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.

My Favorite Code Red Blu: Neon Maniacs (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

So, if you didn't already know, Code Red has repressed some of their earliest, limited blu-rays. Each of his original line of blus was limited to 1000 copies, except Neon Maniacs, which was limited to 1200. I guess he already knew this one had a little broader fan following. Anyway, that didn't stop it from going out of print long before many fans even knew Code Red had entered the blu-ray market, so it's been reissued with the rest of them and is back on the market... for now.
Neon was a film I couldn't fully wrap my head around when I was younger. I knew I liked... parts of it, at least. It had a bunch of cool monster killers and some creative atmospheric sequences. Those were definitely cool. But other parts were silly, and everything felt kind of disjointed and off-kilter. It also feels incomplete, which may be literally true. The story doesn't have an ending so much as an arbitrary "we'll stop here" moment. We now know that the producers came in and directed some of the sequences themselves, which explains a lot of the "too many cooks" shifts in tone.
But now that I'm an adult, I pretty much unabashedly love every part of it! The characters (the lady playing the young girl is at least 15 years older than her character, right?), the oddball moments, the weird childrens' story aspects merged with the violent slasher film aspects, everything. The titular maniacs are all, seemingly short monsters (their height's a little inconsistent, I think), each with a very distinct gimmick. One's a samurai, one's a biker, one's a cave man, one's a slug. Why? Who knows? We learn nothing about their back story or why they exist, except that they seem to magically appear out of a storage room underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and they're coming is foretold by an awesome collection of personalized tarot card. Their one weakness is water, which causes them to melt into glowing slime, which might be why they're called "neon" maniacs.
If you're into 80s nostalgia, it doesn't get more 80s than this, right down to the title! But even if you're not, this is still a blast. A fast pace with lots of action and cool effects, and genuinely likable characters. It's mostly your standard pack of high school seniors played by 20-somethings who run afoul of the monsters... the basic plot is that one girl gets away from a random attack and they pursue her over the course of the film. But then there's also a high school freshman, who's an aspiring horror filmmaker, who realizes something's amiss and commences to cracking the case, Encyclopedia Brown-style. Our romantic lead has two main goals which culminate one into one big climax, saving the girl he loves from the maniacs and winning a big battle of the bands at his school dance. There's musical numbers, a big subway chase and lots of colorful kills. But actually my favorite scene now is when the young girl catches a police officer riding her tiny pink bike.
This was originally released by Anchor Bay in 2003. That DVD went out of print and got quite pricey rather quickly. So it was a treasured collectors item for a long time, but last year, Code Red finally rectified the problem, and boosting it to HD to boot. Well, I've got both releases here (for the record, my copy is the first printing of CR's blu; but I understand both discs are identical), so let's see how much of an improvement the blu-ray nets us.
Code Red's 2014 blu on top; Anchor Bay's 2003 DVD below.
Oh yeah, such a nice transfer! Code Red has made a whole new scan from the original 35mm interpositive and it shows. Their framing is a bit more open at a full 1.78:1 to Anchor Bay's slightly letterboxed anamorphic 1.85:1. This mostly results in AB having more picture on the left, which is actually a little odd. Code Red's picture is noticeably darker than Anchor Bay's, and it's hard to say which is more correct, but overall I think AB's might be a little overly bright. Code Red's is hands down the winner at any rate, because it's so much more detailed and clear.
Anchor Bay's 2003 DVD left; Code Red's 2014 blu right.
Just look how much richer the image on the right is when we get in close. I've done a bunch of DVD to blu-ray comparisons now, and you don't see a lot that distinct. Especially not when the DVD was generally considered to be pretty high quality for its time. But you'll find this all throughout the film... signs and details that ares light, smudgy blobs in the background are now crisp and defined. I was expecting - and would have been perfectly happy with - just your basic compression bump, where smudges are cleared away to reveal the film's original grain; but I wasn't expecting to find so much more visual information.
And extras are nice, if low-key surprise. Being such a bizarre, downright nonsensical at times movie, this film really calls for some extra features, if only to explain what the heck we're looking at. Unfortunately, for all this time, we only had Anchor Bay's disc, which was bare bones, apart from a trailer. It's a pretty awesome trailer, though, which names each one of the maniacs (something we don't learn in the film itself), so you should definitely check it out.
And fortunately, Code Red has carried over that trailer, so you get it on either release. But this film calls for a lot more than that. But that was never going to be an easy thing to come by... The director had been taken off the project on bad terms, and multiple other crew members and actors left production before the film wrapped when payments weren't coming through. Star Donna Locke has completely disappeared from the public eye. And the screen writer, tragically, took his own life in 1997.  So finding anybody to get on record and talk about this film was never going to be easy. But thankfully, Code Red did it. There's an excellent interview with Allan Apone, the special effects artist, and he's got a lot of information. So he's able to talk not just about his own effects side of it, which he does - breaking down every single maniac and explaining how he created the arm melting scene with cotton candy(!). But he's also able to tell us the film's backstory, and how production kept stopping and starting. I can't say he answers every single question fans have about this film, because we have tons; but he covers an awful lot. Honestly, I would've bought this disc if Apone's interview was the only thing on it.

That's basically it for the special features, except for the curious decision to include an isolated music only track. I say it's curious because, though I know a lot of other blus have done this, most notably from Twilight Time; but Neon Maniacs doesn't exactly have a grand, orchestral score. Apart from the songs in the battle of the bands, it's mostly a very workman-like horror synth score that gets the horror movie mood job done, but I don't think will impress anybody musically. But hey, I'll take it.
So, the title of this post is "My Favorite..." so obviously I recommend this one. This film's a hoot, and the new blu-ray transfer turned out to be even better than expected. Plus, the interview makes it essential viewing for any serious fan anyway. Code Red really knocked it out of the park here, and I'm super happy with it. I should also point out that even if you wind up missing the second run, or if you're just one of those people who never made the leap to blu-rays, that Code Red is releasing a DVD version of their remaster this October, just in time for Halloween. I think that's great, 'cause I don't think anybody should miss out on this.