Controversial Blus: Dark Star (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

John Carpenter has a real talent; his films run the gamut from wonderful to captivating misfires.  And Dark Star, his first feature film made when he was still a student, is certainly no exception.  In fact, despite its obvious budgetary limitations, it holds up as one of his most successful ventures.  To be honest, though, I feel the creator's stamp of writer Dan O'Bannon on this that Carpenter.  Maybe that's partly because he also stars in this, but really it's in the humor, not to mention the obvious similarities to his next, much more famous film, Alien.  Whoever deserves however much credit, though, it's an utterly successful collaboration and a great little film that deserves a great release.  And, well, there is a blu-ray...

Update 4/5/17: It really doesn't feel complete without having all three versions on here, so I've included the Hyperdrive Edition to the comparisons.  👍
If you haven't seen it, Dark Star is a comedy set in space.  It's not really a parody or spoof (though there's some 2001 in there to be sure), but a clever piece of character humor.  There is some semblance of a plot; we have a space alien and the crew faces imminent death during a tense climax.  But for the most part, it's just a light-hearted look at a small crew of men going completely stir-crazy.  Their biggest threat isn't the creature loose on their spaceship or the intelligent bomb that's determined to blow them all up.  It's boredom.  This film takes man's epic battle with the doldrums beyond the stars and it's pretty great.
This film has a terrific look to it.  Cheap or not; it's very well designed, and the sometimes home-made looking special effects actually become part of the appeal.  Also, everyone in the cast nails it.  O'Bannon is the most fun to watch, but everyone is spot-on.  The music is also by John Carpenter and very effective; but don't expect "a John Carpenter score" like we know them today.  The soundtrack here owes a lot more to its sci-fi peers than Carpenter's more recognizable style.  And all these elements work together in service of the writing, the real star of the show.  It's just smart, fun and still able to pull you in, all these decades later.
I suppose now I should talk about the two cuts.  There's sometimes a little confusion surrounding this title, thanks to the fact that there are two versions of this film in popular rotation.  In short, this film was originally 68 minutes long.  That's how it was first screened for the public.  Then, when it got a great reaction and the chance for a distribution deal, more scenes were shot to bring it to proper feature length (83 minutes), so it could get a wide release.  And fortunately, the additional material is not only up to par with the rest of the film, but raises the entirety of the film up a level.  When I watch the short version, I really miss the scenes.  It's like watching a cut of Vacation where some editor said, "hey, this story doesn't need all the parts with Randy Quaid and Imogene Coca.  Snip snip, and now this film really flies!"  That might be true, but it's so disappointing to not have all their moments you've come to love.  To me, the original cut is academic.  If you just want to see it to know what the film was like originally, great.  But to truly experience Dark Star, the extended cut is the only way.
Dark Star has only been released by VCI in the United States.  They released the 1992 laserdisc, the 1999 DVD, the 2010 DVD "Hyperdrive Edition" re-release, and most recently the 2012 "Thermostellar Edition" blu-ray.  The initial laserdisc featured the shorter version and just included the extended material as separate deleted scenes.  Both subsequent DVDs (and just about all international discs) included both cuts.  But the blu-ray makes the curious decision to pare that down and only release the longer, extended cut.  Disappointing for some to be sure, and reason to hang onto your old DVDs.  But that's not even what makes this blu controversial.
 1999 VCI DVD top; 2010 VCI DVD middle; 2012 VCI blu-ray bottom.
So the first thing you should notice is that the 1999 DVD's non-anamorphic.  That's one thing the 2010 DVD corrected, at least; and obviously the blu-ray doesn't have that problem.  The 2010 DVD, however, is unfortunately interlaced.  In fact, the blu-ray is clearly an improvement in just about every area: detail, clarity, and it's properly matted 1.85:1 framing has more picture on three of four-sides compared to the old DVD's 1.82:1 and even a bit more than the newer DVD's 1.78:1.  The color timing is different on all three releases, and while it's clearly worst on the 1999 DVD, it's hard to say which is better between the 2010 and 2012.  They're different, but without any insight from the DP or an official source, it's going to come down to taste.  Personally, I prefer some shots on the blu and some on the DVD, so that particular aspect winds up as a tie for me.
2010 VCI DVD left; 2012 VCI blu-ray right.
But there's something off about the blu.  It's very soft.  Now you might say, hey, it's an ultra-low budget, old student film.  VCI has talked plenty about the conditions of the materials they had to work with.  This is as good as it could ever look.  But this film was shot on 16mm (then blown up to 35mm for wide release), and one thing we should know from all the 16mm we've looked at before here on this site is that 16mm is high on grain and low on detail.  Well, this film's low enough on detail, but where's the grain?  Ahhh... that's why it's so soft.  This film has used DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) or other digital software on the master to smooth away all the grain.  It sure doesn't look like a 16mm film now, and that explains why the whole thing's so soft.  In fact, the 2010 standard def DVD actually resolves more natural film grain and even actual picture detail than the blu-ray.  Grain haters may think it's great; and admittedly, since this is 16mm, we didn't erase as much detail like other heavily DNR'd blus have in the past.  But we've definitely lost ground between 2010 and 2012, not gained it.

Meanwhile, we get two audio options on the 2010 and 2012 releases.  There's the main stereo mix, where the audio's not exactly crystal, but unlike the grain scrubbing, I'd say it's fair to blame any audio issues on the original materials.  And then they've also included a more boisterous 5.1 mix that still has the same root issues, but both are clear enough for music and dialogue so long as don't expect it to sound like Avatar 2.  They're in LPCM on the blu.  Oh, and interestingly, the original DVD only had the 5.1 mix, so including the stereo mix on the later releases was a nice nod to the purists.
And extras?  You want extras?  Well, the original DVD had nothing but the trailer, but the biggest selling point of the Hyperdrive re-release was the wealth of new DVD extras, that necessitated making it a 2-disc set.  And the blu-ray?  They didn't create anything new, but they ported everything over.  Well, except for the trailer.  I wonder why they left that off?  Oversight, or maybe they felt it was too low quality for HD and they didn't want to remaster it?  Oh well, the trailer's always the least important extra (except for booklets, amiright fellas?), and everything else is here.

And what is all of that?  Well, the main attraction is a 2-hour documentary by the fine folks at Ballyhoo Pictures.  They get really in-depth and talk to everyone they can, from Tommy Lee Wallace to Dan O'Bannon's widow.  Carpenter doesn't participate, but they do include some vintage interview clips with him, so he's not so glaringly absent.  It's a pretty terrific doc.  Then, there's an audio commentary by a "super fan," which sounds horrible, but is actually pretty good, as he has really studied the film and its history and comes off as a well informed expert providing a lot of great information.  A lot of better-known journalist commentators could actually take some notes from this guy.  Then there are long on0camera interviews with actor Brian Narelle and author Alan Dean Foster.  All these extras are taken from the DVD, so they're basically SD quality upconverted to HD, but it's fine for extras.  And the Foster interview is particularly interesting, I found.  Finally, there are some odds and ends like a trivia track, an introduction written by Dan O'Bannon and an interactive map of the spaceship from the film.  Again, no trailer.
So for now, if you don't already own Dark Star, I recommend the blu.  It's a terrific little film, packed with extras.  But if you've already got the 2010 DVD set, this is a very minor upgrade if it's an upgrade at all.  You lose detail, which is a big step down, plus the trailer if that bugs you.  But you fix the interlacing, which is an almost even trade-off.  Certainly, if you've already got either one, I wouldn't spend money to replace it with the other.  And I'm forever day-dreaming of the day the a label like Arrow or Synapse can wrestle this title away from VCI and give us a truly definitive version.  Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen any day soon.  So us fans may gripe, but we've all got one of these discs on our shelves.

Ken Russell's Women In Love

It's time for another Ken Russell classic on blu-ray.  And this one might be the absolute pinnacle of them all; his powerful adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love.  This time, however, there isn't a dual US/ UK option like with Valentino, where BFI put out one edition, and Kino another.  This time there's just the BFI disc.  But honestly, BFI's special editions have been right up there with the very best from Arrow, Synapse or any other perfectionist label lately, so I'm not worried.

Update 9/15/21: Added Criterion's 2018 DVD, the BFI's US rival with some intriguing features of its own.
If you're looking at this and worrying that it's going to be a boring old romance, you don't know your D.H. Lawrences or your Ken Russells very well.  I mean, in some ways maybe it is Ken Russell's most romantic picture.  It's certainly one of his most picturesque, with beautiful photography, luxuriant landscapes and Lawrence's idolization of nature artfully captured on film.  But this is more of an unflinching examination of relationships formed and broken without the niceties of love or affection rather than some kind of cutesy Jane Austen match maker.  Most of these peoples' relationships seem to end in attempted murder more than anything else!
Instead what you have are some powerhouse performances by Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates, brilliant, faithfully reproduced writing, and Russell's flair for opulence and spectacle muted just enough to breath far more life than any other director would've into the material, but without going over the top and becoming an a 1920's Tommy.  One doesn't usually think of Russell as walking fine lines as a filmmaker, but he certainly does here.  Everything from the costumes to the inclusion of Lawrence's poem about figs into the material is pretty spot-on perfect in this film.
Women In Love has been on my "to replace" list for a long time, because MGM's 2003 DVD had been one of the few remaining non-anamorphic hold-outs in my collection.  I'd scoured the internet, and unfortunately, the UK DVD was also non-anamorphic, as was the Australian DVD and every other version in existence.  Until, finally in 2016, BFI announced a new blu-ray edition!  Hallelujah!  Not only would it be HD and finally anamorphic, but a new 4k restoration from the original negatives, with a whole ton of new special features!  Then two years later, in the US, Criterion released their own edition here in the US.
2003 MGM DVD top; 2018 Criterion DVD mid; 2016 BFI BD bottom.

Well, of course just being anamorphic is already a huge step forward, but even though this film seems to have a high grain-to-detail ratio (it almost looks like it was shot on 16), BFI's blu much clearer and more refined than the old DVD, which looks like a smudgy, high contrast mess.  Here, the grain is natural, so I doubt the film could ever look much better.  Now, note, I have Criterion's DVD here, not their BD, so naturally it's softer and more compressed; but it's clearly using the same master as BFI.  Interestingly, the BFI presents the film "in its original theatrical ratio of 1.75:1," which leaves the film still pillar-boxed, but cropping away a tiny bit of vertical information along the top and bottom of the DVD's 1.66.  Criterion has almost the same framing, but not quite - cropping it a little tighter along the top and bottom but stretching it vertically to fit the same AR of 1.75.  The DVD also seems to have some unsharp mask or other edge work done to it, and a bit of a redder tone.  Really, the modern releases are improvements in just about every way.

All three releases feature the original English mono track, with the blu presenting it in a lossless LPCM. Both newer editions also include English subtitles, though the old DVD did also feature Spanish and French subs for any non-English speakers in the audience who must be struggling through this review.  😉
So the MGM DVD did have some strong qualities to recommend it, not the least of which were two terrific audio commentaries.  The first was by Ken Russell himself, and fans of Russell films should know he always does excellent commentaries, which are both highly entertaining and yet genuinely informative.  But the other audio commentary, by producer/screenwriter Larry Kramer.  He was involved with the film before even Russell, so he has a lot to say that no one else can, and a lot of passion for the project which keeps things energetic.  The original DVD also included a photo gallery, the trailer and one of those lame MGM commercials that auto-played on start-up.
Thankfully, the BFI disc carries all of that over (except the MGM ad), as those were some real treasures to be preserved.  And in addition to that, there's plenty more.  First of, is an almost 90-minute interview with Glenda Jackson, which isn't an audio-commentary (it was recorded back in the early 80s), but is played over the film.  Then there's a 15-minute vintage BBC television program called The Pacemakers, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Women In Love and Sunday, Bloody Sunday with Glenda Jackson.  If you're in the mood for something brand new, there's a nearly hour-long interview with the film's cinematographer, Billy Williams, which goes over his whole career, but focuses a lot on Women In Love specifically.  And perhaps the most surprising inclusion is Second Best, an short Lawrence adaptation (27 minutes) from 1972 that Alan Bates produced and starred in.  The quality's a bit rough and the pacing could lose about 5-8 minutes and still be slow, but it's actually quite good.  Finally, the disc comes with an excellent 26-page booklet with detailed notes and illustrations - I particularly appreciate how they cover each of the special features.

And the Criterion?  Well, they still have the MGM commentaries, but then things get a little more complicated.  Some of their extras are the same: Second Best and the trailer.  But they drop the rest of the BFI goodies.  That's a bummer, but then Criterion has a bunch of their own, mostly vintage exclusives.  There's a great, 49-minute long autobiographical television doc by Ken Russell from 1989 called Portrait of an Enfant Terrible.  Then there's a 2007 interview with Russell, a 1976 interview with Glenda Jackson, and a short ATV Today television featurette that gets catches Kramer, Bates and Jennie Linden on set at the time of the filming. And they have new, original interviews with Williams and editor Michael Bradsell.  Plus it has an insert with notes by Linda Ruth Williams.
So we've now got our choice of two top notch releases of a first class film - BFI did it again!  And Criterion brought it to America.  With their matching transfers (extrapolating to Criterion's blu-ray, which was also released in 2018) and dueling sets of exclusive extras, it's a tough call which release to get.  Criterion's is probably a little bit better.  Fortunately, both have the Russell commentary and other overlapping extras (both have new Williams interviews and vintage ones with Jackson and Russell), so either option is fine, and most buyers will probably just want to get whichever is local to them.  Die-hard fans will need both.

The Essential Pride and Prejudice (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Being one of the most read and beloved books in the English language, it's no surprise that there have been a few efforts to bring Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to the screen.  There's an entertaining early attempt in 1940, a particularly faithful BBC miniseries in 1982 that I really own and need to revisit one day soon, and of course that Keira Knightley movie, which was an okay abridgement, though I felt they kind of dropped the ball with Mr. Darcy.  But really, there's little reason to keep taking additional shots at it, because the great Andrew Davies got it as right as anyone could ever expect to in 1995.  It's both my personally held opinion and a fairly wide consensus that this is the definitive Pride and Prejudice, and now it's got a pretty definitive blu-ray presentation to suit it.
This was a pretty massive effort for the BBC at the time; moving their traditional first class literary adaptations out of the sound-stages and mounting a full, Hollywood-level production on locations, and shooting on film rather than video.  Lavish estates, large horse-drawn carriages, and a smart, memorable score lay the stage for their largest undertaking yet.  Like the 1982 series, this adaptation was also made for British television in six hour-long episodes, which is pretty essential for telling the story.  Most full-length novels are too long for single films, but this Austen classic is particularly filled with plot turns and new characters, all of which need time to develop and flourish to truly work their effect. And here, it all pays off.  Colin Firth was already an established, notable actor in 1995, probably best known for playing the titular role in Valmont, but it's his turn here as Mr. Darcy that really set him for life.  He and the literary character will forever be associated, like Christopher Reeves is to Superman.  Jennifer Ehle also seems born to play her leading role of Elizabeth Bennet, and the supporting cast is full of terrific English character actors like Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Alison Steadman, Susannah Harker from House of Cards, Crispin Bonham-Carter (yes, they're cousins), the familiar face of Benjamin Whitrow and Absolutely Fabulous's Julia Sawalha.
I don't say the series is quite flawless.  Some of the comedy, particularly by Alison Steadman, is played pretty big, and in the first episode particularly, probably too far over the top.  I suspect they wanted to assure viewers that this would not be some dry, historical school lesson, but an entertainment modern audiences could relate to... but they might've gone a little too far.  Still, by the time you hit episode four, you're smiling every time Steadman enters the frame.  And yes, this version does take a few liberties with the novel.  But almost any criticism you might have at the outset is washed away by how appealing the production is, and how smart the combined writing of Austen and Davies.  Like Firth, Davies was already a success in his field, but this is the one that made him a Masterpiece Theater rock star.
And as the most universally beloved Austen adaptation, this has been released on home video dozens and dozens of times.  Even just in the US, it's been issued and reissued on DVD many times, starting with Image's 1998 release.  That was a fullscreen "chop off the sides, not open matte" affair, which looked like a VHS tape had been crudely digitized.  Then in 2001 came the 2001 Special Edition from A&E, which proclaimed itself the "First Ever Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1) Presentation in the U.S."  We'll see in a moment how they didn't quite get that right, but it was still a big improvement over the awful Image disc.  The same Special Edition version was packaged inside a large A&E Literary Classics: The Romance Collection boxed set in 2002, but was more notably released with a book on the making of the series and a third disc of extras in 2006 as the 10th Anniversary Collector's Set.  Then, in 2010, there was a new restored edition, on both DVD and blu-ray.  And most recently, A&E and Lions Gate have come out with a second blu-ray version, The Keepsake Edition, with all new special features!

Now, for all of those releases, certainly each disc will have its slightly individual encodes, but there are essentially four transfers that pop up on any of these discs.  The Image fullscreen version, which I got rid of long ago, so you'll just have to trust my embittered memory of poor that was, the Special Edition version that brought the film to widescreen, the DVD remaster and the HD blu-ray (both blus are essentially the same, in terms of picture quality). Specifically, the discs I have on-hand that we'll be comparing are the 2001 Special Edition, the 2010 restored DVD and the 2014 Keepsake Edition:
top: 2001 DVD, mid: 2010 DVD, bottom: 2014 blu.
So where to begin?  Well, okay, the "First Ever Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1) Presentation in the U.S." is not actually in 2.35:1, and neither is any other release.  I highly doubt the film was ever intended to be framed that way.  Instead, it and all the subsequent releases are in 1.78:1, which looks quite correct, although the blu does lose a pinch of information along the top and right-hand edges.  The Special Edition is indeed anamorphic, but has a terrible interlacing problem.  Even when compared to other interlaced discs, it looks bad.  It's like they took an interlaced transfer, and interlaced it again (in fact, I seriously suspect that could be what happened, with them brutishly importing PAL transfers to the US).  It's also undergone boosted contrast, clarification and other destructive tweaking.
left: 2001 DVD, mid: 2010 DVD, right: 2014 blu.
The 2010 DVD thankfully does away with most of that.  It's still interlaced, but not as badly, and it doesn't have most of the extra tweaks.  Consequently, it does look a little soft, but its colors, detail and motion (particularly the horizontal panning) looks much more fluid.  It's like they've gone back a generation or two, and it's all the better for it.  Still, it's downright bizarre that this came out in conjunction with the first blu-ray edition, as the blu-rays feature a much more attractive restoration taken from the original negatives.  For all its improvements, it's still taken clearly from a black crushing print.  That, or they "tweaked" it in an unfortunate, destructive way.  But the blu?  Wow.  The series was shot on 16mm, so expect a high grain-to-detail ratio, but it's such a vast leap forward in quality and naturalism.  Really, if you only own this one on DVD, this is a title you'll really want to upgrade.

The blu-rays feature a solid uncompressed LPCM audio track.  English subtitles are also included, which are a welcome site, as all the older DVDs lacked them.
Now, the story with the extras is as complicated and confusing as anything else with this series' DVD history, so let's just take it chronologically.  The Image DVD was barebones; that's simple enough.  And the 2001 Special Edition earned it's title with the inclusion of one, quite worthwhile, 23 minute featurette simply titled The Making Of...  It also included a nice 8-page booklet with quotes from the cast and crew and an attractive slipbox.  The 10th Anniversary, then, added a pretty great, new hour-long retrospective feature as its main attraction, called Lasting Impressions, where most of the cast and crew (bar Firth and Ehle) reminisce on the filming and success of the series.  They also include the episode of A&E's Biography about Jane Austen, which had previously been released on DVD on its own, plus a short "walk about" featurette with actors Lucy Briers and Adrian Lucas.  They're affable enough, but the walk's a bit of a wash, as they revisit one of the film's locations but have nothing of substance to say to one another.

Now, in 2010, the restored DVD and the initial blu-ray feature the same extras.  Specifically, they have the Lasting Impressions, the walk about, and two new features.  One is an excellent half-hour featurette that interviews much of the cast and crew but manages not to be terribly redundant in conjunction with the other extras (across all extras for this film, only a handful of anecdotes get repeated), called Pride and Prejudice: A Turning Point for Period Drama.  And there's also a brief but informative exploration (thankfully, he doesn't talk down to us) of the restoration process, which any reader of this site should appreciate.
2001's The Making Of...
The new Keepsake Edition, then, features all of the extras from the 2010 releases: Lasting Impressions, Turning Point, the walk about and the restoration featurette.  Plus, it has four new featurettes, which are all quite good.  The main one is The Definitive Pride and Prejudice, an overall history of the miniseries, starting with Austen and the novel itself, and interviewing many of the key players.  The following three, then, are essentially further interviews from the same time, on more specific subjects (though a few interviewees only show up in these later featurettes): Love or Money? Courtship and Marriage In Pride and Prejudice, The Music Of Pride and Prejudice and Lifestyles of the Wealthy in Early 19th Century England.  Those are all about ten minutes each and more focused on the show then some of the historical titles suggest.

I believe the idea of this Keepsake is to be a definitive edition, hence rounding up all previous extras as well as including new ones, but unfortunately they missed the original making of from the 2001 Special Edition.  And that one was quite interesting as it was filmed around the time of production, so not only are the interviewees noticeably younger, but they have a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage and on-set chats all of the other extras lack.  I suspect they left it off because it's fullscreen and they only had an interlaced, standard def copy that would look pretty poor on their otherwise beautiful blu-ray, but it's still a disappointment.  By the way, rather stupidly, they only list four of the 8 special features on the back of the box, making it seem like they've just repackaged the previous blu without coming up with all that cool, new content. It also includes several bonus trailers, which annoying all play on start-up, and comes in a nice slipcover.
So, there's not much debate over which is the release to get; the Keepsake Edition has the terrific HD negative restoration and the most and best special features by far, with no detriment to recommend a previous release, except the disappointing absence of the original Making Of...  The Keepsake Edition should be more than enough to satisfy casual fans, though, as that's already a couple solid hours of extras.  And happily, more dedicated fans can pick up the old Special Edition super cheap (as in under $2) online, so you can easily make compile a more complete special edition for yourself anyway.