A Back Catalog Gem From Kino: Ballast (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Man, the critics were right about 2008's Ballast; I just can't stop watching it. It's taken me three days to get screenshots for this post because every time I start to look at a scene, I let it play out and wind up watching the movie all the way through again. It's one of those film festival darlings that's won a lot of awards, but I tend not to pay attention to, since the press likes to hype those movies whether they deserve it or not. But when I finally saw it, I realized this one's the real deal. In fact, I was mid-way through casually streaming it on Netflix (younger readers will probably have no idea, but they used to have movies!) when I turned it off, because I knew I had to buy the disc and watch it properly.
It's a pretty relaxed story that concentrates on character rather than plot points, and I think that's a large part of what keeps drawing me back in. Particularly the second half, when you get past the set up and the characters really begin to bloom before you. A man commits suicide and his twin brother tries to follow in his footsteps, but survives. As he recovers, his estranged wife and son return to divide the property, including a small thrift store the brothers used to run together. They discover the best way to get by is if they re-open the store and run it together, and they slowly and realistically begin to rebuild a family out of the ashes of their former one and the ruins of a desolate economy.
This is the debut film by writer/ director Lance Hammer, and sadly, still his only one to date. It's an impressive combination of hand-held yet carefully designed cinematography, and long rehearsed improvised drama. The performances are exceptional, and really make a case for film spending more time developing scenes than the standard 3-4 week shooting schedule. And thank goodness he took on the expense of shooting this on 35mm, because the temptation for an indie 2008 film would surely have been not only to shoot on digital, but quite possibly even standard def like Inland Empire. And that would have really diminished this film's striking look, and I think ultimately compromised its emotional power.

Kino released Ballast on DVD and blu-ray in 2009 as a new release. And since I'm so taken with this movie, I thought I'd be thorough and take a look at both today.
Kino's 2009 DVD on top and their 2009 blu-ray beneath.
 So since it was a new film delivered simultaneously on both formats, it's unsurprising that they look very similar. The production company probably delivered finished digital masters to Kino directly, who didn't have to work on the transfer besides slapping them onto discs. Both have identical 2.35 aspect ratios, and yes the DVD's anamorphic. Neither release is interlaced or otherwise troubled, it's simply a question of two excellent transfers, one on SD and one in HD.
Which is not to say that there's no appreciable difference. Zoom in on the details, and you really see how much clearer and distinct the blu is to the more compressed DVD. Small print becomes legible and grain looks natural. Check out how the BC logo looks like a lemniscate (∞) on the DVD. That's  downright weird. So anyway, there's enough of an improvement that blu-ray collectors will be happy with their choice, while casual viewers who are less fussed with finer picture quality will be perfectly satisfied with the DVD.

Both discs have a strong 5.1 mix, though only the blu's is TrueHD. Both are clear, and there's not much music or fancy sound effects in either case. Both discs also offer optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.
There's no fancy, special edition of Ballast, unfortunately, but we do get one fairly substantial extra, on both the DVD and blu. It's a 38-minute collection of rehearsal footage, which you can watch straight through with a "Play All" button, or individually. There's no narration or talk with Hammer, which would've been great; but it is a pretty interesting look at the film's creation and the actors' process, which also works a bit like deleted scenes, as we hear dialogue which didn't make the final cut. There's also the theatrical trailer, and an insert featuring an essay by film critic Amy Taubin, but that's it.
Unless Lance Hammer becomes the next Martin Scorsese in the next decade, I don't think we'll ever see another edition of Ballast on home video, so even though it's light on extras, let's be thankful for what we got. In the UK, it was a DVD only release (and no, they didn't get any additional features), and if this film were released today, it would probably be digital download/ streaming only. So here's a highly recommended, lesser known title from Kino's back catalog. Get it and maybe we entice Hammer into making a second feature already. Or, given that he seems to take his time to create things the right way, maybe he's already eight years into the making of it. :)

Serious Upgrades for Silly Movies: Troll and Troll 2 (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Boy, I can't believe I double-dipped on Troll and Troll 2. You know what? It was the new documentary on Troll 1 that got me. I just had to see it; I couldn't live with my barebones DVD. But actually, now that I've done it, I'm glad I did. I was expecting essentially the old MGM DVD transfers just with better compression because they were being placed on an HD disc, but I was wrong. This is a big improvement.
Troll 2 is downright infamous as one of the better known, "worst movie ever made"s. It's earned a reputation for itself right alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room and Manos: The Hands of Fate. And it's funny how it's eclipsed the first one, because that was the much bigger film in its day. Troll is a fun Empire Pictures film, with actually some of their biggest production value outside of Re-Animator movies. It's got some top, high end special effects that still hold up to this day (and some cheap ones, too), a great cast including Michael Moriarity, Julia Louise Dreyfus, June Lockhart and even Sonny Bono, and a whimsical story with some genuine laughs.

It's a first time direction by John Carl Buechler, who'd made his rise as a special effects artist (hence the amazing looking troll in this picture), and has gone on to a lengthy career directing low budget films (most famously, probably, would be Friday the 13th part 7, the one with the psychic girl). And I get a big kick out of it. This is really the film I bought the Troll/ Troll 2 combo for, both when I got the original DVD, and now the blu. Sure, it's silly and some of the characters are playing cartoons more than actual humans, but it all somehow works. Or mostly works. Enough works to keep up the whole movie afloat, anyway. Buechler went on to make Ghoulies 3, which has very similar looking creatures, but none of the charm. Troll is actually a good little movie.
Troll 2, on the other hand, is a film you laugh at rather than with. It's an Italian, well, I was going to say Italian knock-off, but to it's credit, it's story is actually fairly original. It's written and directed by Claudio Fragasso and his wife, who gave us Zombie 4 and Monster Dog. But as cheesy as those films were, Troll 2 takes it too unparalleled ridiculous heights. And it has no connection to Troll; it was originally filmed under a different title, and only given the Troll 2 moniker by its US distributor that had the rights to the Troll name. There are no trolls in Troll 2.

I first saw Troll 2 on VHS when it was a brand new release, and too be honest, I got what was funny about it. It largely boils down to the fact that Fragasso was shooting in American with English speaking actors, so their dialogue actually wasn't replaced in post like every other Italian film of its type. And Fragasso didn't speak English, so everyone sounds completely ridiculous. That, plus it's a ridiculous script. But I was pretty much over it after my first viewing. However, it's ever-increasing reputation has lead it to cross my paths multiple times, from double feature DVDs to Rifftrax. It's high camp, it's a goof. But I'd be fine if I never saw it again.
So yeah. Troll's one of those movie I was always asking about on forums, "when's Troll going to come out on DVD?" It seemed like kind of a big movie (by indie horror standards) not to have a release, but it sure took its time coming out. Eventually, MGM released it as a barebones DVD in 2003 as a double-feature with Troll 2, so I snatched it up. Thanks to its rising cult status, Troll 2 got an upgrade to blu-ray in 2010, but I wasn't enough of a fan to bother with it. But when Scream Factory got the pair of them as a blu-ray double feature, and this time with some solid special features, I had to double-dip. And I think I mentioned at the top that this was an impressive upgrade, right? Well, let me show you what I meant.
2003 MGM DVD on top; 2015 Scream Factory blu-ray underneath.
Whoa boy, what a difference! Even after watching the blu-ray, I wasn't expecting that broad a distinction until I went back and looked at my old DVD. It looks like they've laid a thin layer of wax paper over the film or something, it's so soft, dull and smoothed out. It's almost like video tape. Meanwhile the blu is so much bolder, sharper and detailed, with a solid grain pattern. Both versions are slightly matted to 1.85:1, but the one thing you can say for the DVD is that it has a little more picture on all sides. But if that transfer is the price I have to say for those four slivers, no thanks!
2003 MGM DVD on top; 2015 Scream Factory blu-ray underneath.
The difference isn't quite as dynamic on Troll 2, but it's still pretty much the same thing. The DVD looks substantially softer and duller than the blu; it's definitely a lot more than the same master slapped onto a blu. You'll also notice in the second set of shots that someone's clearly adjusted the framing, and for the better, and they've got a little more image on the sides.

MGM's DVD was also a 2-sided disc, so it's nice not to have to live with that hassle any longer. Scream Factory has also boosted the old 2.0 tracks to DTS-HD Master audio tracks, and kept the optional English subtitles for both films, though it dropped the Spanish and French ones.
For extras, the DVD just had trailers (one for each film), but Scream Factory has added a few really nice pieces. They've got the trailers, too; and they added a photo gallery for the first film. But they've also given the film one big new thing apiece. On Troll one, is a substantial, almost hour-long documentary on the making of the film, including interviews with Buechler, producer Charles Band, Richard Band (who made one of his best scores here), the writer Ed Naha (I wish more DVDs would bring the writer into the supplements), and visual effects artists John Vulich, Kevin Kutchaver, Linda Drake, Jim Aupperle, James Belohovek, and Gino Crognale. It's a really great telling of the making of this film; the only thing they could've added is cast interviews, but I imagine this particular cast would be pretty tough to wrangle up.

Then Troll 2 has an all new commentary by stars George Hardy and Deborah Reed. Hardy played the father and the commentary is 90% his; he even calls it "my audio commentary." But they've added it comments from Deborah Reed, who played the goblin queen, during her scenes or when Hardy runs low on steam. It's a little awkwardly edited, you can sometimes hear someone whispering to Hardy during Reed's portions, which I think they just forgot to cut out, and they try to make it sound like the two actors are in the room together, but they're clearly not. That said, however, what they did succeed in doing is making a very affable, entertaining commentary track that stays upbeat and engaging the entire time. And even hardcore fans who've seen the documentary will learn a thing or two.
Did I mention a documentary? Yeah, there was a great one released by Docurama in 2009 called Best Worst Movie. And, if you got one of the first 5000 copies (5000 is a lot for a film like this; I'm sure they're still available as of this writing), you got it as a bonus disc. It's directed by the guy who played the main kid in the movie, and centers primarily on George Hardy, but really talks to just everybody, from the rest of the cast to Fragasso and his wife. Much more than just a DVD feature with talking head interviews, it follows them around the world as they tour with the film and visit the original locations and find the cast in their homes. It's a pretty great little film, even if you have no interest in Troll 2; it's just a really well-made documentary.

Now one real concern I had was whether Scream Factory's DVD of Best Worst Movie was going to include all the extras on the original Docurama DVD, because it had a lot. Some of it went a little overboard (like a music video or a 90 minute audio-only Q&A with the documentary filmmakers). But a lot of the deleted scenes and extra interviews were as entertaining as what was in the film itself. Heck, in the film they never got to talk to Deborah Reed, but she's in the extras and gives a great interview. Well anyway, I'm happy to report, yes it's all here, too.
2010 Docurama DVD on top; 2015 Scream Factory DVD below.
And it's the same transfer on both discs, too. It's literally the exact same disc, with the original label on it and everything. If you put the Docurama disc into your player, watch half the movie, then take it out and put in the one that came with the Scream Factory blu, it will ask if you want to continue where you left off. It's the exact same disc.

By the way, I've read a few grumblings of disappointment that this is just a DVD and not a blu-ray. But this looks to be shot on standard definition digital video, with unfortunate interlacing baked right into the footage and all. So I don't think there'd be much use in putting this on an HD disc. So just enjoy the film; it looks as good as it can.
So, if you're a fan of either of these films (though I'd understand if you weren't), I highly recommend this release. Scream Factory has a done a stellar job, with great new extras and transfers that blow the old DVD out of the water (I understand that barebones Troll 2 blu-ray from MGM uses the same master, though, and looks virtually identical). And definitely try to get one with Best Worst Movie included (the back cover says explicitly that the doc is included, and there's a sticker on the front, so it's easy to tell), because it's probably actually the best of the three films. But if you can't, you can always get this blu-ray and the Docurama DVD separately. As of this writing, it's selling super cheap on Amazon. This is a double-dip I'm really pleased with.

Do You Need a New Room with a View? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

How picky are you? That question may be the determining factor as to whether you'll be inclined to upgrade to Criterion's new blu-ray release of James Ivory's A Room With a View. It is the best edition to date, at least strictly in terms of the film itself (you'll see what I mean). So if you're adding the film to your collection for the first time, well, even then you'll have a decision to make. But is it worth replacing a previous edition? A comparison would appear to be in order.
1985's A Room With a View is one of several E.M. Forster adaptations from Merchant Ivory.  In fact, it's their first; but it's no less exquisitely composed and scored as the rest. It also has one of my favorite casts: a young Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands run just a little wild under the influences of Italy and under the auspices of Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot and Judi Dench. It's a beatific, smart and surprisingly briskly paced production of a deceptively simple story.

In fact, if I had to come up with a criticism, it's that the story is perhaps a little too simple. She loves him, but societal conventions keep them apart and whoops! She winds up getting engaged to Daniel Day Lewis. Guess how it ends. Not that a film needs to be unpredictable. Is there ever any doubt that Frodo's going to melt that ring in the volcano even before Gandalf slips it to him? The joy is in the getting there, but there aren't even very many complications barring their inevitable outcome. That's what drove me to seek out Andrew Davies' 2007 adaptation for Masterpiece Theater, hoping for a slightly richer, more developed plot as Masterpiece Theater tends to deliver; but that turned out to be disappointingly inferior. In fact, this original film is surprisingly thorough in carrying over most everything from the novel except for some period political speeches by Elliot's character. It's just a simple story, and I don't imagine we'll ever see it told better on film than we do here.
So, I've got two editions for today's comparisons: Warner Bros' lavish 2-disc special edition DVD from 2004 and of course Criterion's recent blu. There is an even older disc, from Image, which you can definitely go ahead and chuck though, as it's feature-less and non-anamorphic. And there's one more release, from 2007 that I haven't got, but which will play an important role in our discussion nonetheless. So let's get begin.
2004 Warner Bros DVD on top; 2015 Criterion blu-ray underneath.
So, we're comparing standard definition to high definition, so obviously clarity is on the blu-ray's side. Criterion has given us a fresh 4k scan from the original camera negative. But Warner Bros' transfer was already pretty strong, and I'm not sure we're getting very much additional detail here. Of course, the DVD is considerably more compressed and smudgier when you get in real close (i.e. the Wincarnis poster in the first set of shots). Really, quality-wise, the DVD's greatest short-coming is being interlaced, which is a disappointment to be sure.

But now we come to the missing middle release. In between the 2004 DVD and Criterion's 2015 blu was a blu-ray from Warner Bros. I haven't got it, but it's an HD upgrade of the transfer we see on the DVD version. Being in HD, it naturally corrects a lot of the compression smudginess, and thankfully fixes the interlacing issue, bringing it fairly close to the Criterion blu. So why bother with the Criterion?

Well, I don't say that the old HD transfer and the new 4k scan are exactly evenly matched. Criterion has done some additional clean-up, removing sporadic flecks, steadying a few loose frames, and tweaking the colors a bit. Those purple flowers pop a little more in that second set of shots, right? But it's hardly night and day. No, the biggest distinction is the aspect ratio. You may've noticed the Criterion screenshots are a little taller than the Warner Bros. Well, when Warner Bros made their transfer, they opened up the old letterboxing of the Image release from 1.85:1 to 1.78.  But Criterion takes it even further, pillarboxing it to 1.66:1. And that does result in a tad more vertical information, even though it loses a sliver on the sides. According to Criterion's booklet, the 1.66 is the director's preferred aspect ratio, so that's a genuine improvement.

Both blus have lossless DTS-HD audio tracks and optional English subtitles. Warner Bros also has Spanish and French options, both in dubbed audio and additional subtitle tracks. The DVD has the same as the Warner Bros blu except it's a lossy 5.1 mix.
But if you're wavering on the fence here, wait, because we haven't even gotten to the biggest distinction between the two releases: the extras. The Warner Bros releases (the 2004 DVDs and 2007 blu-ray are identical in this regard) feature a good deal of stuff, none of which, sadly, is on the Criterion edition. Let's start big: an audio commentary by both Ivory and Merchant, along with  Simon Callow (who played the Reverend Beebe) and the director of photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts. No commentary on the Criterion release at all; it's only here.

And that's just disc 1. On the second DVD of the Warners version, we get a half hour documentary on the author from 1970 called E.M. Forster Remembered, interviews with Callow and Lewis, a featurette on the Merchant/ Ivory production team and a vintage television news report on the film that talks to Merchant, Carter, Elliot and others. There's also a slideshow, though interestingly, no trailer. But none of that is on the Criterion disc. The DVDs are also packaged in a very attractive slip case with an eight-page booklet.
Not that the Criterion is bare-bones, far from it. They've created some excellent new features. Or, at least two. They've got a pair of roughly 30 minute featurettes (one's longer, one's shorter) called Thought and Passion and The Eternal Yes. The first talks to Ivory, Roberts and costume designer John Bright, and the second talks to Carter, Callow and Sands. These are actually better produced than the Warner Bros stuff, which apart from the commentary, is mostly sourced from television. And it's great to finally hear from Sands. Criterion also has a vintage television news segment of its own, and they do have the trailer. Their release also has a booklet with notes. It's just a shame they didn't or couldn't license Warner Bros' extras to create a strong, definitive package.
So if it sounds like I'm making a case for the Warner Bros over the Criterion, no. If you're in the store with one copy in each hand, even assuming it's Warner's blu-ray rather than the DVDs, I'd recommend the Criterion. They've got the fresh 4k transfer and, hmm... it's really a tough call on the extras. Criterion's featurettes beat Warner's featurettes, but WB has the commentary. Definitely keep the older version if you've got it, because their extras are exclusive and somewhat extensive. Unless you're a high enough roller to buy both for the full set of special features, though, the extras situation is going to be frustrating no matter how you choose. So that tips the scale in favor of the Criterion.

But if you already own the Warner Bros blu, is it worth upgrading to the Criterion? Like I said, it depends how picky you are. Are you really that fussed about the difference between the 1.78 and 1.66 aspect ratios? Because that's really the key difference. Yes, the 4k scan is superior, too; but the previous master wasn't exactly a disaster that needed to be replaced. As the DVDExotica guy, I compare screenshots all day, and one is a clear winner. But being honest, I know that if I watched the Criterion blu-ray with my family, then swapped to the Warner Bros blu for the commentary, none of them would pick up on the fact that I switched discs on them. So I'll label this a low priority upgrade. There's much worse stuff to upgrade ahead of A Room With a View, and the extras won't feel like such a compromise.

Scorsese, Coppola, Allen... Rescued By Mill Creek? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I remember impatiently waiting for New York Stories to be released on DVD.  I needed it to complete my Woody Allen collection, and I was reasonably fond of Martin Scorsese's segment as well. But then, when it finally came out from Touchstone/ Buena Vista in 2003, it was fullscreen. Really? That's how the combined work of Scorsese, Allen and Francis Ford Coppola was being treated on DVD? You'd expect an edition of these guys' combined work to be on like a solid gold disc in a boxset with a three hundred page, hardbound photo book. But, no, that was all we got, and subsequent foreign releases were no better. I even looked into going back to score an old laserdisc, but it was fullscreen there, too. And the situation stayed that way all the way through the advent of HD until finally, one blu-ray company picked up the title to finally take a second crack at it: Mill Creek.
If you haven't seen it yet, New York Stories is a trilogy, with each director making essentially their own short film connected only by the loose theme of taking place in, and capturing the spirit of, New York. There's no wraparound story or goofy bellhop that appears in each story, one film just fades to black and then the next one starts, with its own set of opening credits. There's a general New York Stories title shot at the front and they share closing credits, but otherwise they're really just three completely distinct short films under one title.
Scorsese is up first with a character study about a celebrated painter (Nick Nolte) and his volatile affair with the much younger Patricia Arquette. She's an aspiring artist, too, and he uses his position to become her lover and mentor. She's untalented and drives him crazy, but he seems to need the conflict of their relationship to make his art, creating an unhealthy trap for them both. Scorsese's technical prowess is on full display here, from the camerawork to the music. Even the character's actual paintings are compelling. And the story's fine, too, constantly moving in the only direction it can go until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. But at the end of the day, I'm not sure we've really learned much or enjoyed our time with these unpleasant characters. There's a pretty powerful scene where Arquette tests her own power over Nolte in front of some police officers, and then he gives short monologue about how he's nothing to her. But most of the rest of the story is just kind of waiting for everything that we know will happen to play itself out.
Then we come to Coppola's film, which is downright infamous. It's co-written by his daughter Sofia Coppola, and plays like a silly children's fantasy. It almost seems charmingly forgivable that he's filming the story his little girl. It's about a super rich eleven year-old who lives a lavish, fanciful life in the city. She has a giant costume party inside a hotel with elephants and a thousand friends. It's basically one big party rather than a story, except there's some kind of tacked on children's movie plot tagged on where she somehow winds up in possession of a prince's jewels and so some cartoonish thugs, including Chris Elliot, are after her. I used to think Sofia wrote the party stuff and Francis added the jewel heist thing, like a necessary adult alteration to make the film more conventional. But then I realized she was fully grown at the time of New York Stories, and they did this just the year before Godfather III.
Still, I don't hate it. If you look past royal jewels bit, it's a fun exploration of a child's fantasy life, where her servants are also her friends and everybody performs choreographed dance numbers. She fixes her father's life, helps the homeless by giving them candy and organizes the most opulent party, filmed with all of the production values at Francis's command. The fact that it just stops to roll around in celebration of its mise en scene actually reminds me of Sofia Coppola's later film, Marie Antoinette. And of course the biggest criticism is that its self indulgent wish fulfillment, but just like Asia (who was also in Marie Antoinette) Argento's Scarlet Diva, that's what makes it interesting. Because it lets you see inside their psyche in a way they're not even intending. But, on the other hand, it's still pretty bad in a lot of critical ways and often feels like one of a hundred direct-to-video Home Alone knock-offs.
In contrast to that, Woody Allen's segment is everything his fans want in a film. It's delightful. Allen his having problems in his relationship because of his overbearing mother. But when she gets called on stage at a magic show, the magician makes her disappear - but can't make her reappear! At first it's a perfect stroke of impossible luck, but it turns into a nightmare when she reappears as a giant, floating head that looms over the city, taking her interfering nosiness to a God-like level. It's a perfect short film, and has a wonderful cast including Allen himself, Mia Farrow of course, Julie Kavner, Christmas Vacation's Mae Questel as the mother, a young Larry David, and a cameo by Ed Koch as himself. I mean, come on, you couldn't do a film called New York Stories in the 80s without putting him in at some point.
2003 Buena Vista DVD on top; 2012 Mill Creek blu-ray below.
Yes, Mill Creek has finally released New York Stories in widescreen! The DVD is kind of an open matte pan & scan mess, but it at least gives you some extra picture on the top and bottom for novelty value. But it also cuts a lot off the sides, and Mill Creek's restores that by presenting the film in its OAR, slightly matted to 1.85:1. Colors are also warmer and more natural, and while there's not a wealth of new detail, the picture is stronger and clearer in HD. For example, you can finally read the numbers on that camera's digital display in the second set of shots. Sure, I could see this being improved with a new 4k scan from Criterion or somebody, but this blu here is 1080p, no interlacing, and for whatever reason there is simply no competition. This blu-ray is it, and it's perfectly respectable... unlike past editions.
Mill Creek has also given us DTS-HD audio track and, unlike the DVD, optional subtitles. The only thing the DVD had going for it that this lacks, I guess, is an alternate French dub track. Somehow I think we'll all be fine without that.

And yeah, unfortunately this film has always been barebones. Sure, Woody Allen has never been one for extras, but Coppola and Scorsese are usually good for them. But it's just not to be for this film, I guess. Mill Creek has at least secured the theatrical trailer, which is something the DVD didn't even have. Yeah, it's a single layer disc, but for a relatively short film with no extras, that's fine.
This is an easy recommendation. Mill Creek came through for this film when, surprisingly, no other studio would. And because it's Mill Creek, it's nice and cheap cheap; so it's a no-brainer. I still don't understand why we don't have a fancy multi-disc special edition for one of the majors, but I'm happy we have this.