Dueling Blus: Modern Romance

Yay!  My copy of Modern Romance just landed in America!  Now, I don't know if I've managed to secure a terrific HD restoration of a film that'll never see a proper release in my home country, or if I just paid to import something that'll be coming out in an even better edition from Criterion six months from now.  But like Garth Brooks once said, there's "Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now," and I couldn't live knowing there was a special edition blu-ray of Albert Brooks' demented masterpiece and I didn't have it.  So here it is!

Update 7/12/18 - 9/18/21: I'm going to wrap Update Week 2021 up here, because I already have some compelling new releases banging on my door.  But I couldn't let this Modern Romance post sit without adding Sony's now competing blu-ray edition; it's essential info for anyone looking to pick this great film up.
The more you think about it, the more unusual Modern Romance is.  It doesn't quite fall in with his more mainstream hits like Lost In America or Defending Your Life, but it's not quite as out there as his subversive mockumentary Real Life.  Essentially, I suppose, it's a romantic comedy; but one that turns the entire genre on its end simply by drawing from the absurd realities of contemporary relationships.  Of course it's funny, but it's not afraid to also wallow in not just depression but our dark sides.  And while much of this film is practically Brooks alone in a room with a rotary phone; it's also helped immensely by a terrific supporting cast including Bruno Kirby, James L. Brooks (in his biggest theatrical role... he's actually quite funny and shows he could've made more of a career in front of the camera), George Kennedy as himself, Bob (Super Dave!) Einstein and this film's unsung heroine, Kathryn Harrold.  Add to that a great, early meta take on filmmaking embedded into this movie, and you've really got something special with this one.
There's really not a lot of Modern Romances to complicate matters here.  There's the original barebones 2006 Sony DVD, which you can see above has perhaps the single, ugliest, worst photo-shopped cover of all time (and no, there's no roller coaster or any allusion to one in the film at all).  When that went out of print, they reissued it as an MOD DV-R in 2014.  And that was it in America.  But thankfully, Indicator/ Powerhouse came to the rescue in the UK, delivering a brand new, special edition blu-ray.  Them less than a year later, Sony announced and released a US BD.  It doesn't have the extras, but it has an all new transfer.  So now, the million dollar question: is it better enough to be worth it?
2006 Sony DVD top; 2018 Indicator BD mid; 2019 Sony BD bottom.

Indicator's booklet isn't too revealing in terms of their transfer, only telling us "Sony's HD restoration was the source of this Indicator edition.  The film's original monaural sound track was remastered at the same time."  So I guess this isn't a fancy, new 4k scan of the OCN or they would've told us, right?  And yeah, grain does look a little unevenly preserved, I suppose, but it still looks pretty great.  And Sony's new blu doesn't tell us anything about what they did either, though it is clearly a different master, or at least a very re-worked transfer.  Indicator's looks to be using the same core master they struck the DVD from twelve years ago, with the same color timing, etc.  Of course, Indicator's blu is an HD transfer, so it loses the fuzzy compression of the DVD.  And one improvement they did make is that the framing's been corrected.  You'll notice the DVD is slightly window-boxed, presenting the film at 1.80:1, whereas both blu-rays remove the pillars, leaving the film more accurately matted to 1.85:1.
2018 Indicator BD top; 2019 Sony BD bottom.
One thing I was slightly initially concerned with is that Sony's new transfer looked a little brown (especially in that supermarket shot), and the whites are pretty toned down.  I felt we needed a couple more comparison shots just for the color timing, so here we go.  This pair communicates it a little better.  There is some subjectivity to whether you prefer the cooler Indicator to the warmer Sony, and maybe Indicator's brights do tend be a little more white-balanced.  On the other hand, Sony has an overall more appealing, less harsh image.  Ultimately, I'd say I prefer Sony's look, but it's no great leap in any direction.

The DVD had a basic Dolby Digital stereo mix, which sounds like it might've really just been the mono in 2.0, since I didn't notice any separation to speak of giving it a quick re-watch just now.  And we've already read Indicator's statement about Sony's remaster of the original mono, which sounds great, presented here in lossless LPCM.  Sony's blu also has the original mono, but in DTS-HD.  All three discs provide optional English subtitles, with Sony's blu also throwing in French ones.
There are two main components of this special edition.  The first is an audio commentary by film historian Nick Pinkerton, which is quite good.  He takes the material very seriously, though, and you could make a drinking game out of all the times he says "quotidian."  But really, even long-term fans of the film should come away from it with a lot.  Second, then, is an on-camera interview with the DP, Eric Saarinen.  He worked with Brooks several times and has a great memory for anecdotes and personal details, so even if the DP sounds like an interview subject you could just as well skip, I'd recommend watching this one; it's fun.  Also included is the trailer (though it's just a regular trailer, not one of his special ones), a stills gallery, and a really good, 38-page booklet with an essay by Isabel Stevens, an article of Brooks' quotations from various news outlets, and a collection of vintage critical reviews.  This release also includes reversible artwork, so you can hide your British ratings logos.

Sony drops Indicator's extras, which is its big weak spot, keeping only the trailer.  One little thing they do add is a second teaser trailer, which is interesting because it's animated and brings in the roller coaster motif they must've used to justify that ugly DVD cover.  So that's something, at least.
So the good news is we finally have Modern Romance in HD.  I was positively giddy when the first blu showed up in the mail, and only found myself being more and more pleased as I worked by way through the presentation and all the special features.  It's an absolute first class presentation all around... other labels should takes notes on how to make a booklet like the one included here.  When Sony came out with their newer edition, I wasn't in such a rush to triple-dip.  Ultimately, I'd say it's a slim upgrade, not the Criterion we might've been expecting, and if you're looking to buy this film now, the choice comes down to which do you prioritize more: tip-top PQ or special features.  Either way, though, Brooks fans should be happy.

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