Valentino, Goodbye, But Way Up In the Sky (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

It's a good time to be a Ken Russell fan. New blu-rays are coming out left and right. Crimes of Passion from Arrow, many of his BBC docs over in the UK, Women In Love just came out in a finally anamorphic special edition blu (I know.  Blu-rays aren't technically anamorphic, but you know what I mean).  It's hard to keep up with them all. But one I just had to cover, if for the extras alone, was BFI's new dual format special edition release of Valentino.
1977's Valentino is another biopic, this time of silent film star and one of cinema's first sex symbols, Rudolph Valentino, played interestingly enough by Rudolf Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer known for defecting from Russia to become a worldwide star... but not known for, you know, being an actor. Valentino was a bit of a flop, theatrically, and did some damage to Russell's career.  And in different interviews, you hear him go from describing it as his best screenplay ever, to his least favorite film, to it rising again in his estimations (as I think it has for many critics and audiences in general).  Still, I think I see why it got flack - I myself wouldn't recommend it to many people who weren't already established Russell fans.
There's a weird, unreality to it.  And I don't just mean the usual flair for kitsch and exaggeration Russell displays in a lot of his work.  This time, it's more about the performances.  I actually think Nureyev is quite good as Valentino, and didn't deserve the derision he sometimes got; but it just seems like an awful lot of the dialogue was loosely ADR'd.  So when you've got the modern actors putting on broad period dialects with this added layer of disassociation, where it doesn't always sound like their voices are coming out of their mouths.  It gives the whole film a fake or cheap/ amateur feeling - like a local theater company production - which it really doesn't deserve, considering how lavishly and carefully it was otherwise produced (just look at the images in these screenshots!).  You have to be open and patient with the film to form any kind of connection with the characters because of this barrier, and that's just too much to ask of general audiences.
But if you are willing to meet the film halfway, it's pretty great. Russell's kitschy visual style is perfect for bringing this romantic vision of Valentino's rise to Hollywood stardom to life. It's got a great cast, including Seymour Cassel, Michelle Phillips, Carol Kane, and keep your eyes open for a young John Ratzenberger. And it's a smartly written story, riding the line between the truth and the legend, with a nice satirical touch. It opens with an authentic, vintage song dedicated to Valentino called "There's a New Star In Heaven Tonight," but later in the film we hear another song about him, which I'd always assumed to have been equally authentic until I heard on the audio commentary that it was written by Ken Russell for the film. And now that people are finally getting to see it in widescreen, as opposed to its VHS and early DVD life, we can see that it looks great.
So yes, this film spent many years only being available on a crappy UK-only fullscreen DVD from MGM.  Finally, in 2010, it got an updated master from an HD scan of the 35mm inter positive, which MGM released as an MOD here in the USA. Over in the UK, though, Optimum gave the updated version a proper, pressed disc, and that was the definitive release for a long time.  But finally in 2016, that 2010 HD master has gotten released on an actual, HD disc release in both the USA (from Kino) and UK (from BFI).  And for the first time ever, Valentino's also getting the special edition treatment.
Optimum's 2010 DVD top; BFI's 2016 DVD mid; BFI's 2016 blu-ray bottom.
Yeah, you can really tell the 2016 is using the same master as the 2010 disc; BFI's DVD is a very close match to the Optimum DVD. This is not a new scan; we're just finally getting it on blu.  But that said, it really does benefit from the increased resolution.  This film is full of detail that looks almost out of focus on the DVDs compared to the blu. And the framing is almost identical, except you can see the Optimum crops the top a tiny sliver more, giving it a 1.86:1 ratio, as opposed to BFI's 1.85.  But it's so slight you'd never notice it outside of a direct comparison like this.

In the audio department, the DVD gives you a nice stereo mix, but that's it. BFI's blu gives you the original mono track as well as the stereo mix. And both are naturally lossless LPCM tracks on the blu.  Neither release has subtitles, and if you're wondering, the Kino release doesn't either.  Sorry, hearing impaired fans!
Extras are where BFI's new release really shines.  The Optimum disc only had the fullscreen trailer.  But BFI's release?  Where to begin?  I guess Tim Lucas's excellent audio commentary would be a good place to start.  If you're familiar with his past commentaries (most famously on Mario Bava's early DVDs), you know he comes prepared with a lot of research that really pays off. Almost as good is a rich, substantial interview with character actor Dudley Sutton.  He only has a tiny part in this film (he was also in The Devils), but he's got plenty of great, funny stories anyway.  actress Lynn Seymour, who wasn't in Valentino but starred opposite the real Valentino, gives a brief but nice, audio-only remembrance of the silent film star as well.

Then you get into the vintage stuff, including a very interesting television interview with Rudolf Nureyev.  As for Russell himself, there's an 89-minute audio only interview which they play as a second audio commentary over the film.  He only briefly mentions Valentino, but for Russell fans, there's a lot about his other work, including Gothic, which he had just filmed at the time.  Then BFI goes definitive, giving you lots of extra odds and ends from their vaults, including 9 minutes of original newsreel footage of Valentino's funeral in HD, some of which was used in the film's opening credits.  And they give you the opening and closing credit footage with the titles printed over them.  And there's a stills gallery, two widescreen trailers and 6 TV spots (one missing sound). It also comes with an 18-page booklet, including notes by Paul Sutton, author of Talking About Ken Russell.
And even though I don't have the recent Kino release for a proper comparison, I'd be derelict if I didn't talk about it, because it has some exclusive extras, and unless you're region locked, you're surely wondering which version to get.  Well, I looked into it and confidently chose this one.  It has Tim Lucas's audio commentary, 3 minutes of Valentino's funeral in SD, two trailers and a stills gallery.  It doesn't have anything else from the BFI material above.  But it does have two exclusives: a Trailers From Hell version of the film's trailer and a vintage television program on silent films with footage of the real Valentino's work.  Personally, I'd say the BFI's package leaves Kino's in the dust (though I am a Trailers From Hell fan), and not only would I recommend BFI's blu over Kino's, I wouldn't even say Kino's exclusives are worth double-dipping for if you're a serious fan.  If you're region A locked, though, at least you get something, and the commentary is there.  Oh, also Kino's disc doesn't have the stereo mix, just the mono.  So there's that.
So this might not be one of Russell's greatest films, but I think it's much better that its unfair reputation as one of his worst (I mean, come on, did you ever watch Dog Boys?), with cinematography that really ought to be seen in a proper widescreen presentation. And BFI really came through for this film, even more than it maybe deserved.  A strong recommendation for BFI's release if you're even somewhat into this film, although if you're DVD-only and not the type to watch extras, I suppose you could do just as well getting the Optimum disc on the cheap instead, since it's basically the same transfer.  Just avoid the 2003 disc.

Do You Dare Enter The Tomb by Bruno Mattei?

In 2007, Uli Lommel, director of The Boogeyman films, made a low budget shot-on-digital and direct-to-DVD horror movie called The Tomb. It was kind of trash and I kind of disliked it, like - sorry, Uli - I've disliked pretty much every Lummel film I've ever seen.  Every couple of years, I feel like I'm going to have an epiphany like, "oh, this is why his films have an audience!"  I'm still waiting.  But, as an added consequence, seeing and writing off Lummel's The Tomb had me mistakenly write off Bruno Mattei's 2006 low budget shot-on-digital and direct-to-DVD horror movie called The Tomb.  It wasn't until this year, when I was looking at some of Mattei's modern, digital films that I realized I'd conflated two entirely different movies and that I'd never actually seen Mattei's.  So I tracked down the old DVD, which is still the best and only way to get it, and oh boy.  This is certainly something.
The Tomb is at least somewhat inspired by the Stephen Sommers' hugely popular mummy movies. The bad guy looks just like Arnold Vosloo, and just like in The Mummy, the film opens up with our evil high priest in ancient times. This time, he's specifically Mayan, and conducting a resurrection ceremony. He gets interrupted at the last minute, and of course then we cut to contemporary times, where a professor and his archeology students arrive in Mexico, looking for some ancient tombs to poke around in. Conveniently, the pretty blonde one looks just like the seventh sacrifice the high priest failed to complete two thousand years ago. So an evil stripper who just so happens to be the high priest's undying wife kills their guide and takes them to the deadly, trapped-filled tomb, where the dead rise to finish what they started.
Man, Mattei has not missed a step since his early classics like Rats and Hell Of the Living Dead. Everything that was great about them, and everything that was terrible and enjoyable amount them are still on hand in equal amounts. You've got some really well-shot scenes with strong colors and fun images. You've got a movie that definitely delivers on the cheap thrills, and you've got the same wonderful dubbing. I think I even recognize some of the same voices from the 80s! Is he still incorporating stock footage? I'd say he's even gotten more bold. Maybe you recognize that shot of the skeletons from Army of Darkness? And that's not the only instance. The production values are all over the place, from looking dirt cheap and plastic-y to actually impressive. The acting is delightfully over-the-top and scenes get downright silly as they try to play it all deadly straight. Some of the make-up effects are actually quite good, though. I wouldn't recommend this movie to the average viewer, but if you like Mattei, this is one seriously fun time.
So, like I said, the old DVD is pretty much our sole option. It's a 2007 disc from York Entertainment, and boy is it no frills. And to illustrate that, look at its crazy, home-made DVD menu [right]! I mean, technically there is also a 2006 Italian DVD from CVC, but it has no English language options, just Italian audio and subtitles. So that's out. I have to admit, though, I'd be curious to get my hands on a copy anyway, just to see how the video quality stacks up against our US edition, because man, is this edition troubled.
I mean, where to begin? How about non-anamorphic? Serious interlacing problems? Soft, murky and compressed, with cases of weird edge enhancement? It's all here. The picture has a weird aspect ratio of about 1.73:1, which is presumably incorrect. And they don't even crop the stock footage to match the rest of the film, getting even more black footage on the sides whenever we cut away to Army or Raiders Of the Lost Ark. And when I say serious interlacing problems, I don't just mean the every 5th or 6th frame thing we see on a lot of cheap PAL<-->NTSC conversions; every frame is interlaced for minutes on end.  I wouldn't be surprised if Mattei's original footage turned out to be interlaced because he shot this with a cheap home consumer camcorder, or his editors couldn't figure out the pull-down. But then again, I'm hesitant to shift the blame for anything off of York, because clearly zero care was put into this release.

We only get the English dub for audio, but it's surprisingly hiss-free, and there are no subtitles or special features, not even a trailer. Heck, there aren't even chapters on this DVD! Hit the skip ahead or back buttons, and it takes you right back to the generic menu screen.
But you know what? Who cares if the DVD sucks? It almost adds to the kitsch of the whole proceedings. I mean, yeah, I'd be interested in a quality special edition re-release for sure. This film was probably shot in HD, right? Maybe? I'd like to see what could be done with this one, and any extras would be a hoot, I'm sure. So, maybe 88 Films could put this in their Italian line, or Severin could take a whack at it, since they've handled a bunch of other, more recent Mattei films. But I wouldn't hold my breath. And in the meantime, don't let York's disc put you off. It's on Amazon for under a dollar, so go ahead and splurge. Just don't get the Lummel film, because that's 47 cents you'll never get back.

No Pontypool Blu-ray? Don't Stand For That! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

It took me a long time to get to Pontypool, and for a silly reason. I'd been hearing all the positive praise and critical reviews for it. But at some point when Pontypool was still pretty new, I saw another contemporary zombie that featured an attack on a talk radio station. I can't for the life of me recall what that movie was now, but it had me convinced that I'd seen Pontypool and I wasn't terribly impressed with it.  Finally, last year, I actually did see Pontypool and I was rather impressed, so I looked up the blu-ray release online and... apparently we never got one?
So Pontypool is a zombie film? Well, no, not really...  First of all, on the Lenzi scale, it would rate a pretty strong "no, they're infected people!"  Once you get past that, I guess I'd have to say it is a zombie movie, in that people get infected, turn mindless and kill, and they even move about like zombies.  But I certainly wouldn't blame any horror fan, especially any looking for a Romero-style tale, for really resenting this film. Because it's a very different experience, one that hinges more on linguistics and wordplay. If you're having a strong reaction one way or the other to that explanation - either that sounds super interesting and right up my alley or that sounds stupid and boring - I'd say go with that instinct. It's a divisive film, and if you think you're going to love it or hate it in advance, you're probably right.   But I can tell you it's very well made.  There are a few bumps and imperfections, certainly, but for the most part if you feel the premise has potential, then the film lives up that potential.
Essentially, the plot is this.  A somewhat famous talk radio host has found his career on slipping, so Mr. Big Shot Radio Personality walks into a tiny small town station for his first day at his new job.  It's just him, the station manager and a young assistant filling a lot of dead air.  Things are about as uneventful as they can be when a small church group comes in to sing a song on the air, but get a little weird when one of the small girls says she can't remember the words and soon can only repeat the sound "prah" over and over again.  Then they check in with their local traffic reporter who winds up witnessing and describing what looks like a hostage situation, where crowds of people are gathered around a building chanting.  It turns out certain words in the English language (and sounds, too) have become infected, and when the mind tries to process them, it essentially fails, and eventually turns the listener into a thoughtless killer.  They're actually probably closest to the zombies in Stephen King's recent Cell, if you've seen that.
To give you a better idea, this film never leaves the radio station (except for a short look at the talk show host's drive to work during the opening credits).  We've basically got four main characters locked in a single location for the duration of the film, with a few supporting roles popping in and some characters we only hear over the radio.  Very low on action, very high on talk, although there are a few bloody moments in the third act.  It's almost an intellectual exercise, closer to films like Circle or Fermat's Room than Zombie, although I can assure you this is definitely a superior film in all departments to those two examples. Character actor Stephen McHattie is great in the lead, and the rest of the cast is quite good, too; although Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly each have one or two stilted lines which make it feel almost like the editor used the wrong take.  But it's a smart film, shot well, and keeps you leaning in even with its very slow pace.  In fact, in the final act, I almost wish they would've kept things a little slower and more subdued rather than worrying about "delivering" on the horror promise.  But it all works.  It's not a masterpiece, and this may be a bit of a back-handed compliment given the state of things; but I think it's one of the best modern horror films we've gotten in the past decade.
IFC Films released Pontypool on DVD - but not, as I've said, on blu-ray - in 2010.  There are two versions, the standard special edition and a no frills "Blockbuster Exclusive" edition that gives me warm little "ding, dong, the witch is dead" feelings.  For the record, I have watched the Blockbuster disc, and it's exactly the same transfer, but without any of the extras except for the trailer, and it's front-loaded with a bunch of bonus trailers that play on start-up.  But while this is in no danger of dethroning any of my favorite horror films, I was taken enough with it that I felt it deserved a proper place in my collection.  I wasn't going to settle for a compressed, SD edition of a film that's streaming all over the place in HD.  So I looked around, and thankfully there's plenty of blu-ray import options.  I went with the UK blu from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.  It's all region, too; so there's no reason any US citizen should have to put up with just a DVD.  So now, let's see how much the blu improves.
IFC Films' 2010 DVD on top; Kaleidoscope's 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Well, naturally, it's the same root transfer on both discs.  What else would you expect?  It's a contemporary film, brand new when the discs were released, and shot on digital.  It's got a very processed look to it, which is clearly a deliberate choice of the filmmakers, and a very wide 2.34:1 frame.  But, for being the same transfer, there is a clear distinction between the high and standard definition presentations.  This isn't a hold a magnifying glass up to the screenshots and study the edges difference, the blu-ray is a lot softer and smudgier, while the blu is decidedly sharper and clearer. Highlights pop a lot more, too.  I'm glad I held out of the blu on this one, because it's enough to really effect the viewing experience.

Sound wise, both offer a 5.1 mix, though of course only the blu is DTS-HD.  That's all good, because this is a new film, so it's not like there's an original mono or stereo track we've lost.  The film was made for a 5.1 and that's what we get, live it up.  One slight disappointment with the blu, is the DVD had English and Spanish subtitles, while the blu has none.  So if you need subtitles, you're SOL.  And, yaknow, the dialogue is uniquely crucial here.
Now extras in this case are a bit of a queer duck, although I suppose that's fitting for a movie like Pontypool.  Most of the extras are the same across either release.  One of the reasons I went with the UK blu is because it had the commentary and stuff, unlike a few other imports I looked at.  And so, to start with, let's talk about the director's audio commentary.

The commentary doesn't do much direct commenting on the film, really - although it does at points.  It's presented as a "script meeting" between the director and screenwriter who are working on Pontypool sequels.  Apparently, this film is based on a portion of a book, and they want to make this a trilogy to cover the whole thing.  So they spend most of the commentary not talking about the movie we're looking at, but their proposed sequels... which sound awful and like they have no idea what made the first one so compelling.  Years later, both of them have gone on to make plenty of other films, with Pontypool Changes still in limbo, which from what I've heard is just as it should be.  I mean, if it ever does come out, I'll give it a chance, but I'll be happy if that day never comes.  Still, it is somewhat interesting, and you do wind up learning a bit about the book and the backstory to the film as they relate to the non-existent sequels.  And the "meeting" ends about twenty minutes or so before the film does, at which point they do provide a little actual audio commentary, which is better.
Next up is the "Pontypool Original Radio Play."  That makes it sound like there was a radio play before the film, doesn't it?  And it was filmed, so they included it here?  Well, no.  Actually what this is, is a the dialogue, music and sound from the film edited down to an hour-long audio-only version of the story.  Played over a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills.  I would definitely not recommend listening to this shortly after watching the film, because it's everything you just saw in the film, just without pictures and edited a little shorter.  Kind of a pointless feature.  But if you wanted to rip it and listen to it during a long commute to work, it would make for a pretty high quality podcast.

And stranger still, we next come to the "Horror Collection:" two bonus short films, which as far as I can tell - and I've spent some serious time looking into it - have no connection to Pontypool other than the fact that they're both Canadian and loosely horror-themed.  Because I wouldn't actually even call these horror films.  They're abstract shorts by a director whose only ever made abstract short films.  Like, Eve is about a mannequin-like woman who goes through some symbolic changes that serve as a metaphor for Creationism, I guess?  Adam shows up, too.  Both shorts are tough to sit through because there's no dialogue or story, just visuals and sound effects.  There are probably a few fans of this guy's work, though, who have zero interest in Pontypool but who are happy to pick this up just to get his rare short films.  So okay, I guess it's better to have them than not.

And that's about it for what the two discs share.  They also both have two trailers for the film.  One little exclusive the blu-ray has is the stills gallery from the radio play available separately, so you can look through it without sitting through the hour long play, which was a good idea.  But the IFC has an exclusive, too: a third short film called The Death of Chet Baker.  This isn't even remotely horror-themed, but unlike the other two shorts, actually does connect to Pontypool at least in that it also stars Stephen McHattie.  He plays real life musician Chet Baker, who I guess died under somewhat mysterious circumstances... he either fell out of a window, or jumped, or was pushed.  So this film dramatizes each possibility and, uh... I guess we're supposed to choose which one feels the most plausible?  It's just a short little 6 minute thing, but it's well made and a lot more interesting than the other two shorts.  But I certainly don't mind not having it on my blu.
So, this movie isn't for everybody.  But it's good, so hopefully it's for some of you.  And if it is, I heartily recommend importing the UK blu.  None of the extras for this film are that great, but all the most important stuff is carried over anyway.  It looks better in HD.  IFC really dropped the ball not getting this out on blu (a year or two later, we probably would've had this from Scream Factory), but there's no reason for us to suffer their mistake thanks to Kaleidoscope.

Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights On Blu

Another year, another brand new documentary from the master Frederick Wiseman. And I think In Jackson Heights is his most involving and even entertaining in a long time. As its title plainly states, Wiseman applies his famous approach to the neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, NY. If In Jackson Heights has a theme, it's multiculturalism. What we see here is perhaps the most diverse group of races and religions you'll ever find in a single community. And encouragingly, they all seem to be getting along. We're taken into Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious gatherings, and we hear a different language spoken in practically every scene. But thankfully, this is no sentimental PSA, this is another engrossing exercise in commentary-free observation.

Update 7/12/18: I've added the DVD version, charmingly packaged in exactly the same cover as the blu, for comparison.
Wiseman takes on a larger microcosm here than he's done with most of his previous films, though of course we've had Belfast, Maine and Aspen before. We're left with a less of a comprehensive understanding of the environments studied in films like National Gallery or La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué, where we seem to examine the system and interactions on from all angles. There's just far too much that has to be outside this film's scope. Anytime you film one event, you miss out on tons of others. But, it means Wiseman is given a lot more to work with.
Like, Boxing Gym is my least favorite of Wiseman's films. It still has its moments, and I won't be kicking the DVD out of my collection; but far too much of the time I just feel like we're watching people go through their basic workout routines. Here, when Wiseman pokes his camera into the local laundromat, we're not just filming people doing their laundry. There's an abrasive, impromptu music concert going on, and the people are having a panicked debate about looming gentrification. There's tons of things happening in Jackson Heights. Transgender people protest a bar they feel they've been discriminated against at, local business owners find out they're going to be driven out by their landlords, a woman at a senior center questions why she hasn't committed suicide, an immigrant tells a harrowing tale of how her sister almost died crossing the border, the mayor gets a sexy singing telegram on his birthday. Wiseman's a master at letting us be the fly on the wall of wherever turns his focus, and this time he's found us a wall that's really hopping.
This August, Wiseman's own Zipporah films has given this film its official home video debut on both DVD and blu-ray. Despite the DVD-shaped artwork at the top of this post, we're actually looking at the blu-ray. It just comes in a DVD-sized case. Oh, and by blu-ray, I mean an MOD BD-R. All Zipporah releases have been DVD-Rs and BD-Rs, so this is no surprise. At least it's a dual-layer BD-R, considering the film's over three hours long; but I have to say I couldn't get it to play on my PC... It started but immediately started stopping and starting right from the first minute. I thought I might've just gotten a bad burn, but then it played all the way through on my Panasonic player, so I guess it's as good as you're going to get from a non-manufactured blu-ray disc. And if you do get a bad burn, like I did on one of their older titles, I have to say their customer service and return policy is exemplary.
2016 US Zipporah Films DVD top; 2016 US Zipporah Films BD-R bottom.
In Jackson Heights looks pretty good in HD, though. The presentation is slightly matted to 1.85:1, and I think the screenshots speak pretty well for themselves. At this point, Wiseman is shooting on digital, and this is coming straight from Zipporah themselves, so I think it's safe to assume this is a pretty faithful representation of their DCP.  The DVD just winds up looking a little softer; that's all.  As with every release of any of Wiseman's films, there are no extras here. Even when other labels attempt it, that's his decree. We are offered the option of two audio tracks, however: Dolby stereo or a 5.1 mix. So that's nice, anyway. Challengingly small English subtitles are burned into every non-English speaking scene.
Zipporah's not going to win many new converts selling featureless BD-Rs at $45 (and that's before shipping!) a pop, but at this point, I suppose they're comfortable with that. Zipporah's releases are strictly for Wiseman's devoted following. And that's cool; I get it. But it's a bit of a shame, because I think, out of his recent catalog, this would've been the film most likely to net him those new converts. And we really shouldn't be having an entire generation miss out on this man's work.