A To Die For To Die For

Oh boy, when you do true crime black comedy right, you've got an instant masterpiece on your hands.  And yes, 1995's To Die For is a true crime flick.  They don't use her real name, and make a few key changes (particularly the ending) to keep from getting sued, but this is a direct adaptation of the novel by Joyce Maynard, which is unofficially telling the story of Pamela Smart, right down to the juiciest details.  Oh, and fun fact, Helen Hunt had already played Smart in a TV movie a few years before this.  But then Nicole Kidman swooped in and took that crown, quite definitively.
This is easily Gus Van Sant's best work, in no small part thanks to an amazing cast including, of course, featuring Kidman in a real star turn, but also packed with brilliant performances from a young Joaquin Phoenix, Illeana Douglas, Matt Dillon, Casey Affleck, Dan Hedaya, Wayne Knight, Kurtwood Smith, George Segal and David freakin' Cronenberg.  And at least as much credit has to go to Alison Folland, who was an unknown at the time.  She went on to star in the baby dyke flick All Over Me before disappearing into a series of minor roles, which is a real shame because she's pitch perfect in this.  It's beautifully shot, plus we're also getting some of screenwriter Buck Henry's most biting satire since Catch 22 and one of Danny Elfman's greatest film scores in a project that really knew how to use him.  This is just one of those projects where everything fell together into the ideal configuration.
Now, To Die For's been available on anamorphic widescreen DVD since 1998, thanks to a Columbia Tri-Star flipper disc (reissued in 2010 by Image Entertainment).  And it's been available on blu-ray, again from Image, since 2011.  But the smarter move had been to import it from the UK, as Network's BD had the correct audio (more on that below) and at least a vague hint of special features.  But there's only one way to go now in 2024, as Criterion has just released an all-new 4k restoration from the original 35mm OCN in a fuller BD/ UHD combo-pack that finally delivers what we've all been waiting for.
1) 1998 Columbia Tri-Star DVD (wide); 2) 1998 Columbia Tri-Star DVD (full);
3) 2015 Network BD; 4) 2024 Criterion BD; 5) 2024 Criterion UHD.

So, the framing for Columbia Tri-Star's DVD is a bit odd.  Yes, I mean even for the widescreen side.  It's roughly 1.78:1, but with a single pillarbox on the right-hand side, tweaking it to 1.77:1.  I guess they figured it was in the overscan area, so it really didn't matter; but it strikes you now, in the age of modern flat screens.  Anyway, the fullscreen side is a more classic 1.33:1, which just slightly shaves the sides, but is largely open matte, revealing a whole bunch of extra vertical information.  Being a UK disc, Network stuck with the 1.78:1 ratio, sans that weird pillar, with very slightly adjusted framing.  Criterion, of course, mattes it to an exact 1.85:1, while still managing to reveal slightly more on the sides.

The colors for the previous editions are essentially the same as they presumably used the same master.  But Criterion's are a bit warmer and generally smartened up.  I can't declare its accuracy, per se, but Criterion does boast that their transfer is approved by both the director and DP, and I will say, subjectively, it's a more attractive image now, and objectively it's lusher and more vivid.  Detail-wise, Network's blu already looked pretty good, but comparing it to Criterion's, it looks like it had just a touch of edge enhancement (look at the framed photo over Nicole's shoulder in the second set of pics), which Criterion does away with.  And even just comparing the two 1080p BDs, there's less jagged pixelation and grain is rendered more thoroughly.  But then on the Dolby Vision HDR'd UHD, the grain is perfectly rendered, and finer detail is more lifelike - impressive even when judged against other UHDs.
Did I mention something about the "correct audio?"  Yes.  Every disc here has the 5.1 mix (in DTS-HD on everything except the DVD) with optional English subtitles.  But the original US blu-ray from Image only had a stereo track.  You'd be right to say I usually don't care much about 5.1 remixes, but To Die For is a modern enough film that the 5.1 was the original audio mix, so it was a loss for Image's blu (though anyone watching on just a stereo TV or PC would be listening to it folded down, anyway).  So it's nice that Criterion brought it back for US audiences.  Columbia and Network also threw in a separate 2.0 mix (in LPCM on the BD), but Criterion didn't bother, which is perfectly fine.  Oh, and the DVD also had a French dub and set of subtitles.
And did I also say something about "what we've all been waiting for?"  Oh yeah, let's talk extras.  Now the Columbia and Image DVDs all had nothing but the trailer.  And Network didn't have much more.  They threw in several TV spots and stills galleries.  But one stills gallery stood out, because they depicted deleted scenes.  The actual deleted scenes weren't included, but we knew they existed, and Network tried their best to deliver them without actually being able to access them.  But Criterion finally got 'em.  And we're talking over 30 minutes of stuff, from an alternate opening credits sequence to a whole, clever subplot involving a tattoo.  The footage is raw (and interlaced), but fans will still be as happy as a pig in mud to roll around in these.  And Criterion gave us a fun audio commentary, too, by Gus Van Sant himself, along with his DP and editor.  They have some really good info, including some surprising alternate casting potentialities, though they do run low on steam in the final stretch.  I'd say definitely listen to the first half, but if you find yourself getting bored or sleepy, it's okay to shut it off after that - you'll have caught all the good stuff.

This new set also includes the trailer and one of those fold-out "leaflet" booklets with notes by film critic Jessica Kiang.
So yes, this is a real must-have from Criterion.  To Die For has looked alright on home video before, but it's finally gotten the first class treatment it deserves.  A great release for a great film.  Now, maybe Vestron will follow this up with a double feature of 1988's To Die For and its sequel.  Our shelves needs all three standing alongside each other!

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