The Great Woody Allen Anamorphic Project, Part 1 (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Naturally, Pretty much every Woody Allen movie is available in America on DVD.  I say "pretty much," because where is Harvey Wallinger?  Come on, WNET!  But what I'm really getting to is that, while we've got 'em all, many are so old, they're non-anamorphic.  Yuck.  That was the case with the original Annie Hall DVD, which I already covered.  Even the 2012 reissue was non-anamorphic, and who ever heard of a non-anamorphic blu in the 2010s?  But that's a celebrated enough film that MGM eventually put it out on blu.  Of course, now we've got Twilight Time and Arrow putting out all these great Woody Allen box sets.  But there's one big problem area in his filmography.  A middle period around the late 90s where his films weren't with MGM (who learned their lesson after Annie Hall complaints), famous enough to get an updated blu-ray, or or new enough to debut with HD masters.  Yeah, in America we're stuck, but fortunately there are some relatively obscure import options that have us covered.  In fact, there's one DVD boxed set from Germany that seems almost specifically designed to replace all our old problem discs.  And there are other options, too, including a couple blu-rays I've got for us to look at, all of which that put our American selection to shame.
So let us begin with 1994's Bullets Over Broadway.  It's the first film chronologically, and it's one I have a blu-ray edition of as well.  So we get a fuller comparison; and once you see this one, you'll get an idea for how the cases of all these films are going to go ...at least until we get to the last one, which is all kinds of messed up.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Bullets Over Broadway is a period piece that was nominated for a half a dozen or so Oscars in its year.  John Cusack stars as a young, starving artist playwright in 1920's New York City who finally manages to get one of his plays produced... by throwing in with the mafia. Theatrical troupes and the mob are both rife for comedy, but the fun really comes from meshing these two worlds together and the unexpected results.  This is less of a heady piece for Allen, and more of a straight-forward display of light character humor, with a truly star-studded cast, including Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri who steals the picture, Jack Warden, Dianne Wiest (winning her second Oscar), the always underrated Jim Broadbent, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, Rob Reiner and Debi Mazar.  Wow.  This is just one of those movies that will play for any audience.
Bullets Over Broadway was released in America on a non-anamorphic, barebones DVD by Buena Vista/ Miramax back in 1999.  And that's it forever.  The 2002 UK DVD didn't fare any better.  But thank goodness for countries that wouldn't stand for such shabby product on their more modern releases.  I've got the anamorphic DVD in the aforementioned 2013 German box set called The Woody Allen Collection (not a very helpful title in regards to separating it from all the other Woody Allen box sets out there, I know) from Planet Media, and then I got it on a blu-ray from Finland put out by Atlantic in 2011.  There are also blu-rays, though, from France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Japan... just about everywhere in the world but here.  It's almost like we're a giant pack of philistines, but anyway:
Buena Vista US 1999 DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD middle;
Atlantic 2011 Finnish blu-ray bottom.
Since being anamorphic (anamorphia?) is today's topic, I left the borders around the first set of images to demonstrate how the non-anamorphic Buena Vista DVD compares to the others.  Framing-wise, they're all basically the same aspect ratio.  The original DVD is floating at 1.85, and the newer discs are slightly matted to 1.88:1, gaining a tiny bit around all four sides.  The colors are very similar, too, with the US DVD being just a little flatter than the others.  The German DVD and the Finnish blu clearly share the same master, with the DVD just naturally a little softer and more compressed for being SD instead of HD.  The older DVD is even more compressed by virtue of being a smaller image, and thus with less resolution.  When you compare the latter set of images in full size (click 'em!), you can see the murkiness of the older disc more, and what looks like a little edge enhancement or similar tampering to try and define the lines more.

Both DVDs give us the original mono track in Dolby 2.0, though the German DVD also throws in a German dub.  The US DVD has optional English subtitles, while the German has optional German ones.  The blu-ray has just the audio track, which is also Dolby 2.0 with optional Swedish, Finnish, Danish and Norwegian subtitles.
But now here's the neat thing about this German box set... both the US DVD and Finnish blu are completely barebones, not even the the trailer or unrelated bonus trailers.  But the German Woody Allen Collection actually cooks up some special features.  Not a lot, but for Woody Allen films, even a tiny bit is a watershed moment.  So, for Bullets, their disc doesn't have the trailer either (though it has German language trailers for five other Woody Allen films in this set), but it has something.  It's simply titled "Woody Allen Featurette," and the narration is in German with no English subtitles.  But once it gets going, we see it's an audience Q&A with Allen addressing the audience in English interspersed with clips from his films.  But then the German translator starts to speak over him, making Woody very hard to hear.  This is one of the least English-friendly extras in the set - the rest are mostly in unobscured English with German subs - but if you work at it, you can make everything out, as he discusses his body of films and relationship to his work.
1999's Sweet and Lowdown wasn't quite as critically or commercially blessed as Bullets Over Broadway, but it still netted Acting noms for Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. I figured I'd follow the 1920s period piece with the 1930s one, this time focusing on struggling jazz musicians.  It's less of a comedy and more of a charming, actorly character study, also with Uma Thurman, John Waters and Anthony LaPlaglia.  It's presented as a drama with documentary-like reminisces by Woody Allen and others, essentially just like Reds.
It's also anamorphic.  That's right; the original 1999 US DVD from Columbia Tri-Star?  It's anamorphic, no problem.  I know what I wrote at the top and what this post is about, but hey, it's in Planet Media's Woody Allen Collection, too, so I figured I'd be thorough and cover it here, too.  I mean, it's still a great film to cover on this site; and it's also never been released on blu-ray in any country.  I think it's safe to say the reason why that is is that they've never made an HD master for it.  So, I think it's safe to assume, at least in terms of PQ, the US and German DVDs should be about the same, as they would be on pretty much any disc anywhere.  Oh, except the US DVD is a flipper disc with a fullscreen version on the other side.  So that'll be interesting to compare.
Columbia Tri-Star 1999 US DVD, widescreen side top;
Columbia Tri-Star 1999 US DVD, fullscreen side middle; Planet Media 2011 German DVD bottom.
Columbia Tri-Star 1999 US DVD left; Planet Media 2011 German DVD right.
So yeah, basically as expected.  The US (widescreen) and German DVDs are pretty similar and likely taken from the same core master.  The colors are a bit different, though, with the US having brighter, bluer whites, while the German goes for a more naturalistic, warmer hue.  And when you get in close, the US DVD does seem to have more artifacting and digital noise (look around her hair and hat) than the smoother German disc.  I wouldn't go out of my way to double-dip for it, but I do see a credible improvement in the newer DVD.  Oh and the fullscreen version, yeah.  It looks like you're usual, compromised pan & scan deal adding some vertical information while losing some of its sides, and of course looking boxy and utterly misframed.

Both discs give us the mono in Dolby 2.0, though the US DVD has a French dub, while the German DVD naturally has German.  Columbia Tri-Star also includes optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, while Planet Media just has German and German HOH.
Again, the US DVD is barebones, apart from three unrelated bonus trailers (well, technically Sean Penn is in U Turn).  But the German disc comes through at least adequately.  First of all, it does have the trailer, in both English and German, plus the same German language Woody trailers as the other discs in the set.  Then there's a photo gallery.  But the big thing this time is a one hour long press conference with Allen and a very pregnant Morton.  It's mostly in English, though Woody tackles answering the French reporters in French, and it's all only subtitled in German. So we get more than half of it, but you'll have to fast forward a few pieces.  Of course I wish it had English subs, or just edited the French bits out, but it's still great to have, since Allen so rarely speaks on his releases.
So okay, guys, let's stop mucking around and get back to the anamorphically deficient titles, like Celebrity from 1998.  A movie crew looks up to see a sky-writing bi-plane spell out "HELP ME" above their city.  That's how Celebrity opens, a black and white satire of Hollywood culture.  Kenneth Branagh stars as Woody Allen, effectively, in the role of a reporter and aspiring screenwriter going through a divorce with Judy Davis.  It's a smart comedy with a lot of great lines and memorable moments from it's amazing cast of characters, including Leonardo DiCaprio (the one everybody remembers from this film), Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron, Joe Mantegna, Frasier's Bebe Nuewirth, Andre Gregory, Hank Azaria, Larry Pine and yes our one and only POTUS, Donald Trump.  I'm not sure this film is completely successful - a lot of the shots at the shallowness of celebrity culture are a little obvious, and while I'd say Branagh's performance is pretty great, I can't entirely disagree people who find his aping of Allen's mannerisms to be distracting from the drama at the core of this film either.  But it's still a great time at the movies.
Buena Vista's 1999 barebones, non-anamorphic DVD is once again still the only version ever released in this country to this day.  Meanwhile, thankfully, there is new remaster available around much of the rest of the world.  It's in the Planet Media set, and yes, there are blu-rays from Atlantic, as well as France and Germany.  So there are plenty of importing options.  It's just us being screw-ups.
1999 Buena Vista US DVD top; 2013 Planet Media German DVD bottom.
The images here look pretty alike, apart from the obvious point of the 1999 DVD being non-anamorphic.  But the 1.85:1 framing (more like 1.82 on the old disc) is slightly different, with a tiny bit of extra picture on the left hand side throughout Buena Vista's transfer.  I guess that's a tiny point in its favor, but it loses plenty to not being encoded for widescreen televisions, plus it's got softer focus because, again, it's a smaller, lower resolution image.

Buena Vista again gives us the original mono in 2.0 with optional English subtitles, while Planet Media does the same except with optional German subtitles, and of course an additional German dub.
Now you don't need me to tell you that the US DVD has nothing, not even the trailer, right?  Well, the German DVD does have the trailer and the bonus trailers, albeit all in German.  But far more importantly, they have a roughly 20 minute interview with Branagh and Allen together (and interestingly, Ken says early on that he didn't try to base his character on Woody in any way).  It's 100% in English, with no over dubbing or foreign reporters.  It has German subtitles, but even they're removable.  It's pretty great.
Okay, one more for Part 1, and then we'll swing back for the rest of Woody Allen's anamorphically challenged DVDs in Part 2.  We'll have all the original US DVDs, finish out the German box set, and even throw in a couple extra import versions to flesh it all out.  But for now, let's wind up with Woody Allen's musical, 1996's Everyone Says I Love You.  It takes its title from the great musical title of the same name in The Marx Bros' classic, Horse Feathers.  Now, you may've noticed two of the previous films we've looked at already have relied on a cavalcade of stars.  All his films have terrific actors and some major star power, but Bullets Over Broadway and Celebrity, he's jam-packing them in.  And Everyone Says I Love You continues that tradition.  Woody Allen for the first time in this grouping takes a major role in this film, alongside Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore, Tim Roth, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Natalie Portman, Natasha Lyonne, Billy Crudup and even Julia fuckin' Roberts.  It can certainly feel saccharine at times - though with its tributes to classical Hollywood musicals, that's at least partially intentional - but Roth's and Allen's characters manage to bring enough genuine humor to the screen to keep us from eye rolling too hard.
Anyway, it's the same old song: Buena Vista's DVD came out in 1999 completely barebones and non-anamorphic, and has never been updated in the states.  But again, a newer master was created and used to make the German DVD for Planet Media's box, and also multiple blu-rays from around the world, all of which are decidedly preferable to what we get here.  But we shouldn't just assume that, so let's look at the evidence.
Buena Vista 1999 DVD on top; Planet Media 2013 DVD bottom.
Exhibit A: Buena Vista's DVD is non-anamorphic, and that's already enough to condemn to the "must upgrade" bin.  Exhibit B: those colors!  I might almost believe that the walls of the apartment in the first set of shots were meant to be tan instead of pink, but the fact that it's a hue overcasting the entire image says otherwise.  Also look at the flared out brights and ugly contrast on poor Drew. Exhibit C: the framing!  Actually, the German DVD is open matte at 1.78:1, as opposed to all the other discs they've been matting to 1.85:1, and I'm not really sure which would be correct here.  The framing looks a bit tight in the first set of shots (cutting off the top of Woody's head), but you'd think the proper OAR would be 1.85, so I'll give Buena a pass on that one.
Buena Vista 1999 DVD left; Planet Media 2013 DVD right.
Exhibit D: the tampering!  It looked like Alda was too soft in the original master, so someone drew in all his lines with a thick, black magic marker.  Sure, the Planet Media side looks a little soft (it's probably a bit better on the blu-ray releases), but the 1999 DVD is one sorry looking excuse for a filmic or digital image.  I'd sentence that DVD to a mercy killing.

Anyway, the German disc also has no extras this time around, apart from the German-language bonus trailers, which I suppose is still more than Buena Vista gave us.
Both discs use the English mono track in Dolby 2.0, with the music sounding nice on either version.  Though this time around, the German dub is bumped up to a 5.1 mix.  The US DVD has optional English subtitles, and interestingly, since all their other discs have optional German ones, the Planet Media disc has none.  This is the worst film to do that to the German viewers on, too, because the dub only replaces the actors' speaking, reverting to the original English for the songs.  So the Germans would have no idea what's being sung.  D'oh!

Anyway, that's all for now.  Stay tuned for Part 2!

2 comments:

  1. Note that in the US, the "Sweet and Lowdown" DVD was reissued as a non-flipper disc, with only the fullscreen transfer. I believe the SKUs are identical too.

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    1. Oh, ouch! Dropping the fullscreen version would be fine, but leaving most people with just the fullscreen version is rough. One more reason to import, I suppose, if you didn't get an O.G. copy.

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