Criterion Catch-Up, Part 2: Broadcast News (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I don't watch a lot of rom-com's but, hey, when a movie's good it's good.  And Broadcast News is great.  Now, some of you Broadcast News fans out there probably just braced at me calling it a rom-com, because it certainly has a lot more than just that going on in the film.  It's a witty satire of American television journalism, and another of James L. Brooks' great comic takes on humanity.  But still, at its heart...
William Hurt is an anchor man who's cursed with success, based on his good lucks rather than his talent or intelligence.  Meanwhile Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks are dedicated, sincere journalists whose ambitions are constantly thwarted by the mundane bureaucracy of the news division they work for.  They're trapped in a bit of an unfortunate love triangle that mirrors their struggling careers, and they all live under the shadow of the great network anchor, Jack NicholsonRobert Prosky, Joan Cusack, and (in a tiny role) John Cusack, co-star.
William Hurt is always great, and drawing in the forces of Albert Brooks and Jack Nicholson onto one screen is what we go to movies for.  Some of Hunter's ennui with being a working woman in a man's world might not have aged well; and not unlike Sidney Lumet's Network, all the jaded cynicism directed towards TV news feels downright naive compared to how it's all turned out in 2017.  But James Brooks is a master (bearing in mind that I'll Do Anything was not his fault), and this is some of his best work.  It sure took the Criterion Collection long enough to give it a proper special edition.
I'd been living with 20th Century Fox's no frills DVD since it was originally released back in 1999.  And you guessed it, being that old, it's sure not anamorphic.  But that's all we had all the way up until HD.  Admittedly, I think the 2004 UK DVD might've been anamorphic, but really, this is how we treat our American classics?  It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, director, lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor (Albert Brooks, of course!) and original screenplay.  You'd think they could at least give us a DVD that fills up our whole screen here in its home country?  Well, yes, finally Criterion did just that, releasing separate DVD and blu-ray editions in 2011.  I've got both here, along with the original 1999 disc.
1999 Fox DVD top; 2011 Criterion DVD mid; 2011 Criterion blu top.
So yeah, just the fact that the original DVD is non-anamorphic makes the Criterion an essential upgrade.  Criterion's new 4k scan of the original 35mm negative really handles the grain nicely and brings out the crispness.  It's not just the HD, even the Criterion DVD is noticeably sharper and clearer than the Fox disc.  The Criterion is slightly matted to 1.83:1, which gives us a sliver more around the edges than the 1.82:1 framed Fox DVD.  One thing I can't help but notice after our previous Criterion comparisons, though, is that their color timing is greener again.  This time, though, I would accept that it may be more a case of Fox being overly red, but still, I'm waiting for the day when somebody at Criterion announces: "my god, my monitor's been mis-calibrated for years!"  😜

Audio-wise, Fox gave us a respectable stereo mix (and a French dub for the easily amused), with English and Spanish subtitles.  Criterion ditches the foreign language options, but upgrades that stereo mix to a freshly transferred DTS-HD track, and optional English subs.
Extras-wise, Fox gave us nothing but a fullscreen trailer.  La De Dah.  But Criterion understands what the people want!  First up, we get a very affable audio commentary by Brooks, backed up by his editor Richard Marks.  Next, there's a neat little documentary about Brooks, which runs a little over half an hour, with several of his key past collaborators, including Marilu Henner and Julie Kavner, taking us through his history in television and film.  More exciting, though, is a collection of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending, with optional commentary by Brooks.  And in an instance of Criterion digging extra deep, which I really appreciate, they conduct an all-new on-camera interview with Susan Zirinsky, the real-life counterpart of Holly Hunter's character that Brooks based her on.  Then Criterion throws in the original EPK, including standard promo featurette and almost 20 minutes of on-set interviews and B-roll footage.  We also get the trailer and an 19-page booklet with notes by film critic Carrie Rickey.  Top marks all around, that's how you make a satisfying special edition.
Seriously, jokes about green tints aside (look at Nicholson's shirt color, that's a genuine white; it's fine... right?  What color shirt is that guy standing next to Albert supposed to be wearing?), this is a top notch release from Criterion.  And thank goodness for that, because the alternatives are miserably slim.  But this release doesn't need poor competition to shine; it could compete with the best work of any blu-ray label.  There's nothing but good news to report about Criterion's edition of Broadcast News.

Criterion Catch-Up, Part 1: The Ice Storm (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I've got some exciting new titles on pre-order, but they're still a ways away; and in the meantime, I've still got plenty of older titles I've been itching to get onto this site.  So, dull story short, just like the Scream Factory Catch-Up series I did last year, this time we're having a Criterion Catch-Up.  And to start us off, I'm going to finally return us to some Ang Lee (after having only covered his underrated Lust Caution back in 2015) with 2001's The Ice Storm.
Ang Lee got his start directing his own, quite good original screenplays: Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman.  And this is only his second film of another writer's work, in this case James Schamus's adaptation of a novel by Rick Moody.  Lee leans into the period of the piece, set in 1970's upscale Connecticut, where two families struggle with their repressed dysfunction.  Very stylized costumes, props and locations threaten to, but never distract from the smart writing and the particularly excellent cast: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Tobey McGuire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood and a young Katie Holmes.  In fact, Ang Lee's deft direction manages to steer it from being just a cute, nostalgic writer's indulgence to a genuinely human tragedy.  It's just one of those perfect storms where all the right elements came together.
20th Century Fox originally gave this a pretty solid DVD release back in 2001.  Anamorphic widescreen, a couple of extras.  But in 2008, Criterion released it on DVD again, with a new transfer and substantially more special features, as it was now a 2-disc set.  But it was still DVD-only until Criterion revisited it in 2013 as a single-disc blu-ray release.  Well, I've got all three releases right here, so let's have a look.
top: 2001 Fox DVD, mid: 2008 Criterion DVD; bottom: 2013 Criterion blu.
Well, despite the five years difference between the Criterion releases (you know, as opposed to your traditional combo-pack or concurrent release), nothing seems to have changed between those two releases, except for the blu obviously being in HD.  The color-timing is distinct between Fox and the Criterions, though, with the latter demonstrating a distinct lean towards the yellowish green side of things.  Criterion's transfer was "supervised and approved" by both Ang Lee and the DOP, Frederick Elmes, but there's no denying that the Fox disc has more naturalistic colors.  Like, in the first shot, the whites are white, where they're now green on the Criterion discs.  So I guess that green push is what the filmmakers wanted.  That or they just have their assistants sign off on whatever for an easy check like David Cronenberg.  😜
top: 2001 Fox DVD, mid: 2008 Criterion DVD; bottom: 2013 Criterion blu.
...Sorry, that was just a snarky Shivers reference.  Anyway, this is not a "Controversial Blu."  There is a clear uptick in detail and image quality between both the 2001 and 2008 DVDs and then the 2008 DVD and 2013 blu.  You're definitely getting a true upgrade each time.  And despite all three releases being slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1, the Criterion versions definitely find more information on both sides and the top.  But... I'm noticing a little haloing around edges, and maybe some unsharpening mask or a similar tool making tiny details flare out.  Grain also appears to have been a bit smeared away on the blu.  Basically, this looks like an old master, like they just used the one from their 2008 DVD.  So it's okay, but definitely not reference quality in 2017.
So let's talk extras!  The Fox disc didn't have much; it was no special edition.  But they did at least put on a few airs to dress it up a little.  Their main extra is a little 'making of' featurette with clips of the film, interview clips from Lee, Moody and just about all of the stars, and a few glimpses of shooting behind the scenes.  They also threw in the trailer, several bonus trailers, and an insert.

Criterion stomps all over that, giving this film the special features it deserves.  Ang Lee and Elmes do a good audio commentary.  There's an excellent 36-minute documentary with all the stars, an over 20-minute talk with Rick Moody, plus on-camera interviews with Elmes, production designer Mark Friedberg and costume designer Carol Oditz.  Then there's a film festival discussion with Lee and screenwriter James Schamus and four deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Schamus.  Plus, there's the trailer and a nice 20-page booklet with notes by film critic Bill Khron.  Oh, and the extras are identical, by the way, between the 2008 and 2013 Criterion releases.  So yeah, they really deliver a thoroughly satisfying special edition, but it's just a little irritating that they didn't include the vintage featurette from the previous DVD to round everything out.  Oh well.
So hey, unless Arrow wants to come out and surprise us with a fancy new 4k thing, this is a pretty strong release and the best we're likely to see.  There's room for improvement to be sure, but no reason not to be happy with what we've got.  And if Arrow ever does tackle this film, they'd better license those Criterion extras, because those guys really brought their A game on this one.  It would take a new 4k scan of the OCN, all the Criterion negatives and that Fox featurette for me to consider going back to the well again at this point.

What To Expect Out Of Bruno Mattei's Zombie Comeback Films

I was always curious about Bruno Mattei's two comeback zombie films, ever since I saw news of their production on mhvf.  But between them being shot on DV, back in the earlier, rougher days of shooting films on digital, and the accusation of it being an Uwe Boll rip-off, I stayed away.  Even when Severin put them out together in 2015, I still hemmed and hawed.  Why DVD only?  Was that some sort of concession even from the company that these were crap films weren't worth anyone's time?  I mean, the bad kind of crap, like those budget digital films that Netflix used to stuff its catalog with, not delightful crap like classic Mattei.  Well, I did finally bite the bullet - it helps that the DVDs are nice and cheap - and guess what?  They're classic Mattei crap!  😍
So the first film is 2006's Island Of the Living Dead.  Now, I've seen Boll's House Of the Dead, but fortunately for me, I forgot almost all of it almost immediately after watching it, because that made the more supernatural sequences seem even more surprising and creative.  By the time I was watching Island, it felt more original and amusing than it if I'd kept recalling similar moments from House.  Basically, a bunch of sea-faring treasure hunters shipwreck on an island, which is of course overrun by zombies.  But it takes a step further out of left field when they take shelter in a haunted house, and each character experiences a different type of encounters with the undead.  The captain has a drink with the long deceased captain of a similar ship, and another character is chased by grim reapers.  Even if its never entirely original, it still makes things a little more interesting than just your generic zombie flick.  Although don't worry, there's still plenty of your pure, lurching zombie hordes just waiting for the characters to realize that you need to shoot them in the brain, too.
The dubbing is terrible, even by Italian horror standards, but with Mattei, that just winds up adding to the films' charms.  Yes, the film is shot on digital, and so doesn't have that nice filmic look of Hell Of the Living Dead and other vintage titles.  But once you accept it, it's fine.  In fact, it might almost better suit the tone of the film.  After all, this ain't Suspiria.  But Mattei still has the style of lighting and framing to, in some aspects, raise these films above the level of our local backyard productions.  The complete unevenness of the film's quality syncs with the action on scene.  Something new is always being thrown in front of the camera to keep you in your seat, and it works.  The zombies will Flamenco dance if they have to!  The line between laughing at and with the film is completely erased in that way very few cult filmmakers could achieve, constantly flipping you from laughing at how cheesy something is to being genuinely entertained the way the filmmaker intends.  The effects range from laughable to effective, the atmosphere is in high gear, and it's gory just the way horror fans like it.
Then we have the sequel, Zombies: The Beginning.  It's still a Mattei zombie flick and all that entails, but as much as it possibly can, it shifts in tone.  Where Island was a moodier, supernatural piece, this time the zombies are caused by sci-fi means, and we're following a team of Aliens-like marines looking to blow them all apart.  It is a legit sequel, though, with the survivor of the first film being brought along with the marines like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens; though amusingly they had to cheat the ending of Island in the beginning of this one, like those old 1930's serials.  If you like one film, you're going to like the other; but I found this one a little less engrossing.  The characters in Island were stock, cliche and poorly written, sure; but they still stood out from each other.  Here the marines are mostly generic, so you're not too involved when one lives or dies in any particular scene.  And without the supernatural stuff, the zombie action is a little more plain... except for the outrageous, over-the-top nutty moments that mostly come at the conclusion.  So, overall this is a weaker film, but on the other hand, we're treated to scenes like this:
Now, I said Severin put these out.  Strictly speaking, each film's DVD release in the USA was from Intervision.  But in 2011, Severin took over the production and marketing of Intervision's releases, so these are essentially Severin releases with Intervision logos on the cases.  Both of these came out at the same time in February 2015, on DVD only.  There has never been an HD release of either film, though there were a few previous, foreign DVDs.  But these are uncut, in English, inexpensive and have the best extras.  So go for these.  Also, I love how they totally ape the old VHS cover of Gates of Hell for Zombies.
Top two: Intervision's Island DVD; second two Intervision's Zombies DVD.
Both discs are anamorphic at 1.78:1, but as you can see, they have some black matting on the left hand side, particularly the first film (by Zombies, it's really just a sliver).  So really these films are 1.77:1.  They're not interlaced, but detail is really soft and compressed.  I don't know if that issue lies with the DVD transfers, though, or if the film looked like that straight out of the camera.  These films are colorful with no interlacing or other issues; but they're far from HD.  I mean, even farther than most modern, SD DVDs.  But apparently Mattei was making his films on HDCAM at this point, so again, I don't know how much better these movies ever looked, even projected theatrically.  I'd definitely be super curious if a blu ever came out, but I really don't expect we'll live to see one.

Audio-wise, we just get basic, Dolby Stereo tracks.  It's all dubbed, so it sounds quite clean.  There are no subtitles or other options.
The primary extra on each disc is a roughly 20-minute featurette with the film's screenwriter, Antonio Tentori, who you probably remember from Grindhouse's Cat In the Brain release.  He's actually quite informative and interesting, telling us everything from his experiences with Fulci to how there was meant to be a third and final film to this zombie trilogy, but Mattei didn't live to see it through.  Island's featurette also includes some comments from the producer, Giovanni Paolucci.  So while we're not talking full-on special editions, these featurettes are quite satisfactory.  Each disc includes the film's theatrical trailer, and Island also has an "international sales promo," which is essentially a five minute highlight reel.  Not really worth watching once you already own the film, but I'm glad they stuck it on there since they had it anyway.
So I definitely recommend these DVDs if you're interested in the films.  But do I recommend the films?  Well, yes, if you know what you're getting into.  These are fun Mattei zombie films.  Yes, they're shot on old digital cameras, but you'll be glad you pushed yourself to get past that.  But bear in mind, these are also shoddy, trashy films by most mainstream standards, so the majority of people around the world are gonna hate 'em.  This stuff's for a select audience only.  If you're a fan of Hell Of the Living Dead like me, though, wondering if said select audience would include you, then I'm happy to report, yes, these are a kick.

Ken Russell and Dennis Potter, Together? The Visions of Change Documentary Collection

Here's a terrific, recent documentary set from the BFI: Visions of Change Volume 1: 1951 - 1967, featuring never before released films by Ken Russell and Dennis Potter.  Wait a minute, you might be saying, Dennis Potter is the brilliant English dramatist responsible for such modern classics as The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven; he doesn't do documentaries.  Well, he did one.  Early on, before he became famous; and it's in this set.  It's actually rather good, and you can even get a bit of a feel of the themes from his fictional work in it.  And there's nine more docs, too, which are mostly all pretty great!
So, what these are is eleven, previously unreleased made-for-BBC television documentaries spread across two discs.  That's possible because they're all pretty short, mostly around thirty minutes.  A couple are closer to forty-five, and one is only three.  It's sort of an unofficial follow-up to the BFI's previous four-disc sets of BBC documentaries Land of Promise and Shadows of Progress, and purports to "chronicle and re-evaluate Britain's contributions to the documentary form," as it says in the booklet.  If you're anything like me, though, that sounds awfully dry, and you're just interested in the Russell and Potter flicks.  But like I said at the top of this piece, it turns out there's a lot of compelling work in this set, so come for the big names but stay for the whole roster.
The set starts out with Henry Moore, a film about a sculptor, um, whose name escapes me now (come for the reviews, stay for the hack jokes!).  It's not bad, but not the best introduction to this collection, as it's fairly dry and feels more like a TV special than a proper film.  Interestingly, even though they have Moore on hand and interview him in the film, he only gets to say a couple of sentences, and most of the artwork is described by an off-screen narrator, making the proceedings feel a bit like something you'd be forced to watch in a classroom.  It is filled with a lot of nice shots of Moore's work, but unless you're a Moore enthusiast, it's asking a lot of it to carry a whole film, even a short one like this.
But things get more interesting as the films get more human.  Denis Mitchell created two films included in this set, Eye To Eye: Night In the City and Morning In the Streets, both of which document the decidedly un-glamorous poverty-stricken side of London in the 50s, from street life to the working class and their civil servants.  They're very naturalistic, "real" documentaries, despite a number of supposedly candid scenes clearly having been staged for the camera.  That three-minute doc is essentially more of the same kind of footage, but silent and set to a single song - apparently it was made to be a segment of a news magazine show.  1964's The Colony is a little stiffer, but along the same lines except that it focuses particularly on immigrants struggling to make their way in the UK.
Most compelling of all this particular variety of entries is Joe the Chainsmith, which focuses on a single "every man."  Following him from work, to the pub, to his home and even his back-lot dog races, this film fleshes out a poor Brit's entire life and the reasons he finds to go on living it.  The only other director to hit so close to home in this set is Dennis Potter, who returns to his childhood village in Between Two Rivers to take a completely un-romanticized look at life he was able to escape as a successful writer.  It's not a grim, one-note expression; but you get the sense that a lot of the bleaker material in Potter's work must've been him writing about what he learned here.
Least effective in this set is Eye On Research: Test Flight.  Apparently, Eye On Research was a regular running series in the 1950s and 60s, and this is just one episode.  A mostly, if not entirely, live broadcast documenting a test flight that might've been a little more exciting back when the science was current.  It's interesting as a chance to see a real precursor to modern news programming where they inter-cut between several speakers and locations with on-location footage and crudely animated graphics.  But I wouldn't recommend it to anybody who didn't consider themselves a serious student of documentary news filmmaking.  But I would heartily recommend a two-parter Dispute: Round 1 and Round 2, which looks at union disputes in British factories from both sides.  It's amazing how much some of these people allowed them to get on camera, feeling somewhat like the work of Frederick Wiseman during a heightened stage of anxiety.
Finally, of course, there's Russell's film.  We all know how much he loves to make documentaries about classic composers and artists, but this is a 60's film looking at four, very modern pop artists.  And he does it in a highly energetic style where the film is meant to work as a piece of pop art, too.  It's very stylistic and entertaining, though it rises and falls a bit depending on how strong each artist is that he's focusing on in any particular scene.  One of them in particular seems to have incorporated the film Russell was making into a display of her own art, which gets pretty dramatic.  Often, people are surprised that the gaudy, over-the-top director of such films as Tommy and Altered States also created some fairly stoic documentaries about Elgar and Delius.  But Pop Goes the Easel feels like the sort of BBC documentary the maverick director of Lair Of the White Worm would come up with.
All of the films are presented in fullscreen 1.33:1, which is entirely correct for vintage television programs of this era.  The quality rises and falls depending on the quality of the original film elements (Test Flight looking easily the worst), but the BFI restored these from the best available film elements, giving each film fresh 2k scans; and they certainly made them look the best they could with natural contrast levels and no interlacing.  You might be disappointed there's no blu-ray of this set, but I think we're lucky to see these films get released at all, and only the two or three 35mm entries in this series make you feel like you're missing much of an HD experience.  Test Flight, for example, is a 16mm copy of a recorded telecast, so there's not much to bring up.

There aren't any extras.  And I wouldn't expect much for a bunch of old TV docs, but the previous sets managed to cough up a few interviews and a documentary, so it's a little disappointing.  We do at least get a nice 32-page booklet, which gives some much needed backstory to every single film and a series of additional essays.  The double-wide set also comes in a slipcover.
This set came out in December 2015/ January 2016 to about as little fanfare as I've seen any release get.  So I wanted to cover it to make sure people found out about this.  I mean, unreleased Ken Russell and Dennis Potter in this dying age of physical media is still a big deal, right?  And again, several of the lesser known works in this set are at least as good as theirs.  And there's no release date yet, but the BFI do have pre-orders up on AmazonUK for Visions of Change Volume 2, which is going to focus on ITV documentaries this time.  No big names like Russell or Potter, apparently, but it looks like we'll be getting some more from Denis Mitchell, who I now know to look forward to.  It's great to see, even as the market's drying up, this kind of work can still find its way out the door.