero effort swap. Somebody really wanted that change. As a viewer, it's hard to argue a strong preference for either one. A lot of the changes could be filed under this category: No Big Deal.

This is probably also a good time to point out something else about these screenshots. Let's bring the conversation back to the more traditional picture quality comparisons. The laserdisc is clearly faded compared to the other two, and we're basically looking at a very expected order of quality you'd expect to see between a laserdisc, DVD and blu-ray. The blu and DVD have the same 2.34:1 transfer, apart from the blu naturally being in HD and so less compressed. But if you'll notice (and it's hard to catch, considering some laserdisc shots are so different in content), you'll notice the laserdisc has some extra picture on the lower and right-hand sides that the later releases crop away. So there's one extra little point in the laserdisc's favor.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Some of the changes are a big deal. If you look closely, you'll see the entire shot from the laserdisc above has been shrunken and inserted into the center of the of a big, animated foreground on the DVD and blu. That illustrates the difference between the two versions perfectly for me. I think, conceptually, it's an improvement. But the early CGI doesn't hold up and looks phony. Maybe if they could take another pass at those effects now in 2015 they could really hit it out of the park. On the other hand, though, it's still more exciting to just watch the original and see the film they were capable of at the time, without the high budget cheating added decades later. The only real shame isn't that the changes were made, but that the original was quietly taken away from us at the same time. Why not package them together, a 2-disc set? Instead, Lucas seems to prefer to hide the originals and pretend they never existed. The extensive extras on the DVD set and blu don't mention the film being a new version at all; they just act like the film was always like this.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
And those extras are pretty extensive. The blu and DVD set (there's also a single disc DVD missing most of the goodies) are loaded with goodies, while the laserdisc has nothing except for the opening Buck Rogers trailer, which is arguably meant to be an actual part of the film and not an extra at all. But the blu and DVD has an excellent commentary by Lucas and his co-writer Walter Murch, who are both very enthusiastic and enlightening. Then there's two substantial documentaries, one on the making of the film and one on the film company American Zoetrope in general. There's also a vintage promo featurette which focuses on the bemusing side of convincing the film's actresses to shave their heads for the part, and Lucas's original student film version of this movie, the short THX 1138 4EB. Plus trailers.

It's great stuff. Even if you're a total purist and are only interested in ever watching the original laserdisc version of the film - I'm not that extreme, but overall, it is the one I prefer - I still recommend getting the DVDs in addition, just for the comprehensive extras. Combined they make a sweet, if non-anamorphic special edition (meaning the original laserdisc; the DVDs are naturally anamorphic). And if you're not so bothered by the changes, the blu is a pretty easy choice.

Japanese Story: The Essential Australian Cut

Perhaps a better term for it would be the International cut, because the United States is pretty much the only country in the world that didn't get the original, full-length version of the Australian film Japanese Story released in our country. Instead, we got an abridged version on DVD, wherein director Sue Brooks happily shares and restates that this is not her preferred version of the film. Our DVD also has less extras... except it's got more deleted scenes. Because that's because it's got more footage cut out of the main feature!
If you'd written this one off as just another quirky independent slightly comedic romances (not that there's anything wrong with those), I definitely urge you to go back and find this film. Japanese Story isn't so much a story of romanticism so much as an exploration of life once all the illusion romance has been stripped away from our vision.  Toni Collette is amazing as a geologist who has to take a Japanese business man (Gotaro Tsunashima, who should get more work) on a tour of her company's mining facilities in the outback. Unfortunately for her, she's stuck indulging his whims while he seems to be abusing his authority, using the trip simply as a thinly veiled vacation. Yes, a culture-crossing affair blooms, but it's far from a saccharine tableau, and that's even before the story takes a very dark turn. To go any further would be stumble into some very hefty spoilers, but it film quietly becomes a very powerful and moving look at the existential choices we make with our lives, and questioning the issues people spend the most effort avoiding thinking about.

It's a great showcase of talent all around. Not just the two leads, who naturally command the spotlight, but the entire supporting cast is quite good. It's got some excellent, 'scope photography and a great score that slowly sneaks up on you right up until the very ending. Great writing, excellent direction; it's the whole package. I can't even really think of any nitpicks, and if you know me, that's quite a statement.
So, let's talk cuts. The US release is 99.37 minutes long, and my copy of the original Australian cut is 101.19 minutes long... and that's with PAL speed up. So really over six minutes have been cut, which is considerably more than just shaving a few frames off a particularly graphic scene here and there. In fact, there really aren't any particularly graphic scenes in this film... though I suppose one or two are, a bit. You know, it's an R-rated film; but this is no bloody horror film or anything. In fact, none of the cuts were made for censorship reasons. Someone - I'm guessing the US distributors, though the filmmakers don't specifically name them in their commentary on the matter - urged them to trim it down for pacing "Americans have shorter attention spans" reasons. It's tempting to find that insulting, but they're probably right. Either way, though, this is a very deliberate film. When a scene unveils slowly, it's because it's trying, and in this case very effectively, to put you into the reality of that moment with the character. Cutting these scenes down is working pretty specifically against the film, in the same way that cutting the gory shots out of a splatter movie or the nudity out of a porn film would. Ironically, you're cutting away exactly what the audience came to see in the name of satisfying your audience.

Admittedly, you could look at any one of those moments and say, "I don't know if it's that essential." And certainly, no one clipped out any major plot points that confuse the story. Watching the original opening as a separate, deleted scene, for example, could feel like excess well trimmed. And the majority of the film is still on screen and its emotion is still there - a lot of American viewers still probably cried. It's an effective film in either version, but it's even more effective in its uncut state. The "excess" doesn't feel excessive in context, it's all part of a journey that pulls you in deeper and gets you more invested in the final act. Plus, there's one particular cut I can't imagine anyone justifying, but for the sake of spoilers, I won't specify. If you're familiar with both versions, I'm sure you know which one I mean anyway.
So this is a 2003 film, meaning it was a new release when it hit DVD. So naturally there were plenty of DVD editions released around the world in 2004, but as it was an independent film, it's been pretty quiet since. I've got the US DVD from Columbia Tri-Star here for comparison's sake, but really you want a DVD from pretty much any other country. Naturally there's an R4 Australian disc, there's a French disc... Personally I went with the UK one from Tartan, but as long as you're avoiding the shorter, US cut, you're fine.
2004 UK DVD from Tartan on top; 2004 US DVD from Columbia Tri-Star bottom.
Transfer-wise, they look pretty identical, which makes sense as they're concurrent editions of a brand new release. Despite one being PAL and NTSC, there's no conversion issues or ghosting/ interlace junk. Both are anamorphic (thank god). The film's handled properly and very professionally. The Tartan disc naturally has the PAL speed-up, though, if that bothers you. But that's just standard region 2 stuff. Tartan also offers more audio options: English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, where as the US disc only has the English Dolby Digital 5.1. The subtitles for the Japanese lines are optional/removable in both cases.
Tartan excels again in the extras, though neither disc is barebones. Both discs have director's commentary, though I prefer the R2 of the two. There's naturally a lot of repetition between them - I'd only recommend getting both to a super completist - but she (and her producer, Sue Maslin) just come off as a little more informative and involved on that one, which probably not coincidentally, they recorded first. The US commentary also spends a lot of time explaining what was cut and why - which is good if you've only ever seen the US cut. But you're better off just watching the uncut version and sparing yourself that whole compromise all together. Then the US disc has 5 deleted scenes, all with optional commentary. 4 of those scenes are material cut from the international cut - so they're also on the UK disc, just in the film, not as extras. And the fifth deleted scene is also the sole deleted scene on the UK disc. Both versions have commentary on that scene, too; and even there the UK one is superior, as she talks about the content of the scene and why it was cut, whereas in the US one she just tells us it was cut and that it's "interesting" to see deleted footage.

So there's that stuff, the trailer (on both releases) and some bonus trailers. But then the Tartan DVD also has a 32+ minute featurette called Inside Japanese Story. It's actually a Q&A session filmed at the Australian Center for the Moving Image in December 2003 with Brooks, Maslin and screenwriter Alison Tilson, plus moderator Michael Agar. It starts off a bit dry, but once it finds its groove, it's a pretty interesting. It's professionally shot with multiple cameras, individual mics and they've edited in clips and music, etc, to keep it tighter than just the rough and raw footage a lot of Q&A extras are. It's definitely a nice addition and helps the package feel more rounded out. The Tartan disc also has a nice, fold-out insert with poster art and notes by Tim Robey, where the US disc just has a single sheet with chapter titles.
Looking at these screenshots, it's obvious the film would get some serious benefit out of an HD transfer. And it's hard to get too excited about the multiple audio options on the Tartan disc in the age of uncompressed tracks. Unfortunately, though, I doubt this film is on the radar of any blu-ray companies, so this is probably all we're going to get. And considering the Tartan doesn't just have better extras and audio options, but crucially, a superior cut of the film; I can't think of any reason not to add it to your collection, either if it's your first time getting the film or if you're replacing your US DVD, it's well worth it.

Contemporary Cronenberg: Maps To the Stars, UK Vs. US Blu-Rays

The last couple of Cronenberg films have been interesting... Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis. Nothing I've necessarily felt compelled to add to my collection, but at least worth the initial watch. Maybe not fully back up to par with his heyday yet, but definitely rising up out of his slump. So I was pretty happy when I started watching his latest feature and realized, you know what? I think this is one I'm gonna have to buy the blu-ray for. But I'm glad I took my time, because it allowed me to research it, and find out the 2015 US edition isn't the one you want to get.

Update 3/18/17: Added the US DVD edition to flesh things out a little more.
Maps To the Stars is a little hard to pin down, and that will probably put off most mainstream viewers right there. It's a... ghost story? A parodic expose of Hollywood phonies? A psychological character study? Of course it's kinda all of those. But from reviews and comments I've read online, I think people are getting a little hung up on the trappings. It's a story that's set in Hollywood, and so naturally it's full of those elements. But I don't think it's meant to particularly be about Hollywood or movie stars. I think you could pick this story up, move it to a another location, and have the characters be involved in some other industry without damaging anything important. It's a dark crime drama, with a lot of the same DNA as a Bret Easton Ellis adaptation.
This isn't Ellis, though, it's a screenplay by novelist Bruce Wagner... Apparently it was one of those "unfilmable" screenplays that had been floating around the industry for decades, and it took a crazy filmmaker like David Cronenberg to finally take on the challenge. Of course, considering how this movie performed, the executives who'd put this off for so long all probably had the right idea. But as a viewer, I don't care about how much a film earns, I care about art. And this movie is definitely not without its flaws - some of the writing gets a little too arch and melodramatic, plus it's got one of the most unfortunate CGI effects I've seen in decades, during what's meant to be a very serious, climatic moment. But I daresay Cronenberg has made a really worthwhile film here, helped out by a fabulous cast, including Julianne Moore, John Cusack and relative unknown Evan Bird, smart photography, plus another excellent Howard Shore soundtrack.
So when I set about to order this film online, I was pretty disappointed to see the US blu-ray from Focus/ Universal was apparently barebones. Canada sometimes has Cronenberg's back, so I checked their release, but it was the same. But when I looked up the UK's? Hey, there's a special edition, with commentary, interviews and more! I wonder why only they got it? Oh well, I jumped on it and that's the edition I've got on my shelf. But for the sake of this review, I've got the US DVD and blu-ray releases sitting here on my desk, too. So let's have a comparison - it seems to be a little more interesting than you'd expect from a concurrent release of a brand new film.
Focus's US DVD top; their BD mid; Entertainment One's UK BD bottom.
The DVD is definitely compressed, soft and smudgy.  A little below par, I'd say, for a brand new DVD released at the same time as its blu-ray counterpart.  But between the two blus, picture quality seems to be a naturally even match, with both discs slightly letterboxing the image to 1.85:1. But wait! The framing isn't exactly identical, is it? No, in fact the US disc is slightly zoomed in, shaving off information on all four sides. That's a surprise I wasn't expecting to stumble upon when taking screen grabs of this US disc. Makes me even more glad I own the UK one. Both are dual-layered discs with 1080p and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (the DVD, of course, is lossy) with optional English HOH subtitles (the US disc also offers Spanish and French subs).
Of course, there's another factor differentiating the discs: extras! The US, as I said, has none. Well, apart from two bonus trailers for other films (including 50 Shades of Grey, ooh la la) that auto-play on start-up. But the UK disc has plenty. The main one is an audio commentary by Wagner. I was surprised, and a little disappointed, not to get a Cronenberg track; but I'm always glad to see a writer commentary, since they seem to be the most neglected, yet key contributor when it comes to special features. And it's quite interesting; he has a lot to say and keeps it moving and informative the entire time. Then there's a series of nine interviews, which are all pretty short and feel somewhat promotional, but they're still good to have. A few of them are genuinely illuminating, and we finally to get to hear from Cronenberg, for at least 6 minutes here. Finally, there are two little featurettes which are essentially trailers with snippets of additional interviews mixed in. I'm surprised the US release didn't at least have these, but nope. Oh, and there are a couple more bonus trailers stuck on as well.
So, this movie definitely isn't for everyone. It's nihilistic with deliberately unlikable characters, and a lot of ambiguous elements (it's funny, in the extras, you'll hear how Cronenberg and Wagner have very different ideas about the ghosts). But I do recommend it if you fit into its rather specific demographic. If you don't, and you're still waiting for the return of Videodrome-level Cronenberg, he isn't there yet, but if keeps on this trajectory, we might soon have a Cronenberg film all of us can agree on.