Autumn Sonata 3.0 (Criterion DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

This site needs more Bergman!  I can't be this much of a Bergman fan and only have one of his films covered here (Bergman Island doesn't count, as it's a documentary about him, not by him).  So, I thought I'd take a look at another Criterion reissue, where they brought one of their older DVD titles up to date not just by releasing it in HD, but with a brand new master and all new special features.  This is also one of my favorites: 1978's Autumn Sonata.

Update 11/20/18: Criterion takes their third stab at Autumn Sonata (fourth if you count the laserdisc), this time as part of their massive 30-disc boxed set of Bergman blus, Ingmar Bergman's Cinema.  It just came out today, and obviously that's a ton of discs to cover (especially since I have alternate editions for nearly every title in the box), so I'll be doing these films piecemeal over time, just like I've been doing with Shout's Werner Herzog Collection.  For today, I'm just updating the films I've already covered on this site, which means, not just this post but Cries and Whispers, Summer Interlude, and Bergman Island have all gotten updates today.  Check 'em out!
Autumn Sonata is best known for being the film where Bergman finally met Bergman.  That is to say, towards the tail ends of their careers, Ingmar Bergman finally directed the esteemed Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, ever heard of it?).  And, no, they're not related.  I don't know about you, but when I first heard of this film, I was dying to see how this huge, celebrity actress from the typically stagey 40s era of filmmaking would be able to compete in a more contemporarily sophisticated art film, particularly one by the great Ingmar Bergman.  And holy crap did she rise to the challenge!  And Ingmar really threw her into the deep end, too; pitting her against Liv Ulmann at her peak.  It's an acting face-off for the ages.
They play mother and daughter.  Liv always felt she'd never had the love of her mother, a famous pianist.  But when Ingrid's husband dies, Liv invites her mother into her family home.  Things have gotten pretty dark there, as Liv's son has died as a small boy, and she and her husband are now taking care of her mentally handicapped sister.  It's another beautiful lighting experience courtesy of Sven Nykvist; but it has a warm natural look to it, as opposed to some of Bergman's more famous and showier films, like Seventh Seal or Persona, which feel almost overwhelmed by what could be described as trick shots.  This is a more subtle, down-to-Earth Bergman, enabling the drama to really hit home.  I don't place a lot of stock in the Academy awards, but it's worth noting both Bergmans were nominated for Oscars for this, which is particularly impressive for a foreign film.   Look for Bergman regulars Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson in all-too small supporting roles, as well.
Criterion first released Autumn Sonata on DVD in 2000, itself an update of their previous laserdisc edition from 1998.  But as the years rolled by, that transfer was looking pretty creaky, as you'll soon see.  It was released around the world over the years, most notably by Tartan in the UK, who did a fantastic job covering Bergman's body of work.  But the real revelation came in 2013, when Criterion returned to the film with a brand new, 2k scan of the original camera negative, which they released separately on DVD and blu-ray.  But even that wasn't enough for their huge Ingmar Bergman's Cinema collection in 2018, where they gave the film an even newer 2k scan of the 35mm original camera negative.  Can't say they're not giving us our money's worth, but let's see how much this additional pass actually improves things.
1) 2000 Criterion DVD; 2) 2013 Criterion DVD;
3) 2013 Criterion blu-ray; 4) 2018 Criterion blu-ray.
1) 2000 Criterion DVD; 2) 2013 Criterion DVD;
3) 2013 Criterion blu-ray; 4) 2018 Criterion blu-ray.
Wow, what a difference between the original DVD and blus!  That was no slim upgrade.  Perhaps, because it was 1.66:1 (and really more like 1.58:1), they figured they could get away with it, but the original 2000 disc is not anamorphic.  So the picture is small, on top of being fuzzy and heavily red-tinted.  The old DVD is also blocky and pixelated, though the softness covers that up to a degree.  It's not interlaced, though; that's one thing you can say for it, especially since it feels like the oldest editions in a lot of my comparisons lately have had interlacing problems.  The new scan corrects the aspect ratio, though, finding new information on the sides (we now see the "P" in what I presume to read "CHOPAN" on their music book in the first set of shots).  And with the redness corrected, colors looks so much more realistic and alive.  You can see a decided increase in detail, too, even between the 2013 DVD and and its twin blu-ray release.  Not only is grain clear and specific, but look at how much more you can make out of Liv's face in the close-up.

And the updated blu?  Well, it's another 2k scan of the same elements, so it's not really a leap in resolution.  Really, the story here is in the timing.  The contrast is lower (look at the white curtains in either set of shots, but particularly the second) and the colors are more muted.  Overall, it's a much more naturalistic look; the reds don't leap out at you like they did in the 2013 disc, which overall looks more realistic and less stylized.  The framing pulls in additional slivers on the sides, going from 1.67 to 1.66:1.  But really it's all about the more muted colors and contrast.  Should that white paper in Erland's typewriter shine out or no?  I'm inclined to say no and side with this new transfer, but I could absolutely see people going the other way and preferring the more shiny, colorful version from 2013, and of course we've lost our chance to get Bergman or Nykvist to weigh in with their original intentions.  But Autumn Sonata doesn't strike me as the sort of film that should beam like an Avengers movie, so I'm inclined to think Criterion's moved in the right direction here.

On all four discs, we're given both the original English and Swedish mono audio tracks (in LPCM on the blus), remastered for the 2013 editions, with optional English subtitles.
I wouldn't quite call Criterion's first pass at Autumn Sonata a special edition, but it did have one notable special feature, an audio commentary by their resident Bergman scholar, Peter Cowie.  It's a carry-over from their laserdisc, but Cowie's always great and really knows his Bergman.  Besides that, the first edition only has the theatrical trailer and a booklet with notes by Farran Smith Nehme.

The 2013 edition keeps all of that (including the booklet of Nehme's notes), but also fleshes things out to what I would label a loaded special edition.  First they've got another one of those great little introductions that Criterion recorded with Bergman for almost all of his pictures sometime in the mid 2000s.  Next, they've got a brand new, in depth interview with Liv Ulmann and a long, vintage interview with Ingmar Bergman.  But the most exciting inclusion of all is a vintage making-of documentary shot during the filming of Autumn Sonata that runs over three hours long(!), and shows you just about everything you could possibly want to see first-hand.  It includes a booklet with the same Nehme essay from the original disc.

The 2018 blu keeps everything from the 2013 edition, but doesn't add anything else, with the obvious exception, of course, for the fact that it comes packaged with all the other Bergman films, and the extras associated with those.  The set includes a bonus disc with several docs and features about Bergman in general, after all, but there's nothing else Autumn Sonata-specific.  The Nehme essay from the previous booklets is back again, too, in the box's massive 248 page book.
Autumn Sonata is a terrific film, and the 2013 blu-ray is a vast improvement.  I recommend every inch of it.  Even if you already have the old DVD, this is a time to replace.  Heck, they could've just released the 3-hour documentary by itself and I'd be recommending it.  But if you have the 2013 blu, is the 2018 blu worthy of a triple-dip?  Not by itself, I'd say no.  But the Cinema collection is absolutely worth getting as a whole, and it's great that they went the extra mile to give it an even fresher scan instead of just coasting with the blu they already had.

The Candyman Is On the Prowl (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

So, everyone's talking about Candyman this month, both because of its brand new 4k restoration, which I'm about to tackle below, or because of the recent buzz of Jordan Peele being in talks to produce, and possibly script/ direct, a remake.  Now, you guys already know I'm a pretty big fan of Get Out, but still, even assume Peele takes a strong creative lead, I'm not sure I'm too jazzed on the idea.  Admittedly, like how this latest Halloween film was bound to be an upswing in its franchise given how the messy the last bunch of Halloween flicks were, I'm sure Peele would be guaranteed to improve upon where we left off with Candyman 3: Day Of the Dead.  But the original Candyman is just one of those films where all of the elements came together in just such a perfect alchemical way, that I just don't see any way for additional attempts but down.
Because Candyman is a serious contender for the absolute best horror film of the 90s.  And it's got to be one of the very few films of any genre to actually improve upon and top its literary source material.  It's based, of course, on Clive Barker's short story from his stellar Books of Blood series.  But by transporting the story to America - specifically Chicago's Cabrini Green - and adding the very fertile topic of race to the already thematically rich tale, it manages to hit you so much deeper.  On the one hand, it really works as a classic ghost story, like those BBC ones based on classic literature (another post for another day), but then it's as contemporary and vivid as any modern film.  Tony Todd and his gruesome hook convey a surprising combination of earnest pathos and enough mean-spirited gore to satisfy any jaded horror fan.  In fact, it's first class performances all around, even when a lot of dramatic weight is placed on the shoulders of a young child actor.  You've got cutting edge photographic techniques, knock-out special effects that hold up to this day (Todd had real live bees in his mouth! You know they'd just animate that with CGI now) and Phillip Glass's elegant score.  Really, what's a reboot going to deliver that this film hasn't already provided?
So Candyman originally came out on DVD via Columbia Tri-Star in 2000, as a barebones flipper disc with a fullscreen version on the other side.  They upgraded that in 2004 with a proper special edition, which is the DVD I've got for us today.  Now, there was a blu-ray version before the current pair of 4k restorations.  It came out in the UK in 2009 from Paramount, but it's not highly regarded: barebones (yes, they dropped the DVD extras) with edge enhancement.  Still in HD and a genuine upgrade from the DVDs, but not pretty.  This month, though, it's getting released by Arrow in the UK and Scream Factory here in the US.  Apparently, they worked together on this, sharing most of the new extras (though there are key differences, which I'll address below) and the same "new 2k restoration from a new 4k scan of the original negative, supervised and approved by writer/ director Bernard Rose and director of photography Anthony B. Richmond."  I went with the Scream Factory edition, so let's have a look.
2004 Columbia Tri-Star DVD top; 2018 Scream Factory (theatrical cut) blu mid;
2018 Scream Factory (unrated cut) blu bottom.
To start off, the DVD would have you believe it's 1.85:1, but I've left the negative space around the first set of shots to show you that it's actually slightly windowboxed.  It's anamorphic, mind you, but still slightly boxed in, and those vertical bars actually crop the image to more of a 1.81:1.  The new blu has pretty much the exact same framing, but it's actually 1.85:1, because it lifts bars to show the extra image that they're masking.  It also has a smidgen additional picture along the top and left.  But of course, the real story is the huge boost in clarity.  For one thing, the colors and contrast on the DVD are flat and dull compared to the blu, which really pops.  The DVD has a faded look, plus a bit of a red hue over the whole film.  Just look how completely different the color of the ground itself is in the first set of shots.  Grain is fine, if a bit light in areas on the blus, but only sort of hinted at on the DVD, which just looks sort of lumpy when you get in close.  The standard definition compression results in haloing that looks at first to be edge enhancement, but might just be the result of artifacting caused by too low bitrates.  Of course, the HD takes care of all of that, and the edges look crisp and unencumbered by any such digital noise.
theatrical cut top; unrated cut bottom.
At this point, I trust you've noticed two sets of blu-ray shots.  That's because Scream (as well as Arrow on their release) have included both the widely released theatrical cut and the original unrated cut.  The difference comes down to only one scene, and about four seconds of footage.  Both cuts basically feature alternate shots of the same kill, so both cuts are the same length.  And the unrated cut is barely any bloodier.  But anyway, because the negatives contain the theatrical cut, they've had to insert "HD footage from a rare print."  I'll say this.  You definitely do notice the jump in quality in motion (visually and in the audio), particularly the thicker, unrulier grain; but the inserts look pretty darn good.

One thing I noticed, and I hesitate to point it out because it's so minor, but there is a slight difference between the theatrical and unrated transfers outside of those inserts.  The unrated cut - and again, I'm not talking about the four second scene, but the entire rest of the movie - has a single black pixel in the upper-most right-hand corner, and the entire frame is indented by a single pixel width on the left hand side.  In other words, the unrated cut is 1919 x 1080 while the theatrical cut is 1920 x 1080.  Actually, being 1919, or even 1918 x 1080 instead of 1920 is not that uncommon.  Plenty of other blus I've covered are and I don't even bother to mention it; but it does mean in this case that the unrated cut - again, only by the slimmest, single pixel-width margin which the naked eye would never catch in motion - is ever so minutely squeezed.  And also has that one black pixel in the corner, which is just puzzling.  Look for it in all the other shots on this page.  Anyway, it will have no bearing on how much you enjoy your viewing experience, it just piqued my curiosity.

Anyway, the DVD gave us a nice, solid stereo mix with optional English subtitles, plus French and Portuguese dubs and subs.  Screams bumps the stereo mix up to DTS-HD, again with optional English subtitles, plus an even more boisterous 5.1 mix, also in DTS-HD.
The special edition DVD was actually pretty sweet in terms of extras.  It's got a pretty ideal audio commentary by Bernard Rose, Tony Todd, Virginia Madsen, Kasi Lemmons, Clive Barker and producer Alan Poul.  Then they've got a fairly comprehensive little 'making of' doc that comes in at about 24 minutes and an additional, extended interview with Clive.  They also include an animation of some very colorful storyboards and a couple bonus trailers (though not the Candyman trailer itself).  All great stuff.

Now, before we get into where Scream and Arrow differ, let's get into what they have in common.  Both share a very cool collection of original special features.  First, there are two brand new audio commentaries: one with Bernard Rose and Tony Todd, which I'll talk more about in a moment, and an expert commentary by the always reliable Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.  Then, there are great (and rather tightly edited and paced) on-camera interviews with Tony Todd, Viriginia Madsen and production designer Jane Ann Stewart .  These are great, as is a featurette on the special effects featuring interviews with Bob Keen, Gary J. Tunnicliffe and Mark Coulier.  Then there are a couple more critical pieces, with Douglas E. Winter delving into Clive Barker's original short story, and a conversation about the racial aspects by writers and scholars Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes.  They actually talk about how the film might be done differently today... something we may wind up seeing for ourselves if that Peele project sees its way to completion.  Both blus also offer the trailer (finally) and a small image gallery.  All also great stuff.

But like I said, things differ.  First of all, Scream carries over all of that DVD stuff, right down to the storyboards.  Arrow does not.  And now I'll get into that Rose and Todd commentary, because they take it fairly lightly.  It's a very breezy, entertaining chat, that routinely drifts very far from Candyman.  They talk about other movies, like Avengers 3 and A Quiet Place (by the way, I agree with Rose on that one), current projects they're working on, Todd's childhood, Rose's greencard...  On the Scream Factory release, it's great, because you already have them doing a regular audio commentary, so you wouldn't want them repeating all the same anecdotes and observations.  But if you have the Arrow set, it's going to be a frustration that they barely say anything about Candyman.  So that's a big advantage for Scream.
The other Tony Todd on-camera interview.
Next, Scream has some really neat exclusive extras.  They have another, second on-camera interview with Tony Todd, and on camera interviews with Kasi Lemmons (who laughs a lot) and the guy who played the kid, DeJuan Guy. These are great, really fun interviews not on the Arrow set.  They also have another, fourth audio commentary with Rose and the guys from the Movie Crypt podcast.  This one's more light-hearted, too, but stays a lot more focused on the movie itself... in fact, it's probably the one where Rose gets the most in depth into many of the nuts and bolts.  So again, that makes the Rose/ Todd commentary a much better fit for Scream than Arrow.  They also have an additional TV spot.  So another advantage for Scream.

But it's not all so one-sided.  Arrow has a couple of exclusives, too.  Namely, they have three short films by Bernard Rose, made when he was a young man in the mid 70s.  They also have a brand new interview with Clive Barker.  From what I've been able to gather, it sounds like he covers a lot of the same ground he did on his old DVD interview, which Scream has; but it has to be noted that Arrow's is substantially longer.
I went with Scream Factory and I definitely don't regret it.  They used the same master (though, of course, it's not the same encode), and Scream's collection of extras is a lot more satisfying.  They kept all that great DVD stuff, and came up with the more Candyman-specific set of exclusives.  Though, that said, Arrow's exclusives are nothing to sneeze at, and if you've got the dosh, you might well be picking up both for the most complete package.  But for my money, Scream put together the most appealing package.  Oh yeah, and speaking of packaging, I should add that Scream's blu has reversible cover art with the original bee on the eyeball poster image and a cool slip cover.  Also, the first 2000 copies ordered directly from their website include a second slipcover and two rolled (not folded) 18" x 24" posters.  And, hey, maybe in 2020, they'll release a boxed set of all four Candyman films; but personally, I think I'll be fine sticking with just the original.

Biting Into Tarkovsky's Stalker (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

This site's almost four years old, what do you mean there hasn't been any Tarkovsky on it yet?  We've got to fix that, stat!  And well, Stalker's been on my mind ever since I saw Annihilation at the beginning of the year, so let's go with that.  That gives us a nice Criterion blu-ray, plus a couple of interesting DVD editions that are still worth exploring.  And it's one of his two sci-fi titles, so even non-devotees might take an interest.
Stalker is a story set in a dystopian(?) future, freely adapted from a Russian novel called Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers (they also wrote the screenplay).  See if this premise sounds familiar.  Some kind of mysterious alien presence once landed on Earth and transformed an isolated area into what's simply become known as "The Zone," possessed with supernatural powers and the terrain itself changes minute to minute.  Now it's been cordoned off by the military, but a small group of people go in to explore the zone, which people rarely escape from, and those who do are unalterably changed.  So while our protagonists are ostensibly journeying to explore this strange alien landscape, what they're really going to face is within themselves.
Here's where Stalker stands out, not just from Annihilation, but pretty much all science fiction.  This zone isn't the compilation of a myriad colorful and glossy special effects.  And I don't just mean, hey, this was the 70s, so it predates an Avatar-like CGI world.  There are no big Logan's Run sets, Blade Runner-style miniatures of futuristic cityscapes, 2001 space ships, Forbidden Planet matte painting composites, Star Wars robots or Barbarella costumes.  Tarkovsky creates an even more captivating alien environment just shooting naturally existing locations, using what already exists: old sewer tunnels, burnt out buildings, oil-ridden rivers, overgrown vehicles being taken back by nature... it's all the more fascinating A) because it's all real, and B) because of Tarkovsky's ability to transform anything he photographs into a unique piece of art.
But it's not just visually arresting; it's in the writing.  The film was already pretty far removed from its more conventional source material.  But the famous story behind this film is that the footage was nearly all destroyed and the film had to be re-shot virtually from scratch, during which time Tarkovsky evolved the story even further.  The naturalism of "the zone" lends another aspect to the plot: are these people being lead through the zone really being taken for a ride?  Is the zone's ever-changing supernatural force nothing more than superstition?  The lead character went from being much more of a rogue in the first version to a tortured disciple, and the characters of the writer and professor reportedly were given further fleshed out, deeper psychologies than the simpler archetypes they started out as.  Stalker is no simple one-to-one analogy.  It seems fairly certain that the film is in some ways a meditation on the meaning and suppression of religion in Tarkovsky's home country; but it also works, for example, as a powerful allegory for the struggle of the artist and the inner world he creates to travel into.  It's too complex to nail down to a simple message or metaphor; it exists to twist and struggle in our psyches, with film lovers forty years later still endlessly debating the significance of the dog or the intentions behind the film's final shots.
But Stalker definitely isn't for everybody, and I don't just mean that in a pretentious "it's a smart movie that stupid people won't be able to appreciate" kind of way.  Tarkovsky is the king of long and pensive cinema, and Stalker might be his slowest moving yet.  For example, there is a presumably intentional nod to The Wizard of Oz, where the drab civilian world is depicted in monochromatic sepia tone, with the film only kicking into color once our characters have reached the zone.  It takes about forty minutes to see our first color frame.  More than that, the final step of reaching the zone involves riding a cart along abandoned train rails, and there is a series of simple, single close-up shots of our three silent characters, background out of focus, as they ride in quiet contemplation.  So we see nothing but their faces and the back of their heads, bereft of even color, listening to nothing but the rhythmical clanging of the wheels, for four solid minutes straight.  If that doesn't send you running for the hills, than Stalker is probably for you; but you've gotta admit, you're in a particular subset of audience members.
So Stalker's been released plenty of times around the world, but I think the first was from Russico in 2001, which was then imported into the US by Image and the UK by Artificial Eye, both in 2002.  These were all 2-DVD sets.  The Image set was later released in the US by Kino International in 2006, with a few differences, including one key addition, which we'll get to later.  Anyway, those were our go-to discs until the last couple years, when the film started coming out in HD.  The most recent example of that is the 2017 blu from Criterion, which is a new, original 2k restoration in advance of even the previous blu-ray releases.
1) 2002 Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2006 Kino DVD; 3) 2017 Criterion blu.
So, okay, it's almost 2019.  The DVDs are old news, so I won't waste too much of your time parsing the details of the old discs.  They're virtually identical in most respects, but I will point out that the 2006 Kino DVD took the frustrating step backwards of interlacing the clean Artificial Eye image.  It also crushes the blacks a little.  So strictly in terms of picture quality, the older DVD was better than the newer re-release and anyone who double-dipped was probably pretty PO'd.  But even compared to the superior DVD, Criterion's new blu is a revelation.  The framing is slightly wider, going from the DVDs' 1.33:1 to 1.37:1, but the most obvious difference is just how much more photo realistic the image is.  Contrast is restrained, colors are richer (though often more restrained... the greenery looks artificially saturated on the DVDs), and the sepia tone is returned to the scenes that are presented as almost straight black and white, with a strange pink hue to it.  Criterion's blu has a natural vitality to it that makes the old DVDs look like a cathode television broadcast.
1) 2002 Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2006 Kino DVD; 3) 2017 Criterion blu.
Another advancement is the freshly translated subtitles; it's a very noticeable improvement with substantial changes, like the line "up these stairs" becoming "down that ladder."  Those are two very different statements with very different meanings; and, indeed, the characters do proceed to go down up a rickety metal ladder, not up a flight of stairs.

Interestingly, Russico created a new 5.1 mix for the film, which nearly every DVD, including the two here, have in addition to the original mono track.  Criterion ditches that and just goes with the mono, which they also restored from the original elements and present in lossless LPCM.  And all of the discs' English subtitles are optional/ removable.  But here's what the Kino disc has, which no other release seems to have included before or since: an English dub track (and a French one, too).  It's a bit unusual, with only only two actors doing all of the characters' voices, and you can still hear the original Russian performances in the background.  I presume it's largely meant for visually impaired viewers, but it's kind of a neat option, regardless.  And leaving the original dialogue in the track means you can still "get" the qualities and nuances of the original actors.  So that's one reason someone might want to score a copy of the old Kino DVDs even in 2018.
Memory
One thing we can thank Russico for is that Stalker's always had some pretty decent special features.  All the DVDs from Image, Artificial Eye and even the later Kino set all had the same stuff.  First, was a five minute clip from Tarkovsky's first film, The Steamroller and the Violin.  Cool for the very first Russico disc, I guess, but not too thrilling since, because the entire film's been available on DVD since 2002.  Cooler is a short film called Memory, which is a mostly silent (there's about three sentences of narration) documentary about Tarkovsky's childhood home, filmed in the style of Stalker, and even incorporating a bit of footage from it.  And then there were three excellent on-camera interviews with the cameraman, the production designer and the composer (though, curiously, the last of these was always hidden away as an easter egg).  There's a lot of great first-hand accounts of the tumultuous filing of Stalker, including even a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes footage.  Again, all of that and a stills gallery appeared on pretty much every DVD release there was of this film until the blu-ray days.

Criterion carried over most of the important stuff, specifically the three on-camera interviews.  And again, the Steamroller clip was no great loss (Criterion even includes that entire film with their recent release of Andrei Rublev), and the photo gallery's pretty minimal; but it's a shame they dropped Memory.  It's not an amazing cinematic experience on the level of Stalker, but it was pretty neat.  And if it's not being packaged with Stalker, it's unlikely to come out anywhere else as it's quite short and very specifically made to echo Stalker.  Oh well, just another reason to hang onto an old DVD.  And anyway, Criterion have included a very enthusiastic interview with Geoff Dyer, the author of an entire book about Stalker.  And this is definitely the kind of film where I think viewers would appreciate a little outsider commentary after viewing.  They also include a booklet with notes by English author Mark Le Fanu.
Criterion's new 2k scan is beautiful and unquestionably the way to go for Stalker.  Of course, whether you're up for Stalker is another question entirely and something you'll have to work out on your own.  If you're a convert, though, you might want to look for a used Kino DVD on the cheap as a supplement to the blu for the rare English dub and short film.  But don't actually use the DVD as your main copy of the film anymore, because as you can see, they've all been rendered quite obsolete.

Werner Herzog's Christ and Demons in New Spain

Hey, gang.  It's been all new releases for a while, here, hasn't it?  And not that I don't always intend to cover cool, new releases going forward, but I don't want to lose sight of one of the core goals I had in creating this site in the first place.  I want to get the word out on some of the noteworthy but neglected, obscure - dare I say "exotic?" - discs that get overlooked but still deserve a place in our collections.  Great films still only available on DVD, imports with unique special features, underrated films, discs you wonder about but that don't get coverage anywhere.  Well, here's an example that ticks nearly all of those boxes.
Werner Herzog has made so many films in his lifetime, that I think even serious fans let a lot of them slip away unseen.  For instance, here's one you won't find in any BFI, Shout Factory or Anchor Bay collection: 2000's Christ and Demons in New Spain, a.k.a. Lord and the Laden, God and the Burdened, or as it's titled in this set, New Worlds.  This is a 45 minute documentary that somehow found its way incongruously packed into a History Channel-style television series called 2000 Years of Christianity.  But this isn't really a case of him being hired to direct an episode of some TV show; this is a stand-alone film that just managed to get itself shoe-horned into the series, probably in a deal for funding not unlike how Port of Call wound up being released as the sequel to Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.
So I guess I'll start off by explaining the rest of the series first, since Herzog's is technically episode #9.  2000 Years of Christianity is actually a German series, and its on-screen titles remain untranslated: 2000 Jahre Christentum.  If you're only interested in Herzog's work, you definitely don't have to watch the rest of the series, though, as the connections are all superficial.  The overall series is a very dry documentary telling us the chronological history of the Christian religion from its origins to the present day.  And I chose the word "telling" because that's really what it's doing.  A narrator gives you a 13 episode lecture.  Visually, they clearly sprung for some production values, capturing footage in locations all around the world, lavish historical recreations, colorful graphics... But it's all in service of the narration droning on in a frankly boring way.  The end of the series gets a bit more interesting, as it involves more first person interviews with various clergy and theologians about their beliefs and the religion's place in the modern world; but even then, I'm not sure anybody comes up with anything particularly original or surprising.
So Herzog's film, then, is about Christianity, but rather than a history; it's an exploration of the way it's been adopted and evolved into something quite unique in Antigua, Guatemala.  Well, there is a couple of minutes worth of history at the start, looking at ancient documents and explaining how the people were pressed into Christianity centuries ago; but that's really just to set up all the strange compromises that have been built into the religion there.  For example, one of their key saint figures is a modern Spanish ranchero holding rolls of cash.  It's suggested that the local natives may have converted the incoming missionaries almost as much as they brought their religion to them.  This film is all about exploring the people as they are now, watching pilgrims and capturing rituals, unlike the rest of the series, which pontificates about a single, historical narrative.  This episode is vitally alive, while the rest of the series is just barely exhaling.

There are superficial connections made to tie this film to the overall show... It has the same opening and closing credits speeches tacked on, and Herzog's voice has been replaced by the narrator of the rest of the series.  A website called NoFilmSchool has a nice little interview with editor Joe Bini, where he briefly refers to this film, saying how, "the German broadcaster replaced Herzog’s trademark, esoteric voice-over with another narration track... It’s completely bizarre. The narrator is saying this Discovery Channel stuff but you’re looking at weird, Herzogian visuals."
The entire series has been released and re-released a surprising number of times on DVD, to the point where I had to do a considerable amount of research just to sort it all out.  Originally, in 2002, all 13 episodes were released as individual DVDs from Navarre, which used the title God and the Burdened for Herzog's episode... a few other episode titles have changed as well, for example Opportunities and Perils later became Opportunities and Hazards; though most titles remain the same.  Anyway, those are long out of print, and the series was later acquired by Image/ Madacy Entertainment.  In 2011, they released two 4 DVD sets, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which together compiled the entire run.  Pretty straight-forward so far, but then in 2012, they reissued it as a single, 6 DVD set.  And, that same year, they also released it as an 8 DVD set, the one I've got.  When you open it up, it turns out to just be the two 2011 sets in a large gatefold box that also includes a book and a large poster.  The content on the discs doesn't change at all except the 6 disc set naturally squeezes a couple extra episodes on the same discs.  They squeezed them even tighter in 2014, when they reissued the series again in a five disc set.  So, they just keep putting out all these variant box sets, which content-wise are all the same, and they're all frankly pretty cheap, both in terms of their actual sale price and their production quality.
2012 US Image/ Madacy DVD.
The show is full-frame at a standard 1.33:1 and, given that this is 90's television, I'm sure that's correct.  Presumably less correct, however, is the awful interlacing.  It's not even intermittent frames, but every single frame that's interlaced, though you certainly notice it more whenever there's heavy horizontal movement.  On the one hand, it's tempting to excuse it as just Herzog running and gunning in Guatemala with a cheap, 90s digital camera.  But the rest of the series, which otherwise includes some pretty glossy, high-end visual qualities is equally interlaced, so I blame the DVDs.  These are all single layer discs, but that's fine because there's no more than 90 minutes worth of content on any of them, with no special features or alternate audio tracks (there's just the one Dolby 2.0 track and no subtitle options).  I mean heck, the disc with Herzog's episode on it, plus another one, only uses 3.95 GB.  That could fit on a VCD!
So, look, I really don't think it matters which set you get.  5 discs, 6 discs or 8 discs, it doesn't even matter if they're compressed down to less than 2 GB per episode anyway.  The 8 disc set looks most impressive in its large box, I suppose.  The book and poster don't tell you much; they're basically just timelines of Christian history, nothing about Herzog or the filmmaking at all.  But they're full color and glossy.  You can get any and all of these sets super cheap if you just poke around a bit.  The movie itself is pretty great, though; better than many other Herzog films, in fact, and not one you should just let slip past you.