Ken Russell's Special Composer Commentaries: Elgar and Delius

In 2008, Warner Bros and the BBC teamed up to release a nice collection of six early, black and white Ken Russell films called, simply enough, Ken Russell At the BBC. Specifically, the films in this set are: Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always On a Sunday, Isadora: the Biggest Dance In the World, Dante's Inferno and Song of Summer.  Releases like this really make you think Warner Bros is a cool company that must really respect the work of the talented Russell, but then you look at how they've spent decades going to great lengths to stymie an uncut release of The Devils, and you start thinking "why don't these jerks go out of business already so somebody can rescue it?"  (sigh)  Anyway, this is a pretty terrific 3-disc set featuring mostly previously unreleased films. Two of them actually had been released before, in 2002 from the BFI; and those discs had unique extras not carried over to the Warner set: Elgar and Song Of Summer (released under the title Delius in the UK).

Update 2/2/15 - 12/31/19: One year later, and boy has the story changed.  All six films were restored and released on blu-ray (and DVD, because they're combo packs) by the BFI in 2016 across two releases: Ken Russell: The Great Composers and Ken Russell: The Great Passions.  The two films we're focusing on here are both included in Great Composers.  And all that business I originally wrote about how you had to hang onto the old BFI DVDs for the exclusive Ken Russell commentaries and stuff?  Forget about it, the new blus have everything now.  ...Well, almost.
Ken Russell started out making documentaries for the BBC, mostly on composers and other great artists.  He always wanted to push the envelope of the BBC's then strict guidelines of what could and couldn't constitute a proper documentary film. He wanted to include actors and scenes that were more akin to drama, essentially early examples of the now standard documentary tool of recreation, and as he slowly pushed the envelope over the years, his films gradually transformed from the strictest of documentaries fully across the line biographical dramas that we wouldn't even classify as documentary today. ...And somehow that lead to The Fall Of the Louse Of Usher. So, anyway, these particular films pick up at 1962, where Elgar is described as "partially dramatized," before arriving at 1968's Delius, a non-documentary biography.
Consequently, Elgar is the drier of the two films, as it features no dialogue save for narration. Being the earliest film in the set, it sticks the closest to the rules of documentary, using a lot of archival footage and photographs, but combining those with silent, romanticized scenes of Edward Elgar's life. Fans used to Altered States and Tommy may be disappointed in this venture even if they went in already knowing that this was going to be a straight-forward historical documentary. But I still found it to be a sensitive, well made film that draws you into the composer's life over a brisk 56 minute running time.
1) 2002 BFI DVD; 2) 2008 BBC DVD; 3) 2016 BFI DVD; 4) 2016 BFI BD.
The two older DVDs share essentially the same 1.33:1 full-frame transfer (the proper AR, considering this was made for 60s TV), though the BFI's image is a bit darker; and BBC's has a little less information along the bottom and more on top. It's not a strong enough to really declare one better than the other, it's just a noticeable but minor distinction. A quality that is strong enough to make one decidedly superior and preferable to the other, though, is the interlacing you can see in the first pair of shots. The BBC disc, obviously taken from a PAL source, has this effect in intermittent frames throughout the film, giving it a juttery look in motion, especially when there's a lot of movement on screen. Naturally, however, the new blu trumps everything.  It's still 1.33:1 matching their 2002 slightly higher framing) and is of course not interlaced.  It's scanned from the original negative and looks great: noticeably brighter than either previous release with very natural film grain.  Every disc features the original mono track with optional English subtitles, but the audio is clearer and now presented in lossless LPCM on the blu.

Now, in terms of features, BFI's original DVD edition of Elgar is a pretty loaded special edition - most notably, it features an audio commentary by Ken Russell! It also features a vintage silent film of Elgar conducting his piece, Land Of Hope and Glory, which features an introduction and commentary by Michael Kennedy, who also moderated the audio commentary. And the music has been synced up, so when the film gets to the actual song, you can hear it. Kennedy comes back once more to introduce and narrate another silent film of footage of Elgar at the Three Choirs Festival. There's also a small stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos of Russell filming Elgar.  The BBC set has none of that, unfortunately, which is why I originally wrote that it was important to hang onto the old DVDs.  But thankfully, the new BFI blu brought it all back.
Song Of Summer, now, is more of a full-blown dramatic movie, with dialogue scenes and no more stock footage or photos. There is still some narration, by the actor playing Eric Fenby on-screen, giving you the sense that Fenby is guiding you through his experiences as you follow the story. Based on Fenby's book Delius As I Knew Him, we meet Delius through Denby and only get to know him for the five year span that Delius lived with him and his wife. Delius was blind and relied on Fenby to assist him. This is much more of a dramatic and compelling film that also has more of a Russell feel to it (although you can also sense him in the romanticism of Elgar) that will probably appeal to a broader selection of Ken Russell fans.
What Next?
A question in the comments made me realize an important distinction between differing versions of Delius!  The original version used some brief footage of Laurel and Hardy from Way Out West in the introduction.  We soon cut to Delius in a movie theater playing music to their silent film, and he begins his narration, which then cuts to Delius in the field, where he continues to narrate until the opening titles pop up.  Well, due to copyright issues, both DVDs cut the Laurel and Hardy footage... but the US DVD still includes a shot of Delius in the theater with a line of opening narration that the initial BFI disc does not (instead starting right in the field).  It's only seven seconds of footage, and two brief sentences of narration, but it's a start.  Better still, however, the new BFI restoration takes pains to restore the entire sequence, albeit with a caveat.  The copyright is still a problem, so they replace the Laurel and Hardy footage with another vintage silent film called What Next? (1928).  Of course, the ideal would be to have the original Way Out West footage as Russell made the film, but this is the next best thing, enabling us to at least have a functioning version of the opening scene.
1) 2002 BFI DVD; 2) 2008 BBC DVD; 3) 2016 BFI DVD; 4) 2016 BFI BD.
The differences in transfer are similar to last time, but not exactly the same.  This time, the BBC's framing is slightly taller than any of the BFI's, presenting the film a bit more open matte in 1.30:1 as opposed to 1.33:1.  The BBC's image is a bit darker again, but this time there's a bit of a colorization difference, too, with the old BFI disc have slight shifts in color tones as opposed to being pure black and white.  And unfortunately, yes, the NTSC/ PAL conversion issue also continues, with the BBC's interlaced frames juttering along.  BFI's new transfer greatly outshines the older DVDs, with its new scan able to pull more detail out of Delius's negatives than Elgar's, and revealing information out of the shadows that was crushed away on the previous DVDs.  And as with Delius, each disc features the original mono track with optional English subtitles, but the audio is clearer and now presented in lossless LPCM on the blu.

Now, BFI's 2002 Delius isn't quite as special as Elgar, but it has the most important thing - another Ken Russell commentary. The commentary is a lot of fun, too, with Russell breaking off into his impression of a cantankerous old Delius. Both commentaries are a great blend of entertaining and informative. Indeed, if you've never heard any, Russell typically does some of the best audio commentaries out there. There's not much else on this disc, we've even lost the optional subtitles, but for my money, the commentary's more than enough.  And again, the BBC drops it, but the new BFI blu picks it up.
For everything it dropped, however, the BBC set did have a couple nice extras: Ken Russell In Conversation, a new full half-hour sit down conversation with the director about his early works, and Late Night Line-Up: Russell At Work, an excellent vintage documentary that also runs a half an hour and shows Russell creating some of his early films, which some fans might treasure more than some of the Russell films themselves. Plus, there are the typical forced trailers for Jeckyl, Sense & Sensibility, a joint trailer for four of BBC classic adaptations and one of those claymation BBC commercials at the start.

Besides the old BFI extras, the new blus hang onto the Late Night Line-Up (it's included in Passions, not Composers), but unfortunately loses In Conversation.  That remains a sweet little exclusive of the BBC set.  The blus do create new audio commentaries for the other four films, however (by experts, not Russell), which you won't hear on the BBC set.  In fact, Isadora Duncan has two.  And both Composers and Passions also include new on-camera interviews with editor Michael Bradsell, who worked on a number of Russell's films, both in and out of these sets... though not Elgar or Delius.  The new BFI releases also include attractive, 30-page booklets with a number of original essays in each.

So, to sum up, there's no longer any reason to hang onto the old BFI DVDs; the new blu-ray/ DVD combos eclipse them in every way.  The BBC set does have that one nice In Conversation feature that's still worth hanging onto, though, but that's it.  Otherwise, they're eclipsed, too.  The 2016 Composers and Passions set are both highly recommended for anyone who considers themselves a Russell fan.

Takasha Miike's Wildly Off the Wall 'As the Gods Will'

Here's a really cool flick that's unfortunately under-represented on home video: Takashi Miike's As the Gods Will from 2014.  I just stumbled upon this film while catching up on Miike's oeuvre.  He's a man who tens to make several films each year, many of which don't wind up with US releases, so it's easy to miss out on whole swathes of his work.  And frankly, while he has an obvious talent and all of his movies are masterfully crafted and at least interesting enough to be worth sitting through once, most of them don't really do it for me on a deeper level than that.  So I was really surprised when I finished watching it and realized I just had to own it on blu-ray.  And I was equally disappointed when I started searching and found out that was, for all intents and purposes, impossible.

Update 8/4/17 - 12/29/19: Was impossible.  Now, it's nice and easy thanks to the 2018 US blu-ray from Funimation.  It took 'em four years to catch us up, but better late than never.
An as much as Miike's films can be hit or miss with me, I'm really not an anime/ manga guy.  Lately, inspired by my infatuation with this film, I've been giving live action adaptations of manga a chance (because yes, As the Gods Will, is an manga adaptation), and none of them have been on this level.  Death Note was amusing - enough so that I stuck with it through all the sequels - with an intriguing premise; but it's such a silly teenage-minded movie (it's enough that a typical high school kid gets the note and we follow the drama from a teenage PoV, fine; but the FBI takes all its orders from a teenage super genius, a la Encyclopedia Brown?).  In fact, that's symptomatic of a lot of these films.  The actual titular moment of Attack of the Titans, for example, is super cool.  But then you have to sit through so much sappy, juvenile material all around it.  And don't even get me started on the sequel.
I know I'm going off on a tangent here... but what I'm getting at is that you shouldn't take a quick look at this movie's cover or trailer and write it off as just another one of "those" movies.  Because it certainly is another one of those movies: crazy supernatural shenanigans and high melodrama happening to high school students; but it's just smarter and cohesive as an piece outside of that niche subgenre.  It's written from a more mature perspective (if you can believe it, given the plot I'm about to describe) taking on the issues of teenage life, as opposed to its peers which tend to feel like they're written by teenagers.  This film almost verges on the satirical, but just grounded enough to pay homage to the original Battle Royale (one of Miike's stated intentions), while at the same time going further over the top than almost any film ever made, completely gonzo.  This has all the school-ground gore of Miike's better known Lesson Of the Evil, but is otherwise an absolutely different experience, with a far removed tone.  Far removed from the planet Earth.
So what is this film about?  Well, it's actually quite simple.  After all these years of high school students pushing through the abject boredom of school day after day, praying for something to come along and rip the roof off their thoroughly depressed lives, the gods finally answer.  High schoolers all around the world will never be bored again, in the ultimate Monkey's Paw scenario of "be careful what you wish for."  It starts with every teacher's head exploding and being replaced by a living Daruma doll that forces them into a lethal game of Red Light, Green Light, where every student caught moving at the wrong time explodes into a mass of gore and red marbles.  And that's just for starters.  In a way, it touches on the same theme as the Saw movies; but there, the metaphor never really works, because it's completely implausible that someone would come out grateful, or even a gleeful accomplice, because a stranger made them shove their arm into a meat grinder.  But here, despite the proceedings becoming almost impossibly absurd, with a giant ceramic cat bursting out of the gymnasium floor to launch its spring loaded head, eating all the students dressed in ridiculous mouse costumes, it's still a legitimate re-examination of what's truly important as we cross into adulthood.  And it's loads of fun.
So you know it's sharply and compellingly directed, because it's Miike, and that's where he excels; and I've already covered the writing in spades.  But really, this is a film where everything works and comes together.  The CGI might be getting a sneaky little pass, because some of the things we're seeing aren't supposed to look naturalistic.  Instead, there's this crazy stop motion/ animated quality to the spectacle that makes any potential CGI flaw work as intentional.  But the effects look pretty solid by set of standards; clearly a lot of money was spent on this film and it pays off.  The music, sound design and the crazy voices of the various, uh, toy gods, are pitch perfect and really add to the flavor of the film.  And the acting is quite solid, too, particularly the one nasty student who's delighted about all of the carnage being inflicted on his classmates.  I'm sure this film will be just too crazy (and maybe heretical) for many people to get behind, but if you can accept this film's terms, it's pretty terrific.
I guess I'll touch briefly on the notion of a sequel, too.  It's been brought up plenty online, because there's an open-ended nature to this film, and the manga comics continue on with plenty more plot.  Now, I've never read it, only summaries and description, so take this next opinion with a grain of salt.  But it sounds like the story goes too far, even undercutting some of what was good about this film, another case of comics stretching ideas too thin and taking ideas farther than they should go.  Also, apparently this film under-performed in its home country, so it's not likely we'll see the sequel, even though Miike does put in the work to set one up (there are a few minor characters whose appearances serve no other purpose).  So sure, if a sequel pops up, I'll give it a chance and look at it; but as far as I'm concerned right now, this is a perfect bottle story that I'd be happy to see left here. 
Now, I said this film hadn't been available on blu-ray "for all intents and purposes."  That's because there is technically, a 2014 Japanese 2-disc blu-ray release of this film.  Apparently, it looks great and even has some cool special features.  You can pay a ton of money to get a copy right now from CDJapan or YesAsia.  But unfortunately, it has no English language options.  Just the original Japanese audio and optional Japanese subtitles.  So what choices do we lug-headed native English speakers have?  For a while, things were pretty grim.  There's a quasi-bootleg Malaysian DVD that's out of print (the company seems to have gone under; their website is dead, though copies are still floating around sites like EBay), and there's one legitimate DVD option available from the Hong Kong label Deltamac.  That's the one we're looking at here, today.  It's Region 3, NTSC, and has English subtitles - they even subtitle the text on the screen, which is more than the version I initially caught streaming online did.  But more recently, American anime label Funimation - pardon me, FUNimation - released it here on blu, completely English friendly and in HD.  Yay!
2015 Deltamac DVD top; 2018 Funimation BD bottom.
2015 Deltamac DVD left; 2018 Funimation BD right.
Deltamac's disc is alright, but rather short of perfection.  Already, it's a standard definition DVD instead of a blu, and a single-layer DVD at that.  At least it's anamorphic and in a 2.36:1 aspect ratio with nice colors.  As you can see in the shot above, though, it does have some interlacing.  Funimation's blu, by comparison, is slightly wider at 2:39:1.  It doesn't have any additional picture - instead, it seems like the DVD was slightly squished, which the BD corrects.  Funimation also corrects the interlacing.  As the Gods Will seems to have been shot on digital, so we can't use film grain to help us judge, but the blu-ray is a bit brighter, which rescues a surprising amount of information from black crush (look at that backpack) and resolves decidedly clearer - see how much more legible that App Store logo is in HD?

For audio, Deltamac gave us the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both of which sound quite clear and strong.  The aforementioned English subtitles are optional/ removable, and there are also traditional Chinese subs as well.  Funimation, now, gives us both the Japanese 5.1 mix (but not the 2.0) and an English 5.1 dub, both in Dolby TrueHD.  The English dub is goofy, with very inaccurate translations (to try to match the spoken Japanese lip movements), inauthentic voices and cartoonish performances that totally eradicate the naturalism of the original performances.  If this is your first time viewing the film, please do not watch it this way; it will degrade your potential appreciation of this film.  But if you take it as just a novelty little bonus on the disc, hey, alright, it's cute.  Funimation's release also comes with two subtitle options.  A proper track that translates the original Japanese, and one that just translates the on-screen text.
Unfortunately, neither Deltamac nor Funimation saw fit to include the extras from the Japanese edition.  According to YesAsia, the original (though again, non-English friendly) special edition included "making of, stage events, interviews and trailers. It also comes with a photo booklet."  I wish they could've subbed and imported that!  But no, Deltamac is 100% barren, and Funimation just includes three trailers (though not the wacky bikini trailer that totally mischaracterizes the film but is still a hoot for fans to see) and a couple bonus trailers, including one that force plays on start-up.  Yeah, I'm really bummed that this is barebones, especially knowing that the extras have been out there already for years.
I wrapped up in 2017 by writing, "stop missing out, and hey, if a better label ever wises up and gives us an HD blu with all the extras some day, it will be a pretty painless double-dip."  Well, they did and it was.  This is my first experience with a FUNimation disc, but they've done a first class job in terms of both PQ, AQ and even language options (I think they do their English dubs in-house).  They cheaped out on the extras, but considering they sat on this title for so long before releasing it, I guess this was a low priority title for them and we're lucky to be getting it at all.  So, native Japanese speakers win again, but it's still an easy decision as to which release to get, and a substantial upgrade over the cheap import DVDs we were stuck with before.

The Evil Within Is Actually Quite Good... and On Blu!

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.

Update 6/15/17 - 12/29/19: So, just five months after the DVD comes out in the US, and three months after I posted this write-up saying how this movie is desperately calling out for an HD release, Screenbound Pictures releases it on blu in the UK.
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.  And yeah, it was a DVD-only release here in the US, 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).
2017 Vision DVD top; 2017 Screenbound BD bottom.
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.  Well, Screenbound sure solved that mystery for us!

Anyway, for a DVD, Vision's disc looks alright.  It's anamorphic, 2.35:1, and not interlaced or otherwise troubled.  It's a bit soft, like standard def tends to be, but honestly, I didn't really anticipate how much better it would look in HD until I saw Screenbound's blu.  Fine detail (and there are a ton of neat little production design and special effects nuggets tucked to peck out and discover in this movie) is really clarified and brought to life in a way that exceeds your average BD/ DVD combo pack.  They're still presumably using the same root DCP file for a master and all, so I'm a little surprised at the distinction, but it's a very satisfying boost whatever the story behind it.  There's also a bit of a reddish hue over everything on the DVD that the BD clears up.

Both releases do give you the option of a stereo or 5.1 mix, but on the blu, only the stereo mix is lossless (PCM); the 5.1 is a lossy AC-3 Dolby Digital mix (obviously both are lossy on the DVD).  Both discs also include optional English subtitles.
While I said the DVD was no packed special edition (an audio commentary by the producer who completed the film would've been terrific), it at least has a few short extras that are noteworthy.  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.

Especially since the blu-ray has bupkis, not even a trailer.
So yeah, the BD is hands down the definitive way to watch this film, but it's a bummer about those extras.  They weren't extensive, but they were still worth having.  Like, fans will want to see that dream sequence.  If you're a devoted enough fan, you could get both, since they're not terribly pricey; but we shouldn't have to do that.  Screenbound couldn't slap the basic EPK stuff on their disc?  But, oh well.  I've got both now, and I reckon it's worth 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.

Big Trouble In Little China - Now's the Time!

I've had Fox's 2-disc set of Big Trouble In Little China since it first came out in 2001. Anytime John Carpenter does an audio commentary, you wanna pick it up. And Big Trouble is one of my favorites of his anyway, so it was a no-brainer. But I never really felt compelled to bump up to the blu-ray when that came out. Sure, if I ever get rich, I'd like to upgrade every single DVD I own to blu-ray whenever possible. But times being what they are, I really need to be sold on a double-dip. A corrected transfer (i.e. a fullscreen movie finally released in widescreen), a cut version uncut, or all new extras. So I held off (although I borrowed a copy of the US blu just to add to our comparisons here). And I'm glad I did, because Arrow put out their own blu-ray in 2013, which did meet my upgrade terms.

Update 8/22/15 - 12/28/19: Okay, the fact that I've dipped again because they've updated just one of my stated criteria, makes me think maybe I'm not so tough on double (or triple, quadruple) dips as I thought. But hey, Scream Factory just reissued BTiLC with all new features (and, depending on the edition you copped), a whole lotta swag.  Who could resist?

Anyway, for the rest of December and beginning of January, I'm going to focus on updating a bunch of entries around these parts.  You know those posts where new, definitive (or at least highly competitive) blu-ray editions have come out since I made my posts that are now feeling out of date?  I can't promise I'll get to every single one of them; but buckle in, because DVDExotica's about to do some catchin' up!
If you've never seen it, Big Trouble is as fun as its title suggests. It's sort of an Indiana Jones-style modern adventure story, but leaning a little heavier on parody thanks to Kurt Russell playing his character as more of a posturing blowhard rather than a straightforward action hero. He winds up getting pulled into Little China's mystical underworld when his buddy and in many ways the film's real hero Dennis Dun (the guy from Prince of Darkness) sees his girlfriend get kidnapped. Following her trail, they immediately get caught in the middle of a gang war, which progresses from gun fight to a crazy kung-fu stunt show and finally into the supernatural. From then on, the movie runs breathlessly from spectacle to spectacle, with lavish sets, beautiful cinematography by Dean Cundey and dozens of great supporting characters.
Fox did a pretty great job with their DVD in 2001, which is part of the reason I was fine not upgrading. It had a great 2.33:1 transfer and some strong extras, including a bevy of deleted scenes and that commentary. Sure, there's always room to grow from SD, so I was confident any blu-ray release would be an upgrade. But when Fox released their blu in 2009, they didn't come up with any new features; and for a 2-disc set, the original release always felt pretty light (honestly, I think it all could've fit onto one disc just fine but they wanted to market a "2 Disc Special Edition"). So when Arrow came out with their version, including all new interviews to fill out the special edition, it was in my collection.  And this December, it's back again.  This time as a 2 blu-ray disc Collector's Edition from Scream Factory.
1) Fox 2002 DVD; 2) Fox 2009 BD; 3) Arrow 2013 BD; 4) SF 2019 BD.
Reading the "About the Transfer" section in their booklet, Arrow basically just says they got their HD transfer from Fox. And that's fine, because even though I never bought their blu, it's not because I ever doubted their HD presentation. It's practically identical to the US blu, and comparing those to the DVD, they're nice upgrades. In the first set of shots, there's all kinds of compression artifacts and junk around those DVD lightning bolts (and everything else), which are nicely cleaned away on the blus. The framing is better, too. Now at 2.36:1 (Fox) or 2.37 (Arrow), we get noticeably more information on both sides and an additional teensy sliver around all four sides on the Arrow.
Fox's 2002 DVD left; Fox's 2009 blu middle; Arrow's 2013 blu right.
Zooming in on James Hong in the second set of shots, we really see how much the finer details have been softened away in the DVD. Now on the blus, we're finally down to the grain and a sharper, clearer image. You can actually, albeit barely, make out the whites of his eyes in the Arrow blu. Maybe not quite on the Fox blu... it's very close to the Arrow, but a hint softer. Maybe a touch more DNR was applied to their disc. But you really need to be zooming in to screenshots to even see the difference.

And Scream's new blu?  It's obviously the same old Fox transfer... or more accurately Arrow's version of it, with the 2.37:1 framing and slight extra clarity.  Again, it's still fine.  But in 2019, with practically every other Carpenter release getting 4k restorations, why not BTiLC? Studio politics with Fox, I believe is the answer, but it's a bummer. As nice as the BD transfer is, especially for 2009 when it first came out, it would definitely benefit from a higher res scan today.  Disappointing to be sure.

Anyway, every release gives us the choice of the original stereo mix or a newer 5.1 remix (actually 4.1 on the DVD) with optional English subtitles, and they're all lossless on the blus. All three blus (but not the DVD) also include an isolated score track in DTS-HD.  Fox's releases also include additional foreign dubs and subtitle options.
I've gotta be fair to Fox, now; they did have some really good extras. The commentary by Carpenter, joined by star Kurt Russell, is a lot of fun, if a little self-indulgent (get ready to learn whose son is learning to play instruments, and whose just won a high school sports championship!). It's full of great info, as Carpenter's commentaries always are. And the deleted scenes are very thorough, including an extended ending, which I dunno... I kinda think they should've left in the picture. In fact, there's a lot of cut material, and we're sometimes even given the option to watch it from two different sources: 35mm workprint or videotape. There's also a good little interview with special effects man Richard Edlund, the original promotional featurette, and some odds and ends including trailers, TV spots, stills galleries, and Carpenter's music video for the theme song. It didn't quite feel like a "fully loaded" special edition, but all the content that was there was pretty great. And I'm talking about both their DVD and blu, which are identical in the special features department.
And I'm happy to report that Arrow ported everything over. The commentary, the vintage featurette, Richard Edlund... it's all here. They even kept both versions of the deleted scenes that came from workprint and videotape. And they've gone and added some great new interviews which really flesh this release out to a full edition. Since so much time has passed since the original Fox extras, we get a little extra perspective on things as well. For example, I'm not sure Carpenter's attitudes towards working for a major studio is exactly the same now as it was then, and we're able to refer to his later work, like Ghosts of Mars and The Ward. So, specifically what we get are brand new, on camera interviews with Carpenter, Kurt Russell (who's a pretty impressive "get" for a cult label), Dean Cundey, producer Larry Franco, and stuntman Jeff Imada. Arrow has also upgraded Fox's slim insert to an impressive booklet, which includes interviews with production designer John Lloyd and make-up effects artist Steve Johnson, and an essay by the author of The Films of John Carpenter. So it's another one of those rare cases where I actually bothered to read the book. Oh, and this release features reversible artwork, which I've used above, because I don't really get that mushroom cloud illustration they used for the other side.
I was disappointed in the lack of a new transfer on Scream's set, but I'm sure not disappointed in their special features.  One thing I was expecting when their edition was first announced is that they'd license the Fox stuff and create their own, but you'd still have to hang onto your Arrow for their exclusive extras... but, nope!  Scream has all of the legacy Fox AND Arrow stuff on here (except the booklet), plus a whole host of new goodies.  To start with, how about two more audio commentaries, one by Franco and one by Johnson?

And, hey, I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but am I the only one who noticed that the previous editions seem to interview nearly all, and exclusively, the white people from this movie?  Well, Scream has cooked up a bevy of additional extras that takes care of that little oversight with great new on-camera interviews with cast members Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong and Al Leong, plus martial arts choreographer James Lew.  Who else could the previous editions have overlooked?  How about writers W.D. Richter and Gary Goldman?  Or Carpenter's fellow Coupe De Villers Nick Castle (a.k.a. The Shape) and filmmaker Tommy Lee Wallace?  They even talk to the poster artist, Drew Struzan!  Still not bowled over?  Alright, how about a half hour's worth of vintage EPK interviews, a gag reel and audio interview with Carpenter?  Would two additional stills galleries tip the scales?

If not, Scream Factory is betting swag might do it.  I bought the most basic edition, which still includes a slipcover and reversible artwork.  There are actually five different sets available for just this film, which also include a steelbook edition, an 18"x24" poster, a limited edition 28.5” x 16.5" lithograph and a green 7" vinyl single of updated soundtrack songs recorded by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.
So if you haven't already, now is a pretty ideal time to upgrade your DVD already, especially since it doesn't seem like we'll be seeing any better, 4k upgrades anytime soon.  Scream hasn't given us a new transfer, but with their impressive special features, their's is still the new, definitive edition on the block.  Whether you go big and order Scream's fanciest package with the lithograph, record and everything, or just the most basic edition, it still completely invalidates the Arrow release.  And if you really absolutely don't care about extras at all, you can get the old Fox blu now super cheap.  You can't go wrong.