The Jim Cummings Trilogy

Alternatively, some say the "Officer Jim" trilogy concluded with Halloween Kills.
IFC Films just recently released the latest feature film by actor/ writer/ producer/ director Jim Cummings on home video.  It's often referred to as a trilogy, but really it's just an arbitrary designation for the fact that he's now made three feature films in a row, this being the third.  There's no story or character continuity across them.  And he's made other films in the past... a series of short films, as well as working on other peoples' work, perhaps most notably Greener Grass, as the ex-boyfriend forced to deliver a eulogy at the candlelight vigil for a woman he barely knew.  According to the imdb, he actually has a visual effects credit on Captain America: Winter Solider.  But for now, until he makes his fourth film, this is the trilogy.
Thunder Road starts us off in 2018 with Cummings expanding his 2016 short film, also called Thunder Road, into a full-length drama.  Or dark comedy.  All three of his films, and all the shorts I've seen from him, walk a thin, empathetic line between comedy and drama, finding the humor in painfully honest moments, without losing sight of the powerful, emotional beats for any cheap laughs.  It all comes out of character, which Cummings (and the rest of his consistently strong casts) fleshes out, dancing right up to the edge of going over the top, but never quite losing its footing.
In Thunder Road, Cummings is a police officer named Jim, whose mother has just passed away.  He struggles desperately to keep a lid on things, but grief and bursts of volatile anger continue to chip away at everything in his life, from his relationship with his ex wife to his career.  It's both a comedy of manners, as Jim relatably says one wrong thing after another, to a heart wrenching tragedy watching somebody who spends his whole life fighting and losing.
The original short runs just over twelve minutes and is comprised of a single take, a trend in many (all?) of Cummings shorts.  It takes place during the funeral for Jim's mother, who goes up to speak, telling us amongst other things that Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" was a pivotal song in his mother's life, inspiring her to move out of her hometown and start a better life for herself.  He then plays the song on a small, portable CD player and sings/ dances along to it in a disastrously earnest way.  The feature recreates that opening performance, mostly still in a single take, but with a new opening and several differences throughout.  But because the short film was presumably only operating with "festival rights" for the song, in the feature, the CD player doesn't work, and Jim has to perform an even more awkward, emotionally naked performance.  I could imagine the producers panicking initially when they couldn't get the rights, "how can we make Thunder Road without 'Thunder Road'?"  But it winds up working.  I've seen the short, and it's great too; but the scene in the feature is no worse for the change.

Now, Passion River released Thunder Road as a barebones US DVD in 2018.  Thankfully, they saw the light and later released a special edition blu-ray in 2019.  And its since been released on BD in many other regions around the world.
2018 Passion River DVD top; 2019 Passion River BD bottom.
The film is presented in its proper 2.00:1 aspect ratio on the blu, but is stretched slightly taller to 1.96 on the DVD.  The framing's exactly the same, nothing different is included along the edges of the frame or anything, it's just stretched a bit.  Apart from that, this is a SOD film, so we're not looking at film grain or anything, but the jump from SD to HD is obvious on close inspection, with its increased resolution and clarity.  Only on the blu, for instance, could I read on the flag behind Jim, "we are dedicated to excellence!"  Everything's just that little bit softer and smudgier on the blu.

Curiously, the DVD has 5.1 audio, plus English, Spanish and French subtitles.  But the blu has 2.0 stereo audio, though it's lossless PCM, and no subs, despite the back of the blu-ray case listing 5.1 and all three subs.  So that's a little funky.
Now, when I said Passion River's DVD was barebones, I mean, it doesn't even have a menu.  But the blu-ray has some goodies: specifically an on-camera interview with Cummings, which runs a good 20+ minutes, talking about the making of and ideas behind the picture, and a short film.  This sounds like a perfect opportunity for fans to see how the funeral originally went, but I suppose they couldn't include that on the disc for the very same reasons the song couldn't be in the feature.  So instead we get a different short, written and directed by Cummings, but not starring him.  It's another single take film, even more ambitious, about a young woman who asks a Uber to wait outside while she robs a liquor store.  It's pretty great, although fans will still want to track down the 2016 Thunder Road online.
Cummings probably got on a lot more film fans' radars with his second feature, when he ventured into popular genre territory with The Wolf of Snow Hollow.  But Thunder Road fans were delighted (and possibly relieved) to see Cummings was playing much the same character, another stressed out cop named Jim with anger issues.  But now he's in an entirely new setting, a small vacation town seemingly beset by a murderous werewolf.  His performance is just as compelling the second time around, and this time he's joined by the great Robert Forster and comedienne Ricki Lindhome, who are both pitch perfect in their supporting roles.
Wolf walks a similar tightrope to Thunder Road, where that one found the perfect balance between genuinely funny comedy and emotionally compelling drama, this one teeters carefully between the beloved tropes of a classic werewolf tale and the realism of its characters.  Again, there are real dramatic stakes as well as effective moments of horror (the werewolf effects are practical and first rate), while still finding moments of humor.  Thunder Road probably remains the definitive masterpiece, but Wolf is a close second, and also the more mainstream crowd pleaser.  Warner Bros released it on DVD and blu in December of 2020.
2020 Warner Bros DVD top; 2020 Warner Bros BD bottom.
Warner Bros presents the film in 1.85:1 on both discs; no more of that indie label funny business.  Again this is a digital film, and it looks like their might be some subtle edge enhancement here, though that might be the director's choice on the original output film, and nothing to do with the home video release.  The boost in clarity is even stronger here than on Thunder Road, almost looking like the DVD is slightly out of focus.  So the BD is a much more satisfying option.

Both discs have 5.1 audio tracks this time, with English and Spanish subtitles, though the blu-ray bumps the audio up to DTS-HD.
A more surprising difference between the two format releases is in the special features.  The DVD just has one, decent but very short 'making of' featurette - the standard promotional kind of thing that mixes film clips with on-set interview clips and a little B-roll.  Nice to have, but unsatisfying by itself.  But it's not by itself on the blu, which carries it over and adds three more featurettes, which are all also quite short and still pretty unsatisfying in total.  Two of them are super short, about 90 seconds, although we do get a few extra soundbites from the cast and crew.  But the best of them is over five minutes and has no film clips, instead giving us behind the scenes looks at the special effects and production design.  It's nice, and an improvement on the DVD, but still not the kind of special edition attention this film deserves.

Finally, we have The Beta Test, the latest film that was just released on DVD and blu by IFC Films.  This time Jim's not a cop, but in some ways a similar character, this time thrust into an erotic thriller.  He's a Hollywood agent, even more weaselly than his previous roles, who winds up cheating on his fiance after receiving an anonymous proposal, seemingly forwarded by a shadowy organization with sinister designs.  Cummings performance is as delightful as ever, even more amusing as his paranoia and desperation grows as mysterious forces put the screws on him.  On the other hand, the thriller aspect isn't as satisfying as Thunder Road's drama or Wolf's horror.  There are some satisfying murder sequences with a well executed tone that separates this film from Cummings other works.  And while Hollywood agents are an easy target, Cummings manages to turn what would otherwise be well-worn, stale satire into something fresh, funny and all too relatable.
The mystery is compelling enough to keep you wondering what's going on until the end, too.  And I won't get into spoilers but the logic of the story is ultimately pretty loose... perhaps an intentional affectionate replication of erotic thrillers past, but it's still a weaker story at the end of the day.  The concept turns out to be underwhelming, and its final message about relationships is sort of a nice surprise, but also feels a little shallow to stand an entire film on.  Still, if this is the worst Cummings can do, I'll be delighted to watch his future filmography for many years to come.  He's still captivating to watch, and the film is endlessly entertaining, attractively shot, often quite funny and at times downright brilliant.
2022 IFC Films BD.
IFC Films presents The Beta Test in 2.32:1, which I guess is correct.  You'd think it should be 2.35, but these days with digital, any film can be any AR, so maybe not.  Anyway, 2.32 is close.  Again, this is a digital film, and shot in 2k, so there's no use holding out for a UHD.  This blu looks very satisfyingly crisp and detailed.  It offers us the choice of 5.1 or 2.0 mixes, both in DTS-HD, with optional English subs.  Unfortunately there are no extras at all, not even the trailer.  It's a fine presentation of the film, but that's it.

All three films are really great, though, and while none of these blus are packed editions, they're very highly recommended... at least until the Criterion Collection releases a Jim Cummings 20-film boxed set in some new high-tech format special editions twenty years from now.  Now, bring on film #4!  I've heard it might be a Victorian ghost story...!

Let's Talk About Twilight Zone: The Movie

I've talked plenty about controversial blu-rays, but today's post is about a film that's controversial itself, Twilight Zone: the Movie, the 1985 anthology film based, of course, on Rod Serling's classic television series.  In fact, it follows some specific episodes quite closely, which I'll detail below.  But it opens with a great, completely original Prologue by John Landis that's surprisingly dark, despite starring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, and sets the mood perfectly.  If anything, it sets the bar so high, everything that follows struggles to live up to it.
Segment I, also by Landis, is sometimes described as being an original story, and sometimes as being based on the season 3 episode, A Quality of Mercy starring Dean Stockwell.  Having watched both, I'll say it's pretty far removed, though they share a very basic core.  Both depict war where one man learns an important when he has to see things from the opposing point of view.  But that's really it.  In Quality, Stockwell is a WWII army lieutenant who joins a new platoon and orders them on an excessively dangerous and blood thirsty mission to destroy a cave filled with Japanese stories... until he suddenly finds himself general of the Japanese unit, being fired upon by his own men.

In the movie, Vic Morrow (R.I.P.) is a civilian in contemporary America, who makes racist comments about black, Asian and Jewish people before finding himself being put violently in their place: starting out being chased by the KKK, then finding himself being shot at by American troops in the Vietnam war and finally pursued by Nazi Germans during WWII.  So, basically, both spend at least a little time in WWII, and more critically have a leading person who finds himself in somebody else's place to learn a lesson, but otherwise they're very different.  They don't even learn the same lessons.  One is about respecting human life over the glory of war, and the other is about recognizing the dignity in all races.  So unlike the latter segments, this has a lot to offer in terms of original ideas.
Segment II is based on the season 3 episode Kick the Can, and it's absolutely the sappiest and eye-rollingly nostalgic.  Of course Steven Speilberg did this one.  It's also the most boring, although to be fair; there are plenty of worse episodes he could've chosen.  People forget, between the unforgettable classics, Twilight Zone had some real duds in its day.  Both versions are set in a retirement home where most of the residents have pretty much given up on life and are passing their final moments waiting to die until someone suggests they play kick the can, like they did when they were kids.  When they eventually concede, they become young again - literally.  But in the original series, this character was one of the residents who was naturally pushing back against his fellows' despondence.  Here, Scatman Crothers is well cast put poorly written as a mysterious, magical figure who travels from retirement home to retirement home, restoring everyone's love of life.  As a consequence, I found the original episode more poignant, and the film segment cornier, the one dud in the line-up.
You can take it as a given that the movie has higher production values than the old television episodes, but nowhere is it more apparent than in Joe Dante's Segment III.  In the season 3 episode, It's a Good Life, "the monster" creates a 3-headed gopher and then kills it with his mind... entirely off camera.  But Dante brings to wind life his inhuman creations with ambitious animatronic effects and big, bold colors.  The premises are the same in both: a group of adults live in constant terror of a young boy with unlimited mental powers.  If they displease him in any way, even just in their thoughts that he can read, he can wish them out of existence, or infinitely worse.  Interestingly, the movie narrows the scope to a single family in the boy's house, whereas it's an entire town that lives under his thumb.  Dante also focuses the story with a clear protagonist: a young nanny who gets roped into taking care of the monster and learns along with the audience just what a nightmare she's walking into.  And he gives it a resolution - the show basically explores the scenario and then quietly steps out.  Dante also envisions a delectably madcap, Looney Tunes-inspired world as only he could.  So overall, I'd say this segment is a real upgrade over the original.
I'm not sure I can say the same about the final Segment, based on the season 5 episode, Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, despite it being the big crowd-pleasing show-stopper of the film.  It's by Mad Max's George Miller, so that's to be expected.  But it adheres surprisingly closely to the original, with John Lithgow taking the place of William Shatner as a man with a debilitating fear of flying trying to get through a commercial flight, even as he sees a monster destroying the engines on the wing of their plane.  I suppose the special effects are better - the original monster looked like a man in a fuzzy monkey Halloween costume - and Lithgow is probably a better actor; although Shatner was actually quite effective the first go around.  This is an episode so expertly crafted it didn't need a remake, but it got one anyway.  Therefore this is the least essential segment, but still generally the most entertaining.

But we can't talk about this film without addressing the controversy.  In fact, some potential viewers may feel they still can't view or support this film to this day, because Vic Morrow and two young children died during the filming of the first segment.  Worse, their deaths were not just a tragic accident (though it certainly was that), but the result of negligence, where the actors were working under illegal conditions.  There's been a whole written about the case if you really want to get into it all, and it does have to be said that Landis and the other filmmakers involved were ultimately acquitted of manslaughter charges.  But it's certainly always going to be an awful stain on this film's legacy.
2007 WB DVD top; 2007 WB BD bottom.
And that's probably why it took so long for Warners Bros to to release this on DVD.  But they eventually put it out concurrently with an early (and now quite out of print) blu-ray and HD-DVD all in 2007.  Both the DVD and BD present the film in 1.78:1, though the DVD is slightly stretched vertically, which the blu fixes, revealing extra slivers along the top and bottom.  Over all, this is a decent but slightly dated presentation.  The HD is free of any unwanted glitches or tweaking, but the image is soft and film grain is only lightly hinted at.  It's certainly sharper than the DVD, though.  For a 2007 blu, this is quite good, but it's easy to imagine how much nicer a 1.85 4k scan would be today.  However that's probably going to have to stay in our imaginations.

The DVD includes the original stereo track, a 5.1 remix, plus French and Spanish dubs, as well as optional English, Chinese and Portuguese subs.  The blu bumps the 5.1 remix up to LPCM, but the stereo track stays lossy, which is a disappointment.  It keeps all the foreign language dubs and subtitle options (including, to be clear, the English), and even adds French and Spanish subs.
The only extra found on either edition is the theatrical trailer.  Horror's Hallowed Grounds recently made a video visiting the locations of this film, including yes, the infamous crash site.  But I can't imagine that'll find it's way onto a Collector's Edition anytime soon.  And there was a brief Shudder documentary series called Cursed Films that did an episode about Twilight Zone that sounded promising.  But it turns the series proposes that the films they cover were literally cursed and wind up talking to clairvoyants and all types of silly nonsense rather than just taking credible looks into the unfortunate stories behind these troubled films.  So feel free to skip that.  But given the "cursed" nature of this film, I wouldn't expect a new edition of this film anytime soon, so if you come across one of these blu-rays for an affordable price, jump on it, because they've gotten rather scarce.  Even if you can't bring yourself to watch it, the resale value will be worth it.

Liv Ullmann Directs Ingmar Bergman's Faithless

Faithless is a script Ingmar Bergman wrote late in life, a very introspective, even autobiographical one. And yet he chose not to direct it. Instead he gave it to his longtime lover and star Liv Ullmann, who by that time had already made several films of her own. It was first issued on DVD in the UK by Tartan, and then in the USA by First Look. It's long been stated that while the film is rather long, roughly two and a half hours, that the import DVD features an even longer "international cut" (for example, they list it on the film's dvdcompare page) That's the version I always had, but I recently picked up a copy of the US DVD to see what's so different about the two versions, since I can't find any site anywhere that specifies. And I was rather surprised by what I found.

Update 11/22/15 - 4/27/22:
Throw those DVDs in the garbage!  A far superior new blu-ray has just been released by the BFI.  Bam!
Ullmann cast one of Bergman's best staple actors, Erland Josephson (Scenes From a Marriage, Face To Face, etc) to play the lead, and wow does that pay off. This is a very grounded film of long, steady close-ups and realistic human emotion, and Josephson can bring the power to that like very few actors in film history. He plays Bergman, an isolated film director who lives alone on an island writing scripts about the loves and infidelities of his past, and conjures up his former lover (played by Lena Endre) to retell their entire story from her point of view (though there's a surprising and moving shift in perspective in the third act). What makes it work is that it's very strong emotional subject matter handled very honestly and subtly. It's not melodrama, in fact the first half or so is very slow moving; but by the end: "oof!"
You could certainly accuse Ullmann of imitating Bergman's style here, but that's hardly a bad thing considering how well it works; and it's especially appropriate given that this is not only his writing, but a story seen through the eyes of himself as a filmmaker. Although I also noticed touches that I'm sure Ullmann put in there that Bergman never would have.  In fact, the fact that this story focuses more on the children of the destroyed relationship, something Bergman has often glossed over, lends considerably more dramatic power.  It might be a bold admission, but I consider Faithless, a film not directed by Bergman, to be one of the very top Bergman films.
One of Bergman's many crossed paths with A Dream Play.
Okay, now here's the story with the "international cut:" there's no such thing, at least not on Tartan's DVD. I watched both country's DVDs side by side and there isn't a single deviation or extra scene, shot or trimming. It's 100% the same movie. There are a few factors about the running time that probably added some confusion to the mix. First, naturally, there's the whole PAL/ NTSC business. Also, the US DVD has a couple trailers on it, and they're on the disc as one long video file with the main feature, so the running time on your player is actually adding the time of the movie and the trailers together for one larger sum. There's also different company logos in front of the opening credits and all. So, actually just looking at the movies themselves, the UK disc runs about 148 minutes, and the US is about 154... not 142 like it says on the back of the case. I believe that misprint is entirely at fault for the idea of there being more than one version of the film. Account for PAL speed-up, and they're the same length.
1) 2003 US First Look DVD; 2) 2001 UK Tartan DVD; 3) 2022 UK BFI BD.

And as you can see, the two DVDs have very different looks, as indeed does the new blu. The UK DVD has a very high-contrast (crushed, even) look suggesting it was taken from a film print, whereas the US DVD has a much more natural look, seemingly taken from the negative. That's great for the US disc, but unfortunately, it's full-screen, and not even open matte. It's an old school "chop the sides off" job. The UK disc is slightly pillar-boxed to about 1.74:1, and it's anamorphic, which is a relief. But both discs are a heavy compromise. If only we could've gotten the best of both worlds, we'd have had a pretty nice looking release.

Well, now we have even better than the best of both previous worlds.  We have a properly widescreen 1.85:1 transfer.  And the fresh 2k scan is of the original 35mm negative (and according to the booklet, a bit taken from the 35mm duplicating positive).  There is just so much more detail and clarity, as well as more photo realistic coloring, the screenshots really speak for themselves even if you don't bother to click through to the full resolution versions.  Just look.

All three discs feature the original Swedish stereo mix, but the new lossless version on the BFI blu sounds more robust and authentic.  They've also added a DTS-HD 5.1 mix.  Oh, and also the English subtitles are removable, which is more than can be said for the burnt in ones on the Tartan disc.
The US disc only has a couple of trailers for extras, though at least one of those is the actual Faithless trailer. The UK disc has the trailer and a bunch of bonus ones, too, but it also has the very substantial bonus feature of an on-camera interview with Liv Ullmann. It's pretty in-depth, lasting over 31 minutes.

BFI now, has really turned it into a special edition.  First of all, yes, they have kept the Tartan interview and they still have the trailer, so no ground lost.  They've also added a new, expert audio commentary by critic Adrian Martin, and it's excellent.  No dead space and a lot of information and insight, including some readings from Bergman's autobiography that sync up surprisingly specifically with this film.  Then, there are two more interviews with Ullmann, both are on-stage and last over an hour each.  There is some unfortunate redundancy, and it would have been nice if somebody could've edited these so we wouldn't be hearing the same 5-6 minute anecdotes repeated practically verbatim.  That's downright punishing to sit through.  But you'll be rewarded, because each interview also has a lot of unique content, with fun anecdotes about her career and insight into Faithless.  There are also two stills galleries and a hefty, full-color, 34-page booklet including two essays, a director's statement and interview with Ullmann.
So the international cut seems a myth. I mean, okay, maybe there's another version out there somewhere that runs longer, however beyond early assemblies or workprints, I'd be surprised if that's the case. But despite there only being one cut of the film, the home video releases are quite different. There's no question which is the winner now, though.  BFI's new blu is a beaut that puts the old editions to shame.  Faithless is a masterpiece, and this is a must-own.

Now where's Private Confessions?

Black Roses, Better Than No Blu

There was a cheesy little subgenre of horror in the 80s, presumably based on America's brief period of "Satanic Panic," of heavy metal themed horror films, like Hard Rock Zombies, Trick Or Treat, Rocktober Blood... 1988's Black Roses isn't my favorite of them (that would be Rock 'N' Roll Nightmare!), but it's a fun runner up.  And it's available in HD, but only if you're up for importing.
2007 US Synapse DVD top; 2014 DE NSM BD bottom.
The Black Roses are a hot new band who want to practice performing in a small town for a few nights (that "one night only" tag line is just flat out wrong-o) before embarking on their big tour, especially since everybody in the audience at the last place they played turned into monsters and went on a rampage.  Yes, the uptight school marms seem to be right to suspect this rock and roll band of having a devilish influence on their youth, and it's up to a hip(?) high school teacher to to get to the bottom of why his students behavior is becoming increasingly criminal before it's too late for the whole world.
2007 US Synapse DVD top; 2014 DE NSM BD bottom.
Black Roses is a low budget bit of Canuxploitation with a lot of ambition.  It's full of cheap but thoroughly entertaining set pieces, from dramatic scenes of patricide to seductress ghosts appearing in the night.  Records bubble on the turntable, monsters leap out of your speakers and all the nice girls start teasing up their hair.  It's super cornball melodrama that's at least fifty percent self aware but knows to keep throwing stuff at the screen to keep us entertained.  It helps that the music is really catchy and surprisingly good.  The effects are all over the place, very low budget and rubbery, but often well designed and creative.  Think Rawhead Rex, where he looks great until you realize the expression is fixed and it's essentially a thick rubber mask that barely moves.  And for some reason The Sopranos' Vincent Pastore turns up for a small role with a very out of place Brooklyn accent.
2007 US Synapse DVD top; 2014 DE NSM BD bottom.
So Synapse originally released this on DVD in 2007 as a nice little special edition.  Unfortunately, that's where they left it, never upgrading it to blu-ray.  But in 2014, a little label called NSM Records was there to pick up the slack.  "There" being Germany, where they released the film under the misfitting title Freakshow.  It didn't hang onto all the extras, but it's in HD for the first and still the only time.
2007 US Synapse DVD top; 2014 DE NSM BD bottom.
Both discs are just slightly off of 1.78:1 - Synapse is 1.77 and NSM is 1.79, and their framing is slightly altered, though it's hard to say which is better.  NSM's blu's colors are better separated and its image is brighter/ less saturated, the latter of which, again, may or may not be an improvement, though it still keeps its blacks black.  NSM's blu is unquestionably a sharper, HD image, though.  It's not exactly a cutting edge scan, and the grain sometimes looks like over-sharpened digital noise, but it beats the smoothed out SD image.

Another advantage is that NSM bumps up the original stereo mix to lossless DTS-HD.  Neither disc offers subtitles, so what's usually a small loss with imports like these is just a side-grade, and NSM does add a German dub (also stereo DTS-HD), if anyone's interested in that.
2007 US Synapse DVD top; 2014 DE NSM BD bottom.
Now, Synapse's special edition isn't too packed, but it's star feature is a pretty impressive commentary track with the director, writer and several of its cast members.  It's not perfect - the director keeps putting his kid daughter on the mic, which is equal parts annoying as cute.  Still, it's great to finally hear the story behind this film, and fans should be delighted to get it.  There's also some fun audition footage[right] that shows some other directions they could've gone with their lead villain character, plus there are some extended promos (Essentially two five minute trailers).

Sadly, NSM didn't carry over the commentary or the auditions, leaving it as a fairly barebones release.  They did manage to hang onto the promos, however, and unlike Synapse, they found the actual theatrical trailer.  They also added a gallery of high def stills and a bunch of bonus trailers.  It has reversible artwork with the far more impressive poster art, and the big red ratings logo is a sticker you can peel off the plastic.
2007 US Synapse DVD top; 2014 DE NSM BD bottom.
So, no, it's not a massive upgrade, and even if you do spring for it, you'll want to keep your DVD for the extras.  But it's something, which is more than we've got in the USA.  Maybe it's worth just holding out hope that Synapse will get around to revisiting this title someday, along with Rock 'N' Roll Nightmare, which as another of their DVD-only titles; but in the meantime this is what we've got.