Alright MVD, You're Crazy For This One! Highball

If you had asked me to point to the one DVD in my collection least likely to ever see a blu-ray upgrade, I would have pointed to 1997's Highball from ::checks notes:: Avalanche Home Entertainment.  But Hallelujah, hey, here we are.  MVD Visual, as part of their MVD Marquee Collection, has not only bumped this rare title to blu, they've restored it from its original film elements, created an all new feature-length 'making of' documentary and given it a really loving, first class edition.  Of Highball.
And I don't say that because Highball sucks or anything.  I'm actually a pretty big fan and have had this new edition pre-ordered for months.  But to get an idea of why I'm so surprised this has happened, well, take a look at that DVD cover for a start.  The first thing that draws your eye, surely, is how clumsily both Annabella Sciorra and Justine Bateman's heads have been 'shopped onto the same unnaturally posed body.  And that's surely not Eric Stoltz from the neck down either.  But now let's look closer, at the credits... written by Jesse Carter and directed by Ernie Fusco?  Those are pseudonyms.  This is actually a Noah Baumbach movie, made on the cheap in just six days with the shorts ends from Mr. Jealousy, but he took his name off of the picture because it was taken away from him before he could finish post production.  What he's famously dubbed a "failed experiment" only came out on DVD because the bank took possession of the film and released it against his will.
But that doesn't mean it's bad!  There's a big AV Club quote on the front cover of this blu that reads, "Noah Baumbach has basically disowned one of his funniest films."  You can definitely feel the six week shooting schedule, though. 100% of the film takes place packed inside a single NY apartment, and the lighting mainly consists of a huge flood lamp pointed directly at the actors from off-camera, casting hue shadows behind them on the deep blue walls.  Oh, those walls are as much a character as anybody else in this film; you'll never forget them as long as you live.
But they stand behind an all-star cast of great characters.  Besides the three listed above, there's Ally Sheedy, Chris Eigeman, Peter Bogdanovich, Baumbach himself, Rae Dawn Chong, Luna frontman Dean Wareham, Dean Cameron... as well as Baumbach's then regulars from his previous films: Lauren Katz, John Lehr, Carlos Jacott and Christopher Reed.  The latter two also co-wrote the film with Baumbach, and that's the main thing.  This film may've been filmed in just six days, but a lot of time and consideration was clearly put into the writing, which packs a rather ingenious structure (the film finds and revisits its characters at three parties, finding them in different stages in their lives over the span of a year) full of clever exchanges, astute character moments, and real heart.  Sure it's unpolished, but it's endlessly rewatchable, and maybe the perfect demonstration of how a perfect sound mix, elaborate set-ups and all the other technical and superficial trappings that might cause a director like Baumbach to write off his work aren't really what matters when it comes to connect with audiences.  In fact, we're told in the accompanying documentary that this film actually wound up performing better for Lions Gate than Mr. Jealousy has.  And to this day, Baumbach's big, Paramount feature starring Nicole Kidman and Jack Black* has never been released in HD while Highball just got a first class special edition this week.
In fact, I need to point one thing out about Highball's DVD before we get into the comparison proper.  When I first bought it as a new release back in 2004, I found a weird glitch around the 59 minute mark.  The film jumps frames, gets heavily interlaced (happily, the DVD doesn't otherwise have a problem with interlacing) and the sound goes completely out of sync.  This last for a couple lines of dialogue until the next scene, where it snaps back to normal.  At the time, I thought my DVD was scratched or otherwise defective, and I replaced it with a second copy, which does the same thing.  If you rip the disc, it stays with the video file, so this seems to just be a production error baked into all copies of the Highball DVD.  And well, I'm happy to report, the blu-ray doesn't have that problem.  I'm also happy to see Baumbach's name back in the credits, which had clumsily faded to black to add new title cards for the fake names on the DVD.  And that's just the beginning of the good news.
2004 Avalanche DVD top; 2022 MVD Visual BD bottom.
MVD doesn't spell out in the packaging, on their website or anywhere exactly how they restored this film, but they seem to have gone back to the original film elements, because this is much more than the same old 2004 transfer slapped onto an HD disc.  We're finally getting the film in widescreen, for a start, which helps make this film look more like a legit movie, downplaying the bare blue walls and the and the massive shadows, and framing the actual actors better instead.  We go from 1.32:1 to 1.78:1, cropping some of the excess on the top and bottom while revealing considerably more on the sides.  The DVD was also vertically stretched (probably trying to squeeze more of the image into the full-frame box to keep the image at least coherent), which this BD fixes.  Grain on the blu is also very distinct and cleanly captured, whereas the DVD is a smeary mess.  And information that was crushed in the DVD's shadows has been revealed in this new scan.  All told, it is a vast improvement - a totally different visual presentation.

The audio, too, has been bumped up from a lossy Dolby stereo mix to LPCM.  And while the DVD only had optional Spanish subtitles, the BD keeps them but has also added new English ones.
And as if all that wasn't enough, we get actual extras.  The DVD just had the trailer (which, amusingly, still had Baumbach's name, despite it being removed from all the packaging and film itself) and a few bonus trailers.  Well, the blu still has that trailer, and its own bonus trailers (including Mr. Jealousy, which MVD recently restored as well), but most excitingly, it has a brand new, feature-length documentary: The Making of Highball.  No, Baumbach didn't participate, and I suspect he still disowns this film.  His name is back in the credits, but that could just be because they went back to the film elements for this transfer... the back of the box still has "Ernie Fusco" listed as the director.

So he's missing, and Carlos Jacott is a big absentee, too.  But they've got so many others, including star and co-writer Chris Reed, Lauren Katz, John Lehr, Rae Dawn Chong, Dean Cameron, producer Joel Kastleberg (or Castleberg, as it's alternatively spelled in the movie credits) and even Peter Bogdanovich.  They're all enthusiastic and have a lot of great memories and love for the film, and they get into everything from the film's origins to its disowning.  It gets a little repetitive - every participant tells us this film was shot in just six days about five times each - but fans are going to get some very satisfying answers to this film's mysteries as well as insights into the characters and plot points (there are many theories for whatever happened to Felix before).  It's great because I never expected to see any kind of special feature for this long-neglected feature, but it's also pretty great even by the standards of any retrospective on a beloved film.
I hope this film has enough fans to make this release pay off for MVD, because it feels like they went all out just for me.  And I guess that guy from the AV Club.  But while Highball doesn't pack the dramatic heft of Marriage Story or the cinematic gloss of The Meyerowitz Stories, and at a few points crosses the line into being too silly (seriously, can anyone out there justify Catherine Kellner's role in this film?), it's still really funny, expertly played, and even a little touching.  We should all make films as good as the ones this guy disowns.

*Seriously, Paramount Presents needs to give us a 4k restoration of Margot At the Wedding.

No comments:

Post a Comment