Finally, Scorpion Unleashes the Ultimate Sect! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Oh, man.  How many years has it been since Code Red first announced their special edition of Michele Soavi's The Sect on blu?  Since that time, it's come out as a perfectly respectable edition in the UK from the fine folks at Shameless, Germany from Koch and Japan from Happinet, then switched hands to Scorpion Releasing, and come out as a budget single disc edition.  But I kept the faith and resisted all of those releases, holding out for the ultimate 2-disc special edition that was always just around the corner.  And now it's finally here!
Now, I'm going to hold off official, final judgement until all four of Soavi's "main" films get proper, special edition blus to really lock in an official decision.  But most of my life, I've always been in the minority, holding up The Sect as my favorite.  Stage Fright certainly has the style to set it apart from the bulk of the genre, but still plays too much like a generic slasher to top my list.  The Church is a blast, but a bit sloppy, and unluckily stands in The Demons' shadow.  Dellamorte Dellamore was my favorite when I was young, but since then feels a little too comic bookish (fair enough, because it's based on a comic, of course; but still not my ideal sensibility).
So they're all great films, but The Sect winds up nestled in that sweet spot for me, still a more adult horror movie, full of atmosphere and completely wild imagery.  It feels more unrestrained, free to go where ever it wants, as opposed to his previous films, where he pushed against the envelope.  The Sect doesn't have an envelope.  It's just whatever Soavi wants it to be at any given moment.  Is Satan a hippy?  Is your face a lock that needs to be opened with a key of giant scary hooks?  Will a rabbit lead you down a hole that contaminates your drinking water with blue alien slime?  Will a bug crawl into your brain and make you dream about turning into a giant before a crucified bird monster pecks you to death?  Sure, all that can happen in The Sect!
With all of that said, I can just as easily see why this is some fans' least favorite film.  If you want a coherent, logical plot, you're out of luck.  It's confusing, seemingly arbitrarily weird, a little too reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby, and let's face it, the Alice In Wonderland theme is obvious and heavy-handed, and for all it's creative imagery, it can get pretty talky.  But even if it's at the bottom of your list, I think you have to admit it's still got a lot going for it.  There are undeniably cool scenes, and Soavi's camera is always crawling around, hunting out exotic new angles.  We get a pretty nifty performance from Herbert "Inspector Dreyfus" Lom from The Pink Panther movies.  And Pino Donaggio's score pumps the film full of cool energy.  At worst, it's a fascinating failure, which is still more than you can say for most movies.
So, like I said, I've held off on buying the previous blu-rays of this film, but I do have the original 2002 Cecchi Gori DVD from Italy, which until recently was the definitive release of this film for fans around the world.  And so we'll do that comparison, and talk about the differences between this brand new limited edition (to 3000, mine's #1892) 2-disc set that came out just this month as opposed to the single disc release Scorpion put out last month.  The difference isn't just that second disc.
2002 Italian Cecchi Gori DVD on top; 2018 US Scorpion blu-ray bottom.
The Cecchi Gori DVD was pretty sweet it its day: uncut, anamorphic widescreen, with both English and Italian audio.  What more could you want?  Well, in this new era of HD, we want more.  Like for instance, not a soft, splotchy mess.  There's a weird kind of noise to the whole image, not interlacing, but this kind of pattern like you're watching the film through a screen door.  I remember the first edition of the Upstairs Downstairs DVDs looked like that too, until they corrected it with the remastered 40th Anniversary boxed set.  Or here, I've actually got an example of it already on the site with I, Claudius.  Look closely at the old screenshots from the original Image DVD.  All part of the ride in the olden days of DVD.

Anyway, both films are presented in 1.78:1, although the DVD has a bit of feathered edging around all four sides and despite the DVD case claiming 1.66:1.  But despite the same AR, we see Scorpion has unveiled a healthy amount of information around all four sides.  The case tells us that this is a brand new 2017 2k scan (so a fresher one than even the 2016 blus?) with over 45 hours of color correction.  And that color work really pays off, because it's beautiful.  I mean, it's clearly superior to the blander DVD, but even on its own terms as a contemporary blu, it's an attractive image.
2002 Italian Cecchi Gori DVD left; 2018 US Scorpion blu-ray right.
Detail is a little light, but at this point I think that's down to the film itself.  This is a 2k scan rather than a 4k, so the grain isn't quite as individualized; but I think it's safe to say we're seeing all the pores of the actors' skin now that we were ever meant to see.  Compared to the DVD, it's a massive boost in quality.  Look how photo realistic the HD image is compared to the noisy SD above - you can actually recognize the Ford logo as a Ford logo on the blu.
And if Zeder had you worried, here's a shot of the subtitles.  They're perfect, and no they're not dubtitles.  And that's the first big distinction between this 2-disc release and Scorpion's single disc that came out last month.  That version didn't have subtitles, only the English audio.  This disc gives you the full language options with both the original Italian and English mono tracks in DTS-HD 2.0.  And this is a film where you want the Italian audio option; it has the better performances.  Try comparing the scene where Lom collapses in Kelly Curtis's house and she starts shouting for help.  In English, she sounds like a disaffected high schooler reading Shakespeare in a classroom.  In Italian, it's a convincing performance.  Admittedly, Tomas Arana's part is better in English; but overall, the Italian rules the day.

And this may be the first time most of us are really getting to appreciate the film in Italian, because while yes, I did say that the Cecchi Gori DVD had both audio tracks (in fact, they have both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 options for the Italian track), it only has Italian subtitles.  So we English speakers had to stick to our dub.  It was nice to be over to switch over to the Italian and get a taste of the Italian dub, but now we can finally make proper use of it.

Finally, I have to point out that there is some hiss to Scorpion's audio tracks.  It's not bad; and shouldn't bother you at all once you've grown accustomed to it.  The nearly wall to wall soundtrack covers up most of it.  But it's there and you won't exactly need to be wearing high frequency headphones to pick up on it.  And the old DVD doesn't seem to have it.  It's fine, though.  I guess Scorpion decided it would be more destructive or revisionist to run it through some noise filtering.  Cecchi Gori was happy to remix the whole thing into 5.1's after all, so they're hardly being true to the original mix like the blu is.
But language options aren't the only difference between the two Scorpion blus!  There's a whole wealth of new extras.  Now the old DVD just had the trailer and a negligible stills gallery (and a cool looking insert).  Scorpion already topped that with their single disc edition, which included on-camera interviews with Soavi and Arana, plus the trailer and some bonus trailers.  Well, that stuff's carried over, of course, but we also get an audio commentary by Troy Howarth, who did an excellent job on Arrow's Phenonema disc, and an on-camera interview with Dario Argento.  As you can see, while this is definitively a Scorpion release now, Code Red still gets credit for the extras they created.  And these aren't cheap, no frills interviews.  They're well shot in HD, cleanly subtitled (as opposed to the mess on that Zeder disc) and thoughtfully edited with clips from the film.

And that's just the first disc!  The second disc gives us two and a half hour's worth of additional interviews with cinematographer Raffaele Mertes, set designer Massino Geleng, screenwriter Gianni Romoli, Pino Donaggio, Giovanni Lombardo Radice and film historian Fabrizio Spurio.  And yes, these are all the same high quality as the ones on the first disc.  The only difference is the subtitles are removable here, but burned in on disc 1 (the extras, not the movie!).  Just something I noticed.  Anyway, this 2-disc set comes in a nice slipcover and features reversible artwork, utilizing the same poster image you see on the Cecchi Gori cover.
Scorpion has clearly set their sites on the very top A-list releases by companies like Arrow and Criterion and is playing to win.  And the result is Soavi's films finally get the treatment they've always deserved.  I mean, it's amazing The Sect never even got a standard Anchor Bay DVD back in the day.  It took until 2018, but I've finally gotten The Sect release I've always wanted.  And you can still get the single disc release if you're more of a casual viewer.  But there was no way on Earth I was going to miss out on this edition, and now that I've got it, I'm grinning ear to ear.

I, Tonya Rocks (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Look, folks, I'm right there with ya.  If you told me to name the last film I'd ever want to see, a bio pic of Tonya Harding would be right at the top of my list.  But, man oh man, this movie is so good!  I'd say "believe the hype," but the hype doesn't even do this movie justice.  I've heard I, Tonya described as Goodfellas on ice, and yeah man, that really nails the feel of this movie.  It's both ingeniously entertaining and yet runs deeper than you'd ever have thought possible of the source material.  When I first heard of it, I was happily going to pass over this movie.  But I read enough good things from people whose opinions I respect that I decided, fine, I'd check it out online.  Half way through, I had to pause and look up release dates, because I knew I needed this movie in my collection.  And this week, it's finally landed: a pretty strong blu-ray/ DVD combo pack edition from Universal.  And I loved it even more the second time!
You don't need to give a single crap about The Olympics or ice skating, or even the famous scandal to get into this movie.  It's just a terrific crime flick.  It's a genuine human drama that's too whip smart not to also double as a hilarious comedy.  And don't worry, you're not being asked to like Tonya Harding.  But while this film may not be a perfect factual account of events - it's based on contradictory testimony of the people involved, and we're even given full-screen first person interviews to the camera (inspired by The Thin Blue Line) where characters deny events we see onscreen - you'll definitely come away with a deeper understanding of her and why everything they turned out the way it did.
I, Tonya (the title of which I assume is a riff on I, Claudius) gave me something to root for at The Oscars, which often feels like we're just weighing nine different sacks of Hollywood pap against each other.  Allison Janney absolutely deserved her win for supporting actress, and while it's nice that Margot Robbie got nominated for her role, too; everything shook out the way it was supposed to.  I'm really glad this film showed clips of the actual footage of the real people this is based on in the closing credits, because some of the supporting cast could be perceived as going over the top, or playing for comic effect; but we see they really nailed it.  We saw the same kind of thing in other films, like Disaster Artist, but I don't think I've ever seen it have as much impact as it does here/
But it's not just the acting and clever writing.  This film is invested with so much style, that's really where the Goodfellas comparisons come in.  Stylish shots, impressive long takes and camera moves, big soundtrack drops.  I, Tonya is definitely one of those rare movies that can be described as "firing on all cylinders."  Like if Mad Max: Fury Road was also a tragically relatable Boys Don't Cry-like examination of the plight of modern American girls.  It certainly doesn't softball any of the story's heavier issues.  I've seen most of the work of both writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie, and I can't say I've ever been terribly impressed with either of them.  ...To the point where I'd almost write them off as just bad filmmakers.  But they have both really risen far above their stations here and brought out new heights in each other's work.  I don't know if they'll ever be able to follow this up, or if they just caught lightning in a bottle this once, but I have newfound respect for them now, so I'll be checking in on them again for sure.
Universal 2018 DVD on top; Universal 2018 blu-ray beneath.
This film was shot on 35mm film, and then delivered digitally because of the extensive CGI effects.  And that urns out great on this blu, with a distinctly classic grainy look beautifully blended with not only the effects but CG color timing and other work they've surely done to the film.  Compare this to the recently released Wonder Wheel, which looks beautiful; but up close, I, Tonya looks more like a "movie."  The film is presented in a very wide 2.39:1, and naturally the DVD matches the blu, except for a softer lack of fine detail.  The blu-ray's a beaut, and given a powerful 5.1 mix in DTS-HD along with optional English subs.
And while this release falls a little short of a packed special edition - what can you expect from the big studios these days? - we actually get some decent extra stuff here.  First and foremost we get an informative but low energy audio commentary from the director.  Ha delves into the technicalities and covers various aspects of the film.  Then there are five featureless, which get increasingly interesting.  They start out as pretty disposable, standard fare promos, essentially trailers for the film with interview soundbites interjected.  It's nice to hear Robbie speaking with her natural accent as a comparison and stuff, but basically it's just fluff.  Then they start to get more specifically into the director and the true story behind the film, which is more interesting but all too brief to really sunk your teeth into.  But finally the fifth featurette is still short, but cuts all the repetitious promo clips from the film and just takes a serious look at the special effects work that went into getting some of the seemingly impossible skating shots.  Robbie getting her head scanned inside a giant ball of lights looks like something out of 2001!
There's also a nice collection of deleted scenes, some of which make nice little additions to the bigger picture or provide additional laughs.  The last one is actually a long, unedited collection of takes of Paul Hauser recreating one of Shawn Eckhardt's infamous television interviews.  Again, while it's unquestionably enjoyable and works for the film, you might be tempted to dismiss the portrayal as too silly, like something out of Mallrats, until you've seen the actual footage of the real guy.  So, anyway, you get all that, plus a couple trailers for the film; plus it comes in a nice, embossed slipcover.  So it's heartening to see that Universal took a little extra time to do this one right.  Sure, there's no eight-hour Lord Of the Rings-style appendix documentary, but it's pretty well kitted out.
So, if you can't tell, I highly recommend the film and am quite happy with Universal's release.  Sure, there's room to expand if Criterion decides to release a fancy 4k signature edition ten years down the line.  But what we've got now is already better than what the major studios give most of their new releases these days.  In short, it's all good news.

Larry Cohen's The Ambulance Finally Done Right (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

A few posts ago, I mentioned that if you're a serious Larry Cohen fan, you have to be prepared to track down obscure imports and MOD discs from the various major studios. Well, today we're going to look at a film that's been released as both; and the definitive version switched from one to the other. I'm talking about 1990's amusing thriller The Ambulance.

Update 2/9/15 - 3/15/18: "Obscure imports and MOD discs" are for suckers; just get the blu-ray!  Okay, no, there are obviously still some terrific, definitive obscure imports and even a few MODs... But since my initial post, this film has finally gotten some proper love from our friends at Scream Factory.  So it's definitely time to reassess The Ambulance situation.
I'm pretty sure everybody who's ever seen The Ambulance has liked it. For non-Cohen fans it's probably just a faded memory of a flick they caught on cable or a weekend rental from Blockbuster, but a pleasant one. A movie that was just a little bit better than most of the others. It's not a showy movie; it's not a great work of art or anybody's favorite. I was going to say it's not ambitious, but actually, considering the cast they enlist even for the small roles, and some of the stunts they go for on an indie budget - they get several live horses running loose for one quick moment just to add a little extra excitement. So it is ambitious, and that's a big part of it's charm. While they could have easily gotten away with a very obvious, generic thriller, they take every opportunity surprise with a great line, creative plot twist, clever character moment and pretty much just making every moment better than you'd expect.
It's a charming story of Eric Roberts (in a complete 180 from the last film I just wrote about him in) as a lovesick comic book writer who falls for a woman he sees walking in the city streets during his lunch breaks. He finally gets up the nerve to talk to her when she passes out. An ambulance comes and collects her before he can get her last name, and the story is his journey to find her and make sure she's alright. But he has no idea just how sinister the ambulance to took her really is. It's such a great cast, from the major roles: Roberts, James Earl Jones, The Young & The Restless's Eric Braeden as the sinister villain and a surprisingly good turn by Red Buttons as a news reporter who gets wind of the story. To the small parts: Stan Lee as himself (Roberts' character doesn't just work for a generic comic book company, but Marvel Comics! Look for more authentic Marvel guys in the background), radio host Tim Byrd, Richard Bright and of course Cohen staple James Dixon.
So, for almost a decade, The Ambulance, like Full Moon High, was only available on Australian DVD. In fact, it was from the same company: Shock. Somebody over there must be a real Larry Cohen fan. Unlike Full Moon High, however, it was just a fullscreen transfer. But eventually, in 2011, MGM released it as one of their MOD discs. And happily, their disc is anamorphic widescreen, slightly letterboxed to a proper 1.85:1. The MOD opens with a message stating that, "[t]his film has been manufactured using the best source material available." That had me expecting a damaged print or something; but it actually looks pretty fine for the most part. There is an issue or two, though, that I reckon it's in reference to.  But that's all academic now, anyway, because just this week, Scream Factory has put it out on blu-ray!
Shock's 2003 DVD on top; MGM's 2011 MOD mid; Scream Factory's 2018 blu bottom.
The upshot for owners of the Shock disc, as you can see, is that it's open matte. Nothing was chopped off the sides or anything. And for the most part, it otherwise looks like the same transfer; the MOD just matted to 1.85:1. It's clearly the right way to view the film however; there's a lot of excess headroom on the Shock disc, and the framing just looks so much more artfully composed on the MOD. And that winds up becoming one more aspect that works in this film's favor, making it all the more enjoyable.  But let's get back to that warning. Here's why it's probably there: their disc is interlaced, as you can clearly tell by the ghosting in the second set of shots. Why? Did they take it from a PAL source? Was the best source material available... Oh jeez, I think it was. I think they only had Shock's PAL transfer (MGM was also involved with that disc) - or perhaps just weren't willing to pay to scan the film elements again for this new release; but their message promises us they used the best they had - and so they just transferred it to NTSC and matted it. ((sigh))

But thank goodness, we no longer have to choose between a burned, interlaced disc and an old PAL DVD in the wrong aspect ratio.  Scream Factory solves all of those issues, also giving us a nice boost in the clarity department by bringing the film to HD!  And just look at the posters on the wall behind Megan Gallagher; they're so much clearer.  Oh, and while you're looking at those posters, you've probably noticed something else.  While Scream's disc is still slightly matted to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, they've clearly uncovered a little more information around all four sides.  And while both DVDs featured the stereo track, the blu bumps it up to DTS-HD, and also kicks in optional English subtitles.
If you're looking tor extras, I can start by telling you there's none to speak of on either DVD. There's literally nothing on the MOD disc; even the menu is generic and the chapters are just randomly generated at 10 minute intervals. And the Shock release is almost as barren, not even a trailer, despite some misleading packaging. In fact, look at this:
You'd think from reading the above that the theatrical trailer might be included for this film? Ha ha ha.... So naive! No, it's not here, though there are bonus trailers for Vampire's Kiss and Monkey Shines. The photo gallery is on there, at least. It's mostly just stills from the film, but there is a nice shot of Cohen directing the actors. But yeah, that's pretty desperate at this point. There's essentially no bonus features of value on either disc.

But on the blu?  Yeah, we've got an audio commentary by Larry Cohen (and moderated by King Cohen director Steve Mitchell).  Larry Cohen commentaries are always great, and this one's certainly no exception.  He's very enthusiastic about this film, calling it one of his favorites, and fills the track to the brim with great filming stories.  Also, there's a better stills gallery and finally, the trailer.  Scream also includes reversible artwork, with that same original artwork the previous DVDs had.
So yeah, I highly recommend the film for any Larry Cohen fan who hasn't seen it yet, and casually recommend it to anyone interested in an inexpensive B-movie for a good time.It's worth noting, though, that before Scream put this out on blu in the US, a couple other countries beat them to the bunch.  And most notably Koch in Germany released a mediabook that not only has a Cohen commentary, but a unique 70ish minute interview with Cohen, which is apparently more of a career retrospective.  So if you really want to go all out, you might prefer to import.  But I imagine most horror fans will be perfectly happy to just get this new Scream blu and call it a day.  I mean, even I was, and look who's talking here.

Woody and Winslet's Wonder Wheel

Boy, people really are missing how good this movie is.  And please don't get me wrong.  If you're against supporting Woody Allen given Dylan Farrow's recently re-stated allegations against him, I'm not about to try and change your mind.  Unlike a lot of cases, where the accused was either convicted or confessed, it's tough to decide upon a final opinion in this case.  I don't want to influence anyone from trusting their instincts here; I just want be sure people are making an informed decision strictly in terms of the merits of this film.  Because all the reactions I've read strongly suggest Wonder Wheel is just another lower tier effort, a disposable weak entry in Allen's extensive catalog; and that's just not the case.  It's a flat-out good movie.  I mean, obviously, it's not for everyone.  If you tell your tweens you're going to see Black Panther and then shove them into a screening room for this, I'm not suggesting they'd thank you for it.  But if it matters to you whether Wonder Wheel (and/ or Universal's blu-ray release) is actually any good or not, then let's have a look.

Update 3/14/18 - 3/28/18: Gotta be pro.  Added the DVD edition for a proper comparison.
Admittedly, it asks a lot.  Like I mentioned in my review of one of Woody Allen's last pictures, he's happy to wear his influences on his sleeve.  It's more than homage - we're meant to be in on it.  It's part of the experience, from the 8 1/2 experience of Stardust Memories to the wild notion of him breathing life into the famous manual Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask; these are the toys we're invited to play with Woody, combining his distinct humor and point of view with the source material.  And in Wonder Wheel, O'Neil is mentioned in this script more than some of the main characters.  Our protagonist narrator even turns to the camera to prepare us, "be warned, as a poet, I use symbols; and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger than life characters."  So really the question may be more about how interested are audiences in a theatrical (in the sense of the stage) story like that in 2018.
Not that I'm saying the film is immaculate perfection.  Having that kind of set-up doesn't future proof the film from criticism anymore than having Mark Duplass turn to the camera in his first scene and saying, "this film is packed full of aborted ideas and plot contrivances that never go anywhere" would force us to regard The Lazarus Effect as an unparalleled work of genius.  You could just as well tell a great melodrama with larger than life characters or a terrible one.  In fact, over the years, more filmmakers have probably done the latter.  But this film has a lot going for it.  Kate Winslet gives an award-worthy performance (and this is really her story), and Jim Belushi, hot after a winning role in Twin Peaks: The Return, still nearly manages to steal every scene.
The supporting cast is quite strong, too.  Juno Temple holds her own against some major actors, the kid, in his small role, is hilariously written and played; and if you keep your eyes on the bit players, you'll spot a few Allen regulars, like comic Bobby Slayton, The Sopranos' Steve Schirripa, David Krumholtz and even Debi MazarJustin Timberlake is the weakest link.  I've been impressed with him in The Social Network and Alpha Dog, but here he seems to struggle to speak in the style of the period.  The 50's era Coney Island location is great, and I can tell you from my dad's reaction, pure, uncut nostalgia porn for a select demographic.  The blue and gold color scheme does come dangerously close to going over the top at points, but overall Vittorio Storaro's photography is elegant and absorbing.  And it's impressive how much use Allen is able to make out of a single, old Mills Brothers tune (it's not the only song in the film, but it almost feels like it).
So, this is Allen's latest film with Amazon Studios, and this time the DVD and blu-ray are from Universal.  Last time they were from Lions Gate and the time before that they were from Sony.  I guess things are a little catch as catch can with him over there, but hey, I'm happy just to still get a properly pressed blu with a minimal token special feature (this is Woody Allen we're talking here).  And Universal's bid has substantially lowered the initial asking price, so it's all good news.  While we're at it, can we get a disc for Crisis In Sex Scenes, too?
2018 US Universal DVD top, 2018 US Universal blu bottom.
This time around, it's not a combo-pack, so we've just got a blu.  Woody did shoot this on film, so this is a pretty straight-forward port of their DI to disc.  The only way you could really expect more is if they were to give us a 4k disc (yes, please! But it was hardly like in this small film's case).  Colors are certainly strong, the image is sharp when it wants to be.  There seems to be a soft film grain effect added to the feature, I guess to give it a more traditional feel, but that's down to the film itself, not Universal's blu-ray presentation.  The same can be said for the film's unusual aspect ratio: 2.0:1.  It's apparently a trending ratio that ties in with this film's DP, Storaro.  Interesting stuff; but anyway, it looks and sounds pretty great, with a dual-layer disc, while the DVD's predictably softer and less clear.

The blu features a DTS-HD 5.1 mix, while the DVD gives you a choice between lossy 5.1 and 2.0 mixes.  And both include optional English subtitles.
Well, maybe they did on the special features.  This is Woody, so we're used to that; but the sole feature here is a very brief, 3 minute featurette that cuts together footage of a cast and crew Q&A with a few red carpet soundbites.  Still, it's worth the watch.  Timberlake enthuses about how Wonder Wheel is like a play on locations.  But that's it; not even the trailer.  I'm a little surprised they left off the trailer, but whatever.  This does come in a slipcover, though, so there's that.  But then again, it just reminds me of the far superior poster art [right] they forsook at the last minute in favor of the typical Hollywood "big head" art for both the cover and the slip.  Oh well.
So, okay, this is no special edition.  That was never in the cards anyway.  But this is a first class, high quality presentation of the film.  And that's fitting, because it's a first class, high quality film.  So add it to your collection or don't.  But don't let 'em tell ya you're not missing anything.