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.

Another Werner Herzog Import: Salt & Fire

Here's another Werner Herzog film that doesn't seem to be making it here to the states: Salt and Fire.  We're not doing so hot getting physical releases of his work these days.  Nothing for Death Row season 2, and season 1 was already just a UK DVD only.  Into the Inferno is strictly streaming on Netflix, with no plans for any future physical release, stated directly by the production company.  I guess there's always hope they'll come out as catalog titles down the road... Shout Factory is finally releasing Queen Of the Desert this summer.  But these are dark times.  So take this barebones import-only DVD and be happy.  😛
Reading the reviews for this film on Amazon is a kick.  Nine 1-star reviews, and one 5-star review.  Clearly one out of ten people were previously familiar with Herzog's work!  Having watched the film, I get it, but everybody's being hyperbolic.  People going to Salt and Fire expecting some kind of conventional action thriller like the cover suggests are headed for some real disappointment.  Yes, it starts out that way.  Three ecologists working for the UN arrive in Bolivia only to be promptly kidnapped by terrorists.  The early scenes of them stuck waiting in a foreign airport after it's emptied out and we know things can only be bad are genuinely creepy and unnerving.  Like if The Langoliers was good.  But all that soon drops away, and it becomes pure Herzog, and with a preachy environmental message to boot.
But pure Herzog is far from a bad thing.  He goes out of his way to find wild landscapes and environments nobody's ever put on film before.  He masterfully blends music and editing to create beautiful scenes.  It's just that, unfortunately for conventional film-goers, the plot stops being a priority.  The lead terrorist, Michael Shannon (Zod from Man of Steel) removes his ski-mask to debate philosophy with his captive, and they get side-tracked into a discussion on art.  And for a few minutes, the film becomes a documentary on anamorphic art.  A good little documentary, but for anybody expecting a daring, violent escape or something, well, I guess they get angry and leave 1-star reviews.  But that's just reactionary nonsense.  Just mounting this production in these stunning locations, particularly a strange island surrounded by a horizonless salt lake, alone has to raise it above Manos: The Hands of Fate or Red Zone Cuba level fare.  Anybody who can't recognize that is just being disingenuous.
But it's also not a perfect 5-star movie.  He brings more than enough of himself to please his devoted fans, but as is often the case in Herzog's fiction films, some of the line deliveries can get a little clunky.  Worse, the message of the film gets firmly in the way of the drama, leaving us with a downright frustrating ending.  Although, to be fair, this is an adaptation of a story called Aral by journalist Tom Bissell, and reading through it online, it's surprisingly faithful.  All the dialogue is practically word-for-word accurate, except the film is so short, Herzog has to extrapolate and add a lot of additional content.  But those additions aren't really the problem.  The original story just isn't a dramatic one and doesn't try to be.  It's more of an essay on ecological disparity with some narrative trappings.  So Herzog successfully made the film he set out to make, but it just so happens to be the sort of thing that only 1 out of 10 people set out to see.
So, you actually have a couple of options with Salt and Fire, but the distinction's almost completely immaterial.  There's a German DVD from Indigo, a French DVD from Potemkine and the one I chose, the UK DVD from Matchbox Films.  All three are barebones, widescreen releases, released between mid-April and this week.  The film's shot in English, so language-wise it shouldn't matter what you go with.  I'd say just get whichever you can find for the cheapest.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, and looks pretty good (it is a new release, after all), except soft.  But that's SD for you.  A film with a look like this really ought to be seen in HD, but c'est la vie.  Even for SD, in fact, I think it looks a little soft; but that could be because the camera is in perpetual motion, so it never quite settles on a perfectly sharp image.  But still, a blu would look better.  But it's not interlaced or otherwise troubled.  We're given the option between a 5.1 mix and basic stereo (which sound pretty similar to my ears), with no subtitle options.  There are no special features, which is a shame, since Herzog's usually pretty good about providing commentaries or interviews to his stuff.  All we get here is the trailer.
So do I recommend this film?  If you're a Herzog fan, sure.  His work is always at least interesting in various aspects.  And it's a cheap DVD, so there's no reason for this to be the one that makes your collection incomplete.  I'm glad to have gotten my copy.  But if you're not already carrying your fan club membership card, this is definitely not a Herzog movie to start your explorations with. 

The Evil Within Is Actually Quite Good

This film has a really interesting backstory, but don't let that distract you.  This new release, indie horror flick has been getting coverage in all sorts of unusual places, like People Magazine and this weak Guardian review, but that's just because they want to dish about how the first time writer/ director Andrew Getty was an heir to the oil fortune, spent fifteen years working on this film, and died to his drug habit before it was complete (one of the producers finished it up).  I mean, I suppose that's all true and all; but the real story is that The Evil Within (a.k.a. Whiplash and The Storyteller) is actually quite a good, original new horror movie.
And Getty may've been working on this film for fifteen years, but he couldn't have been shooting it for fifteen years.  This isn't the Boyhood of horror; we don't see the actors age a decade and a half through the course of this picture or anything.  Just watching the film on its own, you'd have no idea of its tortured history.

It's also not wildly incoherent, the way some write-ups are making it sound.  Yes, it's a surreal, in some ways Lynchian horror flick that shows us the world through the lead character's unreliable perspective, a la Repulsion.  Plus, a large element of the story is about dreams, putting it a bit more in the vein of Phantasm.  But its narrative still manages to be more straight-forward and clear than either of those films, and pointed criticisms from that Guardian review like, "characters appear and vanish without warning or explanation, long surrealist interludes go nowhere, and the plot constantly veers into tangents that appear to bear little relevance to the rest of the film" are flat out untrue.  I think their critic just wasn't paying attention.
But still, it's far from a perfect film.  It's definitely a mixed bag.  On the one hand, this film is filled with stunning visual imagery and wild practical effects that justify the price of admission alone.  Just quickly catching the trailer online, I had to see this film.  And unlike most horror films, it completely lives up to its trailer.  But the story's also quite compelling, with genuinely smart writing and human undercurrents about a mentally handicapped man who's frustrated by a world that has no patience for him, and what his inner demons ultimately push him to do about it.  That's helped immensely by some terrific acting, particularly by the film's lead: Frederick Koehler, the nerdy exposition guy from all those Death Race remakes.  People talk about James MacAvoy in Split, but that's like hammy popcorn fare compared to where this guy goes.
On the other hand though, this has some drawn-out, clunky scenes that really feel like the awkward work of a first-time filmmaker.  Like I think co-star Sean Patrick Flanery is giving a decent performance overall, but when he starts talking to Dina Meyer (whose performance could use a bit of a jolt) or his psychiatrist, feel free to go out to the kitchen and top up your drinks.  It's like being trapped in a student theater group.  Yeah, you need some of that exposition, but some judicious editing could've turned a stilted, uneven film into juggernaut.  Plus, there are one or two "plot convenience" moments and one jokey, meta line of dialogue in the ice cream shop that's so out of place, I can only imagine the director must've left it in the final film on a dare.

So maybe don't come into this film expecting the greatest horror film since the original Hellraiser; you'll probably be disappointed.  But definitely don't let its total garbage dump of a release strategy put you off seeing it, either.  Yes, it's a mixed bag, but one where the highs are so high that the lows are immaterial.  Yeah, it's a DVD only release, and hardly a packed special edition at that.  But it's absolutely worth owning.  Michael Berryman hasn't had a horror role this cool since The Hills Have Eyes (sorry, Cut and Run).
I was pretty disappointed this film got a DVD-only release, but thinking about it, since it was started back in 2002, maybe there's some issue where some of the effects were only finished in standard def?  But it's just as likely, if not moreso, that Vision Films, the company that finally bought this film out to the world, were just cheap.  Spot-checking their catalog, it seems like most of their films are DVD-only.  Anyway, for a DVD, it looks good.  It's anamorphic, 2.35:1, and not interlaced or otherwise troubled.  It's a bit soft, like standard def tends to be, but considering it's got such a unique history, who knows how much better it could look or not?  Watching the credits, you'll see tons and tons of people listed in basic roles like gaffer, so clearly this film was shot with multiple crews at multiple times.  It very possibly might not have even been all shot with the same kind of camera.  If so, they did a good job of making the film look cohesive and professional.  But it's impossible to know what standards to really hold to this release.  I'll say it's a solid, very respectable DVD release and leave it at that.

They do give you the option of a stereo or 5.1 mix, and they include optional English subtitles.  So calling Vision "cheap" might've been a little harsh.  Also, curiously, this film has Canadian ratings markings on the back, even though I ordered my copy direct from Amazon US.  I guess they just made one disc for both markets.
While I said this disc was no packed special edition (an audio commentary by the producer who completed the film would've been terrific), it does have a few short extras that are noteworthy, at least.  First up are three short, on-camera interviews, all clearly filmed during production.  The best is with Getty himself.  This film, and the story behind it, raise a million questions, and he answers about two.  But a little bit's better then nothing.  The next interview is with Koehler, which is alright, but he mostly just heaps praise on Getty and goes over points we clearly saw in the film.  The final interview is with Brianna Brown and is 75 seconds long, so you can guess how substantive that one gets.

Then there are two deleted scenes.  One is a very short clip of repetitious exposition, but the other is a totally graphic and ambitious dream sequence, which seems crazy that they would've cut from the film.  It's possible that they might've had to lose it to prevent an NC-17, though.  Anyway, there's just that plus the trailer and a couple of bonus trailers that play on start-up.  All told, it's like fifteen minutes or less of content, but I'm glad to have it.
It's very rare for a contemporary horror film to make it into my collection.  So yes, it's imperfect (very imperfect), and you can let those flaws ruin it for you if you're the wrong frame of mind.  But seriously, I don't recommend new release horror like this lightly... I mostly just heavily criticize them.  It's also priced to sell as a budget title, so it's low risk.  Give it a shot; I'm glad I did.