The Great Woody Allen Anamorphic Project, Part 2 (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

...And we're back, finishing up the project started in Part 1 to replace every non-anamorphic Woody Allen DVD by importing our little hearts out.  Anyway, I explained all that to death already in the last post, so let's just jump right back into it with our next afflicted film, 1995's Mighty Aphrodite.

This is the film where Mira Sorvino controversially won her Academy Award.  Not that she isn't great in the picture, but this and Marisa Tomei's win for My Cousin Vinny are such silly, campy performances it's hard to place them alongside the greatest dramatic turns in cinema history.  Allen was also nominated for best original screenplay for this film, which makes a lot more objective sense.  It's one of his sillier comedies, although not quite to the degree of his early work, like Bananas, with Allen back in the leading role. 
He plays a sports writer married to Helena Bonham Carter and they've adopted a son.  Peter Weller (Robocop, Naked Lunch) plays a wealthy socialite with an eye for Carter, threatening their marriage, and Allen begins to wonder about the true mother of their son.  She turns out to be a prostitute (Sorvino), but overcome by feelings of familial bond, Allen feels compelled to help her reorganize her life, which includes rescuing her from a violent pimp and setting her up with Michael Rapaport.  But can he really help, or is his meddling just going to bring everybody to ruin?  Oh, and by the way, keep your eyes open for a small, pre-fame role by Paul Giamatti.
If you don't catch the Greek tragedy elements of the plot as it develops, Allen makes it perfectly clear by including an authentic Greek chorus into the film... even going so far as to film them in the original outdoor theater of Syracuse.  Lead by F. Murray Abraham, the chorus comments on the story just as they would in their ancient theater, and they also serve to introduce multiple classic Greek characters into the film including Cassandra, Oedipus Rex and his parents (played by David Ogden Stiers and Olympia Dukakis), and Jack Warden as the oracle Tiresias.  You don't have to be familiar with the great tragedies to follow or appreciate this film, but you'll get more of the jokes if you are.  😉
Well, if you're with us since Part 1, you can already guess the entire situation.  Mighty Aphrodite has only been released once in America, all the way back in 1999, on a barebones, non-anamorphic DVD from Miramax/ Buena Vista.  even in 2017, that old disc is all we've got.  But thankfully, we've got options overseas.  The Planet Media 2013 Woody Allen Collection box set I've been leading us through provides a much nicer, anamorphic transfer from Germany.  And yes, it even has extras, too.  And several blu-rays have been released in different countries like Japan, Germany, France, and in the case of the one I've got, Sweden by way of Atlantic Film.
Buena Vista US 1999 DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD middle;
Atlantic 2011 Finnish blu-ray bottom.
Wow, what a difference!  The original DVD looks like literal garbage, as if the print had been scraped up out of the inside of a dumpster, compared to the newer discs.  First of all, it's non-anamorphic: a tiny picture swimming in a sea of wasted space, which is what this pair of posts is all about, after all.  But it's not just that.  The picture is flat and dark, with muted colors.  Flipping between the shots of the chorus in Italy, there, it looks like someone's turning a light switch on and off.  Framing-wise, the two newer discs are both open to 1.78:1, which might be technically inaccurate, and in a perfect world would be slightly matted to 1.85:1.  But the 1999 DVD is just as off at 1.82:1, and missing not just vertical slivers, but along the sides as well.  Detail is missing on the old disc as well, but it's hard to tell if it's due to black crush or just low resolution.  I mean, the difference is so obvious in the pictures, it feels absurd spelling out all the ways the newer version has improved upon it.

Audio-wise, the Buena Vista gives us the mono track in 2.0, while Planet Media gives us the stereo mix in Dolby Digital 2.0, and the blu goes back to the mono.  About the only thing the US disc has going for it is that it also includes optional, English subtitles, while Planet Media just has German and Atlantic has Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian.
What I really enjoy about this Planet Media box are the special features.  The US DVD has nothing, not even an unrelated bonus trailer.  And the same goes for the Atlantic blu-ray.  But the German disc has the trailer - albeit in German, the other Allen German-language trailers, and most excitingly, an interview with Mira Sorvino.  And yes, it's entirely English-friendly.  In fact, strangely, it doesn't even have German subtitles - it's not German-friendly!  But for us, it's a nicely edited interview that runs for just over twelve minutes, talking about her Oscar win, shooting with Allen, and even demonstrating how and why she created the character's infamous voice.  Too bad it's not on the blu.
Now, these next two films are anamorphic on their original US DVDs.  But they're in the Planet Media box, I've got both discs to compare against each other, so I've decided to be thorough and cover everything.  1997's Deconstructing Harry, in fact, is basically in the same situation as Sweet and Lowdown.  There are no blus of it anywhere in the world, possibly because the old DVD master was anamorphic, so there was less pressure to strike up a new one that could then be released in HD.  And also in keeping with Sweet and Lowdown, New Line's 1998 DVD is still completely barebones, but a double-sided disc with a fullscreen side on the flip.
And for the record, Deconstructing Harry's great.  Allen plays a writer going through a midlife crisis.  His family life's been steadily apart, but suddenly made worse by the fact that his new novel airs everybody's dirty laundry.  During the course of this drama, we also sporadically cut to his writings brought to life as insight into his character.  It practically turns into an anthology, telling us one little story after another, each of which ultimately comment on the Harry, but could almost stand alone as short films.  And this gives Allen the opportunity to pack this film with movie stars, even moreso than Everyone Says I Love You, because the individual segments rate their own separate casts.  So for just a few minutes we have Robin Williams star as an actor who can no longer work because he's physically, personally gone out of focus, and he's married to Julie Kavner, and it's a whole film-within-a-film.  We wind up with an amazing cast including Tobey Maguire, Judy Davis, Richard Benjamin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, Eric Bogosian, Bob Balaban, Kirstie Alley, Mariel Hemingway, Demi Moore, Amy Irving, oh and Paul Giamatti again.  There's even a scene where Harry goes to Hell to confront the devil (played by Billy Crystal) with a depiction of the fiery underworld straight out of This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse.  It's delightful!
New Line 1998 US DVD widescreen side top;
New Line 1998 US DVD fullscreen side mid; 2013 Planet Media DVD bottom.
Yup, unsurprisingly, the 1998 and 2013 DVDs look virtually identical.  There's not even a Sweet and Lowdown difference with the colors or anything.  And the fullscreen is interesting to look at, but it is the wrong aspect ratio, so nothing desirous.  It's pan and scan (see how the second set of shots crops both sides evenly, but the top set pans more of the left, to keep the kids on the right completely in shot), adding a little at the top and bottom but cropping a bunch off the sides, going from about 1.81:1 (you'll notice an odd window-boxing around the widescreen versions, common in really old DVDs, presumably to not waste the overscan areas of old TVs) to 1.32:1.  It's not a bad transfer, so you can see why they felt they could reuse it in 2013.  But you can also see why they couldn't just slap that onto a blu, which is why it's still a DVD-only title all around the world.

We haven't had a New Line DVD in this pair of posts yet, but they behave just like Buena Vista and Columbia Tri-Star.  In this case: English mono in 2.0 with a French dub, plus English, French and Spanish subs.  And again, Planet Media gives us both the English and German mono in 2.0 with optional English subs.  This time, unfortunately, Planet Media has no special features for us apart from the German language trailers... though, again, that's still more than we got in America.
Small Time Crooks is just a funny film.  It's definitely a crowd pleaser, in fact one that won him back some of his mainstream audience that he'd lost for a long time between his personal scandals and stretch of "artsier" films.  It takes it's starting premise from an old Edward G. Robinson film called Larceny, Inc, where a small group of criminals (in this case Woody Allen, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow) buy a store next to a bank so they can tunnel into the vault, but are taken by surprise when their cover business becomes a huge success.  Soon they've got three quarters of a tunnel dug, but they're making more money through their store, which winds up becoming a chain!  But where Larceny focuses on this fun conflict for the entire film, Crooks just uses that to launch off into a whole second act where these low class criminals and their wives now try to fit into upscale society.  Allen's wife, Tracy Ullman hires Hugh Grant to teach them how to be aristocratic, and Allen becomes disillusioned with their new lives and wants to go back to thieving.  Larry Pine, Elaine Stritch and a particularly funny Elaine May also co-star.
The reason Small Times Crooks is anamorphic is probably because its the newest of these films, hitting DVD from Universal in 2000.  And that's still the only US release, but besides being in the Planet Media box, unlike Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown, it's also available on blu in different parts of the world, including Japan, France, Norway and Germany.  But those blus can't be using a 2000 master, can they?  Surely, there must be a difference between the 2000 and 2013 DVDs, right?  Well, let's have a look-see.
Universal 2000 US DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD bottom.
Ee-yup.  While they're not worlds apart - if you don't bother to click and view these shots fullscreen, you might not even notice the difference - there is a noticeable upgrade in the new disc.  Both discs are framed at 1.78:1, but the Planet Media DVD includes a sliver more around all four sides.  The colors are reasonably similar, but when you get in close, you can see all that ugly artifacting all over the shop, which is cleaned up on the newer disc.  There's also some edge enhancement on the old transfer that the new one thankfully doesn't employ.  So the improvement is there, and it surely looks a bit clearer and sharper still on the blus.  But it's not one of those night and day transformations.

Universal gives us the original mono track with optional English subtitles, while Planet Media gives us the same audio, plus a German dub, and the optional German subtitles.
Where Planet Media really comes through, once again, is the extras.  Universal did give us the trailer this time, and Planet Media has it, too - in both English and German.  But the much bigger deal is a 20-minute on-camera interview with Woody.  It's 100% in English, with removable German subtitles.  As you know, it's pretty rare to get an interview from him, and at twenty minutes, he gets to go pretty in-depth, telling us all sorts of interesting things, like how he'd first cast Tracy Ullman in Bullets Over Broadway, but then cut her out of it.
Finally, we come to Wild Man Blues.  This isn't a film by Woody Allen, but a documentary about him.  And was this not released anamorphically in the USA?  It sure wasn't - it's never been released here at all!  So yes, it's in the Planet Media Woody Allen Collection I'm been featuring so prominently in these posts.  But I've also picked up another import version of it to compare it to.  And you'll see, it shows a pretty interesting distinction.
Admittedly, Wild Man Blues isn't the most compelling film.  Many mainstream viewers were probably hoping for a tawdry expose of the scandals in his personal life, or at least some kind of legal drama on the subject.  And fans would've just been happy with a look at his lifetime of work.  We eventually did get something like that with a much more recent documentary in 2011, but at the time, Allen wasn't interested in participating in a project of either type.  So all we could get was a documentary about his jazz music, following him around as he toured Europe with his clarinet.  It's not a bad doc as far as that goes, celebrity gossip fiends did at least get a dose of Soon-Yi, and there's a charming scene at the end with Allen and his parents.  But by and large it's a fairly standard tour documentary (every band and comic has one these days), where the main question of appeal will just lie in how interested you are in footage of him playing various jazz concerts.
So, like I said, this film's never been released on DVD in the USA at all.  But it did enjoy a brief run in Canada from Alliance Atlantis in 2005.  That disc's long out of print, though, and goes for over $200 on Amazon.  But I've got it for us today for our comparison.  And also I've got it in Planet Media's 2013 box set.  It's been released a couple of other times overseas, but never in HD.  There's a French blu-ray box set which includes it, but it's just standard def on there, too.  So you might assume, okay, all those import DVDs are probably identical, then, but no.  Have a look.
Alliance Atlantis 2005 Canadian DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD bottom.
First of all, the Canadian DVD is non-anamorphic!  Thought I'd end this Anamorphic Project without a film that didn't have an anamorphic problem?  Not on your life; I'm a pro!  On top of that, the two discs are in completely different aspect ratios.  The Canadian disc is 1.66:1, and the US disc is 1.32:1.  Looking at them, I'd say the 1.66 is correct (or at least more correct) of the two, though it's essentially a trade between losing vertical or horizontal information.  Also, look, the German DVD is interlaced!  Boo.  This is the only disc in the set with an interlacing problem; in fact, it's the only disc we've looked at across this series of posts with an interlacing problem.  So that's disappointing.  So basically, the two discs are very different, and both suck, with a unique set of problems.  I guess I'd recommend the German disc as the lesser evil, unless you're still rocking an old school 4x3 TV.

Both discs feature the same audio track in Dolby Digital 2.0.  The Alliance Atlantis disc has optional English and French subtitles, while the Planet Media disc has German subs.  The German disc has no special features except for the German language trailers, and a trailer for Wild Man Blues is not among them.  The Canadian DVD is also completely barebones without even a trailer.  So pick your loser, pretty much.  Or maybe try rolling the dice on another international DVD.  The UK has a DVD box set with Wild Man Blues in it, and that French blu-ray set I mentioned.  Good luck.  It's probably not a film you'll revisit much anyway.
So there you go!  Follow along with this discs covered in this project, and you will have successfully expunged every non-anamorphic Woody Allen DVD from your collection.  You could track down that one German Woody Allen Collection like I did, and take care of it all in one quick and affordable swoop (I found that option tempting mainly for the extras, personally), or you can go hard and collect all the blu-rays from around the world.  But however you go about it, now every serious Woody Allen fan can finally stop foot out of the 20th century.  Every other film of Woody Allen's, from What's Up, Tiger Lily to Melinda and Melinda is already available here in the US at least anamorphically, if not HD.  These were the hold-outs; and imports have finally rendered them obsolete.

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