Possibly Better From Australia? The Killing Fields

Naturally, Q isn't the only blu-ray that's better from Australia. I'm going to be looking at a few of these in the next couple weeks, but this one's really debatable. Today we're looking at The Killing Fields, again from Umbrella Entertainment. Warner Bros released their 30th Anniversary digibook blu-ray of this title in 2014, but Umbrella had already beaten them to the punch in 2012. This gave Warner Bros the advantage, which they used to come ahead in some departments, but still fall short in others.

Update 4/21/16 - 11/5/22: It's always bothered me not having the US BD in this comparison; it's such an essential part of this film's story on blu.  I almost felt like I shouldn't have made this post without that blu.  Well, now I've got my hands on a copy, and it's Update Week, so when better to flush this post out a fuller, more informative edition?
The Killing Fields is a seriously impressive, moving film. On the extras, the creators stress that it's not really a war film, and I'd agree. It doesn't stake itself on any particular army's side and doesn't follow which wins or loses, or even how the soldiers do in combat. It's a true story about the journalists staying (initially) at the American embassy covering the devastation in Cambodia during the struggles between the Khmer Rouge and the government in the early 70s. It's a rag-tag international collection, but we focus primarily on New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his local translator/ protege Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, who won the Academy Award for this performance). It's a powerful look at the consequences of war on a nation of people, and also a bit of a platonic love story between these two men.
I already called this film impressive, but that really is the word to describe this picture in my mind. It's got an incredibly authentic feel, thanks in no small part to its incredible locations and production value. Filmed in and primarily around Cambodia just a few years after the events that inspired the film, the history and violence is totally alive in this picture, populated by Cambodian citizens reliving their own experiences on camera. Among them is a surprising supporting cast including John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, Bill Patterson and of course Spalding Gray (Swimming To Cambodia is about this film). There's also a very unusual but effective soundtrack. It's almost impossible to believe that this was the first film of writer Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) and director Roland Joffé until you realize it was produced by heavy hitter David Puttnam, the man behind everything from Chariots of Fire to Ken Russell's crazy Liztomania. He was able to enlist the cooperation of multiple governments to help realize an uncompromised and unflinching vision that doesn't shine anybody involved in a sentimental light.
So, I don't have Warner Bros. 30th Anniversary blu-ray, but I've read extensively about it...  Thank goodness, we don't have to rely on that anymore.  I do have WB's 30th Anniversary blu now. I still also have my original Warner Bros Killing Fields DVD from 2001, and of course I have Umbrella's 2012 BD. But even when I was relegated to comparing just the DVD and Australian blu, you could get the gist of the story: it's a question of source material (and extras).
WB 2001 DVD top; Umbrella 2012 BD mid; WB 2014 BD bottom.

Those screenshots are pretty different from each other, huh? One thing this isn't a case of: the same old transfer being slapped onto HD discs. No, the Australian blu-ray is much bluer and heavier on contrast, with heavy blacks and bright highlights. I'm fairly confident what's going on here is that the Umbrella blu is taken from a print, and Warner Bros has access to the negative, or at least an earlier film element source. That's why the newer blu is much closer to the old DVD in terms of color and contrast, and Umbrella's blu is way out in left field. Well, except for one brief moment. A quick two-second shot on the Umbrella blu-ray is totally different, and really stands out from the rest of the film while watching it.
Warner Bros 2001 DVD on top; Umbrella Ent's 2012 blu-ray below.
This is a set of shots that take place in the same scene. Ngor is crawling under a fence, we cut away to see if he's been spotted, and cut right back to him. On Umbrella's blu, the cut back to him is starkly different in color timing, as if it went from day to night. I went back to the DVD, and it doesn't have that issue; it all matches perfectly.  Same with the US blu-ray.  I'm guessing Umbrella was missing that shot and patched it with the old SD master?  Now I'm way off in speculation territory, so let's leave it there.  Suffice it to say, Umbrella's transfer is a fine presentation of this film print - compression is strong, and it looks like a real HD image compared to the soft DVD. In fact, detail seems stronger here than on the Warners Blu, even (look at the rocks on the ground)! And as you can see from the other screenshots on this page, it's not like every scene has a strong blu hue or anything.

And the WB blu isn't exactly a fancy new 4k scan of the OCN either.  Both it and their DVD are 1.78:1, leaving only Umbrella matted properly to 1.85:1.  The DVD has some overcast colors (how red is that SD helicopter shot?), which both blus correct in their own way, with Warner Bros looking decidedly more correct.  It also preserves more detail.  Look at the background behind Waterson in the second set of shots, with Umbrella's looking considerably washed out.  Neither image is super sharp or clear; they feel like almost equivalent presentations of their film elements.  It's just that WB has the far superior master, which makes it the clear winner in terms of PQ.

All three discs have the original stereo mix, but only the US Blu-ray's is lossless DTS-HD.  Umbrella's mix is lossy, though they try to make up for it with a lossless True HD 5.1 mix.  But of course, that's a revisionist remix.  Also, only the Warner Bros have optional subtitles (English and French on the DVD, English, Spanish and French on the blu).  Warner's blu also throws in a lossy Spanish dub.  So this is another easy win for WB.  Why did I insist the Umbrella disc had its advantages?
Extras play a particularly strong role with this title. Just about every release of The Killing Fields, including all three discussed so far, include an excellent commentary by director Joffé. He passionately discusses every aspect of the film, from his getting hired to the real events behind the film. He's alone with no moderator for the entire two and a half hour running time, and he never stumbles or leaves us with a moment's dead air. He's very engaged and even if you've seen the the other features I'm about to talk about, it's unrepetetive and highly informative.

But that's about it for the DVD and the US blu. They have the trailer, and the blu is a mediabook with some nice artwork and essays. But The Killing Fields has been released in many countries, all with differing extras, and I believe the Australian disc to be the best in this regard. Again, they pretty much all have the commentary. But the UK disc has multiple interviews, and the German disc has a substantial documentary. There's also a French DVD that has some very interesting sounding features consisting of about two hours worth of interviews with real Cambodian refugees. But all of that's in French with no English language option, so we can take that one off the table.
So, yes, the Australian disc takes the crown in this department. It features one, and by far the longest, of the interviews from the UK disc. A very detailed, hour-long discussion with producer Puttman. He is still very serious about this film and has a lot to say, and almost none of it repeats the commentary track. It helps that he's got a very informed, intelligent interviewer asking him questions and it's just edited enough to keep you engaged the entire hour.

And even more importantly, it also has the documentary that was on the German disc. This is an hour-long British television special about the film, made before the film had even been released, which goes very deep into the film. It interviews the key players in the cast and crew, but goes well beyond that, filming them shooting in Cambodia, showing authentic wartime footage and talking to the real people, including the real Schanberg and Pran. It's narrated by William Shawcross, a journalist who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Cambodia during that time, and provides coverage of the true story that rivals the coverage in The Killing Fields film itself.

The Umbrella blu also includes the trailer.
So, we're left to decide which we value more: PQ (and language options) or fascinating special features.  There is some hope that Imprint (also from Australia) is about to save us from that Sophie's choice.  They have a new BD coming out at the end of the month with all the extras from the Umbrella disc, plus plenty more.  It really looks impressive, though it remains to be seen which master they'll be using for the film itself.  And most dishearteningly, it's only being released in a big boxed set of Joffé's films.  $130 is a pretty substantial barrier to entry if you're only interested in The Killing Fields.  So most of us will still probably be deciding between the affordable WB and Umbrella options.  Maybe we can talk Warner Archives into giving it a proper 4k restoration one day?

Better From Australia: Larry Cohen's Q The Winged Serpent (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

If you follow this site regularly, you know I'm a big Larry Cohen fan, and Q: The Winged Serpent is one of his most enjoyable films, but it took me a long time to upgrade it. Scream Factory upgraded Blue Underground's 2003 DVD to blu in 2013. But it wasn't a big restoration or anything, and it didn't have much by way of extras... it claimed to have a new commentary by Cohen, but the BU disc had a commentary by Larry Cohen, so what was up with that? And otherwise, there wasn't anything else, so I never bothered with it. But I also never quite shook the notion that eh, that would be a nice title to upgrade and maybe find out if that commentary's any different or what. But finally I found out about the Australian blu-ray from Umbrella Ent. And while it's not exactly a mind-blowing special edition, it was enough to get me to bite.
Q is Larry Cohen's King Kong. And my that, I don't mean he's ripping off the old Hollywood classic for modern 80s audiences, I mean we're seeing the basic Kong concept - giant monster running rampant in NYC - through the Cohen's lens, turning it into a totally different, unique experience. It's a Cohen movie through and through, just like if Woody Allen or David Lynch used the basic concept; they would be completely different movies, nothing like watching the actual King Kong.

In Cohen's world, the story is told through the eyes of a perennial loser, played by the incomparable Michael Moriarity. He's a failed freestyle jazz musician who winds up joining a small group of thugs' attempt to rob a jewelry store. Everything goes wrong and he hides out in the top of the Chrysler Building, which just so happens to be housing the nest of Quetzalcoatl, the ancient Aztec winged serpent god that's been summoned by an high priest who's running around the city performing ritual sacrifices. David Carradine, Richard Roundtree and of course James Dixon are the police on the case trying to solve both strings of mysterious murders.
Moriarity and Cohen together are always a treat, but I think this is Moriarity's best role for Cohen. The Stuff was maybe an even more outrageous character, but his performance is strongest here. And it's peppered with a great cast collection of supporting character actors like Larry Pine, Malachy McCourt and Candy Clark as Moriairty's devoted girlfriend. The monster story's fun with a lot of entertaining set pieces and production value; but it's all the human scenes that really make the film, peaking when Moriarity finally gets to meet with the mayor and, in his eyes, become a hero.

So, Umbrella's blu-ray came out in 2014. It basically uses the same transfer as the Scream Factory blu. I've got that and I've still got my Blue Underground DVD, which I plan to keep, for reasons I'll detail as we go on.
Blue Underground DVD on top; Umbrella blu-ray below.
Actually, right away it's clear this is more than just the same master plopped onto a an HD disc like I was expecting. It may not be a glamorous 4k scan of the original negatives, but it's a nice improvement. The contrast boost might be a little controversially strong - look how the light flares out behind Moriarity in the first set of shots, pure white, which are actually blue skies on the DVD - but overall it really doesn't look bad. We get some additional picture information, and not just because the blu is framed at 1.77:1 while the DVD's matted to 1.85:1. The blu finds more on all four sides, and it's definitely sharper and cleaner on the blu. Just take a look at all the signs in the second set, which are full of splotchy compression mess on the DVD, nicely cleaned up on the blu.

The DVD gave you a bunch of audio options: mono, stereo, 5.1 and even 6.1.  The blu-ray just has one solid, lossless DTS-HD Master audio stereo track, but it's the best of the lot. Neither disc offers any kind of subtitles.
And now for the commentaries. Yes, they are different, distinct recordings. But on the other hand, Cohen says mostly the same stuff on both. There was nothing wrong with the original, so I'm not sure why anyone thought to replace it. I guess it was cheaper to record a new one than license the old one? Or maybe Cohen didn't like some off-hand comment he made the first time and wanted a chance to rewrite history? I don't know, but both are excellent commentaries. They're not 100% all the same content... Cohen seems to have a lot of rehearsed stories for the film, but moderator William Lustig manages to ask some questions that pulls out some info Cohen doesn't get to on his own. In terms of which is better, I'd say it's a tie. But if you're asking if you should double-dip to get both, I'd say no, though both have a few unique anecdotes and things to them. Cohen sings part of a song he wrote for and about Moriarity on the Blue Underground commentary, so that's fun. But really, it's a tie and mostly the same ground is covered.

The DVD doesn't have much else besides the commentary. There's a promo trailer, which is kinda neat, sense it's narration over an animated logo rather than just scenes from the film. And there's a photo gallery and an additional DVD-Rom collection of articles and press sheets that actually has a few interesting things in it if you bother to take the time and dig into that on your PC. But that's it. And same with the Scream blu-ray, which is missing the gallery and Rom stuff, but has an additional theatrical trailer. Oh, the DVD also had a nice insert with Spanish poster art.
The Australian blu has the same, newer commentary as the Scream Factory disc, but it also has one other special feature, which is really what put it over the top for me. Confessions of a Low Budget Maverick - an all new, 25 minute interview piece with Cohen. It's mostly a single sit-down interview with Cohen, who talks charmingly about Q with photos and clips edited in where appropriate. He does tell a lot of the same tales from the commentaries. But he also a couple new anecdotes, talks about his earlier films, and then takes us outside to his pool, where he filmed scenes for Bone and Black Caeser.
It's a nice new piece, and it's exclusive to the Umbrella blu. So I'd definitely go for this one over the Scream for it, and coupled with the HD transfer and alternate commentary makes it a solid upgrade. It's missing the cool teaser, though, but that's fine since I'm hanging onto the DVD for the original commentary anyway. It's still a lower priority double-dip than some other films, but the new feature bumps it up high enough that I did it and I'm happy to have done so. And this isn't the only Umbrella blu that's like that...

Woody Allen's Irrational Man (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Weaker films by previously great directors have taught me not to blindly collect a filmmaker's work. Like every Cronenberg film used to be a must-have until he started filming lesser writers work rather than his own. After Ghosts of Mars, I realized it was time to start getting selective with John Carpenter's work. There's only a handful of the truly great masters I can really get excited about every single one of their films - Bergman or Rohmer come to mind. And even then it's not all perfect tens. But as rocky as Woody Allen's road is known to be, and how frequently his work is popularly rejected, I'm always eager for the new Woody Allen movie. Every one is at least worth owning and revisiting for me. Yes, even Hollywood Ending, Whatever Works or whatever you consider to be the bottom of his barrel. I'm excited for it; the latest Woody Allen movie is here!
In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix is a hot shot philosophy professor who rolls into a stodgy college campus. He's having too much of an existential crisis to appreciate all the attention he's getting from his student Emma Stone and married faculty member Parker Posey, but he believes he may have finally found his calling when he overhears a conversation at a diner. A woman laments that a corrupt judge is ruining the lives of her and her family, and it occurs to Phoenix that perhaps he's finally found his calling in life: to kill this judge, and in doing so make the world a better place. It's a moral puzzle as well as an intellectual one, for an amateur to plot a perfect murder.

Look, Woody's not one to hide his influences. Throughout the film characters directly reference and debate Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Satre, DostoevskyImmanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt... their ideas are sometimes even stated outright and then challenged by the decisions these characters make in the story. The humor's very subtle, playing more like a drama with am underlying sense of satire. Tonally, it's closest to Allen's Match Point or Cassandra's Dream. The cast is great, the film's beautifully smart, but there's a(n intentional?) distance between you and the characters. You're observing and studying more than relating and getting caught up personally with them. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, but at the end of the day, I consider it to be a lesser though still very good Allen film. The issues didn't grip me, but I had a good time with it, the cast was excellent, and it leaves you with a lot to go back to.
Irrational Man came out at the beginning of 2016 as separate DVD and blu-ray versions when it was a new release. There's not a lot of surprises to be revealed in comparing the DVD and blu-ray discs, but I own the blu and have access to a copy of the DVD, so I might as well be extra thorough. And it's not like Sony has an exactly perfect 100% success ratio with their new releases ("cough, 2015 black crush, cough"), so we should look to be sure.
Sony 2016 DVD top; Sony 2016 blu-ray bottom.
Again, it's a new release film, so nothing should really be going wrong here. Then again, Allen's still shooting on 35mm, so it's not like the filmmakers are just emailing a finished master to the label for them to copy to theaters and blu-ray. It's an attractive looking film, thankfully showcased by a first class release. Framing is 2.40:1, the colors and brightness look natural, etc. The DVD and blu share the same master, though obviously the former is a bit softer and more heavily compressed. Lines are clearer and smoother on the HD blu.

Both discs feature 5.1 mixes, though of course only the blu's is lossless DTS-HD. Both also offer French and Spanish dubs, plus English, English HoH, French and Spanish subtitles. The extras are also optionally subtitled, which is nice.
Sure, there ain't much by way of extras, but after decades of having it pounded into our heads that Woody Allen films shall never have extras besides the trailer, I'm happy for what little we do get. Ever since Midnight In Paris, the trend has been to at least include short promo featurettes on each of his films, and that's what we get here, too. On the Red Carpet: Los Angeles Film Premiere, cuts together interviews with Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Michael Barker (co-president of Sony Pictures Classics). It's super short (4 minutes), but it isn't padded with any film clips, so at least it's all content. Besides that, there's just the trailer and a slipcover.
The trend with Woody Allen blu-rays these days seems to be to start out really expensive, and then the price slowly sinks until they're dirt cheap. Irrational Man started out at almost $40, and that's not just the MSRP, but what all the sites were actually selling it for. Considering this is a single disc with barely any extras, no booklet or anything kind of release, that's pretty bold. But in the four months since its release, it's already come down to a reasonable under $20 price. So I'd recommend it starting now. It's no special edition, but it's a first class "plain" release. Or you could keep holding out, and it'll probably get cheaper.  he he  But do cop it at some point; it's a good film.

Bleak, Bleaker, Bleakest House

If you want to get into high quality Charles Dickens productions, I'd say a good place to start would be 2005's Bleak House, adapted by masterful Andrew Davies. Sure, there are better known stories, but, well, Christmas Carol you're probably overly familiar with already, and Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, mmm... I think you'll get more pleasure out of Bleak House. And conveniently, it's available on DVD and blu-ray in three 3-disc editions (and that's just here in the USA), all of which I'll be taking a look at with you today.
Two young, orphan cousins are brought to London to stay as wards at Bleak House because they are potential heirs to infamous Jarndyce estate. It is infamous because it's been legally contested for decades, confused by multiple wills and a seemingly endless array of relations and their solicitors making claims. And these two innocents have no idea what kind of complicated drama they're to become embroiled in, encountering a rogues gallery of characters including the scheming Mr. Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance), the charmingly selfish Skimpole, the nasty Smallweed, the honor-less Mr. Guppy, the eccentric Miss Flite, and the mysterious Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson). Seemingly everyone in the city has an interest in their case in one form or another.

This 465 minute series has enough excellent, atmospheric production values to lure in anyone weary of a dry, formal Masterpiece Theater experience. There's a rich cast of character actors to bring even the minor schemers and plotters to unforgettably iconic life. Davies can weave these plots with his hands behind his back, touching on the subtle points of humor without betraying the weighty drama, and the mini series length allows the story to unfold unabridged, as opposed to most cinematic adaptations of great novels, which are forced to cut and compress until they've cut all the meat from the story. Your standard theatrical film runs about the proper length of a short story, so if you want to do Dickens right, you've got to come to a television production like this, or don't bother.
Bleak House debuted on DVD from Warner Bros and 2 Entertain in 2006, shortly after it first aired here as an official Masterpiece Theater entry in 2005. But as one of their more high profile series, I guess they felt it deserved more than their barebones 3-disc set could provide, so it was released again in 2009 as a special edition DVD. And since the series is one of the first Masterpieces shot in HD, they couldn't not release it on blu-ray as well, really. So here are all three.
2006 DVD on top; 2009 special edition DVD middle; 20099 blu bottom.
Here's what I don't see: a huge wealth of difference between these editions to necessitate the re-release. I daresay the special edition DVD only exists to give the people who can't play blu-rays the new extras created for the blu-ray release. The blu-ray itself is a nice uptick in clarity over the compressed standard definition releases, but but between the DVDs, it's pretty negligible. Mind you, though, they're not identical.
2006 DVD left; 2009 special edition DVD middle; 20099 blu right.
The original DVD is noisier, the line of her face against the background is jagged. On the other hand, the cleaner smoothness of the special edition DVD seems to have gotten that effect by over-softening the image. I'd say we might be losing grain detail except this was shot digitally, so we don't really want any of that. Even the blu is noisier, although that at least brings us added detail like the glint in her eyes and strands of her hair. So between the DVDs it's a toss-up down to personal preference, while the blu is easily the strongest image, despite it having its own issues. It's a 1080i transfer, so there are interlacing issues; but unlike most we encounter at DVDExotica, I don't think it has anything to do with DVD formatting struggles, it's just baked into the early digital footage. So it's as good as its going to get. And honestly, the quality of image is pretty attractive thanks to the excellent cinematography and our expectations from all the previous, non-HD BBC productions. And even then, there's more of the book that could've been included here.

All three discs feature very similar stereo audio tracks, though the blu's is lossless LPCM. And all three versions feature optional English HoH subtitles. The blu-ray has a commendable third audio track for the visually impaired, where a female narrator describes the action on-screen (:a young man nervously checks his pocket watch...").
As I said, the original DVDs were barebones, apart from a different BBC advertisement on each disc - how's that for keeping things exciting? But the new releases gave the series the respect it deserved. They provided rather amusing as well as informative audio commentary for three of the episodes by Davies, producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, and either director Justin Chadwick or Susanna White, depending who directed the particular episode you're listening to. There's a lot of laughter, but they never lose sight of being informative and filling the entire running time with insight and anecdotes. They've also got three 15-20 minute cast interviews with Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance, and a small photo gallery.
dueling visions of the dreaded courtroom.
And once you've entered the world of Bleak House through the 2005 edition, I'd encourage you to stick around for the BBC's earlier 1985 production. Gone is the alluring, widescreen gloss of the newer version, but in its place is a very arresting if more subtle alternate version. I'm often one to find an ideal definitive version and stick with it - The Kyle McLachlan remake of Kafka's Trial is pretty good, but why bother with it when you can always watch the Orson Welles version instead? Kids might've liked the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice movie, but who needs that compromise once you've got the Colin Firth adaptation? But here, they're different enough that it's worth both visiting and revisiting them both. Much of the joy is seeing how each of this wild cast of characters is portrayed by a very different actor. Who's a more compelling Lady Dedlock, Gillian Anderson or Diana Rigg? Who makes a more heartless lord chancellor, Ian Richardson or Graham Crowden? And John Jarndyce, well, there's no question Denholm Elliot still owns that role.
Warner Bros' 2005 DVD release (timed to capitalize on the airing of the remake, no doubt) of the 1985 series does what it can with its fullscreen video transfer. Unfortunately it features interlacing which I don't think can be blamed on the original footage, but squarely on a lazy PAL to NTSC transfer. There are UK discs you can import to alleviate that, but the video quality is so basic, it's never struck me as worth the cost.

There are no special features or anything to speak of, though the two-sided flipper disc at least features English HoH subtitles.
Bleak House is great fun, and I recommend the pair, starting with the 2005 version. The blu-ray is obvious choice there, and the US DVD is underwhelming but good enough for the 1985. It's not like you're going to find much better, and if you're in the mood for eye candy, you'll already have the 2005 version loaded up. You wouldn't be going at all wrong if you were to pick up Warner Bros entire Charles Dickens Collection box set, in fact, which features several more excellent and even essential BBC productions, as well as a few extras. And then they came out with a second box, but I don't want to overwhelm you. Just start with the Bleak House blu.  :)