Early Bergman

As with the Werner Herzog collections' coverage, it's time to start bundling up these Ingmar Bergman posts, because this Criterion box is literally massive.  And I think a great way to do that is to start off with Criterion/ Eclipse's Early Bergman DVD set from 2007.  For one, it's just a neat little grouping of films that make sense to be covered together.  But it also includes an example of something else I'm very interested in going over here: Bergman films not included in Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema collection.  I just heard a famous filmmaker on a generally extremely knowledgeable movie podcast, refer to the set as "every Bergman film," so besides worming my way through the ins and outs of every single one of these transfers, I'd also really like to raise awareness of all the Bergman films still M.I.A. in HD, or even DVD.
To be fair, you can guess why this first film might've been left out of Criterion's box.  1944's Torment, a.k.a. Frenzy or Hets, is Ingmar Bergman's first produced screenplay, but he didn't direct it.  Now, I'd argue that Bergman's talents as a writer are at least as important to his works becoming masterpieces as his direction, quite possibly moreso.  But okay, they're sticking with films he directed for their set.  Makes some sense; they're narrowly defining what constitutes "Ingmar Bergman's Cinema."  Still, it's odd considering Criterion already licensed this film for DVD.  Like, it's obvious the only reason Face To Face is absent from their set, for example, is that Olive Films beat them to the US rights.  But this is the only Bergman film already inducted into the Criterion catalog that didn't make the box.
It's certainly not undeserving.  The tense drama is more gripping than most of the other films in this collection.  Directed by Alf Sjöberg, the direction does feel a bit more static and boxy, more akin to other films of its period than Bergman's dynamism.  But some shots produce a real noir flair, and more importantly the story and the characters are certainly there.  Stig Järrel, who'd go on to play Satan himself in Bergman's The Devil's Eye, plays a headmaster nicknamed Caligula who's all to happy to live up to the moniker.  He delights in terrorizing his students in the classroom, but things come to a head when a twisted sort of love triangle develops between him, one of his students and a young woman who works in a campus shop.  It all becomes dangerous to the point that this film shifts from drama to thriller.
UK 2004 Tartan DVD top; US 2007 Criterion DVD bottom.
Criterion may've given all these films their US DVD debuts with their 2007 Eclipse set, but Tartan had already issued them in the UK on region free discs back in 2003 and 2004.  So those were the editions I originally acquired, and as you can see, there isn't a world of difference between the US and UK DVDs.  They seem to be using the same basic, fullscreen transfers with indistinguishable levels of detail, brightness and contrast.  But they're not strictly identical.  The aspect ratios are just slightly different - Tartan is 1.34:1 and Criterion is 1.33:1 - but Tartan actually displays slightly extra picture information around all four sides.  That said, though, they both might be slightly misframed as boom mics become visible once or twice throughout the film.  The UK discs are PAL and the US are NTSC, but thankfully both companies were able to avoid any interlacing issues, and both discs include simple, but happily clean mono audio tracks with removable English subtitles.  They're both also completely barebones, though Tartan sticks on a couple other Bergman trailers (Persona and Autumn Sonata) and includes a nice 4-page insert with notes by Philip Strick.
Next we come to Bergman's directorial debut, 1946's Crisis.  The camerawork is more fluid, and the powerhouse melodrama is still there, but this time it crosses the line and veers into corniness at times, particularly by the conclusion.  It's the story of a young girl living in a idyllic small town who finds out she's adopted, and who's birth mother wants to take her back.  Her adoptive mother objects, but her real mother seems to have come up in life and now owns a fancy beauty salon on the city.  Unfortunately for everybody, however, she still has ties to her earlier, criminal life, particularly in the form of her boyfriend and possible pimp (early Bergman regular Stig Olin), who takes an immediate shine to the new young lady who just got delivered into his life.
UK 2004 Tartan DVD top; US 2007 Criterion DVD middle;
US 2018 Criterion BD bottom.
So, again, the US and UK DVDs are pretty similar.  Again, the US is 1.33 while the UK is 1.34, but this time there's no extra information, the US disc is just slightly vertically stretched.  Or the UK disc is slightly vertically squashed.  The difference is so minute, it's hard to judge which is correct.  And the only other difference is that the Tartan DVD is slightly brighter.  But both DVDs are far too low contrast and look washed out.  Thankfully, the blu-ray comes in and makes everything better with a fresh 2k scan.  The new 1.37:1 framing reveals a little more image all around, contrast is great with true blacks, and detail is a lot more refined, if a little soft, as this one is taken from the interpositive, where the other blus in this post were all from a duplicate negative.  But we can finally see the film grain, and it's very clearly captured.  It's still a huge boost.

All three discs include the original Swedish mono, but the blu bumps it up to LPCM, and all three include removable English subs.  There are no special features at all, except for the same Persona and Autumn Sonata trailers on the Tartan disc, and of course, all the other movies and stuff in the Criterion blu-ray boxed set.  But the only thing that's Crisis related are the notes in the massive book.  Oh, and the Tartan DVD has another insert with notes by Mr. Strick.
1948's Port of Call is next.  This one starts out strong, with some powerful performances and insightful writing, but like Crisis, things get a little too elevated.  It's the story of a young woman dealing with depression who tries reaching out one last time to a local sailor.  It can be a little hard to relate to the pre-feminist values of this 40s film, the way women are demonized for having a past boyfriend and outcast from society for having had an abortion.  But it's not just a question of changing times with the campy ways this film deals with reform school girls, which is a little too reminiscent of those cheesy Arkoff films from the 50s, including a cast easily pushing 30 playing teenagers.  But it's important to note that even when some scenes in these early Bergman films induce a little eye rolling, they're surrounded by terrific characters far better than you'll find in the work of almost any other filmmaker.  There's also some great, atmospheric locations thanks to the debut of Bergman's first longtime DP, Gunnar Fischer.
UK 2004 Tartan DVD top; US 2007 Criterion DVD middle;
US 2018 Criterion BD bottom.
This time, the Tartan DVD is 1.32 and Criterion is 1.33, and again, it's just a question of some very slight vertical squishing.  Otherwise, they're virtually identical.  But the 1.38:1 Criterion blu looks leagues better than both.  The framing looks less cramped and the corrected exposure brings way more detail to light.  Again, the new 2k scan is so much sharper and clearer, it brings detail to life and finally looks like film rather than video tape.  All three discs just give you the original Swedish mono, in LPCM on the blu, with removable subtitles.  It's possibly worth noting that none of the discs subtitle the brief moments where characters speak English towards the end of the film.  And the only extras are trailers and Strick notes on the Tartan, and the notes in the book in Criterion's set.
1949's Thirst, a.k.a. Three Strange Loves, finds Bergman getting a grip on his compulsion to go over the top.  We're easing out of that brief "early Bergman," and into his more consistently mature work already.  The biggest weakness of this film, for me at least, is that nothing really stands out.  Thirst wasn't written by Bergman, and while he clearly still brings his sensibilities to the characters' intimate scenes to make it fit into his oeuvre, that makes it less memorable.  It's the one that I've watched a couple of extra times just because I couldn't remember if I'd seen it before.  Like the Three Strange title suggests, the story is fairly disjointed, apparently because the book it was based on was actually a collection of short stories.  It has some moments and definite qualities, and like I said before, doesn't quite embarrass itself like some of his previous efforts did in their most heightened moments, but it also never reaches their peaks.  It's cursed with just being all around average.
UK 2004 Tartan DVD top; US 2007 Criterion DVD middle;
US 2018 Criterion BD bottom.
Once again, the only real difference between the two DVDs is a very slight vertical squish.  Criterion's new 2k scan of the duplicate negative, then, pulls out lots of fine detail and gives us a film-like HD presentation of this film for the first time ever.  The slightly wider 1.37:1 framing reveals some extra slivers, but nothing major this go around. The audio is also again bumped up to LPCM, and all three discs offer removable English subtitles.  As ever, the only features are the trailers and Strick insert on the Tartan and the notes in the book of the Criterion box.
And we end with probably the best of all these films, 1950's To Joy.  Stig Olin is back as Stig, a violinist who winds up marrying the only woman in his orchestra, Martha.  They get married and have children, and the film chronicles the utterly relatable ups and downs of their life together.  Wild Strawberries' Victor Sjöström is excellent as their conductor who winds up taking a father figure role in their lives, and if you blink, you'll miss one of Erland Jospehon's earliest roles.  I'm not sure he even has a line.  To Joy feels like an effective forerunner to Scenes From a Marriage, but with the added element of Bergman paying homage to the power of classical music.
UK 2003 Tartan DVD top; US 2007 Criterion DVD middle;
US 2018 Criterion BD bottom.
Tartan's and the Criterion DVDs again look almost the same, except for Criterion being ever so slightly taller and skinnier.  Brightness, detail, everything else all look the same.  Flipping back and forth between screenshots feels like I'm just ever so slightly resizing them.  The blu-ray, on the other hand, is another 2k leap forward.  Its 1.37 framing pulls in more on the sides, but it's really all about the boost in clarity, clearing up both fine detail and film grain.  The contrast also adds more nuance to the shading, which is too contrast-y and blown out on the DVDs.  Again, the audio is lossless on the blu in LPCM, and all three discs off removable English subtitles.  The only downside is that, again like all the previous examples, Criterion didn't cook up any new extras except for the liner notes in their book, while yes, Tartan has those same two Bergman trailers and the insert with notes by Philip Strick.
The take-away here is that none of Bergman's work is to be overlooked.  His worst films still out pace almost all other filmmakers', and not all of his earlier films rank among his worst at all.  While we've seen that all five of these films had perfectly serviceable DVDs for their time, Criterion's blu-rays take it to a whole different level.  It's just a shame they neglected Torment, but maybe they'll see their way to releasing it down the road, even if it would've been nicer to have it in the box.  And while the 'Early Bergman' set includes his very earliest films, these five aren't strictly speaking his first five.  We've actually skipped six other films on our way to 1950's To Joy, six more films that are absent from the Bergman box that I plan to take a look at a little later in the year.

Sony and Universal Don't Make It Easy For Christine

Here's a situation I've been meaning to cover for a while now (can you guess? It's a 2017 movie), and now that I've finally come around to it, I'm surprised to find even more discrepancies than the expected ones I planned to write about.  The film in question is Christine, where Rebecca Hall portrays the very real television news reporter Christine Chubbuck who famously took her own life live on air in 1974.  And the gist of the situation is that, despite being an excellent, critically acclaimed new (at the time) theatrical release, Sony put it out as a DVD-only release here in the US.  Universal, on the other hand, saw fit to give it a blu-ray in the UK and other overseas regions, but (gah!) it's missing the extras from the American DVD.  So the only way to get a proper edition of this film is to import and buy a second, alternate copy as well.  Fun!
I think Christine is a film that caught a raw deal, and I don't just mean the no blu-ray in the US market thing (though I think that's a symptom).  Christine is the second film about Chubbuck to come out at the same time - in fact, I think they both premiered at the same 2016 Sundance Festival, but Christine seemed to take longer getting out of the gate after that.  That other take, Kate Plays Christine, wasn't entirely meritless, but it felt like an under-cooked project by a couple of very indie artists still mastering the fine art of filmmaking.  And so it generated some buzz, taught audiences who Christine was, and then sort of killed interest in her story before Christine even got out of the gate.  You know, like how 54 killed any hopes of Whit Stillman's Last Days of Disco becoming more of a break-out success; thwarted by an injustice of distribution.
And it's a shame, because while Simon Killer was an interesting exercise in technique, Christine actually gives us a return to the exciting artistry Antonio Campos displayed in his earlier days as a rising film festival star, where the characters once again resonate.  I think people get a little misdirected by the question of likability... Ezra Miller's character was unrepentantly awful in Afterschool, but he embodied a disturbingly relatable truth that made his story fascinating, whereas Simon and his fellows just felt like Sims going through the motions because their director wanted to watch a certain type of plot unfold in a particular, stylized fashion.  Here, probably helped by the fact that we're back to exploring a very real woman's tragedy (a la Buy It Now), but also clearly thanks to the Rebecca Hall turning in an Oscar-worthy tour de force, Campos's drama is once again heartbreaking.
And there are superficial delights, too.  Campos is clearly having fun replicating or maybe even slightly parodying the 70s television aesthetic, and we're introduced to a charming cast of supporting players including Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall (no relation), Maria Dizzia, Tracy Letts, Veep's Timothy Simons and Jayson Warner Smith (Gavin on The Walking Dead).  A running subtext of the film also brings to mind 2014's equally engaging Nightcrawler, or even 1976's Network.  But it's the humanity that Hall reveals in Christine that will have you returning to the film over the years, wanting to soak up more.  But you'll be returning to it in standard definition as long as Sony has its way.
2017 US Sony DVD top; 2017 UK Universal BD bottom.
First of all, yes, Universal's dual layer blu-ray is a true, HD upgrade to Sony's DVD.  Christine was shot digitally, but it's clear on the blu that they've added some light, fake film grain to the image (a common technique with modern digital films wanting to look "authentic," but it has an additional motivation here, with an attempt to evoke the 70s period).  The DVD, however, is too low res to capture that "grain;" and generally has your standard, SD softer look.  But here's the first of those disparities I mentioned in the first paragraph that I wasn't expecting to find.  Despite being a modern digital film that the studios theoretically should've been given an identical DCP to slap onto their discs, the DVD and blu actually have different aspect ratios.  The DVD is 1.78:1, while the blu is given a more theatrical 1.85:1.  Well okay, so far that isn't all that uncommon; often times studios will have differing ideas on whether it's worth matting a 16x9 to a slightly more accurate 1.85 ratio at the cost of exposing luddites to their dreaded "black bars."  But the blu hasn't just been matted to slightly hide horizontal slivers of picture to give it the most accurate framing... actually the blu has more picture... on all four sides!  So, bizarrely, the DVD has decided to zoom in and crop off picture all around.  I'd love to know exactly who made that call.

Anyway, both discs just have the proper 5.1 mix, but of course only the blu has it in lossless DTS-HD.  The two differ further in their subtitle options, where Sony has English, English SDH, French and Spanish, Universal has English SDH, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.
The next big point of departure, as I mentioned, is the special features.  Frustratingly, the DVD has a lot more, so you can't just say the BD is the definitive version and forget the rest.  And we're talking good content here, not just little EPK stuff.  First and most importantly, there's an audio commentary with star Rebecca Hall, director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich, which gives you a pretty well-rounded view of the process behind the picture.  Then, there's a collection of four deleted scenes, a couple of which I felt were so good, I wish they'd been left in the film; but I'm at least glad to have here.  Then, the DVD also throws in a little over six minutes of the news pieces Hall filmed as the film within the film, and a look at the opening credit animation of the fictional news program.  These last two things are pretty self-indulgent and probably of interest only to the filmmakers enthralled with the fun they had capturing the 70s aesthetic.  But hey, it's better to err on the side of more than less.

Now Universal's blu, on the other hand, only has the deleted scenes.  No commentary, and no news segments or credit animation.  But, here's the second little discrepancy I was surprised to find when doing the full comparison: the blu-ray has an extra, fifth deleted scene not on the DVD.  It's not as compelling as the other four, but it's at least a nice extra little bonus reward for double-dipping on this title.  I'm also happy to report that, yes, the deleted scenes are in HD on the blu.
So, yeah, it's another one of those annoying "build your own special edition" situations where you have to buy more than one release to get the full experience.  And it's additionally insulting that a major studio has decided to relegate such an impressive, high quality film to DVD only; though moving forward, I think we're going to have to get more and more used to that experience.  But the good news is that, so long as you're to willing spring for the same movie twice, the materials are out there to create a pretty satisfying little combo-pack (the blu is even region free), which is more than you can say for a lot of great movies, which still don't have DVD extras or a decent HD transfer.

A Pair of Code Reds #2: Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker

I remember first seeing 1982's Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker's iconic cover on the Pocket Books paperback as a kid and thinking this must be some wild Nightmare On Elm St. type story, with this astral gateway or whatever opening up out of the boy's chest revealing a giant evil eye floating inside.  Turns out it was just a bad drawing of a knife being held in front of the kids, with the killer's eye in the reflection, and this is a completely non-supernatural thriller.  And God only knows how the title's meant to connect to the story.  But, hey, it's still pretty interesting.
I guess you'd say Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, a.k.a. Night Warning - let's just call it Night Warning - is a character study/ slasher.  Billy Lynch is just a baby when his parents die in a spectacular car accident that was later ripped off in the Final Destination films.  So he's raised by his aunt (Susan Tyrrell, Academy Award nominee for Fat City), who's just a little too over-protective... to the point of homicidal psychosis.  Tyrrell is fascinating to watch, and as the film builds to its demented climax, it's a blast.  It's got a minimal, effective score.  The closing credits mention a proper theme song called "Little Billy Boy" with lyrics and everything, but we don't seem to ever hear it in the movie.
Unfortunately, the film putzes around a lot in the middle.  Bo Svenson's a police detective who's constantly barking up the wrong tree, including persecuting Billy's gay basketball coach.  This whole subplot stumbles clumsily over the line between preachy after-school special and offensively politically incorrect and barely has any connection to the central story either way.  You've got a pretty interesting supporting cast, though, including Julia Duffy from the Newhart show as the girlfriend and Bill Paxton in one of his earliest film roles as Billy's rival.  Horror fans will also immediately recognize Britt Leach, Mr. Sims from Silent Night Deadly Night, as a police officer with more of a clue.
No Code Red release felt more conspicuously absent from this site than this one.  Like Witchmaker, Night Warning had never been available on DVD until CR finally brought it home in 2013 (after having originally been announced back in 2007).  At the time, it was a DVD-only release with CR swearing up and down it would never be re-issued on BD, but we all knew they'd break down eventually.  And in 2017, they finally did, releasing it as a "Diabolik Exclusive Blu-Ray" (in quotes, because you could also get it from sites like Code Red's bigcartel and the Dark Forces Superstore 🤷).
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
The DVD tells us its transfer comes from a "brand new HiDef master from the original camera negatives (that were reported lost by basement dwellers)."  And the blu-ray's transfer comes from a "brand new 2017 2k scan from the original camera negatives (the vault finally found it after misplacing it years ago!)."  And yes, this bears out, because the DVD transfer was a revelation compared to the previous VHS rips and junk fans had been living with for so many years.  The DVD case says it's 1.85:1, but it's actually 1.78.  Regardless, though, it looks great in a surprisingly clear anamorphic widescreen edition.  When the blu was finally announced, I didn't expect anything more than to have the same transfer slapped onto a higher resolution disc.  And I would've been fine with that, just tightening up some of the fuzzy compression of standard definition.  But no, we've got a fresh scan (also 1.78:1) which looks even better, revealing more picture along all four sides, with much sharper and cleaner detail, and even more notably, some very attractive color correction.  The colors weren't bad the first time around, but now this looks like the work of a major studio.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2017 Code Red BD bottom.
There wasn't much damage on the DVD, but even that has been cleaned up on the blu.  There's still a tiny bit, but this film feels refreshingly clean now.

Both discs just feature the original mono track with no subtitle options.  It's bumped up to lossless DTS-HD on the blu, but it still has a core background hiss, with the occasional crack and pop.  A little noise reduction would've gone a long way, but it's never loud enough to become bothersome.
Code Red's DVD is an impressively endowed special edition.  But if you only see one DVD extra in your life, and I mean on any DVD ever, you've got to watch Susan Tyrrell's on-camera interview.  She tells us right off the bat that she "hated every damn minute of it" and has "a lot of horrifying stories to tell."  It looks like she started out recording an audio commentary, but they wound up with just this perfect, eleven minute piece where she goes from "I'd fuck anybody to get out of this picture... except Bo" to "brilliant!  That's a great scene!"

And if you're disappointed to've missed out on a potential audio commentary, don't worry; we've got still got two.  One by Billy himself, Jimmy McNichol, and one by co-writers Steven Breimer (who also produced) and Alan Jay Glueckman.  We also get on-camera interviews with McNichol, Steve Eastman who played the coach, Breimer and effects artist Allan Apone, plus the original theatrical trailer.  Thankfully, the blu-ray carries over absolutely everything from the DVD and also has reversible cover art with the Night Warning artwork.
I - as I'm sure many of you felt - was quite reluctant to double-dip on this title.  After all, most of us who bought the DVD edition in 2014 only did so after being flat-out guaranteed repeatedly that a blu-ray was impossible.  So seeing a replacement roll out after that felt a bit like being conned.  But looking at the top notch work put into this title, I'd say the second price of admission is perfectly justified.  So I don't regret having this blu in my collection for a second, even if that is just a phony drawing of a knife instead of the cosmic doorway I always imagined.