The Depressing Trials of Importing Middlemarch

1994's Middlemarch, the BBC mini-series adaptation of George Eliot's novel by the reliably excellent Andrew Davies, was originally available on DVD only in the UK. I imported it as soon as it was released. Some years later, however, it did make its way on DVD here in the USA, both sold separately and later packaged as part of The George Eliot Collection boxed set. Interestingly, the two releases are rather different. And frustratingly, it's hard to say which is preferable since neither seem to get things quite right.

Update 11/10/15 - 1/30/21: As part of my recent exploration of Spanish blu-rays, I've finally cracked and put in an order with AmazonES.  But I didn't get that 2013 Llamentol BD(-R?) that was so harshly criticized below.  There's a newer edition from Mapetac, which didn't exist when I first wrote this article.  So I rolled the dice, hoping it has at least slightly more to recommend it.
Middlemarch is the tale of a fictional English town during the tumultuous early 1800s. It's a complex, interwoven story with many characters and plots, but the two characters you could probably point to as most central are Dorathea and Dr. Lydgate, young idealists who make terrible marriage choices and struggle for purpose as their life's ambitions are repeatedly thwarted. It's not really a romance, though affairs of the heart certainly factor prominently. But it's still more Dickens than Austen or Bronte, tackling the human condition at large. Andrew Davies and a classic novel are an unbeatable combination (except maybe for that weird, modernized Othello he wrote), so you know this series is firing on all cylinders. It's got a wonderful supporting cast, including Robert Hardy, Colin's brother Jonathan Firth, Rufus Sewell and Elizabeth Spriggs. It was nominated for 8 BAFTAs and won 3, including Best Original Music, which will come into play in the extras. It's a great story, and the BBC has done an excellent job capturing it.
2001 UK DVD from BBC/ 2 Entertain on top;
2005 US DVD from Warner Home Video bottom.
Unfortunately, the BBC didn't do such a great job bringing it to home video. Although to be fair, their first attempt wasn't too terrible for an old DVD of a television drama. Their UK disc is oddly framed at 1.50:1, which makes it somewhat letterboxed, but it's still 4:3 non-anamorphic. And by 2001, all the quality discs were already anamorphic. So it was good news when the newer US disc WAS anamorphic. And they also fixed the aspect ratio, kind of. Well, they at least made it different. The US DVD is 1.78:1, which adds some information to the sides, but chops some off the top and bottom. I'm not really sure what the original aspect was, unfortunately; but I think it's a safe bet that a 1994 TV show wasn't formatting for widescreen TVs yet; so 1.78:1 is probably incorrect. I've never heard of anything being 1.50, though; and the US disc shows us the UK disc is missing picture from the sides... so I daresay they're both wrong.

Speaking of wrong, look at that first US comparison shot: it's interlaced! Yuck. Yeah, the US disc has got it bad, making all horizontal movement look particularly jerky. And this is a problem the UK disc does not have. It only entered into the equation when the US ported it over, so I guess they did the PAL/ NTSC conversion on the cheap. The US disc is also softer and paler than the UK disc, which wasn't exactly an impressively vibrant and clear image to begin with.  Both DVDs have optional English subtitles.
I can't really say either disc gets anything wrong in the extras department, but again, both of our options are quite different. The original UK DVD had two main extras (apart from some commercials/ bonus trailers): a 29+ minute 'making of' documentary and 30 minutes of the score, edited and compiled in 5.1 (the rest of the DVD is in standard stereo). The documentary is quite good, starting off showing how the BBC practically invades a small town and turns it into a period location which the locals have to live their day to day lives in while the series is shooting. It then goes on to interview the cast and crew, covering all aspects of the production from filming to scoring.

The US disc doesn't have either of these, but instead has its own 40 minute documentary, which is actually quite different. While a few key people, like Davies, are interviewed in both; they cover almost entirely different ground. This one takes a broader look focusing more on the original novel, telling you about Eliot, and the recent success of the series. It doesn't really tackle any of the subjects from the UK documentary, making it difficult to choose between them. They're both quite good, so most fans will want both. However, I don't know about you, but the prospect of buying two very flawed releases and still not having a particularly high-end viewing prospect doesn't sound to enticing to me.
You might stop me now to say: but wait! I see online that there is a third option: a Spanish blu-ray. Yes, and admittedly I don't have it to add to the comparisons here; but I have spent a lot of time researching it online. So I can tell you there's a reason I don't own it, and why it's not the solution you'd expect from a newer blu-ray release. The 2013 release is from Llamentol, a most infamous blu-ray label in Spain, known for often releasing their discs on BD-R (which is to say home-made blank blu-ray discs).  I've researched it, and apparently it is quite poor.  Here, wait, allow me to quote a couple 1-star user reviews:

"Another disappointment,No digital restoration,no remastering to high definition.Shown in 4:3 format which looks terrible on a Modern widescreen tv.Not recommended,stick with the dvd." - from AmazonES

"[T]he picture is dire - massive amounts of shimmer and grain - it doesn't even come up a DVD standard (which I had and that was only passable too). There's flicks, wobbles and specks of dirt on the print (it's barely video standard). Worse - it seems to be defaulted to 4/3 which is TV Aspect so it looks like one of those old movies centered in your screen... I can't stress enough how bad the picture is - really awful... I'd say this is one BLU RAY to avoid." - from AmazonUK

"I am terribly disappointed in this blu ray version. It is grainy. Where is the excellent resolution of blu ray? The dvd is so much better! This so-called blu ray is going to Goodwill. Please don't buy this. Get the dvd instead!!!" - from our Amazon

So there you go, users from around the world warn us away from that blu-ray; and no, there are no positive contrary opinions. The blu also doesn't have any of the extras from either of the past DVDs, so I think it's safe to say it's really not a worthwhile option at this point.
2016 ES BD from Mapetac Distribution.
But lo, a new challenger enters the ring!  And it's... well... I have two main points to make about it. It's a pretty awful blu, and it's the best edition on the market.  Allow me to elaborate.  At 1.30:1, it's surely the most accurate aspect ratio of the show to date (though 1.33 would be even more precise).  It retains all the vertical information of the UK DVD, that the US cropped, but it's the tightest of the three along the sides.  Still, this is probably about how it was intended.  It's super soft and noisy for a BD, to the point where I could hardly call it BD quality.  New shows look better  than this in SD.  It also leans a tad green.  But I do have to admit, it is ever so slightly sharper and clearer than the DVDs.  And here's where it really stands out: Mapetac's blu has neither the non-anamorphic problem of the UK DVD or the interlacing of the US DVD, making it the clear winner.  In other words, this is essentially DVD quality... but the other DVDs are deeply flawed.  So this is the definitive version going, and I don't see this series getting a nice remaster any lifetime soon.
Of course the audio is lossy and the only subtitles are Spanish (at least they're entirely optional).  There's also a Spanish dub included.  And unlike the DVDs with their unique featurettes, this BD is barebones.  It is a pressed dual-layered disc, however, which I'm guessing is the only thing distinguishing it from the Llamentol edition.  In fact, Llamentol and Mapetac seem to be sister companies, and I've come across several Mapetac updates of Llamentol releases.  Oh well, I can't say I was expecting more.  At least it resolves the disasters of the previous DVD editions - a rickety but definite step in the right direction.  It's hard to feel excited for an upgrade that looks this ratty, but it's still the best we've got.

When In Spain, Visit Mansfield Park

I've been thinking about Spanish blu-rays lately.  They're so infamous for being hopelessly awash in bootlegs that collectors tend to avoid ordering anything from the whole country because their reputation's been so soiled and people are rightly afraid of getting burned.  The biggest issue seems to be that some major distributors and labels over there get treated like legit companies even though they're consistently selling unlicensed, low quality, even upscaled BDRs in stores and online.  Here's a fantastic series of articles about it (though not Spain-focused, they do detail all of their most notorious offenders).  And you can also, for whatever reason, never seem to find proper online reviews of Spanish discs.  So people just tend to write off anything released over there, which is awful for the completely legit outlets over there that are paying for all the rights and coming out with perfectly respectable BDs.  They're not all bootlegs.  And there are some super tempting exclusives... we just need one poor sucker to take a leap of faith, throw their hard earned money at some blind buys hoping not to get burned with junk discs, and report back.  Today, I'm your sucker.
There was no question what title I'd start with.  I'd been eying Spain's exclusive hold on 1999's Mansfield Park with jealousy for a very long time.  There is no blu-ray anywhere else in the world, just very old DVDs.  And this movie has long been one of my favorites, to the point where anytime I feel blocked as a writer, I can just watch this and I'm fully inspired again.  It's a bright and beautiful adaptation, though as naysayers are quite right to point out, it isn't strictly the most faithful.

Writer/ director Patricia Rozema points out in her commentary, that the opening credits make the important distinction that this is based not only on Jane Austen's novel, but "her letters and early journals."  Most obviously, this allows her to intersperse the film with Frances O'Connor quoting some fun passages of Austen's early writing, allowing us to sample more of her work that's always otherwise been left off the screen, which is a nice treat.  But more importantly, it means that Rozema is up to more than simply, directly filming the novel, and in the course, changing the extremely straight-laced lead character of Fanny Price to someone much more spirited, and in tune with the real Austen.  Referring to the commentary again, Rozema points out some remarkable autobiographical details Price shares with her creator.  We also see Fanny's favorite brother Michael becomes her favorite sister Susan, and more importantly, Rozema is determined to talk about slavery.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that slavery is touched on in the novel.  It's briefly but directly discussed by characters in the novel, and Austen is no doubt saying something about where the fortune that Fanny is being elevated to derives from, and no doubt some correlations to state of women at that time.  It's certainly illustrated time and again that even Fanny's wealthy cousins are far from free.  But Rozema takes Austen's subtext and bumps it up to the text, with multiple new scenes, some startling imagery and even a recurring African theme song called "Djonga (Slavery)."  But the surprise is how good these new scenes are and how smoothly they fit into the rest of the proceedings without disrupting the main story.  The humor and the romance is unharmed; indeed, it might actually all be enhanced with deeper themes and more serious drama running through its veins.  The character of Tom feels particularly enriched when his behavior, which seems to simply be the result of being spoiled and insensitive due to his wealth and class, thus marking him apart both from Fanny and his disinherited younger brother, is actually at least also in part due to devastating moral conflict with his family business.
The one down-side is that, while the new material never feels like it's working against the original writing, it does mean that, purely in terms of length and screentime, more must be trimmed away to make room.  As a feature film clocking in at under two hours, it was always going to be have to be a fairly abridged presentation of the full story.  Every time I watch it, I'm always struck when we reach their production of Lovers' Vows so quickly.  But that's the nature of condensing novels into features.  And though I don't personally agree, modern audiences might've been happy for the quicker pace.  It's certainly hard to remember to be upset about any of the missing scenes when they keep briskly moving from one delightful moment to another.  The cast - including Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, Army of Darkness's Embeth Davidtz, Trainspotting's Jonny Lee Miller and Lindsay Duncan in a truly impressive dual role - just refuse to let your attention wander to anything off-screen for a moment.  And I've been dying to see them in HD.
2000 Miramax DVD top; 2012 Savor BD bottom.
So first of all, huzzah!  This is a legit 1080p HD image, with none of the weird interlacing or frame-rate issues I was dreading.  And it's not just the same decades-old master, free of the clumpy compression tied to DVDs... though I would have been happy with just that.  No, this is a newer much clearer and sharper image.  It also corrects the colors, getting rid of that ugly greenish hue that covered the DVD's image and naturalizing overblown contrast.  Note how the sunlight flares out on the Crawfords' faces on the DVD, but not the blu.  It's certainly not a cutting edge HD transfer; grain is super soft when it's there at all and I'm sure more detail could be pulled out of a fresh 4k scan of the original negatives.  And yes, this is a single-layer disc.  But it's a substantial step forward.  The framing corrects the DVD's 1.82:1 to a proper 1.85:1.  The DVD has a strip of dead space along the right-hand side, which they got away with back in the overscan days, but now needs to be fixed, which the blu has done.  It's less about revealing any more on the sides, though - the two discs are exactly the same in that respect - but matting vertically.  That, as you may've already noticed, has also included a distinct shift, showing more along the top and less along the bottom.  The adjusted framing actually turns this film's one nude scene back into a PG-safe moment:
2000 Miramax DVD top; 2012 Savor BD bottom.
Given that is a Jane Austen adaptation (albeit one with a few of its own ideas), I'm not sure this isn't actually fitting; but I'm sure for some thirsty viewers, this will be a deal breaker.

And it's not just PQ that's been updated in Spain.  The blu also bumps the DVD's 5.1 mix up to DTS-HD.  And no, it's Spanish subtitles aren't forced.  The only downside is that the Spanish blu drops the optional English subtitles and French dub from the DVD; but for proper lossless track, that's a happy trade.
Perhaps a less happy trade, though, comes in the special features.  Neither edition is barebones, but the DVD does still win in this category, primarily for one main feature: an audio commentary by writer/ director Patricia Rozema.  She gives a great commentary, with never a dull moment, mixing behind-the-scenes anecdotes with insight into her intentions and process adapting the novel.  For example, she suggests that Austen named Mansfield Park after the Mansfield Decision, a landmark ruling in the UK's abolition of slavery, prompting her own decision to add more material on the Bertram's ugly business in Antigua.  Also, Embeth Davidtz was afraid of horses.  It's all covered here!  The DVD also includes a fleeting, five minute featurette that at least gives us soundbites from the cast and B-roll footage, the trailer, and a bonus trailer for Emma.

Savor drops all of that... which makes sense, I suppose, since an English commentary for Spanish audiences would have to be entirely subtitled, thus probably holding less salable appeal.  But anyway, it's not barebones.  It essentially has two features.  One is nineteen minutes of interviews with the cast and crew.  However, this one's not English friendly.  Even though they're speaking English, they're dubbed over in Spanish.  The second featurette is English-friendly however; it's a short collection of B-roll footage, in English with Spanish subs.  It also has a Spanish trailer.  So, yes, it's a step backwards in special features.  But if you hang onto your old DVD, it's still a net gain where you'll be adding one new featurette to the rest of your extras.
And if you're still pining for a doggedly faithful Mansfield Park, may I remind you, that option has already existed for years before this movie.  There's the original 1983 BBC mini-series, readily available on DVD in the US separately or as part of Warner Bros' essential 2004 Jane Austen Collection boxed set, which is quite excellent.  While it doesn't have the glossy look of the 1999 film, it doesn't want for production values, with a robust cast and every interior and exterior location called for by the novel.  This isn't one of those earlier BBC productions where they're filmed live in a set that stands in for only a handful of rooms.  This is a full production, and I use that word in more than one sense.  At over four and a half hours, it's able to thoroughly reproduce the novel, where every other version has had to cherry pick scenes to indicate and suggest the themes the author was aiming for.  The humor is still here - in fact, there's much more of it - and the cast is wonderful, including Nicholas Farrell, who most of us will remember as Horatio in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Sylvestra Le Touzel portraying Fanny as she was actually written, Anna Massey, Angela Pleasance and a small but fun appearance by a very young Jeremy Miller, this time playing one of Fanny's siblings.
2004 Warner Bros DVD.
Not that Warners' disc is particularly exceptional.  It's a single, double-sided fullscreen (1.33:1) flipper disc that's got some nasty (every frame) interlacing.  The discoloration around those candle frames betrays its videotape origins.  With an old television show, you can't expect IMax quality, but when you look at what, for example, Network recently did with Monty Python's Flying Circus, well... that kind of extensive restoration obviously wasn't done here.  Though it at least the DVD doesn't seem to be quite so swamped in natty video noise as some streaming versions I've seen are.  I'd be very curious to see if the UK discs at least do away with the interlacing.  And of course it's completely barebones, though it at least offers up optional English subs as captions, and the original mono track is reasonably clear.

It's certainly very watchable, and the series is maybe a bit flat, but still quite excellent and by far the most faithful.  ITV did also create a version of Mansfield Park in 2007, which is the most readily available on DVD and blu, but unfortunately, it's the worst of both worlds.  It's again cut down to feature length, losing so much of the book, both in terms of literal scenes and in its tone and character.  It was at least shot in colorful HD, but it drops the ball (not metaphorically... I mean the ball the Bertrams throw for Fanny in the story), Miss Price's hometown and pretty much anything else that couldn't be filmed quick and on the cheap.  And it doesn't have its own ideas like the 1999 version either.  It's just a sort of empty shell of Mansfield Park.  Plus the actress they cast as Fanny, well, I can only guess none of the Kardashian sisters were available and she was their back-up.
But fortunately, between everything the 80s and 90s versions provide, we already get all the Mansfield Park we could ask for on screen.  And with Savor's blu, we even get a pleasing HD presentation that I'm happy to report exceeds my expectations, something I'm now very glad to have in my collection.  Absolutely money well spent.

She Dies Tomorrow on Video Disc!

You might think it's crazy to be stuck buying a barebones new release DVD of one of 2020's best films.  720x480, still, in the age of 3840x2160?  Madness!  Well, let me reassure you, dear reader, this is no DVD... it's a DVD-R!  That's right, one of those M.O.D. video discs that's not even allowed to use the traditional DVD logo on its packaging.  Whomp, whomp.  But, yes, alright.  Something's still better than nothing.  I'm taking it.  She Dies Tomorrow is a literal must-have film; and considering how many other new films are simply being planted in various streaming service's walled gardens and left to rot these days, I guess I am still grateful to have an official, packaged release for my shelf, even if it is in SD.  I mean, it isn't like we're not still stuck with even worse editions of our other favorites.
If you're not familiar with this one, though, and you're reading me saying things like "one of 2020's best films," "literal must-have" and calling it a favorite, maybe don't give it a blind-buy just yet.  First of all, I would not consider this a horror film, but it's being marketed as such.  The Indiewire quote on the front of the box calls this a "gripping apocalyptic thriller," and while I know what they mean, I don't think I could come up with more misleading marketing copy without overtly lying.  This film never once, for a split second even attempts to be thrilling.  If there's anything remotely scary about it, it's a sense of morose existential dread.  The closest film I can come up with to it, I guess, would be Lars von Trier's Melancholia?  Except even that film had its characters facing the ostensible threat of an on-coming planetary collision.  No such danger exists here.  And that's not a criticism, at least anymore than saying Schindler's List doesn't have any big belly laughs in it - it's just not that kind of movie.  I've heard a lot of frustrated comments from people expecting the next Babadook or Midsommar (ugh, thank you for not being another Midsommar), in entirely the wrong disposition to respond to a darkly witty drama whose strengths lie in subtle, sympathetic observations of human behavior.
I'm going to give you the quite concise, official description of She Dies Tomorrow right from the back of the box, because I watched this with someone who wound up feeling frustrated because they assumed this film was leading up to some kind of big reveal.  This is definitely a "journey not the destination" story, and I think being on the same page as the storytellers (because I'd read a bit about the film before diving in) really freed me up to engage with it right from the start.  So here it is:
"After waking up convinced that she is going to die tomorrow, Amy’s carefully mended life begins to unravel.  As her delusions of certain death become contagious to those around her, Amy and her friends’ lives spiral out of control in a tantalizing descent into madness."
See, because this film is being presented as a sort of elevated horror film, you can get stuck watching this film thinking all the dialogue and character work is some sort of slow burn building up to a big shock.  Like, at the end, aliens will be revealed.  Or even an ominous presence left vague, like It Comes At Night or (lol) Bird Box.  But the whole point this time is that there's nothing out there; this film's just about what people think is going to happen.  And that's not a spoiler.  The film tries to tell us that early and repeatedly.  It's right there in the two-sentence pitch that's also on the official film's webpage and everywhere else they can sow it.  They did their bit to let us know.
Writer/ director Amy Seimetz apparently agreed to star in the recent Pet Sematary remake to finance this film.  Who would've guessed in 2019 that something good would've come of that?  But here we are!  Kate Lyn Sheil, of Kate Plays Christine and Seimetz's excellent first film, Sun Don't Shine stars alongside the always wonderful Jane Adams (Happiness, Twin Peaks) as two friends who go on distinctly individual journeys during what they believe to be their last day on Earth.  This film swings easily from cutting to sympathetic and back as the film alternatively watches maudlin Kate self-indulgently replay the same Mozart record over and over and Jane overrun her sister-in-law's birthday party with her disengaged preoccupations to them finding joy and peace in the perfect ways to spend their final hours.  And we're treated to more and more perspectives and possibilities as everyone they come into contact with also become perfectly convinced that they will die tomorrow.  Fortunately, it's both too clever and sweet to become depressing, helped immeasurably by the cast, which also includes Josh Lucas, Jorge/ Jump Tomorrow's Tunde Adebimpe (boy, there's someone I haven't thought about in years!  But apparently he was in the last Spider-Man flick), horror director Adam Wingard and a refreshingly non-violent Michelle Rodriguez.
2020 Neon DVD-R.
This film is left open at 1.78:1, but seeing as how the Neon Film Company seems to be releasing this directly through an MOD service themselves, I'm going to assume all matters of presentation are correct.  Like, if it was meant to be matted to 1.85:1, they'd have no one to blame but themselves.  And like I said in the intro, I've seen far worse DVDs.  This is not interlaced, pan & scan, censored, or troubled in any of the ways many of the films still stuck on old discs are.  And it was shot on digital, so film grain's not really an issue, though there are certainly some grain effect going on that could be clearer in HD.  Many scenes I'd say have an intentionally soft look to it.  But this disc is soft above and beyond that.  A single-layered standard def disc crushing the film down to 4GB is gonna do that.  Some scenes pass fairly well, but others drift from gentle to murky.

The audio is unavoidably lossy, but at least it's a nice, clear 5.1 mix, and they did include optional English HoH subtitles.  And they even threw in the trailer, which MOD DVD-R's don't typically bother with.
So it's something.  Something's better than nothing.  But it's not enough to keep us from requesting this title from Criterion, now is it?

You Could Do a Lot Worse Than A Night In Casablanca

So this is my first ClassicFlix release - it's always great to introduce a new label to the site.  Not that they're brand new.  For a good decade, ClassicFlix was an independent competitor of Netflix, renting DVDs of: you guessed it, classic films by mail.  Then, in 2017, they became a boutique label licensing and releasing films on home video.  Their latest release is 1946's A Night In Casablanca, one of the surprisingly many Marx Brothers movies that were still in need of decent HD releases.
Apparently, A Night In Casablanca was at one time intended to be a pretty direct parody of Casablanca.  But what we've got here, funded by the brothers themselves, barely resembles the 1942 classic outside of the general location.  Rather than a gin joint, we're at a hotel, where the managers keep getting murdered under mysterious circumstances.  Things get so desperate, they employ Groucho, a conman who winds up getting romantically entangled with one of the murderers.  The plot, such as it is, follows a post-war Nazi who's hidden treasure somewhere in the hotel.  As was the norm in these films, there's a young romantic couple who serve to tie the Brothers into the rest of the story (Chico and Harpo decide to help them just because they seem nice), but they're so side-lined here they practically disappear until the finale.
Groucho's one-liners aren't quite in top-form, but we still get a fast-paced send-up full of amusing comic set-pieces and yes, musical numbers.  This film feels very tightly edited, scenes seem to end before their last line and our femme fatale just gets to sing a short snippet of her big song, the one announced in the opening credits.  It seems like the filmmakers lacked a little faith in the material and decided the only way to save the film was to cut, cut, cut!  And they may've been right.  A few plot points probably held together better in the rough cut, but for the most part, the breakneck pace works in the brothers' favor, restoring a bit of the madcap feel of their earlier work, albeit with an obvious slapdash bent as well.  At least until the climax where dogged stuntmen pursue a real airplane with various cars and hectic high-jinks, when we see finally where the film's money was spent.  Overall, it's not one of the Marx's best, but it holds up as more consistently entertaining than most of their tail-end features.
A Night In Casablanca was released on DVD by Warner Bros in 2004, in part of their impressive 5-disc, nine film The Marx Brothers Collection boxed set, which is still the best way to see those eight other films.  But in the last year or so, it started appearing on blu in other countries, including France and Germany.  And now, by way of ClassicFlix, it's arrived in the US, and we can only hope all the remaining Marx Bros' films are soon to follow.
2004 WB DVD top; 2020 CF BD bottom.
My first observation is that appears to be the same master Warner Bros used bumped up to HD (and presumably the same on the French and German blus), which isn't a bad thing, since WB's scan was quite attractive.  And it's not like they haven't made any changes.  For one thing, the aspect ratio's widen from 1.33:1 to a probably more correct 1.36:1.  Part of that is a very slight un-squishing of the image, making it a little tall.  And the other part is that they're now showing a tiny bit more around the edges of the frame - although there are a handful of shots where I wondered if they revealed too much.  For example, in that shot of Harpo dueling above, is that the edge of the set we see along the top?  But it was very rare when I even questioned anything that was revealed, and it's never overt enough to be distracting, and definitely no reason to miss out on the HD bump, which makes the image immediately sharper and clearer.  Grain is soft, which you'd expect from an older master, but it's everything you'd expect in the jump from DVD to BD, if not an all new restoration.

Warner Bros included the original mono track in Dolby Digital with English, French and Spanish subtitles.  ClassicFlix dumped the foreign language options but kept the English subtitles (despite any online reports to the contrary), and bumped the audio up to DTS-HD.
You wouldn't expect much by way of extras for this movie, but happily there's more than none.  Warner Bros just featured two vintage WB shorts, which they were in the habit of including with their classic films at the time.  The idea was that they were replicating the feel of how films of that time played with such shorts before the film in the theaters, which makes me wonder if these two actually ran with A Night In Casablanca back in '46.  They're certainly both '46 films.  One is a silly Joe McDoakes comedy called So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck?, and the other's Acrobatty Bunny, a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Anyway, ClassicFlix doesn't have the shorts, but does have a few bits actually directly connected to A Night In Casablanca.  First, and most excitingly, they have an audio recording of the Marx Bros trying out material for the film live on stage, as they were wont to do.  The best part about it is that most of the material didn't make it to the final film, so they're essentially deleted scenes.  ClassicFlix has also scared up the trailer, a stills gallery and a series of radio spots, some of which get include new gags by the Marx Brothers and get pretty bizarre.  There's also a collection of ClassicFlix bonus trailers, including one that plays on start-up.
It's a little crazy to be getting this while their most famous film, A Night At the Opera, and many of their other big hits remain relegated to SD.  But hey, I'll take it!  Especially since, with each iteration, my appreciation of this notoriously post-retirement film increases a little bit more.

THE Dawn Of the Dead

It's been a long time coming, but I'm now looking at easily the most anticipated cult home video release of 2020 here, ladies and gentlemen: Second Sight's massive 4-disc (7 if count the bonus soundtrack CDs) 4k Ultra HD boxed set of George Romero's 1978 classic Dawn Of the DeadAnnounced back in January of 2019 and originally slated for release that summer, it's been delayed again and again, though largely for the right reasons ("we are giving the restoration team as much time as they need to do the most thorough job possible").  It's also been rough getting this imported properly into the United States, but if you've hung in through it all, I dare say you're happy now.
What's interesting about Night Of the Living Dead is that, as famous and powerful as it was, it didn't really kick off a sea of imitators.  It wasn't really until Dawn that zombie films became the genre onto itself as we know it today.  This is where Romero solidified his reputation for mixing social and political themes with his horror... not just for the simple observation that people can be mindless consumers like the zombies wandering the shopping mall, though that's clearly here, and the sort of thing films like The Dead Don't Die still seem to be patting themselves on the back for restating.  I think the real commentary is derived from reflecting on the human behavior, the ones we identify with as they attempt and fail to imitate a traditional way of life, ultimately taking up arms to defend their valueless merchandise from actual other survivors.
Not that we really come to these films to be taught a civics lesson.  We're here for the thrills and scares.  But what's interesting is that those don't really come from the zombies either.  They did in Night, where flesh eating ghouls surrounding your home really is the source of terror.  And they were made so again in the mindless remake.  But here, the most frightening aspect is the breakdown of civilization.  I mean, this film has a scene where a zombie is literally smacked in the face with a cream pie - they're the most helpless faction in this struggle for survival, which has transformed from an overnight siege to a savage war of attrition.  What's harrowing is right from the opening scene, authority is failing, scientists are shouting in futility on a television program that's being abandoned by everyone still working on it.  The police's last stand is a raid on an inner city apartment complex where they're shooting the lower class residents and each other.  And while they're still potentially dangerous, we see the zombies are easily managed, but that doesn't make everyone any less doomed.
The health of this film on disc went from vital and active to shockingly dry.  I used to own the 3-disc special edition of laserdisc from Elite and remember specifically not replacing it with Anchor Bay's original '97 and '99 non-anamorphic and nearly barebones DVDs.  It wasn't until their 2004 Special Divimax Edition that I finally found the jump worthwhile (a trend we'll see repeat with this film).  That was nice, but in 2006, Anchor Bay blew that and any other option out of the water with their definitive Ultimate Edition, a 4-disc set loaded with new and legacy extras and three cuts of the film (the theatrical - Romero's director's cut, an extended cut full of deleted scenes and extra footage, and the Italian cut, edited by none other than Dario Argento, who actually co-produced Dawn).  That was the go-to set for the DVD age and almost for the BD age.  Anchor Bay released a very early blu in 2007, which was a decent bump to HD for its time, but sacrificed the alternate cuts and a ton of special features.  It seemed clear that was for the early adapters and the obvious move for most fans was to wait for a BD equivalent of the Ultimate Edition.

Except the movie sort of slipped into a bit of a limbo when producer Richard P. Rubinstein paid a ton of money to convert the film into 3D, and then apparently expected a massive licensing fee that priced out any boutique label looking to release a update on home video.  The original blu (and an equivalent 2010 Arrow blu that at least restored more extras with a bonus DVD) went out of print and started fetching exorbitant prices, despite looking more and more in need of an upgrade itself.  Americans are still waiting, but in the last couple years, Koch took a stab at it with an Italian 4k edition, later expanded into a few other regions.  But people had issues with it, and eventually Second Sight announced plans for a massive, multi-cut 4k restoration that would carefully address every issue and also out-do even the Ultimate Edition in terms of features.  It took them a long time, but they've finally released separate BD and UHD boxed sets in the UK; and once again, I'm glad I waited to make the jump.  They're limited, but thankfully not too narrowly, having pressed 12,000 of the 4k box and 6,000 of the blu-rays.
Theatrical: 1) AB 2004 DVD; 2) AB 2006 DVD; 3) SS 2020 UHD.
Extended: 1) AB 2006 DVD; 2) SS 2020 UHD.

Argento: 1) AB 2006 DVD; 2) SS 2020 UHD.

Before I delve into this, I can't help but say wowww, look how gorgeous Dawn looks now.  But okay, let me compose myself.  I suppose the first serious thing I'll draw your attention to is that the theatrical and extended cuts tend to be consistently using the same transfer.  The DVDs look like each other (and the 2004 and 2006 DVDs are for all intents and purposes identical) and the the two UHDs look like each other.  That's because they're both taken from the original 35mm negatives, with inserts for the extended cut.  But in both cases, the Argento cut has a distinctly different look, taken from the Italian interpositive and featuring very distinct color timing, and in the cases of the 2006 DVD, is also slightly windowboxed.  Segueing into the framing, then, all the DVDs are 1.84:1, which the UHDs slightly correct to 1.85:1, except the DVD of the Argento cut, which is 1.83:1.  In fact, Anchor Bay's DVD of the Argento cut is zoomed in far more than any of the other transfers, although that's not to say all the rest are the same.

Looking at the two sets above, we see that the UHDs are consistently (across all cuts) zoomed in tighter on the exterior shots, though they hue pretty closely to the DVDs on the interior shots. What this tells us (and me checking comparing other points in the film confirms) is that the film's been constantly re-framed between the new and old versions.  This pretty much leaves us to trust that SS is the correct framing, though they do assure us that their work was supervised by DoP Michael Gornick.  And indeed framing issues had been a complaint with the previous 4k releases of this film, and working to fix them was one of the reasons Second Sight's edition took so long in the first place.
Extended: 1) AB 2006 DVD; 2) SS 2020 UHD.
One last thing, while we're still examining the PQ, is the extended inserts.  Like I said, the theatrical and extended cuts are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same... except when they're not.  So above is a shot only seen in the extended version, which isn't taken from the same negative, but rather the color reversal internegative.  And it holds up rather well.  You won't notice every time an added bit appears onscreen because it stands out from the rest of the film, the grain still looks fine and perfectly filmic in 4k, and the image is still quite strong.  Maybe the detail is slightly less clear and the grain a little more scattershot, but considering how things like focus vary throughout the film (an aspect of the original filmmaking, not the disc transfers), it doesn't snag in motion.  On AB's DVD, that footage looked a little overly contrasty, but Second Sight have made an ideal, transition-less blend with the rest of the film.

A nice thing you can say about the Anchor Bay's later DVDs is that they decked the film out with audio options, even to the point of overkill: mono, stereo, and two 5.1 mixes.  But surprisingly, they never included any subtitles, even for the Ultimate Edition.  Well, Second Sight of course bumps them up to lossless DTS-HD tracks for the mono, stereo and 5.1 tracks, except the extended cut, which just has the original mono in DTS-HD.  And yes, Second Sight has added optional English subtitles to all three cuts.
In terms of special features, I'm happy to report that everything from the Ultimate Edition has been carried over to the Second Sight box except the easter eggs.  I'd long assumed I'd be holding onto the DVDs for some of the special features, but I'm happy to report there's no need to bother.  It's all here, plus there's a bunch of great, new stuff.

To start with, the 2004 DVD doesn't have a lot, but it does have the excellent audio commentary by Romero, Tom Savini and associate producer Christine Forrest (a.k.a. Christine Romero) from the laserdisc.  Besides that, it has some trailers, galleries and two easter egg interview snippets, but it's mostly all about the commentary.  The Ultimate Edition has that commentary (plus all those trailers, the easter eggs, etc), plus two more commentaries, giving each cut its own commentary.  That's pretty great, because it's a good way to watch the different cuts without getting bored watching what is still by and large the same movie three times in a row.  So the extended cut has Rubenstein and the Argento cut has a more fun, relaxed take with cast members David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross.  It also has a great, feature-length retrospective documentary called The Dead Will Walk, plus on-set home videos with commentary by the zombie extra who filmed them, Robert Langer, and a tour of the Monroeville Mall location with Ken Foree.  Plus there are even more trailers, galleries, radio spots and even a vintage commercial for the mall.  And there's Document Of the Dead.

Possibly the most important extra of all is really a feature film that's been deemed worthy of its own individual release several times in the past: Roy Frumkes' 1980 Document Of the Dead.  Synapse first released it in 1998 - in fact, I still have that DVD, for reasons we'll elucidate a little further down the page.  Then it was expanded into a longer cut (now getting into Land and the later Dead films) and restored in HD, which Synapse put out as the "Definitive" release in 2012.  And it's such a crucial history of the film, with tons of exclusive footage filmed on location and behind the shooting of Dawn, that it's been included in both the Ultimate Edition set and Second Sight's latest box.  In fact, Second Sight again has really gone all-out with this.  Because the Ultimate Edition features the original 1998 cut again, though it's a little longer, because they took some of the deleted scenes from Synapse's DVD and tacked it onto the end of the film as an addendum.  But then Second Sight, in the interest of being thorough and completist, has included that DVD cut (with the addendum) and the longer "Definitive" version.

And just for the record, yes I know there are even more cuts floating around out there.  There's the short, roughly hour long original film school version from '79, and an "'89" cut with a couple minutes of different footage, though still running far shorter than the latest "Definitive" cut.  Frumkes just keeps Lucasing it, and those are available on some foreign DVDs if you really feel the need for the perfect Document collection.  But honestly, I think even two cuts is overkill.  Basically, it's a great hour on Dawn with varying degrees of bonus footage tacked onto it and re-redited each time.
1) 1998 Synapse DVD; 2) 2004 AB DVD; 3) 2020 SS original cut BD;
4) 2020 SS "Definitive" cut BD.

So as you can see, the original cut never got restored, but the expanded version has and it looks heaps better.  Synapse's original DVD was interlaced, though (hey, it was all the way back in 1998) so the subsequent releases at least fix that.  It's also a little bit greener.  But otherwise, even on the blu (and I understand this was the case on Synapse's blu-ray as well), the original cut is always presented as just upscaled SD.  There is unique footage to both cuts, so I can see the reasoning for continuing to release both besides just historical preservation, but by and large, the extended cut is the one fans are going to want to watch, and the difference in quality is extreme.  Sure, it's some pretty rugged looking 16mm stuff, but on blu it finally looks like film, with authentic grain, greatly clarified detail, no funky video noise or compression, and much more authentic colors.  Also, the DVDs (yes, both) are a bit squished at 1.29:1.  Second Sight corrects this for both cuts, restoring the original cut to a more natural 1.33:1, and the extended cut to 1.34:1.  And more notably, the extended cut also reveals more information along all four sides.  The only slight disappointment: the audio is lossy on every version.

And Document Of the Dead, even though it's included here as an extra, brings with it its own extras.  The original DVD had three (which, yes, is the reason I've held onto it).  The first is the 7-8 minutes of extra footage, which has since been tacked onto the end of the original cut on the Ultimate and Second Sight releases.  But the other two are exclusive to Synapse.  There's an additional twenty minutes of "Lost interviews," including a portion with Adrienne Barbeau, and an audio commentary with Frumkes and his DoP Reeves Lehmann.  Now, Frumkes recorded an updated commentary for his expanded version, which yes is on the Second Sight disc, but neither they nor Anchor Bay carried over the old one.  Of course, it has to be said, the two commentaries repeat a lot, and you have to be pretty die-hard to need the commentaries for both cuts.  But if you've already got the Synapse DVD, that and the extra interview footage might be worth hanging onto.
But we're not done talking about extras yet, because there's still all the new stuff created by Second Sight!  And there's a bunch.  We get a fourth audio commentary (for the theatrical cut) this time by expert Travis Crawford, to give the outsider historical perspective.  Then there's a new, hour-long feature called Zombies and Bikers, talking to a ton of the cast and crew.  There's also a half-hour tour of the original mall location with Gornick, Savini, the assistant cameraman and a stunt man, nearly half-hour featurette on the production of the film, a new interview with Tom Savini, a vintage interview with Romero and an interview with actor Richard France.  And those on-set home videos?  They have a new commentary by Langer, yes, in addition to the old one, which is still there as well.  And there are three soundtrack CDs - one of the Goblin score and two of the library music.  And there are two hefty books inside: a 160-page hardcover collection of essays and photos about the film, and the complete Dawn Of the Dead novelization. The discs are carried in two digipacks, all bundled together in a very thick, sturdy box.  And, if you ordered directly from Second Sight, they also included four exclusive art cards.
This is one of those movies that's such a staple, so revered and something I've consumed so much growing up, that I haven't wanted to watch it again for a very long time.  That's partly why I was satisfied just holding onto my DVDs even when I could've kept triple- and quadruple-dipping on the HD discs from Anchor Bay, Arrow and Koch.  But I don't think I'm being hyperbolic to say Second Sight has reinvigorated Dawn Of the Dead.  I'm back in love.  And I don't know if, given the availability of this restoration, a US release is around the corner.  But I also don't know what more anyone could ask for - what further supplements could do anymore than repeat what's already been presented here?  So if you were thinking of holding off, I'd say don't.