How About a Little Summer Interlude? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Let's take a break between all these high-profile new release horror discs (spoiler for our next post!) for a little Bergman film.  I say "little" in that it's one of his lesser known films, which is probably just by virtue of the fact that it's one of his earliest, having been released in 1951.  Still, that makes it like his tenth feature; but the guy has a massive body of work, and 1951 puts it well before Seventh Seal, Persona, and the other really famous ones that always make it onto the important lists.  But this is no roughly hewn "before he figured it all out and became a master" early work.  Like, for me, once you start going into Fellini's pre La Dolce Vita stuff, it starts to feel a little lifeless, more typical of early Hollywood.  But while Bergman's films still do reflect their times, I don't think there's any less interesting period for me.  Revisiting Summer Interlude now, it's as immediate and effective as anything contemporary or from "peak Bergman," whenever that would be said to be.
Summer Interlude goes through a couple of interesting phases.  We start out behind the bustling scenes of a ballet production of Swan Lake, sort of in the style of Topsy Turvy, where we meet the fun colorful characters who work off stage.  A handsome reporter tries and fails to get backstage and meet with one of the young dancers.  She receives a mysterious package which takes her away from the play and the city to a small island, where she flash backs to her youth and first romance.  I'm not going to get into spoilers, but we cut back and forth between the two timelines to slowly uncover the roots of some deep seated tragedy she's now carrying around with her, and she comes back to the city to confront the resulting existential crisis.
There are several times when the film shifts gears, and what at first appears to be a light-hearted, even indulgent flight of nostalgia (yes, the young ingenues do frolic and pick wild strawberries), turns into a serious work of art that confronts some surprisingly weighty issues.  It even tackles some ahead-of-its-time feminist issues, like the misogynistic expectations placed on young working women decades everything from Nine To Five to Dietland got in on the action.  And it's not flippant or preachy; it comes as a bit of a slow moving surprise - thanks in no small part to a versatile performance by Maj-Britt Nilsson, who breathes so much life into the cheery sections, it feels like they might be the entire picture - but ultimately packs a pretty powerful punch to the audience's guts.
One of the reasons I refer to Summer Interlude is the complete indifference it's felt on home video.  For decades, it was only viewable when Tartan released it in their massively inclusive series of DVDs, their Bergman collection, which included many rare titles that had otherwise gone unreleased.  Ultimately, in 2016, Criterion did ultimately bring it to the states with a blu-ray so barebones, it had an MSRP lower than all of their standard discs.  There's not even a trailer on the thing.  But hey, who can argue with a cheap Criterion?
2004 UK Tartan DVD top; 2016 US Criterion blu bottom.
They might've cheaped out on the extras (really? they couldn't get Peter Cowie to do a visual essay?), but they didn't cheap out on the new transfer, which looks great and is obviously a whole new master than what Tartan used.  According to the booklet, it's a 2k scan of two 35mm duplicate negative sources edited together, as each were damaged in different places.  It certainly restores the filmic look, replacing a softer more videotape look (detail especially appears washed away in the dark areas) with natural, if feint, film grain and crisper detail.  The aspect ratio shifts from 1.33:1 to 1.37:1, slightly shifting the framing and revealing more information along the sides.
Both discs feature the original Swedish mono audio (bumped up to lossless LPCM on the blu) with optional English subtitles.  The Tartan DVD is about as barebones as the Criterion, with only two trailers for other Bergman pictures (Persona and Autumn Sonata) as extras, though it does have a stylish four-page insert with notes by Philip Strick.  That's about all Tartan was doing for most of the Bergman Collection, particularly the lesser known titles which I suppose we were just lucky to get at all.  Criterion's disc is quite barren too, but does at least come with a substantial, 20-page booklet with notes by the aforementioned Cowie.
I wasn't in any hurry to upgrade my Tartan DVD, because going from barebones to barebones is pretty joyless.  But I eventually bit the bullet during last year's Criterion sale, and now, seeing the new transfer, I have to say it was worth it.  You're not paying for anything but the upgrade in PQ, so thankfully it's a very distinct upgrade.  And since they did make it cheaper than usual, that took some of the sting out as well.  Of course, if you haven't already got this disc by now, you might want to consider holding out just a little bit longer for Criterion's upcoming, massive Bergman boxed set.  I'm sure it'll feature the same transfer and lack of special features for the film (probably the exact same disc with a different label slapped onto it), and the price of that box is going to put off all but the very serious Bergman lover; but if you're even thinking of getting that set, there's no point in getting any of their individual titles, like this or their just released Virgin Spring, now.

Controversial Blus: Dagon But Not Daforgotten by Vestron (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Wow, I google'd my title and I can't believe nobody used that terrible pun before me - woohoo!  Unfortunately, that's the end of the good news for today.  Well, maybe not entirely.  But yesterday's post was "Controversial Blus" with a question mark, but today's is with an exclamation point.  Vestron Video's long-awaited release of Stuart Gordon's passion project, Dagon, hits stores tomorrow, and it's not looking as good as we'd hoped.
2002 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2018 US Vestron blu bottom.
Old school Fangoria will remember Gordon was meant to be releasing his third HP Lovecraft adaptation, then titled Shadow Over Innsmouth, for years and years.  Originally written in 1985, it floated from Empire Pictures to Full Moon, great effects artists like David Allen and Dick Smith were attached to it at different times.  They released ads and concept art, first as it was coming, and then in articles about how it never came to be.  Click this link for a taste; I think you'll appreciate it.  But it all fell apart.  But when Brian Yuzna went to Spain and started to find success with his Fantastic Factory, he told Gordon he thought he could finally get it made.  So together, in 2001, they did.  And apart from some unfortunate early generation CGI, it's everything fans always hoped it would be - another thrilling, zealous Lovecraft excursion reuniting the gang: Gordon, Yuzna, Dennis Paoli and, well, some guy who at least resembled Jeffrey Combs enough that fans could pretend.
2002 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2018 US Vestron blu bottom.
Of their three adaptations together, Dagon feels the most Lovecraftian.  It's the story of a young couple who find themselves in an old Spanish fishing village that secretly worships an ancient undersea god.  And it's changed them.  There's a little less humor, especially compared to Re-Animator, which might largely be down to the fact where they're working with a Spanish cast for whom English is a second language at best.  The horror and atmosphere are here in spades, the concept is really cool, and again, apart from some early CGI, the effects are really good, with cool monsters and gruesome gore.  But the basic human scenes, the humor and the drama between the characters, is just not on the same level.  The lead is fine, but you don't really care if he truly loves his girlfriend or this woman he meets, or what any of them feel about anything really.  You just want to watch the plot unfold, which it does, in a pretty satisfactory and entertaining way.  But whatever themes they're trying to set up when they have this big argument early in the film where Ezra Godden can't stop worrying about his company's stocks, and Raquel Meroño is screaming at him... is that all supposed to relate to where the characters wind up at the end somehow, is Godden meant to be learning a lesson, facing a truth or growing somehow?  Do their personalities even matter at all?  Herbert West's personality was the crown jewel of Re-Animator.  Here, it just feels like we're watching a procession of "stuff that happens."  Awesome stuff, but just stuff.
2002 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2018 US Vestron blu bottom.
So, Dagon first came out on DVD from Lions Gate in 2003 with two commentaries, but not much else.  It was released in other regions with other extras, like interviews and EPK stuff; but they lacked the commentaries.  Plus, some weren't entirely English friendly, so the US DVD was the way to go; but it left you hungry for more.  So we waited for a blu-ray... and waited and waited.  There was a German blu, but it's cut, so that rules that out.  Finally, Umbrella announced a blu in Australia and Vestron announced their new special edition, which would hopefully be the ultimate edition.  But if it is, it's only be default.
2002 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2018 US Vestron blu bottom.
So let's talk about this.  You'll notice I've been including extra comparisons throughout this review because there's a lot to digest.  Let's start with the easy part.  Both the DVD and blu are framed at 1.78:1, but what's actually in those frames has shifted a bunch.  For the most part, the blu reveals a bit more on the sides, and more on the bottom, but shifts shot to shot.  Just taking the two comparisons directly above, the the blu has more on the bottom in the first set, and more on the top in the second top.  Almost all of this movie seems to have been shot with a handheld steadycam, so it's always moving and bobbing, so it's hard to really settle on a preferred framing... they're just different.
2002 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2018 US Vestron blu bottom.
also, see what I mean about the cool practical but terrible CGI effects?
Anyway, who cares when the real issues are staring us in the face.  Vestron seems to have an attitude of "why make a new HD master when we've got this old one just waiting for someone to blow the dust off of it?"  Now, this clearly isn't the same old master the used for the DVD; but it's also clearly not up the latest standards.  This is no impressive 4k scan that isolates every single little dot of grain.  In fact, the blu has less grain than the DVD did?  They've clearly used DNR or some similar process to scrub it.  In some scenes it's passable, in others it's really not.  Again, that's why I'm including more comparisons for you guys to judge.  But look at that last comparison - yee gods, that's awful.  And the colors!  You can see in every set of shots they've made big changes... Who's to say which disc's colors are more accurate, though, right?  In the first comparison, of the characters in the church, the blu actually looks better.  But now look at Ezra's bizarrely neon lips in that of him in the stairwell.  That just has to be wrong.  And in that last shot of the mouth tentacles, the entire left half of the picture has been lost to black crush (though maybe that's a deliberate choice to mask the pasted on look of the CGI?  In that sense, it is a bit of an improvement, actually).  And from what people are saying, all this DNR and stuff is on the Umbrella disc, too; which tells me the awful tinkering is inherent to the old master they're using.  This film really needed a new scan.

Audio-wise, it's a simpler situation.  Both discs only have the 5.1 mix, with the blu now in lossless DTS-HD.  And both have English and Spanish subtitles.
And in the special features department, it's an even happier story.  First, all the old stuff is here.  Both the DVD commentaries, one with Gordon and Godden and one with Gordon and Paoli, the latter of which is particularly good.  And the trailer and both stills galleries from the old DVD are here, too.  And those additional interviews and stuff from the foreign DVDs?  We get those, too!  There's a twenty minute collection of on-set interviews (some in Spanish, with subtitles), including Gordon, Godden, Meroño and producer Julio Fernandez, followed by some B-roll footage.  And there's the "vintage EPK featurette," but it isn't your standard five-minute thing filled with mostly film clips.  It's just under half an hour long and talks to just about everybody.  And then there's three new on-camera interviews by Red Shirt.  One with Brian Yuzna, one which is really a conversation between Gordon and Mick Garris, and a really cool one with a Lovecraft expert, who delves into the differences between the film and the original story, etc.  And, as always, Vestron's blu comes in their signature style slip cover.  I really kinda hate their artwork for this picture, though.  Oh well.
2002 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2018 US Vestron blu bottom.
So, what's the bottom line?  Well, the controversy's authentic, all the criticisms are legit.  But there really aren't any better alternatives, and it's definitely a cool ass movie horror fans will want to have in their collections.  I mean, I can see people cancelling their preorders on this one, but what're you gonna do?  No Dagon in your life?  I guess the question, then, has to be: which is better, the DVD or the blu?  And I have to say the blu.  Not in every single shot.  At its worst moments, like Ezra going up the stairs, the DVD actually really does look better than the blu-ray.  But overall, in 2018 on your big screen TV, you're probably going to enjoy watching the blu a smidgen bit more.  And the extras package is awesome - for that reason alone, I'd double-dip.  It's just, ugh, so disappointing, especially given how long we have to wait between Vestron releases.  They obviously weren't spending all that time making this edition look as good as they possibly could.  Like Code Red's The Carrier, it's a deeply flawed release that I'd still buy if I had it all to do over again, but it's a poor show from the label.

Controversial Blus? The Virgin Suicides + Lick the Star (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I came really close to importing the 2012 French blu-ray of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, even though it has forced French subtitles, so many times because it took forever for us to finally get another HD option.  But you know what?  Criterion may be slow, but they always seem to come around eventually.  And when they do, it tends to be worth it... if maybe a little green.  Let's see how this one came out.
Suicides is Coppola's first feature, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides.  She may've found her audience more with her second film, Lost In Translation, but between the two, this is the one I find myself going back to.  They share that same charming recreation of a moment in time that Coppola brings to all of her work, but maybe it's just the heft of the overt melodrama adding some lasting weight to this one.  It's the relatable tale of an implausible scenario, where a group of neighborhood boys try to penetrate the romanticized veil of five beautiful sisters who all took their own lives in a small 70s suburb.  The kids are all perfect, from the known (Kirsten Dunst) to the unknown, and the rest of the cast is full of heavy hitters like Kathleen Turner, James Woods and Scott Glenn.
Paramount first put The Virgin Suicides out on DVD back in 2000.  It was a pretty decent, anamorphic widescreen edition, and so that's been my sole copy of this film all the way up until 2018.  But Criterion has now given it a pretty sweet 4k restoration from the original 35mm negatives, and with all new extras to boot, including Coppola's first short film, Lick the Star.
2000 US Paramount DVD top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
So, a couple of interesting things here... let's see, where to start?  I left the negative space around two sets of comparison shots this time, to highlight a curious shifting AR on the DVD.  It's anamorphic, and essentially presented in a full 1.78:1, but with a little matting on the side making it about 1.77:1.  Or 1.76, depending on the shot, because sometimes there's matting on the left, on the right, or on both sides, just randomly throughout the film.  I assume they figured it didn't really matter since it was in the overscan area (remember, this was 2000), but it's a little weird.  Anyway, the new blu is presented in what we're assured is the original aspect ratio, 1.67:1, which gives us a little extra vertical information, and sometimes loses a sliver on the sides, depending on what the DVD is doing with its aspect ratio in any given shot.

Apart from that, the blu is heaps clearer.  Maybe you don't see it so much embedded in the post, but click through to compare them full size, and you'll really see the difference.  Grain is very present and natural, and the distinction is pretty strong despite the fact that the compression's actually pretty decent for such an old DVD.  And the colors?  Well, it's hard to miss the heavy green shift in that first set of shots, but as the others show, that's not consistent throughout the film.  Or, at least, not to the same degree.  Even in the second comparison shots, like the scene with Danny Devito and a stronger bluer hue; you can still see the additional yellowish green, too. 
2000 US Paramount DVD top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
Now, this movie plays with its colors and hues a bit... there's a scene towards the end where a party is filtered to be very heavily and purposefully green.  But you can see, this blu leans into that yellowish green at all times; and given Criterion's recent history, really makes me think it's their issue again.  But, with that said, it's probably not something you'd notice if you weren't doing a comparison or looking out for it.  There are some shots in this film where, taken out of context, Criterion really looks like they've gone off on a green bender alright.  But there are others, like the second pair above, where you'd say "there's no green push here at all!"  The colors just look improved over the washed and paler DVD, with the whites nicely differentiated from the pinks and the blue doorway saturated up and an overall broader palette.  So I'd say just don't let it bother you, and it's fine. Clearly some creative decisions are inherent to the color correction process, and I guess Criterion's tastes just happen to run a little green.  So making Josh Hartnett's skin downright orange was a choice. 🤷

Audio-wise, both discs give us the single English 5.1 mix, though bumped up to DTS-HD for the blu.  The DVD also had a French dub, and both provide optional English subtitles.
In terms of special features, Paramount's DVD was already decent.  Not exactly a packed special edition, but it included a really good, 23-minute behind the scenes doc that gave some really good, and sometimes funny, insights into the filming.  And they had a few other minor bibs and bobs, like the music video for the Air song that Coppola also directed, a stills gallery, insert and trailer.  Criterion kept all of that, so thankfully there's no need to hang onto your eighteen year-old DVDs any longer - yay!
And they've also created some great new stuff.  Primarily, they've put together an excellent new, 26 minute documentary with Coppola, Dunst, Hartnett and cinematographer Ed Lachman.  And possibly even more excitingly, there's an on-camera interview with the novel's author, Eugenides.  Then there's an interview with Tavi Gevinson, who runs a fashion website or something that was influenced by this movie?  I wasn't entirely clear on that, but she did have some good insights into the movie, effectively acting as a critic's take.  There's an attractive, fold-out/ leaflet style insert with an essay by novelist Megan Abbott, a second trailer and of course, there's Lick the Star.
It's a black and white, only fourteen minute short; but it's actually quite good and contains a lot of what makes Coppola's features so compelling.  This isn't like Todd Haynes' Suicide, where it might be interesting for devotees to get a peak at his origins, but that's it.  This is a surprisingly dark film about the cut throat social hierarchy of high school that I watch and enjoy for its own artistic merits, not just because it's some minor film history artifact.  In fact, it's not even the first time I've owned it on disc.  I suppose this is a bit of a deep cut, but it was originally included as "This Month's Short Film" on the 2003 Film Movement DVD of Hop.
What's Hop?  Oh, it's a completely unrelated, low budget Belgium movie about an immigrant boy and his father living in the country illegally.  They get caught and the father is deported, but the kid winds up living with some old, retired revolutionary white guy who teaches him the ways of terrorism in the most literal, make bombs to blow up buildings and make the government capitulate sort of way.  It doesn't sound like it, but it basically plays like a feel good movie, and after some bombings, the government brings the kid's dad back.  I think I'm making it sound more interesting than it is, though.  It's decently acted and directed, but it's the sort of move I've watched several times over the years because I keep forgetting what it's about.

As you can see, it's slightly window-boxed in the overscan area, leaving it with about a 1.83:1 aspect ratio.  It's got removable English subtitles and interlacing problems.  The only extras are the trailer, a booklet with brief notes about the film, and of course Lick the Star.
2003 US Film Movement DVD top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
Because this was shot on rather gritty 16mm film, the old DVD was reasonably passable.  The only real issue it had was being interlaced.  But Criterion seems to have given this one a new scan, too, with ugly digital artifacting turned back into natural film grain. The aspect ratio has subtly adjusted from 1.30:1 to 1.33:1 (revealing tiny slivers around edges) and the contrast has been greatly improved.  Subtitles would've been nice, and I'm a little surprised that Criterion cheaped out on them; but otherwise it's a worthwhile upgrade for us few DVD owners and a really attractive presentation to all you first-timers.
So, in a way this blu is controversial for its role the on-going Criterion green debate.  But that's with a question mark at best because outside of that context, we're talking about a minor possible flaw on an otherwise terrific, top-notch release.  High quality scan, terrific new extras, even a restoration of Lick the Star.  It's a must for Coppola fans no matter how you look at it.