Stay Safe with Criterion (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Todd Haynes used to be one of my favorite current filmmakers.  And don't get me wrong, I'm still watching everything he does and enjoying his work.  But I don't know if he'll ever again reach the heights of Safe again.  He's certainly had bigger box office since then, and more Academy Award nominations.  And Velvet Goldmine was delightful.  But 1995's Safe is like his perfect moment in art, where his skill as a filmmaker rose up from his rougher earlier work to reach the peak of his screenwriting, which has frankly been feeling a little more conventional these days.
Julianne Moore also serves up one of her greatest performances as Carol, an upscale, 80s, Los Angeles housewife.  She's living the perfect, circumscribed life until she becomes... allergic to it?  She's stricken by a mysterious illness, possibly stemming from household chemicals or pollution, or...?  No one can figure it out and nobody else seems to be affected.  It seems like it might all be psychosomatic until she finds a strange, cult-like community that share the same affliction, but is she ready to to join them, and what would doing that really mean?
Safe is a beautiful looking movie, thanks to some slightly period and carefully controlled photography.  In fact, the whole film is carefully controlled, from its slow but steady pace to Carol's entire environment, where she feels like the only unpredictable element in her entire world.  It's utterly gripping as one woman's identity slowly unravels and then strangely mutates into some sickly but new life.  It's like classic Cronenberg without the overt science fiction.  And there's some ideal supporting cast choices, too, including Jessica Harper, James Le Gros from Phantasm 2, Peter Friedman and The Walking Dead's Xander Berkeley
Safe was originally released on DVD back in 2001 by Columbia Tri-Star, and it was a pretty good, if unspectacular disc for its time.  It was anamorphic widescreen with an audio commentary, so really quite satisfactory, just not the packed special edition you expect for a masterpiece.  But eventually, the universal move to HD gave us a break, and Criterion picked this up for DVD and blu in 2014.  So let's see what they were able to do for this film.  😎
1) 2001 Columbia DVD; 2) 2014 Criterion DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion blu-ray.
Both releases are framed at 1.85:1, but Criterion's new 4k scan of the original camera negative pulls out just slightly to reveal a little more information all around.  Naturally, there's a fresh sharpness to the blu.  Grain is finally clear and the HD draws out some more detail; even Criterion's DVD is clearer than the Columbia Tri-Star effort; but the most noticeable upgrade is definitely the color correction.  The old DVD has a strong red push, and Criterion returns it to a very natural timing.

The case of the 2001 DVD says it's Dolby English audio track is a stereo mix, but that's wrong; it's just a mono track in 2.0 (I've gone in to look at the waves to confirm this).  And the Criterion audio, taken from the original 35mm elements, is also 2.0 original mono, presented in LPCM on the blu.  Both versions also include optional subtitles.
So like I said, the sole extra (apart from the trailer) on the Columbia Tri-Star disc is an audio commentary; but it's quite good, featuring Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and Juliane Moore herself.  Oh, there's also a bonus trailer and an insert.  Criterion thankfully carries over the commentary and trailer, but also adds a few new features.  Haynes and Moore have a substantial, over half an hour on-camera conversation, and Vachon has her own, new on-camera interview.  There's some repetition with the commentary, but also some new things to be gleaned.  The other special feature is the DVD debut of Haynes' first short film, Suicide.  He made this when he was just a young teen, however, so it's interesting for fans, but not a seriously compelling piece like Dottie Gets Spanked.  Hardcore Haynes fans should be excited, but casual viewers can safely give it a miss.  Criterion's release also comes out with an odd fold-out poster/ booklet.  Basically, it unfolds like a big poster, but instead of a big poster image, it just has panels of text notes by Dennis Lim.
So Criterion really nails it here.  I suppose if you're just a mildly a fan, you could hang onto the DVD.  Even sixteen years later, it's still more than serviceable: anamorphic widescreen and has the most important supplement.  It's just a little red and SD.  But for those who care, Criterion's blu pushes this film forward in all the right places.  This is a film that should look great because it has a distinct, cultivated look; and the presentation here is really first class.

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