Crime Week, Day 4: Auto Focus

While we're all in Corona Virus lockdown, let's cheer ourselves up with another film about a real, terrible murder.  Yes, Crime Week continues with Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, the 2002 drama that tells the story of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, who was found bludgeoned to death in his own bed.  You see, besides being a happily married, affable sitcom star, he'd been living a double-life as a swinger and pornographer; and for some reason, audiences didn't rush out in droves to see this in theaters.
Admittedly, I can't blame audiences for giving this one a miss.  It came at a time when star Greg Kinnear was painfully overexposed in a seemingly endless string of bad movies like Mystery Men, that movie where Robert DeNiro cloned his son, the one where he's a beaming mailman who answers kids' letters to Santa Claus, a comedy where he played conjoined twins with Matt Damon and a remake of The Bad News Bears.  And I can't imagine there was much demand for film about Bob Crane, who hadn't really had a hit since 1971, over thirty years later... especially when the advertising was centered around Kinnear in the Hogan's jacket mugging at passersby like a dozen of his other film posters.  I was reluctant to watch it myself until I was left alone with the DVD and little other choice several years after it had come and gone.
But I'm thankful I did.  If it had been introduced as an exploration of human nature and a notorious, unsolved Hollywood true crime by the man behind Taxi Driver and Blue Collar rather than a bland, lighthearted biopic of an old 60's star I barely remembered, I and I think many others, would've jumped on this.  Kinnear's persona plays perfectly into the role for the first half of the film, but by the second half we learn he can really sink into a challenging part, holding his own against Willem Dafoe, who himself goes for a subtler, more humanistic approach than some of the more gonzo performances other directors ask of him.  From the cast to the art design and Angelo Badalamenti's (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) score, this film is surprisingly successful in all departments.  Apart from Schrader's unfortunate decision to create a handful of exterior shots digitally - which end up looking distractingly like a video game cutscene - this could almost be a perfect film.  It's certainly one of Schrader's top masterpieces.
Sony released Auto Focus on DVD as a pretty nice special edition.  Anamorphic widescreen up to Sony's usually high standards and a heap of great extras, which we'll detail below.  Just one problem.  The film, as shot, is NC-17, so they edited the film for theatrical and home video release in the US.  They didn't actually cut anything out, but they pixelated a couple shots, and removed some frames in one, giving it an odd, stop motion feel.  But only in the US.  So if you import this from pretty much any other region in the world, you'll get an uncensored version.  And Sony included the complete extras package on all those other import versions, so it's an easy fix, right?  Get any copy except the US DVD.  But in 2018, Auto Focus debuted on blu-ray from Twilight Time.  It's a genuine upgrade, but I guess Sony was still worried about the hassle of an NC-17 transfer in the US, because yup, the blu is censored, too.  That's annoying, and it's compounded by the fact that there are no foreign blu-rays of this film.  So we all have to choose between HD and uncut.
1) 2003 US Sony DVD; 2) 2018 US Twilight Time BD.
As you can see up top, the DVD is slightly windowboxed to 1.83:1,  while the blu-ray is even more slightly pillarboxed, but not enough to change the ratio from 1.78:1.  Both discs claim to be 1.85:1 on the back of their cases, but we're surely we're used to that popular mistake by now.  Anyway, that means the blu reveals just a tiny bit more information along the top and bottom than the DVD.  The matching colors, brightness, etc, shows us that despite the nice boost in clarity over the DVD, this is the same root master being used for both discs.  So despite being a much newer blu-ray than our previous few crime flicks, the master's just as old.  But Sony does good preservation work, and you can see how much more natural the film grain is captured here than on, say, Monster.  In brief, this is a better blu less in need of a new scan and holds up rather nicely.  Sure, I'd love to see another restoration for UHD someday, but for 1080p, this is quite satisfactory.

As to the audio, the DVD gives us the English 5.1 mix and a French 5.1 dub, with optional English and French subtitles.  The blu-ray dumps the French stuff, but bumps the 5.1 up to lossless DTS-HD and also includes a second 2.0 mix, also in DTS-HD.  And yes, it still has the English subs.
Now, Twilight Time didn't come up with any extras except for their usual isolated music track (in DTS-HD 5.1) and a booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo.  But fortunately, the DVD was pretty packed with great content, and Twilight Time hung onto it all, so we're not left wanting for much.  We get three audio commentaries.  The first, by Paul Schrader, gives the best overall coverage, talking about the real case, creative decisions made during the process, facts about the filming and so on.  The second is by Kinnear and Dafoe, and it's the lightest of the three.  They do provide so unique insights and bits of backstory, but this is more of just a casual chat, with Dafoe often lapsing into abject silence, leaving Kinnear to carry most of the weight on his own.  Finally, the third, by the two producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, as well as original screenwriter Michael Gerbosi, is only an hour long (apparently they were told any longer would've maxed out the available space on the DVD disc).  But they do a great job of telling different stories and explaining things about the project before Schrader got on board, and therefore not to be found in the other extras.  The relationship between them, particularly the pair of Karaszewski and Gerbosi, is also so clearly contentious (not least because Schrader was allowed to make drastic changes to Gerbosi's material) that it's also a fascinating listen just to hear all the drama bubbling up between the lines.  I think it would've come to literal blows had they been allowed that second hour.

And that's not all.  There are several deleted scenes, which also have optional commentary by Schrader.  And there's a lengthy, almost hour long documentary about the real case, which interviews police who investigated the crime, the DA, Crane's children and Carpenter's widow.  It's quite thorough and will probably answer every question Auto Focus might've raised for you apart from who, definitively did it (although both films clearly share a very strong opinion).  Finally, there's your standard promotional featurette and two trailers.
So it's another compromised situation leaving us all with a decision we shouldn't have to make.  For myself, the benefits of the HD image outweigh the very brief instances of visual censorship.  But I can't deny those moments are distracting when they appear.  A nice European blu would solve this problem nicely, but as things stand, I can live with the Twilight Time release.

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