Frederick Wiseman's Latest, National Gallery, By Way of France

So, Frederick Wiseman's newest documentary, National Gallery, is available now in the US through his film company Zipporah Films on DVD and blu. But given that they use DVD-Rs and BD-Rs, and the high prices they charge for them ($44.95 for their MOD blu!), I thought I might have better luck importing. Well, it's a DVD only title in the UK, but France had an interesting looking version from Blaq Out, so I went with that. A full, properly pressed blu and even with the cost of overseas shipping, it was cheaper to import.
If you're a fan, you certainly know what to expect, but it's fun to see online comments on places like amazon.co.uk from people not expecting a Wiseman film, and hoping apparently, for a video tour of London's National Gallery. "Awful film," says one 1-star review, "[t]oo much talking to the twittering classes and not enough paintings. Seemed to spend forever being a fly on the wall at committee meetings." I don't think we've had a Wiseman film without committee meetings since the 80s, and if anything, I felt this film was a little light on them. That's because this isn't a travelogue to show you the museum's paintings without having to leave your couch; as with most of his films, it's about us, and the way we choose to build our society. Specifically in this instance, it's about the systems we devise to curate and display our artwork.
I know the "Wiseman's films are about systems" is a long-bandied about theory that he's apparently never come out and confirmed - and certainly there's no "correct way to see art, even documentaries - but the more I see of these films, the more clear it seems to me that this is what he's really attempting to show us. And it's fascinating. I mean, if you want to see some important paintings, you do; and you get to hear some intelligent opinions about art as we eavesdrop on guided tours and television interviews filmed in the museum. But so much more interesting is the look at what we've made: how the museum is run and why, from the budgeting to the restoration. Who decides what art we get to see and what the line is between restoration and embellishment? Who visits the museum and who doesn't? We see the tearing down and building of walls as exhibitions are designed, events are held while other offers are argued against, people give a wide array of opinions on the meaning and value of art, and the proper way to maintain it. It even winds up operating on a probably unintended "meta" level, where the questions people ask about what art should and shouldn't be shown and why also apply to the footage Wiseman is shooting and will ultimately cut together or leave out.
On the other hand, the fact that this film has almost half as many 1-star reviews as 5-stars (and practically none in between) illustrate how this documentary isn't for everyone. His work seems to split into one of two categories: undeniable powerhouse documentaries that would move anyone, like Titicut Follies, Domestic Violence and Near Death, and drier studies that you probably need to me in the right frame of mind to appreciate, like Boxing Gym or Belfast, Maine. I was totally absorbed by Belfast, Maine, but I could see how other film-goers would want to go outside and bury themselves by the 4 hour mark, pining for the artificial narratives of placating documentaries like Murderball or Spellbound (MORE SHOTS FIRED!!). And speaking of running times, since Wiseman's films run the long gamut of 84 to 358 minutes long; it's worth pointing out that National Gallery comes in at a long but not unmanageable 3 hours and 1 minute.
So let's talk about this French blu. First of all, yes, it's a proper blu-ray disc. Dual-layer even. It's 1080p and looks great, as you can see in these screenshots. For what "virtual tour" elements there are in this movie, getting to see the paintings photographed in HD is a nice boon. You also get the option of DTS-HD 2.0 and DTS-HD 5.1 mixes. It doesn't have any extras, but it almost did. You'll find multiple online listings noting four interviews: with an art historian, a picture restorer, Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, and one with documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman Lozanes on Wiseman's approach. I contacted Blaq Out directly about this and they were good enough to write back, "Je vous confirmer qu'il n'y a aucun supplément sur le blu-ray et le DVD du film. A la demande de Frederick Wiseman qui n'aime pas ça," which google translates to, "I confirm that there is no supplement on the blu-ray and DVD movie. At the request of Frederick Wiseman who do not like it."

Argh! How frustrating when out of touch filmmakers make up these policies about their films on home video because they don't watch or "get" DVDs. It's like when David Lynch decreed that their should be no chapter stops on DVDs. Meanwhile, Wiseman has a whole book for sale talking about the making of his films, so apparently that's okay? Blah. Oh well. Those features would've been a nice bonus, but the important thing is still a top quality release of the film itself, and that's what we've got here. Plus, it comes in a cool black case with better cover art than the UK disc, and it's sheathed in a nice slip cover.
Except for one more possibly frustrating aspect about this particular release. It has somewhat forced French subtitles, probably to discourage exactly the kind of importing I've done and am recommending. Now, they're not burnt into the image, but they're set so hitting the subtitle button won't switch them off. I found I could get them off with some trickery on one player, but not at all on another, and turning the subtitle option off worked perfectly on my PC (and I'm talking direct playback from the disc, no ripping files or anything complicated like that). So "ymmv," as they say. But I actually just left them on the first time I viewed the film because they're small and very unobtrusive (though still distinct and legible, unlike White Ribbon's US blu), so they didn't bother me either way. But you should know, depending on your player, they may give you a little annoyance.
So I do recommend this.Even with the subtitle issue and the torpedoed special features, this seems to be the best release of the film available. And while I'm on board for any and all of Wiseman's films, I liked this one more than some of his other recent work like Crazy Horse. And you might also be interested to know that just this month, Blaq Out has put out a big boxed set of Wiseman's first 13 films on DVD. Again, they're pressed discs rather than DV-Rs, and a lot cheaper to import that than to collect all 13 discs here in the US. And they've already announced to release the rest in 2016. So France's Blaq Out are turning out to be the go-to guys for Wiseman's work, and I figure that's probably who I'll be copping In Jackson Heights from, too.

A Christmas Horror Story

I was going to let A Midwinter's Tale stand as my Holiday post for the season, but what the hay, here's one more. Merry Christmas, everybody! Today I'm looking a new release: the succinctly titled A Christmas Horror Story. You know, I don't find a lot of horror movies I really like being produced these days. I'm discovering more 70s and 80s horror movies I dig - and that's the era I grew up in! - than new ones. I mean, sure, there are plenty I find to be okay and worth the watch. But one where I'm really excited by it and feel like I have to get the blu-ray in my collection immediately? Very rare. But I finally hit on one with A Christmas Horror Story.
A Christmas Horror Story is similar in style to Trick 'R Treat, the 2007 Halloween-themed horror anthology where the stories are linked and taking place more or less concurrently. But make no mistake, Krampus is the Krampus-featuring 2015 horror film made by the same guy as Trick 'R Treat (not even counting the two low budget knock-offs that went straight to DVD this year). This is actually made by a trio of other directors who came together and managed to make one of the most polished, clever and impressive horror films of the decade.

There aren't really any big names in this except for William Shatner, who essentially acts as the host of the "wrap around," or as close as this film gets to having one. And he's actually quite good in this. I was expecting a Campfest '89, but actually the performances in this film are consistently one of the strongest elements this film has going for it. Although, honestly, you could add stylish cinematography, convincing special effects (only one shot struck me as disappointing CGI) and smart writing to that list as well. It's an anthology, so of course one story's going to stand out as less compelling than the rest. In this case it's about a group of teenagers who sneak into their high school basement over Christmas break because a murder happened there last year. But even that one is so well made that it never feels like it's letting the rest of the team down.
But the other stories are more exciting. You've got the Krampus one, and it's a great monster with a simple yet effective story, like a Yuletide Pumpkinhead. No wonder three other movie studios rushed out Krampus movies this year. Then there's a story about a broken family that steals a Christmas tree from private property and gets a difficult comeuppance that feels like it should be the most boring of the lot. But everyone does such an excellent job on it, it turns out to possibly be the best of them all. And most audaciously, the last story is a zombie virus breakout that happens at Santa's workshop in the North Pole. If you're thinking to yourself, there's no way that awesome scene on the box actually actually happens in the movie, you're wrong, it does! On paper, it should be a disaster, on par with something from Scy-Fy or Asylum studios at best (Troma at worst), but amazingly it all works, leading up to a terrific twist ending I never saw coming!
So this is a brand new release of a brand new film that was shot in 2k and delivered digitally, so there's no reason this shouldn't look great on blu, and it does. It's slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1 and looks beautiful in 1080p with DTS-HD 5.1 audio. Apparently this was a DVD-only release in the UK and other parts of the world, so you might want to think about importing from the US if you're overseas, and if you're local, enjoy getting this cheap and easy at your local big box store.

And speaking of getting this at big box stores, be warned if you're thinking of buying this at Walmart, as the slipcase has its title changed to A Holiday Horror Story. That's either something to steer far clear of or an amusing collector's item depending on your state of mind. And the slip is a really great looking embossed image - I've scanned it, but that doesn't fully do it justice.
Now, I was a little disappointed this wasn't a more packed special edition, but the one extra it does have turned out to be surprisingly good. It's a 15 minute featurette, but it's not the standard clip-heavy narration fare that plays like an extended trailer. It's a great little mini-doc that tells the story of the film's inception and production, interviewing all three directors, a lot of the cast on-set (though not Shatner), and includes some nifty behind-the-scenes shots. So maybe it would've just been bloated with a commentary and other features. What we've got was at least fully engaging, if brief. Still, they could've at least thrown in the trailer, you'd think. Instead there's just a couple bonus trailers that play on start-up. Oh, and the film as optional English SDH subs. That's nice.
I wasn't expecting much from this film, especially after being disappointed by more promising 2015 horror films like Cooties, Deathgasm and We Are Still Here (SHOTS FIRED!!). I started out just casually streaming it, but was so impressed I stopped watching it and ran out to buy the blu the next day. That's pretty rare for me, and especially with modern horror. And now it's already held up to repeated watches, so I give this a great big recommendation, even if you've read the description and felt a little wary. That's how I felt, too; and look how much I'm gushing now. Give it a shot.

Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale for Christmas (Laserdisc/ DVD comparison)

Happy holidays, everybody! After the last couple horror and cult titles, I thought we could lighten our spirits with a gentle faux-Shakespearian comedy by Kenneth Branagh: 1995's A Midwinter's Tale. This is a film that fans had been pestering to get on DVD for ages, Apparently, the fullscreen VHS was fairly abysmal. But it took until 2010 for Warner Bros to finally release it as part of their Archives MOD collection. I was a little less fussed about the whole thing, since I owned the old 1997 laserdisc from Columbia Tri-Star, which was nice and widescreen. But I'm also always happy to upgrade my old laserdiscs to a more convenient format when I can. So I thin this would be the perfect time to compare our two viewing options of this quiet Christmas film.
I used the term "faux-Shakespeare" because this isn't actually another of Branagh's impeccable Shakespeare adaptions along the lines of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, or Love's Labour's Lost. There is no Shakespeare play called "A Midwinter's Tale." Instead, this is a small, cheerful comedy about an eccentric but mostly determined group of actors who assemble to stage a production of Hamlet on Christmas Eve. Of course things go wrong, people fly in all directions, and of course everybody learns to work together and pull it off in the end.
Originally titled In the Bleak Midwinter, it's a small, privately financed black and white comedy made partially as a break from the studio system after 1994's Frankenstein, feeling sort of like Branagh's Clerks, with simple stagey shots (the stills look impressive here, but you'll find the camera never moves, just settling on a set-up and staying there for minutes at a time), campy jokes and an ensemble of colorful characters played largely the supporting actors from his previous films. Besides his alumni, though, there are also fun turns by Joan Collins and Absolutely Fabulous's Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha. It's not a masterwork like some of Branagh's grander accomplishments, but it's an agreeable little comedy I can't imagine many people disliking, and one you can easily forget and return to again and again.
Columbia Tri-Star's 1997 laserdisc on top; Warner Bros 2010 DVDR below.
So, I wasn't as excited as most fans about Warner Bros putting this out in widescreen since I already had it that way on the laserdisc; but I have to say their disc does look better. The AR is roughly the same on both discs - the laserdisc claims 1.85:1 on the back, but is more like 1.80:1, and the DVD is 1.78:1. But Warner Bros manages to find more picture on all four sides. The DVD's an MOD, so you have to expect softness and compression, but the black and white probably helps the file size, so they get away with a bit more. This could probably look crisper in HD, but the grain looks fairly grainy and detail is definitely more refined than on the laser. Edges look artificially enhanced on occasion, reminding us we're in Standard Definition Land; but for an MOD it's pretty good.
The laserdisc had nothing by way of extras, so I wasn't too surprised by all the online reports of Warner Bros' DVD being entirely barebones as well. Being a DVDR, it doesn't even have smart chapter stops; they're just every 10 or 15 minutes, and the menu's completely generic. It's not entirely a wasteland, though, as neither the case nor posts I've read about this disc mention it, but it does have the film's trailer on it, which even the laserdisc didn't have. So that's nice. On the other hand, the laser had closed captioning, while this DVD has no subs or anything. Still, hey, the trailer's nice. And it's got better cover art, because whose ever idea it was color everybody's glasses yellow on the laserdisc cover really ought to take some vacation time.
So sometimes Kenneth Branagh makes great films, and sometimes he makes fun things to catch on cable one night. This falls into the latter category, but it's once of his best out of that secondary tier. The only disappointing thing about this being an MOD as opposed to a proper, wide release DVD is this isn't likely to drop super low in price. Because this would be a perfect title to pick up cheap in a sale, and it would maybe even gradually grow a broader audience. As it is, you have to really want it. But it's a Christmas film, and we certainly need more of those that aren't schmaltzy and terrible, so it just might be worth it.

The Vampires Night Orgy (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Why do I love pitting Mill Creek against Code Red so much? I think because you know there's going to be a really sizable difference, and that's always fun. This isn't one of those, "no, if you magnify the actress's hair to 300%, you can see the compression is slightly better in the shadows" situations. I mean, those are worth doing, too, if you're trying to decide between two recent releases, and I already know I've got some close call blu-ray vs. blu-ray comparisons coming up. But tonight I'm looking for some drastic. Tonight I'm looking at Code Red's brand new HD transfer of The Vampires Night Orgy versus Mill Creek's release included in their Pure Terror 50(!) movie DVD pack.
Don't let the title fool you; there's no orgy in this movie. It's not a campy movie, it's not a softcore sex movie, and it's light-years away from Nudist Colony Of the Dead or any of those similarly outrageously titled flicks. It's actually an earnest, serious, genuinely creepy and atmospheric horror movie. You can't blame shady American distributors for saddling it with an inappropriate cash-in title, though; it's a direct translation of the film's original Spanish title, La orgía nocturna de los vampiros. But it's actually a fairly smart, subtle film. It's not full of gore or special effects at all, but it's still tightly paced and thoroughly engaging. The dubbing doesn't do it any favors, but the best performances still shine through, and the story itself pulls off being both scary and fun as a group of tourists find out the small village they're staying in is populated entirely by vampires.
Vampires Night is another film by Leon Klimovsky, a film he made in 1974, shortly before The People Who Own the Dark, so it makes sense that Code Red is currently selling the two blus as part of the same bundle of brand new releases. Code Red had previously released it on DVD in 2013 as a double bill with another Klimovsky film, Dr. Jekyll vs. the Werewolf. Before that, it been languishing in unenforced copyright hell on tons of public domain DVD releases, including of course, Mill Creek's.
2010 Mill Creek DVD on top; 2015 Code Red blu-ray bottom.
Give Mill Creek credit; they preserved the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That's a pleasant surprise. But before we get carried away, it's non-anamorphic and looks like mud. Also the colors are washed, and it has a little less picture on all four sides. Code Red's blu is infinitely crisper, more colorful and detailed. On Mill Creek's blu, it's hard to tell what's happening in the night scenes, which is rough because creeping around at night is more than half of this picture. But now on Code Red's blu you really appreciate how well lit the night scenes are; it's actually very impressive.
Code Red's mono track is clear and robust for the most part, but the music suffers and breaks up at high volume points. I'm not sure if this is down to Code Red or if the film always had its music sourced from questionable quality recordings, but either way the music definitely takes a hit here.

Extras-wise, there's nothing here but the theatrical trailer, but it's kind of a fun one, so worth I'm glad they included it. Mill Creek, of course, has nothing.

One last point is that while there's no orgy in this film, there are a few bits of nudity. Apparently, there is an alternate version where those scenes were re-shot with clothing, so they could sell it in different markets. So fans always want to know, is this the clothed or unclothed version of the film? Well, I'm happy to report the Code Red blu, and even the Mill Creek DVD, has the nude scenes.
Correction 12/25/15: As has been pointed out to me in the comments, the Mill Creek DVD is not actually the unclothed one, though the Code Red certainly is. I was thrown off, because even the clothed version has a bit of nudity in it (the peeping tom scene at about the 37 minute mark). So when I saw that on both the Mill Creek and Code Red discs, I thought great, they're both uncut! But, while both versions have that moment of nudity, the unclothed version actually has more. I made the visual comparison above to show how the another scene was shot twice, with and without clothes, for the two different versions of the film (and yes, if you're wondering, the frame does dip to show actual R-rated nudity a few frames later). Those two shots occur at the same point in the movie, they're the same moment in the story, just shot two different ways. And just to reiterate, Mill Creek has the softer, clothed version, and Code Red has the naughtier unclothed version.
Ultimately, I'd recommend this one to pretty much anyone. I'd always passed over the film because of its title and it didn't seem to have many people speaking up for it. I was half expecting some kind of cheapo Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy piece of junk, but it's actually a quite well-crafted traditional horror movie with some surprises, fantastic locations and fun moments. The way the townspeople swarm on a victim is sometimes almost like a zombie movie. And Code Red has definitely just come up with the best edition of the film to date, so this is a great one to roll the dice on and blind buy.

The People Who Own the Dark, Code Red's Second Stab At It (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Code Red's been steadily upgrading their DVD catalog to blu-ray for a while now, but The People Who Own the Dark is one I've particularly been waiting for. Why? Because the DVD was essentially the best they could do with poor source elements, made up of a pair of compromises. We had "a brand new telecine from an abused, scratched and beat-up 35mm print that went vinegar" and an "old transfer from 1 inch Sun Video tape found in Jim Markovic's shack" both on the same disc. The 35mm print version is so "beat up," in fact, it's flat-out missing a bunch of shots. So, in short, the print version looked better (though it had scratches and issues the tape version didn't), but the tape version's complete. But then when I read that the upcoming blu-ray featured a "brand new HD telecine from New discovered 35mm print," I was excited. Finally, maybe we had the best of both worlds, and an HD upgrade to boot?
People is kind of a crazy Spanish film by Leon Klimovsky, that you could pitch as 'Night Of the Living Dead but with blind people as the zombies' (decades before 2008's Blindness), but there's even more weirdness to it than that. The protagonists (certainly not heroes) of our film are a group of the ruling elite class, and their courtesans, who have gathered together at an isolated villa for a retreat dedicated to living the teachings of the Marquis de Sade. They're just starting to get fully debauched in their stone dungeon party basement when there's an Earthquake. Going upstairs, it turns nuclear war broke out, and the radioactive blasts has turned everybody blind, except our party goers, who were safe underground. Negotiations with the locals immediately go South, with people dead on both sides, and so they retreat back to their villa and proceed to go crazy.  Really crazy - one guy spends the rest of the movie crawling around naked on all fours, believing he's a dog with a tape recorder around his neck.
Eventually, things start to feel like a more traditional horror film when the blind lay siege to the villa. It makes good use of the Blind Dead gag where they're walking very closely to the blind people and have to stay completely silent not to be caught. And other times it's classic "board up the doors" NotLD-style. The dubbing is going to keep mainstream viewers away from this no matter how much of a cult audience it accrues, but if you're looking for an entertaining and engaging flick that's pretty unique - campy but bleak, playing it completely straight with some genuinely effective atmosphere - this will do ya. In fact, I've turned out to really like this one, in a demented guilty pleasure sort of way. Most people will never get the appeal, I'm sure; but for cult fans, it's a great one to keep revisiting.
a shot missing from the DVD transfer taken from a 35mm print
So what's the old 35mm print version missing? Well, nothing major. There are multiple instances where damage has just killed a few frames, so the film skips, particularly around reel changes. But the points where you actually lose multiple shots, lines of dialogue, etc, are almost all grouped near the beginning. In fact, it starts right in the opening credits, most of which are missing from the old 35mm DVD. That continues into the opening shots of the film, with the first couple in bed and some lines by the guy. Then the print cuts right to a red car pulling up to Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy. But on the tape version, we see him skeet shooting live birds first. So, really, the first couple minutes are really messed up on the print version. Then there are two more moments. At 11:13, it's missing the part where the ladies leave their car and walk into the shop, including some dialogue where the new girl admits she's nervous. And at about 13:30, we lost some shots of the doctor walking into the party and getting greeted. The only drop not near the beginning is right at the very ending, which is pretty spoilerific, so I'll just say a couple shots and several lines of dialogue are missing around the 1:14:15 mark.

Now, are those missing bits restored on the transfer from the new 35mm print? Yes! it's all there. The new version has the completeness of the 1" tape, and the superior look of the print. It's also far less scratched and dirty (though it still has a bit) than the old one. In fact, let's have a proper comparison of all three.
The 2012 DVD's 1" tape transfer on top, the DVD's 35mm transfer mid,
and the new 2015 blu-ray transfer bottom.
So, they look fairly different. The framing is a bit different. The tape transfer is about 1.51:1, while the other two are regular 16x9 1.78:1. But even those two vary distinctly, as the new transfer is zoomed further out, with more picture information on all four sides.

But more than the framing, the new print has quite visibly different color timing and is decidedly brighter than the old one. Sometimes too bright, but overall, it does bring out more detail in the HD, whereas it sometimes got hard to see what was going on in the dark scenes on the DVD print, even crushing the blacks. The first shot shows one of the most extreme examples of what I'd call too bright or over-exposed, but the second set of shots shows how that helps in the dark scenes. The perfect transfer would probably be a bit in between, but overall I'd say the new transfer is preferable in this aspect, too. The tape transfer is, of course, the darkest and murkiest of all. Plus it's interlaced and non-anamorphic (in the second set of shots, I left it the black around it so you can see how it would look on a widescreen TV). It's not quite unwatchable, and the taller aspect ratio gives you a bit of an open matte feel with more picture on the top and bottom; but really, the only reason you'd have chosen it is to see those missing moments from the old print.
The 2012 DVD's 1" tape transfer on top, the DVD's 35mm transfer mid,
and the new 2015 blu-ray transfer bottom.
Here we see just how bad the print damage got on the old DVD. Granted, I picked a pretty extreme example for the first set - this was right around the edges of some dropped footage, and the film only looks that bad for a handful of seconds at most. But those ARE legit screengrabs from the movie; it really does look like that. The second set is a more typical example, with just some green specs, but those are also cleaned up on the new transfer. Plus all the detail restored to the shadows. The colors are a bit off on the new transfer all throughout, but this last set is an extreme example - surely her bed isn't actually green. Looking at other screenshots throughout this post (all the non-comparison shots are from the blu), they don't look terribly off. And even if they were, for all the benefits, I'd take it anyway. Oh, and just look at that interlacing on the tape transfer - yuck! Yeah, I'm only too happy to discard the DVD transfers for this new blu, colorization qualms or no.

The mono audio tracks on both the DVD print version and blu-ray sound pretty good, with a little more crackle, naturally, on the beat-up DVD version. The tape master's audio is a little more muffled and hissy; but all are fine.
There's really no extras to get excited over on either release, but I guess that's to be expected from an underground Spanish horror flick from 1976. The original DVD opened with the classic Code Red Family Honor trailer, with a couple other bonus trailers accessible from the menu. The only extra it had actually pertaining to People - though it sorta felt like it had more with its two transfers of the film - is the original theatrical trailer. Happily, that has made its way onto the blu, too. But that's all there is.
So that's what this blu-ray is: not a fancy special edition, just a solid presentation of a cool, little cult film. If you've got the DVD, you'll definitely want to upgrade, as this is more than just the standard def transfer bumped up to HD, it's an all new, fixed version that would be worth upgrading to even if it was a second DVD. But of course it's even sweeter for being HD, too.