The Troubled Troubles We've Seen, Marcus Ophuls' Overlooked Doc

Marcus Ophuls (son of filmmaker Max Ophuls) made one of the greatest one of the greatest holocaust documentaries (specifically about the less commonly addressed French occupation) of all time... indeed one of the great documentaries of all time period: 1969's The Sorrow and the Pity.  It's very well known as well as being highly regarded, having been released, restored and reissued around the world. But it's not the man's only film, or even his only great film. It's not even his only Academy Award winning film (Sorrow was nominated, but his 1988 documentary, Hotel Terminus, actually won). Unfortunately however, when it comes to releasing his films on home video, he's treated like a one hit wonder. Most of his films remain competently unavailable anywhere in the world. But at least one more of his powerful documentaries has actually been released in America, albeit very obscurely.
The Troubles We've Seen is one of his more modern works, from 1994, and focuses on wartime journalism. The bulk of the film was shot in Sarajevo in 1993 while the city was under siege, interviewing reporters from all over the world - including the BBC, CNN, ABC news, French television, etc -  who've converged in a Holiday Inn near "sniper alley" where news reporters are frequent and intentional sniper targets. At one point, he's interviewing a reporter while standing over the body of another reporter who's just died from a sniper's bullet; it can be pretty harrowing stuff.
But the film also takes a broader view, looking back at past wars and how the news reports are disseminated around the world. It's 224 minutes, so it has time to really sink its teeth into tangents, like a famous Spanish war photographer who was accused of faking some of his most famous shots, or the animosity between "on the ground" photojournalists and on-screen anchors. Other times he drifts more into covering the actual war the reporters are covering and the effect it has on its people.
And, perhaps to lighten the mood, we see Ophuls adopt a technique similar to what Errol Morris would start doing years later (inspired by this film?), of cutting in footage from old movies to act as a sort of commentary or counterpoint to what's going on in-film. For example, we'll have a politician talking about war and then cut to a scene from Duck Soup with Groucho Marx telling Harpo as he goes off to fight gallantly on the front lines for his home and country that he'll be back home, thinking what a sucker he is. Other times, it's more serious, a la a clip from some English adaptation of Henry V of the soldier's speech about how the victims of battle will rise up on the conscience of the king who led them to war while we look at victims of a recent bombing. He goes a little overboard with it in the beginning of the film, where it starts to feel like we get two sentences of clip for every one sentence of actual interview; but it soon tapers off and feels very natural and effective.
There's one example I've read Ophuls get criticized for a couple of times online, that I thought I'd take the liberty of defending. Ophuls is talking to a former actor who's now living in a cramped apartment with his wife and children, and his two legs blown off by a Serbian grenade. The actor says he expects to get prosthetic legs soon and plans to return to the stage once the war ends, and Ophuls is asking if he believes the Serbs and the Croats can ever actually live in peace after the war. The actor is completely convinced they can, and it cuts to a clip of James Cagney tap dancing on stage from Yankee Doodle Dandy, to which critics have said, isn't that juvenile and cruel to mock this man with no legs by cross cutting to a tap dancer, but I believe they've missed the point. During that interview, Ophuls keeps pushing the issue of whether they can ever truly live peacefully afterwards, forgiving and forgetting the atrocities of the war they just fought to live amongst each other again. He calls the actor "very optimistic" as he seems to act like it will be no problem. But when Ophuls asks" what will happen when he's on stage and one of the men responsible for blowing off his legs is in the audience, and the actor says, "I will kill him." So we see peace really won't be so simple or easy to achieve as the people are being lead to believe, and Cagney is representing the cheerfully naive fantasy of how happy everyone will soon be. He's happily tap dancing on stage, all smiles and flag waving, when the real actor already has the intent to kill again in his mind, just lightly covered by this dream of happier times.
Not that every thing about this film is perfect. I already mentioned the beginning feels a bit self-indulgent with all the excess cutaways, like when we see the opening of Annie Hall before Ophuls similarly addresses the camera to explain what his film is going to be about. It also drags a bit in the middle as it gets a little too mired up in the details of French television of the day, which non-viewers of early 90s French news programs won't get as much out of. And there's a weird bit where Ophuls talks about his "Fellini hat" (it's the same kind of hat Marcello Mastroianni wore in 8 1/2) and we see lots of footage of a naked, younger woman in his bed. I don't get what that was supposed to be about. I suspect it was to show that the reporters were all sleeping with hookers in this hotel - and so was our host; but the whole segment had the feel of a self indulgent in-joke. But so for all the virtues this film shows in its longer running time, allowing it to cover what most films wouldn't be able to get into, it does feel also like shedding a good 10-20 minutes could have made Troubles leaner and more powerful.
So this film is only available from Milestone Film and Video, a small NY company that sells this as a 3-disc DV-R set directly from its site and sometimes through Amazon when their storefront is stocked. To be clear, though, this is a legit, licensed release, not one of those bootleg sites that torrents obscure movies and sells them to you on homemade DV-Rs for $20 a pop. Milestone's releases used to be available in stores nationwide back when DVDs were the most mainstream, popular form of movie viewing, and in fact they're the company that put out the original DVD of The Sorrow and the Pity back in 2001. However, this release doesn't feel so official when you actually put it in your player...
First of all, for a 2011 release, it's surprising (and disappointing) that these discs are not anamorphic. I think thiat's because this disc was released previously as a proper pressed DVD, which has long since gone out of print, and this 2011 DV-R is just a quiet reissue. The back of the box says this film is 1.31:1, but look at the screenshots; that's obviously wrong. This film is more like 1.61:1; but that's good, because it looks like the correct aspect ratio. this film was shot on 35mm, at least according to the imdb, and was made to play in theaters, so we're probably getting the proper AR, at least. But since it's non-anamorphic, that means the film is windowboxed, sitting tiny in the center of your screen surrounded by black on all four sides. Subtitles are burned in. There are no extras of any kind, and only the first disc has a proper menu screen. The second disc ends abruptly but continues playing a black, silent screen for a couple minutes... I sure hope there wasn't footage from the movie that was supposed to be playing during that time that we're missing. Then it cuts to a gray screen for a little while, which is 1.37:1 - hey, that's where they got that ratio from!
Did I mention the discs are single layer? Of course they are! And they didn't even use all of that space - more like half. This film is divided into two distinct parts (with credits and everything), but it's broken up into three discs rather than keeping both halves together on two dual-layered discs, which would've played a lot better. Hell, they probably could've fit it on two single-layered discs without any additional compression. Speaking of compression, the video quality is passable, I guess, for a standard def DV-R, assuming you go in with low expectations. It's certainly soft and murky enough to make you wonder if this was sourced from video tape. Remarkably, it's not interlaced, though there are frames of ghosting, which probably come from sloppy PAL/ NTSC conversion, or just an old pull-down issue. This could obviously look heaps and heaps better. The labels on the disc are plain white with text, there's no insert, and yet they ask the painfully high price of $39.95. And you guys thought Zipporah films was bad!
Maybe he's just wearing two pairs of glasses?
Still, it's the only release of this remarkable film, and it does get the job done. And I get that they're a low budget company sitting on some important films, but there are so many improvements they could make to this release without spending a penny. We can all make anamorphic DVDs on our home computers. But again, I believe this is actually a really old disc that just wasn't updated at all, and it only gets into the realm of frustrating when you see the price tag. Oh well, in lieu of other options, this film is still worth it. I sure wish some blu-ray company (Kino? Criterion? Studio Canal?) would come along, though, and do the whole Ophuls catalog right. I mean, the films besides The Sorrow and the Pity.

The Devil's Advocate Uncensored, Recalled DVD (and Blu-ray Comparison)

As the result of a lawsuit, Warner Bros is not allowed to release their 1997 film, The Devil's Advocate, uncensored anymore... and haven't been for a long time. Specifically, one of the biggest set pieces in the film, a massive bas-relief sculpture in Al Pacino's apartment that ultimately comes to life was said to be too similar to a bas-relief called Ex Nihilo which resides above the western entrance to the National Cathedral in Washington. It's not a reproduction, it was just judged to be too similar that it violated copyright, and since the sculptor found its use offensive (it's meant to be a very divine piece, and in the film, it's literally Satanic), he refused the studio permission to include it in the film, even though they'd already shot and released the film theatrically with it featured in multiple scenes. So a settlement was reached where Warner Bros. could release 475,000 copies through rental stores, and thereafter they created a new version of the film, with some very early CGI (this was the 90s, remember) replacing every shot of the sculpture with a new, generic image. Yuck.
Original DVD on top; CGI'd blu below.
This is the first shot of the sculpture after the big reveal. An elevator door slowly slides off-screen to reveal this crazily large, impressive sculpture than Al just happens to have in his office. As you can see, it's full of human figures swirling around each other (just like in Ex Nihilo). Not only is this sculpture prominently displayed in multiple scenes, where it's used to make a big statement about Pacino's opulence and the kind of place Reeves is entering into, but SPOILER: the sculpture ultimately comes to life and those people in it writhe and try to seduce Reeves. Now, to be fair to the new version, the image doesn't look too fake in the background. Even as characters walk and talk in front of it, it fits into its environment fairly convincingly. But it sure is a far less impressive art piece, just a mass of generic white swirls (I'm sure it's kept so simple because complicating the image would have made it look faker). It's just not nearly as impressive or effective.
Original DVD on top; CGI'd blu below.
And it's not just in the background. There are times when the camera is looking squarely and solely at the sculpture, nothing else. Early in the original, the camera adopts Reeves' point of view, panning slowly over the people in the sculpture. In the new version, the camera pans the same way over... a swirly jumble of nothing. You're not going to tell me in the shots above that one is just as good as the other.
Original DVD on top; CGI'd blu below.
And we come back to the sculpture repeatedly, in multiple scenes throughout the second two-thirds of the picture. Here, they loom over the people in the room ominously, as if they're reaching out to them. Or... it's just a white lump hanging back safely against the wall in the new version. They couldn't have at least made the swirls lean outward?
Original DVD on top; CGI'd blu below (no, this is not a mistake)
Look, the shots have been totally changed (it's not just zoomed in tighter; Pacino's gone), but now it's the same sculpture in both versions? Yes, bizarrely, that's what happens in the CGI version. The sculpture transforms into the version with people in it at the 1.57 mark, ten minutes before it comes alive in the story. First of all, that means we watch the statue totally moving around and changing, with one of those old school morphing effects, long before its meant to be anything but a "normal" sculpture, and Reeves has absolutely zero reaction to it (because in the original version, it hasn't done anything weird yet, so why would he?). And secondly, if we're allowed to see the sculpture as the version with humans in it for the final scene of the film, in many shots and angles over the course of ten minutes - this is in the censored version, mind you! - what was the point of censoring it all throughout earlier? Why not have it look like it does at the end earlier on? It makes no sense! Now, it's even more frustrating!

But in March of 1998, the film was commercially released uncensored on DVD. Despite having a large red message printed on the back of the case reading, "[t]he large white sculpture of the human forms on the wall of John Milton's Penthouse in 'Devil's Advocate' is not connected in any way and was not endorsed by the Sculptor Federick Hart or the Washington National Cathedral, joint copyright owners of the Cathedral sculpture 'Ex Nihilo' in Washington, D.C." was actually still the original bas-relief on the DVD. That disc was recalled and re-issued the same year, and since then the film has always been issued with the censored print with the CGI'd sculpture, including multiple pressings, boxed sets, and even recent blu-ray releases.

Now if you're anything like me, there's only one version of this film to own: that rare, recalled DVD from 1998.
And it's a film worth owning for sure; it's a blast. Keanu Reaves, gives one of his better performances as a young, Kentucky lawyer who gets hired by a big time New York law firm. So he and his girlfriend (Charlize Theron) move to the big apple, only to find out that his boss, Al Pacino, seems to literally be the devil. Now, I know a lot of people believe Pacino is one of those actors who's moved on from giving legitimate acting performances to just pushing out an over-the-top caricature in every film he does now, and I tend to agree; but this is the one role where his over-playing it actually suits the character and the mood perfectly, and so his instincts are spot on. Plus, it's got an absolutely perfect supporting cast, including Jeffrey Jones, Craig T. Nelson, Heather Matarazzo and even Don King as himself.
You'd never know it from the poster, the credits, or even the film's imdb page, but this is a Larry Cohen film. He wrote the original script; but due to union rules, only the guys who did some later rewrites are given official credit. Cohen fans will still be able to sniff his writing out, though, as its full of his usual wit and "what if" approach to scenarios. To be fair, though; having listened to the audio commentary, it sounds like some of the changes the new guys made were for the better; so I definitely don't mean to suggest they don't deserve credit here.
Original DVD on top; CGI'd blu below.
So, this original recalled DVD features the same transfer - except of course for the CGI-altered shots - as the later releases, showing the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Fortunately, as old as this DVD is, it isn't so old that it's non-anamorphic. I think we dodged a bullet there. The blu-ray, naturally, looks a good deal better - except, again, for the the fact that it has the CGI-altered image instead of the director's original vision - but this looks just as good as any other standard def DVD version. Plus, interestingly, it has a little more picture information on the sides... because the blu ray is slightly stretched horizontally. However, if we're not dismissing the blu-ray, it has to be said that it's a noticeable improvement, with better detail, where the DVD has wonkier edges, no doubt because the SD is an older transfer. Improved, but censored. Ultimately, which is more important? To see the movie in nice HD, or to see it unaltered? It's a decision you're going to have to make for yourself, because unfortunately, we can't have both.
deleted scene
This DVD also has some nice extras... pretty much the same extras which have been present on every release of this film. It has the aforementioned audio commentary, by director Taylor Hackford, which is fun and very informative. Then there's the trailer, a couple TV spots and a LOT - about 30 minutes worth - of deleted scenes, also with commentary by Hackford. And here's one more advantage the blu-ray has that must be noted. On the DVD, the commentary is forced on the deleted scenes. That is to say, you cannot watch the deleted scenes without the director's commentary playing over them. But on the blu-ray, the commentary is optional, so you can also hear the scenes play out on their own. That is absolutely preferable, so score a few more points for the blu-ray release. I'd almost recommend getting both, and maybe for really big fans of this film that's what you should do. But at the end of the day, when you're going to sit down and rewatch this movie, you're going to pick one version or the other anyway. So you're still forced to decide: uncensored or HD?

So let's assume you chose uncensored, or you do feel compelled to pick up both. How can you tell the original recalled version apart from the reissue? Well, first of all, obviously, stay away from any sets... the double feature with Insomnia, the Al Pacino Collection? No. But that's obvious. The ones that are hard to tell apart are the 1998 solo DVDs. Fortunately, Amazon has still maintained separate listing pages for them (here's the link to the original). They often don't do that, and remove or merge listings for older DVDs, which can be quite frustrating. Luckily, they remain distinct as of this writing. But still, trusting people listing and selling their DVD copies on Amazon to know which listing is for which, or even that there are two different versions, and listing their DVD correctly is a leap of faith that extends right out into the domain of the foolhardy. And why limit ourselves to buying from Amazon, anyway? We need a real way to tell these DVDs apart, and fortunately, such a way exists.
First of all, the recalled version is (unfortunately) packaged in one of those half cardboard "snapper crapper" cases. Warner Bros later reissued this in the preferable keep-case packaging, and that of course is the CGI'd version. However, it's not that easy! While that reissue also came out in 1998, that is the 3rd version. Both the recalled version and the first censored version came before it, and both are in snappers. So you can certainly rule out any version in a standard clamshell keep-case, but you can't embrace any version in a snapper. We need to look closer.
There is a catalog number on the spine of the DVD case, which is unique to this version. The recalled version is number 15090. I'm not sure of all the other catalog numbers, because I never went nuts and collected every single subsequent pressing. But if it's any number other than 15090, you don't want it. There are other distinguishing factors, too... for example, different editions have different UPC numbers. The recalled version is: 0 85391 50902 8; however I'm not 100% certain that none of the other editions have that same UPC. I don't think they do, and I know for sure that at least some of them have different UPCs. But I can't swear to it that they all do. I AM certain about the catalog number, so go by that. If you see it used in a shop you can just check the spine. Or if you want to order it from EBay, Amazon or anyplace else, just ask the seller what that catalog number is on the copy he's selling. Fortunately, Devil's Advocate was a major film from one of the biggest studios, so a lot of these were released into the wild before the recall. They're still quite findable with a little knowledge and effort.

Good luck!

Bob Fosse's Dark Star 80 In Widescreen

Bob Fosse's not-even-remotely-musical true crime thriller Star 80 has been out on DVD in the US for decades, but it's always been one of the most disappointing full-screen, featureless discs to come out of a major studio. It even came in one of those cardboard crappy snapper cases. But it became one of those DVDs that the studios never cared to reissue here in the US, but gave nice, anamorphic widescreen transfers to abroad. In this case, we're looking at Warner Bros' attractive Australian DVD.
Star 80 is the dark story of model and actress Dorothy Stratten and the man who managed, married and ultimately murdered her, Paul Snider. Mariel Hemingway is charming and believable as Stratton, and there's a strong supporting cast, including Cliff Robertson, Carroll Baker and an early cameo by Keenan Ivory Wayans as himself. But it's the incredible performance by Eric Roberts that carries the weight of this picture, managing to make him both empathetic and yet totally abhorrent. This film takes you on a ride with its all too real villain along the lines of horror films like Maniac or Don't Answer the Phone, while other times being charming and funny. The fact that it's got great music and an edge because everything we're seeing really went down helps raise it above the others, too. It's the kind of film people who've seen it don't forget.
US disc on the left; Australian on the right.
US disc on top; Australian on bottom.
Star 80 was shot by one of the world's greatest cinematographers of all time, Sven Nykvist, so it really sucked to see this film so poorly represented on the early DVD. It wasn't even open matte. It was sort of a compromise picture, with some additional vertical information, but it cut a lot off the sides. So seeing the Australian disc is a big revelation. And if you look at the second shot, there's even a bit more information along the top of the widescreen print. It looks like someone did put in time and care to make the 4:3 transfer look as good as it could; but it's just not the correct aspect ratio. The US disc was also a bit brighter, but I'm not sure that's preferable or more accurate. There are no extras on this release, just as there weren't any on the old US one, but at least there are two sets of English subtitles, standard and hearing impaired.
Now, I see that Warner Archives has Star 80 on their schedule for the end of this month. Hopefully this is the transfer we'll see. I mean, I'd be surprised if they stuck with the fullscreen one at this point; but you don't know 'till you know. Fortunately though, if they do, we know the import still has our backs. And collectors may still prefer to the Australian disc, simply as a pressed disc over an MOD DV-R.