Scorsese, Coppola, Allen... Dueling Blus: New York Stories

I remember impatiently waiting for New York Stories to be released on DVD.  I needed it to complete my Woody Allen collection, and I was reasonably fond of Martin Scorsese's segment as well. But then, when it finally came out from Touchstone/ Buena Vista in 2003, it was fullscreen. Really? That's how the combined work of Scorsese, Allen and Francis Ford Coppola was being treated on DVD? You'd expect an edition of these guys' combined work to be on like a solid gold disc in a boxset with a three hundred page, hardbound photo book. But, no, that was all we got, and subsequent foreign releases were no better. I even looked into going back to score an old laserdisc, but it was fullscreen there, too. And the situation stayed that way all the way through the advent of HD until finally, one blu-ray company picked up the title to finally take a second crack at it: Mill Creek.

Update 3/21/16 - 6/27/20: And now Kino's come along with an all new Special Edition.  Or, well, so they claim...
If you haven't seen it yet, New York Stories is a trilogy, with each director making essentially their own short film connected only by the loose theme of taking place in, and capturing the spirit of, New York. There's no wraparound story or goofy bellhop that appears in each story, one film just fades to black and then the next one starts, with its own set of opening credits. There's a general New York Stories title shot at the front and they share closing credits, but otherwise they're really just three completely distinct short films under one title.
Scorsese is up first with a character study about a celebrated painter (Nick Nolte) and his volatile affair with the much younger Rosanna Arquette. She's an aspiring artist, too, and he uses his position to become her lover and mentor. She's untalented and drives him crazy, but he seems to need the conflict of their relationship to make his art, creating an unhealthy trap for them both. Scorsese's technical prowess is on full display here, from the camerawork to the music. Even the character's actual paintings are compelling. And the story's fine, too, constantly moving in the only direction it can go until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. But at the end of the day, I'm not sure we've really learned much or enjoyed our time with these unpleasant characters. There's a pretty powerful scene where Arquette tests her own power over Nolte in front of some police officers, and then he gives short monologue about how he's nothing to her. But most of the rest of the story is just kind of waiting for everything that we know will happen to play itself out.
Then we come to Coppola's film, which is downright infamous. It's co-written by his daughter Sofia Coppola, and plays like a silly children's fantasy. It almost seems charmingly forgivable that he's filming the story his little girl. It's about a super rich eleven year-old who lives a lavish, fanciful life in the city. She has a giant costume party inside a hotel with elephants and a thousand friends. It's basically one big party rather than a story, except there's some kind of tacked on children's movie plot tagged on where she somehow winds up in possession of a prince's jewels and so some cartoonish thugs, including Chris Elliot, are after her. I used to think Sofia wrote the party stuff as a toddler and Francis added the jewel heist thing, like a necessary adult alteration to make the film more conventional. But then I realized she was fully grown at the time of New York Stories, and they did this just the year before Godfather III.
Still, I don't hate it. If you look past the royal jewels bit, it's still a fun exploration of a child's fantasy life, where her servants are also her friends and everybody performs choreographed dance numbers. She fixes her father's life, helps the homeless by giving them candy and organizes the most opulent party, filmed with all of the production values at Francis's command. The fact that it just stops in its tracks to roll around in celebration of its mise en scene actually reminds me of Sofia Coppola's later film, Marie Antoinette. And of course the biggest criticism is that it's self indulgent wish fulfillment, but just like Asia (who was also in Marie Antoinette) Argento's Scarlet Diva, that's what makes it interesting. Because it lets you see inside their psyche in a way they're probably not even intending. But, on the other hand, it's still pretty bad in a lot of critical ways and often feels like one of a hundred direct-to-video Home Alone knock-offs.
In contrast to that, Woody Allen's segment is everything his fans want in a film. It's delightful. Allen his having problems in his relationship because of his overbearing mother. But when she gets called on stage at a magic show, the magician makes her disappear - but can't make her reappear! At first it's a perfect stroke of impossible luck, but it turns into a nightmare when she reappears as a giant, floating head that looms over the city, taking her interfering nosiness to a God-like level. It's a perfect short film, and has a wonderful cast including Allen himself, Mia Farrow of course, Julie Kavner, Christmas Vacation's Mae Questel as the mother, a young Larry David, and a cameo by Ed Koch as himself. I mean, come on, you couldn't do a film called New York Stories in the 80s without putting him in at some point.
1) 2003 Buena Vista DVD; 2) 2012 Mill Creek BD; 3) 2019 Kino BD.
Yes, Mill Creek has finally released New York Stories in widescreen! The DVD is kind of an open matte pan & scan mess, but it at least gives you some extra picture on the top and bottom for novelty value. But it also cuts a lot off the sides, and Mill Creek's restores that by presenting the film in its OAR of 1.85:1. Colors are also warmer and more natural, and while there's not a wealth of new detail, the picture is stronger and clearer in HD. For example, you can finally read the numbers on that camera's digital display in the second set of shots. Sure, I could see this being improved with a new 4k scan, but this blu here is 1080p, no interlacing, and perfectly respectable.

I guess that's why Kino felt they didn't need to make a fresh scan for their new Special Edition.  They've made the image slightly darker, but that's it.  Same transfer.  They have bumped the disc itself up from single layer to dual layer, but MC's encode was actually fine, so it's hard to pick up any real improvements in the encode.  The slightly darker picture does make grain a little easier to discern in bright areas, but outside of a direct side-by-side comparison, you'll never notice a difference.
One way you can usually trump a Mill Creek release is to give it lossless audio and English subtitles, but Mill Creek actually did New York Stories up right this time and had both, which is more than you can say for the DVD, which just had a lossy version of the English, a French dub and no subs.  So Kino does have the lossless DTS-HD track and optional English subtitles, exactly the same as Mill Creek.

And yeah, unfortunately this film has always been barebones. Sure, Woody Allen has never been one for extras, but Coppola and Scorsese are usually good for them. But it's just not to be for this film, I guess. Mill Creek has at least secured the theatrical trailer, which is something the DVD didn't even have.  And Kino's Special Edition?  Also, nothing but the trailer.  Yeah, you read that right.  When they announced this title and released the specs, they promised an "Audio Commentary by Film Historian Jim Hemphill," which is thin grounds to dub a release a "Special Edition" on its own, but it ain't here anyway.  All they have is the same trailer as the Mill Creek, plus two bonus trailers.  But yes, even after the commentary was dropped, to this day in 2020, Kino still lists this as New York Stories (Special Edition) on their website.
And so concludes The Case Of the Special Edition That Never Was.  Still, Kino's blu is a fine blu-ray edition of New York Stories.  Technically, it's even better than Mill Creek's... I mean, the slightly darker image is a matter of personal preference, but dual-layer beats single-layer, right?  That's just science.  For a single film with no extras, though, you're probably paying more for the extra peace of mind rather than an actual upgrade.  I mean, do not double-dip.  This is only if you don't already own the film, Kino's is the marginally superior option.  And even then, you may still want to spring for the Mill Creek to save a few bucks.

Paul Bartel's Scenes From the Class Struggle In Beverly Hills in 4K

So Eating Raoul's received a rank in the glorious pantheon of the Criterion Collection. It even included the early short films: Naughty Nurse and Secret Cinema as extras. Shout Factory made a loaded special edition of Death Race 2000, Blue Underground handled Cannonball, Anchor Bay put together some nice packages for Lust In the Dust and Not for Publication. Warner Bros and MGM put out respectable, if not special, editions of The Longshot and Private Parts. Except for the very rare Shelf Life (which I'm also interested in), it seems like all of Paul Bartel's cult classics are accounted for on DVD in some good quality, fan-accessible releases. Except, it would seem, for one of his biggest and most infamous: Scenes From the Class Struggle In Beverly Hills. But I'm happy to report that, after some serious international poking around, I've found one.

Update 6/19/15 - 6/26/20: Wow, I really wasn't expecting this one to get the 4k treatment, but it's coming next week!  A brand new restoration on blu courtesy of Kino, who, by the way, are doing the same for Not For Publication at the same time.
Scenes, which naughtily takes its title from the very earnest and "important" political documentary Scenes From the Class Struggle in Portugal, is Bartel's most out there social satire. Not at all attempting to be naturalistic or provide nice, appealing characters; I can see many viewers, not familiar with Bartel, really disliking this. But if you're a fan, this is the goldmine. First of all, yes, it reunites cinema's most perfect perpetual couple since Cassavettes and Rowland, Bartel and Mary Woronov. They're not married in this one, so they don't combine their chemistry quite the way they did in films like Raoul, Mortuary Academy or even Chopping Mall. But they both have nice, sizable roles to play, which is all you need for a great time. And it's not just them; Bartel has assembled his greatest cast ever in this, including regulars and newcomers Robert Beltran (Raoul), Wallace Shawn, Ed Begley Jr., Jacqueline Bisset, Ray Sharkey, Arnetia Walker and even Paul Mazursky as a ghost.
Granted, the target of this satire - the shallow rich of Beverly Hills - is easy and played out. Especially since this came out shortly after Down and Out In Beverly Hills and the same year as Troop Beverly Hills, I don't think this was going to grab mainstream audiences. But if you're in the mood for a black, cynical yet campy and frisky romp with Troupe Bartel, then you need this movie in your life.
For a long time, fans have been living with old, VHS-sourced, full-screen crap DVDs of this film, imported from countries like Germany, and I think Spain. But in 2010, this was issued again, with the translated title Scene di lotta di classe a Beverly Hills in Italy from Passworld Pictures, and holy cow - it's got a clean, high quality, anamorphic widescreen transfer!  Honestly, I thought this was the best we'd get, and I was pretty happy with it.  But oh boy, next Tuesday, Kino is issuing it on blu with a brand new 4k restoration, and a couple new features to boot.
2010 IT Passworld DVD top; 2020 US Kino BD bottom.
Even on the blu, the image is a bit soft? I wrote before that, "much of the grain is evident, so this may well've been shot on cheaper film stock; but I'm sure the lines and detail should be stronger than this."  And that's borne out. Passworld seems to have gone back to some kind of film elements (from a print, I'd guess, since there are some minor but frequent flecks and scratches) to restore this film to its OAR for home video... the back of the case sells itself short as being 1.85:1 in 4:3; but luckily that's wrong, it's actually anamorphic 1.87:1.  Kino tweaks that to 1.85:1, which shifts the image slightly to the left and down.  Far more importantly, Kino's HD transfer clarifies the picture beautifully.  The grain looked authentic on the DVD, but now it's distinct and film-like, we can make out detail that was previously washed away.  The colors are more distinct now, too, cleaning up a light green hue that hung over Passworld's release.  One slight down-side, detail in the shadows has been crushed a bit on the blu, despite having slightly elevated black levels.  But there's no question that Kino's blu is a more attractive and life-like presentation.

And yes, Password's DVD has the original English stereo track, in addition to its two Italian tracks. The biggest drawback is that it also forces Italian subtitles whenever you play the English track.  Well, of course Kino clears that all up.  It now gives us the English stereo track in lossless DTS-HD, and gets rid of those pesky subs.  Optional English subtitles would've been nice in their place, but there's none.  C'est la vie.
Unfortunately, the DVD had zero extras. I mean, I wouldn't have expected much from a random import. But at least the trailer would've been nice, especially since it's a very amusing one with original dialogue from Bartel, as himself, directly addressing the audience.  It's one of those rare trailers, like Bananas or Real Life, that's essential viewing in its own right.

And happily, Kino has that trailer.  And what's more, it's not just the lo-fi rip that's been floating around youtube; it looks like they restored that from original film elements.  That's not all either, because they've also conducted a brand new, on-camera interview with Robert Beltran.  That doesn't exactly turn this into a loaded special edition, but it definitely adds up to a fuller, more rewarding package overall.  They've also included the trailer for their concurrent restoration of Not For Publication and another Jacqueline Bisset feature, The Mephisto Waltz.
So I was already surprisingly satisfied with Passworld's DVD, but I'm really pleased with Kino's BD.  The only thing that's missing now is the original Class Struggle In Portugal... In a very weird way, they do make a fitting, if perverse, double feature.  Of course, I wouldn't hold my breath for that.  But then again, I wouldn't have held my breath for a 4k restoration of Scenes From the Class Struggle In Beverly Hills on blu, and yet here we are.  Maybe we should all take this as a lesson to be a little more optimistic.

More Match Point and the Rest Of the "London Trilogy"

Woody Allen's Match Point is not available on blu-ray, at least not here in the United States. And you're no better off in the UK or Canada. So if we want this in HD, and it is one of Allen's more popular, highly received modern films, we're gonna have to import. And I don't know about you, but if I'm to the trouble of importing, I want some extras and no forced subs. And I know extras and Woody Allen don't generally go together, but today we're in luck. We actually have a couple options, but I went with the Italian blu from Medusa.

Update 4/28/16 - 6/21/20: This Match Point post is now a whole Woody Allen London Trilogy post!!  I've got my hands on Divisa Home Video's Trilogía Londinense box set. And instead of just updating the Match Point comparison with Divisa's blu, which feels pretty half-hearted, I figure I'll do all three movies, which also means comparisons to their original US DVDs, too.  Woot!
Now, you might be a little confused by these specific films being singled out as Allen's "London Trilogy."  After all, wasn't You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger set and filmed in London?  And Magic In the Moonlight?  Well, you might say, when did this set come out?  Probably before those two films, right?  No, it came out four years after You Will Meet and the same year as Magic.  So it seems like a pretty arbitrary distinction.  Oh well.  Not really important, I suppose.
In 2005's Match Point, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Velvet Goldmine) is a lower class tennis trainer in London, who catches the attention of a very wealthy family. It's not long before he's marrying his way into their family, by way of Emily Mortimer, and he seems to be set for life. They all love him, they've set him up with an incredible career and Mortimer wants to have a baby. But he's not the family darling long before he meets an American actress, Scarlet Johansson, who's dating another member of the family, and he can't resist the temptation of an illicit affair. But when he ultimately becomes too involved to both parties, how far will he go to hang onto his new, gilded way of life?
When I first saw this film, I liked it well enough. Attractively shot, well acted, an involving story with a particularly effective ending. But I sort of felt like we'd covered this ground before with Crimes and Misdemeanors, and that's a masterpiece, leaving this as kind of pointlessly redundant and inferior. I was surprised it was treated as a sort of comeback for Allen by critics and audiences. I'd actually gotten more out of last couple maligned comedies. This and Cassandra's Dream just felt to me like Allen was proving he could direct more popular mainstream work if he chose - which he successfully did - than make another great film.

But over the years, I've revisited it and it's risen in my estimation. It is a great cast; it is a strong, classical story, expertly made. Once you let the comparison go and take the film on its own merits, what's not to like? Okay, it's still not Crimes and Misdemeanors, but I realized it was time to lift the embargo on Match Point from my collection. I also bought a used DVD of Cassandra's Dream for under $2.  ;)
Like I said, Allen likes you to be in on his influences.
So, like I said, Match Point has never been released on blu-ray in America, but it was released on DVD back when it was a new release back in 2006. I've got that one, so we can look at that for a comparison. Match Point did come out on blu in France, but it has forced French subtitles, so I wouldn't recommend that one unless you're a native French speaker who struggles with English. But over the years, it's slowly popped up in other countries, with a few, light extras and unforced subs: Australia, Germany, Japan. The most recent are Divisa Home Video's Spanish blu-ray, which came out in 2012 and Medusa's Italian blu, which came out in 2013.
1) Universal 2006 DVD; 2) Divisa 2012 BD; 3) Medusa 2013 BD.
So, unsurprisingly, it's the same master. Framing, colors, and everything's basically identical. Unfortunately, that means there's still some edge enhancement (look around the edges of Meyers' suit in the museum) that you probably wouldn't find being employed in a new master. I suppose I held out a sliver of hope that newer blus increased the chances of a fresher master, but it's no surprise everyone's licensing and using the same one made back in '06. And it's not like it's terrible or anything; just a little below the most modern standards. It's still a nice HD upgrade; it's not like it's an upscale... is it?
1) Universal 2006 DVD; 2) Divisa 2012 BD; 3) Medusa 2013 BD.
No, whew! Look at that. Resolution is much better on the blus, with small detail looking like a blurry mess in comparison. I mean, the DVD is fine by DVD standards; there's no interlacing or other issues. But the blu-rays definitely reap all the benefits of its higher definition, which is all I can ask for.  Curiously, the aspect shifts from exactly 1.85:1 on the DVD to 1.84:1 on the blus, but the two blu-rays are definitely more accurate as they fix a little vertical stretching on the DVD and wind up revealing a sliver more along the top and bottom.  As far as picking a winner between the two blus?  The only distinction is the encoding, which most viewers probably won't even notice.  But the Italian blu, a dual-layered disc as opposed to Divisa's single - does seem to retain the grain (soft and imperfect as it is on all three discs) better than the Spanish.  It's most obvious in "blank" spaces, like undecorated walls.

All three options are fully English friendly.  The DVD gives us the original English and a French dub in mono, with optional English, Spanish and French subs.  The Divisa blu gives us the original English, Spanish, Castilian and Spanish descriptive audio, with optional Spanish and Castilian subs.  The one downside: all the audio tracks are lossy.  Medusa, on the other hand, bumps us up to uncompressed sound. Both the original English and Italian dub are LPCM 2.0, with optional/ removable Italian subs.
So, okay, let's talk extras. This is Woody Allen, so set your expectations low. The US DVD has nothing, not even the trailer. Just a bonus trailer for Munich; which plays on start-up. Blah.  By that standard, I suppose Divisa is an upgrade.  They have the teaser, trailer and TV spots, though they're all in Spanish.  And they have a photo gallery.

Medusa's blu has the trailer in English, so we're already ahead. But don't worry, I haven't set my expectations that low. Medusa's blu also includes a nice, 17 minute featurette called Crime Without Punishment. They basically take your basic EPK interviews with Woody Allen, Scarlet Johannson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers and turn them into one piece. But hey, that's a lot better than the nothing we get here in the USA. And someone's clearly taken the time to inter-cut the interviews, and add in behind the scenes photos and clips from the film to make it a little nicer watch, which I appreciate.
The featurette does have burnt in Italian subtitles and interlacing problems, but for an extra I don't really mind. The interviews are good, especially Woody's, and that's all that matters.
I've always really dug Scoop and never understood why even people open to Woody Allen films in the 2000s seem to look so down at it.  Maybe Allen burnt too much good will with his scandals for people to sync their hearts to a light, whimsical comedy from him.  Or maybe the humor's just too old fashioned for modern audiences - you can't argue when a person simply declares something to be "not funny."  But the imaginative story, of Ian McShane as a murdered journalist who escapes his journey across the River Styx, but is only able to reach the living through a hack magician (Woody Allen)'s stage show.  Scarlet Johansson is back, clearly relishing the opportunity to play the screwball 1930s-style heroine as opposed to the previous year's seductive sex symbol.  She and Allen make a great crime solving duo, who thankfully aren't also paired up as romantic interests.  That partnership is reserved for Hugh Jackman, who plays an aristocratic English gentleman who may be hiding a dark secret.
I recently rewatched this one with my parents, and they couldn't get over how such a terrific movie was only available through obscure imports, but here we are in 2020.  It's not just a Woody Allen thing; any catalog title that isn't a tentpole blockbuster or cult classic is getting harder and harder to come by, even major Academy Award winners.  But anyway, sticking with Scoop: Universal put it out on DVD in 2006 as a new release.  On blu, things get trickier.  There's a French blu, but it has forced subs.  There is a Medusa option, and an Australian disc, but this time they're all single-layer, too.  So I just went with the Divisa set.
1) Universal 2006 DVD; 2) Divisa 2012 BD.
It's almost exactly the same story as Match Point.  The DVD's 1.85:1 is changed to 1.84, but it's correcting a very slight stretching and thus revealing slivers along the top and bottom.  Ugly SD compression is happily cleared away on the blu, though it's another old master with grain barely captured and light haloing.  It's a sharper, clearer upgrade, but it's not exactly 4k.

Audio options are exactly the same as last time, with the DVD giving us the original English in mono with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.  Divisa again has the English, two Spanish dubs and the Spanish descriptive track, all lossy, with optional Spanish and Castilian subs.  The DVD has nothing but bonus trailers, while the blu at least has a Spanish-dubbed trailer and photo gallery.
Finally, we come to Cassandra's Dream.  This used to be my least favorite Woody Allen picture, but it's risen in my estimation over recent rewatches, too.  Plus, A Rainy Day In New York has since come forward to claim that crown.  This is a serious drama, a story of two brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) whose bond is tested when it falls on them to commit murder in order to pay off a gambling debt.  We're back in Dostoevsky territory (though, as you can guess from the title, there's some Greek tragedy in its veins as well) and Tom Wilkinson steals as the brothers' uncle.  While it travels a lot of the same ground as Crimes & Misdemeanors and Match Point in terms of guilt and conscience, splitting it into two characters with distinctly separate attitudes adds a new, intriguing element to it.  Plus, Allen ventures into some new worlds musically with a soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass
The Weinstein Company (ugh) put this out on DVD in 2008.  There are less blu-ray options, too.  There's a Nordic release from Scanbox, a Mexican blu and of course the 2012 Spanish Divisa.  The Mexican one is interlaced and drops the English audio, so you don't want that.  So Scanbox is probably the ideal way to go, but as we'll see, the Divisa might be a little better than you think this time.
1) Weinstein 2008 DVD; 2) Divisa 2012 BD.
It's not another 1.85 turned 1.84 situation this time.  Instead the DVD's 1.83:1 is corrected to 1.85:1.  But the important difference this time is how much nicer the capture is.  Grain is distinct and more film-like than the previous two blus.  There still appears to be a bit of edge enhancement, but this is a better transfer.  The image is a bit lighter, making shadowy detail a little easier to make out, and of course the DVD's compression grime is cleaned away like with all the other blus.

On the other hand, the audio's still lossy.  Weinstein has the stereo track with optional English and Spanish subtitles, and nothing but some bonus trailers and ads for extras.  Divisa has the same four lossy tracks and subtitles options as their other discs.  Intriguingly, the package lists interviews (entrevistas) for this film, but disappointingly, it's a lie.  I was expecting the EPK interviews, but nope, not even text ones printed on an insert.  We get the trailer and TV spots dubbed into the Spanish again, plus a stills gallery, so it's (slightly) better than the DVD.  But I was really bummed to discover the interviews weren't there.
So think of Divisa as Mill Creek.  They're a relatively inexpensive option to get HD upgrades of your DVDs on legit, pressed BDs.  But they have lossy audio, no extras and stand in the shadow of better, if only marginally, alternatives.  If you want the best Match Point you can get, I can totally vouch for this Medusa disc.  But you're looking at old masters and little to no special features where ever you go, so non-perfectionist viewers may be just as happy with any one blu as another.